Ever since I pulled cards like this out of the first packs of baseball cards I ever purchased, I've been aware of the cards issued during the year a player won the MVP award.
Without ever really thinking about it, those became special cards. They represented a player when he was at his very best, the talk of baseball, and how cool was it to pull a card of someone like that?
The baseball cards featured on those 1975 Topps MVP subset cards became etched in my brain from an early age and I regarded them as the best of the best.
But those cards that Topps showcased in that subset ended with 1974. More than 45 years has passed since then. I first started collecting cards 45 years ago and there have been almost double that many MVP players in that time.
It's about time to recognize those other MVP cards, don't you think?
So what I thought I would do is find the 21 best of the best -- 21 because we're grown-ass adults here -- 21 Topps cards, from its flagship brand, issued during the season when an MVP player was having his MVP year. How well did that card do at representing that superstar player?
Any card company can put out an impressive card of an MVP after he won the MVP award, months and months later. I want to see the best when we were soaking up that player's accomplishments AND collecting his card.
I'm going to include in the 21 the pre-1975 cards that you've already seen in the 1975 MVP subset, too, because I don't want to exclude anyone. Also, this won't be a countdown show. I'll just be featuring the top 21, from the oldest to the newest. I think that'll build a little bit of suspense on its own.
Here we go. The best of the best MVP-year cards:
1. 1953 - Roy Campanella
For Roy Campanella, 1953 was a great year because: Hit .312 with 41 home runs and a league-leading 141 RBIs with a .611 slugging percentage. Hit .273 with a home run in the World Series.
The only Roy Campanella MVP-year card shown in the 1975 Topps MVP subset that is an actual card. Roy Campanella won National League MVPs in 1951, 1953 and 1955, but he appeared in the Topps set only in 1953. Fortunately, this is a most handsome card and always brings a smile to my face when I see it in my collection. Although maybe not as broad of a smile as Campy's because there was only one Campy.
2. 1956 - Mickey Mantle
For Mickey Mantle, 1956 was a great year because: Won the Triple Crown with 52 home runs, 130 RBIs and a .353 batting average. Hit home runs completely out of Griffith Stadium and Comiskey Park. Hit three home runs as Yankees won the World Series.
It interests me that this Mickey Mantle card hasn't been reproduced much by Topps. I think it's one of his best ones and '56 was certainly one of his best seasons, if not his best. I really like the action shot as it shows Mantle making a leaping catch at the wall, an image that still makes us take note when it shows up on modern baseball cards.
3. 1957 - Hank Aaron
For Hank Aaron, 1957 was a great year because: Led the league in home runs (44) and RBIs (132) and finished third in batting average (.322). Hit .393 in the World Series as the Braves beat the defending champion Yankees (I know the WS doesn't count in MVP voting, I'm including it anyway).
This is a great card and the fact that Topps goofed and printed a reverse negative (how can you not see that backward 44?) makes it even better. Aaron as a lefty! It's also nice to see Aaron as a youngster. My childhood is filled with images of Aaron as an old ballplayer, it was easy to forget he was ever in his 20s.
4. 1961 - Roger Maris
For Roger Maris, 1961 was a great year because: Broke Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs by hitting 61. He also drove in 141 runs and helped the Yankees win the World Series against the Reds.
Some of these MVP-year cards are so huge just because of the monster season that the player produced. This is one of them. But it's still a terrific shot of the reticent Maris and fits so well with the year that he had.
Just because even I am a little tired of showing the 1961 Maris card that I landed for 7 cents, I used this replica Card Your Mom Threw Out version from 2010. But it is an "Original Back" version!
5. 1963 - Sandy Koufax
For Sandy Koufax, 1963 was a great year because: Won the pitcher's Triple Crown with 25 wins, 306 strikeouts and a 1.88 ERA. Was named Cy Young Award winner by a unanimous vote. The Dodgers would sweep the Yankees in the World Series and Koufax struck out a record-breaking 15 batters in Game 1.
This is in the top two of my favorite Topps Sandy Koufax card from his playing days. It's sometimes difficult to characterize Koufax correctly in photos. Catch him smiling too much and it doesn't even seem like him. But then there are other photos where it looks like Koufax is on the verge of tears. This card finds a balance and also adds a regal air that was well-deserved at this point in time.
