The Topps Numbering System
|Joe Posnanski||Jan 6, 2013|
So, now until Wednesday at 2 p.m., I'm probably going to write lots and lots of Hall of Fame things. The big one -- the final ballot -- will appear on Sports On Earth on Monday. But here, I've got a whole bunch of smaller Hall of Fame thoughts, observations, questions, suggestions … I was going to put it into one giant Hall of Fame post, but even for this blog it seemed a bit unwieldy. So, instead, you get it in smaller (but not necessarily small) portions.
We'll begin with: The Topps Numbering System.
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So remember the other day when I wrote that I jumped over to eBay to bid on a 1976 Topps baseball card set? Well, I won it. It arrived this week, and I spent joyous hours sorting those cards, putting them in plastic pages, flipping the pages, reminiscing about the Father-Son cards and the Sporting News All-Time Player cards* (as I kid I ALWAYS seemed to get the Pie Traynor), it really was a blast. I just pulled out the cards to look at them again. I can get lost in them.
*Here are the Sporting News All-Time All-Stars as of 1976, and who would probably be on the team now:
1B: Lou Gehrig -- Same. Pujols could pass him, maybe.
2B: Rogers Hornsby -- Same. Some like Joe Morgan more (I do).
3B: Pie Trayner -- No. Mike Schmidt, probably. George Brett has his fans.
SS: Honus Wagner -- Same. No one close, not even Derek Jeter.
RF: Babe Ruth -- Same.
CF: Ty Cobb -- No. Willie Mays.
LF: Ted Williams -- Same. Barry Bonds could not win an election.
C: Mickey Cochrane -- No way. Johnny Bench or Yogi Berra, I think.
RHP: Walter Johnson -- Maybe same. Greg Maddux or Tom Seaver … Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens ...
LHP: Lefty Grove -- Maybe same. I happen to think Randy Johnson is best lefty starter ever.
But the point here is not the cards themselves -- but the numbering system. I have, for your benefit, done what I have to believe is one of the most pointless research projects in the history of planet earth.
When I was a kid, I noticed -- as countless kids before and since have noticed -- that while the Topps numbers on the back SEEM utterly random and stupid, there is some sort of secret-code logic to them. The best players get the round numbers. I don't remember the details of this discovery, but I do remember that really cool feeling of seeing a great player -- say Tom Seaver -- with a card number like 200. And I thought: Hmm, isn't that interesting. And then I saw another great player, say Johnny Bench, and his number was 500. And I went, whoa, wait a minute: They did this ON PURPOSE!
And then you go through the cards and you see: They DID do it on purpose. The biggest stars very often have card numbers that end in 00 or 50 (I call these "Topps Prime" cards to make them sound important -- I even capitalize "Prime.")
It isn't just 00 and 50 cards that are reserved for good players. Even minor stars almost always have numbers that end in 0 as well.
Like, let's look at random here at a few of my 1976 cards from 360 to 410.
360: Jeff Burroughs. Former MVP.
367: Bruce Miller.
370: Ron Cey. The Penguin. All-Star.
374: Dan Warthen.
380: Bobby Bonds. Another All-Star. Mr. 30-30.
386: Ed Goodson -- who along with Bill Todman produced the Price Is Right and … oh, no, that was Mark Goodson.
390: Don Gullett. Ace pitcher of world champion Reds.
393: Paul Mitchell.
400. Rod Carew. Annual batting champion. Superstar. Hall of Famer.
406: Ed Hermann.
410. Ralph Garr. Batting champion. All-Star.
And so it goes. Tito Fuentes? He gets No. 8. Lou Brock? He gets No. 10. And so on.
So here was my idea: I figured I could go through all the Topps checklists -- yes, I said all the Topps checklists, hey this is my blog, not yours -- and pull out the players whose cards ended with 50 and 00. And I would see which players have been most honored by Topps.
And, more to the point (as if there is a point), I would see which players were viewed as truly great and popular and awesome WHILE they were playing. One of the things people say about Jack Morris is that he was viewed as a dominant pitchers during his playing days. Well, I honestly don't remember it that way. I remember him being a good pitcher, but I don't remember him being Tom Seaver or Jim Palmer or even Ron Guidry.
