Cooperstown Confidential: The Weird Magic of 1972 Topps Action

Is Roberto Clemente upset with a call or ritualistically rolling his neck?

Is Roberto Clemente upset with a call or ritualistically rolling his neck?

It’s become somewhat fashionable to mock the 1972 “In Action” series produced by Topps. Back then, action cards were a new thing, having just been introduced by Topps as part of its 1971 card set. In 1972, Topps realized it had a good thing in these action cards, which appealed to young collectors (such as yours truly), so the company decided to highlight each of these cards with a bright red frame and the words “In Action” above the photograph. In total, Topps came up with 72 action cards, an appropriate number for the year of the set.

In retrospect, some of Topps’ 1972 choices do seem odd. Instead of focusing its attention solely on stars, Topps also put out action cards for such “notables” as Bob Barton, Pat Corrales, Jerry Johnson and Clay Kirby, and journeymen like Curt Blefary and Jose Pagan.

Even more so, the photography on the action cards has drawn criticism. We don’t always see classic game action in these shots, like players swinging the bat or running the bases, or pitchers in the middle of their motions. Just as often, Topps seems to have included photographs of players checking their swings (Bill Melton), popping up (Bobby Bonds and Harmon Killebrew), falling off balance (Tito Fuentes and Blue Moon Odom), or being blocked (Ron Santo) by other players who appear more prominently on the cards. There’s even one card where the pitcher (Claude Osteen) looks like he has only one leg.

This is all legitimate criticism, which I have touched upon from time to time. Having said that, the criticism comes without context and does nothing to alter my opinion of these cards: I love them. I loved them when they first made their way into five-and-dime stores in 1972, and I still love them 44 years later.

These action cards represented a breath of fresh air for the hobby. For years, Topps had given us profiles, portraits, side shots and sideline poses, often from spring training and almost always outside the context of an actual game. By bringing action shots into the fore in 1971 and ’72, Topps gave us something different, vital and lively. These cards represented the actual game. For a young fan like me, there was nothing better than having a piece of cardboard that showed a player doing what he was supposed to do—playing in an actual major league game.

Topps had a limited library of action shots available at the time. I’m sure that Sy Berger, one of the creative geniuses behind the company’s efforts, would have loved to include action shots of players like Brooks Robinson, Al Kaline, Joe Torre and other top stars of the day. But he simply didn’t have them. And Topps’ sample of the players it did have in color action photographs was usually limited. Simply put, Topps went with what it had.

Even if we acknowledge that some of the action shots are flawed, there’s also some charm with that very notion. Action cards that show a player losing his balance, or popping up to the infield, bring some humor to the hobby. These cards also remind us of how difficult it is to play the game, how the game represents repeated failure, which happens far more often than the success of a grand slam, or hitting for a cycle, or pitching a no-hitter. As Tom Hanks’ character said so memorably in A League of Their Own, “[Baseball’s] supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The ‘hard’… is what makes it great.” Topps cards only underscore that accurate line of reasoning.

In Topps’ 1972 action series, we can find plenty of examples of such offbeat, out-of-the-box cards. Some show us failure, while others exhibit the frustration that comes with the game. Others are simply comical. Here are five examples—four players and one manager—that best illustrate those elements, giving us a peek into the part of the game that does not come so easily and does not make its participants look so good.

Bob Barton

1972 Action--Bob BartonHis action card (above) is distinctive in its sadness. We see Barton, a catcher for the San Diego Padres, staring forlornly through a wire fence after running out of room on a foul pop-up. Barton is wearing the Padres’ gray road uniform, but the angle of the photo makes it difficult to pinpoint which stadium on the road he’s in. To the left of Barton is a stadium security guard, who is staring in the same general direction as Barton, trying to locate where the pop-up has landed. As Barton squints his eyes on this sun-soaked afternoon, he grasps the wire fencing with his bare hand. For a moment, he looks like a prisoner behind bars, trapped and unable to work his way out of the enforced enclosure. It’s a fitting photograph for a player who was never a star, and struggled just to maintain his place on a big league roster.

For the most part, Barton was a backup catcher, a good-field, no-hit receiver who managed to last 10 seasons in the major leagues. He played mostly with the Padres, and before that the San Francisco Giants, and also appeared in three games for the Cincinnati Reds. This photograph was taken during the 1971 season, which happened to be Barton’s lone season as a starting catcher. Playing ahead of Fred Kendall and Chris Cannizzaro, Barton appeared in a career-high 121 games for the Padres, hitting .250 with five home runs and 35 walks. Those numbers were fairly pedestrian, even for a catcher in the light-hitting early 1970s, but for Barton, they represented a career season.