6. 1971 - Vida Blue
For Vida Blue, 1971 was a great year because: Struck out a club-record 301 batters and posted a 1.82 ERA while winning 24 games and Cy Young Award honors.
If I did rank these cards, I'm fairly certain that this card would be No. 1. I don't think it's possible for a card to determine who the MVP will be that year but if any card could do that, it would be this card.
7. 1971 - Joe Torre
For Joe Torre, 1971 was a great year because: Batted .363 with 230 hits and 137 RBIs for the Cardinals, who pretty much won that trade in which they acquired Torre for Orlando Cepeda.
Yes, both cards that appeared on that 1975 MVP subset card showing the 1971 MVPs appear on this list. That '75 subset card left quite an impact. And although there have been plenty of cards since that have shown the soon-to-be MVP in action batting, the Joe Torre one is the absolute FIRST and for that reason it was amazing and well-deserving of being here.
8. 1974 - Steve Garvey
For Steve Garvey, 1974 was a great year because: Drove in 111 runs and batted .312 while reaching 200 hits for the first time in his career. Won the starting role at first base in the All-Star Game by write-in vote. Batted .389 in the NLCS and .381 in the World Series that year.
I've shown this card and talked it up plenty on this blog and in that time I've become aware that some people think it's overrated. It's not. It's pure art and has been one of my favorite cards since I was a boy. Some collectors may see only spooky faces in the background. I see something that could hang in the most famous art galleries in the world.
9. 1977 - George Foster
For George Foster, 1977 was a great year because: Became the first player to reach 50 home runs in a season since 1965 when he he hit 52. Drove in 149 runs and finished fourth in the batting .320. His OPS was 1.013.
We've reached the point when I was collecting cards and aware of what was going on in baseball, meaning I was staring at this card while I was watching Foster on TV on the Game of the Week and reading about him in the newspaper. These MVP-season cards were so, so big on the playground. Just monsters and badges of honor when pulled from packs.
10. 1978 - Jim Rice
For Jim Rice, 1978 was a great season because: Mashed 46 home runs and drove in 139 while batting .315. Hit 15 triples for the second straight year. First player to reach 400 total bases in a season in nearly 20 years, which was mentioned constantly (I added that last part because nobody mentions total bases anymore).
There was something special about 1978 Topps -- something "new" that I don't think people who weren't collectors at the time appreciate. The set tends to get lumped in with other late '70s sets, but actually it set itself apart, not just because it was the first 726-card set but the look, the hyper-focus on the photos and some of the photos themselves.
Jim Rice was not a happy-go-lucky guy. He still isn't from everything I've come across. But Topps, bless them, found a super-happy photo of Rice just in time for his MVP season. It couldn't help but make an impact.
11. 1979 - Don Baylor
For Don Baylor, 1979 was a great season because: Led the league in RBIs (139) and runs scored (120) and hit 36 home runs, playing in all 162 games. The Angels won the American League West for the first time in their history.
Another super-happy photo from a player who seemed to take the game a little too seriously at times. Baylor was a favorite of mine from the time I saw his 1976 Topps card with the Orioles. I was thrilled to see him do so well with the Angels that season and is the first non-Dodger player I can recall rooting for to win the MVP award. "Look at his card! He has to win the MVP!"
12. 1981 - Mike Schmidt
For Mike Schmidt, 1981 was a great season because: Hit 31 home runs despite a strike-shortened 102 games. He also drove in 91 runs and posted .644 slugging.
Since Schmidt won back-to-back MVP awards in 1980-81, Topps was ready with a great photo. This card has always appealed to me. At the time I pulled it, I thought he was screaming at someone, ready for battle. The green All-Star bar and the green border makes the card stand out even more. It's easily one of Schmidt's best cards.
13. 1983 - Cal Ripken
For Cal Ripken, 1983 was a great season because: Batted .318 and hit 27 home runs with 211 hits and 102 RBIs, which was mind-blowing at the time for someone playing shortstop. Made the first of many All-Star Games and hit .400 in the ALCS as the Orioles went on to win the World Series.
In researching these MVP-season cards, I came across plenty of MVPs swinging at the plate. This card is special, though, not just because of the inset photo that provides such wonderful 1983 balance (orange jersey-white jersey!) but also the enthusiasm on young Cal's face as he directs his hit. Great card.
