My Favorite Topps Card

It’s been said that a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

I am a set collector, complete with price guides, plastic sheets and graded cards. Without even consulting a Beckett I can tell you that the book of a first series 1966 common card in Near Mint condition is $1.50; at the same time I can tell you that this card is in a considerably lesser grade.

How would you grade this card? The soft corners, poor centering and multiple creases plunge it towards the Good range and then the stain on the card sends it directly to the Poor category. Forget about $1.50 – if you tried to sell this card on ebay you would be lucky to get two cents for it.

Yet if asked to name the favorite card in my collection, this would be one of the first ones I would mention. This hand-me-down card from one of my older brothers of Johnny Stephenson, a worthless backup catcher who put up an almost impossible to duplicate .225 wOBA in 153 PA for a team that lost 95 games.

Of course what makes it my favorite card is that some kid, probably my brother, took a punk and carefully stained the card to make it look like Mr. Stephenson crapped his pants. He was after all, a crappy catcher on a crappy team pictured in a squatting pose. All of that would have been enough but the expression on his face – well, let’s just say that it’s not too hard to imagine him having this look after some unexpected and productive flatulence.

It is easy to imagine a kid being happy to pull a Stephenson card the first time he opened a pack in 1966. The 25-year old got off to a hot start with the bat, as he hit .423 in his first 10 games of the season. But the remainder of the year, Stephenson had a .145/.206/.171 line that not even the deadball 1960s could make look like an acceptable slash output.

On top of that, I have no doubt that Stephenson was one of those guys who showed up every time you ripped off the wax and jammed that stick of gum in your mouth. The first series of the 1966 Topps set included Willie Mays, Pete Rose, Mickey Mantle and Carl Yastrzemski but you didn’t get those stars, you got Stephenson for the 10th time in 12 packs.

Nobody was flipping or matching with Mays and Mantle – you got Stephenson for the umpteenth time. He wasn’t even good enough to put in your bike spokes at this point. So what was left?

Is it any surprise a kid decided to become an associate art director for Topps and give Stephenson a reason for that shaky grin he displayed in the picture?

I love my graded cards and my star rookies and high-priced inserts. But there’s something about this card that makes it even more memorable. This serves as a reminder that these cards were produced for kids to play with, handle, love and even loathe.

It is good to have a reminder that there cannot be PSA 10 cards without kids turning a bunch of these into ones that would be a 1.0 if anyone bothered to send them in to the plastic people.

Now, a clean version of this 1966 Stephenson card looks, well, wrong. In my alternate reality Topps put that stain in the card for everyone to see what they thought of the playing abilities of the Mets backup catcher. Imagine poor Sy Berger, the man responsible for the text of all of the early Topps cards, having to find something positive to say about everyone.

I see him sitting at a cramped desk, trying to find something nice to say about another stiff on the 1966 Mets. Finally he comes up with something banal, like “Lumpy hit .280 in the Banana League in 1962!” Only this time he could no longer sugar coat it in good conscience.

So, Sy Berger atoned for his editorial sins by doctoring the photo to give all the kids a knowing wink as to the real abilities of Stephenson. Instead of groaning when they pulled the Mets catcher from a pack, kids instead giggle uncontrollably.

How can you put a price on that?

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Navin Vaswani

Fantastic post. A treat to read.