Thursday, December 27, 2007

"Shyster enjoys reading the backs of baseball cards"

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 (one look at some of the lazy photographic choices reminds one that Topps had a monopoly on cards at the time), 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:

The swingers:

"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 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." Killebrew calls him "wild man."

Workin' stiffs

"Don is a disc jockey in the off-season."
"Milt works in the oil fields of Oklahoma in the off-season." Screw those greedy players.
"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 can just do that?

College Boys:

"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.


Voros McCracken said...

I remember having a Richie Hebner card that had a cartoon about his working as a grave digger in the offseason, but I think it was a few years after this.

Shyster said...

You have a good memory, Voros. I'm almost positive it was the 1977 card. The 1973 (card #2) says "Rich was a scholastic all-american in hockey."

grum said...

Topps/O-Pee-Chee hockey cards in the 1970s/1980s had great little comments like that, as well as the little cartoons to go along with them. I don't think they were as silly as some of the ones you mentioned. I'll have to go take a look at them sometime.

H. Vaughn said...

Also serves as a great micro-study of language evolution. I'm old enough to understand terms like skin-diver and the connotation of being a stereo buff, but some of this stuff must seem like a foreign language to anyone under 30.

dubbschism said...

shyster, i applaud you for your absolute brilliance in this post. this is my favorite:

Killebrew calls him "wild man."