Friday, May 3, 2013

1981 Topps: Part IV



Oddball(s) of the Set
Rick Sutcliffe had a beautiful pitching motion. Some kids enjoyed imitating batting stances. I enjoyed mimicking pitchers' deliveries. Fernando looking to the sky mid-motion. Palmer extending each limb away from the other gracefully. Garber twisting his body back toward second base before whipping his arm toward the plate. Quisenberry slinging the ball homeward with his submarine motion. Hooton literally bending over backward to deliver a knuckle-curve. And Sutcliffe wrapping the ball behind his back as he pushes off on his back leg to bring his momentum forward. But this card (#191) somehow makes Sutcliffe look as though he'd just recovered the use of his body after a near-fatal accident had left him paralyzed for months, and then learned to throw a baseball for the first time from an 80-year-old immigrant grandmother who'd never seen a game in her life. Seriously, Topps? You didn't have a better shot than this?

But for pure pre-teen WTF? value, you can't beat this Ellis Valentine card (#445). Of course, as an adult one can quickly surmise that Valentine had probably suffered a severe facial injury after being hit by a pitch, requiring this extra bit of protection. That, in fact, is exactly what had happened. But to an 11-year-old, such conclusions don't readily pop to mind. Instead, one was left to wonder whether Valentine also played football half of the time (hence, half of a football helmet). Did he know it was broken in half? Someone should have told him before they took the picture. That wasn't very nice.

Most Aesthetically Pleasing
Other candidates include Mike Norris (#55), which you saw earlier, and Rich Gossage (#460), which you'll see below. The Gossage is particularly awesome, but I went with a Yankees pitcher for the best-looking card in the 1980 set, plus the fact that the Bronx Bombers were framed in pink in 1981 counts against that card's total goodness. So instead I'll go with Willie Stargell (#380), the only man to hit a ball completely out of Dodger Stadium twice (Piazza and McGwire each managed it once).

There are many things that make this a great card. One of my favorite touches in this set is the way Topps went out of their way to make the Pirates caps resemble the squared-off pill-box caps they wore at the time. The black and yellow color combo is also one of the better matches with a team's actual colors. Even his name seems to fit perfectly in the space provided at the bottom. And look at that fashion sense! Pops is sporting the 80s-tastic all-yellow stretchy double-knit pullover uni with black undershirt, yellow wrist bands, and piping down the pants legs pulled high to show those stirrups! Wow! As for the picture, Pops might very well have hit one out here, and he's captured at a perfect moment, just releasing the bat behind him and beginning his stride around the bases as he tracks the flight of the ball. Also watching and hoping in the background in the Pirates dugout appears to be longtime Bucks skipper Chuck Tanner (and if it isn't, it's pretty easy to imagine that it is). I wish they would have cropped the photo a little higher in the frame, so the tip of his foot hadn't been covered by the cap, but it's a minor complaint about a fabulous card. (And we get to see that foot tip in next year's Stargell "In Action" card, thanks to a bit of cheap Topps recycling.)

Favorite Non-Dodgers Card
I mean, this is what it's all about, right? It's the reason they play the game (or at least the reason we care). I'll say it again: I don't understand why a card like this would ever be excluded from a set. The choice of Tug McGraw leaping with childlike joy is perfect. And the crown where the cap would normally be is sweet! I don't have any personal attachment to the Phillies' victory, but I can appreciate what a card like this would mean to its team's fans. Come October, I would already be looking forward to the image of Garvey, Howe and Yeager, with their arms flailing wildly with the thrill of victory, gracing a 1982 card. Topps wouldn't let me down... would they?

Favorite Card(s)
It was all about Fernandomania, so there's really no contest for favorite card(s). The solo card upgrade (#850) in the Traded set is awesome. Don't care what anybody says, I love these posed spring training shots. The promise of the new season just around the corner, and the prophetic pennant waving in the warm Florida breeze in the background. Sweet. But that card came later. During the season, it was the Dodgers Future Stars card (#302) that was delivering on its promise immediately. Not only did you have El Toro, but there's another of my all-time favorites, Mike Scioscia, right next to him. You'll get my "how did the Dodgers let him become manager of the Angels!?" rant in its full glory at some point, no doubt.

But, believe it or not, it's the presence of Jack Perconte that sends this card over the edge into the realm of the sublime for me. Jack Perconte? Really? Davey Lopes was still the Dodgers' second baseman. Even Steve Sax played more games (31) in 1981 than Jack Perconte (8) that season. Sax would win a Rookie of the Year Award and make five All-Star teams. Perconte's big-league career would be done by 1986, after really only getting a brief shot at playing every day with the lowly Seattle Mariners. Wouldn't Sax's presence instead have sent this card off the charts? Sure. But I love that Jack Perconte is here because he reminds me that I "won" my first real baseball debate with my Grandfather. He was sure Perconte would be the Dodgers next second baseman. I thought it would be Sax. Probably about the only thing I had behind my 11-year-old "logic" was that Steve Sax, with its alliteration and two quick syllables (a la, Pete Rose), was just a better baseball name. But this card still speaks to me, and it says "You know more about baseball than your Grandpa." I like that.

One Final Thought
It's a shame that Bill "Spaceman" Lee isn't sporting his hiding-out-in-the-bunker beard on his 1981 Topps Card (#633). Seems like his facial hair woulda been worth a spot in the Traded set...

The Big Picture

Okay, this is tougher than I thought. Going into this I made it a point to avoid thinking ahead too much, to take a fresh look at things and reach more or less spontaneous conclusions. But I couldn't help mentally comparing the first two sets a bit ahead of time. Before starting, I'd assumed that 1981 would come out ahead, given how it more boldly features the photos. While in the process of writing these posts, however, my thinking shifted in favor of the classy and classic look of the 1980 set. Now it's time to make a decision... and I must admit that to this very moment, I'm not entirely sure which of these two sets I think is best. So I guess I've achieved my goal of some degree of spontaneity. But this isn't making things easy.

The 1980 set, as mentioned, has a more serious and timeless feel to it. I don't like the facsimile autographs. But the design is otherwise less cluttered than I'd pegged it in my memory. It has the better backs of the two, with a nicer color scheme, a cartoon for every card, and a nice layout.

The 1981 set is less serious, more fun, and more colorful. The photography is not quite as consistent as that of the '80 set. But the set includes a post-season recap. And let's not forget the debut of the Traded set, which definitely adds a welcome dimension.

The 1980 set wins the battle of aesthetics for me, which is a bit of a surprise. But it's a narrow victory, and the extras in the 1981 set, along with its bold colorful fun are enough to squeak out a narrow win. So with two sets covered, 1981 Topps currently ranks as the #1 set of my collecting lifetime, just ahead of the 1980 set.

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