Sunday, June 23, 2013

Into the Sunset, Pt. 19: Johnny Bench

In terms of pure photo quality, I've often wondered who had the all-time best baseball cards.

There are over 600 different pieces in my Vladimir Guerrero collection. Still, a decent percentage of those cards are fairly bland, not really standing out in any way.

I've started to discover more and more Mike Schmidt pieces in recent months. Shockingly, only a small handful are what I'd deem "quality" pieces of cardboard. For whatever reason, card companies didn't seem to put a lot of effort into producing cards of Mr. Schmidt.

I'd put guys like Carlton Fisk and Reggie Jackson on the other end of the spectrum. They were lucky to receive a staggering percentage of jaw-dropping cardboard over the years.

In my mind, though, the overall "king" of that department is Mr. Johnny Bench. I think his '76 Topps issue is a perfect example of that.

Although Bench had quite a few awesome cards released during his career, this one has to take the cake.

All that dirt swirling around his feet gives it a very "Old West" type of feel, one that is very appropriate with Bench's "gunslinger" type of play behind the plate. It's easily my favorite card from the '76 checklist.

Heck, it's one of the better cards from the 1970's, period.

Bench even managed to turn otherwise uninspiring cards into surefire gold.

Although his better years were behind him by the time his "sunset" issues rolled around, his knack for great cardboard was still as good as ever.

This very same type of mugshot has been repeated over and over again throughout the history of the hobby. Still, there's just something about him that makes this '83 Donruss piece stand out.

To clear things up, I don't consider his combo 1984 Donruss issue (with fellow retiree Carl Yastrzemski) as an official "sunset" card. As a result, this is the Donruss send-off to Mr. Bench in my collection.

For any other player, it might've seemed like an underwhelming final tribute.

But not Johnny Bench.

I just recently completed my "sunset" collection of Mr. Bench.

A recent trip to the flea market allowed me to capture his long-lost '83 Topps card for my binders.

One peculiar thing I've noticed about Bench's later issues are the position designations on the fronts. Like most longtime catchers, Bench was forced to find a new position as he aged.

In fact, he only caught five games during his "sunset" season of '83. His aforementioned Donruss issue lists him as a first baseman, a common landing spot for former catchers.

However, Bench was appropriately noted as a third baseman on his 1983 Topps issue. He'd play more games there (42) than any other position that year.

That being said, it doesn't make the "Johnny Bench -- 3rd Base" designation any more familiar.

No matter how you slice it, it's just plain odd.

Still, I've always felt that Fleer granted Mr. Bench the greatest cardboard send-off.

For one thing, they were the only company to give him a solo card in 1984, one that features his complete career stats on the back. That's always a plus when it comes to "sunsets".

And, of course, this is a coveted "interview" shot, complete with an awesome throwback ESPN logo in the bottom-right. To me, 1984 was Fleer's greatest effort. This is, without a doubt, one of my favorite pieces from their checklist that year.

How often do you see "interviews" and "sunsets" rolled into one?

It's a rare feat.

Then again, the hobby hasn't quite seen many people like Johnny Bench enter its reign. I don't think we've seen anyone like him since.

The man was a cardboard god, plain and simple.


Stealing Home said...

God of Cardboard, indeed.

beefman said...

Nick, I absolutely love the 'Into the Sunset' theme you have in your blog! Needless to say, it's always been a goal of mine to get as many 'sunset' cards of any players that I can get.
These days, though, with the accessibility of places like Baseball Reference, the 'value' of having career stats on the back of a card is somewhat devalued, but to be able to hold it in your hand and read it anytime, anywhere, is just more convenient, anyway.

Great post!

Nick J

The Junior Junkie said...

I love all the early-80's cards featuring microphones sporting the old ESPN logo. There are a bunch of them out there....