First, a little background to give this set a sense of history in terms of design, checklist and overall make up. This set was the last to do a dual-league all-star by position subset (until the mid-Nineties), the last to feature the landscape orientation on regular base cards (until 1991 or 1992, I can never remember which) and it was the set that showed Topps how to properly perform hero worship on a still-active player (Hank Aaron), so successful in fact, that it emulated it to near-perfection twelve years later with Pete Rose in 1986.
1974 is a classic example of ‘the strongly designed set’, or a set where the main graphical element is present on every card. In ’74’s case, it’s the streamlined pennant (stolen and reconfigured from the classic design of 1965) on nearly every card. Those goddamn pennants…they’re ugly as hell, and you sure do get sick of them after about 20 cards, but you have to hand it to those Topps designers, because six years later in 1980 they take the same tired pennants, skew them 45 degrees and somehow make everything seem pleasing and fresh.
The ’74 backs were hard to read, set in a dark green, and, despite their misgivings, managed to establish their own place in history: they laid the groundwork for 1982’s not-quite-as-hard-but-still-hard-to-read dark green backs.
Finally, the checklist: You got a second-year Schmidt in there, plus early career Fisk, Munson, Reggie, and all the other great early Seventies stars from the A’s, Reds and everywhere in between, plus a few nice subsets. As I mentioned before, the dual-league All-Star cards are cool, and that subset wasn’t done again—by Topps or anyone else—until Topps brought it back in 1993.
Aaron was rightly worshipped with his own subset, and really this is his set (and it’s too bad, too, that Hank couldn’t have accomplished his homer heroics in the Summer of ’74, so that Topps could’ve put out a commemorative card in the late-series Traded series and then put out a special hero-worship subset in the 1975 set. That would’ve catapulted 1975 into the top ten sets ever made. Can you imagine? Cards 653-659 could’ve been ‘Hank Aaron Years’ cards, with card #660—his penultimate regular card, with maybe a photo of him at his car lot down in Atlanta, or smoking a cigar at home plate, or pushing away shaggy Braves fans as he rounded third, or, wait for it, a photo of him as a young call up for the Boston Braves in ’53? How about that?), which is just too bad, because there are a number of signs that this set is the quintessential one-step-away-from-greatness set, the ‘Biding Our Time’ set, the ‘Wait Til Next Year’ set…really, besides the Hank Aaron cards and the Winfield rookie, this set is a load of garbage.
Let me back that wild claim up with some rockhard facts. Not too many subsets, and these Seventies sets almost live or die on their subset inventiveness. 1972 had a late-series ‘Traded’ subset, 1975 had the MVPs through the years, 1977 had ‘Big League Brothers’ featuring the shell-shocked Reuschels. 1976 had the All-Time Team. 1972 had ‘In Action’ and a few ‘Boyhood Photos of the Stars’. 1973 had some more Boyhood Photos, including one of Catfish Hunter clutching a farm animal. What did 1974 have besides the Aaron Hero-Worship to open the set? World Series cards, dual-league leaders, All-Stars and a team variation. I guess you have to also count the Traded series as a subset for this set, but since I’ve already counted it separately, let’s forget it. Also, forget the team variation as a legitimate subset. So that leaves us with three subsets that were by this time pretty tired. OK, next.
