I’m going to take a one-week sabbatical from the five greatest Royals at each position to write a piece on baseball cards. Specifically, Royals baseball cards. I’d read something in one of the comment sections about how a reader missed the old days of baseball cards. If you’re over the age of 45 you can relate.
Back in the day, you’d go to your local Five and Dime or grocery store and buy a pack (or three) for a piddly amount of change. When I started collecting, way back in 1968, as I recall a pack would set me back a nickel. Plus, you’d get a stick of pink gum, usually covered in some sort of white gum dust, which often would stain the first card of every pack. You’d get ten cards in each pack and if you wanted to complete a set, you had to buy a lot of packs.
For me, that meant I would have to mow a lot of yards and shovel snow off a lot of driveways before school in order to accumulate the cash necessary to complete a set. In 1975, I found an ad in the back of a baseball magazine advertising complete sets for sale. Eureka! For $12 I could order a complete set and not have to worry about getting 15 cards of Bill Gogolewski. You couldn’t get rid of Bill Gogolweski cards and there always seemed to be one in every pack I’d buy. Topps said they distributed all cards equally, but players like Gogolewski appeared far more often than the Mantles, Mays and Aaron’s of the world. You’d sit down with your friends to trade cards, trying to package together the best deal, but no one would take those Gogolewski cards.
So, I had my parents write a check for $12 (in exchange for my hard-earned cash) to a lady named Renata Galasso, somewhere in New Jersey or New York, and off it went in the mail. I can remember my dad saying, “You’ll never see that $12 again.” But lo and behold, about three weeks later, a UPS truck pulled up to the house and delivered my 1975 set. Wow! What a deal! I’d put on the Beach Boys album “Surfer girl”, the summer of 1975 being my Beach Boys phase, and play simulated baseball games of my own making with my newly acquired set. Plus, the 1975 set had the rookie card of George Brett. That was a great summer.
I collected hard from about 1969 to that glorious summer of 1975, then my collecting got sidetracked by the fumes. Car fumes and perfume, specifically. Soon college came, then real life: a job, marriage, kids, a mortgage, car payments. You know the drill. My cards sat idle for many years, in a box in my parents’ basement. Thankfully my mom did not throw them out, which was a fate that met many a man’s childhood card collection. I eventually picked up my boxes of cards, much to the delight of my parents, who were happy to have freed up the extra storage space.
In 1987, my wife and I attended a Royals game, and the team gave out these cool little books, sponsored by Surf laundry detergent, that had pictures and a description of every year of Royals cards up to that point. I’ve kept this book over the years and just recently found it, again, after unpacking some boxes of stuff. I loved it when it came out and I love it now. In addition to the card descriptions, the book also had a page on the team batting and pitching leaders, a page of the pitching and batting numbers of every player to play for the Royals, a couple of pages describing the highlights of each Topps set going back to 1951 and a page with the cards of the members of the Royals Hall of Fame. All five of them. Howser, Busby, Otis, Splittorff and Rojas. Here are the year by year highlights of those sets:
1969 – The expansion Royals got 27 cards in this set. About half of the players in the set are either wearing a hat from another team, that has been blacked out, or no hat at all. Roger Nelson is clearly wearing a Chicago White Sox uniform. The Royals star that year, Lou Piniella, was featured on the Seattle Pilots 1969 Rookie Stars card, his acquisition coming so late that Topps was unable to show him as a Royal. There was also a card of a pitcher named Dennis Ribant. Never heard of him before or since.
1970 – This set featured 29 Royal cards, including their first team card. Most of the players are in Royal uniform, with the exception of Piniella, Bill Butler, Pat Kelly, manager Charlie Metro and the newly acquired Amos Otis.
1971 – The 1971 set featured 35 Royals including the Rookie card of Paul Splittorff and the first Royal card of Cookie Rojas. This was the first set to feature the players autograph on the front of the card and several of the cards had pictures of the player taken “in action”. Most of these early years featured a player who would invariably play very little for the team, if at all, now hereby known as Mr. Irrelevant. In 1971, there were three of them, a first baseman named John Matias, an outfielder named George Spriggs and an infielder named Rich Severson. The Topps photographer and staff would try to guess which players might make the roster and make cards of them. If they guessed wrong, you ended up with a card of some guy playing in Omaha.
1972 – This set, with an attractive psychedelic font, featured 33 Royals. The 1972 set was massive, 787 cards total, and in those days the cards were issued in series, with the first series issued in the spring while the last series or two would be issued in the late summer. This created a problem with collectors as many stores would stop carrying baseball cards in August and move on to football cards. Consequently, the later series, the high number cards, would be hard to find and are now more valuable due to that scarcity and the 1972 set was one of those sets. The 1972 Royals set featured the debut card of John Mayberry. In a strange twist, there was also a Royals card for Jim York and Lance Clemons, the two players traded for Mayberry.
1973 – Topps went back to their standard 660 card set in 1973 and the Royals had 26 cards in the set. The design of the set was mostly uninspiring, except for an awesome card of “Freddie” (not “Fred”) Patek turning a double play. This was the first year that Topps’ graphic artist tried their hand at painting a KC on the cap of newly acquired Royals. Wayne Simpson got a card, but Hal McRae, acquired in the same trade, did not. This years Mr. Irrelevant was an infielder named Jose Arcia.
