(This is Day 19 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
The 1978 Detroit Tigers must have been a fun bunch to root for.
Just three years earlier, the Bengals had lost 102 games, but an infusion of young talent at the Major League level had catapulted the team into .500 territory and toward the middle of the standings in the tough old American League East division.
They were followed to the Bigs by another smasher, Steve Kemp, in 1977, and the image of a winning team started to developed. Bolstered by fellow youngsters Dan Meyer and Tom Veryzer, as well as veterans like speedster Ron LeFlore, Ben Oglivie, and Rusty Staub, that ’77 club climbed all the way to 74 wins.
It wasn’t all rosy, as Fidrych went down with injuries twice and looked iffy for the future, but hopes were high that he and the rest of the Tigers could push even further toward the front of the pack in 1978.
And, although The Bird himself made only three starts that summer, Detroit was bolstered by a quartet of rookies who helped them notch an 86-76 record en route to a fifth-place finish.
While first place may have seemed a long ways off, that team engendered dreams of something much grander among the players and among the fan base.
Cram in All the Rookies You Can!
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the 1978 Topps baseball card set was known for three things:
- It was home to the Eddie Murray rookie card, and Murray was a future Hall of Famer.
- It was home to Dale Murphy‘s second-year card, and Murphy was a future Hall of Famer.
- It was home to dozens of rookie cards of players who were at least good and maybe great, and it seemed a decent bet that at least one of them would also end up in Cooperstown, someday.
This set was an investor’s dream because it had a couple blue-chip cards which would increase steadily in value for decades to come, and it featured a slew of rookies that might pay off really handsomely should one of the involved players go on a mid- or late-career tear.
It’s pretty easy to look back now and see how it played out:
- Murray did his part by slugging more than 500 home runs among his 3000+ hits and was elected to the Hall in 2003.
- Dale Murphy declined steeply in his 30s and fell well short of Cooperstown.
- One of those other rookies did go on a late-career tear. His name was Paul Molitor, and he finished with more than 3000 hits, more than 500 stolen bases, and a .304 batting average that catapulted him into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
But even on his own card, Molitor was an afterthought for much of his career.
Trammell had been the proverbial slap-hitting middle infielder with that ’78 club, but he developed into a strong power bat by the early 1980s and stayed there throughout the rest of his career, which finally ended in 1996.
Next to Trammell throughout a storied run that included a five-game victory in the 1984 World Series after one of the most dominant regular seasons in history was second baseman Lou Whitaker.
Trammell and Sweet Lou seemed to match each other swat for swat and great play for great play over two decades together around the Detroit keystone, and both are at the top of most lists of Hall of Fame snubs.
And, like Trammel, Whitaker’s rookie card is one of those multi-player beasts/beauties in the 1978 Topps set that made investors drool and Whitaker fans weep. You could barely see his face!
Lance Parrish knew that plight all too well, toiling as he did behind the plate for the Tigers from 1977 through 1986. The catcher’s face almost never sees the light of day, so Parrish’s own quarter-rookie card must have seemed like a gosh darn spotlight to the young receiver.
That almost surely was not the case for Parrish’s frequent battery mate, young Jack Morris, though. Starting pitchers seem to have a natural penchant for the limelight, and even though the 22-year-old Morris had yet to break through to stardom, he managed to snag seven starts during that summer of ’78.
Yet he, too, was relegated to one of Topps’ super-duper super rookie four-player masterpieces: “ROOKIE PITCHERS.”
At one time or another, each of these four players looked like they were among the best in the game and like they had at least a shot at Cooperstown.
And yet, each was reduced — and reduced and reduced — to a tiny little corner of his rookie card.
Collectors and money guys liked the fact that Parrish shared his RC with Dale Murphy, and especially that Trammell and Molitor shared their cardboard debuts.
But when you looked back on the magnitude of their careers, the shoddy treatment by Topps was nothing less than ignominy.
Have It Your Way
Topps didn’t just issue their base set in 1978.
Instead, they teamed up with Burger King to issue four sets of 23 cards, each dedicated to a specific Major League team and each distributed through restaurants in and around the clubs’ home cities.
The four teams were …
The New York Yankees …
The Texas Rangers …
The Houston Astros …
… and …
… wait for it …
The Detroit Tigers!
And who do you think we find on the Tigers checklist other than the self-same young gents who would help build the team into a powerhouse?
And, these guys appear alone on their burger cards.
So, yes, Virginia, that means we get solo rookie cards of Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Jack Morris, thanks to Topps and BK.
Have it your way, indeed!
Sadly, Parrish still gets the short shrift here, but it’s really kind of fitting.
Of the four, he was by far the worst when it came to final Cooperstown qualifications.
So we can cut Topps some slack for dissing him again, and maybe even congratulate them for their prescience.
That still leaves us with three (still) potential Hall of Famers with beautiful rookie cards to consider and, spoiler alert, we’re going to choose one of them as the best baseball card of 1978.
But which one will it be?
From my memory of watching them play and for my Sabermetrics money, Trammell is the best Hall of Fame candidate among the three and should be in.
Whitaker is the most underrated of the three and probably should be in the Hall.
Morris is the most overrated — easily — of the three and doesn’t belong in Cooperstown. He was really good and racked up some nice totals, but is something like the 150th best starting pitcher ever.
This, however, is about baseball cards.
Star status and Hall of Fame prospects go into the consideration, but so do aesthetics and coolness.
And here, well …
Trammell looks like he’s in pain or angry.
The Whitaker shot is pretty solid — he’s looking slyly to our left and the stadium looms behind him. Still, there is something in his stretch that says, “indigestion,” and the photo angle is weird.
Then we have Jack Morris, Mr. Most-Wins-in-the-1980s. The angle is weird here, too, but …
Morris is following through in an obvious posed shot, but it’s closer to real action than the other two.
And, by golly, the baseball in the upper right-hand corner that shows Morris’s position — “P” — looks like it just flew out of his hand.
He’s also glaring at us and, sitting here in the 2010s, we know that same intensity would become part of his stock-in-trade.
These three cards are like a secret treasure that toppled out of your hamburger bag just as you were about to throw it away. All of them are supercool, but Morris’s is just a bit supercooler than the others.
It’s the best baseball card of 1978, even if Morris wasn’t the best pitcher of the 1980s — or any other time period.