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Pickled Priest Outside the Box: Our Favorite Baseball Cards of All-Time

In what could be a new regular feature, Pickled Priest proves its diversity to absolutely nobody by taking on "other subjects" beyond music (gasp). Today, in honor of another opening day, we celebrate the beloved baseball card collection, what most kids amused themselves with until they discovered rock & roll music. Before they became something sold to the ultra-rich for extravagant prices at high-end auction houses, they were mainly for the kids. Imagine that. We didn't put them in plastic sheets either. We played with them, traded for them, shot rubber bands at them, made card houses from them, sorted them, rubber-banded them, interacted with them, and, yes, devalued an investment that could've paid for our kids college some day. Who knew? We don't regret it anyway. They were never intended to be ushered by an armed team of white-gloved security guards from sealed pack to glass encasement to safety deposit box. With that in mind, I present, for a multitude of varying reasons, my favorite baseball cards from my sad, pathetic glory days, which will pass you by in the wink of a young girl's eye.

Not in any specific order and all of them were chosen without regard to their market value.

1971 Topps 1970 Game #5 World Series

Why This Card?

First, Brooks Robinson, aka "The Human Vacuum" (16 straight Gold Gloves!), is one of my favorite ballplayers of all-time. Second, I love the bird’s-eye view perspective used for the photo—a bold choice considering the inherently small canvas of the average baseball card. It was highly uncommon to pull back on the zoom of a photo to provide such a wide scope. Presumably, the shot of a tiny Robinson on his knees surrounded by nothing but infield sand, as if Lawrence of Arabia played for the Baltimore Orioles, was intended to highlight the vast dominion controlled by one of the game’s greatest gloves. You almost expect a camel to walk into the frame at any second. The caption itself is genius and sums up how Cincinnati Reds fans must’ve felt after the Orioles, and MVP Robinson, won the series in 5 games that year.

1970 Topps 1969 World Series Game #3

Why This Card?

I like that it looks like a miniature version of a morning paper’s sports section. For a long, long time The Sporting News was the ESPN of baseball—the definitive source of oversaturated coverage for die-hard fans. The publication was so engrained in sports culture at the time, Topps used their masthead to simulate a real issue summarizing each World Series contest, with the card highlighting a key turning point in the game for posterity. Tommie Agee’s defense was credited with saving five runs in Game 3, via two spectacular catches, and the Miracle Mets went on to win the series from the heavily favored Orioles in one of the biggest upsets in sports history. One of his catches was conveniently snapped right below the 396-feet sign in left center field, creating a dramatic visual made only more timeless by a perfectly-framed black-and-white photo. It looks like the 1969 version of “The Catch” by Willie Mays in the ’54 Series.

1976 Topps Bubble Gum Blowing Champ

Why This Card?

If there was ever a card that truly qualified as a “bubblegum card” (what we called them until the gum was removed in 1981) it is this oddity, highlighting Milwaukee Brewers’ infielder Kurt Bevacqua’s triumph in the 1975 Joe Garagiola Bazooka Big League Bubble Gum-Blowing Contest (literally, quite a mouthful). Garagiola was known for his goofy sense of humor (and later for co-hosting the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and inspiring Fred Willard's character, Buck Laughlin, in the film Best in Show), so he was the perfect fit to sponsor the bubble battle. Bazooka was also owned by Topps, so it didn’t take a rocket scientist—hence Garagiola—to come up with the idea to have the players featured on their cards chew the gum included in the wax packs in a formal NCAA Tournament-styled showdown (albeit with a convoluted bracket structure). A cursory review of the complete bracket, which is shown on the flip-side of the card, shows that four eventual Hall of Famers competed in the competition none of them making it past the second round. I would've loved to see "1975 Bubble Gum Blowing Champ" included on a Cooperstown plaque, but it wasn't meant to be. And doesn't it figure that the goddamn Tigers and buzzkill Pirates didn't even participate! And, while in the weeds, check out the absolutely preposterous French translation included just to appease the fucking Montreal Expos, whose annoying catcher, Gary Carter, was bounced in round one. Not worth the double-bubble trouble, that's for sure.

1976 Topps Oscar Gamble: Traded

Why This Card?

