Card Corner Plus: The Wonder of 1972 Topps ‘Traded’

The “Traded” card sets that are now common found their niche back in 1972.

Topps’ 1972 card set proved historic on many grounds, in terms of its size (numbering an unprecedented 787 cards), its psychedelically colorful patterns, and its inclusion of designated “In Action” cards. Given such unique features, it’s no wonder that 1972 Topps has become one of the iconic sets in the history of the company, a set that remains as highly sought after today as it was during its original run.

It was also the first Topps set to introduce the idea of “traded” cards. In previous years, Topps paid little mind to offseason trades. If a player had been dealt during the winter, Topps showed the player either with the airbrushed colors of his new team or with his previous year’s team, usually without a cap and with the old logos obliterated from view. There was no heralding of a player being traded, even if he had been included in a blockbuster deal.

That changed with the 1972 set. For the first time, Topps included a subset of specially marked cards for players who had been dealt sometime between the end of the 1971 season and the start of the new strike-delayed season. The traded cards featured the similar bold design of the other 1972 cards, but with the name of the team eliminated from the top portion of the cards, thereby creating room for additional photograph space. An even bigger change occurred toward the bottom of the card. That’s where Topps stamped the word “TRADED” in large letters, with the arrangement laid out diagonally so as to create the effect of a postmaster canceling a stamp. Featuring this distinctive look, the first traded cards were born, albeit with little publicity or fanfare.

The timing for a “traded” subset could not have been better. The 1971 winter meetings had been marked by a flurry of huge, multi-player transactions. By the time the meetings ended, general managers had completed 15 trades involving 53 players. Those trades would change the fortunes of pennant races for years to come. There were more transactions during the spring of 1972.  Perhaps in response to all this activity, Topps felt the time was right to make a subset of traded cards.

The “traded”set numbered only seven, card numbers 751 through 757, but the magnitude and impact of the players far outweighed the small number of cards. They featutred some of the biggest names who had switched teams, including three future Hall of Famers: Steve Carlton, Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson. The subset also included iconic characters Jose Cardenal and Denny McLain. Rounding out the group were Jim Fregosi and Rick Wise, two veterans of considerable accomplishment.

By waiting to produce the traded cards as parts of its high-numbered series in 1972, Topps avoided having to use airbrushed colors. As a later, midsummer release, Topps was able to acquire updated photographs of the players in their new teams’ uniforms during the spring of 1972. As a result, all the new uniform colors on the traded cards are authentic, including the green Oakland A’s colors for McLain, who was traded late in spring training. There was no airbrushing, no deletion of logos, and no other photograph trickery, so the traded subset took on greater legitimacy and became a hit with collectors during the summer of ’72.

In a strange way, the McLain card stands out, taking on somewhat of a sore-thumb look (but in an interesting way) with his new team in Oakland. As fans we remember McLain principally as a member of the Detroit Tigers, where he enjoyed his prime seasons from 1966 to 1969, so it’s a bit strange seeing him wearing the sleeveless green vests still used by the A’s in the spring of 1972. To make the situation a bit odder, McLain never actually wore this type of A’s uniform during the regular season. The A’s, come Opening Day, would replace their vested look with new polyester, pullover uniforms, which featured either solid green or gold tops.

In the spring of 1972, the A’s had viewed McLain as insurance against the continuing holdout of Vida Blue, the reigning Cy Young Award winner and American League MVP. That spring, Charlie Finley opened negotiations with the Texas Rangers, formerly the Washington Senators, for whom McLain had pitched poorly in 1971. Finley, who loved brand name players even if they had passed their prime, surrendered a pair of pitching prospects in the deal, sending young right-handers Jim Panther and Don Stanhouse to the Rangers for McLain, who escaped Texas without ever having pitched a game for the transplanted franchise. McLain, still only 27 years old, was four years removed from one of the most dominant seasons in recent pitching history.

Once the trade was officially announced, McLain reported to the team’s spring training hotel in Phoenix. Relaxing by the hotel pool on his first official day with his new team, McLain encountered a reporter from ABC television, who wanted  McLain’s reaction to the trade. In no mood to talk, and upset that his day at the pool was being interrupted, McLain unleashed a verbal tirade against the reporter. He also made some indirect threats against Howard Cosell, the face of ABC Sports, who had earlier delivered critical commentary on McLain.

