On this day 44 years ago, the world lost a Hall of Fame baseball player and a great humanitarian. Thirty-eight-year-old Roberto Clemente, revered as a national hero in Puerto Rico, was leading a relief aid team flying supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua when the small aircraft exploded and crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff.
Clemente’s untimely death occurred just a few months after he recorded his 3,000th career hit and prompted a special election that made the Pittsburgh Pirates great baseball’s first Hispanic Hall of Famer. At the time, Clemente was just the 11th man in baseball history to achieve 3,000 hits and his lifetime batting average of .317 was the highest among active players.
Clemente used a unique inside-out swing to produce four batting titles, a 1966 National League MVP, and 15 All-Star invitations. Quick, powerful — almost Hank Aaron-like — wrists allowed Clemente to stand away from the plate and drive the ball with ferocity to all fields. He also lead t
he Pirates to World Series Championships in 1960 and 1971, when he was named the Series MVP.
He got the most from his 5’-11”, 180-pound frame offensively and defensively. Most baseball experts and historians still regard Clemente as the best right fielder in baseball history. He patrolled Pittsburgh’s spacious Forbes Field for most of his career with speed and grace, earning 12 Gold Gloves and comparisons to Willie Mays as a defensive player. A strong and remarkably accurate arm kept base runners at bay.
Known for his charitable tireless charitable work, Clemente was recruited by relief organizations to organize relief efforts from Puerto Rico. He not only organized the efforts, but played a large role in gathering the goods and loading the plane. He was on aboard the plane because many people thought the relief supplies were falling in the hands of profiteers. Clemente wanted to ensure that people in need were receiving the goods. The plane carrying a crew of three and Clemente crashed in heavy seas just under two miles from shore.
Clemente’s professional career started on the West Coast and if the Brooklyn Dodgers weren’t so careless, history may have been different. The Dodgers originally signed Clemente out of high school with a deal that included a $10,000 bonus. In 1954, his first season as a professional baseball player, Clemente played for the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Montreal.
Per rule of professional baseball at the time, all players signed for more than $4,000 had to be placed on the major league roster after one year of minor league service. Any player not added to the roster could be signed by any other club for $4,000. Instead of adding him to the roster, the Dodgers tried to hide Clemente in Montreal by not playing him. Obviously, a player of Clemente’s talent could not be hidden. He was scooped up by the Pirates for $4,000, making him one of the best bargains in baseball history.
In 1955, Topps issued the first Roberto Clemente baseball card. The colorful horizontal cards featuring portrait and action photos along with the team logo in the upper right-hand corner are considered one of the best-looking sets ever produced. Kudos to Topps for producing a card of a top prospect with no major league experience — a rarity in those days. The final card featuring Clemente as a player, was featured in the colorful 1972 Topps set.
Drab, ordinary, jurassic are terms that come to mind when describing the Hostess Baseball Cards of the the mid-late ‘70s. The sets were nothing more than marketing ploys to sell more Twinkies, HoHos, Suzy-Q’s and King Dons (Ding Dons if you lived on the West Coast) . Big on errors and small on creativity, the Hostess sets featured the game’s biggest stars with simple head shots displayed against uninspired spring training backdrops and white borders.
Yes, the Hostess sets were dull, almost cheerless, but just about every 40-something to 50-something
baseball fan/collector (like the guy I see in the mirror every morning) has fond memories of Hostess’s lame attempt at manufacturing baseball cards. After all, this was the set that we assembled piece by piece while waiting for Mom to rummage through the produce isle at the local grocery store. This is also the set that got us hooked on The Sporting News, which played a huge role in the development of our baseball fandom.
Back in the day,Topps dominated the baseball card hobby. If the single Topps set — there were no premium, platinum or chrome releases — didn’t satisfy your collecting needs, the Hostess sets produced from 1975-1979 gave you another option. Dealers and collectors couldn’t buy Hostess cards directly from the company, so they had to work and spend to complete these sets.
