This year marks the 45th anniversary of my first knowledge of baseball cards and actually owning some.
That was in 1974 when my mom gave me a few packs of 1974 Topps. To this day, the look of '74 Topps takes me back to a time when baseball cards were new, fascinating, even strange. I knew I liked these baseball players in their colorful uniforms and I knew I liked that every card featured a different team with different colors. I liked the pictures and the presentation, and the '74 set is probably one of the first times that I was able to appreciate photographs -- most of my world had been drawings and paintings up to that point.
That's why I get annoyed when '74 Topps doesn't get its due. Among all of the vintage sets that Topps has released, it is often forgotten. (Have you seen an Archives set with the '74 design? No you have not). But even among the sets that share a decade with 1974 Topps, it's barely appreciated.
I'd put 1974 Topps ahead of '79 Topps in a flash. It also goes ahead of '70 Topps and '77 Topps. Some days, when I can feel the power of everything those brand-new pieces of cardboard meant to me back in '74, I can put it ahead of '76 and '78 Topps, and probably even '73 Topps, if I'm being honest.
There's another reason for my appreciation for '74 other than it being the first cards I ever saw in my own hands.
It's because -- and this cannot be stressed enough -- everything matches.
Yes, this is going back to color, but the fact that the design matches the team being portrayed is very important to me (someone will bring up my appreciation for 1975 Topps right about now and all I can say about that is '75 and also '72 is so invested in the sheer colorfulness of color that it supersedes everything else).
Topps did not use team logos at this time to help draw the connection between the design and the player/team featured. If it wanted to make that connection, it had to go with the colors it chose in the design. Often times, Topps didn't want to make that connection. But that made it all the sweeter when it did.
For example, in '74 Topps:
The Mets cards looked like Mets cards! Orange for the pennants and blue for the frame border, dammit. Is that so hard? Everything in harmony on one little card.
The A's cards looked like A's cards. Green and gold in the field and along the border. Why mess with anything else?
And so it went in '74:
Expos cards looked like Expos cards.
Yankees cards looked like Yankees cards.
Orioles cards looked like Orioles cards.
Brewers cards looked like Brewers cards.
Twins cards looked like Twins cards.
OK, '74 didn't get everything right. The pink could've been red in both of these cases.
Still, when compared with the other Topps sets from the '70s, and even from much of the '80s, the color-coding was almost spot on in 1974. No green and yellow with the Orioles or purple and pink with the Dodgers or brown and orange with the Blue Jays.
This is why '74 Topps means a great deal to me, both the fact that it was ground zero for my baseball card habit, the prelude to my first collecting year in '75; and that it got everything so right.
When people bring up '74 Topps they tend to go with certain standbys:
The rookies, of course.
I SAID THE ROOKIES, OF COURSE.
The traded set.
Willie Mays' final cardboard appearance for his playing career.
The manager cards.
The shared All-Star cards with the puzzle on the back.
I SAID THE AIRBRUSHING.
The Hank Aaron retrospective to start the set.
The "Washington Nat'l Lea." cards. (Sorry, I still haven't pulled the trigger on any of those cards).
And, of course, the pockets of magnificent horizontal cards that could be found distributed through the set.
And those sweet cartoons on the back, don't forget those.
But, for me, the set is about making a great-looking card, a card that matches, in the very same year I held trading cards in my hands for the very first time.
It was enough for me to pick up the habit full-time the following year (I threw those first '74s in the garbage at the end of summer, I guess the impression the set made was a bit delayed). And it was enough to be collecting exactly 45 years later.
Here's to you, '74 Topps.