Thursday, June 11, 2020

In honor of ugliness

I was reading a SABR article a while back that called 1973 Topps, and I quote, "The Ugliest Baseball Set Ever."

I often hesitate to throw the word "clickbait" around, but I think that's clickbait. Are you seriously going to sit there with a straight face and tell me that 1973 Topps is uglier than, say 2000 Topps? Really? At the very least, calling '73 Topps ugly, well...them's fighting words for me. I personally rank it as the 3rd best Topps set ever made, and on some days, I'm willing to put it as high as #2 ('65 Topps is forever #1, and '75 is usually #2). Opinions are opinions, and I understand that not everyone rates '73 Topps as highly as I do. But to call it the pinnacle of the Ugly Topps Mountain borders on the ridiculous.

I get that action shots aren't everyone's cup of tea, and that '73 Topps features them prominently, to the point where it looks nothing like any Topps set made before or since (which is, for me, why it's so iconic). This, I think, is a problem I sometimes have with the all-vintage community -- they instantly don't like anything with an action shot or anything that doesn't look like it came out of '59 Topps (in the SABR article, all the "good" '73 Topps cards are, not surprisingly, all poses). I like poses, and I like action shots, but I certainly wouldn't call a set "ugly" if it pushes the envelope in combining the two in weird and sometimes beautiful ways like '73 does.

And because my brain seems to be stuck on making lists lately, I decided to undertake a project that once seemed impossible and nail down my ten favorite cards from 1973 Topps, the best of the best from this so-called "Ugliest Topps Set Ever."

#10 -- 1973 Topps #372 Oscar Gamble

I get why images like this would rub some baseball-card purists the wrong way.

It's way zoomed-out, it crams four different guys into a single frame, and, oh yeah, it's airburshed, too! Safe to say this isn't your standard Topps baseball card. But oh my goodness is does this scream beauty to me. Double play shot, dude lost in a cloud of dust, and Oscar Gamble's Afro!

How in the world could you call this ugly?!

#9 -- 1973 Topps #263 George Scott

If '73 is the most bizarre Topps set ever, then this card is the Most Bizarre of the Most Bizarre.

I'd bet money that, for whatever reason, Topps spliced this pickoff shot onto a completely different backdrop. It just The fence in the background is oddly out of place and most of the fans aren't even looking the right way. Much like '73 Topps as a whole, there's no explaining how or why this card came about.

Who knows why they did it, but Topps unwittingly created a bizarro masterpiece here.

#8 -- 1973 Topps #273 Chris Speier

You know a set's good when a frankenset champion only reaches #8.

#7 -- 1973 Topps #456 Dick Green

Since the frankenset's over, I guess I can reveal my true thoughts and say that I was rooting for Dick Green, and not Chris Speier, to win the frankenset.

Only '73 Topps could make a guy flubbing a grounder look so beautiful -- and if that doesn't sum up what makes this set so special, I don't know what does.

#6 -- 1973 Topps #530 Jim Kaat

The first hitting-pitcher card I ever saw, and a card so integral to my collecting youth that I've never bothered to upgrade the massively miscut copy I've owned since I was a kid.

#5 -- 1973 Topps #380 Johnny Bench

With the weirdness and general roguish quality that permeate the rest of the set, it's easy to forget that '73 Topps awarded some of its best cards to stars.

The Stargell at the top of this post is a classic -- a card like that not cracking the Top 10 should tell you how much I like this set -- and this spectacular Johnny Bench has long been a member of my personal Cardboard Hall of Fame.

#4 -- 1973 Topps #170 Harmon Killebrew

This is the card that made me fall in love with '73 Topps as a kid -- I can just see Harmon Killebrew hitting a ball 800 feet the second after this photo was taken.

#3 -- 1973 Topps #627 Luis Alvarado

What I imagined the 1970s looked and felt like, all summed up in a single, classic image.

#2 -- 1973 Topps #542 Pat Corrales

Alvarado and Corrales are really 2a and 2b on this list, and the one I rate higher can change depending on the day.

At this particular moment in time, I'm giving Corrales the runner-up honors, mainly because I've never seen anything even remotely close to a moment like this captured on any other baseball card (and oh yeah, the sliding runner is none other than Fergie Jenkins!).

#1 -- 1973 Topps #50 Roberto Clemente

I can talk about the weird and the bizarre and the abnormal of this set all I want, but the single greatest compliment I can pay to 1973 Topps is that it produced my all-time favorite baseball card.

It's a tall order to produce a final farewell to a posthumous hero, but '73 Topps did exactly that with this tranquil tribute to the late Roberto Clemente. I can never quite explain why the image of Clemente checking his swing in a sun-covered baseball field is so fitting and touching, but it is. It's not weird, and it's not quirky. The calmness of it, in an odd way, seems almost out of place in this set. But to me that just makes it stand out all the more. It's's everything a baseball card should be.

And if that's ugly to you, well then I just don't know what to say.


Mark Hoyle said...

