Card Corner Plus: ’80s Topps was Tops

(via Michelle Jay)

By February of 1980, I was looking for a boost from baseball. It had been a difficult 1979, mostly because of the tragic death of Thurman Munson, one of my favorite players. It didn’t help that Munson’s New York Yankees, the team I followed so closely throughout the 1970s, had endured a dreadful and disappointing season on so many fronts, with Munson’s accident the lowest of low points. I was ready for a better season of baseball in 1980.

Thankfully, the Topps Company delivered something promising in February with the publication of its new set of cards. Right from the start, I loved the basic, clean layout that provided such a nice framework for the photographs.

Many years later, a fellow collector pointed out to me that Topps basically took the banner motif from its 1974 set and put the banners on a diagonal slant. Topps also tinkered with the content of the banners. In the ’74 set, the top banner indicated the city in which the team played, while the bottom banner listed the team nickname. For the 1980 set, Topps continued to feature the team nickname in the bottom banner while making the top banner the position listing for the player. Topps also varied the color scheme. While the ’74 banners had matching colors, Topps gave the 1980 banners two distinct colors, making the set all the more vibrant in appearance.

Besides being more colorful, the 1980 set’s photography is much improved over its 1974 predecessor. The photos are much clearer, with action shots that give us a closer look at the players as opposed to the long-distance views of the early 1970s. The set also features a nice balance between action shots and portraits, in contrast to the cards of today, which tilt so heavily toward the action side as to make the cards repetitive and predictable.

In kicking off a new decade, Topps found itself hitting all the right chords with its 1980 edition. Along with the 1983 and 1987 sets, I think it was it one of the better sets of that decade.

As a way of getting more familiar with 1980 Topps, let’s present an array of six cards. This selection includes a player’s rookie appearance on cardboard and the final appearances of three veteran players. And yes, there’s a little bit of action thrown into the mix, along with a baseball card mystery and a decided lack of hygiene.

Tom Brookens (No. 416): This was Brookens’ rookie card, coming the season after he debuted with the Detroit Tigers as a utility man. I didn’t give Brookens’ card much thought at the time; while I had heard of him, he seemed like a run-of-the-mill player who was destined to back up Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell. But in looking back at the card a few years ago, something seemed amiss. I stared at the photo and realized it didn’t look like Brookens, at least not the Brookens I remember from the 1980s.

Most blatantly, Brookens’ face looks a little bit on the thick side. I remember him being thinner, with more definition to his cheeks and jaw. I also recalled Brookens wearing glasses; here he is without them.

That led me to think this was not Brookens and instead another case of mistaken identity. Given Brookens was a young and unestablished player at the time, a mix-up in photographs seems understandable. In fact, the mistaken identity might have involved Brookens’ family. Could this be Brookens’ twin brother, Timothy, who had played minor league ball for the Tigers in the 1970s? Tim Brookens played his last season in 1978, meaning he might have gone to spring training with the club that season. Perhaps Topps had dipped into in 1978 archive rather than selecting a photograph taken from 1979. Stranger things have happened.

Just when I was ready to declare this to be a photograph of Timothy Brookens, something else popped into my mind. What about Tom Brookens’ mustache? In his early major league playing days, Brookens did not wear a mustache. By his 1981 card, the mustache would appear, and in full bloom. If we were simply to draw in a bushy mustache, this would look much more like the Tom Brookens of my youthful memory.

Brookens himself can provide corroboration. As he told writers Larry Hilliard and Pat Kilroy for their SABR biography oof him, Tigers manager Sparky Anderson enforced a no-mustache policy on the Tigers in 1979. “That was Sparky’s rule, when I first got to Detroit in 1979,” Brookens said. “Sparky had a rule—no mustaches allowed—and then in 1980 he really let loose [and allowed it]. I had a mustache [in the minors] the day I was called up, and shaved the day I got to Tiger Stadium.”

Mystery solved: this was Tom Brookens after all.

Bernie Carbo (No. 266): While Brookens was making his first appearance on a card, Bernie Carbo was saying farewell. In 1980, Carbo played for the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, two teams plagued by cocaine use. By no coincidence, cocaine was one of several drugs Carbo used during the 1970s.

