Colorful design of the times: 1972 Topps Baseball

tsalpha21.jpgHats and jerseys in green and gold coupled with white cleats were one thing. Filling those uniforms with the likes of colorful and talented players such as Reggie Jackson, “Catfish” Hunter and Vida Blue certainly helped, too.

As the 1972 Oakland Athletics started to win and the team grew mustaches (when facial hair in the major leagues had rarely been seen for decades), you could not help but notice them.

So when the A’s battled and beat the much more clean-cut and traditionally attired Big Red Machine from Cincinnati in the World Series, the 1972 season ended, fittingly, on a colorful note.

The season began, however, with a brief strike — the first work stoppage in Major League Baseball history.

And while those dozen or so strike days of the schedule were as dark as the jet-black borders of the 1971 Topps Baseball offering, collectors of 1972 Topps Baseball cards were treated all season long to one of the most attention-grabbing issues ever.

Trumpeting over the curved tops of the “frames” of most of the 787-card set, the largest Topps issue up to that time, are the player’s team names in a multi-color fashion against a vibrant background.

Some compare the look to a comic book style, while others like collector Jami Pfister jokingly wondered what outside “influences” might have been involved in “the two-D lettering effect and the wild, somewhat psychedelic colors.”

Pfister said he loved the offbeat design of the 1972 cards, and he is not alone with that opinion.

“The ’72 set is one of the three or four most popular sets of the ’70s, right up there with ’71, ’75 and ’78. The PSA-graded numbers attest to this,” said Pfister.

Lights, camera, subset!

A handful of cards into the issue, Detroit manager Billy Martin struck a “colorful” pose. You might say the photo is tinted blue, as closer inspection shows the fiery skipper delivering a one-finger salute.

Maybe it was just his prediction on how close the Tigers would come to a pennant in 1972, as they lost the fifth and final game of the American League Championship series to Oakland.

Following the manager’s “prediction” pasteboard, Martin is seen arguing with an umpire as part of a fresh In-Action subset idea from Topps.
Arnold Varona is in step with the In-Action subset, which features several superstars and a few supernovas. At 72 cards, it was one of the biggest subsets of all time.

“Those are some great action shots, and they are some of the toughest cards to obtain in Near-Mint-to-Mint or higher condition due to centering issues,” said the Florida-based hobbyist.

Several collectors pointed to the Hank Aaron In-Action card as the peskiest star to find in top shape from the entire set. As Pfister said, “It is always off-center left-to-right.” Only about 50 PSA 8s and only four PSA 9s of the card picturing Aaron on the base paths were in the hobby at press time, with no 10s.

Stop! in the name of lunch

Collector Derek Irwin of New York and others consistently tag the In-Action shot of Padres catcher Bob Barton as one of the most difficult to track down with solid centering. Yet, the “action” part of this card remains questionable. Barton probably just finished chasing a foul ball in the picture, but with Barton standing with his hands against the backstop screen, he looks like he was waiting for a hot dog and a cold beverage to be passed through the fence.

Collecting the cards since their debut, Irwin has completed three sets of the offering, ranging from rough-condition to a higher-end raw version to the entire run in PSA 8 or better.

Irwin picked up a few of his initial cards from this eye-popping set in a different way.

“A kid I knew had a mom who just had a baby, and to celebrate the birth, the kid tossed around packs of ’72 baseball,” he said.

The hobbyist still has all three of those sets, and he noticed some trends about the vibrantly colored collection.

“There are an inordinate number of Mets cards that are very hard to find in nice shape and well-centered,” he said, listing Ed Kranepool and Tim Foli, as well as the Gil Hodges, Dave Marshall and Jerry Grote among the most difficult to find Mets in 1972.

Joe Maggio has a good explanation for certain cards being a little “off” in 1972.

“It seems that cards located on the right and at the bottom of the uncut sheets are the ones with the centering problems,” said Maggio, who resides in Illinois.

Superstar subsets

The League Leader subset features a dozen cards highlighting some of the 1971 season’s most watched statistical categories. Eight of the 1971 leader cards picture at least one Cooperstown enshrinee and the National League pitching (wins) leader card supplies three Hall of Famers — Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins and Tom Seaver.

Seaver also appears in the Boyhood Photos subset, as do Joe Torre, Willie Stargell and Brooks Robinson. This subset usually showed the athletes in pictures from their Little League days.

Other subsets in 1972 include the 1971 postseason, prestigious awards (Cy Young, MVP, etc.) and from the sixth and final series, cards stamped “Traded.”

The seven Traded players include Carlton, Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson. Carlton had one of the most dominating seasons one could ever hope to see when he led the National League in 1972 in wins (27), strikeouts, ERA, complete games and innings with the lowly Phillies, a team that only won 59 games all year.

Pirate from the Caribbean

Roberto Clemente, who ripped his last hit, No. 3,000, in September 1972, made his final appearance as an active player in this set. Clemente was killed in a plane crash that December while trying to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua. In addition to his regular and In-Action cards, the Puerto Rican-born superstar outfielder is on the set-starter with the 1971 World Champion Pittsburgh squad and the Game 4 photo from that series.

Variation seekers

Variations for the set are minor color or print issues that carry a small premium. But Maggio, who has collected these cards since their debut 35 years ago, said, “The four first-series Green Letter variations are much tougher than people realize. Most of the ones graded by PSA are really mislabeled Yellow Letter versions.”

The 2007 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards lists a Near-Mint 1972 set at $1,600, with Nolan Ryan (No. 595, $50) as the key single.

The Carlton Fisk/Cecil Cooper card is the main rookie at $27.50, with other stars in the $15-$30 range at most. Regular commons start at $1.50, while the high number commons list at $9 each.

“A straight PSA 8 set will run you around $10,000,” said Pfister. And if you are just looking for a few cards from a favorite team, for instance, he said, “Most PSA 8 commons can be had for less the grading fees ($5).”

While some collectors eagerly gravitate toward the 1972 Topps baseball offering, for others the experience is closer to a Superman and kryptonite type of reaction.

Wherever you are in that spectrum, remember the set can add color to a collection on many levels, and on that point, it’s a black-and-white issue.

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