So, I thought, hey, why not see how often Morris' card ended with a 00 or 50 … along with everyone else.
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A few quick words about the scoring process, which should interest you even less than the rest of this: One, I should say: 00 is better than 50. The best of the best get 00 on the end. The players who have 50 at the end of their numbers -- some are great, some, frankly, are not. I think Topps must have been having some inner battles going on about their numbering. Some years players with 50 are clearly the biggest stars in the game. Other years, 50 is really no different than 30 or 80 or any other number ending in 0.
For this reason, in my system players get 10 points for every 00 card they achieved. They get 5 points for cards that end in 50. I add up the points, multiply that by the number of Topps Prime cards they were on and voila, we have the final Topps score.
Two, it's important to note that Topps was VERY inconsistent in its numbering system. They started messing with giving the best players 50 and 00 numbers in 1955, but they were obviously much more committed to it some years than others. For instance, there was a time in the mid-2000s when they started giving the legendary number 300 to decidedly not-legendary players: Andy Marte, Brayan Pena, Ryan Garko and so on. I have no idea why they did this, and it was a disastrous decision deserving much scorn. But they did. They seem to be back on track now. This year, Josh Hamilton was No. 300.
Three, it's important to note that Topps was VERY quirky in its numbering system. This is different from the "inconsistent" issue above … there were clearly certain players that the people at Topps loved and they kept giving these guys great numbers. Bucky Freakin' Dent in back-to-back seasons got a number that ended in 50 (to be fair, he was an All-Star both seasons but … come on). Vic Wertz twice got 00 numbers. See if you can spot the incongruity in this list of players who got the 250 number in the 1960s:
1960: Stan Musial
1962: Norm Cash
1963: Stan Musial
1964: Al Kaline
1965: Willie Mays
1966: Sammy Ellis
1967: Hank Aaron
1968: Carl Yastrzemski
1969: Frank Robinson
Sammy Ellis? Really? True, he was coming off a year when he won 22 games and was an All-Star, but … really Topps? Giving him 250?
Four, I only count the card if it is a regular player card. If it's an "All-Star" card or a player in action card or a special card reliving history or anything like that, I don't count it. For instance, you will notice 1961 is missing in the No. 250 cards -- that's because it was a "Buc Hill Aces" card featuring Vern Law and Roy Face smiling at somebody off camera. That doesn't count.
OK, with those caveats in mind … here are the Topps players of all time:
(Oh wait, one more technical scoring matter: Starting around 1990, Topps started giving a superstar the cherished No. 1 card. So that is worth 10 points as well, after 1990).
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Honorable mention: Cal Ripken (520 points); Don Mattingly (490 points); Mike Schmidt (490 points); Ken Griffey Jr. (480 points).
It's worth noting that Mattingly is the highest player on the board who is (1) Eligible for the Hall of Fame; (2) Not in the Hall of Fame; (3) Probably not going to be elected to the Hall of Fame. It goes to show you just how immensely popular and respected Mattingly was as a player (and the fact that he obviously had fans at Topps). But do you know who the next highest non-Hall of Famer is? Take a guess. Take two guesses. Take five. Be back with that classic in just a minute.
10. Pete Rose, 630 points.
Rose didn't get his first Topps Prime card until 1971. He got the most respect from Topps when he was no longer a good player -- he got Prime cards each year from 1983 to 1986.
9. Nolan Ryan, 720 points.
Starting around 1990, Ryan started getting the vaunted No. 1 card in the Topps set. He got that number three years in a row. In fact, it was Ryan's greatness and coolness that seemed to inspire the Topps number people to give a great player the No. 1 card every year. Since Ryan, the No. 1 card has gone to players like Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, Roger Clemens, A-Rod (four times) and, the last two years, Ryan Braun.
8. Mickey Mantle, 880 points.
When the Mick was at his very best -- in the mid-to-late 1950s -- Topps had not smoothed over their numbering system. If they had, Mantle would be No. 1 on this list; every year of the 1960s except one he got a 00 or 50 card.