McLain would resume spring training with his new team and eventually win his first regular season start for manager Dick Williams. But then McLain struggled, hit hard in each of his subsequent starts. With his good fastball long gone and his right arm in tatters from overuse, McLain pitched so poorly that the A’s demoted him to Double-A Birmingham in mid-May. By the end of June, he was gone from the organization—traded to the Atlanta Braves for another former star, first baseman Orlando Cepeda. Just like that, McLain’s traded card had become obsolete.

In a similar way, the Frank Robinson traded card stands out. The star outfielder came to the Los Angeles Dodgers from the Baltimore Orioles during the winter meetings, the return for a package of younger players that included young right-hander Doyle Alexander and three minor league prospects: catcher Sergio Robles, outfielder Royle Stillman, and pitcher Bob O’Brien. Even though the visual evidence is in plain sight, we don’t really remember Robinson as a Dodger. In fact, if you asked baseball fans to name all the teams Robinson played for, the Dodgers might be the one answer that would elude most folks. He spent all of one year in Los Angeles, where he clashed with manager Walter Alston and was besieged by injuries and mediocre performance. He ultimately left town via another trade, this time to the California Angels. Robinson as a Dodger? If you blinked, you would have missed Robinson’s time at Chavez Ravine.

Looking back, Robinson just doesn’t look right wearing the Dodgers’ road uniform. In part, it’s because we’re so used to seeing him wear the colors of teams like the Orioles and the Cincinnati Reds, not to mention those all-red gems that the Cleveland Indians rolled out in the mid-1970s. Even Robinson’s days with the Angels seem easier to digest—he spent nearly two productive seasons with the Haloes—and his days with Cleveland remain notable given his pioneering status as the game’s first African-American manager. But Robinson as a Dodger just seems incongruous.

The trade that had the biggest impact at the 1971 winter meetings was the blockbuster between the Reds and the Houston Astros. The Reds sent power-hitting first baseman Lee May and infielders Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, shortstop/third baseman Denis Menke, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister, and right-hander Jack Billingham.

At the time of the trade, Lee May was considered the headliner. But not for long. The addition of Morgan allowed the Reds to reconfigure their infield, moving Tony Perez from third base to first base, placing the more defensive-minded Menke at third, and adding speed and range in the form of the talented, but somewhat unfulfilling Morgan.

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Deemed something of an enigma with the Astros, Morgan was coming off a season in which he had batted .256 with 13 home runs. With his speed and flashes of power, he was considered a good player, but not a star. That was about to change in Cincinnati.

Perhaps this is why Morgan looks so natural wearing Reds colors on his 1972 Topps traded card. With his arms crossed and his hands placed under his shoulders, Morgan appears relaxed and at ease during a day of workouts in Tampa, the Reds’ spring training site in 1972. Even the Reds player in the background—is that a young Davey Concepcion sporting the shades?—has taken notice of his new teammate. Perhaps he knew what the Reds now had.

Certainly, Reds management knew. Rather than focus on Morgan’s mediocre batting average, Reds manager Sparky Anderson took note of Morgan’s 88 walks and his on-base percentage of .351. Under the tutelage of Anderson, and surrounded by better teammates in Cincinnati than he had in Houston, Morgan would blossom into superstardom. In 1972, Morgan developed even more patience at the plate, leading the National League with 115 walks and raising his on-base percentage to an otherworldly .417. With Morgan joining a core that already included Perez, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Gary Nolan and Clay Carroll, the Reds won the pennant and earned a spot in the World Series against the A’s, McLain’s former team.

After two more productive seasons with the Reds, Morgan became a flat-out superstar in 1975. Morgan batted a career-high .327 and led the league with a .466 on-base percentage on the way to winning the MVP Award. He repeated as league MVP in 1976, compiling a league-best .576 slugging percentage, and earning his second World Series ring in two seasons. Morgan would remain with the Reds through 1979, winning five Gold Gloves and making the All-Star team during every season of his tenure in Cincinnati

Another middle infielder of note took his place on the 1972 traded cards. Jim Fregosi, seen for the first time wearing the colors of the New York Mets during spring camp in St. Petersburg, is giving us one of those awkward practice swings that highlight so many Topps cards of the era. “Awkward” might be a good work to describe Fregosi’s time in New York. At the time, he was the headline piece in the post-winter meetings trade that sent a young Nolan Ryan and three minor league prospects (outfielder Leroy Stanton, catcher Francisco Estrada and pitcher Don Rose) to the Angels.

