Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Trading Post #110: Summer of '74

If you're not following Summer of '74, a newcomer to the blog community, head on over and take a look. Matt and I have already swapped cards once, and a 1994 Topps-focused post he did in October caught my eye. He showed a bunch of base cards from an unopened box of Series 2, and offered the one-per-pack Topps Gold parallels, which I happily claimed. It and its 1993 predecessor were the first parallel sets I chased, and I enjoy them just as much today.

There's lots of mid-1990s Topps goodness to be found over on Matt's blog, including Tuesday's post about 1995 Topps. There were lots of clouds involved. But in 1994, before the strike, Topps was still sticking with pretty traditional photographs. They dabbled with images on the back in 1992 and 1993, with stadiums and headshots, respectively. But in 1994, they finally followed Upper Deck's lead and gave us action shots on the back, too.

1994 Topps Gold #669 Tim Wakefield
Tim Wakefield's front image in 1994 Topps is more interesting than the back. Before he began his long tenure with the Red Sox, he spent two seasons on the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's an unfamiliar uniform, because Wakefield was getting lots of national exposure when the Red Sox were regularly appearing in high-profile playoff series, often against the Yankees. And he's known for more than just giving up the Aaron Boone home run. He took the victory in Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS, a 14-inning marathon that kept the Red Sox alive and enabled them to finally break their curse.

I've been watching a lot of sports documentaries this off-season, including many episodes of ESPN's 30 for 30. The other night, I saw the Four Days in October episode, chronicling that improbable comeback that the Red Sox made while being down 3-0 to the defending pennant winners. Wakefield didn't have a huge role to play that year, but he won his ring nonetheless. He is, on the other hand, a prime figure in the Knuckleball documentary, his signature pitch. I feel that Topps' photography on this card is appropriate, the slow shutter speed blurring Wakefield's hand and the ball, adding to the mystery and unpredictability of the knuckleball pitch.

1994 Topps Gold #625 Charlie Hough
Charlie Hough threw it too, and we can see the grip much more clearly. It's another unfamiliar uniform, as he spent most of his career with the Dodgers and Rangers, squeezed onto the back in the tiniest of fonts. But he was a Marlin in 1993 and 1994, their equivalent of Bryn Smith, another veteran hurler who kicked off the Rockies' inaugural home opener. As I've said before, I know many other fans never knew of this period in Hough's career, but given when I started collecting, seeing him in the Marlins' early turquoise colors looks a lot more normal to me than to longtime Dodgers and Rangers fans.

Sadly, this was Hough's final Topps card. The shrunken 1995 set didn't have room for him, let alone another line in his career that spanned a quarter-century. It's a sunset card and an unfamiliar uniform all wrapped up in one, along with a highly unusual pitch that only two current players use.

1994 Topps Gold #460 Orel Hershiser
Orel Hershiser had a much more conventional pitching style, and thanks to 1989 Donruss, we know he can juggle. He could actually hit, too, earning the elusive pitcher's Silver Slugger award in 1993. The sentence on the back tells us he was near the .404 Major League record for batting average by a pitcher before settling at a still-impressive .356. His 1988 season has a lot of red on it, the same year he pitched a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings. That helped his season statistics climb as high as 23 wins, 15 complete games, and 8 shutouts, on his way to the NL Cy Young award, not to mention a World Series ring. Surprisingly, none of these players are in the Hall of Fame, but Hough and Hershiser had a decent shot.

By the way, if Topps did then what they do now, just giving us five years of stats, Hershiser's amazing 1988 season would have scrolled off the screen by the time his 1994 card was printed.

1994 Topps Gold #470 Rafael Palmeiro
Rafael Palmeiro holds the dubious distinction of being the first All-Star MLB player suspended for using steroids. Yet, at 53, he's talking about making a comeback. If it does happen, I hope it ends up being more than just a publicity stunt. But it would be interesting to see such a giant gap in his statistics if he gets a 2019 Topps card.