By May of 1980, this card had become somewhat obsolete. That’s when the Cardinals released Carbo, who then found some work with the Pirates. After just seven plate appearances, the Pirates released him after the season. In June of 1981, Carbo would sign a minor league deal with the Tigers, but he never made it back to the big leagues. Thus, the 1980 card became his finale.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

It has long been a memorable card. Carbo is wearing a luxurious and full-bodied perm, which was becoming popular among major leaguers. This was especially fitting for Carbo, who would become a hairdresser. For eight years, Carbo operated a hair salon.

Carbo’s bat also is worth noting. It is filthy, full of pine tar, dirt, and who knows what else. I’m guessing pine tar is the most prevalent material, and if it is, this bat would have been illegal, since the pine tar clearly exceeds the 18-inch limit. Somehow, I don’t think Carbo was paying much attention to the pine tar.

Finally, let’s take note of Carbo’s facial expression. He looks a bit dazed and out of sorts, and I guess that’s sadly appropriate for a player who heavily used drugs, including amphetamines and alcohol, and often acted in strange ways.

Thankfully, the card did not represent the final chapter for Carbo. Ex-teammates Fergie Jenkins and Bill Lee put him in touch with Sam McDowell, the retired pitcher who had found his way in overcoming alcoholism. McDowell helped Carbo enter a rehabilitation program, which he completed successfully. Since then, Carbo has founded a Christian ministry, become a motivational speaker, and written a book about his struggles.

I met Carbo a few years ago during a visit to the Hall of Fame. He said he has been drug-free since 1995, and I believe him. He seemingly has come a long way since that 1980 Topps card.

Rico Carty (No. 46): As with Carbo, this 1980 entry was the last of Carty’s career. He was expected to serve as a designated hitter and pinch hitter for the Toronto Blue Jays that summer, but age and bad knees finally caught up with him. On March 29, during the final days of spring training, the Jays released Carty, ending a long, successful and tumultuous career.

By the time this photograph was snapped, Carty had taken on the look of a well-worn veteran. A few wrinkles appear on his face, not surprising for a player in his late 30s, along with lengthy sideburns and a full mustache. Carty gives us a pose that epitomizes the bearing of a wise and reasoned veteran. His left arm draped on the railing, Carty is gazing toward the playing field with that all-knowing look that has seen so much during a career that dated back to the early 1960s. He looks like a leader, an ancient seer whom his younger teammates can call upon for sage advice.

Yet, Carty was really not such a wise veteran who provided advice to others—at least for the bulk of his career. Rather, he was a free spirit who liked to express himself and didn’t like others imposing rules on him. He once dared to fight Hank Aaron in the Atlanta Braves’ clubhouse. While in Texas, Carty verbally sparred with his manager, Whitey Herzog. With the Chicago Cubs, Carty clashed with Ron Santo, one of the Cubs’ most prominent clubhouse leaders. Later in his career, Carty argued with Frank Robinson, his manager in Cleveland. In just about every stop along the way, Carty found himself taking on teammates or managers, if not both.

After his playing days, Carty turned to politics in his native Dominican Republic. He ran for mayor of the city of San Pedro de Macoris, won the election, and then had his victory taken away by a controversial recount. Turned off by the political world, Carty moved on to other interests, including baseball. Over the years, he has become something of a baseball ambassador in the Dominican Republic. He has served as a mentor to a number of former stars such as Alfonso Soriano and a few current-day standouts like Robinson Cano.

It took him awhile, but Carty has embraced the role that 1980 Topps card had foreshadowed for him. After years of fighting and so many episodes of conflict, Carty has become the wise baseball man of reason.

Dave Collins (No. 73): Until now, the cards I’ve spotlighted from 1980 Topps are portraits and posed shots, but one action card stands out as a particular favorite. It’s a great image of Collins playing in a game for the Cincinnati Reds at Shea Stadium. I love the photo, a clear daytime shot of Collins at the point that he finished his swing, both hands still gripping the bat, his legs primed and ready to begin his run toward first base. He just looks like the good athlete that he was, well-balanced after taking a full swing.

Collins was one of my favorite players of this era. Playing his peak years with the Reds, Collins was a full-charging, hard-hitting speedster who played with dynamic tension—like a wrapped coil ready to spring at any moment, either at the plate or on the basepaths. In some ways, you could have called Collins “Pete Rose Lite;” he played the game the same way as Rose, even if he didn’t have Charlie Hustle’s hitting ability or versatility.