In retrospect, we might wonder why Topps did not include a traded card of Ryan, the eventual Hall of Famer and the true headliner of this deal. But in 1972, Fregosi was the better known of the two. A six-time All-Star with the Angels, Fregosi was regarded as one of the American League’s best all-around shortstops. Ryan was still in the formative stages of his career, a hard-throwing right-hander of more potential than actual production. Fregosi was the known commodity, a hard-hitting shortstop whom the Mets felt confident could make the transition to third base, filling the position that had been a black hole for the franchise since its inception in 1962.

It’s true that Fregosi had struggled in 1971 with the Angels, hitting only .233 with five home runs, but most of his troubles had been attributed to a non-cancerous tumor in his foot. Now recovered from that ailment, Fregosi seemed more than capable of a comeback. Mets general manager Bob Scheffing figured that a good shortstop like Fregosi would have little trouble sliding over to third base. It all sounded good to the Mets, but the situation soon became complicated. Fregosi reported to spring training overweight and clearly out of shape, which angered manager Gil Hodges. Still, Hodges tried to help Fregosi, hitting him ground balls on a daily basis throughout the spring. One day, one of those ground balls took a bad hop and hit Fregosi in the thumb, breaking his hand.   Fregosi’s hand had to be placed in a cast, causing him to miss the rest of spring training.

After the strike that delayed the start of the new season, and after the Hodges’ tragic death from a heart attack, Fregosi tried to come back too quickly. He also played the season too heavy, unable to shed the excess weight he had added during the winter. Fregosi paid the price, batting only .232 with five home runs and struggling to learn the hot corner. In 1973, Fregosi showed up to camp in far better condition, but endured another poor start. By July, the Mets gave up on Fregosi, sending him to the Rangers and accepting only cash in return. That’s all the Mets received for the player who had cost them Nolan Ryan.

While Fregosi as a Met gives us somewhat of a jarring appearance,  Jose Cardenal wearing the colors of the Chicago Cubs looks far more natural. Additionally, for Cardenal, a traded card seemed most appropriate; he had already been traded five times, having played for San Francisco, the Angels, Cleveland, St. Louis and Milwaukee. Despite the latest career transition, Cardenal looks fairly relaxed in his new Cubs road uniform as he provides the photographer with a batting pose (complete with batting glove) during spring training in Arizona.

At the winter meetings, the Cubs had acquired Cardenal from the Brewers for three players, principally pitcher Jim Colborn and outfielder Brock Davis. Cardenal rounded out the Cubs outfield nicely, complementing Billy Williams (the left fielder) and Rick Monday (the center fielder). Cardenal would remain with the Cubs for six years, outlasting both Williams and Monday in Chicago.

In each of his first four seasons with the Cubs, Cardenal put up an OPS of over .800, including two seasons in which he received back-of-the-ballot consideration for National League MVP. In 1973, he batted .303, hit 11 home runs, and stole 19 bases, becoming the Cubs’ player of the year. In 1975, he put up his best season, batting a career high .317 with 77 walks and an OPS of .821. At a time when the Cubs offered little to root for, Cardenal stood out as one of the National League’s more underrated outfielders.

The last two traded cards from the ’72 set featured pitchers who had been traded during spring training, like McLain, but were actually dealt for each other. The trade of Steve Carlton for Rick Wise was motivated by Carlton’s unhappiness with his 1972 contract; he wanted a substantial raise after winning 20 games in 1971, but penurious St. Louis Cardinals owner August Busch resisted. Rather than give in, Busch directed his front office to find the best possible deal. General manager Bing Devine found a partner in the Philadelphia Phillies, who offered right-hander Wise.

In retrospect, the trade turned into a disaster for the Cardinals, but at the time, Devine had a reasonable argument for making the deal.  Devine seemingly did well in acquiring Wise, the ace of the Phillies and the owner of a 2.88 ERA in 1971. Furthermore, at 26, Wise was actually a year younger than Carlton.

