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Halfway between Alpha and Omega

With the news of Ryan Braun yesterday, it occurred to me that Topps has had extraordinarily poor luck in selecting who should lead off their flagship set.

In the last 17 years, Topps has picked Braun twice, Alex Rodriguez four times, and Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire once for the No. 1 card in the set (and don't forget John Lackey, too). These aren't exactly people you want to be your kids' role models -- not that the No. 1 card should reflect the most outstanding citizens on the planet -- or that players should be role models -- this is not the topic I want to discuss in any way -- please don't get indignant on me -- let's move on.

I've already addressed the history of the first card in past Topps flagship sets. I've also addressed the history of the last card in past Topps flagship sets.

And really, who wants to be first or last? We've seen what it takes to be No. 1 and what it can do to a person all too often these last 17 years. And last? Hanging out with the destitute, unfortunate and all those checklists? No thanks.

Like the majority, I am a regular guy. Some (hell, many) would even say "average." I cannot achieve the unattainable and I steer clear of the avoidable. So I try mightily to drive directly down the center, periodically being knocked off course by fits of enthusiasm or incompetence.

So why have I been looking for the Alpha or Omega in Topps card set? I should be looking for the Mu.

Mu is the 12th letter in the 24-letter Greek alphabet, or in other words, the halfway point. Don't ask me anything more than that because, like I said, I'm average.

I'm so average that I'm looking up the most average card in each Topps flagship set, the card at the halfway point. In mathematical terms, I guess that would be the mean. The card at the exact middle of the set.

I like this exercise because unlike the first or the last card, there is no agenda for which card is placed there. Who thinks about the exact middle?

Well, as you'll see, Topps thinks about the middle sometimes.

For this exercise, I selected the card number that appeared after you took the total number of cards in the set and divided by two. If the set had an odd total number of cards, I just rounded up to the next number after dividing by two.

Also, Topps tried to make it difficult by skipping numbers in a lot of sets (early 1950s and then the stupid Mantle crap), but I think I got it right.

The rundown of every card at the middle of each Topps flagship set:

1952: Ron Northey, Cubs, #204
1953: John Rutherford, Dodgers, #137
1954: Harry Perkowski, Reds, #125
1955: Charles White, Braves, #103

1956: Bill Virdon, Cardinals, #170
1957: Kansas City A's team, #204
1958: Casey Wise, Braves, #247
1959: Dean Stone, Red Sox, #286
1960: Ray Semproch, Tigers, #286

1961: Don Blasingame, Giants, #294
1962: Don Wert, Tigers, #299
1963: Chicago White Sox team, #288
1964: Ken Hunt, Senators, #294

1965: Jerry Zimmerman, Twins, #299
1966: Lou Burdette, Angels, #299
1967: Earl Wilson, Tigers, #305
1968: Gene Michael, Yankees, #299
1969: Fred Talbot, Yankees, #332
1970: Curt Flood, Phillies, #360

1971: Rookies, Clyde Mashore/Ernie McAnally, Expos, #376
1972: Ken Forsch, Astros, #394
1973: Rod Carew, Twins, #330

1974: Juan Marichal, Giants, #330
1975: Mike Marshall, Dodgers, #330
1976: Nolan Ryan, Angels, #330
1977: George Hendrick, Indians, #330
1978: Bob Randall, Twins, #363
1979: Craig Skok, Braves, #363
1980: Wayne Gross, A's, #363

1981: Geoff Zahn, Twins, #363
1982: Team Leaders, John Castino/Fernando Arroyo, Twins, #396
1983: Dan Quisenberry All-Star, Royals, #396
1984: Jesse Orosco All-Star, Mets, #396
1985: Gary Green, U.S. Olympic Team, #396
1986: Team Leaders (Dwight Evans), Red Sox, #396
1987: Tim Lollar, Red Sox, #396
1988: Tom Henke All-Star, Blue Jays, #396
1989: Kirk Gibson, All-Star, Dodgers, #396

1990: A. Bartlett Giamatti, #396

1991: Bobby Thigpen All-Star, White Sox, #396
1992: Lee Smith All-Star, Cardinals, #396
1993: Pete Smith, Braves, #413
1994: Checklist 199-396, #396
1995: Randy Myers, Cubs, #330
1996: Checklist 111-220, #220

1997: Sean Berry, Astros, #248
1998: Jason Conti/Mike Stoner, Diamondbacks, #252
1999: Greg Maddux League Leader, Braves, #231
2000: Wade Boggs Magic Moments, Rays, #239

2001: League Leaders Barry Bonds/Jason Giambi, Giants/A's, #395
2002: Mike Piazza United We Stand, Mets, #359
2003: Torii Hunter All-Star, Twins, #360
2004: Joe Crede, White Sox, #369
2005: Bobby Crosby All-Star, A's, #366
2006: Michael Barrett/Greg Maddux, Team Stars, Cubs, #330

2007: Kelly Johnson, Braves, #331
2008: Curtis Granderson, Tigers, #330
2009: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox, #330
2010: Brandon Allen, Diamondbacks, #330
2011: Derek Jeter, Yankees, #330

2012: Matt Kemp, Dodgers, #330
2013: Ryan Raburn, Tigers, #330

And there you are.

