There are some sights — like Ben Affleck posing as Batman — to which no unsuspecting soul should ever be subjected, and which, once seen, cannot be unseen. For hobbyists in the 1980s, nothing was quite as jarring as catching our first glimpse of a Pete Rose baseball card with Charlie Hustle in a Montreal Expos uniform.
Even today, more than 30 years later, children of the era wake up streaked in sweat and haunted by the horrific dreams of the 1984 Topps Traded monstrosity (#103) that cleared the way for similar atrocities in the 1984 Fleer Update, 1985 Donruss, and 1985 Fleer sets.
And the most tragic part of the whole story is that it might have been avoided with just a bit of extra effort on the part of The Old Gum Company — Topps, for the younger set — or the Reds and the Expos
But We Didn’t Win, and You’re (Almost) 43
The problem really started when Cal Ripken, Jr., climbed the ladder to stab Garry Maddox’s liner for the last out in the 1983 World Series.
Had that “Wheeze Kids” Philadelphia Phillies team been able to come back and snatch the title from the Baltimore Orioles, the Phils likely would have been less inclined to part ways with the legendary geezer who helped them to another championship.
Heading home that fall without a trophy, though, the Phillies were stuck with the reality that they hadn’t been quite good enough in ’83 to win it all and that their starting first baseman would be 43 for most of 1984. They duly told free agent Pete that he was welcome to come back to the team, though at a reduced salary and with a diminished role.
Of course, Charlie Hubris was closing in on Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record, so he politely told the Philly brass to shove their paltry contract up the Phanatic’s nose, and he hit the open market.
Predictably, suitors did not pound down Rose’s door that winter, and he found himself teamless as January rounded third toward the groundhog. So, when the Montreal Expos came calling with some money and the promise of at least semi-regular playing time, Pete was obliged to embrace the Great White North.
“I’ve always considered myself something of an expositionist,” Rose told reporters at the time. Or something similarly complimentary to his new employers.
Cartes de Baseball?
Even today, when companies are expected to make changes to their lineup as quickly as Major League teams do, there is little chance that Topps could doctor up a card of a player who signs with a new team in January in time for the start of the card year in February. So collectors weren’t too surprised to find, way back before the L.A. Olympics, that Rose appeared in our wax packs that spring wearing his customary Phillies burgundy rather than his new red, white, and blue Montreal togs.
But this is the future — or is it the past? — and Topps issues its cards in series. If that had been the case in 1984, Series 2 might well have revealed Rose’s new look.
Those were the days of huge sets issued all at once, though, and so we were forced to wait until the year-end Topps Traded set to hold a piece of cardboard depicting Pete’s face under the indecipherable Expos logo.
Even that idea had problems, though.
Wait, Traded Where?
Throughout the spring and into the summer, while the Detroit Tigers threatened to win every game and Tony Gwynn eyed .400, occasional grainy newspaper photos and “wait-what?” TV highlights documented Rose’s adventures north of the border.
It wasn’t all that pretty.
While Pete found his way into the lineup most days, he was struggling to keep his average above .250. And watching him slash at pitches in his pale blue Expos uniform was painful for Reds’ and Phillies’ fans accustomed to more sanguine attire for Charlie Hustle.
If you saw him in isolation, you might have thought he was playing for the local pizzeria’s softball team rather than a Big League club.
At the same time, Rose’s original team, the Cincinnati Reds, were mired in a three-year nosedive the likes of which Riverfront faithful had not witnessed in decades. Predictably, then, an idea started swirling among the fan base — what if the Reds brought Pete back to Cincinnati?
And then, apparently, the idea took hold in Cincy’s front office, and Montreal was receptive, too. The Expos, after all were headed for a fifth-place finish of their own, and Rose wasn’t doing much to contribute.
The teams tested the waters on July 26, when the Reds sent Dan Driessen to Montreal for Jim Jefferson and Andy McGaffigan. That move, incidentally, freed up a spot at first for Cincinnati and had fans’ mouths watering.
On August 16, with the buzz snapping between Cincinnati and every baseball outpost in the land, the Reds made the deal that told the true story about Pete’s value in Montreal: Tom Lawless for Pete Rose.
It didn’t matter, though, because Peter Edward Rose was coming home, and he was going to be both a player AND the manager. He was also going to break Ty Cobb’s record on the Riverfront.
The only questions left were, how soon would Rose lead the Reds to the World Series and how long would it be before we had new baseball cards showing Pete in his Reds uniform again.
Sutcliffe Is a Cub, So …
Starting in 1981, Topps had issued a yearly “Traded” set that included the season’s top rookies and players who had moved to new teams too late to be included in the base set with their updated uniforms.
By the time Rose found his way back to the Reds in August, the Chicago Cubs were the darlings of the National League, thanks to upstart second baseman Ryne Sandberg and mid-season acquisition Rick Sutcliffe. Winning game after game since coming to the Windy City from Cleveland in June, Sutcliffe established himself as the favorite to win the NL Cy Young Award despite starting the year in the American League.
The two most anticipated cards for the year-end sets, then, and aside from the rookie card of Dwight Gooden, were Sutcliffe in Cubbies pinstripes and Pete in Cincinnati red.
Apparently, however the deadline for Topps to include player updates in their traded sets during those years fell somewhere between June 13 and August 16, because Sutcliffe made the cut, but Rose did not.
So when collectors flocked to card shows that fall and excitedly plunked down our 10 bucks for the 132-card boxed sets, our anticipation turned to horror as we thumbed past Gooden at #42T and landed on Pete at #103T.
There he was, in all his glory, slashing at an unseen baseball and leaning forward ready to sprint out of the batter’s box — in his Expos pajamas.
At that point, the man was a living legend, not the most lovable of baseball characters, but admired by millions and still five years from the scandal that would wreck his chance at immortality. Couldn’t Topps have made a special effort for him? Couldn’t they have whipped out their magic airbrush? Couldn’t they have replaced the block “EXPOS” with “REDS”?
Couldn’t they, for the love of God, country, and baseball, just have omitted Rose from the set entirely?
Apparently they couldn’t or wouldn’t do any of that. Instead, they opened the floodgate for ugly Rose cards that commemorated his 95 games with the Expos.
Awash in Red
Topps donned their Rose-colored glasses in 1985, issuing three Rose cards depicting him only with the Reds — a record-breaker (#6), a normal player-manager card (#600), and a standalone manager card. They never looked back from there, peppering Rose Reds cards all over their 1986 set.
Meanwhile, Fleer followed Topps’ 1984 lead, posting Rose in his Montreal uniform in their first-ever Update set (#U-102) and then giving him a special “4000th Hit” card (#640) in 1985, an Expos nod to go along with his Reds base issue (#550).
Donruss didn’t have a year-end set in 1984, but they saw fit to include a special Expos pasteboard (#254) in its 1985 set that commemorated “the final stop of his journey home to Cincinnati.”
The decades have blurred some of the initial shock of seeing Rose in a strange uniform, but the dissonance still rings across the years. Was Pete really an Expo?
We might have been able to deny those dark months were it not for the Topps Traded card that documented the incident for the world to remember.
If only the Reds and Expos had come together in June, or if only Topps had exercised some editorial discretion, maybe every Pete Rose baseball card would be awash in red, as the wax pack gods always intended.