Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cardboard appreciation: 1981 Topps Larry Gura

(The "Card of the Week" has briefly returned to the blog, and the latest edition is another attempt by me. I also have provided it here below on this blog in Cardboard Appreciation form, for the 3 people who read this but not baseball-reference. It's the 97th in a series):

The "last hurrah" is a familiar ritual in modern life. The last day of high school. The bachelor party. The retirement party.

It is familiar in card collecting circles, too. The last set of the Topps monopoly era (1980). The last licensed Upper Deck set (2009).

Often, the "last hurrah" immediately follows something called "the golden era."

For me, the "golden era" of All-Star cards was from 1975-81. And the "last hurrah" of All-Star cards was the 1981 Topps set.

In 1975, Topps came up with a brilliant plan to take the card of each player who was an all-star starter the previous year and present his card as if it was a badge of honor. In '75, each All-Star player featured a yellow-and-red border and an angular, white star in the bottom right corner. The presentation set those players apart from other players in the set. Young collectors often considered them the most valuable cards in the set, simply because of the design.

The pattern continued for Topps for the next six years. In 1976, the All-Stars featured a smaller, yellow star. In 1977, All-Stars wore a blue or red banner across the bottom. In 1978, the All-Star players actually featured an all-star badge. The pattern remained through the 1981 set.

But '81 was the last time Topps honored All-Stars in such a manner. After that year, Topps began issuing separate cards of All-Stars, creating a subset for the All-Star team. That meant that there was more than one card of an All-Star in each set. That was Topps' intent. After seeing new competitors Fleer and Donruss issue multiple cards of stars in one set, Topps wanted in on the action.

But for me, this practice diluted the impact of the card of the All-Star player. I viewed the new extra All-Star card as exactly that, an "extra card." Meanwhile, the regular card of that player was just that, a "regular" card. Nothing special.

The best part of the way Topps presented All-Stars between 1975-81 was that you looked forward to certain players being "All-Starred" in the following year's set. It was as if they had made the club. I'm not talking about perennial All-Stars like Pete Rose or Rod Carew. Instead, I looked forward to first-time All-Stars getting that badge of honor.

In the 1977 set, it was Toby Harrah. In 1978, it was Rick Burleson. In '79, Richie Zisk. In '80, Davey Lopes. and for the last hurrah, in 1981, it was Larry Gura.

Except wait ...

Larry Gura did not start for the American League in the 1980 All-Star Game. The starter was Steve Stone. Gura didn't even play in the game!

Receiving a card of Gura with an All-Star designation when I collected the '81 set was a complete surprise. And that's because Topps had done something it had never done before in the previous six years. True, it still determined All-Stars based on who the fans had voted in as the starters the preceding year. But it also added All-Stars of its own choosing regarding the pitching staff. (Starting pitchers were and aren't chosen by fans, but the starter is selected by the manager and that was always reflected in Topps' all-star cards. Start the game and you got an All-Star honor the next year).

Topps selected three pitchers for each side. For the A.L., it selected Gura, Stone, and relief pitcher Rich Gossage. For the N.L., it selected Steve Carlton, Jim Bibby and relief pitcher Bruce Sutter. But J.R. Richard, who had started the 1980 All-Star Game for the N.L., received NO All-Star designation. None. My mind was blown.

So, Topps had already begun to fiddle with how it treated All-Stars in the 1981 set, a year before completely changing the rules and issuing special separate cards of All-Stars.

It took the appearance of the Larry Gura All-Star card for me to know something was up.

(P.S.: I know that Reggie Jackson got robbed of a star in 1975 and Richie Zisk robbed of a shield in 1978).


  1. One of thhree that makes me sort of special right?

  2. Congrats on the recurring B-R articles and sleuth work on Topps own All-Star oddities. As a kid collector, those cards were extra-desirable and I wondered why they didn't honor the whole All-Star roster with special banners. (As a Mariners fan, we only got reserve spots, so I was a little jealous. :-) Good point connecting the emerging competition from Fleer and Donruss.

  3. I have to admit, even as a kid, I felt the 1982 All-Star cards were extras. I didn't udnerstand (and still don't understand) why I have so many cards of the same player.

    It's very interesting you mention about Gura not playing in the '80 midsummer classic.... 'cause just yesterday I discovered the Goose Gossage wasn't voted into the '81 All-Star game & never threw a pitch in the game & never suited up for the game... yet Topps gave him an All-Star card in the '82 set 'cause originally he was selected by the AL manager for the game. In fact, Ron Davis was there in Goose's place AND Davis pitched in the game. Yet, no Ron Davis All-Star card!

  4. garvey got jobbed in '85 and '86