We're just three months shy of the 40th anniversary of the advent of free agency in major league baseball. No matter what you may think of that development and the consequences over the following decades, you cannot deny Marvin Miller's impact and how he brought the basic concepts of organized labor to MLB players.
Today, on Labor Day, I'd like to go back to that time of early free agency, specifically the first real group of free agents.
Free agency began in December 1975 when arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, who had requested to be free agents. From that point, players were allowed to seek out better contracts from other teams.
The offseason of 1976 featured the first group of genuine free agents. And 25 of those players signed new deals with other clubs. It was a brand new world. Players were paid record salaries. Teams who had little hope to contend, like the Angels, Padres, White Sox and Rangers, suddenly looked like contenders. And, in some office in New York City, some artist (or artists) had just gotten buried in work.
The 1977 Topps set features more airbrushed caps and helmets than possibly any other set. And the first class of free agents is a big reason for that.
I'm not sure what Topps' art department was like in the late '70s (I don't know what it's like now). Did Topps hire extra artists to handle the new crop of free agents? Or was it just one guy frantically trying to touch up 20 pictures, plus all the pictures of the new members of the expansion Blue Jays and Mariners, plus those of players involved in the usual offseason trades?
Whoever he/they was/were, they had a lot more to do than they did the previous year.
So let's take a look at that first free agent class and the card that followed each of their signings in the 1977 set.
Of the 25 players who signed that offseason, Topps made cards of 19 of them. The players they skipped were mostly minor league guys like Tim Nordbrook and Billy Smith. And, to Topps' credit, it featured 17 of those 19 with their new team -- in the only way it knew how, with airbrushing.
I'll get to the two players that Topps didn't feature with their new team, but first the other 17:
1. Bill Campbell, from Twins to Red Sox, signed Nov. 6, 1976
The first of the first free agents to sign, this isn't a bad airbrushing job, if you don't look too closely. If you do, you notice that Campbell is obviously wearing his Twins jersey in the shot.
2. Don Baylor, from A's to Angels, signed Nov. 16, 1976
Baylor was the first of seven players to ditch the A's during that first free agency offseason. You can see the "A" on Baylor's cap is crooked and the halo doesn't go all the way around the letter.
3. Joe Rudi, from A's to Angels, signed Nov. 17, 1976
Rudi followed Baylor to the A's the very next day. As an 11-year-old when I pulled this card, I could tell something wasn't right. Rudi is posing in Oakland's stadium.
4. Gary Matthews, from Giants to Braves, Nov. 17, 1976
The artist had to be relieved to find this photo of Matthews with a helmet on his head. Helmets have to be easier to airbrush than caps.
5. Dave Cash, from Phillies to Expos, Nov. 17, 1976
The cap might actually be that high, but there is no way the brim is electric blue. What I'm wondering is if the artist did anything with Cash's jersey, which could very well be the Phillies' road baby blues that they wore then.
6. Bert Campaneris, from A's to Rangers, Nov. 17, 1976
Oh, my, look at the size of that "T".
7. Don Gullett, from Reds to Yankees, Nov. 18, 1976
This is one of the first cards in the set and a good indication of what was to come with this set. The "N.Y." is much too small and Gullett looks positively broken up about it.
8. Wayne Garland, from Orioles to Indians, Nov. 19, 1976
Topps had the right idea with this card ... sort of. Take off the cap. Less work all around. Of course, those guys in the Orioles uniforms in the background kind of give it away.
9. Sal Bando, from A's to Brewers, Nov. 19, 1976
The starting third baseman for the A's World Series championship teams deserved a better fate than this. I don't think that color has appeared on a cap ever ... in any league. Little League included.
10. Doyle Alexander, from Yankees to Rangers, Nov. 23, 1976
One of the classics of the 1977 set. This was a daring move by the artist, finding a full-body shot of Alexander and airbrushing the ever-loving thing. Not the worst thing I've seen either.
11. Steve Stone, from Cubs to White Sox, Nov. 24, 1976
How could painting three letters "S, O, X" be so difficult? Also, blacking out the Cubs jersey gives the impression that Stone is wearing a monk's robe.
12. Bob Grich, from Orioles to Angels, Nov. 24, 1976
The only All-Star starter from 1976 in the free agent class, Grich gets the hat-less treatment, just like Garland, who also was a former Oriole.
13. Eric Soderholm, from Twins to White Sox, Nov. 26, 1976
The second full-body airbrush photo. I had no idea there was anything wrong with this photo as an 11-year-old. But now, Soderholm looks like a super hero sprung off a comic book page. Surprisingly, his helmet looks perfect.
14. Reggie Jackson, from Orioles to Yankees, Nov. 29, 1976
The most famous free-agent signing from that first class, and the most famous of all the free agent cards. Jackson can be found on a 1977 Topps proof card as an Oriole -- if you're rich enough -- but everyone else suffers with this aribrushed treatment. Jackson is wearing the smoothest helmet of all-time.
15. Gene Tenace, from A's to Padres, Dec. 14, 1976
I don't think it's possible to make the Padres caps from this era look realistic. They barely looked real when players were actually wearing them.
16. Rollie Fingers, from A's to Padres, Dec. 14, 1976
Fingers and Tenace signed with the same team on the same day. Then they consoled each other when they saw what their cards looked like the following spring.
17. Willie McCovey, from A's to Giants, Jan. 6, 1977
This is the latest of the free-agent signings recognized by Topps. The airbrushing job is obvious but not awful. I'll bet Topps debated simply using a photo from 1973 since he was on the Giants then.
So that's the 17 from the free agent class that Topps placed with their new teams.
The two players who signed with new teams and were in the '77 set, but not featured with their new teams are Tito Fuentes and Rich Hebner.
Fuentes signed much too late for Topps to recognize the change. He signed with the Tigers on Feb. 23, 1977, so he is in the '77 Topps set as a San Diego Padre.
Hebner's case is much more mystifying.
Hebner signed a free agent deal on Dec. 15, 1976, moving from the Pirates to the Phillies. Yet, Hebner shows up as a Pirate in the 1977 Topps set, even while Willie McCovey, who signed 21 days after Hebner, appears with his new team.
Fortunately, for this particular case, we have O-Pee-Chee.
I suppose the Topps art department can be forgiven for missing one of the free agents. That was a lot of extra work in the fall of 1976.
I hope they at least had a decent medical plan.