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The Baseball Chronicle

Personal stories

1971 Topps Baseball

By Jeb Stewart

From the minute you look at them, these cards look and feel old. Even as they left the presses, they probably looked old. Perhaps the wool flannel uniforms that most of the players are wearing, which was only beginning to give way to the double-knit polyester jerseys and pants for which the 1970s are most famous, creates the feeling of old age.1 In 1971 most of the players still wore their hair short, and only the frequent sideburns hint to the long-haired and mustached revolution which was to arrive shortly. But I believe it was the use of black borders, a stark contrast to any previous (or later Topps release in that decade), which gave the cards their antiquated complexion.

cookierojascard.jpgI was four years old when these cards were printed, and I have no memory of ever buying them in packs. I believe it was during the summer of 1975 when I first saw a couple of these cards at a friend’s house. One of those cards was Cookie Rojas—#118 in the set—who was in the process of turning a double play at Yankee Stadium in front of mostly empty seats. I wish I could remember the other card, or cards, but I haven’t been able to find one that sparks a memory like the one I have of Octavio Victor Rojas Rivas, which I have, no doubt, because of his distinctive nickname.

As I held the homonymous Cookie in my hand, I immediately thought, These cards look ancient, almost as if I had stumbled upon fossils from a forgotten era in the game. When you’re eight years old, I suppose anything released four years prior (half your age) is at least relatively ancient. And while it may be that by the time I held a 1971 card in my hand I was simply used to the unkempt look of the players in the 1975 set—the well-groomed players from 1971 might as well have been from 1871, as far as I was concerned—it was the presence of the black borders which gave the cards a starkly vintage appearance. Once again, I was probably used to the wildly colored borders of the 1975 set. And because the black borders are famous for chipping, particularly in the hands of the intended market—grade-school boys—the card I held must have looked especially weathered.

In addition to marveling at the old appearance of the cards, I was also struck with curiosity. These cards had been printed before I started collecting; this was first concrete sign that the world did not revolve around me, and this realization must have been unsettling. I’m sure I wondered what cards before 1971 looked like. Surely if 1971 cards looked old, anything before that year must have been nearly primitive. Because there was no internet and the embryonic hobby of card collecting was unknown to me, I simply had no way to investigate past cards.

Even as old as the cards looked, and still look nearly 40 years later, Topps had some surprises in 1971 beyond the black borders, which were actually fresh: (1) this the first time Topps put a player’s portrait on the reverse of the card; and (2) this was the first time Topps used action pictures for regular issue cards, as opposed to reserving action photography to World Series, playoff and “special” cards.2

thurmonmunsoncard.jpgIf Topps’ innovations were radical, I was unaware because I had no real reference point with which to compare these cards, other than successor issues. These cards are far enough removed from the contrived scarcity and designs of present day card releases to have retained a quaint innocence, which many of us long for, as our cynicism often grows with age. Perhaps James Earl Jones’ character in “Field of Dreams” was prophetic when he romanticized the nostalgia of baseball as providing a direct connection to our collective and ethereal youth. That’s how I feel when I look at my 1971 Topps cards—unencumbered and somehow optimistic.

More “hobby aware,” I began putting the set together, card by card, in 1983. I initially bought 300 different cards from a West coast dealer for around $30. The remaining 452 cards took me another seven years to find, as the black-bordered pasteboards became my white whale. In my determination, I dragged my mother to flea markets and card shows in the Roanoke, Virginia area, where I bought overpriced, dog-eared 1971 cards from chain-smoking reprobates in folding chairs, who muttered about the government. I finally harpooned the set on January 27, 1990—my birthday—when I purchased two cards (#580 Tony Perez and #600 Willie Mays) at a card show in Silver Spring, Maryland.

While my set was complete, it was not in acceptable condition. In the fall of 1991, desperately needing rent money, I attempted to sell the cards to a dealer in Richmond, Virginia; he coldly commented that he wasn’t interested in giving me more than $50 because of the overall poor condition of the cards. If I had sold the set, for a huge financial loss (after spending seven years putting it together), I might have gotten out of the hobby entirely, and I’m sure that I would have sold a connection to my youth cheaply. Instead, I walked out of his shop with the album of cards under my arm—the bell ringing loudly behind me—and ended up putting the set together again.

By 1998 I had moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and had relocated my entire card collection from Virginia. Over the next two years I upgraded almost the entire set, which is now in excellent-to-mint condition.

I like to pull the album off the shelf and browse through the cards from time to time. Cookie, Doc and Thurman are still young, and so am I.

  1. For an example of the latter, you only need look at card #2 to see Dock Ellis, the Pirates pitcher who infamously threw a no-hitter against the Padres in 1970 while tripping on LSD. Was it the acid or the mustard- and black-striped pullover jersey of the Pirates, which made Ellis stare with “a look in [his] eyes, like black holes in the sky”?
  2. Despite these innovations, cards 644-752 in the final series don’t include a single action shot and very few stars. I don’t have any explanation for this, other than the fact that Topps was shifting to football card production by the time that series was printed and its release was almost perfunctory. Of course, the last series is by far the scarcest of the entire set because fewer cards were printed and half of those were short-prints. See Bob Lemke, The 2007 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, p. 458 (16th ed.).

—July 15, 2009

About the author

Jeb Stewart is a lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, who enjoys taking his two sons to the Rickwood Classic each year and buying them cards. He spent most of his youth pitching a tennis ball against his front porch steps, in hopes that a Yankees’ scout would happen by and discover him. Although he remains undiscovered, he still has a passion for the Yankees and collecting baseball cards.