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 seems...off. 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 just...it's everything a baseball card should be.
And if that's ugly to you, well then I just don't know what to say.