1974 – the 1974 set, also 660 cards, featured 28 Royals including the first-year card of Steve Busby. The set also featured the last card of original Royal Lou Piniella. Eight of the Royals were sporting mod mustaches, including Paul Splittorff and one of my favorite Royals, Dirty Kurt Bevacqua. Mr. Irrelevant was another infielder acquired in the off-season, Fernando Gonzalez.
1975 – Another 660-card set, but only featured 24 Royals. This was a good-looking set with bright colors. Topps went back to the autograph after a three-year hiatus. The 1975 set featured the rookie cards of Al Cowens, Frank White and George Brett, which became the most valuable card in the set. Amos Otis was featured in the first card which had a picture taken in Royals Stadium. Previously, most of the pictures used in the cards were taken in spring training or at other ballparks, usually Yankee Stadium. Topps was also getting better at managing the roster, as there was no Mr. Irrelevant in 1975.
1976 – Sticking with the 660-card set, Topps cut the Royals down to 23 cards in 1976. This set featured the first-year card of Dennis Leonard and a comical repainting of off-season acquisition Dave Nelson’s hat. With only 22 players featured (plus one team card) there was no Mr. Irrelevant for the second year in a row.
1977 – The 1977 set featured 25 Royals out of the 660-card set and included the first-year card of John Wathan. George Brett got two cards in this set. Mr. Irrelevant came back in the body of a pitcher named Ken Sanders. The set also featured the only Royal card of one of the all-time great hitters, Tommy Davis and the first Royal card of Larry Gura.
1978 – Topps expanded the 1978 set from 660 to 726, but only gave the 102-win Royals 27 cards. The set itself is kind of utilitarian and bland but did feature the first Royal card of Darrell Porter. There was no Mr. Irrelevant, as everyone in the set played a role on the 1978 team. The set also featured the last Royal card of John Mayberry.
1979 – Topps stayed with the 726-card set and once again gave Kansas City 27 entries. This was an attractive, somewhat undervalued set by design, and it featured several first-year cards such as Al Hrabosky and the rookie cards of Clint Hurdle, Rich Gale, Willie Wilson and U.L. Washington. Unfortunately, U.L. was not chewing on his toothpick when his picture was taken. No Mr. Irrelevant for the second year in a row.
1980 – This set featured 28 Royals (out of another 726-card set) and was a nice clean design as Topps brought back the autograph. The set featured the rookie card of Dan Quisenberry and the last Royal card of Steve Busby. Mr. Irrelevant returned as a pitcher named Eduardo Rodriguez.
1981 – The Royals got 28 cards once again in 1981 including a Brett brothers combo, George and Ken. Willie Wilson got two cards in this set and U.L. got one with a toothpick. Topps unfortunately went back to trying to paint the KC on hats with once again comical results. It’s amazing to see how graphics have advanced since the 1970’s and ‘80’s. No Mr. Irrelevant in 1981. Topps lost their monopoly on baseball cards in 1981 when Donruss and Fleer put out their first sets.
1982 – Topps went crazy this year and expanded the set to 792 cards. The Royals got 34 of those, including two more of the Brett brothers and a trio later known as the cocaine cowboys: Willie Aikens, Vida Blue and Jerry Martin. Pitcher Mike Jones was featured on a rookie card for the second year in a row and Mr. Irrelevant returned with pitcher Dave Frost.
1983 – The year of “The Pine Tar Game.” Topps stayed with their monster 792 card sets and Kansas City got 33 cards. It was a strange card design with two pictures of the player on the front of the card. Several Royals got two cards: Brett, Gura, Quisenberry, Wathan and Lee May. Dave Frost got a card, and Mr. Irrelevant for the second year in a row, as he didn’t play a single inning for the 1983 team.
1984 – This is the first year I noticed that Topps was getting cheap on the cards. The cardboard was a little thinner and not as glossy as past years. In the 792-card set, Kansas City got a new high of 37 cards, including the rookie card for Bret Saberhagen. It also had the first Royal card of Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni and the last Royal card of Paul Splittorff. Topps stayed with the two pictures on the front design. No Mr. Irrelevant in 1984.
1985 – A must have set for Royal fans, if only because of the first World Series title. Topps issued 792 cards again and Kansas City got 30 of them. The cards design was basic. Dan Quisenberry got two cards and it appears that Topps used the same photo for both cards. The set featured the rookie card of Mark Gubicza. There was no Mr. Irrelevant, though I thought Butch Davis might take the mantle. Turns out Mr. Davis had an eight-year career with five teams.
1986 – The Royals came in with 32 cards in the 1986 set of 792. This was a boring card set. I can’t even think of anything to say about the set. There were no rookies to speak of and Mr. Irrelevant would fall to Mike LaCoss, who pitched in 21 games that summer.
1987 – Finally the last year in the book. The Royals got 32 of the 792 cards in the set. The design was very different, with a wood grain border. There were several significant cards in this set: The last card for Dick Howser and the last card of Hal McRae as a player. The set also included the rookie cards of Kevin Seitzer and Bo Jackson. I was going to award our final Mr. Irrelevant to Argenis Salazar. Then I checked his baseball reference page and realized he went by the name of Angel Salazar and played 233 games for the Royals.
So, there it is, the first 19 years of Royals baseball cards all packed into one small book. If you have any special baseball card memories, share them with us.hist