March 13, 2006

Bad Cards of Great Players

Everyone has a dream, and it’s good to have at least one that will probably never come true, because it gives you reason to keep going day to day because maybe someday, maybe even later today or tomorrow, the winds will change their course, the stars will align and it will come true. One of my dreams was to play for the Red Sox, and as a child I really thought it could happen. It sounds so naïve, so sweet, but really it was much more complicated than that. If I was on the Red Sox, then I could live at home in my parents’ house and my Mom and Dad could take care of me forever. Think about it: I’d never have to go to school, I could eat ice cream whenever I wanted and I could lounge around all the time…of course I’d also play 26 games a month as the starting left fielder for the Old Towne Teame. Which would mean that I’d be in incredible shape, though maybe I could get away with Ron Fairly’s physique from his 1979 Topps card.

Anyway, because I would be on the Sox, I would get my own baseball card. Really, that was one of the most important parts of this dream, and as I got older, while the part about living at home dropped out of the dream, the baseball card part didn’t. And if you really start thinking about it, if maybe you weren’t that good and were only in the league for one year, what if you got your own baseball card and it sucked? Like if they caught you picking your nose, or you were striking out or your eyes were closed, or there was a spot on your glasses, or maybe you had bad skin or had forgot to shave that day? The list is endless, and as you go through old stacks of cards you begin to notice a trend: a lot of players don’t always photograph well (the great ones included). Don’t get me wrong—I’d still love to have my own baseball card, no matter how the photo turned out. Because truly, some of the greatest cards are the ones with the worst, most embarrassing photos on the photographer’s roll, and some players, instead of being naturally ugly like George Foster, just can’t seem to get a break in the way they look in their photos.

For most of his career, Steve Carlton looked like a young Charles Grodin, but for a brief period in the early Eighties he just couldn’t get a break. Jeez, even the venerable Steve Stone, he of the commanding Seventies mustache looks bad in this Victory Leaders card from 1981 (did the Topps photo editors have to erase potentially embarrassing tattoos from his arms? They look they had been hermitically sealed and kept in a cool, dark place for many, many off-seasons…though maybe he lived in the Albino Village the editors at Weird New Jersey talk about in issue #8).

Or how about Tony Perez? Talk about bad card. His 1982 In Action card is really lame. The only part of him in action is his batting helmet, which for some reason is already flying off his head and he hasn’t even left the batter’s box. It usually took Rickey Henderson at least half-way to second before he lost his helmet. I guess at this point Perez just wanted to show the Sox brass that he could still run.

Some shots are too bad not to use. Like the 1975 Topps version of Ron ‘The Original DH’ Blomberg’s endless impersonation of the creepy Burger King mascot (the one with the wax-museum-on-a-hot-day face). Or like Kent Hrbek’s close-up on his 1983 Topps card. Or Curt Schilling’s headshot on his 2000 Fleer Tradition card, the one where it really looks like he’s wearing makeup and like he had some of Bill Buckner’s overzealous chest hair grafted where his own natural eyebrows should have been. Or Gary Carter’s ridiculous smile on his 1987 Topps All-Star card. It really looks like someone at Topps stole an animator’s clay face model for Roger Rabbit, chopped off the ears and dressed it up in a Mets uniform. Look at his All-Star card from 1982. He looks relatively normal. Something definitely happened to Carter besides getting older. It’s like he went to a plastic surgeon to get a facelift and the doctor accidentally gave him more wrinkles.

Then there are the cards that transcend time; the ones that embody a player’s entire career. I always thought it would be great to have George Brett as an uncle. This card only reinforces that. Can you imagine? That would mean that your father is Ken Brett, and that you would be relatively good-looking, and as a kid you would get to go in the clubhouse and meet all the players, and then hang with Uncle George, and he’d take you to dirt bike races and teach you how to eat a corndog and other fun things. I get this all from this one picture. But if your uncle was George Brett, then you couldn’t be related to Earl Weaver (unless they were related by marriage (not to each other)), and that brings up an important question that could be debated probably forever: Who was the biggest character in baseball in the 1980s? Was it Brett? Or Weaver? Or Rick Dempsey or the San Diego Chicken? My money’s on Weaver for one reason and one reason alone: there may have been other brilliant managers and other showmen with the umps, but who else could accomplish all that and sport this hair? Only Weaver. There is no other.