By 1972, when this card appeared, Barton had lost the catching job to Kendall. Barton played in only 29 games, hitting just .193, before being traded to the Reds in June. After appearing in only three games for the “Big Red Machine,” he drew his release and re-signed with San Diego. That’s where he closed out his career in 1974, given his final release in October, only two years after Topps saw fit to feature him on one of its special action cards.

Vida Blue

1972 Action--Vida BlueThis Oakland A’s left-hander was one of the most athletic and dynamic pitchers of the early 1970s, but this action card makes him look something less than agile. The Topps cameraman has captured him at an awkward moment, with his knees knocked and his head bent way back as he looks skyward toward an infield pop-up. If Blue had propped his head and neck back any farther, or tangled those legs together, he might have tumbled onto the pitcher’s mound at the Oakland Coliseum.

At the time of Topps’ release of its 1972 cards, Blue was coming off a breakthrough campaign that saw him lead the league in ERA at 1.82, strike out 301 batters in 312 innings, and win 24 games. Those numbers earned him the American League MVP and Cy Young awards.

In the era of low salaries and no arbitration system, Blue had little leverage in negotiating a pay raise, especially with thrifty owner Charlie Finley holding tightly onto his wallet in 1972. So Blue decided to stage a holdout and not report to spring training. Complicating matters was the lack of a Collective Bargaining Agreement in the spring of 1972, which caused an eight-day player strike. Even after the strike ended, Blue remained a contract holdout. At one point, he told reporters that he had decided to leave baseball for the business of making toilet fixtures.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Blue and Finley didn’t end the dispute until early May, and the left-hander didn’t make his season debut until May 24, when he entered a game in relief against the California Angels. In looking at his 1972 action card, a few fans could have been excused for thinking that Blue was looking skyward for godly intervention in his battle to extract more money from the penurious Finley. Such was life for players in the days before arbitration, free agency and multi-million dollar contracts.

Roberto Clemente

1972 Action--Roberto ClementeThere’s little need to explain who Clemente was. In contrast to Barton, he was a certified superstar who had reached the peak of his popularity by 1972. His action card came out only months after the Pittsburgh Pirates had rallied from a two-to-nothing deficit in the 1971 World Series, completing a stunning comeback against the substantially favored Baltimore Orioles. Clemente practically willed the Pirates to that Series victory, hitting .414 with two home runs, including the game-winning RBI in Game Seven. As a result, Clemente was as well-known as any of the game’s stars in the spring of ’72.

Rather than show Clemente in one of his many moments of glory, Topps opted for a pose of frustration. We can see Clemente batting in a game against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park, where many of these actions shots were snapped. (The catcher is Russ Gibson, another good-field, little-hit catcher of the era.) Clemente is so exasperated by the call by the home plate umpire that he is rolling his neck (and perhaps his eyes) in disgust. Additionally, we can see him running his right hand up the barrel of the bat, as if he is thinking about throwing the bat down to the ground in further protest.

In some ways, the card is very typical of Clemente. He played with fire and passion, and was more than willing to express his displeasure with an umpire, or even an opponent. The rolling neck is also emblematic of the player, though in this case, the reason for the movement is different than the usual cause. As he stepped toward the batter’s box to begin each at-bat, Clemente typically rolled his neck to loosen the muscles in his neck and back. Clemente suffered from a chronic back problem that stemmed from a car accident, thus the same exercise during each of his at-bats.

For those who remember watching Clemente play, this card strikes a familiar chord.

Pat Corrales

1972 Action--Pat CorralesFew cards represent failure any better than this gem from 1972 Topps. We see Corrales, the backup catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, moments after he has lost his balance and fallen on to his backside. Not only that, Corrales has lost control of his mitt, which he seems to be clutching with his fingertips.

To add to the comical nature of the card, look at Corrales’ head. Though we cannot see his face, which is blocked by his face mask, he seems to be looking directly at the photographer, as if to say, “Did you really have to take a picture of me at this moment? Really?” Clearly, this was not a hallmark moment in the career of Corrales.

Yet, it’s appropriate for Corrales, a player who struggled for most of his career. In 1971, when this photograph was snapped, Corrales was playing backup to a fellow named Johnny Bench, the best catcher on the planet. That didn’t leave much playing time for a mere mortal like Corrales, who appeared in only 40 games and batted a cold .181.

