Baseball card collectors love a good treasure hunt, and the thrill of the chase keeps us opening packs and rummaging through stacks of cards at flea markets, year after year, in search of a gem. You don’t even have to venture outside of your own collection to find a wealth of hidden superstars, though, because some of the game’s biggest names pop up where you might least expect to find them: on other players’ cards.
Whether through careful orchestration on the part of photographers, players, and card makers, or by simple happenstance, the game’s stars have been making baseball card cameo appearances for decades. What follows are ten more-or-less common cards with superstar cameos that make them more interesting, if not necessarily more valuable.
1971 Topps Bud Harrelson
After posed photos dominated their cards for most of the 1960s, Topps seems to have made a concerted effort to include more action cards in their early 1970s issues. While the game shots provided visual variety and gave collectors a better feel for the action on the field, most of the photos were grainy, and many were chaotic.
Such was the case for the picture on card #355 in the 1971 Topps set, which purported to depict New York Mets’ shortstop Bud Harrelson but could have just as easily been used for three other players and an umpire.
Most of the action on this card happens on the left-hand side of the field of view, where Harrelson applies a tag to the runner, while an umpire and second baseman look on. If Topps did not tell us that this was a Harrelson card, it might be hard to identify any of these four men, as their uniform numbers are hidden and the shot is panned wide enough that faces are just a blur.
In contrast to that jumble of bodies, the Mets’ pitcher on the play stands alone at the bottom of the card, his back to the camera. Even if the player’s #30 uniform did not scream the Hall of Famer’s identity, you can almost see Nolan Ryan’s Texas swagger as he heads toward the fray at second base.
While you can’t see Ryan’s face on this card, it still approaches close to $50 at auction in PSA 8.
1972 Topps “In Action” John Ellis
If you weren’t a New York Yankees fan in the early 1970s, you may have entirely missed the Major League career of catcher/first baseman John Ellis, who left the Bronx just before George Steinbrenner purchased the team and began building them back to prominence. Stops with the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers in the middle-to-later part of the decade likely did not boost Ellis’ national stature, though he did manage a couple of double-digit homer seasons with the Tribe.
In 1972, Ellis also had time and hope on his side, as he was a 23-year-old looking to build on an 83-game stint with the Yanks the year before. Topps evidently thought enough of the youngster to feature him on two cards in their psychedelic baseball card set that spring: card #47 was Ellis’ regular issue, while card #48 was part of the “In Action” subset that Topps produced that season.
In the action photo, Ellis has a big lead off of first base, and sneaking in to plug the gap between him and the bag is Hall of Fame slugger and Minnesota Twins first baseman Harmon Killebrew. Killer looks poised and alert, and you get the feeling that Ellis would have been toast if the unseen pitcher had delivered a pick-off move.
1973 Topps Bobby Bonds
Before Barry Bonds started shattering all sorts of records through whatever means possible, his dad, Bobby Bonds was the 20/20 machine of the family. Though the elder Bonds bounced around quite a bit later in his career and was never the caliber of player that his son would become, Bobby still finished with 332 home runs, 461 stolen bases, and nearly 1900 hits.
In 1973, he hit a career-high 39 home runs for the San Francisco Giants, and he also appeared on Topps #145, arms waving in the air as he tried to get back to first base before an unseen Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher could pick him off. Blocking Bonds’ path to the sack was the hulking figure of Bucs’ first baseman and future Hall of Famer Willie Stargell. Stargell, of course, would go on to win a share of the 1979 NL MVP award before being elected to Cooperstown in 1988.
You have to think that somewhere, a young Barry Bonds was watching this play and thinking about how he might some day surpass both his own father and “Pops” Stargell.
1982 Fleer Mike Easler
Leftfielder Mike Easler was a fine baseball player, one of the best the Pittsburgh Pirates had to offer in the early 1980s in the years between their 1979 World Series Championship and Barry Bond’s rookie year of 1986. Still, with 118 home runs and a career batting average of .293, Easler just didn’t put up the kind of numbers to inspire collectors, and his cards have always languished in the semi-star piles and commons bins.
One Easler card that merits a closer look, though, is his 1982 Fleer issue (#481). The front features a somewhat odd shot of Easler in a dingy dugout, rubbing down his bat handle. Over his left shoulder, with his back to the camera, Luis Tiant is engaged in conversation with a man wearing street clothes.
Tiant signed with the Pirates in February of 1981 and was released that October. In between, he made nine starts for the Bucs in his second-to-last year in the Major Leagues. He would spend 1982 with the California Angels and then move into coaching and administration. While he never fared well in Hall of Fame voting, Tiant is a Boston Red Sox legend, and his 229-172 record was good for a .571 winning percentage.
1983 Topps Reggie Smith
When the Chicago Cubs threatened to slay their Billy Goat in the summer of 1984, they were led by mid-season acquisition Rick Sutcliffe and young Ryne Sandberg. By that time, Northsiders were well-acquainted with the third-year second baseman, but Sandberg’s MVP performance was a revelation to the rest of the nation. As the Cubs marched toward the playoffs, collectors dusted off their stacks of 1983 baseball cards to pluck Ryno’s rookie issues from among the commons.
While Sandberg’s rookie cards quickly climbed to the top of want lists everywhere, collectors with an eye for detail soon discovered that the future Hall of Famer made a cameo on another card in the 1983 Topps set. On card #282, San Francisco Giants first baseman Reggie Smith has his glove hand stretched out toward the mound, waiting for a pick-off throw from an unseen hurler. The runner scurrying back to first?
None other than Ryne Sandberg.