14. 1988 - Jose Canseco
For Jose Canseco, 1988 was a great season because: Was first player to hit 40 home runs (42) and steal 40 bases (40), becoming MLB's first 40-40 man. Drove in 124 runs and batted .307 as the A's reached the World Series for the first time since 1974.
By this point, collectors were being flooded with several card versions of every player. It was difficult to separate them all and the weight of pulling THE card of the player having an MVP season was diminished. But some cards still set themselves apart. I think this card sums up Canseco's season well, as well as what he thought of himself.
15. 1993 - Frank Thomas
For Frank Thomas, 1993 was a great season because: Became the first White Sox player to hit 40 home runs in a season (41) and drove in 128 runs, batting .317 as the White Sox advanced to the playoffs for the first time in AGES.
Cards showing players holding multiple bats are automatically special. Those bats look like black toothpicks next to Thomas.
16. 1995 - Barry Larkin
For Barry Larkin, 1995 was a great season because: Hit .319 with a .394 OBP and .886 OPS for the playoff-bound Reds.
Even if you think Dante Bichette should have won the 1995 NL MVP award, you've got to admit this is a fascinating close-up view of home plate in action. Barry Larkin seems to be intent on bunting a teammate over while the catcher is trying to keep the runner from advancing. Good stuff and an instant favorite of mine from the '95 set.
17. 2001 - Ichiro Suzuki
For Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 was a great season because: Single-handedly eliminated the stereotype that Japanese players could not stand up to the rigors of an everyday MLB schedule when he set a rookie record with 242 hits and batted .350. Also won Rookie of the Year honors as the Mariners won a record-tying 116 games.
This is another card that holds power separate from the photo on the card because of Ichiro's season but also because it's a rookie card. I appreciate Topps showing Ichiro in the outfield though as all of his most stunning moments -- for me -- occurred when he was in the field.
18. 2002 - Barry Bonds
For Barry Bonds, 2002 was a great year because: Hit 46 home runs and drove in 130, which weren't even close to his 2001 numbers, partly because he was walked an incredible 198 times. But the Giants made the World Series so that's something.
In looking through all the MVP-season cards, it was a narrow judgment call with many of them. Believe me, as someone who never liked Barry Bonds, I'd much rather have the '76 Joe Morgan or '78 Dave Parker here -- somebody from my childhood -- but fair is fair. The look on Bonds' face is a good representation of this period. No one could stop him.
19. 2005 - Alex Rodriguez
For Alex Rodriguez, 2005 was a great season because: Hit 48 home runs and drove in 130 in his second season with the Yankees. Yankees fans will point out he hit .133 in the team's division series lost to the Angels.
Not exactly choosing well-loved players here, but I just love fielding shots where players are bracing for action and to have two on one card, well that's not something you see everyday.
20. 2013 - Miguel Cabrera
For Miguel Cabrera, 2013 was a great year because: Hit a career-high .348 and blasted 44 home runs for the second straight year. Drove in 137 runs.
Topps had a bit of an advantage as Miggy won the Triple Crown in 2012 and the MVP award so a notable photo was in order. You could tell Topps was pretty proud of it as it advertised the Cabrera card going into Series 2. It's definitely pretty awesome and a proper Getty Images era card.
21. 2017 - Jose Altuve
For Jose Altuve, 2017 was a great year because: Batted .346, including an insane .485 in July, and his fourth straight 200-hit season as the Astros won 101 games and then won the World Series (using some sneaky camera work along the way, I must add in light of today's MLB hammering).
I've mentioned more than once that there aren't enough cards showing players on the base paths. "Helmet flying off" is always the best way to get my baseball-card viewing attention.
So those are the 21 best of the MVP-year cards.
Like I mentioned, I'd have no issues with throwing several other cards into this list. For reasons that seemed like splitting hairs, I left out cards like the 1967 Carl Yastrzemski, the 1970 Johnny Bench, the 1959 Ernie Banks, the 1997 Larry Walker and even the 2019 Mike Trout.
There were too many impressive cards to consider. There's just a power about those MVP-year cards that other cards don't have. And I've felt that way ever since I saw this card: