I don't know if a concept is more misunderstood -- or just plain disregarded -- than "context."
Context plays an important part in my job. It's where "news judgment" comes into play. Why is a damaged car pulled over on the side of the road at 2 in the afternoon no big deal, but a damaged car of a politician pulled over on the side of the road at 2 in the morning a big deal? Because of context.
But I see on a daily basis people failing to grasp this concept. Many of the complaints I receive about my newspaper's sports coverage involve context. I just got into a battle about it last week as some parent failed to understand why his kid's high school swim team that competes before a handful of parents isn't getting as much coverage as the local college hockey team that draws 2,000 people every game.
Context. Learn it. Know it.
Context matters in this countdown, too.
When I determined which cards made the countdown, I didn't just look at the photo. The photo is a key element of the card, but it's hardly the whole story. To truly make a card "great," I needed to go deeper and consider the entire card. What is the story behind that card? What is the story behind how the photo was taken? What was the story behind the player featured at that particular time? What were the trends going on in baseball and in baseball cards at the time? These are all important considerations because context helps one fully assess the meaning of anything -- in this case a card.
I've been told I have good news judgment, a good appreciation of context. I don't know if that was learned or I'm just one of those people who "have it." I'd like to think everyone can learn it ... and learn it before they shoot off pissy emails.
Anyway, it's time to have fun. Time to put on some corduroy pants, gobble down so many Pop Rocks that your saliva bubbles purple and listen to the music.
It's the greatest cards of the '70s, numbers 60-51:
Seattle Pilots, 1970 Topps, #713
It's easy to discount this card when you're talking about the 1970s. The Seattle Pilots didn't exist in the '70s.
But I just can't leave this card off the list.
It is the only team card of the Seattle Pilots, a one-year show immortalized by a watershed, tell-all book that gave us phrases like "pound some Budweiser."
The photo for this card was likely taken during spring training in 1969. None of the players on this card are particularly famous, except for their inclusion in "Ball Four," by then-Pilots pitcher Jim Bouton (who is not in this team shot, by the way). But it captures each player on the cusp of one of the most famous seasons ever by a last-place team.
Here is the photo used for the card with a key so you can pick out Gus Gil, Gene Brabender and Steve Hovley. The card is well-worth owning when you realize that the shot includes Frank Crosetti and Sal Maglie in Seattle Pilots uniforms.
Another fun element of the card is the back:
Those are the Seattle Pilots' leaders for all of eternity. Congratulations, Gary "Ding Dong" Bell, your one shutout will always be a Pilots record, shared with four others.
Juan Marichal, 1974 Topps, #330
Here is another holdover from the 1960s, honored on the final Topps card of his career with one of the most fitting photographs of all-time.
Juan Marichal was known for his high-kicking wind-up. Yet, with the exception of Marichal's 1972 "In Action" card, Topps failed to show that crowd-pleasing characteristic throughout his career.
This card is particularly enjoyable because the tight crop allows Marichal's wind-up to fill the entire frame. And we can still see the ball!
Marichal was no longer a Giant when this card was issued. In fact there is a Traded card in the set announcing his departure to the Red Sox. But at least Topps squeezed in the most appropriate card of Marichal's career before it was too late.
Rich Allen, 1971 Topps, #650
It wasn't easy keeping track of Dick Allen during the dawn of the 1970s.
On three successive offseasons, Allen found himself with a new team:
Oct. 7, 1969: Traded by the Phillies with Jerry Johnson and Cookie Rojas to the Cardinals for Byron Browne, Curt Flood, Joe Hoerner and Tim McCarver
Oct. 5, 1970: Traded by the Cardinals to the Dodgers for Ted Sizemore and Bob Stinson
Dec. 2, 1971: Traded by the Dodgers to the White Sox for Steve Huntz and Tommy John
During this period, Topps mostly threw up its hands and produced a card of Allen with an old photo and hoped no one noticed.
But during one magical year, we had an actual photo of Allen in an actual uniform with the team he was actually on currently. And that actually happened in 1971.
This high-numbered card is so pleasant because Allen looks so pleasant in it. It's a balmy day in L.A. as Allen's short sleeves will attest and you can see the beauty of Dodger Stadium in the background. Allen has taken a "on-deck" pose -- always a wise choice -- and is in mid-swing. And, of course, the batting helmet just seals the card in the countdown.
But it wouldn't be another example of 1971 oddness without the photographer's knee visible in the picture. The sacrifices you make in the early '70s for getting Dick Allen in the right uniform.
George Brett, 1975 Topps, #228
I will be the first to tell you that rookie cards are overrated. This might be exhibit A.
I'm sure many expected this card to be ranked higher in the countdown, based on the fact that it is the rookie card of Hall of Fame player. This card is not cheap and there's a good reason for that.
But in terms of appeal, it's not that great. It's a simple batting pose. Brett, probably because he's a rookie, doesn't look his usual jovial, manic self. Although the spring training shot and the Royals' baby blue uniforms are kind of fun, I don't see anything special about this card, other than it being Brett's rookie.
That's enough to get it to No. 57.
You'll notice that this card features a faded stripe through the center. I remember ordering this card through a mail-order catalog back when I was a teenager and being a bit disappointed to see that. But I think I would have upgraded the card by now if there was anything else that interested me about it.
To some collectors "Hall of Fame rookie" is the context. But not to me.
Chris Speier, 1973 Topps, #273
I've cleaned house on 1973 Topps a couple of different times, only deciding recently that I wanted to complete the set.
Before that, I'd accumulate some and then trade them off, collect a few more and then trade those off. But during that process, I always held on to this Chris Speier card.
The perspective on the play at the plate cannot be beat. You see it all here. Not only do you get a close-up shot of Speier sliding into the plate, but you see the catcher -- probably the Phillies' John Bateman -- either trying to or having just applied the tag. You see the on-deck batter in the foreground. You see the third base coach and Phillies third baseman Don Money. You see the left fielder (Greg Luzinski?) in the distance (sure would be fun if he made the throw, but I can't determine that). And you see the entire Phillies bullpen watching the play.
What a play. What a card.
Bob Didier, 1973 Topps, #574
This isn't the only card on the countdown filled with dust, but it may be the dustiest.
It's another play at the plate, except really zoomed-in this time. You can't even see the catcher's legs (but the photographer seems to have provided a Mets catcher's legs as replacement in the background).
It captures a great moment, that second of uncertainty when only the umpire knows whether the runner -- the Mets' Cleon Jones -- is safe or out. I'm sure that everyone eventually found out, even if we still aren't sure today what the result is.
Dave Lopes, 1976 Topps, #660
I have known this Dave Lopes card since I was a little kid, and I watched many games of Lopes playing as a Dodger, so the retro-amusement for this item is a bit lost on me.
I know that you only saw mustaches like this in the 1970s and '80s. It is a relic of its time. Combine that with the intensity that Lopes always showed, his angry eyebrows and this might be the most irritated I have ever seen anyone on a baseball card.
It's entirely possible that Lopes is merely squinting in the Florida sun. But that's not what the picture says. That's not what the mustache says.
P.S.: This is the last card in the set for what it's worth.
Tommie Agee, 1973 Topps, #420
This card is in the countdown because of its sheer audacity.
Topps has airbrushed plenty of players into new uniforms during its time. But there are few examples in which it has also airbrushed the player's teammates into that same uniform.
That's what is happening here. Tommie Agee, making the catch at left, was traded from the Mets to the Astros on Nov. 27, 1972. That means Topps had no means of getting a photo of Agee in an Astros uniform for the 1973 set. But, instead of finding a tight shot of Agee to airbrush, it just went ahead and airbrushed all three Mets players into Astros uniforms!
Bud Harrelson (center), who never played for the Astros in his 13-year career, was now an Astro! Rusty Staub, who hadn't played for the Astros since 1968 and wasn't even speaking to Topps at this point (he didn't have a contract with the company in the early '70s) is also now an Astro!
The audacity, the sheer balls, of doing that and then committing it to cardboard for collectors is almost mind-blowing to me to this day.
Rich Gossage, 1978 Topps, #70
Rich "Goose" Gossage pitched for the Pirates in 1977. He was there for just one year. He then signed as a free agent with the Yankees on Nov. 22, 1977, in a move that would change everything for both the player and the Yankees as he'd become a key figure in New York's pennant pursuits in 1978, 1980 and 1981.
Topps was still trying to adjust to all of the free agent moves and after painting two players -- Doyle Alexander and Eric Soderholm -- from head-to-toe into their new uniforms in the 1977 set, it decided to do the same for Gossage.
The card is shocking, especially for its time. There is no reason that the Yankees would ever show up for a game in Candlestick Park in San Francisco during the 1970s unless it was the World Series. The pinstripes are faded and the hat is SQUARE, because, of course, the Pirates were wearing pillbox caps at the time.
It's not the greatest airbrushing, although it's the best that could be done at the time. It is definitely bold and audacious. And that's why it's on the countdown.
Bert Blyleven, 1975 Topps, #30
For those of you who are into those things -- and I am one of those people -- this is one of the first examples of a player blowing a gum bubble on a baseball card.
That's one of the reasons this card is ranked so highly.
But I also enjoy it for the contrast. Blyleven is obviously enjoying himself. He's blowing a bubble. Yet he appears to be sitting in the most unfun place in the world. The dugout looks like a dungeon, with hooks. Where on earth is this baseball game from hell?
Throw a cheery, two-tone, red and blue border on the thing and every kind of feeling runs through me when I look at this card.
No, this isn't the largest bubble in the world. Cards today are filled with players blowing bubbles.
But like I said at the beginning, you have to consider more than that.
Consider the time, the background, the design, the moment.
It's what makes you even think about ever putting on corduroy pants again.
Oops, sorry, that's "nostalgia."