At a recent card show where I’d taken a table, a customer purchased some vintage Cincinnati Reds cards and explained his passion for cards of guys who played for the Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s. After I thanked him for his payment, the thought occurred to me that the Reds have to be the most beloved and collected team of that era. Out of the five teams which won the World Series in 1970s, those teams still have an aura that no other team of that decade has.
Every other World Series winning team from that decade has Hall of Famers and other popular players but from a team standpoint, there isn’t huge interest in the overall teams from a collecting standpoint.
The Baltimore Orioles would win the 1970 World Series. They had Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer and some other talent but their time at the top was short and they didn’t return to the World Series for 13 more years.
Just an aside; while national interest in those Orioles was limited, one guy who always needed early 1970s O’s cards was a dealer named Phil Spector (no not the rock music producer but I would wager he has great stories to tell about being mistaken for him). Phil was well-known in the hobby and some of us even remembered his old address many years later. I was stunned when I got to Beckett in 1990 and Mike Hersh, who came on about the same time, also could recite his address from memory.
But while Brooks is beloved by all, somehow the 1970s O’s haven’t quite captured the fancy of those Bench/Rose/Morgan teams. I do want to point out that when we discuss the collectability of any of these teams, we are not discussing individual rookie cards which may be very popular. The 1957 Brooks Robinson rookie is a tough card, but doesn’t really relate to collecting cards on the championship team more than a dozen years later.
The Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in 1971 and 1979. Both times they bested the Orioles and they were each led by an aging superstar who would die too young. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to have heard about Roberto Clemente who was the hero in the 1971 series. That was the first of the three important aspects of the final two years of Clemente’s life. The second was on the final day of the 1972 season in which Jon Matlack “grooved” a pitch so Clemente could notch his 3000th and what would develop to be the final hit of his career. There is something magical about ending a great career with a nice round number.
On New Year’s Eve in 1972, Clemente was on a plane which was loaded with supplies to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua when and the plane crashed into the ocean and Clemente’s body was never found. The Pirates, much like the Orioles, stayed competitive till the end of the decade and in 1979 they would win their second World Series of the decade.
The 1979 Pirates were led by Willie Stargell, who won many awards in 1979 and became part of the lexicon of those days for handing out “Stargell Stars” which his teammates proudly wore on their caps. Stargell, one of the most intimidating batters of the 1970s, is also enshrined in the Hall of Fame. I will tell you that there are still a decent amount of Pittsburgh collectors active and I have had over the past few years quite a bit of call for all cards from that area. Those old Pirates—Clemente in particular—have a following but really take a backseat to the 70s Steelers dynasty in terms of card demand.
To me the most surprising team with lack of interest is the 1972-74 Swinging A’s. After all, they won three straight World Series and had so many great personalities that you would think collectors would still be chasing the A’s cards of that era.
Their biggest star was Reggie Jackson who didn’t capture collector interest until his epic World Series performance in New York a few years later. Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Rollie Fingers, although he had the best mustache in baseball, are both Hall of Famers but outside of the Bay Area, interest is limited. I don’t think I’ve ever had a buyer come to my table trying to put together old A’s team sets.
Produced in the spring, Burger King’s 1977 and ’78 sets, produced in cooperation with Topps, really capture the active roster of those squads, which brought championships back to the city after a long drought.
By the way, some of the great stories about how innovative card dealers could be about getting those cards from Burger King were raft in those days. As I recall, there was one dealer who dressed up as a camp counselor to say his campers really needed the rare Lou Piniella card to complete their sets. I’m sure other dealers came up with sob stories to get those BK managers to give them up.
Just as with the A’s, Reggie Jackson was a key player for the team but the 70s Yankee who has remained the most popular is Thurman Munson. While it’s unlikely he’ll ever make the hall of Fame, Munson remains a tragic hero after dying in a plane crash in August of 1979, when his final trading cards were still sitting in packs.
The Reds? They just seem to capture America’s fancy. From the great nickname to their regular appearances on the NBC Game of the Week and All-Star Games to their black shoes, short hair and colorful manager, Sparky Anderson, they were a team that just naturally made an indelible mark. And even more as a team, they played in what was considered one of the greatest World Series games of all time; the classic extra-inning Game 6 against the Red Sox. They lost the game, but won the Series.
The country was so enthralled by that series that after Game 7, the Reds were on their way and when they repeated in 1976 with a dominating year and post-season, they had become almost larger than life as a team.
Among collectors, everyone has a favorite Cinci player. Tony Perez was a hitting metronome and drove in 90 or more runs for 11 straight seasons (1967-77).
Joe Morgan was considered by many to be the best all-around player in the game. And yet, they weren’t the two most popular names with fans—or collectors.
Johnny Bench was an All-American boy from Oklahoma to whom Ted Williams once signed a baseball “From a Hall of Famer to a future Hall of Famer”. Well around 1978 that would have been accurate but Williams signed that to Bench when he was not even 22 years old. Today the equivalent would be Hank Aaron signing such a baseball to Mike Trout circa 2011. Bench was so big in the 1970s with all those commercials and other interests that he was the most expensive card of the 1970s Reds during those peak seasons and immediately after.
Pete Rose was the heart and soul of the Big Red Machine. He moved to third base as the final piece of the championship puzzle and was, of course, known for his all out, aggressive style that resonated with collectors, especially after his playing days. Much has been written about what happened since and while we could argue what made Rose so great was what eventually did him in, we cannot argue about the career numbers he accumulated.
Griffey. Concepcion. Foster. Driessen. Geronimo. Many can still recite the Reds’ lineup to this day. They were simply great top to bottom and they had just enough pitching to be wildly successful throughout the decade.
While some collect individual players, my card show customer is no different from many who recall that era in that he chases cards from each member of the Machine—a team that needed the sum of its parts to be remembered for all time.