Friday, August 29, 2014

Award years

Looking at it from an objective perspective, it's funny that rookie cards have always been some of the most coveted amongst collectors.

Only a very small fraction of players are like Mike Trout or Albert Pujols, dominating from day one in the big leagues. Most rookies, and a good deal of guys we consider legends today, struggled in their first taste of the majors.

Take Mike Schmidt, for instance. His rookie is one of the most sought-after cards in history. Interesting, considering the guy hit a whopping .196 during his first full big league season in 1973, the year that rookie card hit the shelves.

While I love final tribute/sunset cards, those can also be misleading. Lots of once-great players had miserable seasons during their waning years. Dale Murphy, anyone?

I guess that's part of why I decided to start an "award show" mini-collection. It features some of baseball's biggest stars at the top of their game, holding that coveted hardware. That's not the .196 Mike Schmidt you see there. That's the home run-clubbing, team-leading, perennial All-Star Mike Schmidt of the '80s.

Recently, however, I've begun to realize that my "award show" theme is merely an extension of something else I've been doing for a long time.

Back in the vintage era, I would think that some of each year's biggest chase cards were (and probably still are) the reigning award winners from each league.

I know I've always placed a special emphasis on what I unoriginally call "award year" issues. I guess you could chase Gold Glovers and Silver Sluggers and all those, but I pretty much limit my quests to MVPs and Cy Young winners.

After all, awards are a fascinating part of baseball's long history.

Though he has one of the best baseball names ever, I doubt the name Zoilo Versalles rings much of a bell. Makes sense, considering the guy was a career .242 hitter.

However, the guy cemented his place in history as a "one-year wonder" with his 1965 AL MVP campaign with the Twins. His 126 runs, 45 doubles, and 12 triples all led the Junior Circuit.

This, then, presents an interesting question as far as my "award year" theme goes.

Should his official "award year" card be from 1965, the season he actually won the award? Or should it be from the following year, the one that has his complete MVP stats on the back?

To me, it's an either/or kind of thing...

...but I personally give a slight edge to the card from the year after.

I'm a stat nut, so I want to see those jaw-dropping numbers on the back. Plus, as is the case with Mr. Versailles here, the following year's card often mentions the featured player's MVP award in the little blurb.

On top of that, there's the fact that Versalles received card #400 in the '66 checklist, one of the iconic double-zero "hero numbers" to commemorate his fine season from the year prior. It's a far cry from the rather bench-like #157 he received in 1965 Topps.

The possibilities never end with this "award year" topic.

The back of Denny McLain's 1969 Topps card is definitely one of my personal favorites.

As you might already know, McLain was (and will probably forever be) the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, doing so in 1968. (I have yet to find a copy of his '68 Topps issue, sadly.)

Not surprisingly, he took home both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards that year. It must've been quite a shock to see that "31" under the W column on the back of this card in 1969.

Why Topps didn't grant him a "00" hero number, however, I'll never know.

You'd think 31 wins would qualify a guy for that sort of thing.

Although I never specifically set out to do so, I have managed to complete a few "award year" vintage sets.

The 1973 checklist features one of the better quartets you'll ever find along those lines. Gaylord Perry (AL) and Steve Carlton (NL) took home Cy Youngs in '72. Dick Allen (AL) and Johnny Bench (NL) won their respective league's MVP awards that year.

All four of these are stellar pieces of cardboard, and perhaps the best cards any of these guys received during their long and hallowed careers.

The Carlton in particular is one of my favorites, a perfect way to commemorate one of the more dominating seasons in baseball history. He went 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA and 310 strikeouts in 1972.

One wonders if he might've eclipsed the 30-win plateau if he hadn't pitched for the last-place Phillies.

I guess I could expand this thing further and include Relief Pitcher of the Year winners in the future.

Although it's a rare feat, relievers have taken home Cy Young and/or MVP trophies in the past. The last reliever to win a Cy Young was Eric Gagne in 2004. Hard to believe that was only ten years ago.

The last relief pitcher to take home both pieces of hardware was Dennis Eckersley in 1992. His 51 saves and sparkling 1.91 ERA were enough to win him both honors that year.

I still don't know how I feel about relievers winning Cy Youngs and sometimes even MVPs, but it's safe to say Topps sufficiently congratulated "Eck" with this beauty the following year.

These can both lay claim to being "award year" issues.

That's because Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell split NL MVP honors in 1979, the only time co-MVPs have ever been named.

A tie? In baseball? Could you imagine what would happen if there was a tie for MVP nowadays?

We'd be in a frenzy.

These are also neat little quirks from the "award year" category.

Fred Lynn (1975) and Ichiro (2001) are the only two players to win MVPs in their rookie season. One could argue that Lynn is the only true rookie MVP winner, as Ichiro had already enjoyed a legendary career in Japan prior to coming to the States.

Not surprisingly, both also captured AL Rookie of the Year honors as well.

Kind of seems like an afterthought when a guy wins an MVP, though.

I still chase "award year" cards.

That said, they're kind of watered down now, like everything else. Topps has taken to printing separate cards commemorating Cy Youngs, MVPs, etc. in their Flagship sets recently.

Clayton Kershaw, for instance, has a standard card and this special Cy Young issue in 2014 Topps. That leads to a bit of confusion as what his official "award year" card should be.

I guess I could count both, but that kind of takes away from the allure of it all, doesn't it? Or is it a "more the merrier" type of deal? I don't know.

Either way, going after these "award year" cards are a lot less of a headache than chasing rookies.

It's a lot more fun, too.


Mark Hoyle said...

The 73's look good together as a group. Allen should be in the Hall

Matthew Scott said...

Great post!

John Miller said...

excellent post. i like the year after as the awards cards, so you can see the stats, and also more modern day than vintage, most pics are from the previous year anyways.