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Given the holiday yesterday, today I’m doing something different. It’s an old story from the Blogspot version of my original blog, Shysterball from December 2007, back when no one read me at all. The topic: the 1973 Topps baseball card set which my brother assembled for me as a gift.
I wrote two posts about that. The first was my appreciation of my brother for that labor of love. The second was an amusing post about the little cartoons that appear on the back of each card in the set. I reproduce both of them here today.
Topps — 12/23/2007
My brother lives in San Diego and I live in Ohio, so I maybe see him twice a year. It's been that way since he left home for the Navy the day after Thanksgiving eighteen years ago. I was sixteen then. I finished my last two years of high school, went on to college and law school, got married, had kids, and settled down in the Midwest. He spent six years on an Aegis cruiser, a couple more at Coronado, and took his discharge in 1997. Since then he has worked as a club DJ, dipped a toe in and then back out of the goth scene, spent time with a number of shady women before meeting a nice one, played Kato Kaelin to the lead singer of a notable synth-pop band, and most recently has performed product preparation and distribution services for a large Irvine, California-based concern. Yeah, that's him in the picture, taken when we crashed the club level restaurant at Petco Park last summer.
In terms of distance, Curt and I haven't lived within 500 miles of one another since he left home. By all other measures we haven't been in the same solar system since then. We get along, and I love him unconditionally, but if we weren't brothers our adult paths would likely never cross. We live in wildly different worlds, speak wildly different languages, and pass the time doing wildly different things.
But it wasn't always that way. We had a lot of common interests as kids, the most notable among them being baseball. We were both huge Tigers' fans (his favorite player was Lou Whitaker; mine was Alan Trammell). We played on little league teams together for a while (he being the talented but uninterested one, I the exact opposite). But more than watching or playing the game itself, it was our love of baseball cards that brought us together as kids.
It started with the cutouts on the back of Hostess boxes in 1976 or 1977, and moved on to the Kellogg's 3-D superstars a year or two later and eventually cards just started showing up around the house. We spent every penny we ever saw on wax packs and asked for cards at birthdays and Christmas. By the mid-80s we had tens of thousands of cards spilling out of boxes in every spare corner of the house.
As is the case with just about every kid, however, our interest in cards waned as our interest in girls waxed. Even if it hadn't, the hyper-commercialization of baseball cards in the late 80s would have done it anyway (we hoarded, sorted, traded, and ogled cards like mad, but I can't recall a single instance in which we ever sold one). By the time Curt shipped out, they had been placed in plastic sheets or monster boxes in the basement and, while not forgotten, certainly not thought about all that much.
Over the years, as my parents' addresses became increasingly erratic and mine more permanent, the cards migrated to my basement where they currently sit and are rarely disturbed. In the past couple of years Curt has asked me to ship him certain cards from our communal stash as he began dabbling in hockey cards and was in need of trade bait, but other than that, I've had no cause to go through them. Hell, the last inventory of them was typed up using the Speedscript word processor on my Commodore 64.
Last week, Curt flew in from San Diego for a couple of days for his annual Christmas visit. The night before he flew back home, we exchanged Christmas gifts. We tend to be a family who doesn't go over the top with these things, so I was understandably dumbfounded when I opened my gift from him: the entire 1973 Topps set (my birth year) in plastic sheets in a notebook. With a couple of very tiny exceptions, the whole thing is in mint or near mint condition.
He didn't just go out and buy it in one shot, though, as a guy working at In-n-Out Burger tends not to have that kind of money laying around. Rather, he began picking up stuff here and there months ago (our childhood collection had almost no 1973s), trading some import records for some of this, trading vintage clothing for some of that, and only biting the bullet and straight-up buying stuff in only a handful of cases. It was truly a labor of love on his part which, given how much flak I've given him for so many things over the years -- including, ironically enough, his habit for hoarding, selling, and trading records and vintage clothes when he could be out doing something more productive -- was every bit as undeserved as it was unexpected.
As I sit here this evening poring over the notebook full of '73s -- highlights of which, at the risk of invading Josh Wilker's turf, I plan to blog in the next couple of days -- I'm wondering why someone from whom I've grown so far apart over the years would make such a thoughtful and touching gesture, especially given how hard I've been on him. But I suppose that's Christmas. I suppose that's family. I suppose, most of all, that's Curt.
“Craig enjoys reading the backs of baseball cards” — 12/27/2007
I've had a couple of weeks with that 1973 Topps set my brother got me for Christmas. Though it's not the most attractive set the company ever put out (much of the photography is objectively terrible), I find it fascinating all the same. There's a bland yet clean and strangely satisfying modernity to it, similar to what you see in schools or government buildings of the time. Aesthetic and engineering mistakes? Probably. But having grown up in the 70s and 80s, I have always found those unmistakably utilitarian boxes, with their painted cinderblock walls and speckled tile floors oddly comforting. The same goes for an otherwise unadorned baseball card whose visage says nothing more than "I am a baseball card."
Not that the set is without its charms. For one thing, the photos capture baseball's last gasping moments of resistance to the day-glow doubleknit uniforms that would come to define the era. While the A's and Padres have already embraced yellow by 1973, the Astros are still in tasteful whites and grays. Road blues, while clearly on the rise, have not yet reached their peak. The Tigers seem to perfectly symbolize the Rubicon that had not quite yet been crossed, with roughly half of the Detroit players photographed in their roadies sporting the old gray button-ups, the other half having submitted to pullover poly. In that way, the 1973 set is something of a handy time capsule.
