Sunday, February 06, 2011

It's true, 'Tom Terrific' atop the Topps top 60

It’s not a surprise which baseball player will be depicted on the card deemed the greatest in Topps’ 60 years.

Even baseball writers, a difficult lot for sure, recognized Tom Seaver’s importance to the card collecting hobby and the sport itself. They enshrined him into the Baseball Hall of Fame with 98.84 percent of the vote, the closest any inductee has come to unanimity.

But Seaver appeared on many Topps cards during his spectacular 19-year career, as well as in a bunch of sets after his retirement. But they can’t all be No. 1.

We can immediately eliminate Seaver cards from when he played for lesser teams. Those are important cards, to be sure. Some of them appeared further down in the countdown. But Seaver as a member of the Sox, white or red, or an Ohio-based team wouldn’t be the way people remember him best.

And we can rule out any of the cards from retro sets, or sets that exist as an excuse to mix in jersey slice insert cards. Neither seems to be in the spirit of the countdown.

Leader and All-Star cards are to be enjoyed, and neat subsets like the “In-Action,” “Boyhood” and “Turn Back the Clock” are fun. But the No. 1 spot needs to be held by a base card.

That leaves a fairly small pool of cards from which to select. Let’s examine the pros of each, as well as the cons, slight as they might be, to determine our Topps champion.

Pros: The Seaver rookie is a nice card, and certainly his most expensive. It's the starting point to the magnificent career and it must give Bill Denehy a thrill to be linked forever with Tom Terrific.

Con: Bill Denehy is linked forever with Tom Terrific. Bill went 1-7 with the Mets in 1967, had three appearances with the Senators in 1968 and 0-3 with the Tigers in 1971. On the bright side, the Mets traded him to the Sens for Gil Hodges! But a card with Bill Denehy can’t claim the top spot.

Pros: We get a great headshot of Tom, who is full of youthful confidence. There is, perhaps, a slight annoyance to his glance. Some teammates might not be realizing that this losing crap isn’t cutting it. They need to straighten up, and this kid is going to lead them. Plus, we get the All-Star Rookie trophy and a funky burlap card design. The write-up on the back is wonderful.

Con: I don’t get the burlap/baseball connection. It’s the only thing holding this card back.

Pros: It’s a baseball card and it has Tom Seaver’s photo and it was released in 1969. That’s all I got.

Cons: Topps got lazy. How can it use the same photo of one of the game’s best players two years in a row? The design is dull, and the backs are pink.

Pros: A nice headshot of Tom, with another minimalist – but classy – design. As card No. 300, it was probably released after the start of the season, with the photo taken in spring training. Seaver looks relaxed, at the top of his game. He’s the reigning Cy Young Award winner; he’s got a World Series ring. The adorable Nancy is waiting at home. It’s good to be Tom Seaver.

Cons: Tom looks a little too relaxed. While it is, indeed, good be Tom Seaver, we still want to see a little edge there.

Pros: We finally get a pose that doesn’t looks like a yearbook photo with a baseball cap. The set is a classic, and we get Tom’s facsimile autograph, too!

Con: The card was from 1971, which was, perhaps, Tom’s greatest season. He went 20-10 with 21 complete games, and I don’t know how he possibly lost those 10 games considering his ERA was a freakish 1.76. You’d think this would mean Tom’s second Cy Young. But no, he lost to a Cub who had an ERA that was a FULL RUN higher. It’s not the card’s fault, but I still get all upset.

Pros: A magnificent Seaver card, with Tom in a spring training faux-action pose, glove held high as if he was staring in for the signs. It looks scary, and this is just spring training. Tom that season went 19-10 with microscopic 2.08 ERA. And unlike 1971, voters recognized that wins aren’t always the best indicator of success and gave Tom the Cy over Ron Bryant and his 24 Giant victories.

Cons: The 1973 set is beloved, and with good reason. But the design is just a little bit too stark for me to put it on top.

Pros: Lots of firsts here. Its Tom’s first main card action card, and his first horizontal base card. Tom has just unleashed a laser and we can see John Milner in the background. And the 1974 set is one of my favorites.

Cons: As nice as the action shot is, there are Mets with just iconic cards in this set. The McGraw and the Harrelson are amazing portraits; the honked-off Rusty is great. Heck, they’re almost all great. If the Tom card isn’t the best on the team, it can’t be the best of all time.

Pros: I sent this card to Seaver when I was 11. I had doubles and thought he’d like to have a copy of his own card. It never occurred to me that he might already have one. I sent him a poem I composed – eat your heart out, Robert Frost – and asked for an autographed photo. Before long, an envelope came from New York National League Baseball Club, containing my autographed photo and the card I sent Tom, and it was signed, too. (Note the signature on the card above.)

