Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Everybody is a star

The Pirates are in the playoffs and everyone seems to be happy about this. Every last baseball fan is dusting off their Kent Tekulve references, although personally I'd be more impressed if someone mentioned Bruce Kison or Steve Nicosia.

I'm pleased to see the Pirates back, too, because I remember a time when Pittsburgh was in the postseason consistently. I especially remember 1979, the first postseason in which I stayed up to watch every last World Series game. It was my first experience with the totality of the postseason, what it meant and who the players were. And what an introduction.

The "We Are Fam-i-lee" Pirates are one of the most beloved championship teams of our time. They had style, character and talent. They had the underdog thing going (down 3 games to 1 in the Series). And they were led by their Papa Bear, Willie Stargell, who distributed gold stars for good performance. This year's Pirates, although a crowd favorite, can't compare.

There was something missing in last night's raucous Pittsburgh celebration. Sure, I liked the enthusiasm, although it seemed more of a hockey crowd, with elements of pro wrestling sprinkled throughout. But I missed that easy joyousness of the '79 team. If only someone was handing out gold stars, I thought, that would make this whole scene even happier. I miss the funk. Where's the funk?

During nostalgic times like these, I return to my collection. And so I did. I searched out the Pirates cards in which Stargell's stars were featured.

Although Stargell began issuing stars in 1978, they didn't begin to appear on caps on cards until 1980. They can be found in sets from 1980, 81, 82 and 83. Stargell's career was over in 1982 and the star tradition died with his exit.

I wish I had all of the cards from this time period so I could do an authoritative study. But I'm missing a chunk of the 1982 Topps set, as well as many cards in the '81-83 Fleer and Donruss sets. So this will be just a "what I found in my collection" star study. (Once again, I'm not being paid for this).

I found 25 cards in my collection that included Pirates wearing stars on their caps.

I thought I would unearth the most in 1980 Topps, since it arrived immediately after the Pirates' 79 championship. But these are the only four in that set with gold stars:

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, this was a time when a majority of photos were taken during spring training, almost a full year before the set hit packs. I'm assuming stars were not rewarded during spring training.

Second, there are lots of pictures in the '80 set of Pirates wearing yellow batting helmets, or gold caps. Stars weren't featured on either of those.

Here is some other random stuff I noticed about the gold star cards:

This is the best look at the stars out of any card that I own. You can even see the tiny Stargell "S" on each star.

This is the only card I have in which Pops himself is wearing stars. Willie wasn't above giving himself stars. Admitting you did a good job is not something bad. That's nice to see.

Gold stars were featured both in regular and reverse form.

Randy's happy he has five stars and sad he has five stars.

The ugly side of the gold star reward system was the one-star cap. These guys always stood out as some sort of pathetic pledge at a fraternity. "Fetch my beer, you one-star plebian."

There was also individual preference as to star placement. Here you see different drummer John Candelaria wearing his stars on his cap bill.

Dale Berra did it, too. Maybe it was some sort of drug code.

Taken collectively, Kent Tekulve may have featured more stars on his cap over the lifetime of the star era. And, yes kids, that man in the lower right really did play in the World Series, and he played very well.

But staying on the topic of "more stars," I wanted to know which player on which card featured the single most gold stars on his cap? Would it be Tekulve?

Let's find out:

5. Jim Bibby, 1981 Fleer, 8 stars

I don't know who that is next to him. Dave Roberts springs to mind.

4. Larry McWilliams, 1983 Topps, 8 stars

Yes. He has the same number as Bibby. But if you add up his inset, that comes to 16 stars! That has to count for something.

3. John Milner, 1981 Donruss, 10 stars

I know there are more on the other side of the cap, but I only count what I can see.

2. Kent Tekulve, 1981 Topps, 11 stars

In a bit of an upset, Tekulve's 1981 card -- a former Cardboard Appreciation subject --  finishes second.

By the way, the Met in the background is Ron Hodges. It was established on this very blog, four full years before the same conclusion was arrived at on this much more read blog. Read your NOC, kiddies.

1. Tim Foli, 1981 Donruss, 17 stars

The 1979 Pirates' grittiest member (not to be confused with the scrappiest, who was obviously Scrap Iron Phil Garner), Foli receives the honor of the most stars. Yes, I really counted them, too. It was a little bit of a challenge.

I think it's interesting how the two top start-getters each wore glasses.

I'd be interested to see if there are cards from this time that are not in my collection that feature more stars. And, then of course, I'll have to get them.

The star system was yet another way that the '79 Pirates endeared themselves to the baseball public. It was easy to love this team.

I do like the 2013 Pirates, but they're not as lovable as they were in '79. Maybe that has to do with how old I was then versus how old I am now.

But they might want to think about handing out some stars. Make them black if you want to modern it up a little bit.

Then again, stars aren't going to help one bit if the Pirates play the Dodgers.


  1. BEST POST EVER!!! I'll dig out my 1980s Topps, Donruss and Fleer, count the stars and present a definitive answer!

    1. Looking online just now, I was able to find one that would make the top 5 -- 1981 Fleer Bill Robinson with 14 stars.

    2. Yup... that is the only one that would rival Foli. In his defense, I remember Kent Tekulve having starts all over his pillbox. You figure, he had ten wins and 31 saves in 1979 plus three more saves in the world series... thats 44 stars!

  2. My guess as to who is sitting next to Bibby? None other than Kurt Bevacqua, champion bubble blower!

  3. All I remember about Bruce Kison is the karate kick incident with George Bell.

  4. I count a grand total of 0 stars in the 1982 Fleer set.

  5. Ugh. I shouldn't read blogs the day after my Reds get eliminated. Too many freakin' Pirates. Or, as I said last night: I didn't mind Pittsburgh when they were perpetual losers*.

    *purely sour grapes on my end. Secretly, I'm happy for Pittsburgh - just sad it came at the Reds' expense. However, even I can admit that my Reds played pathetic - not just last night but the last week or so. Other than Todd Frazier, I don't know if there was a single Red that either knew or cared that last night was possibly their final game of the season. This includes Baker.

  6. Wow... it's been probably 30 years since I've seen that 81D Willie Stargell (w/Star on hat). What a great card from a great era of cardboard collecting. Good times.

  7. I remember watching a game on TV during that period (maybe the 1979 World Series) where, after the game, as the Pirates were filing out of the stadium, a fan reached down and stole Tekulve's star-laden hat off his head.

    Teke was pissed!

  8. Awesome post. The Bucs also wore Staergell Stars as a patch on their left chest in 2001 after Pops' untimely passing.

  9. I'd noticed those in the past but never gave them a second thought.

  10. I love how the '82 and '83 Tekulve were frames apart on the same delivery. You can tell by the background. Good stuff.