Pete Rose was an almost mythical figure when I started collecting baseball cards in the early 1980s.
For example, my dad used to tell me stories about Rose’s exploits with the Cincinnati Reds even though Dad was never a baseball fan and Pete had been in Philadelphia for about five years by that point.
It was relatively easy to find information about Rose in those pre-Internet days, too, which helped build him up as larger-than-life in my impressionable mind.
He was interviewed and written about in The Sporting News and Sport.
He was all over the pages of hobby publications like Sports Collectors Digest and Baseball Cards.
And he was featured prominently in every baseball card set and subset I came across — Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Topps Foldouts, Topps Stickers, Fleer Stickers, Topps All-Stars, and on and on and on.
Pete was a bona fide legend, but that wasn’t the only reason he was getting so much play. No, it was becoming clear that Rose would do whatever it t ook to hold on long enough to break Ty Cobb‘s all-time record for career hits, commonly accepted at the time to be 4191.
Hence, “4192” became synonymous with Rose and his chase.
Given all that, I expected to see Rose around each cardboard and paper corner as I devoured every bit of information I could find about baseball and baseball cards.
But I was a new collector, and my world was modern. I wasn’t at all prepared for the display case full of old cards that ran me over one day when my parents took me to a junk/antique shop in the next town over when I was about 11.
It was a mesmerizing sight for young eyes accustomed to thumbing through wax packs filled with the round headshots of 1983 Topps and the bat-and-glove design of 1983 Donruss.
The Best of the Best
As mindblowing as all those golden swaths of cardboard were, though, one card knocked all the others to the side like a raging bowling ball and grabbed me by the throat — the 1974 Topps Pete Rose base card.
Of course, I didn’t know what issue it was from at first sight, and the card probably looks pretty mundane to modern collectors. After all, 1974 Topps features some of the grainiest photos and one of the more blah designs of the entire decade.
His laser stare was locked on an unseen pitch rocketing his way. He gripped the bat in both hands, throwing it forward to bunt the ball. His legs were already motoring toward first base, so confident was he that he’d succeed in his mission.
And just in case things didn’t work out, Pete’s mouth hung open as if he’d take a bite out of the ball if it came to that.
This man was throwing his whole being into getting on base for his beloved Cincinnati Reds, and the simple red banners accentuated Rose’s Cincy uniform.
The whole concoction was a red-alert, blood-pumping bundle of baseball grit that was irresistible to a young fan with a burning passion for the game.
It was a masterpiece in cardboard for which I gladly plunked down my hard-earned $3.50.
A pittance to pay for a card that still burns as one of my favorite from the 1970s more than 30 years later.