I think this plot has been re-hashed across pop culture countless times: a guy goes home with what he thinks is a beautiful girl only to wake up the next morning to find a hideous Medusa-like hag with no teeth sharing his bed. Right? Okay, now replace ‘beautiful girl’ with ‘Mickey Mantle’ and ‘Medusa-like hag’ with ‘1970 Topps’. It’s less Mad Libs than you’d expect.
Here’s another analogy (and I’ve been thinking about this one for a lot longer): If you study Topps’ baseball sets from 1969 to 1971, there’s a lot going on there; I’d say it’s one of the company’s most turbulent periods, right up there with 1953-56 and 1980-82. Okay, now look at the plot of the film Midnight Cowboy. Here’s a quick recap: Schlesinger’s 1969 masterpiece centers on Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young Texan who moves to New York City to ‘make it’, only to wind up a male prostitute, befriending the homeless Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), living with him in an abandoned building and learning a string of horribly depressing life lessons before accompanying Ratso on a trip to Florida (only to have Ratso die en route). It’s a classic and those who haven’t seen it should go out and rent it immediately.
But when you watch it, add these ideas to it: Joe Buck is Topps in the Sixties; he’s got it all figured out. When Buck moves to New York, he’s Topps in the Seventies: he finds there’s no more Mantle, his world is rudderless and he’s flailing. I don’t think there’s a subtext you can add to the parts where Joe Buck is a male prostitute, because in 1970 Topps had yet to install anyone to replace Mantle in terms of Hero-Worship. The closest they get is splitting it up between Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Harmon Killebrew, but if you ask me, Topps’ heart was never really in it with Killebrew and it kind of seemed like they were always half-assing it with Clemente. In Topps’ eyes, if anybody really deserved it in the early Seventies it was Mays (he’s #600 in 1970 and 1971), though Aaron supplanted him at the same speed he overtook Ruth.
And what of Ratso Rizzo, he of ‘I’m walkin’ here!’ fame? He’s the Ghost of Topps Future. He’s what Buck and Topps could be: barely surviving in world that no longer gives a shit. And if you were a collector staring down a whole year of 1970 Topps, that would’ve been a very depressing future indeed.
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In a word: ugly. And not just ugly. I would like to go on record as calling this set fugly. This is one of the ugliest sets of all time: ugly design, ugly checklist, ugly rookie class, ugly everything. If I could find a way to do so, I would manufacture small brown paper bags (like soft sleeves) to display these cards in.
Okay, it’s not all bad, and it does contribute to the historical record in a number of ways, but its negatives far outweigh the positives. Here is a list of its merits and a list of its crimes against cardboard.
• Championship and World Series subsets
• League Leaders subset
• Individual All-Stars last set to do so until 1982, plus cartoon backs (much better than a gigantic Pete Rose photo puzzle; see 1969)
• Over 700 cards First set to do so in one year
• Seattle Pilots 2nd year of only two years of Pilots (1971 team represented as Milwaukee Brewers) Check out this one of Buzz Stephen, pitcher for the ‘Plots’…just classic
• Fun Photos This set had a few photos of players ‘caught unawares’ while doing random activities in the dugout, like Hank Aaron. Crouching catchers like Dave Ricketts, Clay Dalrymple, plus a Dia de los Muertos Dean Chance, the oddly thrust glove of Gail Hopkins, Lowell Palmer’s shades and Curt Flood’s meaningful grin. Plus all those ill-fitting caps.
• Team rookies subset Yeah Vida Blue! Jam bands unite!
Crimes Against Cardboard
• Shitty gray border I can’t stress this enough: in the nineteen years that Topps had been making cards before the 1970 set, they only did a non-white bordered set twice. And no, I’m not counting 1954, 1958 or 1959, because while those sets used colored backgrounds, they still used a white border. 1962 featured wood grain. 1968 a hi-fi stereo speaker/television thatch. That’s it. So tell me where in the Topps style guide it says gray is good idea? Did they think that the only way to sell a black-bordered set (1971) would be to do a transition year?
• Death by lack of subsets If Topps sets from the Eighties were death by subset inundation, the early Seventies were just the opposite, which was a real bummer, since there’s really nothing to break up the gray-border monotony. You are almost thankful that Topps included numbered checklists—those injections of yellow and red are enough color to keep your interest for another hundred cards. Plus, those subsets they did include were just tired enough to make you wonder why they bothered at all. Apparently Topps felt the same way about the individual All Stars, as 1970 was the last year each All Star got their own card (as a subset, not counting All-Star status denoted on regular card) until 1982.
• Over 700 cards Yup, too many cards and not enough going on.
• Unbelievably boring headshots I just did a count, and out of the 720 cards in this set, 223 of them feature headshot (close up and medium close up) photography. That’s a 31%, which is totally mind-boggling. No wonder Topps introduced the actual in-game action shot onto regular cards in 1971.
• Puke blue and yellow backs C’mon, how many bad decisions can be made in one set? Sure, they’re easy to read, but give me the daring nature of the hard to read dark green and full black and white headshot of 1971 than the sterile yellow of 1970.
Like with anything else, it’s easy to make a ton of mistakes, to perform so badly that you limp to the finish line. It’s easier still to quit before you make the finish line, to simply turn around and walk away, leaving a half-assed job behind you. It’s much harder, though, to compete to win and not win, and not only not win, but be bad enough to be very close to the bottom and still not be the worst. And that’s where 1970 Topps will always find itself.