Beginning in 1975 Hostess cards were produced in three-card panels on the back of each multi-pack Hostess box. The best part of this new wave of collecting was seeing what you were buying, which encouraged set building. Hostess panels — complete with an offer for a free issue of The Sporting News — kept in tact are more valuable and coveted today that cards cut from the box. Some cards were printed on not-so-tasty products and are more difficult to find today. Cards printed on the back of the smaller HoHos multi-pack boxes are often creased at the corners from handling.
Proofreading, editing and reading the daily box scores were not priorities for Hostess baseball card editors. The initial set was loaded with mistakes. Slugger Bill Madlock was listed as a pitcher, Rangers catcher Jim Sandberg was named Mike and outfielder George Hendrick became George Hendricks. Robin Yount, a teenage phenom at the time, is one of the more popular players in the set. Unfortunately, Hostess did not include a rookie card of future Hall of Famer George Brett.
Despite the quality-control issues, the debut Hostess set remains popular today with over 3,000 listings, including a handful of graded panels, currently on eBay. The 1975 panel set is worth as much as $400 depending on the condition. The single-card set varies widely because of stain issues — creamy cake fillings sometimes seeped through the packages — and cards being miscut.
Celebrating the nation’s bicentennial, the Hostess 1976 set includes red, white and blue stripes surrounding the player’s name, team and position. Collectors familiar with the 1976 Topps set will recognize some of the same photos in the Hostess series. The set is loaded with stars, including Brett, Nolan Ryan, Pete Rose, a Dennis Eckersley rookie and one of Hank Aaron’s final cards.
The 1977 Hostess set includes Hall-of-Famers-to-be Joe Morgan, Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, Thurman Munson and Johnny Bench. By this time, collectors learned to save the cards as complete panels. The complete panel sets are valued as much as $300 with the single set selling for nearly three times as much due to scarcity.
Although Eddie Murray was considered just another player at the time, his rookie card in the 1978 Hostess sets remains highly coveted. For the first time, a few action shots were used to liven up the product. Unfortunately the cost of producing baseball cards out-weighed the marketing advantages. As a result, the 1979 edition was the final Hostess set. Hostess went out with a bang, featuring an Ozzie Smith rookie card on the same panel as Nolan Ryan as well as Willie Montanez.
Forty-five years ago this month, one of the worst trades in baseball history was made, prompting one of the most hideous-looking baseball cards ever to be produced.
On December 10, 1971, the New York Mets sent 24-year-old fireballer Nolan Ryan along with three prospects to the the California Angels for shortstop Jim Fregosi. In hindsight, the deal was a disaster for the Mets, but the deal made sense for both clubs at the time.
The Angels obtained one of the liveliest — not to mention most erratic — young arms in baseball. Ryan posted a 29-38 record with an impressive 493 strikeouts, but an alarming 344 walks over five seasons with the Mets.
The Mets were adding an established big leaguer believed to be in the prime of his career. Manager Gil Hodges immediately moved Fregosi to third base, where 45 players had come and gone in the Mets’ 10 years of existence. The last of the original Angels of 1961, Fregosi battled numerous physical problems in his one season with the Angels, including a bad bout with the flu, a sore arm, a strained side muscle, and a tumor in his foot. The six-time All-Star batted just .232 with five homers, and 32 RBI in 101 games for the Mets.
Ryan moved on to a Hall of Fame career that included a major league record seven no hitters, 61 shutouts (seventh all-time), 324 wins, and became all-time strikeout leader with 5,714. This is just one of many trades of a big-armed, but erratic young pitcher dealt for a proven veteran. Unfortunately for the Mets it will be remembered as one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history.
In the early ‘70s baseball card sets went to press in late-December or early-January to be ready for distribution by the start of the baseball season. As a result, Ryan’s head shot for the 1972 Topps set was taken while he played for the New York Mets. The wrong Angels logo (they went to a capital A in 1972) was poorly airbrushed over Ryan’s Mets cap. For some unknown reason, the Topps production team failed to airbrush the pinstripes clearly visible from his Mets jersey.