In fairness to Corrales, he was regarded as a good defensive backstop, and threw out 39 per cent of opposing base stealers. But he was a backup his whole career, not only in Cincinnati, but in Philadelphia, St. Louis and San Diego. He never played in more than 63 games and never accumulated more than 207 plate appearances in a season. His lifetime OPS was .567, even lower than Barton’s mark of .574.

Corrales would play one more season after Topps issued this card. By the end of 1973, he was out of the major leagues, headed back to the minors and preparing for a career as a manager. He would be featured on a few managerial cards, but none as memorable as his action shot from 1972.

Billy Martin

1972 Action--Billy MartinThe Detroit Tigers manager is not happy on his 1972 Topps card. A vein in his neck is starting to bulge. He is gesturing wildly with his left hand. In full scowl, Martin is expressing his utmost displeasure with the unknown home plate umpire, who is only visible through his old-style American League chest protector.

In the 1960s, Topps occasionally showed managers with their hand cupped around mouth, as if they were issuing orders to their players. With this action shot, we get Billy Martin in full boil, going face-to-face with the umpires who so irritated him during his career. As a manager, Martin was ejected 46 times, placing him 16th on the all-time list. (I thought that Martin would have had more ejections than that, but let’s keep in mind that he died young, at only 61 years old.) Given Martin’s temper, and his willingness to fight umpires on everything from their judgment to the interpretation of the rules, this photograph gives us the essence of The Kid’s on-field demeanor.

If you’re going to show a manager, someone who is no longer an athlete, in full action, what better way to do it than to show him arguing? This is Billy Martin just the way that I remember him.

These are just five of the action cards that feature some of the offbeat and unusual choices that Topps made in 1972. I could easily come up with five or 10 more. The cards of Killebrew, Odom and Osteen deserve their days in the spotlight, too.

Some will ridicule these cards. Others will be tempted to parody them. I simply continue to enjoy them.

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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Glenn-Troy NY
6 years ago

I always found the ’72 Seaver In Action card odd, he’s bending over laughing hysterically.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

Just a thought/hunch without any evidence to back it up. Were the players paid to pose for these cards? And I wonder if this arrangement was negotiated with the player’s union. Would seem a lot cheaper for Topps to produce an action card than pay a player to pose.

Chuck Nan
6 years ago

Hi Bruce,

I can add some detail to a couple of these cards. I grew up 10 minutes from Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Spent many, many frigid days and nights there in my youth. In fact, I am working on a historical book about the reviled stadium.

The Bob Barton card photo was taken at Candkestick Park. I felt that way since I first opened a lack in 1972 and saw it. I base this on three clues.
1. At that time, Candlestick Park had a mesh netting as part of the backstop.
2. The security company they contracted with was “Burns” and that was the uniform.
3. There is an empty orange seat tucked into the far left middle of the photo. The seats for virtually the whole life of the park.

I was at the game in which the Robetto Clemente photo was shot. It was the first game of a double header. One of the only starts Russ Gibson got that season.

Box score is here:

A privilege for this youngster to see Clemente play. As I recall the Giants won the nightcap, 3-0 behind a strong effort by Frank Reberger.

Sam Zygner
6 years ago

This really takes me back seeing these classic cards again. Clemente was always chastised by the press as a hypocondriac, yet in reality he played through a lot of pain.

Tom Daniels
6 years ago

I always liked that the photos in these cards were so idiosyncratic. Who needs another shot of Clemente sliding into third? There were more interesting and revealing and humanizing shots that made me feel like I understood the player a little better. They were interesting cards, better than the shots of guys with blurred logos on their caps pretending to pitch.

Jon Bauer
6 years ago

The Johnny Bench “In Action” card remains my favorite of his line of cards. Classic Bench in gear, pulling the mask in pursuit of a pompous. I also love these and wish there had been even more.

6 years ago

can getit your share this thank you
very much

6 years ago

just remind for me thank you
very much

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6 years ago

wow great for yor like thank you
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Señor Spielbergo
6 years ago

“As a manager, Martin was ejected 46 times, placing him 16th on the all-time list. (I thought that Martin would have had more ejections than that, but let’s keep in mind that he died young, at only 61 years old.)”

Or it could just be that he didn’t get ejected as often as you’d think – his ejection rate was only 2.03%, compared to 3.61% for Frankie Frisch, 3.70% for Earl Weaver, and 4.41% for Paul Richards. There’s a leaderboard on this site:

6 years ago

Once again, Bruce with a nice article to bring back memories.

5 years ago

So your saying that the cards are not worth a anything