Topps’ singles.

When I have time, I’m quickly compiling the checklists of all the major sets in a Google Sheets page. I dumped all of Topps, and I’m slowly entering the other companies(currently in 1993). But today, I was curious who the best cards to have been issued #1. Using BBREF’s WAR, I created four categories. Since these cards would’ve been issued at or near the beginning of a season, I decided to use that as a cut off – both the season prior to being selected, and the actual season selected. But that’s really only the tale of two seasons, so I also found the cumulative WAR prior to the #1 season, and their WAR afterwards(including the season). So with those four categories in mind, let’s look at a few trends I found…

Double printed

In 1951 Topps printed two main series dubbed ‘red backs’ and ‘blue backs’ because of their differing back colors. Thank you Captain Obvious. As such, two cards share #1 that year. It’s obvious who had the better career when you look at the stats.

Year Player WAR for season prior to #1. WAR for season selected #1. Total WAR prior to #1. Total WAR after #1. Cumulative WAR.
1951 Eddie Yost
(red back)
4.0 4.0 4.5 29.7 34.2
1951 Yogi Berra
(blue back)
5.6 4.8 12.4 47.1 59.5

Yogi Berra(blue) entered 1951 with 12.4 career bWAR, having posted 5.6 WAR the prior season, adding another 4.8 WAR in 1951. He’d finish with 47.1. His son would later play 11 seasons totaling up 5.4 total WAR, and a 1979 World Series title.

Eddie Yost(red) entered 1951 with 4.5 WAR, mostly from the previous season’s 4 WAR. After 1950, he’d post 29.7 to finish his career with 34.2 bWAR. The Walking Man(six times leading the league in walks between 1950 and 1960) is NOT(if his daughter is to be believed!!!) directly related to the other Yost(Ned) to play in the majors, despite the obvious assumption one could make based of years played and name alone.

Leaders and champions

Several years Topps featured league leaders from the previous year(usually average, home runs, RBIs for hitters; wins, ERA, and strikeouts for pitchers). A few of those years line up with card #1: 1963-65, 1968-69, 1977, 1979 and finally in 1981. For 1973, Topps’ #1 matched Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays …for some reason or another. :). As well as league leaders, there were a few years Topps celebrated the previous year’s World Series champions with card #1: 1967, 1970-1972, and two years where the first card was the MLB/AL Commissioner – 1956(William Harridge), 1959(Ford C. Frick).

 

Year Player WAR for season prior to #1. WAR for season selected #1. Total WAR prior to #1. Total WAR after #1. Cumulative WAR.
1963 Tommy Davis 6.0 3.9 8.9 11.5 20.4
1963 Frank Robinson 8.7 4.8 46.1 61.1 107.2
1963 Stan Musial 3.6 1.3 126.8 1.3 128.1
1963 Bill White 4.3 6.0 14.6 24 38.6
1963 Hank Aaron 8.5 9.1 64.4 78.2 142.6
1964 Sandy Koufax 10.7 7.4 27.4 25.8 53.2
1964 Dick Ellsworth 10.2 1.6 16.0 7.3 23.3
1964 Bob Friend 5.8 3.5 42.1 4.9 47.0
1965 Tony Oliva 6.8 5.4 7.1 35.9 43.0
1965 Frank Robinson 7.9 5.1 58.8 48.4 107.2
1965 Frank Howard 1.2 2.3 10.9 26.7 37.6
1968 Roberto Clemente 8.9 8.1 61.4 33.1 94.5
1968 Matty Alou 3.9 5.3 8.3 14.9 23.2
1968 Tony Gonzalez 5.4 -0.6 24.2 2.9 27.1
1969 Carl Yastrzemski 10.5 5.5 47.7 48.4 96.1
1969 Danny Cater 2.0 0.5 5.5 5 10.5
1969 Tony Oliva 3.8 5.1 26.8 16.2 43.0
1973 Hank Aaron 3.9 4.7 135.4 7.2 142.6
1973 Willie Mays 1.6 0.0 156.2 0.0 156.2
1973 Babe Ruth 0.2(1935) Retired in 1935. 162.9 0.2 163.1
 1977 George Brett  7.5 7.6 14.5 73.9 88.4
 1977 Bill Madlock 4.3 1.1 12.7 25.3 38.0
 1979 Dave Parker  7.0 6.7 25.7 14.2 39.9
 1979 Rod Carew 4.9 2.6 63.7 17.4 81.1
 1981  George Brett  9.4 3.3 45.5 42.9 88.4
 1981 Bill Buckner 1.5 1.2 11.9 2.9 14.8