When a great player contributes a truly bad card, that’s how you remember them for years to come, maybe even for their entire career or your entire life. It’s like a great director putting their name on a shitty movie. Because seriously, how could War of the Worlds have sucked as hard as it did with Spielberg at the helm? Ohhhh, like that. I’ll remember that movie for a long time, not only because it sucked, but the way it sucked was astonishing. I saw it at the Ziegfeld and for the first twenty minutes I thought ‘Man, this is gonna rock all the way through!’ And I couldn’t have been further from the truth. You know, I was going to talk about Dwight Gooden’s conventional Topps rookie card from 1985, and how ugly and old he looked in the photo, but now that I think about it, his career and War of the Worlds are so similar that it’s hard to pass up the opportunity of comparing the two. Okay, Gooden comes on the scene in 1984, the Topps and Fleer Traded sets go through the roof, and he’s unbeatable for about three years, and, like the first twenty minutes of the movie, everything’s all normal. Tom Cruise’s life is kind of a steadfast hardship and all of a sudden shit hits the fan, a giant storm comes out of nowhere and aliens are transferred through bolts of lightning in what is the highlight of the film. From there, Tom Cruise’s life gets all messed up and that damn kid won’t stop screeching. And that’s pretty much the whole movie. All the aliens die, Cruise’s other kid walks into a fireball but somehow easily survives, and, in the other highlight of the film, Cruise kills a unintentionally-hilarious psychopathic Tim Robbins with a shovel off-camera, like somehow the production ran out of money and didn’t want to have to choreograph that fight. I personally would’ve liked to see how the 4’ 10” Cruise might kill the 7’ 3” Robbins with a hoe and a shovel. Does he hit him over the head? And how exactly does he pull that off? Similarly, Gooden—for roughly twenty minutes of his career—can walk through fireballs and come out okay. But then all of a sudden he’s a coke addict, and his career begins to suck real hard, and while that might be slightly disappointing for a movie that had a good chance to be enjoyable, it’s heart-wrenching to watch in a person so good at what they do, someone with endless potential. And for some reason you can see all of this in his 1985 Topps card. It’s like he can see that he’ll get to live his baseball dream, but it’s going to be a long hard road, and, unlike his counterparts in War of the Worlds, he’s not entirely sure that he’ll make it out in one piece.

I won’t get to live my baseball dream. And though I’ve learned how to make my own baseball card, it’s not the same. But I’m okay with that.

Fantastic Card of the Day

For some reason, Kirk Gibson’s career didn’t end with that home run in the 1988 World Series (though it probably should have). And if you watch the tape of that at-bat and his mangy, hobbled lope around the bases, it’s like a crystal ball look at the rest of his career (minus the glory). Here was a guy—a borderline superstar for the Tigers—reduced to being a journeyman for the Royals and Pirates before coming home to Detroit to finish what should’ve ended after the Dodgers won it in ’88. But the reason why this card is the Fantastic Card of the Day is because you’d never know he’d lost his power. Look at him: he really looks like the Incredible Hulk or maybe an older, balder Hulk Hogan, training for a comeback. I want someone to film a rock-opera version of The Kirk Gibson Story, starring a clean-shaven Burt Reynolds as the older Gibson looking back on (and singing about) his days with the Tigers and the Dodgers. I’m going to work on the casting, but they could definitely get Warwick Davis to play Alan Trammell (though they’d always have to shoot tight close-ups, which might prove iffy during lengthy dance sequences) and maybe The Edge would play Jack Morris and David Bowie Orel Hershiser (and maybe they could write a whole Hershiser subplot with a song called The 59 Innings of My Heart). And how about Carl ‘Apollo Creed’ Weathers to grow back some kick-ass facial hair and don the spikes as Chet Lemon? I might pay to see that movie.

In fact, you get Jose Canseco and Tony LaRussa to redo the Puttin’ on the Ritz number from Young Frankenstein and I might pay full price.


Crawford said...

I think you're onto something. Maybe not just a Kirk Gibson movie, but a period piece...late 70s/80s general baseball movie. There could be such hilarity as 40 home runs being a tremendous accomplishment. What about a movie about Jose Canseco's 40/40 run...tie it in with the Score special 40/40 card...Jose could play himself as the old Jose, and you could get someone like Freddie Prinze Jr. to play young Jose. Maybe not. The potential for this kind of thing is HUGE.

Compy said...

Funny you mention it, b/c as I read the end of this piece, I was thinking the exact thing. There is probably a market for an 80's baseball story. I really doesn't matter who it is on, hell a 80s Mets would probably do well.
In terms of defining cards, Ben is right on. There are certain cards I think of certain players. Here are a few:
Frank Thomas-91 UD Middle Finger Card
Ozzie Smith-87 Topps looks like he is watching a Clue Haywood home run.
Ray Lankford-Milt Thompson's 1990 Leaf is Ray Lankford, amazingly there is 90 Lankford.

Johnny Cakes but not gay said...

I traded that Dwight Gooden rookie card for a Dwight Bite garbage pail kid.

I stopped being friends with the kid I traded with a few years later. If I knew where he lived, I'd break into his house and take my card back.

Anonymous said...

I'm not much more than a shell of a collector these days so it goes without saying that I have no idea of the year and manufacturer for the Fantastic Card of the Day. Did I overlook it in the post? I'd love to know.

Mike said...

The Gibson card is from 1995 Upper Deck.

Jim said...

That Curt Schilling card is absolutley frightening, it is the forst time I have ever seen it, and hopefully the last.

josh Mueller said...


drano said...

Oh man. Gary Carter always had that stupid grin on his face, and then when he got the perm, that was really the cherry on top. I found Carlton's perm pretty disturbing too, I remember seeing those 1981 cards and being like, "WTF is that Mike Brady?"

Atif said...

This is amazing collection of the cards.good cards for great players.
Plastic Card