View Full Version : Steve Rushin: The Faces in My Basement

Roy Tucker
12-22-2006, 08:47 AM
I got a kick out of this column from SI. I decided to hunt down the cards mentioned to see what they were. I cut out the one that wasn't appropriate for a family board. A few others are giving the finger but I thought that was OK.

The Faces in My Basement
by Steve Rushin

The best portrait ever to appear on a baseball card is of Oscar Gamble, the twin mushroom clouds of his Afro billowing from either side of his Indians cap, so that the outfielder - seen in silhouette - might have been mistaken for Mickey Mouse. To connoisseurs, that 1975 Topps card is iconic, the face that launched a thousand quips, but there are so many other baseball-card faces stored on the permanent hard drive of my brainpan, and backed up in my basement in dozens of old Velveeta boxes. Which is an appropriate receptacle, given the amount of cheese on display in those cardboard galleries, so much of it from the mid-'70s, when every face was framed by the hirsute parentheses of muttonchops.

Well, not every face. The visage of Orioles catcher Andy Etchebarren (Topps, 1974) is instead overscored by a single continuous muttonchop eyebrow, which - in that glorious era before manscaping - must have arched in the middle, like a moving caterpillar, whenever he registered surprise.

Not that anyone ever registers surprise in these portraits. The baseball card faces of the '60s and '70s all have the same 1,000-yeard stare of men bored into deepest ennui. On his '66 Topps card, Astros pitcher Claude Raymond looks listlessly toward the horizon, lips parted slightly, in stark counterpoint to his fly, which is wide open, gaping astonishment. He wore a similar expression in 1967 - vacant, anesthetized. And again, his barn door is wide open, yawning like the MGM lion.

None of these portraits is particularly famous. Should the Louvre ever devote a wing to 2 1/2-inch-by-3 1/2-inch portraiture, these will not hang in it. That space will be reserved for the likes of Gus Zernial, whose 1952 Topps is baseball's Mona Lisa - an inscrutable, ink-on-cardboard conundrum. In his right hand Zernial holds a bat, six baseballs mysteriously affixed to its barrel. With his left hand he makes the O.K. sign, all the while smiling the smile of the newly lobotomized.

If one of art's duties is to shock, then that Louvre win must also house the twin obscene Billys. Tigers manager Billy Martin flips off the camera on his 1972 Topps, the middle finger of his left hand unmistakably extended downward. And Orioles infielder Billy Ripken, on his 1989 Fleer card, holds his bat on his shoulder, revealing an obscenity magic-markered on its handle.

With baseball cards the player's errors appear on the back, but the manufacturer's errors appear on the front. Take the '73 card of Bill North, traded to Oakland the pervious off-season. Did nobody at Topps notice that he is wearing a green-and-gold A's cap (airbrushed onto his head) but a gray-and-blue Cubs road jersey, CHICAGO stitched across the chest? He looks like a one-man All-Star Game.

One of North's teammates, on his '73 card, has a face in near-perfect horizontal symmetry. A's pitcher Rollie Fingers is frowning in concentration, the circumflex (^) of his mustache perfectly mirrored by the inverted circumflex of his eyebrows.

These are faces I will take to my grave. Without summoning his card from the basement, I can vividly picture Indians outfielder Walt Williams - Topps, '74 - whose head rests heavily on his shoulders without the softening segue of a neck.

What earthly purpose could have been served by that orange headband worn on the outside of Tito Fuentes' Giants cap? I don't know, but I can tell you that for months after acquiring his '74 Topps card, I wore a headband on the outside of my cap. There were, too, in that fashion-forward era, a startling number of collared jackets worn under uniform tops. Cardinals pitcher Tom Murphy flipped the pterodactyl collar of his windbreaker up, so that he appears, on his '74 Topps card, to be wearing a red vinyl neck brace.

Collars weren't the only things that sprouted from those V-neck jerseys of my adolescence. Gaylord Perry appears on his Topps card in 1981 with white chest hair frothing over the top of his pinstripes, as if he's smuggling an albino ferret beneath his Yankees uniform top. Given Perry's proclivity for hiding foreign objects and substances on his person, he may very well have been doing just that.

In 1973 Reds pitcher Gary Nolan posed while wearing uniform pants hiked so high that he'd have to unzip his fly to blow his nose.

At the moment I cannot look away from the '72 Topps card of Walter Alston. On it, the Dodgers' manager - wearing an expression of pained impatience - is gazing heavenward and holding up his right index finger, as if God is his waiter and Walter would like Him to bring the check.

God did just that, in a manner of speaking, in 1984, when Alston passed away at age 72. But the truth is, the skipper will never really die. He's still very much alive in my basement, forever enshrined in a Velveeta Valhalla.


12-22-2006, 09:12 AM
Great stuff, Roy. There are many cards which do, indeed, have curious pictures on them.
My favorite is the Lowell Palmer 1971 card, where he is sporting a nice pair of cool shades. Or the 1989 Upper Deck Garry Pettis card, where he is checking out the back of a baseball card - his very own 1989 Upper Deck card (!!!).
And the airbrushed cards were...uh...remarkable, to say the least.

Johnny Footstool
12-22-2006, 10:08 AM
The bespectacled Darrell Porter, reminding us that glasses can be sexy.

12-22-2006, 10:11 AM
I have that Oscar Gamble and Billy Martin Card... in my basement.

12-22-2006, 10:32 AM
I keep my cards in my bedroom.
When I find a chick who digs that, she will be mine.

Team Clark
12-22-2006, 11:01 AM
As a kid I tried to learn how to hit by looking at the "in action" swings on cards. Little did I realize that I was learning how to hit from a vast majority of guys who could only muster a .210 average. :laugh:

12-22-2006, 11:28 AM
I just realized that I have every one of the cards pictured. That's sick.

12-22-2006, 03:57 PM
That '72 picture of Walt looks like he might be at dear ole Riverfront.

12-22-2006, 04:15 PM
In that case, wouldn't his road shirt read "Los Angeles"?

Red Leader
12-22-2006, 04:21 PM
I remember looking at that Gaylord Perry card when I was a kid and thinking "my God, how freaking old is that guy?"

12-22-2006, 04:56 PM
I'm with Randy. I believe I have or had every one of those cards.

The Walt "No Neck" Williams card reminds me of the time Bill "Spaceman" Lee was mocking Williams by hunching up his shoulders to hide his own neck between pitches. Everyone at Fenway that afternoon, including Williams, was laughing.

12-22-2006, 05:14 PM
In that case, wouldn't his road shirt read "Los Angeles"?
Not in the 70's.