Just two years after this card came out, Collins joined the Yankees, causing me the kind of excitement most rational humans cannot understand. I thought Collins, playing in New York, would receive the accolades that eluded him in small-market Cincinnati. But by 1982, Collins was not quite the same player, and the Yankees never could figure out how to use him. A few years later, I learned more about Collins, who was praised by writers Moss Klein and Bill Madden in their book, Damned Yankees. Always referring to him as “Davey” Collins, they wrote about his mild-mannered and cordial demeanor, which never seemed to waver in the 1980s version of The Bronx Zoo.

For most of that season, Collins watched in confusion as the Yankees plowed through three managers, three batting coaches, and five pitching coaches. They used a lot more outfielders and first basemen than that, creating a logjam that prevented him from finding his footing in New York. Collins never seemed to know where he would play, or if he would play at all. Surrounded by this swirl of insanity, Collins could have lost his temper, but he never did, instead doing his best to remain calm and sane.

All in all, a good guy in addition to being a fun player to watch.

Ross Grimsley (No. 375): Another vivid action shot is on the card belonging to Grimsley, a flaky and colorful left-hander. It gives us a good view of the “tilt” in his pitching motion, his back leg and left arm shifting downward, his right arm tilting toward a higher plane. Grimsley’s grip on the ball is fully evident from this side view but probably difficult for the hitter to pick up from his vantage point at the plate. Sure, like any card, it’s a still photograph, but it gives us a neat peek into the artistry and mechanics of a major league pitcher’s delivery.

Just as apparent is Grimsley’s grooming, or lack thereof. A large tuft of hair is making its way out of the back of his cap, which somehow remains on top of his head despite the jumbled overgrowth. Grimsley is sporting a full beard, which extends all the way to his large sideburns. A mustache completes the picture of a pitcher in his fully hirsute state.

If Grimsley looks unkempt, this is not the case of him being caught on a bad hair day. Outside his early career in Cincinnati, where the Reds enforced strict hair and grooming rules, he pretty much looked like this all of the time. Beginning with his tenure with the Baltimore Orioles, he grew his hair out, sometimes leaving it straight and sometimes coiffing it into a perm. Nicknamed “Scuzzy” by some of his teammates, he supposedly didn’t like to take showers or wash his hair on anything approaching a regular basis. He may have had an ulterior motive for the latter habit; many opponents that he loaded up the ball with some kind of sticky substance, which was easy to disguise amid the mass of moistened hair.

Somehow, I don’t think umpires of the day wanted any part of examining Grimsley for grease, Vaseline, or anything else for that matter. As is plainly apparent from his 1980 card, it was better to keep a safe distance from the pitcher known as Scuzzy.

Bob Montgomery (No. 618): This 1980 card gives us a final look at career-long backup Bob Montgomery, who would draw his release that spring. It’s a card that also seems a bit off kilter. Montgomery is kneeling in the on-deck circle, getting ready to take his at-bat. But he is not wearing a helmet, and there is no helmet to be seen anywhere near him. That’s because Montgomery played his whole career without using a batting helmet, instead wearing a soft cap with a protective liner.

Montgomery was the last man to take his at-bats without the protection of a hard helmet. His final plate appearances came in 1979, one year before the release of this card. Eight years earlier, Major League Baseball had made batting helmets mandatory, but a grandfather clause allowed veterans to wear caps as long as they had protective liners underneath. The handful of players opting to go without helmets included Montgomery, Norm Cash, and Tony Taylor. Cash and Taylor would retire before Montgomery, leaving the longtime Boston Red Sox backup as the last man standing.

Over his 10-year career, Montgomery was hit by pitches only seven times, so he obviously knew how to remove himself from the path of incoming fastballs. Perhaps even more pertinently, Montgomery had his own pilot’s license, a rarity among major league players. He was known to make his way to Red Sox spring training in Florida by flying a rented plane. If Montgomery felt little fear in flying a small plane on his own, I imagine it didn’t bother him much to step into the batter’s box without the piece of protection that has become the standard in baseball over the last 40 years.

These six cards provide just a small glimpse into the 1980 Topps collection. There’s plenty of history to be found here, along with strong photography, nicely focused and framed action, and a number of farewells to longtime veterans. For a suffering fan coming off the misery of 1979, this set of cards provided a near-perfect remedy and a beacon signaling a better baseball season ahead.

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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2 years ago

I’ve always found the 1980 set to be rather bland, and always looks a little cockeyed due to the tilt of the banners. The 83 is beautiful though.