In 1968, Pete Rose won his first National League batting title with a .335 average that actually led both circuits.

In 1969, he pulled off the feat again, and in even grander style, raking at a .348 clip to lead all of baseball.

But in 1970, when his Cincinnati Reds made it to the World Series for the firs time since 1961 (and for the first time in Rose’s career), Charlie Hustle took a step backwards to .316, just eighth best in the NL.

Things got worse in 1971, when that BA dropped to .304 and then improved only marginally in 1972, when Rose hit .307.

Now, in the 1970s, batting average was still a vaunted part of evaluating player effectiveness, and any guy who could hit .300 over the course of a season was doing something right.

If he could string together two, three, or eight such campaigns in a row, he was a superstar.

And, of course, that’s just what Rose was — a superstar of the highest order. Even so, he entered the 1973 season on the verge of his 32nd birthday and playing at a level, batting-average-wise, a notch below where he’d been a few years before.

Add in a World Series performance in 1972 that saw him hit .214 with a strikeout every seven at-bats in a seven-game loss to the Oakland A’s, and the outlook for Rose in the new season wasn’t quite as, um, Rose-y as it might have been a few years before..

Heck, things were even “tough” for Rose on the cardboard front.

After ten full years of nothing but posed shots, Topps finally brought Rose into the fold of players who were pictured actually playing the game on their cards.

It was a trend that T.C.G. had been leaning into since 1971, when Bud Harrelson made a cameo on his own card amid four other guys, including a young Nolan Ryan with his back to the camera

Remember this card, because it’s important …

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And so is the 1973 Topps Pete Rose card, where the Reds’ left fielder is doing what he did best — wielding a bat:

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Of course, you might think that a player gearing up for a run at some all-time records (or at lest milestones) would warrant a bit more favorable depiction, but no — Pete popped up, probably in foul territory, using a yellow Wiffle Ball bat on that 1973 Topps card, and the image would stick.

See …

Maybe Rose caught a glimpse of this shot and was sufficiently irked.

Or maybe he went to work on his conditioning and focus in the offseason, though he was already known for his laser-beam intensity.

Perhaps he just felt more comfortable in his second season in left.

Whatever the case, Rose stormed back from mere superstar levels to win his third batting crown in 1973 (.338) and nab the National League MVP award as his Red won their third division title in four seasons.

Rose kept up his fiery rampage in the NLCS, where the Reds were heavy favorites to beat the Mets, who had narrowly squeaked into the playoffs with an 82-79 record.

Alas, the Championship Series stretched to the full five games, and though Rose hit .381 with two home runs, Cincy came out on the losing end.

It wasn’t just in the box where Pete mashed, though, as his hard (dirty?) baserunning led to one of the most storied bench-clearings in the game’s history.

In the top of the fifth, Rose led off with a single and then took out Harrelson at second trying to break up the double play when Joe Morgan grounded to first. Harrelson, who completed the double-up anyway, took exception to Charlie’s hard slide, and a 10-minute brawl ensued.

It’s a play, and an incident, that lives on even today when old-timers reminisce about the grainy-film brain footage from our baseball past, and the debate still comes along with it from time to time — was Rose playing hard, or was he playing dirty?

And that 1973 Topps card lives on, too, memorialized several times over as the old gum company dips into its archives from time to time to celebrate MVPs or record-breakers or … popups.

Probably most famous — and confusing for young collectors of the time — of these was the card’s inclusion in the 1982 Kmart set:

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Was it real, or merely a Blue Light special?

It’s a debate as old as time … or at least as old as the Rose-Harrelson footage makes us feel these days:

1973 TOPPS HIGH SERIES 529-660 PICK CARDS YOU WANT

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1973 Topps Franco Harris #89 PSA 8 NM-MT RC

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1973 Topps Baseball - Pick A Card - Cards 331-660

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