Guest author: Ben Henry of The Baseball Card BlogJanuary 20, 2010
From Josh: Please enjoy the following rare respite from (as Travis Bickle would call it) “morbid self-attention” here at Cardboard Gods and welcome guest author Ben Henry, who after a hiatus has recently resurrected The Baseball Card Blog. Nobody knows baseball cards like he does, and today he turns his keen attention to the 1978 set as a whole. (Note: This card, which is from Ben’s collection, not mine, will note “count” in the still-ongoing “Love versus Hate” battle being played out using the Play Ball game on the back of all 1978 cards.) (Further note: please pardon my one editorial intrusion in Ben’s fine piece; I am addicted to morbid self-attention and can’t help myself. If you notice that I’ve befriended a young Jodie Foster and bought a Kris Kristofferson album for Cybil Shephard, you’ll know I’ve gone too far.)
By Ben Henry
A few years back I put the finishing touches on the 1978 Topps set. It was a labor of love, and not because it was my birth year (I was born in 1979) or because 1978 was a year of any real significance to my childhood (see the aside about me not yet being born)—I went all out and put this set together because Eddie Murray was my favorite player as a kid. Let me clarify. Eddie Murray was my favorite non-Red Sox player. Dwight Evans was my favorite Red Sock.
I had got Murray’s rookie at a card show at the Watertown Mall when I was 12 or 13, purchased in a dealer-assembled pack of rookies. Murray was smirking on one side and Mark McGwire’s awesome 1987 Donruss Rated Rookie was on the other. I remember I paid $14 for it, dumped the other cards in a box at home and sat mesmerized by Murray’s glare.
In the course of putting together the set, I spent money on about 50 commons it turned out I already had, and many fruitless hours trying to pry my beat-up Murray rookie out of its seal-tight plastic case so that it could take its rightful place in the binder next to Sparky Lyle. I also remained two cards shy of a complete set for a long time because I couldn’t find either the Royals or the Dodgers team cards for under 50 cents apiece (turns out I wasn’t looking hard enough in the right places).
The set’s really a beauty (for some reason that scripty letterman’s jacket team name font gets me somewhere between the throat and the gut), full of comically bad portraits, atrocious airbrushing, multiple cards of Hall of Famers, and, like all the other late Seventies sets, chock a block with stars history has somehow forgot (like Ellis Valentine).
If you have no idea who Valentine is, you’re not alone. I had to read “The Year the Expos Finally Won Something!”, a horrible clip job by Brodie Snyder about the star-crossed Expos of 1981 to find anything out about him. Valentine was a power-hitting All-Star, a fan favorite, and most importantly, a shadow of himself after injuries in his prime. That the Expos were able to pluck Jeff Reardon from the Mets in a trade for Valentine is a testament to his talent on the field. What’s also interesting about Valentine is that he and Andre Dawson were the same age, came up through the same organization, and were both incredibly and similarly talented. If you compare their stats from 1978 and 1979, they’re practically identical (Dawson had more speed, while Valentine had more plate discipline). Had he not been repeatedly injured, the Expos of the early 1980s could have fielded one of the best outfields of the last 30 years in Dawson, Raines, and Valentine.
There are other overlooked stars who shine in the 1978 set. Ray Knight’s rookie floats in there somewhere, as do Warren Cromartie’s and Bob Stanley’s, and practically the entire roster of the 1984 Detroit Tigers. Ron Guidry is in full effect on card #135, en route to one of the best post-Koufax/pre-Pedro years of pitching dominance. Ruppert Jones, coming off his All-Star season in 1977, looks pensive on card #141, and Dwight Evans—perhaps the most-overlooked star of the 1970s and 1980s—quietly stands pre-mustache in the far corner of the set at card #695.
Could 1978 Topps itself be overlooked? Could that be why I like it so much? Well, for one thing it’s hardly unpopular. It’s a low-priced mecca for cards of Hall of Famers and other timeless superstars (the Pete Rose was double-printed, for crying out loud). For another, you can find these cards everywhere, so it’s not as if it were somehow erased and forgotten like that betamax tape collecting dust in your storage unit. No, I like it because it’s a talisman, an inroad to learn about the game during a forgotten, overlooked time. Seriously, can you name an important feat that occurred between Reggie Jackson’s three World Series home runs in 1977 and George Brett’s pine-tar incident in 1983? [Editor’s note: Yes!] I consider myself something of an amateur baseball historian, and only two things immediately come to mind: Bucky Dent’s homer in the playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox in 1978; and the Pirates winning the World Series in 1979. Oh, and the short-lived brilliance of Ellis Valentine.