(Check out our other player card posts here.)

Not every superstar baseball player has an iconic baseball card — just ask Bobby Doerr.

And not every iconic baseball card belongs to a Hall of Famer — just ask Andy Pafko and his 1952 Topps card.

But sometimes, a superstar and a card company come together at just the right time, with just the right design featuring just the right photo to produce a truly iconic baseball card of a future Hall of Famer.

Such was the case when Rollie Fingers made his Milwaukee Brewers cardboard debut in the 1981 Topps Traded set.

Here’s what that looked like:

 

1981 Topps Traded Rollie Fingers

 

If you collected cards in the 1980s, chances are pretty good you’re well familiar with this card. But you may not know why, or maybe it’s not for the reason you think at all.

To find out how this hunk of cardboard helped elevate Rollie Fingers from all-time saves leader to a true baseball phenomenon, we need to rewind the clock a few years.

Charlie O. Sets the Stage

The Kansas City Athletics signed Fingers as an amateur free agent out high school in 1964, and he spent the next four years working his way through their minor league system. He finally made his Major League debut with the Oakland A’s at the end of 1968, logging one appearance and giving up four runs in one and a third innings for an ERA of (gasp!) 27.00.

The A’s weren’t daunted, though, and brought him back as a swingman in 1969 — he split time between starting and relieving for three seasons. By 1972, though, Fingers was the main man in the A’s bullpen.

Not coincidentally, that’s the year they began a streak of three straight World Series championships, and Fingers began to build his reputation as one of the best relievers in the game.

When owner Charlie O. Finley tore down that dynasty in the middle of the decade, Fingers signed as a free agent with the San Diego Padres in December of 1976.

Rollie continued his game-saving ways by the sea, even though the Padres never really came close to even a division title during those years.

By the end of the 1980 season, with baseball on the verge of a players strike, Fingers stood in first place on the all-time saves list with 244.

 

1981 Topps Traded Rollie Fingers (back)

 

That made him plenty attractive to a team like the St. Louis Cardinals, who hadn’t made the playoffs since 1968, the year before divisional play began.

So, on December 8, 1980, the Pads traded Fingers (along with Bob Shirley, Gene Tenace, and Bob Geren) to St. Louis in exchange for seven Cardinals, headlined by Terry Kennedy.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers were busy adjusting their roster of young(ish) players in the hopes that everything would gel under new manager Buck Rodgers.

Two players, in particular, drew focus from Milwaukee management – second baseman Paul Molitor and rightfielder Sixto Lezcano.

At 23, Molitor had already built a reputation as a talented and productive, yet fragile, player who needed to be protected from his propensity to break down.

Lezcano had shown good power, an excellent glove (Gold, in fact), and occasional speed over a seven-year run, but his batting average fell all the way to .229 in 1980.

With Gorman Thomas in center field and Ben Oglivie in left, the Brewers seemed set in the outfield, but Rodgers and general manager Harry Dalton saw the opportunity for improvement.

Their plan?

Move Molitor to center, Thomas to right, and Lezcano … well, move him out of town.

But what did they need in return?

Ostensibly, they had created a hole at second, but third baseman Jim Gantner could slide over to cover the four-hole and veteran Charlie Moore would assume everyday duties at the hot corner.

So … what then?

Well, as always seems to be the case with every team, the Brewers needed more solid arms, and a bit of extra pop from catcher would be welcomed, too.

On December 12 — just four days after his first trade of the season — Fingers found himself on the move again. He headed to Milwaukee, along with new teammates Pete Vukovich and Ted Simmons, in exchange for David Green, Dave LaPoint, Lezcano, and Sorensen.

It was a trade that helped set up the 1982 World Series showdown between those very same Brewers and Cardinals, as several of the players involved in the swap made big contributions to their new teams.

But before any of that could happen, baseball had a work crisis to address, and Fingers had some things to prove.

 

1982 Topps Kmart 1981 Topps Traded Rollie Fingers (back)

 

Split-Season Champs!

Eventually, of course, the players walked. The strike wiped out all games from June 12 through August 8 and forced MLB to concoct its split-season format that satisfied almost no one.

When they were on the field, though, the Brewers went about executing on the plan set into play during the off-season.

After a third-place finish in the first half of the season left their record at 31-25 heading into the break, the Brewers went 31-22 in the second half to take the hemi-season AL East crown and set up a playoff with the New York Yankees for the outright division crown.

As they were wont to do, the Yanks won the first-ever AL Division Series, 3 games to 2, but the Brewers had served notice that they would be a team to reckon with in the future.

And what about Rollie Fingers?

All he did in his first year with the Brew Crew was post a 6-3 record with a league-leading 27 saves supported by a minuscule 1.04 ERA and an even more ridiculous 0.872 WHIP.

Those gaudy numbers were good enough for Fingers to snag both the AL Cy Young and AL Most Valuable Player awards.

And that postseason hardware was the real genesis of Fingers’ cardboard icon status.

Because, in 1982 as Fingers and the Brewers were racing toward the World Series, Kmart teamed with Topps to issue its 25th Anniversary set of baseball MVPs.

And who should appear on a miniature version of his 1981 Topps Traded card right alongside George Brett and Mickey Mantle and Mike Schmidt but Rollie Fingers himself?

 

1982 Topps Kmart 1981 Topps Traded Rollie Fingers

 

Instant legend, bolstered by a production run large enough to ensure that every man, woman, and child can get theirs — several times over — even 35+ years on.

Iconic indeed.

Rollie Fingers and the rest of us owe yet another debt of gratitude to Paul Molitor and his versatility.

(Check out our other player card posts here.)

 

 

 

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