A few observations.

1. For the most part, the players at the middle are your garden-variety major league ballplayer. The only time that takes a detour is when Topps shifted to 660 cards in a set. Then, I'm relatively certain, it tried to make sure that the #330 card was something special. That really stands out with cards between 1973-76. When Topps started issuing separate All-Star cards again in the 1980s, it placed those cards at the middle of the set, guaranteeing a star card at the exact middle for those years, too.

2. The Giamatti card, which is featured exactly between the American League and National League All-Stars in 1990, seems like a planned placement at the middle of the set.

3. Over the last few years, Topps has returned to the 660-card format (ignoring stupid SPs and other gimmicky moments, which I did). With two series being issued at separate times, card #330 has become special again, and for the most part, that number features a notable player.

4. Greg Maddux is the only player to appear at the center of the set twice. Pretty average-looking guy. Definitely not an average pitcher.

5. The only teams that have not been featured as the middle card in the set are the Orioles, Mariners, Pirates, Brewers, Rockies, Padres and Marlins. The Phillies have been featured just once and it was with a player that never played for them -- Curt Flood.

6. The team that has been featured the most is the Twins with six cards. The Tigers and Braves have five cards apiece. I think looking at their history, the Tigers, Twins and Braves are about as average as you can get.

Here is the team breakdown:

Twins - 6
Braves - 5
Tigers - 5
Dodgers - 4
Red Sox - 4
A's - 3 1/2
Cubs - 3
White Sox - 3
Yankees - 3
Giants - 2 1/2
Angels - 2
Astros - 2
Cardinals - 2
Diamondbacks -2
Mets - 2
Blue Jays - 1
Expos/Nationals - 1
Indians - 1
Phillies - 1
Rays - 1
Reds - 1
Royals - 1
Senators/Rangers - 1

And that's a lengthy look at all of Topps' Mu's.

It turns out there were a lot more star players at the halfway point than I thought there would be. But that's OK. That helps remind me that greatness can be achieved by average people ... or something like that.

Just be careful if you're going to get obsessed with greatness. Some people can't handle it.


Robert said…
Would Mu for this year actually be 331, since there is no #7 (A lesson I learned not too long Card 331 is actually the 330th card.

If I'm wrong about that, it wouldn't be the first time that I was wrong about something mathematical...
Thanks for another unique and entertaining post. Keep up the good work.
night owl said…
@Robert ~

Hoo boy, you're asking me to explain math?

I just know there are 660 cards in 2013 set (#7 is missing, but set goes to 661). 660 divided by two is 330.

If I screwed up math terminology, well, that's why I'm in sportswriting.
BaseSetCalling said…
for various reasons I have seen several good cards at #333 lately. I think Topps liked giving that # to players they liked, young ones usually.
Zippy Zappy said…
The way I look at it Topps selects players for card #1 by how much fans and collectors wouldn't mind seeing the card/player on it get "ruined" by a rubber band like old vintage number card number 1s.
Hence why you don't see guys like Jim Thome or Ichiro Suzuki as card number 1.

Of course that's probably just me.
steelehere said…
Night Owl, I'm kind of curious if you put any thought into calling in sick from your job and heading up to Toronto to watch the Dodgers play in person?
night owl said…
I thought of it earlier in the year, but it didn't work w/my schedule and the family's. Fortunately, I've got free MLB-TV this week, so just got done watching another Dodger win!
gcrl said…
1978 Topps had 726 cards, so the honor goes to bob randall that year.
CaptKirk42 said…
I was the Mu (Muatorian?) in my the class rankings for my High School. I forget the exact number but it was at least 150something since we had over 300 kids in the class. When I first saw my number I was bummed because it was such a high (or in this case low level) number, but when I noticed I was the exact Middle Man, then I cheered up slightly (until I would hear about some of the people above me that I could have sworn were worse students than I was).
Commishbob said…
They may not have always picked a star to be the 'Man in the Middle' but from the looks of the cards you posted they came through aesthetically. That '74 Marichal is the classic shot of him. It's how I think of him when I hear his name.

And I may not be a fan of the '81 set but Geoff Zahn rocking the logo'd stirrups? Greatness.