(This is Day 9 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
Quick … Who is the greatest catcher of all time?
If you’re like seven out 10 dentists in the greater Cincinnati area, you just said, “Johnny Bench.”
It’s OK if you didn’t answer that way — we’re all wrong sometimes — but be forewarned that this post is about Johnny Bench.
Or, more specifically, it’s about his rookie card.
Out of the Burlap Sack
Now, when most long-time collectors hear the term “Johnny Bench rookie card”, their minds immediately jump to the horizontal issue that he shares with pitcher Ron Tompkins in the 1968 Topps set. That card does generally fit the hobby definition of a rookie card and it’s the one that has received all the Bench attention over the years since his retirement in 1983.
But this is a series about the best card issued each year from 1960 through 1989, and I’m hard-pressed to pick any card from the base 1968 Topps set that fits the bill.
Mostly, it’s the burlap borders. They left me cold as a kid, and they leave me cold now.
They always make me think of weakly colorized late 1960s sitcoms like The Flying Nun and Green Acres. The shows were fine but didn’t really seem to know what to do with themselves. They piddled around with unlikely plots, decorated them with corny laugh tracks, and dabbled with Technicolor just enough to tint the screens on the few colored TVs in each neighborhood.
Those 1968 borders — for me — had much the same effect. Topps tried something different, something maybe they weren’t quite ready to pull off, and the results were uninspiring at best.
Even great rookie cards like Bench and the Nolan Ryan hobby behemoth don’t cut it for me from an aesthetic standpoint.
But there were other cardboard options in 1968.
The Topps game cards were fun.
The 3-D cards were awesome and proved to be one of the more scarce post-War issues from a major manufacturer. We waxed about the beauty and significance of the Curt Flood card from this set awhile back.
There were also several team issues and oddball sets that dotted the baseball card landscape in 1968, giving collectors a chance to break out of the burlap bag of Topps’ base set.
So what does all this have to do with Johnny Bench and his rookie card?
Well, Bench appears in a couple of those extraneous sets, including a Red-issued postcard and a Uniroyal Keds card (black-and-white).
For my money, though, the best Bench rookie card and one of the top cards issued all year is a bit … ahem … meatier than all the rest.
The Catcher the World Awaited
Beginning in 1955, Cincinnati-based Kahn’s issued black-and-white cards of the local Reds, expanding to include more clubs and adding color in the early 1960s.
In 1968, Kahn’s featured players from eight teams (Braves, Cubs, Indians, Mets, Pirates, Reds, Tigers, White S0x) among their 50-card checklist.
Bench had been a second-round draft pick in 1965 and spent the next two years climbing the Reds’ minor league ladder. He made his Major League debut in 1967 and, though the results weren’t spectacular, he broke camp with the Big League club in 1968.
And, as temperatures rose and Bench’s bat heated up that season, collectors could head to the refrigerated section of their supermarket to find an alternative to his Topps rookie card.
Now, the 1968 Kahn’s cards came with their own peculiarities — they were oversized at 2-13/16″ X 3-7/8″, they had blank backs, many of them were stained by the hot dogs they backed.
And then there were the borders.
Monster yellow-and-white stripes with a huge yellow-and-red Kahn’s rose logo on a tab at the top of each card made these babies hard to miss.
It could be overpowering, but the top tabs were meant to be trimmed away, and when you did that, the photos took center stage.
And what a picture Kahn’s gave us on the Bench card!
The young catcher is posed on the infield dirt, but it’s an “action pose,” with Bench coming out of his crouch and pulling back his catcher’s mask on the way to shag a foul popup. On his way to recording the out, he pauses for an instant to mug for the camera.
In the background, the field gives way to old-school outfield advertising and a perfect blue sky, just aching for a baseball game to break out.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful card among 1968 offerings.
It’s a great card of a great player with plenty of vintage flair. And isn’t that what we all ask from our baseball cards?