bench

The 1971 Topps Johnny Bench card.

I don't even remember the first pack of of Topps baseball cards I bought — probably for a dime or so as a very young child in the 60s.

I do remember the Summer of 1970, as I began my first year of playing Little League baseball and became very aware of the Major League team down the Interstate from my hometown of Dayton, Ohio.

The Cincinnati Reds moved into brand new Riverfront Stadium early that season and it was immediately christened with a Hank Aaron home run. Weeks later at the new ballyard, Cincinnati's own Pete Rose sealed an All-Star Game victory for the National League by barreling over Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run.

It was Sparky Anderson's first season as skipper — and the Reds dominated the National League West. They won 70 of their first 100 games but had to limp into the postseason after injuries sidelined their top two starting pitchers, right-handed flame-thrower Wayne Simpson and 20-game winner Jim Merritt.

The Reds squeaked past the always-tough Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS, but then fell victim to the Baltimore Orioles (with third base magician Brooks Robinson and four 20-game winners on the mound) in the World Series. I was in fourth grade when the Reds tangled with Baltimore and I still have nightmares about Robinson stealing away sure-fire hits from Johnny Bench and Lee May.

Times were simpler then. There was no internet or daily baseball telecasts — so we waited for the few Reds games we could catch on the tube. Instead we were glued to our transistor radio and we learned how to read boxscores in the newspaper.

And, yes, baseball cards were a dime a pack and came with a big pink piece of bubble gum. And 1970 was the first summer where I really delved into what would become a lifelong hobby.

Topps baseball cards have been an American institution since 1951. The pieces of cardboard they produced chronicled each and every season, with our favorite players' stats and bios. It was always an event when the first new cards of the year hit Houser's Pharmacy in the shopping center up the street. We couldn't wait to see what those little pieces of art would look like for the new season.

Yes, some of us still collect cards as adults. And purists like myself always jump on the base Topps issue — after all, it's lineage can be traced back to the 1950s, when cards featuring the likes of Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Willie Mays were pulled from those packs.

When I think of specific seasons in any sport, the card design of that year always comes to mind. The 1975 season was a big one as the Reds won their first world title since 1940 — and the Topps cards were very mid-70s with gaudy colors reflecting the era. But I truly love that set, with all the Reds cards and also rookie entries for Hall of Famers George Brett and Robin Yount.

Perhaps my favorite set is the 1971 edition, with its jet black borders that are very hard to find in decent shape these days. That set was the first one I put together — and its cards featured the stats from the 1970 Cincinnati team that started the Big Red Machine era. Bench was my favorite player — and I can recite his 1970 MVP numbers to this day (a .293 batting average with 45 home runs and 148 RBI) because I memorized the back of his 1971 card.

Vintage sports cards are big business now. But back in the day, it was just pure fun. I always tried to build complete sets, so it was not uncommon for me to trade a "double" of a Mays, Bench, Aaron or Roberto Clemente for the card of a utility player like Jose Pagan. Why not? I had several Mays cards in 1972 and I needed the Pagan. My 11-year-old self had no idea the Mays card would be worth 40 or 50 bucks all these years later.

Earlier this week, news emerged that MLB was ending its 70-year relationship with Topps. It appears that Fanatics — the popular sports apparel company — will now enter into the sports card business. The Fanatics deal includes MLB and also the players' unions for the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, ESPN reported. Fanatics will reportedly begin its pact with MLB in 2025.

I suppose card collectors will get used to the Fanatics brand.

But I, for one, will miss Topps. For me, that company was a staple of my childhood. When I hear the word Topps, I think of hustling on my bike to the store after hearing from a friend that the new cards were on the shelf.

Topps provided me — along with millions of other kids across the nation — so many thrills as we pulled our favorite players from a fresh pack of cards.

So thank you, Topps, for all the fun and excitement you provided through the years. I hope Fanatics will follow your lead and become a staple for young baseball fans of this generation.

JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. He can be reached at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com.

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