Final-year cards, “career cappers,” and Team Cards: Why they’re interesting

How many home runs did Hank Aaron hit in his career?

If you were a young baseball card collector in the late 1970s or early 1980s, the number 745 may have been thrown around. Obviously, that is not Aaron’s true home run total: He has 10 more.

However, if your ONLY way of knowing baseball stats was through looking at the back of Topps baseball cards, you’re going to be short 10 homers. You see, Aaron hit his final 10 homers in 1976, but he does not have a 1977 Topps card.

Here’s why: For many years, Topps had a policy of sorts that went something to the degree of, “If a player wasn’t going to play in the season of the card set’s release, they did not get a base card.” Therefore, no Topps base card of Aaron – during his era – shows him with 755 home runs. Back then, the baseball cards were released in the early days of the baseball season: 1976 Topps was released early in the 1977 season. Before series distribution ended with the 1973 Topps set, cards were released over the course of the entire season: 1973 Topps was released in parts throughout the entire 1974 season.

For most of its first 30 years in the baseball card hobby, Topps was the dominant card company. The other most notorious tragedy of Topps’ “career-capper” policy was the absence of cards of players who ended their career playing their final season on some other team. No 1976 Topps Harmon Killebrew exists for his final season as a Kansas City Royal, but the 1976 SSPC set has that covered. No 1978 Topps Dick Allen card as an Oakland Athletic exists either, although it may be possible that he may be in the set’s team card (more on this later).

Of the members of the 500 home run club to have ended their careers during the first 30 years of Topps’ existence (1951-1981), let’s go through the list:

Willie Mays: Final season, 1973 Mets; no 1974 card

Frank Robinson: Final season, 1975 Indians; is featured as a manager on the Indians team card in 1976, and also has a 1976 SSPC base card.

Harmon Killebrew: aforementioned above

Mickey Mantle: Final season, 1968 Yankees. Mantle actually does have a career-capper card in the 1969 Topps set. This is because Topps expected Mantle to play in 1969, but The Mick retired just before spring training. The lineups for cards often are determined in the middle of baseball’s off-season.

Willie McCovey: Final season, 1980 Giants. When Fleer and Donruss came into the market in 1981, they did not have any “career-capper” policy, and so they had the advantage in this. McCovey does not have a Donruss card from 1981, but he DOES have a Fleer card from 1981.

Ernie Banks: Final season, 1971 Cubs; no 1972 card

Ted Wiliams: Final season, 1960 Red Sox; no 1961 card – or 1960 for that matter, as Williams’ history with Topps is a tumultuous one.

Some career-cappers are so because of death, such as Roberto Clemente (1973 Topps) and Jim Umbricht (1964 Topps). Ken Hubbs (1964 Topps) is an actual memorial card, unlike Umbricht’s; it’s because Hubbs was a past Rookie of the Year.

Other career-cappers are so because Topps expected them to play that season, but didn’t because of another season (like Mantle). Dave Kingman (1987 Topps) is an example; he hadn’t retired but was released by the As after 1986, and played in the Giants’ AAA system in 1987 before hanging it up. Vada Pinson (1976 Topps) is another example; he was released by the Royals after 1975, played in spring training with the Brewers in 1976 but was released before the season.

Double check those team cards!

Topps published “team cards” between 1956-1981 before reviving the practice in the 21st century. Due to a player’s union dispute, team cards were not issued in 1969. Team cards were often sought out by collectors, and have a premium in value opposed to common cards.

Many team cards show a bunch of players, coaches, and other essential personnel standing on bleachers. The Cubs were a notable exception to this, as they often just had head shots.

Who exactly are in those shots? It can be tough to tell. Only the 1956, 1957 and 1958 sets have a list of players in the order they are shown on the card. Your best bet, really, is to take a magnifying glass to each team card, try to get around the poor printing quality of the cards (at that time) and take an educated guess based on when the picture was taken and who was on the team at that time.

Most team pictures, to my understanding based on questions asked on vintage card groups on Facebook, were taken during spring training.

If you want to get out a magnifying glass and try to find some gold out of the Topps team cards from 1959 to 1981 (save 1969), my advice is to first find out who may be on what card by looking at individual player biographies.

1) Find out players’ final years and the teams they were on

2) Double check to see if they don’t already have a base card in that year (which is uncommon)

3) Did a player play in spring training of a certain year before they retired either during spring training or later that year?

4) Figure out what they look like (often from the card the previous year)

One very interesting team card of note is the 1970 Topps Oakland Athletics card, which features hitting coach Joe DiMaggio in the front row. Despite this, that does does not have a price premium – but may with individual collectors.

Another interesting team card is the 1967 Topps New York Mets card, which mentions statistics for Nolan Ryan before the release of his 1968 rookie card that he shares with Jerry Koosman.

Here is a list of HALL OF FAME players and managers from the vintage era who MIGHT or MIGHT NOT be on a team card during their final season (or another instance, if noted):

KEY –– NAME, TOPPS CARD YEAR, TEAM THEY WERE ON THE YEAR BEFORE

Hall of Famers

Bob Feller, 1957, Indians: He IS on the 1957 team card and identified as such

Jackie Robinson, 1957, Dodgers: He IS on the 1957 team card and identified as such

Casey Stengel, 1966, Mets: Second row, center

Ted Williams, 1961, Red Sox: Same with 1960

Stan Musial, 1964, Cardinals: Front row (possible other appearances as a Cardinals executive?)