Based on age and statistics, Devine made a deal that appeared satisfactory, but real life turned out quite differently. Looking quite comfortable wearing Cardinals duds on his traded card, Wise would log more than 500 innings and win 32 games for St. Louis over the next two seasons, before being re-routed to the Boston Red Sox as part of a major trade for Reggie Smith. Wise did nothing wrong for St. Louis, but his performance invariably lagged behind that of Carlton.

Carlton would win 27 games and post a league-leading 1.97 ERA in 1972. That marked the start of a remarkable Hall of Fame run for the Phillies’ southpaw, lasting through the 1983 season. It wasn’t until 1984 that “Lefty” began to show significant decline, but by then he had established himself as the best National League pitcher of the past decade. During that stretch, Carlton won four Cy Young awards for the Phillies, only once with an ERA above 3.62.

Thanks to the Carlton/Wise swap and the spate of trades in 1971-72, the landscape of major league baseball changed considerably for the rest of the decade. In a similar way, the traded cards had an impact, becoming a hit with collectors and spawning a new trend from Topps. After taking a year off from traded cards in 1973, Topps brought back a traded subset in 1974, making it more substantial with 44 cards. In 1976, Topps again brought us traded cards, also numbered at 44.

In 1981, Topps made a traded set, or “Updated” set as some like to call it, a permanent part of its annual issues, this time with a whopping 132 cards. Ever since, these cards have served the purpose of giving us players in new uniforms, not only through trades, but also through free agency and in the form of hotshot rookies who somehow eluded the grasp of Topps during the winter.

Now, traded cards have become the expected norm in the collecting hobby, just like action cards, insert cards, and new ventures like “Topps Now.” This wonderful trend started in 1972 with a small set of cards introduced without fanfare, but received with great enthusiasm by collectors who appreciated these new kinds of cards for their unprecedented accuracy and timeliness.


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Bruce Markusen is the manager of Digital and Outreach Learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard
Very interesting (as your articles always are). What about another so called blockbuster trade after the 1971 season. Boston sent George Scott, Jim Lonborg, and Billy Conigliaro, to Milwaukee for Tommy Harper and Lew Krausse (from what I remember without checking retrosheet.org). Scott and Harper would have gotten their own TRADED label as they were first rate players. And while on the subject of labels/fonts, you gotta love the foreboding nature of the rubber stamp put on these cards. They almost look like they are fit to be hung in a 1970s era Post Ofice as if being traded was… Read more »
Sam
Guest

Nice article. Also, I’ve always wondered why Topps temporarily abandoned the traded sets from 1996 through 1998.

Alex
Guest
Alex

I believe it was due to declining sales in the hobby overall, but I’m not 100% sure on that. I do remember being really upset at the quality of the 1996 Fleer set though, they were clearly printing them as cheaply as possible.

Jason
Guest
Jason

Given McLain’s post-career difficulties and resulting incarceration, the Font on his “Traded” card seems oddly appropriate, if not somehow prophetic.

Brian Meservey
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Brian Meservey

Been working on my 1972 for body year now the story doesn’t say why the cards are so rare they made 6 series 1972 and it was High series and by the time that the 6 series came out kids weren’t interested in baseball no more they were looking forward to football

Al Hanhauser
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Al Hanhauser

Excellent article, and info, was 10 years old in 1972 , had all those cards. Grew up in Philadelphia, so Steve Carlton was, and remains one of my baseball heroes for sure. Friend of ours had father who worked for Topps, we would sometimes get some unique items courtesy of his father. We traded, flipped cards, and enjoyed them…. before they became what they are today. Thanks and Go Phils ! 😉

anujpandit
Guest

They almost look like they are fit to be hung in a 1970s era Post Ofice as if being traded was the equivalent of being sent to Siberia. Last point. You say that Cardenal “outlasted” Williams in Chicago. I would agree if they both started at the same point but Billy Williams was at the tale end of a HOF career and I doubt anyone back then thought he was engaged in a battle of attrition with Cardenal to see who could survive life in the “friendly confines.”

time managment
Guest

I’m not 100% sure on that. I do remember being really upset at the quality of the 1996 Fleer set though, they were clearly printing them as cheaply as possible.

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