Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cardboard appreciation: 1978 Topps Rookie Shortstops

(Today is "Pardon Day," a day of seeking forgiveness. In the spirit of that day, I would like to say to the Padres "I'm sorry I thought your team was crap at the beginning of the year and that your manager would be fired." However, I am not sorry for hoping whoever plays the San Diego Padres in the playoffs beats the s---t out of them. I can only appreciate so much of "Pardon Day." Now, it's time for Cardboard Appreciation. This is the 80th in a series):

Most people know this card as the rookie card of both Paul Molitor and Alan Trammell. For them, that's rarity enough -- two standouts at their position featured on the same rookie card.

But for me, it's rare for another reason.

When I first started collecting, the four-player rookie card was the standard. Four-player rookie cards appeared in the first set I ever saw ('74 Topps) and the first set I ever collected ('75 Topps). It was the first cards I ever cut up ('76 Topps and '77 Topps) and it was the first cards that I ever valued for their "rookie cardness" ('78 Topps).

The 1979 set moved on to the three-player rookie cards. And they were all in black-and-white. What a major downgrade. The 1980 set presented the three rookies in color, but it wasn't the same.

Four players on one card was better. You got four players! One one card! Genius!

But the rare part was that on this particular card, I knew every single one of the players.

That was so rare back then. There was no internet, no Baseball America, no fantasy baseball. Rookies were not coveted in terms of collecting cards. And collectors didn't really go through the effort of figuring out the stories behind the little mug shots. I know I didn't. Neither did anyone else I knew. It's not like that knowledge was available to you anyway.

But this card was different. We already knew them. First, Trammell was the starting shortstop in the Tigers' lineup by the time we pulled this card in 1978. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting. (Lou Whitaker was first).

Paul Molitor was also a starter for the Brewers in 1978, albeit mostly at second base. He was second in the Rookie of the Year voting.

Now, usually, on a four-player rookie card, that's where the knowledge would end. There were always at least two, sometimes three, players that you did not know on one of those cards. If you were very lucky, there was only one.

Does anyone remember George Throop? Chris Batton? Cardell Camper? I didn't think so.

But continuing on with that special 4-player card, we knew who U.L. Washington was. He played in 69 games for the Royals in 1978. Kansas City was on national TV a lot back then. And cameras focused on Washington because of his ever-present toothpick. He was hard to miss.

Then there was Mickey Klutts. He played in only one game for the Yankees in 1978. But he had played in a small number the previous year, and we sure knew who he was. Maybe you had to be a Yankee-hater in Yankee country with access to WPIX to know who Mickey Klutts was, but we made certain we knew his every move.

So that's what made that card unique back then. Four dudes. And we knew them all.

There was another rookie card in the '78 set, the catcher's card that featured Dale Murphy, Lance Parrish, Bo Diaz and Ernie Whitt. I don't remember for sure, but I think we might have known all those guys, too. We were beginning to pay a little more attention to the guys with the tiny mug shots.

The 1980 Topps Rickey Henderson and the 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly get all the credit for starting the rookie card craze. But I think it began for me with at least one four-player rookie card in 1978.


  1. Klutts is a great name. I'm sure he NEVER got any grief for that.

    U.L. Washington was one of those guys we tried to copy. After the 1980 World Series, we all wanted to bat with toothpicks in our mouths and my mom told me no! And she meant no. She caught me once and it was no baseball for a week. That really hurt.

  2. I'm with you 100% on the 4-player RCs, I really miss those too, although Topps did do them again occasionally in the 90s, but never in the awesome style of the 70s.
    Incidentally, this very card is one I thought I'd never get when I was younger due to its huge price at the time, so I was thrilled when I was able to trade for one a while back, especially being a Tigers fan (and as you mention, this set is loaded with 4-player RCs including Tigers)

  3. I loved those cards as well. I am going to feature a couple soon on my site - including the infamous George Throop card.

  4. As an 8-year-old in 1978, that was the first year that I could get what amounted to regular allowance money. Naturally, since it was never quite enough to buy Star Wars figures, I would go across the street and spend it 50/50 on baseball cards and Star Wars cards either at the mom 'n pop drug store or the Brentwood supermarket, in Mountain View, CA.

    Back then, I created my own elaborate organizational system (the numbers on the back were a waste of time), and ordered the cards by team and position of my own choosing.

    These 4-player rookie cards were the square pegs of my round 2nd grader mind. I think if a 4-player card had two players on the same team, I could lump it with the rest of that team. Mostly though, if my hazy memory is correct, I just left these 4-player rookie cards out, as if it were a 27th team in the league, staffed only with shaggy teenagers.