Obviously, it’s the afro—likely the greatest, and most resilient, in the history of pro sports. The Army Corps of Engineers couldn’t even figure out how it kept its shape in a sport where you’re required to don a ballcap for 200+ days a year. The card is also notable for its pre-Photoshop graphics. Money was changing baseball rapidly, with players being traded or let go with greater frequency than ever, mostly for financial reasons. Topps responded by documenting some of the key moves made each year on special transaction cards. Without a photo to reflect the player’s new team, they hired a third grade art class to watercolor a new cap on the player’s head and sent the card to the printer. Problem solved! Even Oscar looks nonplussed at the development.

1974 Topps Willie McCovey “Washington Nat’l Lea.”

Why This Card?

When Topps got wind that the San Diego Padres might be moving to Washington D.C., they did what anyone would do—they altered, mid-printing, the Padres cards to show Washington in the city spot on the 1974 card set in a futile effort to keep pace with the new development. To make it more awkward, and since they didn’t know the new team’s name yet, they put the clunky abbreviation “Nat’l Lea.” in that spot (one never used before or since, I may add), in turn confusing millions of young boys in the process. We didn’t know what the fuck was going on and didn’t know how to find out either. (No goddamn cell phones connected to the internet in '74.) It made absolutely no sense. Neither did the hastily-painted-on aftermarket ballcap. If they went through the trouble to change the card to show Washington as the McCovey’s new team, why not paint on a red cap with a "W" on it while they were at it? Topps? More like Flopps.

1978 Topps Rookie Shortstops

Why This Card?

You might assume this selection is to celebrate the first card appearance of future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, but you would be only partly right. You might then assume it’s because of the presence of a second Hall of Famer, Alan Trammel, on the same card. Again, partly right—that is an embarrassment of talent housed on one card. Advanced sleuths might wonder if I was a fellow toothpick chewer like U L Washington*, who always kept one in his mouth during games, even when hitting, defying all motherly warnings he likely received growing up (sadly not chewing one in this photo). A commendable yet far-fetched hypothesis on your part. In truth, I loved this card mainly for the fourth player in the top left corner, the one with, by far, the least successful career of the quartet. It was, of course, because he had one of the funniest names in MLB history—none other than infielder Mickey Klutts**. In the only sport where they enumerate the errors made by its players prominently on the scoreboard, it tickled my fancy that someone with that last name made it to the major leagues at all. More power to him for overcoming such a substantial omen!

*For trivia buffs: His name wasn’t an abbreviation, just the initials "U L" sans periods, although most used them anyway when writing his name.***

**Mickey's lifetime fielding percentage as an MLB infielder was a respectable .944 lifetime, not great, but he wasn't a klutz either.

***In a rare footnote from within another footnote, it should be noted that Kansas City Royals-focused blog Tangled Up in (Royal) Blue was started by a writer who has now moved on to another Royals blog named U.L.'s Toothpick. We do appreciate the musical tie-in of the former, but clearly the latter is true (royal) blue blog-naming perfection.

1974 Topps Hank Aaron: New All-Time Home Run King

Why This Card?

Mainly, because I loved Hank Aaron then and still do now. Must I have another reason? Each year, the anticipation of discovering a Hank card in a pack was almost too much to bear. I remember the thrill of first discovering this card, but also doing an immediate double-take over its claim that he was “The New All-Time Home Run King” despite the fact that he ended the previous season with only 713 home runs, two shy of actually breaking Babe Ruth's record. A quibble maybe, but isn’t that the definition of tempting fate? Thankfully, early in April of the following season, mighty Hank—still the real Home Run King in the minds of every true baseball fan—hit No. 715 while the world watched. Me, while "studying" my catechism for school the next day. On the inside cover, I wrote the following: “Hank Aaron, 715th HR, April 8, 1974, 8:07.” A moment that stopped time. A moment I’ll never forget. And not a fucking steroid in sight.

1973 Topps World Series Game No. 1

Why This Card?

Mainly for the caption: “Tenace the Menace.” It just fell into their lap, didn't it? It helped that I was a big fan of Dennis the Menace at the time, and in my early boyhood I was quite the menace myself to my parent's chagrin. Maybe a baseball player being called a menace validated my existence in some way. What I also like, in retrospect, is that the World Series can make a hero out of anybody. On a team with Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, and Sal Bando, it was Gene Tenace (filling in for Jackson who pulled a hammy in the ALCS) who dominated the series with 4 HRs (he had 5 all season) and 9 RBIs (no other player had more than one!). Surely he has a huge framed copy of this card in every room of his house.

