Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The year of the airbrush

My complete 1977 Topps set is secured safely and living the comfy cozy life in its binder. Only a handful of upgrades to come will alter what will be the set's spell-binding, page-turning story for all of eternity.

I was just going through the binder trying to come up with a fitting tribute for the set. The problem is I've already written about this set numerous times. How it represents the pinnacle of my collecting experience as a child, how it was the set where I made the connection between cards and the actual players on TV, how it contains terrific cartoons on the back, etc., etc., etc. and blah, blah, blah.

I started to panic. What was I going to write about? The thought hounded me page after page.

And then it hit me. It was so obvious.

The 1977 set may be about rookie cards for Andre Dawson, Dale Murphy, Bruce Sutter and Mark Fidrych to cardboard revisionists, but really, what the set is primarily about, what defines the set, is the airbrush.

I didn't have time to go through and count how many airbrushed photos there are in this set -- when I do, I'll update this post -- but it has to be above 50. Between the addition of the expansion Blue Jays and Mariners and the first significant free agent crop in history there were players bouncing between teams like never before. And for the first time since the 1969 set, Topps' "cap artists" really had to work.

Unfortunately, their work wasn't some of their best work. Although there are some photos in which it is relatively difficult to tell that there is any airbrushing going on, there are others where it is so blatant that I am convinced that they let some kids try their hand at photo manipulation.

With the advent of personal computers, photoshop and all kinds of reality-altering devices, airbrushed cards have a certain amount of charm that did not even occur to us collectors in 1977. As an 11-year-old, I was just pleased to see Joe Rudi with an Angels cap, I didn't care how efficiently it got there.

But looking back I can see why younger fans think the airbrush jobs are so amusing. There are some considerable stinkers in the set.

How stinky?

Well, you're going to find out. I now present to you the Top 10 Most Memorable Airbrush Jobs in the 1977 set -- otherwise known as the Year of the Airbrush.

It was not easy selecting just 10. I was forced to eliminate Dave Rader up there, as well as Rudi, Manny Sanguillen's tipped cap, Gene Tenace and Rollie Fingers, almost every Mariners fake cap including Dave Pagan, and many, many others.

But these 10 are pretty good, I think you will find.


10. Steve Stone

Yes, there is the melted cap and what appears to be the top part of a heavy metal T-shirt. But I'd like to focus on the SOX positioning on the cap. Good intentions, of course, but the White Sox did not wear SOX shoved over to the right and tilted downward.

9. Pete Vukovich

I truly feel for whoever was tasked with painting the Blue Jays logo on 18 or so different photos. That had to be difficult. And the evidence is in the fact that if you compare the Blue Jays photos in this set -- and I did --  the logos are all over the place.

Some are pretty good, like Dave McKay here:

But others, like Vukovich, are not. I think that might be the tiniest logo to ever "appear" on a cap.

8. Willie McCovey

This amuses me so because McCovey was a Giant between 1959-73. Yet, when he was reacquired by the Giants, Topps had to scramble to paint a cap on his head. I suppose compliments should go out for not unearthing a five-year-old photo of McCovey and for preserving a picture of his mustache, but as a Dodger fan, it tickles me (by the way, I love the smiley face in his signature).

7. Sal Bando

Even at 11 years old, I knew that the Brewers did not wear teal caps. That color did not exist in baseball for another 15 years. Topps should have known this since it took pictures of the Brewers wearing caps that were this color:

Apparently, purple wasn't in their color palette.

6. Bill Greif

Greif never played for the Expos as he was released in March of 1977. All that artistry for nothing.

5. Reggie Jackson

We would like to think that for the superstars, people try harder. But all Reggie received for his epic arrival in New York was an interlocking N.Y. in which the Y appears to be growing rapidly away from the N, and the smoothest and roundest helmet ever devised. It's positively futuristic.

4. Tommy Helms

More fun with colors. I could focus on Helms' sideburns or the monstrous "A" on his "helmet" that almost competes with the team name in the design. But I'm going right for the color choice for the helmet. We appear to have a yellowish-green helmet -- something that I hope will never exist -- with streaks of green going through it. Because this happens with helmets all the time.

The whole ensemble just makes it look like Helms is wearing a giant hollowed-out lime on his head.

3. Doyle Alexander

I've always admired the daring of this airbrush job. If there is such a thing as airbrush chutzpah, this is it. In this photo, Alexander was out on the mound in Yankee Stadium, as a Yankee. The airbrusher then sneaked out onto the field, took the mound and colored him head-to-mid-calf in Rangers colors. As kids, we knew something wasn't quite right about this. But we didn't know exactly what. The correct answer would have been "all of it."

2. Eric Soderholm

More full-body airbrushing. I think the reason I ranked this higher (or lower) than Alexander is because it's a tighter shot and because it appears to turn Soderholm into some sort of cartoon superhero. The illustrated nature of his uniform jumpsuit makes him look like he belongs in the pages of a comic book. I also want to know if those gloves are airbrushed, too.

1. Rick Jones

Topps claims there was a player named Rick Jones who pitched in the major leagues.

I do not get any of that from this picture.

The fact that this is the only card of Rick Jones makes this card all the more comical, sad, disturbing, whatever adjective you'd like to use.

But it is, without a doubt, the most memorable airbrushed card in a set full of airbrushed cards.

Thanks to everyone who helped me complete the 1977 Topps set. I will be adding it to my completed sets post when I get a chance. I am now on to 1972 and 1979, which also promise some equally poor airbrushed jobs.

Weren't they great?


  1. And I thought the 1988 Topps airbrushing was bad...yikes!

  2. Congrats on finishing the '77 set! It's definitely one of my favorites.

    That Helms card has to be one of the most eye-shielding cards ever produced. And I'm surprised I never once noticed the "smiley face" signature on the McCovey.

  3. #1 was an absolute no doubt choice. That is possibly the strangest card of the 70s which is really saying something.

    I appreciate the mention, but the Manny Sanguillen "deserved" a spot in the top 10. It looks like a beer league softball uniform, but the 10 you chose were still great.

  4. Since I haven't finished my '77 set yet, I'm seeing some of those airbrush jobs for the first time.
    In addition, the Tommy Helms card may indeed be from my third grade art class.

  5. That Doyle Alexander is awesome.