But perhaps the best thing about the set are the cartoons on the back. Topps has run these little bio-blurbs off-and-on over the years, but the ones from the 1973 set are probably my favorite due to their random, slapdash glory. Whereas in previous years Topps editors had been content to use the cartoons to note a particular statistical achievement ("Al was baseball's youngest ever batting champ!"), by 1973 they seem to have embraced, albeit tentatively, Jim Bouton's behind-the-scenes approach. Sure, there's no explicit mention of anyone's drug use or drunken tomcatting, but the personal lives of the ballplayers are certainly more to the fore, often to hilarious and anachronistic effect.
In addition to the "it could only happen in the 70s" cartoons, fun can be found in those that celebrate players' dubious achievements, reveal the cultural divide between the college boys and the blue collar workers, and highlight just how boring ballplayers can be. Here's a smattering of some of my favorites. There’s no room to scan the cartoons and reproduce them here, but I try to describe them as best I can. It’s the captions that do the work, not the artwork. Links go to the player’s Baseball-Reference.com page.
"Fred is a bachelor" [picture of chick in miniskirt chasing a ballplayer]
"Bill's nickname is Gogo." [picture of a ballplayer dancing with a girl wearing a miniskirt]
"Dave likes to play the drums." [picture of bongo-playing ballplayer]
"Bobby's hobby is dancing." [picture of dancing ballplayer]
"Ramon has excellent control." OK, this may actually be referring to baseball.
"Jim likes jazz music." [picture of a groovin' hepcat].
"Cookie's hobby is tape recording." Honest baby, Cookie didn't mean for anyone else to see that.
"Dusty was a broad jumper in high school. Again, this may actually be referring to sports.
"Ed's nickname is 'Spanky.'" The safe-word is banana.
"Luis likes to smoke cigars."
"Tom once performed in Las Vegas." Viva-a-a-a-a Tom Hutton!
"Rennie enjoys dancing." [picture of booty-shakin' ballplayer].
"Mike has an interest in astrology." Frankly, the wife-swapping is less embarrassing.
"Johnny is one of baseball's most eligible bachelors." All bets were off when he and Fred Norman got together.
"Gene carries a very potent bat." [picture of throbbing, exceedingly phallic bat. I'm not kidding].
"Dick is part owner of a cocktail lounge." Party at Dick's place, babies!
The dubious achievement awards:
"Jim is backup 1st baseman to Hank Aaron."
"Hal suffered a broken ankle in 1968."
"Pat suffered a broken toe in 1969."
"Chuck was a college teammate of Rangers' Pete Broberg." THE Pete Broberg?
"Mike went on a diet after the 1971 season."
"Richie hit his first homer the same day man landed on the moon." So did Marilu Henner.
"Rollie suffered a fractured jaw when hit by a line drive in 1967"
"Fergie was Canada's athlete of the year in 1971."
"Rob has hurled in ten minor league cities." Hey, thanks for pointing that out, jackasses.
"Ken is allergic to wool uniforms." Some people were born into exactly the right moment in history.
"Bob has been with nine pro clubs."
"Gary is a freeswing batter." In 1973 Gary Maddox was a Vietnam vet and was already a supernatural centerfielder, yet Topps decided to comment on his .293 rookie on-base percentage. Nice.
"Ross' nickname is 'crazy eyes.'"
"Casey is a willing worker." I suppose faint praise is better than no praise.
"Rich was ineligible for sports as a high school senior because he was married." I suppose "Rich knocked up his junior prom date" wouldn't have gotten past the editors.
"Ron loves New York for its fine knishes." First draft: "Ron is a Jew."
"Most sportswriters spell Graig's name wrong."
"J.C. set record with 33 passed balls in 1965." Wow, they're not even trying to polish that turd.
"Larry once decided to quit baseball." And thank YOU for bringing up the memory of that painful time in my life.
The boring guys:
"Sonny likes to go bowling."
"Steve enjoys stereo music." Stereo music?
"Tony enjoys going to the movies."
"Steve plays bridge in his spare time."
"Dennis enjoys attending sporting events." Given his job, I would hope so.
"Ted relaxes by watching soap operas on television."
"Lynn likes to listen to music." That's great, but is it stereo music?
"Bruce collects stamps."
"Don enjoys stereo music." Holy crap, another one!
"Wes crusades against the use of drugs." Wes Parker: Harshing Dodger buzzes since 1964!
"Harmon enjoys watching television."
"Nate enjoys playing checkers." Harmon calls him "wild man."
"Don is a disc jockey in the off-season."
"Milt works in the oil fields of Oklahoma in the off-season."
"Ken works in a service station in the off-season." And people think Marvin Miller shouldn't be in the Hall of fame?
"Steve does volunteer dentistry work." You . . . you can just do that?
"Paul holds a bachelor's degree in business administration."
"Bill is taking graduate courses at U. of Southern Mississippi." I wonder what folks in early-70s Hattiesburg thought of the Spaceman?
"Tom received his college degree in Latin." Well la-de-frickin'-da.
"Mike is working on his PhD." Take that, Tom!
"Gail is working on his PhD in biochemistry." Take that, Mike!
There are so many more great ones. At least five other guys list "music" as their favorite past time. No less than three players are described as "skin diving" enthusiasts. Dozens are so boring that the Topps writers felt it necessary to write some variation of "Bob played baseball at a lower level before playing in the major leagues." Really? That's great.
I could probably find something fun about all 660 cards in the set, but I'll stop for now in order to keep from blowing the rest of my day.