1972 Topps Roberto Clemente

1972 Topps Robert Clemente (In Action)

Why These Cards?

Both hail from the once derided, now legendary "psychedelic" 1972 Topps set, which is easily the most original and distinctive card design in the company's history. The packs should've swapped out the stick of gum for a loose joint. When I was younger I hated the look, but I also disliked Black Sabbath at one point, too. We all see the light (or in Sabbath’s case, the dark) eventually. Clemente was one of baseball’s most dynamic and exciting players, so it’s ironic that both cards show Clemente doing or accomplishing almost nothing. The standard player card (top) proves he can indeed toss a ball 18-inches into the air and (presumably) catch it. The “In Action” card—a trial concept for Topps that ushered in a new era of live-action photography—clearly shows him in a state of disgust after striking out. Surely, with one of the most impressive highlight reels in the history of the sport, they could’ve found a better shot to demonstrate his genius on the ballfield. Making matters worse, these would be the last cards issued while Clemente was still alive—he died “in action” when his plane went down during a mission to bring disaster relief supplies to post-earthquake Nicaragua. To this day, I never look at the card without that sad fact running through my mind.*

*Amazingly, his last posthumously issued card, which appears to capture him checking his swing this time (ugh), is from the 1973 Topps set and it shockingly makes no mention of his death at all. It does note that he got his 3,000th (and last) hit in 1972, however. Maybe they thought the kids couldn't handle the bad news.

1955 Bowman Hank Aaron

Why This Card?

For the most part, I’m fiercely loyal to Topps, the bubblegum card company of my youth. However, this card is actually from the Bowman’s 1955 series*, which ran parallel to Topps for a short time before Topps bought the company outright in 1956 (for 200K!) and seized a virtual playing card monopoly for over a quarter century (they continue today as the industry leader despite new entrants to the market). That said, Bowman’s “TV Set” cards were ahead of their time and are beloved amongst collectors to this day. Each featured a “Color TV” with the player inside the frame and it seemed as if he would move at any second if you watched long enough (and with much greater resolution than the TVs of the day, not to mention the fact that a select few in the US even had a color TV at the time, as it was first rolled our one year prior). Simply put, the '55 Bowman Aaron card is one of my prized possessions. I’ve always loved him as a player and as a human being, as highlighted previously, but this card shows him as a boyish-faced young man with only one year in the majors under his belt at the time. I’ve always been fascinated by such cards, which is why collectors prize rookie cards more than almost all others. Like seeing a band before they hit it big, there’s something cool about being there before it all starts to happen.

*Bowman was making cards well before Topps, releasing some form of ball card as early as 1939.

1956 Topps Jackie Robinson

Why This Card?

I remember the day I purchased this card at a show in Chicago (card shows were almost unheard of then). It was a big investment for a small kid at the time (80% of my net worth, possibly more), but I’ve never regretted it for a second. It’s a wonderful card; Jackie’s smiling face on the left, him stealing home on the right (his trademark). Literally, a work of art. Any serious baseball card collection needs to have a Jackie Robinson front and center. Some, like this one, are reasonably affordable and all historically significant. Even though this one is from his last year as a player, it doesn’t make a difference. I had to have a Jackie Robinson, any Jackie Robinson, in my collection.

1973 Topps Thurman Munson

Why This Card?

For some reason, I loved catchers in 1973. It’s hard to explain why (I felt the same way about hockey goalies and rock band drummers, as well—maybe because all three have a crucial backseat role to the action unfolding in front of them). For this reason, I kept catchers separate from all my other cards in their own segregated pile. To my defense, it was a great year for the position: Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons, Bill Freehan, and the great Johnny Bench, to name a few. One of my favorite cards was of the Yankees’ captain, Thurman Munson. The card, featuring a live game shot—a year where action photos were becoming more common on player cards—shows Munson in soft focus, but everything else in the frame a blur. He seems like the calm inside a storm (more likely, sub-standard photography), directing the ship from a crouched position, hidden by a façade of armor.

1962 Topps Ernie Banks

Why This Card?