As you can see, these Topps Gold cards didn't survive almost 25 years in a pack unscathed. Most are fine, but a handful, like this one, show clear signs of being stuck together. It's not too bad, and Matt told me as much when we were talking specifics. It's clear enough that it's possible to see the number 22 on his right batting glove, meaning he might have borrowed it from teammate Will Clark. But it looks like he's wearing the same one on the card back in a home jersey, and I doubt he made a regular thing of it. The Cuban superstar could surely afford his own batting accessories.

1994 Topps Gold #612 Jim Thome
About the only sure-fire Hall of Famer in this illustrious group so far is Jim Thome. His 612 home runs are likely to buy him a ticket into Cooperstown any day now. But in 1994, he had yet to play a full season, and was just getting his career going. The back of this moderately damaged card still has minor league stats going back to 1989, and mentions his 1993 MVP award in the Triple-A International League

Coincidentally, just like Palmeiro, Jim Thome wore #25 for most of his career. And his batting gloves match.

1994 Topps Gold #690 Mo Vaughn
I can't think of Mo Vaughn without remembering him tackling George Bell as he charged Aaron Sele on the mound. Sele was clearly throwing at Bell, who was having none of it. But as he, um, went to the mound to have a word with the opposing pitcher, in comes Mo Vaughn like a Mack truck and body slams Bell like a bowling pin.

Tempers were hot in 1993. That clip took place just a month or so after the legendary Nolan Ryan / Robin Ventura brawl, and I clearly remember the benches clearing not once, but twice at my first Major League game on June 15th, 1993 between the Rockies and Dodgers.

Years later, during another Dodgers visit to Denver, none other than Jeff Kent was hit by a pitch and both teams rapidly ended up on the field. That game, July 4th, 2005 was a fireworks game, and I'm sure that many fans in attendance just wanted the extra-innings affair to conclude so their kids could see the pyrotechnics. I enjoyed that part, sure, but I'm sure I was in the minority of fans who were excited about those final two nail-biting innings.

1994 Topps Gold #397 Tim Salmon
I haven't said much about the design. 1994 Topps never climbs very high on the Topps set countdowns, but it always holds a special place in my heart. Lots of people seem not to like the home plate shape that makes up the photo frame, but it reminds me of the baseline frames that UD frequently used in their first few sets. And it gives us that lovely patch of green at the bottom, set behind the player's name in a script font. In Topps Gold, that's much easier to read in 1994 than in 1993. And once in a while, the Topps Rookie Cup graces a card with its presence.

Tim Salmon was the 1993 American League Rookie of the Year, sharing the honor with Mike Piazza on the NL side. The first fishy Angels star hit a couple more home runs in 1993 than noted slugger Mo Vaughn. And one fateful day that year, he'd play a game in Baltimore.

1994 Topps Gold #477 Arthur Rhodes
Arthur Rhodes was the starter for the Baltimore Orioles on April 17, 1993. The Rockies and Marlins were just infants, but elsewhere in the league, Rhodes had faced the Angels before, early in his 20-year career that lasted until 2011. Tim Salmon was getting his first taste of the Big Leagues, nearly being nabbed by the lefty on a pickoff attempt, but making it to second on an error. He'd walk twice that day, first in the third, and again in the ninth by the late Todd Frohwirth. Following the Orioles' third error of that day, Salmon made it to third base, which brought up the the Angels' own third baseman, Rene Gonzalez.

With Salmon at third and Gary Gaetti at second, Rene Gonzales hit one weakly toward the third base side.

1994 Topps Gold #664 Jeff Tackett
And that resulted in a play at the plate. Salmon was out, but the Angels still had the lead, and they'd hold on in the bottom of the ninth to win it.

Gary Gaetti was on third base when all this was happening, and he had his own play at the plate card in 1993 Topps. The Angels were playing lots of small ball in this era, apparently. There were seven stolen bases in this game, over half by Chad Curtis. They were then known as the California Angels, but they had a brand new logo for the 1993 season. Also visible on Jeff Tackett's left sleeve is a small commemorative patch, marking the year the Orioles hosted the All-Star Game in their shiny new retro park, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Topps must have been really proud of this card. In the 1993 factory set, they included a 9-card pack of 1994 preproduction cards. The colors were a little different, and as I recall they changed one photograph selection, but it's more or less accurate. In that set, you could find major stars like Nolan Ryan, Kenny Lofton, Juan Gonzalez, and also this Jeff Tackett card. The official version added his 1993 stats, and removed the Studio-like paragraph about Jeff's hobbies and family, replacing it with the inning he pitched in Detroit on August 11th, 1993, and his cameo in the movie Dave, which Topps tells us was a TV show.