To make matters worse, Ryan’s doctored image was printed inside the grotesque 1972 Topps tombstone design. Keeping up with the times and looking to change the drab designs of 1970 (gray borders) and 1971 (black borders), the 1972 Topps design features a bright, almost psychedelic color scheme.
One of the most controversial baseball card sets, the 1972 Topps series draws the ire of long-time collectors for emphasizing the product and team rather than the player. The team name above the player image is energized with bright, bold lettering that creates a three-dimensional look. The player name, however, is printed in a simple black font at the bottom of the card. Going against tradition, there is no mention of the player’s position.
The 1972 Topps set is not without merit. The series includes the rookie card of Hall of Fame Catcher Carlton Fisk, which he shares with Cecil Cooper (the featured player), and Mike Garman. The series also features the last regular card issued during Roberto Clemente in addition to late cards of Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Other featured Hall of Famers include Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, and Fergie Jenkins.
On this day in 1974, Hank Aaron smacked an Al Downing fastball over the leap of Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner for his 715th home run at Atlanta Stadium, breaking the record held by Babe Ruth for over 50 years. The night of April 8, 1974 still hails as one of the most iconic moments in baseball history. The celebration of Aaron’s accomplishment combined with new-found appreciation for home run hitters from a previous, untainted era has increased interest in Aaron baseball cards.
The 1954 Topps Aaron rookie pictures a raw teenager on the verge of greatness. The card design sports two pictures, a large headshot and a small in-action shot in the lower left-hand corner. Hard to find in mint condition due to wear, dullness, blurry lettering and off-centered photos, near-mint PSA-7 versions sell in the $2,400 range.
The slender 180-lb. outfielder would go on to hit an unblemished 755 home runs over his 23-year career. A right-handed hitter with remarkably powerful wrists and a smoothly crafted swing, Aaron was recognized for home runs, but his legacy included 3,771 hits (third all-time), 2,174 runs (tied for second), 2,297 RBI (first), and a career .305 average. Aaron also displayed outstanding speed and one of the better right-field arms of his time.
Topps, a chewing gum producer new to the trading card business, made a wide array of printing and production gaffes while Aaron was emerging as the game’s top slugger. After just a few years of producing baseball cards, Topps had yet to establish much of a photo library, so pictures were often recycled during the ’50s. The same Aaron head shot was used from 1954-1956.
The 1956 card (#31) also includes an action shot in the lower right-hand corner picturing Willie Mays sliding into home plate wearing a Braves uniform. A Topps artist painted the uniform. The actual photo of Mays appeared in a baseball card publication a year earlier. Near-Mint PSA versions of this hard-to-find relic accidentally picturing two of baseball’s greatest players sells in excess of $2,700.
Topps made an even bigger blunder on Aaron’s card the following year. The production staff accidentally reversed the negative on the 1957 card (#20), which displays baseball’s most prolific right-handed hitter batting left-handed. The card that has no-doubt triggered decades of bar room arguments sells for $100 in excellent condition.
The 1958 Topps “Baseball Thrills” card, picturing Aaron’s classic home run swing, celebrates Aaron’s Game 4 homer that helped propel the Braves over the Yankees to win the 1957 World Series. This Topps set is notorious for being mis-cut and off center. The rare gem is worth up to $125.
The ultra conservative Topps Co. rolled the dice in 1974 by printing “New All-Time Home Run King” on Aaron’s 1974 Topps card (#1) despite Aaron entering the ’74 season one home run shy of tying Ruth’s career mark. Fortunately for Topps, Aaron kept the suspense to a minimum, hitting a homerun on Opening Day. The ’74 Topps card became officially accurate a few days later when Aaron broke the record on a nationally televised Monday Night Baseball game with a homer against the Dodgers.
Aaron has gained popularity with today’s collectors, as baseball card manufacturers continue to combine baseball history with modern day memorabilia cards. His 2014 Topps Tribute “Game-Used Bat” card is a great find for $40.