7 (tie). Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds, 900 points.
Irony abounds with this tie.
I don't think this statistic gets enough play: Aaron had 6,856 total bases in his career. That is SEVEN HUNDRED more than anyone (Stan Musial is second). Barry Bonds could have hit 200 more home runs and still not had as many total bases as Henry Aaron.
5. (tie) Rod Carew and George Brett, 1,155 points.
Both appeared on 11 Topps Prime cards. I wonder if people forget how great a hitter Rod Carew was. Brett, he's still around, active, he'll say classic things now and again. But Carew, really, other than his mistaken role in Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song" (he apparently did not convert) seems to have been somewhat lost to history, which is a shame because there was nobody like him. Every at-bat, he seemed to have a slightly different batting style. And between bunts and bloops and seeing-eye grounder and slashing line drives and opposite field dumps -- he hit .344 in the 10 seasons from 1969 to 1978 and won seven batting titles. I think Carew, had he played in the 1990s, might have hit .400.
3. Willie Mays, 1,200 points.
Mays got a Topps Prime card every year but one from from 1959 to 1971. Interestingly (at least to me) the year he did not get a Prime card was 1969 -- the card right after the Year of the Pitcher. Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and Don Drysdale all got Prime cards. Mays, meanwhile, had what looked for him like a huge down season -- he hit .289 with only 23 homers -- and Topps gave a Prime card to Felipe Alou among others, but not Willie Mays. Alou did have a good year. But still ...
2. Alex Rodriguez, 1,380 points.
A-Rod, from age 20 to 31, had EIGHT seasons with a Baseball Reference WAR higher than 8.0. That's insane. There are first-ballot Hall of Famers -- Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith, Kirby Puckett, Willie McCovey and Brooks Robinson among them -- who never had an 8.0 WAR season. Only Hornsby, Bonds, Ruth and Mays had more 8.0 WAR seasons than A-Rod.
Not that Topps was thinking about this, of course.
Trivia answer: The next-highest player after Mattingly on the Topps all-time player list who is eligible for the Hall of Fame, not in it and not going anytime soon? It's the Toronto mayoral candidate himself: Jose Canseco. It's easy to forget just how popular and what a phenomenon Jose Canseco was before he got very, very lost.
1. Reggie Jackson, 1,440 points.
Reggie appearance on 12 Topps Prime cards and all 12 were 00 cards. I had no idea how this would turn out, but I love how it DID turn out. I really do think when you combine greatness, popularity, controversy, power and whatever makes charisma … Reggie Jackson really is the Topps player of the last 50 years.
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A few other quick notes:
• Jack Morris appeared on one Topps Prime card, No. 450 in 1982 -- one year after he led the league with 14 wins. As it turned out, he appeared on as many Topps Prime cards as Dave Stieb, and two fewer than Ron Guidry.
• But Morris is not alone in Topps snubdom. Steve Carlton also appeared on only one Topps Prime card -- in 1973, right after his extraordinary 27-win season for a dreadful Philadelphia Phillies team. At least he got a 00 card -- he was No. 300.
• George Foster (330 points) and Steve Garvey (240 points) were a couple of Topps favorites in the 1970s.
• Joe Morgan did not get a Topps Prime card until after he won his second MVP award. He got three after that but this sort of confirms what I thought -- Morgan was criminally underrated until he was finally so ridiculously good that everybody just couldn't help but notice.
• Bo Jackson (225 points) and Darryl Strawberry (200 points) were a couple of Topps favorites in the 1980s.
• Topps really messed with the numbering system in the 1990s. I don't know if there was new management or what happened.
• Over the years, Topps really liked Sam McDowell (three Prime cards), Bill Madlock (four Prime cards), Dick Allen (four Prime cards) and Joe Torre (four Prime cards). Tony Oliva got four Prime cards too, Jim Rice got five. Tom Seaver and Kirby Puckett got seven. I'd give you the whole list but, let's be honest, this was ridiculous to start with. Fun. But ridiculous.