It should come as no surprise that the NL Central is my favorite division in baseball.
This is obviously due to my lifelong Cubs fandom, but I've probably watched the other teams in their division more than any other (besides the White Sox) due to the sheer amount of times they play the Cubs. It's a competitive division with real rivalries. And while it's blasphemous to some to say, I actually consider myself a fan of the other NL Central squads...just not when they're facing the Cubs.
And as immortal as this evening's roster turned out to be, it's hard not to be a fan of the NL Central's Sunset Team, I would think.
1975 Topps #150 Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson (Years Active: 1959-1975) -- 1975 Cardinals, 22 games, 3-10, 5.04 ERA (sunset season)
It's a bit jarring when heroes of one decade wind up closing things out in a completely different era.
When I think of Bob Gibson, I think of him striking out the world and making all those classic '60s Topps designs look even better. I sure don't think of him as someone who made it into the colorful '75 Topps checklist, but that's where you'll find his sunset card. It wasn't a glorious exit for Bob -- his 3-10 record and 5.04 ERA were easily his worst marks since his cupacoffee rookie days in the late '50s.
Like so many other sunset inductees, the otherworldly Bob Gibson was rendered a mere mortal in his final years.
1984 Donruss #189 Fergie Jenkins
Fergie Jenkins (1965-1983) -- 1983 Cubs, 33 games, 6-9, 4.30 ERA
Fergie Jenkins was lucky enough to receive a few true sunset cards (with career stats on the back!), and even luckier was the fact that they came in 1984, perhaps the best all-around year for cardboard in my book.
I'm particularly fond of Fergie's finale from '84 Donruss. Though his sunset numbers don't wow you, I've always liked that he came back to Chicago for the final couple years of his career.
Fergie just never looked right in any other uniform -- he's always a Cub to me.
1986 Fleer #486 Rollie Fingers
Rollie Fingers (1968-1985) -- 1985 Brewers, 47 games, 1-6, 5.04 ERA
Rollie's numbers may have suffered in his sunset season, but that trademark 'stache sure didn't.
1984 Fleer #462 Johnny Bench
Johnny Bench (1967-1983) -- 1983 Reds, 110 games, .255 AVG, 12 HR, 54 RBI
Here's a fine example of another reason I love sunset cards: weird positions!
Johnny Bench is a catcher on this roster because he's Johnny Bench, dammit. Yet, on one of my all-time favorite sunset cards, '84 Fleer listed him at First Base/Third Base. It's actually a fair designation: Bench only caught five of the 110 games he played in his '83 swan song (as opposed to 42 games at third base and 32 at first).
I've tried not to include a ton of Short Term Stops on these sunset rosters, but thanks to dudes like Johnny Bench playing first and third base, that doesn't mean the weirdness has to end!
1983 Donruss #610 Willie Stargell
Willie Stargell (1962-1982) -- 1982 Pirates, 74 games, .233 AVG, 3 HR, 17 RBI
Only now am I starting to realize just how many legends said goodbye to the game in the early '80s.
Many of them, like Bench and Willie Stargell here, were one-team heroes as well. Stargell played his entire 21-year-career with the Pirates, winding it up in '82 and receiving true sunset cards from Donruss and Fleer (but not Topps, oddly) in '83. Though he's showing a gut in this Fleer shot, I've always liked the card, even if the final-season numbers on the back aren't really Pops-like.
It's a good reminder that baseball's greats often aren't the larger-than-life ballplayers we remember them to be in their sunset years -- most of them usually have visible bellies by the end of it all.
1998 Pacific #256 Ryne Sandberg
Ryne Sandberg (1981-1997) -- 1997 Cubs, 135 games, .264 AVG, 12 HR, 64 RBI
I only recently started collecting Ryne Sandberg for some reason, so my sunset collection of him isn't complete.
I do, however, have this fine Pacific finale of Ryno -- I find it strange that Pacific, of all brands, gave Sandberg a true sunset card, but Topps didn't. Oh well. Though not technically a career Cub (he appeared in 13 games as a rookie with the Phillies in '81), I usually consider him to be one by default. You could also argue that he has two different sunset years, as he retired from baseball in 1995, only to be lured back for a couple final seasons in 1996 & '97.
Ryno's (official) sunset season didn't light the world on fire, but it was far from the squeak a lot of former legends put up in their final years.
1971 Topps #525 Ernie Banks
Ernie Banks (1953-1971) -- 1971 Cubs, 39 games, .193 AVG, 3 HR, 6 RBI
He never lost that trademark smile.
2015 Topps Update #US344 Aramis Ramirez
Aramis Ramirez (1998-2015) -- 2015 Brewers & Pirates, 137 games, .246 AVG, 17 HR, 75 RBI
Aramis Ramirez is the only non-HOFer on this roster, which should give you an idea of how stacked it is (and how hard it was to put together).
But that's not selling Ramirez short -- he's definitely in the Hall of Very Good, and he's one of those guys who I think people forget (or never realized) how good he was. Despite only making three All-Star Games in 18 seasons, he wound up hitting 386 career homers and regularly posted slash lines hovering around the .300/.400/.500 mark. He was the anchor of the great Cubs squads of the mid-2000s.
And I spent pretty much my whole life watching him: between the Pirates, Cubs, Brewers, and Pirates (again), Ramirez spent his entire career in the NL Central.
1963 Topps #250 Stan Musial
Stan Musial (1941-1963) -- 1963 Cardinals, 124 games, .255 AVG, 12 HR, 58 RBI
My sunset collection got a whole lot better when Dad got me this '63 Musial as a birthday gift a couple years ago -- formerly a longtime dream card of mine.
Musial is kinda like the Bob Gibsons of the sunset universe, in that his finale seems way out of place for the era in which he's best remembered. I mean, Musial began his career when Topps was barely a glimmer in anyone's eye, and the guy fought in WWII -- but his career reached all the way into 1963, which seems like centuries removed from his glory days.
Maybe that's why his sunset card speaks to me so much.
1973 Topps #50 Roberto Clemente
Roberto Clemente (1955-1972) -- 1972 Pirates, 102 games, .312 AVG, 10 HR, 60 RBI
I've said it before but I'll say it again: Roberto Clemente is my all-time favorite baseball player, and this is my all-time favorite baseball card.
1994 Stadium Club #1 Robin Yount
Robin Yount (1974-1993) -- 1993 Brewers, 127 games, .258 AVG, 8 HR, 51 RBI
With Musial and Clemente before him, Robin Yount rounds out this mighty fine outfield of single-team legends.
Unlike the weird designations on the farewells of guys like Bench and Banks, Yount is the rare guy who could pretty easily occupy either of two positions on this roster -- he was a superb shortstop and outfielder in his day, but he's an outfielder in my binders because I own more cards of him that list him as such.
Plus I couldn't resist the opportunity to have a Musial-Clemente-Yount outfield.
1976 Topps #550 Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron (1954-1976) -- 1976 Brewers, 85 games, .229 AVG, 10 HR, 35 RBI
Obviously, any other NL squad wouldn't have a DH on its roster.
But the NL Central is a bit different because the Brewers were in the AL up until 1998. Since they moved to the Senior Circuit right around the time I started watching baseball, I've always considered them to be strictly an NL team, but people of the generation before me understandably seem to think differently.
And so we have a DH on this roster, and what a DH it is: Hank Aaron (in)famously wound up his career as a Brewer, posting very non-Aaronian numbers during his final two seasons in Milwaukee, though that didn't stop him from earning a prime spot on this prestigious club.
That's it for this sunset squad -- as always, thanks for tuning in!