I think in defense of us SABR members I don’t think we could pick out sets after 1990. I do agree with you. Love the quirkyness of this set.

Mike said...

Jeez..easily one of the BEST!!...and definately the most interesting!!

I'm pretty sure the first "real time" cards I bought were '74 (also the year I owned my first record!) but there were still packs of '73 around and I grabbed all my allowance allowed!!

Alex Markle said...

Great post, Nick. I still haven't added much vintage to my collection and have seen even less. Maost times, when vintage stuff is posted on the blogs, it's the first time I'm ever seeing a card. That's the case today with Clemente, Corrales, Alvarado, Killebrew, Kaat, and Scott. I love the action shots!

Elliptical Man said...

So it has a lot of ho cards and airbrushing, neither of which I'm a fan.

The vertical cards where the airbrushing is less obvious are better, of course.

Action shots can be good, like the Bench and the Speier (despite being a ho card). But it seems like this set has a lot of action shots where it's not clear who the subject is.

Quirky can be good - Kaat hitting, the cars in the background.

I'd rate the writing and borders as average.

TL / DR - Too many drawbacks to be one of my favorite sets. Though I wouldn't call it one of the ugliest either.

Jeff B - Wax Pack Wonders said...

The more I see of this set, the more I like it. Quirkiness is high on my list of most valued card qualities.

night owl said...

The SABR writer mentioned he was missing about 50 cards from the set. My theory is one of the missing is the Alvarado "parking lot" shot because if he saw that one, no way he could say it was "ugly."

I think what Mark said above is true: SABR folks often don't think beyond 1979, so they have no idea what 1995 Fleer or 1991 Donruss is, let alone 1999 Pacific Omega. So you have to give them a little slack there.

It took me awhile to come around on the '73 set and it's one that really puts its issues out there for all to see. But it's still great. Well, not that awful Reggie Jackson card, but everything else.

Nick Vossbrink said...

Mentioned this on Twitter already but yeah I completely agree with this dragging. There's a lot of ugly stuff in 1973 but it's a singularly distinct set and I'd rather see something distinct than bland. I'm also tired of the guys who want every set to have the same posed photos for all the players. Give me an interesting mix any day of the week instead.

Jason said...

The SABR article definitely wasn’t intentional clickbait. We don’t do that. What we do is encourage members to write about cards and go with whatever title they like. We don’t advertise or derive any revenue from readership, so we have no incentives to clickbait anyone.

Personally I love the 1973 design while finding the pics themselves to run the gamut from awful to awesome. As a Garvey collector, I sure wish Topps gave me something better than Wes Parker’s rear end. On the other hand, like you, I find the Clemente exquisite.

acrackedbat said...

Any title worded in a way to say 1973 Topps was the ugliest set ever - I'd click too. I'd have to know what the authors were drinking, and then find a hidden beer review within the post. Because surely, they were joking. 1973 has become one of my all-time favorite sets, easily in my top ten.

Big League said...

I love the 1973 set for the reasons noted here. Also, I have a Jim Kaat card even more miscut than the one pictured above.

Big League said...

Also, the cartoons are awesome.

Fuji said...

Damn. I just gave up hope of ever going out and getting this set. You're making me have second thoughts. I've never thought it was the ugliest set. But it's not my favorite either. That being said... the photography is fantastic. I love the Corrales, Scott, and Gamble... but my two favorites are the Bench... and the Vida Blue. I'd normally include the Green... but that card makes people think that he was a terrible defensive second baseman... but he wasn't.

Bo said...

This is one of my favorites. It's interesting to read the comments here and in the SABR article about how many people didn't like it. Seems like reaction was mixed even when it came out in '73.

I guess people who like "quirky" are going to be in the minority. I like this set for much the same reason I like early 80s Fleer. There is a candid element to the action photos that's less artistic but feels more authentic than the perfectly composed action shots of late 80s Score or current Topps.

Card bubbles said...

More action is never a bad thing and certainly not ugly.

Unknown said...

Love this article! And I agree: '73 Topps is one of my favorites too. The one that stands out the most for me was the horizontal Thurman Munson card. LOVE that one.

gregory said...

There are so many great images in this set. And I think the simple borders, combined with the different player silhouettes and colored circles behind them, are perfect for the era. I'm sure I would have begged mom and dad for packs all the time if I were around in 1973.

Nice post!

Tim said...

Almost every Topps set of the '70s era is a gem.

Robert said...

Fergie Jenkins actually tweeted about the Pat Corrales card recently, apparently he was trying to score from first on a double...

Unknown said...

I love this set. I just finished putting together the whole set with all the variations and the 24 blue border checklist. I even got all the wax pack variations. 73 is by far the most interesting set I have come across. loaded with HOFers, great rookies, wife swapping teammates, classic cars, quirky airbrushing and a beautiful tribute to Clemente with exactly 3000 career hits on the back. The Nolan Ryan is also great with the Halo on the "angels" suspended so high. Another interesting card is 645 Bob Locker has Reggie Jackson in the background playing center field airbrushed in a Cubs uniform.