Landscaped base cards. You may think that that would be a good thing, and in theory I’d agree with you—1960 is one my favorite designs. But the photography is especially bad in this set, and it’s a doubly bad sin, since most of the cards are action shots...out of control, out of focus action shots. Topps did a courageous thing three years earlier with the 1971 set: they moved out of the dugout and off the sidelines and incorporated action shots onto base cards. Then, in 1972 they introduced ‘In Action’ and corralled the action shot into a more manageable subset. 1973 was dominated by headshots and posed action sideline shots with actual action shots tossed in to make a strong mix. The photo quality suggested a special color front-page newspaper photo, or a spread in Sport. Then between 1973 and 1974 it’s like the Topps photo and art departments had a collective nervous breakdown, hit the bottle and just gave up. Really, if it had been me, I would’ve quit after producing the masterful Yellow Submarine, Electric Company 1972 set and not even had to stoop to producing the whitebread IBM punchcard 1973 design. If it were up to me, I would’ve commissioned Andy Warhol to do his take on the 1949 Leaf design, and then after shelling out three-quarters of the year’s budget, he’d probably just show me the same design, I’d call it Brilliant!, and we’d go from there. I’d start hanging out at The Factory, get kicked out for being a grown man and always talking about baseball cards while not being high, then start my own hip inner circle drop-in-hang-out-print-fume-inhalation-room place on the other side of Union Square and call in The Sweatshop. It would be totally
awesome and big shots like Elliott Gould, Tom Seaver and Karen Black would come by, like, all the time, and the difference between my place and The Factory would be that instead of sitting around and trying to act all cool in front of each other, we’d sit around and make shit. Hell, we’d sit at long tables and make shit for hours, well, the celebrities would sit, and make stuff, like pot holders and fake designer handbags and leather boots, and I’d sit in my air conditioned office and talk with suppliers on the phone and then come out periodically to make sure that everybody was having a good time. And if they weren’t—and I’m talking big shots here, like Bud Harrelson and Clyde Frazier, Harvey Keitel and Henry Kissinger—well, then I’d launch into a long-winded speech on why Gus Triandos was completely undeserving of a 2nd Tier number in the meritocracy of the Topps checklisting universe of the 1960s…and they'd snap right back to work, because I happen to feel strongly about that and can go on about it for a long time (and really nobody wants that)...
Anyway, the photography (action, sideline, all and every kind) wasn’t very good in the 1974 set and I think there was something wrong with the color.
Finally, 1974’s rookie class is one of the weakest of the decade, if not the weakest. It hurt the make up of the set that Topps didn’t do team rookie cards in ’74. Instead there are a handful of by-position major-league rookies at the end of the set and base cards for the rest of the set. If some of them happened to be rookies (like Dave Winfield and Dave Parker), well, that’s cool, but still. I would rate the rookie class of the 1974 just below that of 1976, and even 1976 was pretty weak.
Here’s how the rookies of 1974 stack up against those from the rest of the decade.
Worthwhile 1974 Rookies
Granted, fifteen’s not a bad number. Hell, there are more rookies than that in the set, but you know, no offense, but you have to draw the line at Elias Sosa and Dick Ruthven. Anyway, if you really wanted to be strict about calling rookies ‘worthwhile’, you’d probably have to trim that list at least in half. Now let’s look at it again:
Worthwhile 1974 Rookies
Dave Winfield (HOF)
Not so great anymore, huh? Just one HOFer, and I don’t know if Parker will ever get there even after a thousand years on the Veterans Committee ballot, assuming he’s on there. Anyway, the point is, this is one heck of a weak rookie class…though you know, the more I think about the Seventies, the more I’m realizing that those years were really hit or miss in terms of rookie classes. I bet that if we go set by set from 1970 to 1979 about half would have a Worthwhile Rookie Checklist about as long as 1974 and the other half maybe a little longer. I’m going to guess that 1972, 1975 and 1978 will have the longest lists, 1973 and 1979 will have the shortest, and 1974 and 1976 will still be tied for the weakest.
Worthwhile 1970 Rookies
Worthwhile 1971 Rookies
Worthwhile 1972 Rookies
Carlton Fisk (HOF)
Worthwhile 1973 Rookies
Mike Schmidt (HOF)
Jorge Orta (Mexican HOF)
Worthwhile 1974 Rookies
Worthwhile 1975 Rookies
George Brett (HOF)
Robin Yount (HOF)
Gary Carter (HOF)
Worthwhile 1976 Rookies
Dennis Eckersley (HOF)
Worthwhile 1977 Rookies
Bruce Sutter (HOF)
Worthwhile 1978 Rookies
Eddie Murray (HOF)
Paul Molitor (HOF)
Warren Cromartie (big in Japan)
Worthwhile 1979 Rookies
Ozzie Smith (HOF)
Bob Horner (wanted to be big in Japan)
Well, I was wrong. I would have to say that 1975 and dark horse 1971 are tied for strongest rookie class, though 1977 is by far my favorite. Any set boasting rookies of Barker, Templeton and The Bird—all three of which I can probably purchase for under a dollar combined—is a friend of mine. But anyway, you see what I mean about the Seventies: these sets don’t have more than one or two worthwhile rookies each, which is a shame. Especially in the case of 1974, since there aren’t many other reasons to collect it.