Lou Boudreau, various: He IS on the 1956, 1957 and 1958 Athletics team cards as a manager; not sure about 1961 Cubs

Satchel Paige, 1966 Athletics and 1968 Braves: Neither. Paige’s A’s appearance was one-off, and his “time” on the Braves’ roster was well after spring training.

Yogi Berra, various: Team cards from 1966 to 1981 may have him during his non-manager stints. Came to Yankees from Mets in 1976.

Sandy Koufax, 1967, Dodgers: He actually is featured on three league leader cards in this set as well as the team card.

Early Wynn, 1964, Indians: Don’t know

Monte Irvin, 1957, Cubs: He IS on the 1957 team card and identified as such

Warren Spahn, 1966, Mets: Don’t know

Billy Herman, 1967, Red Sox: Manager

Ralph Kiner, Indians, 1956: He IS on the 1957 team card and identified as such. Kiner does not have a Topps card from 1954 or 1955, but does have Bowman cards (1954 Cubs, 1955 Indians).

Bob Lemon, various: Possible 1959 appearance with the Indians. Does have a 1960 coach card with the Indians. Possible Phillies (1961-64), Angels (1968).

Robin Roberts, 1967, Astros: Topps never made an Astros team card in the 1967 set due to a conflict between the team and company. Roberts appeared briefly for Cubs in 1966, but is on no Cubs card.

Ernie Banks, 1972, Cubs: This was at the time only head shots were featured on Cubs team cards, and Banks’ head appears on it. Also appear on 1973 Whitey Lockman manager card as a coach.

Al Lopez, 1970, White Sox: Manager, not certain

Mickey Mantle, 1971, Yankees: (Thank you to Joel F. from the “Vintage Baseball Cards Only” Facebook group for this one). Mantle may be on this one as a coach. In fact, Mantle has appearances on many team cards during his playing career, which may be a cheap collector’s best shot at getting a Mantle card with him on it (albeit appearing real tiny) during his playing career.

Eddie Mathews, 1972/1975, Braves: Coach for 1972, not certain if featured. Manager in spring training 1974, not certain if in the 1975 team card, but his mid-season replacement, Clyde King, is featured as manager.

Willie Mays, 1974-1980, Mets: Is seen on the front row in the 1974 team card, not known if he is pictured on the other years, when he served as a hitting instructor.

Al Kaline, 1975, Tigers

Duke Snider, 1964-65, Mets or Giants: Unknown. Snider was sold to the Giants on Opening Day of 1964. No Giants card of Snider was ever published during his career.

Bob Gibson, 1976, Cardinals

Hank Aaron, 1977, Brewers

Frank Robinson, 1978, Indians: Possible appearance. Had been featured as manager on team cards from 1975 to 1977.

Juan Marichal, 1976, Dodgers: Only played in a few games in 1975 before retiring

Brooks Robinson, 1978, Orioles: He does have a highlight card in this set.

Don Drysdale, 1970, Dodgers

Harmon Killebrew, 1976, Royals

Pee Wee Reese, 1959, Dodgers

Lou Brock, 1980, Cardinals

Enos Slaughter, 1960, Yankees: Also played for Braves in 1959, but no Braves card of him exists

Hoyt Wilhelm, 1973, Dodgers

Willie McCovey, 1981, Topps: He does have a 1981 Fleer base card.

Catfish Hunter, 1980, Yankees

Billy Williams, 1977, Athletics

Red Schoendienst, 1963-64, Cardinals: Plenty of his Cardinals cards before and after this coaching stint

Hal Newhouser, 1956, Indians: Not on this card despite playing a few games in 1955.

Phil Rizzuto, 1957, Yankees

Nellie Fox, 1966, Astros

Larry Doby, 1960, Tigers: Also played for the White Sox in 1959 and managed for them in 1978, but no card for either. Possible appearances in 1972 and 1977 team cards; he has a head shot in Gene Mauch’s manager cards in 1973 and 1974. Possible appearances in 1975 and 1976 Indians team cards, as well as 1978 White Sox team card as a coach.

Orlando Cepeda, 1975, Royals

Bill Mazeroski, 1981, Mariners: It’s hard to think of Mazeroski in a uniform other than the Pirates, but he was first-base coach for the Mariners in 1979 and 1980. He does not appear on the 1980 team card.

Tony Oliva, 1977, Twins: Possible appearances up to 1981 as a coach

Goose Gossage, 1977, Pirates

Bobby Cox, 1970/78, Yankees: 1970 as a player, 1978 as a coach; also appears as Braves manager in the 1978 set

Minnie Minoso, 1978-79, White Sox: As a coach. Appears in the 1977 set as a record breaker for his brief comeback.

Buck O’Neil, Cubs: Possible appearances after 1963 as a coach.

Other players:

Dick Allen, 1978, Athletics: This was the should-be-hall-of-famer’s final year.

Boog Powell, 1978, Dodgers: This was Powell’s final year.

Joe Adcock, 1965-67, Angels: He was a part-time player for the Halos, but never had a base card during these years.

Mickey Vernon, 1960, Braves: Vernon began the 1959 season with the Braves before going to the Pirates. Vernon also played in a few games with the Pirates in 1960, but he appears in the 1960 set as a Pirates coach and the 1961 set as a Senators manager.

Vada Pinson, 1977, Brewers: Pinson never played an official MLB game for the Brewers, and was released the day before Opening Day. Not sure if he made it onto the Brewers team card.

Willie Davis, 1976 and 1980, Rangers and Angels respectively: I’m not sure on his sign date with the Angels

Tommy Davis, 1977 Angels: He played on many teams, the Angels is the only one that he does not have a base card for.

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