TV shows and movies have been elevated to a similar plane in 2018, but in 1993, not so much.

Also, Tackett seems to have grown an inch in the 1993-94 offseason. His preproduction card had him at only 6'1".

1994 Topps Gold #586 Brent Gates
There were a few other cards that caught my eye, like this one showing a post-hustle Brent Gates giving a forearm bump to a fellow teammate. There's a tiny Minnesota Twins cameo in the lower right, but I can't tell who that is, nor the recipient of said forearm bump. That might be a coach or batboy on the left, and Gates may have just slid into home, which could identify the unknown Twin as catcher Brian Harper.

The green patch that's already on 1994 Topps goes particularly well with the A's color coding. Some of the color choices are a little odd, like yellow for the Red Sox lettering. But the green and yellow works well, even if the shades are ever so slightly different from the actual photo.

1994 Topps Gold #784 Gabe White / Rondell White
I often had a tough time deciding where to put these two-player cards when alphabetizing them by team. Would I use the player on the right or left? Was that consistent with the top or bottom on the card back? What if the right and left varied from front to back? Would a featured Rockie take precedence even if he was in a less-preferred location? Four-player cards were even harder. These were all very important decisions to make when organizing my first-ever factory set.

These cards are now quite rare, so it doesn't come up as much. And every so often, I go through my old factory sets and organize them by the players who ended up making more of an impact. Rey Ordonez over three guys you've never heard of. That sort of thing.

But I always appreciated this Expos card for giving me two guys with the last name "White". Either way, it would fit. Gabe White had an 11-year career, including two as a Rockie, and his only postseason appearance was with the 2003 Yankees. Rondell White had an even longer career at 15 years, making it to the postseason twice, and the All-Star Game once, in 2003. During that Midsummer Classic on the South Side of Chicago, he pinch hit for Barry Bonds and promptly grounded into a double play on the first pitch he saw from Mark Mulder.

1994 Topps Gold #155 Todd Stottlemyre
Last up is Todd Stottlemyre, a Blue Jays pitcher that was one of the first American League players I saw on TV. There was no interleague play in 1993, my first year watching the sport. So other than that All-Star Game in Baltimore, where the announcers bantered about nothing while Andres Galarraga had the first-ever Rockies All-Star at bat (and was flirting with a .400 average), I didn't really see any American League play until the postseason. A couple names stick out in particular, Wilson Alvarez and Todd Stottlemyre. Their two teams battled it out for the AL pennant that year, with the Blue Jays beating the White Sox. I probably didn't see Game 1 or Game 2, as Game 1 was on a school night, and Game 2 was a Wednesday day game. Early in 4th grade, I was unlikely to see either of those.

But Wilson Alvarez started Friday night's Game 3, and Stottlemyre in Game 4 the next day. It was likely my first taste of AL baseball, the Designated Hitter, and names I'd only seen on the occasional card instead of on TV regularly. It was also the only World Series I'd see until 1995 for obvious reasons. Todd Stottlemyre started Game 4 of the 1993 World Series, but thanks to a 15-14 roller coaster, did not remain the pitcher of record for long. By now, though, we all know that Joe Carter came through with a historic home run in Game 6, helping Stottlemyre and the rest of his Blue Jay teammates earn their second ring in as many years.

Thanks to Matt for sharing these 1994 parallels! Clearly this set is a special one to me. To a card collector, there's nothing quite like your first factory set, and more broadly, to a baseball fan, there's nothing quite like your first season.


  1. I love the card stroll down memory lane. I can’t say I’ve looked at 1994 Topps recently but I’m rather fond of the design upon further examination. Great post!

  2. Great write-up as usual. These all came from a box I opened the day Tom Petty died:(.