Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hostess cards and the betrayals of 1977

I’m in a bad place this week -- an ugly place. Which means it is a good time to talk about the 1977 season and the Hostess set.

As we said earlier, 1976 was a fun, buoyant time. We had no idea what kind of nasty storm was approaching.

Part of the problem is that I’m too loyal to people, teams and places and I always think that people, teams and places whom I give love and devotion will continue to treat me and mine well. So I spend a fair amount of time in shock and disbelief when they do not.

Yeah, I know.

So the 13-year-old Mets Guy took the events of 1977 very personally.

The team stumbled out of the gate, with manager Joe Fraizer getting bounced after a 15-30 start, replaced by Joe Torre, who became the Mets first player-manager, with the player part lasting about two weeks.

Then came the massacre, the June 15 trade deadline that found the team shipping Tom Seaver to the Reds for four players. While management was at it, it sent Dave Kingman to the Padres.

I distinctly remember watching the news on television, pounding on the floor that Charlton Heston at the end of “Planet of the Apes.”

The team spiraled down for the remainder of the season, finishing 64-98, the Mets’ first last-place finish since 1967.

Making it worse, the Yankees won the World Series and most of the neighborhood kids jumped on the bandwagon to the Bronx Zoo as Shea became Grant’s Tomb.

Not me, of course. I voiced outrage over Steve Henderson getting robbed by Andre Dawson in Rookie of the Year voting and expected Pat Zachary to be the new staff ace.

The Hostess set was again 150 cards, five of them Mets. That includes Seaver and Kingman. The others are Jerry Koosman, who suffered a 20-loss season despite a respectable ERA, Jon Matlack and Felix Millan.

The design is pretty drab – though not as drab as what was to come—with white borders and player names in a semi-circle.

Looking back, I realize that heading to Cincinnati was painful but probably the best thing for Seaver, who piled up wins, pitched his no-hitter and would have been handed a fourth Cy Young Award had writers not gotten swept up in Fernando Mania.

Hopefully I’ll look back at the events of this week in the same way.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hostess baseball cards in 1976 fit in with good times, bicentennial

The Hostess sets printed on the bottoms of snack boxes between 1975 and 1979 looked pretty similar, with the white borders and simple listing of a player's name, team and position.

Except, of course, for the 1976 issue.

The cards have bold red, white and blue bars across the bottom – making sure they'd blend in perfectly with everything else during that magical bicentennial year.

The patriotism that flowed in the wake of the 2001 terrorism attacks is the only other time I remember seeing so much red, white and blue. That was for healing. But in 1976, it was for celebrating.

It was a good time, even for Mets fans. Slipped in between Watergate and the Carter malaise, people were upbeat, thinking boldly.

Hawthorn elementary school did the unthinkable, conducting a massive carnival to raise enough money to send the entire fifth and sixth grades to Philadelphia for a day, a spot that was easily considered Bicentennial Central.

This was an adventure of the highest order – the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and Ben Franklin's privy, which was cooler when we learned what it was. Remember, we were 12.

Nothing was missed. Even our school photos that year had a Spirit of '76 flag in the background.

The Mets did not suck. The team finished in third place, but with 86 wins, which was the franchise's second-highest total for a long time.

Dave Kingman bashed 37 home runs, steady Eddie Kranepool hit .292, Jerry Koosman had his big 21-win season and Jon Matlack had 17 wins.

Kingman started in the All-Star Game, played in Philadelphia, of course. The National League won, also of course.

As for the Hostess set, I count seven Mets among the 150 cards: Kingman, Seaver, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote, Matlack, Felix Millan, and Mike Vail, who is a short-print.

Vail's presence is notable, as he was the rookie whose brief success in 1975 led to Rusty Staub's unfortunate exodus to Detroit.

I only recently acquired the Seaver,and the photo looks like it was used on some Topps leader cards. I also have the Kingman and Grote.

The rest remain elusive.

We had no idea of the horrors that awaited in 1977, but 1976 was a good time for all.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Twinkies were fine, but the cards were better

I confess there was some sadness when I learned this week that Hostess was filing for bankruptcy.

It's not a love for Twinkies, you understand. I haven't enjoyed one in years.

But from 1975 to 1979, I'd rush to the Twinkies section of Dan's Supreme and Pathmark to turn over box after box, scanning the bottom for elusive Mets. There were cards issued in 1993, too, but that was different. We'll get to that.

But during the Topps baseball card monopoly, the company issued one set of cards. That's different from today, when the company also seems to have a monopoly but issues many, many sets.

But back in the 1970s, the only other cards out there were linked to the occasional food items, printed on the bottom of the box.

It wasn't easy to find the Mets. It was an epic search.

Consider that there 150 cards in the sets. These were some of the Mets “quiet years,” so there were not many of our players in the sets. There were three cards to a box. It's not like there were unlimited of Twinkies boxes.

On a great day, Mom needed something on the store when the shelves were stocked, and I could overturn the entire display searching for Tom Seaver, who was always the priority, or other Mets.

There were some difficult choices. Buying multiple boxes was not an option. And the stock was picked through pretty quickly given all the Mets fans in Massapequa Park.

On the bright side, I could make purchases confidently since the cards were plainly visible on the box bottoms. I didn't have to buy a box merely hoping that Bud Harrelson was nestled under a “golden sponge cake with creamy frosting inside.”

Let's look at each year's cards, starting with the 1975 set. The design in as plain as can be, which stood in sharp contrast to that year's wildly colored Topps issue.

The Seaver card is, of course, spectacular, even with the tape marks. Cut me some slack, I was 11.

I also rounded up a Harrelson and a John Milner. Tom and Buddy were snapped in spring training, and Milner has the beautiful Shea batter's eye in the background.

The Staub card was acquired later. Two years ago it was the subject of some magnificent sleuthing by my friends in the Crane Pool Forum.

I wondered if this was just the worst case of airbrushing ever. Topps back in the day would paint uniforms on traded players. And sometimes, well, let's just say no one was fooled.

There was a long-suspected photo connection between Hostess and Topps.

Note that the Expos logo is still clearly visable on Rusty’s chest. Topps often would leave collar trim in plain view, but never an entire team logo.

Then it appears an artist started adding Mets pinstripes on Rusty’s unstriped Expos jersey, then got distracted and stopped.

And keep in mind, this card is from 1975. Rusty was traded to the Mets at the start of the 1972 season.

Crane Pool Forum poster batmgadanleadoff offered a theory that maked great sense.

Rusty, it is known, had some kind of beef with Topps, because his cards do not appear in the 1972 and 1973 sets. His first Mets card is in the 1974 issue.

His guess is that the screwup with the Expos "elb" logo and pinstriping was not an artist's oversight, but that the photo was supposed to be cropped higher up, at around Staub's neck and through the shoulder line.

“I've seen several proofs of old Topps cards where the cap or helmet was airbrushed to reflect the player's brand new team,” he wrote. “In those proofs, the jersey top (former team) was left unaltered. The final card was cropped above the jersey.”

That makes sense to me. And I was convinced when the fine people behind the Ultimate Mets Database created this mock-up of what an air-brushed 1972 Topps Staub card might have looked like.

There are no such horror with the 1976 set, which we'll tackle next.