I’m one of those rare Chicagoans who is both a White Sox fan and a Cubs fan. (I don’t even want to hear it so don’t bother trying.) The Sox come first (2005 seems like it was yesterday), but I also reveled in the 2016 Cubs World Series (one year after Mr. Cub's death, tragically). Most fans knew Ernie as the lovable, always cheerful, face of the organization. He was a class act from head to toe—always enthusiastic, warm, and accommodating (he gladly signs autographs throughout Cubs games when present). Not even Sox fans dare speak ill of Ernie Banks. You almost forget he was a young man sometimes, so natural is he in his old age. But look at the Ernie Banks on this card from the downright attractive 1962 Topps set (love the rolled up corner!). This card shows Ernie in his prime, and I’m not afraid to say he’s a beautiful young man. It’s the best Ernie card ever made. It captures one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors in his milieu and his love of the game oozes from every square inch of the card.

1959 Topps Nellie Fox

Why This Card?

No, it’s not to appease my fellow White Sox fans by balancing the Ernie Banks selection with one about a South Side legend. Well, not exclusively for that purpose. If you’re a Sox fan, you love Nellie Fox. And most of us never even saw him play a game. Baseball does have a way of romancing its historical figures more than any other sport. Also, 1959 was Fox’s MVP season, so this card is what you had in your hand if you were a young kid during his team’s magical pennant-winning campaign that year. Truth be told, despite the iconic “gun sight” design used for the 59 set, Fox’s card doesn’t feature a very flattering photo. He looks like a blasé North Sider in a Lincoln Park coffee shop barely able to tolerate a friend’s endless blathering. Even his fingers look like they are about to form a metaphorical gun he might put to his temple at any moment if he has to suffer further indignities for much longer.

1973 Topps The All-Time Grand Slam Leader: Lou Gehrig

Why This Card?

If you’ve seen The Pride of the Yankees, you get it. To this day, an original Gehrig card is out of my financial reach, a coveted 1933 Goudey too rich for my blood. In 1973, Topps issued a series of All-Time Leader cards featuring Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, etc. For many, these were the closest they would come to having some of the game’s most storied ballplayers in their collection. As a boy, I marveled at Gehrig’s 23 Grand Slams and assumed his record would never be broken. Even though A-Rod eventually beat it with the help of some juice (we'll never know how many of his slams were clean), I do not acknowledge the record and never will. For me, only one Iron Horse holds this impressive record: Lou, Lou, Lou. Gehrig, Gehrig, Gehrig!

1973 Topps All Time Home Run Leaders

Why This Card?

Topps made a smart move issuing this now beloved card as #1 in its 1973 card set. The card, with its bright yellow background and chunky five-point stars, looks like no other from that year’s set. It stands out from the rest, as a card featuring the all-powerful triune gods of baseball—should. But the timely reminder of the current rankings also, with a little math that even a small boy could handle, alerted everyone that someone was knocking on the door of thee most cherished individual record in all of baseball—a new ALL-TIME HOME RUN KING was soon to be crowned! Babe Ruth, the most famous of all ballplayers, was going to lose his record soon, and to his polar opposite, no less. A quiet, fit, humble, black man was approaching in the rearview, and he was closer than he appeared. It’s pretty much all we talked about back then, tracking box scores to see his progress on a daily basis. This card reminds me of the thrill of that glorious chase.

1965 Topps Pete Rose

Why This Card?

Set your opinions on Pete Rose aside for a moment and take a look at this absolutely gorgeous baseball card. To me, it may just be the perfect specimen. I rank the 1965 Topps set as my favorite card design of all-time. It has the perfect balance of simplicity and style. I love the flowing pennant with the team name (and subtle shadowing). It’s made even better by the addition of a small cartoon team logo on the flag. Why not? Cards were meant to be collected by kids then (not 50 year-old men, like now), and kids in the 50s and 60s put pennants on their bedroom walls to announce their team loyalty. All the fonts are clean and sized according to the importance of the information and there was even a perfect amount of color. Not too flashy, not too boring. The accent line of color circling around the card’s exterior was a nice design touch, too. Add a crisp photo of the player and you’ve got yourself collector’s gold. The Pete Rose version of the card features not only a young Charlie Hustle—no matter what you think, a player that played the game with every ounce of his heart and soul—but also the stunning sleeveless Cincinnati Reds jerseys of the time. Why did they ever get rid of them?! So, the combination of inspired card design, a great player in his prime, a crisp photo, and those fabulous uniforms, make this the perfect card in my mind. What baseball cards should be, but often are not.


Next Opening Day we'll bring you more baseball-related content. Perhaps sooner. We'll see how it tests among our target audience.


The Priest


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