(This is Day 3 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)

The 1962 baseball season opened amid a flood of hope for the future that would prove impossible to maintain.

In the American League, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were back on the field after their historic run at Babe Ruth‘s single-season home run record the year before, and fans everywhere wondered what sort of power display they might witness in the new year.

No one really knew it then, but the M & M boys had seen their best years. Though Mantle would win the AL MVP award that season, he appeared in only 123 games in ’62 and his looming decline shadowed his every move.

Maris aged 50 years during the off-season and never seemed to live down the asterisk that Commissioner Ford Frick attached to his 61 homers the year before.

In the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers finally opened their shiny new stadium after four years in LA. But Sandy Koufax had not quite become Sandy Koufax yet, and, though they won 102 games, the Dodgers’ snazzy digs weren’t enough to push them past the San Francisco Giants.

Meanwhile, the NL added two teams to bring baseball back into balance a year after the AL expanded, leaving each league with 10 teams.

The Houston Colt .45s won their first-ever game, and the first-ever Major League Baseball game played in Texas, against the Chicago Cubs on April 10. It was a bit of foreshadowing, as the Colts would finish their first season at 64-96, good enough for eighth place, six games in front of the Cubbies.

But in terms of expansion teams, they didn’t come much more high-profile than the New York Mets.

 

1962 Topps Al Jackson

 

Rotten to the Core?

Here was the salve for the wounds inflicted upon New York’s National League fans when both the Dodgers and Giants bolted for the West Coast after the 1957 season. Here was the team that would fight for the Yankees for supremacy in the Big Apple.

It seemed like a great story.

In the end, an even better story emerged, as the 1962 Mets turned in one of the most horrid seasons of all time to become the measuring stick against which all other flailing clubs are judged.

They were the Mario Mendoza of teams when Mendoza himself was just 11 years old.

Part of what makes the ’62 Mets so compelling is that they were full of personality, from Marv Throneberry‘s baserunning adventures to manager Casey Stengel‘s legendary arguments with umpires.

Part of it is their quick turnaround. From maybe the worst team ever, New York became the Miracle Mets in just seven short years and won the 1969 World Series. Their manager during that magical season was Gil Hodges, a folk hero with the Brooklyn Dodgers and an original Met — he hit .252 with nine home runs in 54 games with New York at age 38 in 1962.

Want another point of distinction for that hapless New York Mets team? One of them is featured on the best baseball card issued in 1962.

They Call It a Woody

The 1962 Topps set is one of the most iconic issues of all time, and collectors tend to either love or hate the wood-bordered design. Though there have been many detractors through the years, it’s hard to imagine how anyone who has ever been a little boy pining for the diamond could not adore posters of their favorite stars tacked to a wooden fence. I mean, if you curl up Wally Post just a bit more, you might find the knothole that will give you a glimpse of Frank Robinson at bat.

It’s magical.

So magical that no other set from the year really merits consideration when picking out the best card issued that summer. But at 600 cards, that still leaves plenty of cardboard to sort through.

Given all that, and all the superstars on wood grain, and all the super special cards (Manager’s Dream, anyone?) the final choice for top of the pasteboard heap may seem a bit odd.

Give Him the Ball!

Let’s spell out just a few of the reasons why the 1962 Topps Al Jackson card, #464, is indeed the best baseball card issued that summer. Here we go …

  • Al Jackson was with the Mets from the start, having been selected as their #22 pick (from the Pittsburgh Pirates) in the 1961 expansion draft.
  • Al Jackson was a starter with that Mets team and stuck with it even as the dumpster fire raged. That season, he appeared in 36 games, including 33 starts, and finished with an 8-20 record and a 4.40 ERA.
  • Al Jackson stayed with the Mets through three more hideous seasons during which they lost no fewer than 109 games.
  • Al Jackson remained in the rotation throughout his New York run, crafting records of 13-17, 11-16, and 8-20 (again). What terrible symmetry!
  • Al Jackson was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1965 season along with Charley Smith in exchange for Cards favorite Ken Boyer. Jackson’s ERA immediately dropped from 4.34 during his last season with the Mets to 2.51 in his first season in St. Louis.
  • Al Jackson appears on the first Topps baseball card to feature an actual New York Mets cap. By the time Series 6 of the 1962 set hit the printing press, Topps had been able to snap more up-to-date player photos than the ones that relegated earlier Mets cards to heavy airbrushing and glimpses of other teams’ uniforms peeking onto card fronts. Jackson was the first Mets card in that series, and he flashes the Mets blue and orange to beautiful effect.
  • Al Jackson played for some of the most God-awful teams in Major League history but kept plugging away, year after year.
  • Al Jackson lived up to expectations:

1962 Topps Al Jackson (back)

 

  • Finally, Al Jackson is a living argument for the value of Sabermetrics.

His lifetime win-loss record stands at 67-99 for a .404 winning percentage. His ERA is a slightly more palatable 3.98. But his WHIP is a not-awful 1.336, and he struck out 1.8 batters for every one he walked. His career ERA+ of 91 means he was about nine percent worse than the average hurler over his 10 years, which is in itself some sort of miracle considering the teams for which he toiled. Yes, I know ERA+ adjusts for the team and ballpark and such, but does it address the drudgery and constant, monumental struggle of suiting up for the ’62 Mets?

When all was said and done, Jackson contributed five wins above replacement level (WAR) to his teams’ cause, and he crafted a career that looked roughly like those of Rick Langford, Vern Ruhle, and Pete Falcone. Those guys were no superstars, and they all lost a ton of games. But they all had decent seasons sprinkled in there, and most of them had at least a few years when they were considered really good starters, with the reputation to match.

All Al Jackson got was buried at the bottom of the commons bin and mostly lost to history, obscured by the hideous teams around him, his more flamboyant teammates, the Mets’ quick reversal of fortunes.

An Arm of Some Distinction

Well, that and a series of interesting baseball distinctions:

  • Jackson was the Mets’ career leader for wins (43) until Tom Seaver surpassed him in, yes, 1969.
  • Including his first season with the Cardinals, Jackson lost 15 games or more five years in a row. That’s a record.
  • On August 14, 1962, Jackson recorded the longest complete game in MLB history. It took him four hours and 35 minutes to lose to the Philadelphia Phillies, 3-1.
  • Jackson went back to the Mets in a 1967 trade and pitched out of the bullpen in New York in 1968 and 1969 … but he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in June of ’69 and thus missed out on the World Series.

How poetic would it have been had Jackson joined Hodges as an original Met who lived through the lean times but reaped the glory of their Miracle season?

Pretty darn, if you ask me. But considering the course of his career, being shipped to Cincy just in the nick of time was probably more fitting.

Jackson retired after that summer of 1969 at just 33 years of age, but he was back in baseball as a coach by 1977.  He continued to tutor young pitchers right up through the 2000 season when he worked for — you guessed it — the New York Mets and manager Bobby Valentine.

It’s doubtful most of those tender arms realized who “Little” Al Jackson was, or how important he was in Mets history.

Really, though, all they had to do was pull out his 1962 Topps card.

It was the best.