1989 Topps Pirates Leaders
The 1988 Pittsburgh Pirates, fronted by Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke, won 85 games to finish second in the NL East and set the stage for a return to the playoffs two years later. The late-1980s Bucs were more than just their two star outfielders, though, as Bobby Bonilla, Sid Bream, Jose Lind, Doug Drabek, and others would all help make the team a three-year division winner beginning in 1990. So, naturally, when Topps was putting together card #699 in their 1989 baseball set, “Pirates Leaders,” they chose a photo of Al Pedrique. Pedrique, after all, was a utility infielder who hit .180 in 50 games with Pittsburgh in 1988, so the choice made perfect sense.
The card redeems itself when you take a closer look at the action in the picture. Pedrique appears to have just thrown to first during a double play attempt, knees bent beneath him to absorb the blow of his landing. To his left, a San Diego Padres player is in the final stages of a barreling slide intended to break up the DP, and that player was, indeed, a leader. Braced on one knee, arms pinwheeled in the air for balance, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn is just about to stand up, turn around, and find out if he saved the runner at first.
1991 Topps Carlton Fisk
In 1990, Carlton Fisk had moved past the level 0f simple All-Star to living legend as he rewrote the rules of catching longevity, squatting behind the plate for 116 games and smacking 18 home runs for the Chicago White Sox at the age of 42. Card number #170 in the 1991 Topps set celebrated Fisk with an action shot, the geriatric catcher looking stout and youthful as he waited for the ball to tag a runner barreling down the baseline toward him from third.
The large charge headed Fisk’s way was baseball’s prodigal son that summer, Cecil Fielder, who had been a prospect with the Toronto Blue Jays five years earlier but could not quite crack the starting lineup. A one-year stint in Japan changed all that and made Fielder a legend in his own right. It also enticed the Detroit Tigers to bring him back to the Major Leagues for the 1990 season, and Fielder delivered with 51 home runs and 132 RBI before finishing second in the AL MVP vote.
As the baseball world braced for the collision of superstars that awaited on Fisk’s card, the only hope for the future Hall of Famer to avoid sure disaster was Fielder’s lack of speed. Even as you look at the card today, the slugger is moving about as fast as he did that summer a quarter century ago.
While no Fisk card is truly a “common,” this one won’t set you back much on eBay, with even the Desert Shield version selling for under $15 in graded form.
1992 Donruss Jose Oquendo
Shortstop Jose Oquendo was once a hot prospect who was slated to be part of the New York Mets dynasty that was expected to develop in the 1980s. While the Mets did win the 1986 World Series, Oquendo’s time in New York was disappointing and short-lived. Still, he developed into a solid middle infielder and enjoyed a 12-year big league career.
Of course, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith owned the shortstop position during the 1980s, for the Cardinals and for all of baseball, really. So, when Oquendo landed in the shadow of the Arch, he shifted to second base, where he regularly ran into players intent on doing him bodily harm to prevent him from turning a double play. Such was the case on the day when the photo for his 1992 Donruss card (#280) was snapped, and the perpetrator was Andres Galarraga, clad in the now-extinct uniform of the Montreal Expos. The Big Cat’s presence steals some of Oquendo’s thunder but also boosts the card’s star power.
As if being muscled out of the limelight by the Big Cat weren’t enough, poor Jose could not even make the claim to being the best middle infielder on his own card. Peeking oaver Galarraga’s right shoulder, maybe just making sure that Oquendo is doing his job correctly, is Ozzie Smith.
1993 Upper Deck Tony Fernandez
For awhile in the mid-to-late 1980s, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Tony Fernandez was one of the better pure hitters in the game, and certainly one of the most durable players in baseball, as evidenced by his .310 average in 163 games and 687 at-bats in 1986. By the time he landed with the New York Mets in the spring of 1993, though, Fernandez was 31 and looking even older, maybe as a result of all those games at short early in his career.
Fernandez would find a second wind as the 1990s wound down, thanks to a move to less demanding positions, but on his 1993 Upper Deck card (#672), the veteran is in the shortstop slot as usual. Unfortunately, Tony looks downright feeble on his hands and knees beside the bag at second base, snow-coning the ball with his glove, deep grooves in his forehead. Behind him, a young Houston Astros player has finished his slide, hand on the bag, and is looking back toward Fernandez to see if the veteran has the ball.
Jeff Bagwell couldn’t have seen through Fernandez to get a look at his glove, but the youngster sure appears to be considering hopping up to run for third.
1994 Topps Bip Roberts
Leon “Bip” Roberts was small of stature at 5’7″ and 150 pounds, but he put together one big season as the Cincinnati Reds’ primary leftfielder in 1992. That winter, though, Cincy traded for Kevin Mitchell, and Bip was relegated to part-time duties at second base in 1993. That’s where we find him on the front of his 1994 Topps card, turning a double play at the keystone in front of a sliding New York Mets base runner. Considering that Hall of Famer Eddie Murray is barely off the infield grass in the photo, we can probably assume that the only purpose for his high slide was to take Roberts out of the play.
Bip Roberts never again had the kind of season he put up in 1992 (.323, 92 runs, 44 stolen bases), but he shared a Topps moment with the great Eddie Murray. It was a flash encounter that the men could not have recreated if they wanted, as, even before the card was issued, Murray was in Cleveland and Roberts had signed with San Diego.
While these ten cards certainly benefit from the added spice of superstar cameos, there are many, many more waiting for you to discover. A word of warning, though: looking for these hidden gems can be addictive, and you may find that you’ve been digging through your commons boxes or staring at Google Images for hours before you even know what happened. It’s a great way to spend a winter afternoon.