This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.
Baseball cards are a kind of clumsy yearbook, a collection of forgotten names and awkward photographs. Each bears a moment frozen unnaturally, the cheesy portrait grin followed by the unnatural, bent-back elbow of the pitcher. They demonstrate the historian’s drive to squeeze the eyes tight and remember: not only the championships, not only the highlights and the heroes, but the busted prospects and the utility infielders. All the losing teams and players get their 1/nth share.
But no set has room for every player, let alone every moment; there are too many minor league callups, too many injury replacements who come and go. Topps neglected to create a Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card in 1989, his having no major league experience, but picked Mark McGwire out of the Olympic roster two years before anyone else. Rookies are hard to predict, but guessing the right ones, giving kids a whale to hunt, is good salesmanship.
It’s a little strange that, given the parabolic path of the average career, a player’s most valuable card is generally his first one, and always descends from there. Perhaps in our hearts, all rookies are Babe Ruth or Cy Young until time gives them the opportunity to prove otherwise. Perhaps it’s our drive to feel like investors, to get in on the ground floor. But while rookie cards are traded and sold at a premium, the opposite, the last cards, rarely even exist.
There’s no real pattern as to who gets a final stat line. Mantle got a final card in 1969, but Aaron was left off of the 1977 set; Mays got a card in 1974, but not his own, only a World Series highlight, his bat looking heavy in his hands. It’s a common paradox for baseball cards: representing the year before, they’re sold the year after. So many retired players, no longer around to root for on summer afternoons, rarely have their final year’s stats commemorated. Some of it is timing in the print runs; some of it, one assumes, is alchemical.
There’s a variation in one of the 1988 Topps checklists. You couldn’t be blamed for missing it: one line has been changed, #455, Steve Carlton. The Hall of Famer was cut from the set at the last second, replaced by orange chip prospect Shawn Hillegas.
Lefty was essentially done by 1986; starting the year with the Phillies, he was cut just shy of 4,000 strikeouts, and signed with the Giants to reach the milestone. When they gave up on him as well, he moved on to the White Sox, and pitched just well enough to latch on to a last-place Indians ballclub in the offseason. Topps dutifully gave him three different cards with three different teams: a White Sox regular 1987 issue, an Indians traded issue, and a Giants box-bottom highlight card (his jersey and cap painted on him, since no photographer caught up with him in his six-game San Francisco career). Perhaps it was too much.
Apparently in 1988, Topps had had enough, and even though he put in 150 innings with the Indians and Twins, and refused to retire even then, they decided to ignore his sad final full season. Fleer alone, of the Big Four companies of the time, gave Carlton a final card. It proved a fitting tribute. It’s a strangely tragic still life, an old man in a foreign uniform on an empty bench, staring off camera at the rest of his life. He looks speechless.
Did Carlton deserve that final card more than Hillegas and his 58 innings of middle relief? It seems strange that an industry couched so deeply in nostalgia flinches at the final sad days of a ballplayer. Maybe Topps didn’t want that last image of Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, throwing slop down the middle of the plate, to burn into our retinas. And maybe it’s a good thing they stop making yearbooks after high school. But sports aren’t about what we want to have happen; they don’t let us choose our memories. Only rain can undo a game.
It’s ironic that Griffey’s own denouement, twenty-some years later, proved just as tragic as Carlton’s. And like Lefty, he too failed to receive that final card when he closed his own career midseason. But while it requires extrapolation to combine that Griffey with the one of our childhood, we all do it; we can appreciate them all as one man. Heroes can be young and old at the same time, even frail and human. Carlton’s weary despair, caught on a single, worthless card, is every bit as much baseball as Griffey’s boyish smile.
Patrick Dubuque co-edited the 2016 BP Annual and serves as jester/editor at Lookout Landing. You can follow him on Twitter @euqubud.
This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer were not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.