Lessons in greatness from Tom Seaver's small-text assault

Looking back at an old piece of cardboard leads to the question: What did you get out of your baseball cards?

Back when I was a kid, my understand of baseball card value was back asswards. Rookie cards did nothing for me, but I loved getting end-of-the-line veterans, because they provided way better reading material.

I bought a lot of packs for a quarter, but sometimes my grandma would come back from garage sales with a big box of randoms to sift through. I'd first sweep for stars and White Sox and A's, but I spent the most time examining the careers of the oldest players.

A card like a 1982 Cal Ripken Jr. might have one line of stats on the back. Or it might fill it out with random numbers from leagues I didn't know. Or it might include random trivia, like, "DID YOU KNOW: Cal has a sweet tooth!"

Pffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffft.

On the other hand, the back of a Bob Boone card was a good way to spend five minutes. He gave you 15 or so lines of numbers to process. They weren't great numbers, but you could look for round numbers and patterns, and try to fill in the gaps -- why was that year worse than the others? Why did he only play 76 games in 1981? (Hey, as a 6-year-old, most of my life was a labor stoppage.)

That's why I was always drawn to this Tom Seaver card.

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I don't think I knew who Seaver was before the card, or maybe I just knew only the name. But he had "WHITE SOX" across the bottom, so he went into a separate pile for closer inspection. And when you turned over the card, there were more than numbers.

There was black ink.

I can't find a scan of the back, but it looked something like this:

Year Tm W L ERA G GS CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO
1967 NYM 16 13 2.76 35 34 18 2 0 251.0 224 85 77 19 78 170
1968 NYM 16 12 2.20 36 35 14 5 1 278.0 224 73 68 15 48 205
1969 NYM 25 7 2.21 36 35 18 5 0 273.1 202 75 67 24 82 208
1970 NYM 18 12 2.82 37 36 19 2 0 290.2 230 103 91 21 83 283
1971 NYM 20 10 1.76 36 35 21 4 0 286.1 210 61 56 18 61 289
1972 NYM 21 12 2.92 35 35 13 3 0 262.0 215 92 85 23 77 249
1973 NYM 19 10 2.08 36 36 18 3 0 290.0 219 74 67 23 64 251
1974 NYM 11 11 3.20 32 32 12 5 0 236.0 199 89 84 19 75 201
1975 NYM 22 9 2.38 36 36 15 5 0 280.1 217 81 74 11 88 243
1976 NYM 14 11 2.59 35 34 13 5 0 271.0 211 83 78 14 77 235
1977 TOT 21 6 2.58 33 33 19 7 0 261.1 199 78 75 19 66 196
1977 NYM 7 3 3.00 13 13 5 3 0 96.0 79 33 32 7 28 72
1977 CIN 14 3 2.34 20 20 14 4 0 165.1 120 45 43 12 38 124
1978 CIN 16 14 2.88 36 36 8 1 0 259.2 218 97 83 26 89 226
1979 CIN 16 6 3.14 32 32 9 5 0 215.0 187 85 75 16 61 131
1980 CIN 10 8 3.64 26 26 5 1 0 168.0 140 74 68 24 59 101
1981 CIN 14 2 2.54 23 23 6 1 0 166.1 120 51 47 10 66 87
1982 CIN 5 13 5.50 21 21 0 0 0 111.1 136 75 68 14 44 62
1983 NYM 9 14 3.55 34 34 5 2 0 231.0 201 104 91 18 86 135
1984 CHW 15 11 3.95 34 33 10 4 0 236.2 216 108 104 27 61 131

288 181 2.80 593 586 223 60 1 4368.0 3568 1488 1358 341 1265 3403

If you have a rudimentary understanding of what's impressive, but not much in the way of context, the back of this card could blow your mind. Most cards had lines with missing digits, gaps of white (or red, or brown) space that said, "Sometimes he was bad." The back of Seaver's card was a wall, and made it challenging to comprehend, even superficially.

For pitchers, my eyes immediately went to the win column, and Seaver's win column was crowded with double-digit numbers. One of them was a bold 25, which I knew was really high. And it looked even bigger next to the lone "7" in the loss column, which I knew was really low.

After wins, I scanned the ERA column, and seeing three bold numbers in four years told me he was one of the best. One of them started with a "1." Insanity!

Strikeouts were bold. Innings were not, but there were always a couple hundred of them -- just like there were two digits in the complete-game column.

I'd never seen machine-like excellence like that before, so I rifled through cards to find another long-career veteran to get some idea. I'd find a mid-80s Jerry Reuss card to flip over and compare to Seaver's. I'd see that Reuss occasionally lost more than he won (7-14?), and he only pitched 82 innings one year, and there were only a couple instance of bold type, and for boring categories.

I learned about Seaver's greatness by stacking pieces of cardboard. And once I knew he was great, I wondered why he was only ordinary in 1974, compared to the 20-win seasons before and after. And why he went to the Reds. And how he got to the White Sox, and why he started winning games again. How many hours did I spend doing that as a kid? How many hours do I spend doing that on B-Ref now? What is time, anyway? Why is time? Big questions all.

That 1985 Tom Seaver is worth a buck or two. A 1967 Tom Seaver is worth about $500. But back in the 1980s, I knew I'd rather have the picture of the older guy, which, in retrospect, made me better-suited to follow the White Sox than I ever knew.

Star-divide

Topps Archives Baseball is a celebration of the 70s, 80s and 90s, what many consider to be the glory years of card collecting. If you collected Topps Baseball Cards during these years then you will love Topps Archives Baseball. Look for autographs and memorabilia cards from today’s stars and your favorite retired players on classic Topps card designs.

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