Cons: This is a neat portrait of Tom leaning on the batting cage – there’s really not another Tom card like it – but his face is almost all in the shadows. Clearly this was meant to symbolize the previous season, when an injured Tom limped to an un-Seaverly 11-11. And because I tried to copy Seaver in every way, I spent half the summer complaining that I had injured the sciatic nerve in my left hip.

Pros: This card already checked in the top 60 at No. 41. Tom is in a classic spring training, baseball card pose. There might not even be a ball in his hand, but he’s probably not going to fire a pitch from the on-deck circle anyway. I remember pulling this card in the very first pack of cards I opened that year, and decided that I’d never have to buy another until 1977. That rule lasted maybe a day.

Cons: Having already checked in at No. 41, it can’t be in the running for the No. 1 card.

Pros: A terrific card. It’s very possibly Topps’ best Seaver action card. Any Mets fan would recognize that classic delivery and know that it’s Tom from a mile away. It’s an awesome design, and the colors are perfect. In fact, the entire card is nearly perfect.

Cons: Perfect, unless you count the blunt trauma caused by the June 15 midnight massacre that I’m still not even close to being over yet. I’m working on not overtly hating M. Donald Grant with an eye on eventually forgiving them. It’s a 40-year plan. We’re in the first week. Patience. Dick Young, you get no such forgiveness.

1983 traded
Pros: Tom’s exile is over, and that alone is a glorious thing. The design calls for two photos, an action shot and headshot for the inset. It’s a nice design, the colors are right, and Tom is back.

Cons: Despite all the potential glory here, the card just seems to be a little, well, lacking. The inset shot is better than the action shot. In fact, Topps used the headshot for subset cards and leader cards. The action shot is a bit dark and doesn’t look like Tom. We can’t see the team name or his No. 41. Overall, it looks like the kind of card Ray Searage would get, not the homecoming of the franchise hero.

Pros: The 1984 card is every bit the celebration of Tom’s triumphant return that the 1983 card could have been. Seaver’s at home in the Mets pinstripes. And the bunting in the background reveals that the photo was, in fact, from April 5, 1983, the emotional Opening Day. Even the racing stripes, making their debut that day, look great. The design is fantastic, too, with the team name boldly running down the side, leading to a headshot. It is a fantastic reminder of Tom second tour.

Cons: There is but one slight fault. The card came out as part of the 1984 set, after Tom was swiped by the White Sox in the infamous Dennis Lamp Incident, and we’re not all the way over that, either. It’s a reminder of what we lost, again.

That would leave:

Pros: There is much to love about this card. After several years of pretty tame designs, Topps got bolder with the 1971 set then embraced all that was the 1970s with the epic 1972 issue. It’s as if the stogy old guys in the design office were out for a week and the young upstarts took over. It’s a cross between art deco and Warhol pop art. It perfectly captures the time period.

Then you have the photo. Tom’s in his pinstripes and blue warm-up jacket. He’s pretending to be following through on a throw. But look at the eyes. The edge is back. Andy Pettitte only wishes he could look as imposing.

The shot is obviously from spring training, given the background with the distant palm trees and coach on one knee issuing instructions. Given that this is card No. 445, we can presume that the photo was taken that year.

The card back tells of the Cy Young injustice of 1971, and mentions Tom’s homer on June 24 to beat the Expos, 2-1. The h in “homered” is for some reason capitalized, but we can overlook that. The little cartoon tells us that Nelson Burbank as the scout who signed Seaver, giving me a reason to look for his photo in the yearbook.
And in a personal level, this was the first Tom Seaver card I ever possessed. It came in a trade with Jeff, parting with two Yankees to obtain the printed image of the hero.

Cons: None. This is perfection on cardboard. It’s a 2.5-inch by 3.5-inch reminder of all that is good in life. The design, the photo and the informational back perfectly capture the player and the era.

It is, without a doubt, the best card Topps has produced in its 60 years.


G-Fafif said...

My favorite card, too. Took me all of the summer of 1972 to track it down, requiring a cross-country trip to the state of Seaver's birth to secure it.

Great choice, great series, great understanding of what makes a Topps card great.

Dan said...

Nice work! But I think one important aspect of the '71 card was overlooked: The great view of Shea Stadium in the background. To me, that makes it a tough call between the '71 and '72 cards.

Anonymous said...

Bah! The greatest card of all time that doesn't include a photo of Johnny Bench with bat on shoulder and a black border is in fact the 1952 Gus Zernial! Anyone who disagrees has an agenda/is dead wrong!


Anonymous said...

Hey Mets Guy,

I'm a fellow Mets fan who is producing an ESPN documentary. There are a few photos that you took that we may be interested in using for the film. Please email me at so we can discuss. Thanks so much!