(This is Day 16 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
Hype is just so … overhyped.
Misleading and possibly dangerous, too.
I mean, if we restrict ourselves to just baseball, hype might have led you to believe that:
- Brien Taylor would be a left-handed Dwight Gooden (OK, turns out he sorta was).
- Willie Hernandez really should have won the AL Cy Young and MVP awards in 1984.
- The Oakland A’s would steamroll the Cincinnati Reds in the 1990 World Series.
- “Baseball Cards” and “Limited Edition” co-exist after about 1970.
- Bud Selig saved baseball.
So, I generally try to avoid anything that’s heavily hyped, at least until I know it has real staying power. Sometimes forever.
The crowd is not usually a place I want to be, and I’ll often go out of my way to avoid doing what they’re doing.
That’s why it took me more than a year to see Titanic, why I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, and why I still have trouble getting really enthused about “modern” baseball cards.
I may, someday, but I’m definitely a back-of-the-hype-curve type of guy.
But this aversion to popular has its drawbacks — sometimes I miss out on really good things, and sometimes, it just makes things hard.
Like picking the best baseball card issued in 1975, for instance.
And I could take the easy, homer-ish route and pick Mike Schmidt or Pete Rose or some other member of the Big Red Machine, but I already gush over these guys quite a lot. And the Schmitty card in particular is no artistic masterpiece.
So I’m left to choose from the roughly 630 cards that don’t fall into the Schmidt-or-Reds division.
Ever since the early 1980s, when I caught the baseball card bug for real, the 1975 Topps set has felt magical to me. Back then, the rookie card craze was just spinning up, and no set helped fuel the fire more than the 1975s.
These weren’t some dusty dinosaurs from the 1950s or theoretical stars that might develop as the 1980s progressed, either. No, these were established stars in the midst of their careers, and any or all of them might be have been headed to Cooperstown.
Add that rookie power to an eruption of border colors that made a pile of the cards look like an exploded Chiclet factory and the mystique of the 1975 Topps Mini test issue, and you had a set with unstoppable potential.
Rice, Lynn, and Hernandez had already won an MVP award each by the time I snagged my first piece of diamond cardboard, and Carter was a perennial threat to both win the MVP and lead the Montreal Expos to the best record ever en route to what would have been Canada’s first World Series.
But in the early 1980s, no cards from the 1970s loomed larger than the 1975 rookie cards of George Brett and Robin Yount.
Brett’s minor league numbers were fine — he’d batted about .280 with 5-10 homers per year for three seasons — but nothing spectacular. It wasn’t until he landed in the Major Leagues for good in 1974 that Brett really found his stride, hitting .272 over 133 games. He upped that to .307 in 1975, and was a key reason the Kansas City Royals began to reel off division titles starting in 1976.
By the time the Royals made it to the World Series in 1980, Brett was a bona fide superstar, one of the best third basemen in the Big Leagues. He was also a threat to hit .400 and came pretty close that summer, finishing at .390, a number only slightly tainted by injuries that limited him to 117 games.
Brett’s time on the DL didn’t diminish his impact on the Royals, though, and he was named American League MVP.
While Brett was making a national name for himself, Yount was plugging along in the obscurity of Milwaukee. The third overall pick in the 1973 amateur draft, Yount was in the Majors to stay at age 18 in 1974.
Yount’s early years look fairly flat compared to Brett’s, but he did manage to lift his batting average from .250 as a rookie to .293 in 1980 when he was still just 24 years old. That season, he also led the AL with 49 doubles, smacked 23 home runs, and scored 121 runs, good enough to raise some eyebrows and score a few MVP votes.
He had arrived as an All-star shortstop and only the strike-marred 1981 season slowed his ascension into the national spotlight. In 1982, though, Yount resumed his climb and snagged the AL MVP award as his Brewers went all the way to the World Series.
It was about this time that I entered the hobby.
What’s a Guy Gotta Do?
I remember there being a decent amount of buzz around Yount, but he wasn’t the most beloved breakout MVP winner from 1982. That honor belonged to Dale Murphy, and his 1977 Topps rookie card leaped up in price with every card show I attended. It helped a lot that Murphy was a real power hitter, that he continued to hit homers in 1983, and that fans all over the country could watch him play on TBS most nights.
Yount, on the other hand, stepped back a bit in 1983 to mere All-Star levels, and collectors began to see him as a good player who had managed one excellent year. Not quite a fluke, maybe, but not that far removed
Meanwhile, George Brett sort of slid into the background by playing in just 144 games in 1982 and 123 in 1983, but he and his bat and his hemorrhoids were already legends. Every collector wanted his 1975 Topps rookie card, and the prices edged up, putting distance between him and Yount.
Then, on July 24, 1983, Brett rocketed back onto our television sets when he legit connipted after his home run was waved off due to a pine tar violation. He was a hothead, a butt, a jerk — but we loved it.
His rookie card lurched forward and then, carried by the Royals’ AL West title in 1984 and (finally!) their controversial World Series win in 1985, became the card to own, not only from 1975 but from the 1970s.
Not long after that October classic, collectors began to take stock of our still-active heroes and realized that Brett had a real shot at 3000 hits and the automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame that accomplishment entailed.
But, wait a minute … what was this? Robin Yount was also approaching 2000 hits with a possible run at 3000 in his future? And he was more than two years younger than Brett?
And we began to take notice — really take notice of Robin Yount. His 1975 Topps rookie card closed the price gap with Brett’s, maintaining a respectful distance behind the Royals legend until 1989.
That’s the year Yount won his second MVP award and looked like he might have several near-prime years left at age 33.
And that’s when we started thinking about not 3000 hits but 4000 — could Yount eventually challenge Rose as baseball’s all-time hit king?
Based on that speculation, Yount actually jumped ahead of Brett in the race for collector dollars over the course of several months, and both rookies climbed to well over $200 in raw mint condition long before any of us knew what a PSA was.
As it turned out, Yount declined fairly rapidly in the 1990s, and both legends retired after the 1993 season.
In the end, Brett had 3154 hits and Yount had 3142.
The entered the Hall of Fame together in 1999, though Brett appeared on more than 98% of the ballots and Yount appeared on less than 78%.
And that’s probably about right.
Brett was an all-time great whose peak teetered on the unimaginable.
Yount was an all-time great whose peak bumped above his “average” season but not by so much that he left you gasping.
Hype … Fulfilled!
Yount exceeded his hype, which was almost non-existent, while Brett pretty much matched his own. Given that Brett’s hype was always so much bigger, so much gaudier, that’s a pretty good trick on his part.
It’s the same way with their rookie cards, too.
Card #223, the Yount rookie, is a sunny, smiling celebration of a great career.
But card #228, the George Brett Rookie Card (definitely a proper noun), is an icon of the hobby that has symbolized the fire and promise of rookie cards and the 1975 Topps set for almost as long as any of us has known what a rookie card is.
And, despite my efforts to resist the Brett hype wrought by more than 30 years of mystique and titillation, the Brett rookie card is still the card I think of first whenever someone mentions, “1975 Topps.”
It’s the greatest card in one of the greatest sets ever produced.
So, as much as I hate to admit it, 1975 Topps George Brett card has more than lived up to its hype.
I’m still not happy about it, though.