By Mark Del Franco
With nearly 40 years passing since the issuance of 1979 Topps Baseball, it’s high time to update the set’s All-Time Record Holders, an eight-card subset depicting Major League Baseball’s seasonal and career leaders across the major statistical categories.
Several records, such as hits and home runs, have fallen since the original issue, while others, such as wins and runs batted in, appear in no danger of being eclipsed. Fortunately, the subset was distributed long before anybody was using statistics such as the Byzantine wins against replacement. Therefore, only the major statistical categories are represented.
One knock is the subset’s grainy black and white treatment. Granted, many of the standard bearers played at a time before color photography. Oddly, Topps gave the same black and white to its Prospects subset in 1979 even though the base set features four-color photography.
Fortunately, we don’t have such constraints today. Giovanni Balistreri, a Somerset, N.J.-based graphic designer and baseball fanatic, has recreated the All-Time Record Holders subset. Having action shots and color photography, the redone cards add a jolt of vitality missing in the original issue.
Season: Ichiro Suzuki
Career: Pete Rose
The seasonal and career marks for hits were set in the modern era. Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s career mark of 4,191 hits in 1985 with a humpback liner of San Diego’s Eric Show in 1985. Rose would eventually finish with 4,256 hits. More recently, Ichiro Suzuki’s 262 hits in 2004 topped George Sisler’s mark of 257 hits, established in 1920.
In addition to gracing our remade card, Rose and Suzuki are linked in another way.
When Ichiro reached 3,000 career hits last year, some baseball fans thought the Japanese outfielder’s 1,278 hits earned in the Nippon Professional Baseball League should count toward Ichiro’s career mark. Therefore, making Ichiro the rightful career leader. A nice thought; but 3,000 career hits is achievement enough.
Season: Hack Wilson
Career: Hank Aaron
Another record that appears safe for years to come. The closest man to Hack Wilson’s 190 RBI in 1931 was Manny Ramirez, who recorded 165 RBI for the Indians in 1999.
And with Alex Rodriguez’s retirement last year, Aaron’s 2,297 RBI seems secure for decades to come. As it was, Rodriguez finished with 2,086, 211 shy of Aaron.
The nearest active player is Albert Pujols with 1,876 career RBI, according to baseball-reference.com at press time.
Season: Barry Bonds
Career: Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds owns the single season and career marks for home runs. Thanks to baseball’s steroid era – of which many finger Bonds as Exhibit A, though he’s never admitted use – the record holders for home runs will continue to garner plenty of debate. Bonds hit a whopping 73 homers in 2001 and two years later, caught Hank Aaron’s 755 on the way to 762 career homers.
Looking back in history, the rightful owner of the career home run mark has always been hotly contested among fans.
Maris’ mark of 61 homeruns in 1961 was derided by a whole generation of fans who disliked Maris simply because he wasn’t Babe Ruth (or even Mickey Mantle).
Interestingly, while Commissioner Ford Frick placed the asterisk to the Maris record, Topps displayed Maris’ mark proudly in 1979. Years later, Aaron was similarly targeted as he approached Ruth’s mark of 714 career homers.
The record holders for home runs will continue to garner plenty of debate in the future.
Season: Rogers Hornsby
Career: Ty Cobb
Let’s face it. It’s really hard to get a hit these days – let alone enough to make a serious charge toward the seasonal and career marks for batting average.
Today’s rigorous travel schedules – coupled with late-inning relief specialists and the fact that today’s athletic players go all out on batted balls – all but ensures that Rogers Hornsby’s seasonal mark of .424 set in 1924 – as well as Ty Cobb’s .366 career mark, will remain out of reach.
Need more evidence? The active career leader for batting average is Miguel Cabrera, with a career mark of .318 according to baseball-reference.com.
Season: Rickey Henderson
Career: Rickey Henderson
Back in 1979, Cardinals outfielder Lou Brock was near the end of his career. A great base thief in his own right, Brock broke Maury Wills’ stolen base record in 1974, with 118 steals. He would retire at the end of the 1979 season.
Notably, when the Topps set was issued, Brock was not the career leader. Rather, Billy Hamilton held the career mark with 937. On the back of the card, Topps treated Hamilton’s mark with an asterisk, noting the mark was compiled under “different scoring than today’s.” Therefore, Topps deemed Brock the career leader. And with 20 steals in 1979, Brock became the undisputed steal leader with 938.
As Brock capped a Hall of Fame career that year, a young Oakland A’s outfielder had just completed his rookie season: Rickey Henderson. Three years later, Henderson swiped 130 bases in 1982. And by May 1991, Henderson would wipe out Brock’s career mark with swipe number 939. He would eventually finish with 1,406 stolen bases.
Season: Jack Chesbro
Career: Cy Young
The old adage has it that records were made to be broken. Fair enough, but they probably weren’t talking about Cy Young’s 511 career wins.
With five man – even six-man rotations – today’s starting pitchers simply don’t get as many opportunities as they did way back when. You can’t argue with the math: A pitcher would have to win 25 games for 20 years – and they’d still end up 11 wins short. Same goes for Chesbro’s 41 wins in 1904. The last major leaguer to win as many as 30 games was Denny McLain in 1968.
Season: Nolan Ryan
Career: Nolan Ryan
He didn’t earn the nickname the Ryan Express for nothing. When he retired in 1993, Nolan Ryan had struck out 5,714 batters.
Interestingly, Walter Johnson’ career strikeout mark of 3,509 would be passed by three pitchers who were big stars in that 1979 Topps set: Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Gaylord Perry.
Earned Run Average (ERA)
Season: Dutch Leonard
Career: Walter Johnson
This last card presents something of a curiosity. Several pitchers before 1900 had earned run averages smaller than Dutch Leonard’s 0.961 in 1914. Yet Topps opted to display the so-called “modern” mark for its 1979 issue. More curious is that Topps appears to go to great lengths (not one but two asterisks) to explain why Walter Johnson is its career ERA leader. Why go to such circumstances? Do what we did.
Refer to baseball-reference.com, which lists Ed Walsh as sporting the lowest career mark of 1.82.
The remade Walsh card is shown here. Sorry Big Train.
Mark Del Franco is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.