A few flash in the pan type players(Cater, Ellsworth, etc.), as well as several Hall of Fame players, though 1973 obviously takes the cake here.

Honoring careers

Despite never having been #1 previously in a Topps set, Derek Jeter was 2015’s representative honoring the Yankee Captain’s career – who retired in 2014. This wasn’t the first time however, as in 1980 Topps chose to honor the career of Lou Brock.

Year Player WAR for season prior to #1. WAR for season selected #1. Total WAR prior to #1. Total WAR after #1. Cumulative WAR.
1980 Lou Brock 0.7(1979) 0(Retired). 45.2 0(Retired). 45.2
2015 Derek Jeter 0.2(2014) 0(Retired). 71.8 0(Retired). 71.8

Do you favor stolen bases? Lou Brock held the stolen base record until Rickey Henderson came along. Nothing against Brock’s two World Series titles, but Jeter has a few of his own. As much as this Twins fan hates to admit, Jeter had arguably the better career between the two. Jeter however wasn’t a part of arguably the worst trade in MLB history.

Player AB R H HR RBI SB Chances E FLD% OPS
Jeter(SS) 11195 1923 3465 260 1311 358 10679 254 0.976 0.817
Brock(LF) 10332 1610 3023 149 900 938 4732 196 0.959 0.753

Broken Records

Having moved on from league leader cards, Topps sets in the 1980s through the early 1990s had a tendency to feature record breakers or “highlights”. Featuring players who broke this or that record – either for a season, or a single game record – Topps had you covered.

Year Player WAR for season prior to #1. WAR for season selected #1. Total WAR prior to #1. Total WAR after #1. Cumulative WAR.
1982 Steve Carlton 5.5 5.5 73.0 11.1 84.1
1983 Tony Armas 2.2 -0.9 13.4 2.3 15.7
1984 Steve Carlton 5.5 2.3 84.0 0.1 84.1
1985 Carlton Fisk 1.5 3.3 51.3 17 68.3
1987 Roger Clemens 8.9 9.4 13.5 125.9 139.4
1988 Vince Coleman 2.8 0.8 6.4 5.8 12.2
1989 George Bell 0.8 3.0 17.1 2.8 19.9

1982 Topps celebrated Steve Carlton’s breaking of Bob Gibson’s NL strikeout record.
1983 Topps featured Tony Armas’ single game feat of 11 putouts.
1984 again featured Steve Carlton, this time for winning his 300th game, and momentarily holding the all-time strikeout record.
1985 Topps had a Carlton, but not that one. This time Carlton Fisk’s 25 inning affair behind the plate was pictured, having broke the previous record by one inning shared by many catchers.
1987 Topps’ wood grain set was led off by Roger Clemens’ 20 strikeouts in one game was the record broken. A feat he’d tie a decade later in 1996, and matched by Kerry Wood(1998), Max Scherzer(2016), and Randy Johnson(2001, though the game went 11 innings – Johnson pulled after 9).
1988 Topps displayed Vince Coleman’s third consecutive 100 stolen base season.
1989 Topps chose George Bell to lead off the set with his three home runs on 1988’s opening day. I’d argue that’s maybe the most appropriate way to celebrate that record day. Since matched by Dmitri Young, and Tuffy Rhodes.

Recidivism

Taking out all of those featured so far, there’s a few players who have been on several Topps card #1 spots. Despite his swapping between Bowman and Topps, Ted Williams was the first repeat offender owning the 1st slot in 1954, and 1957. Alex Rodriguez made a name for himself in the 2000s for his huge contracts, rumored PED usage, as well as on-field play. I suppose. Hank Aaron and Nolan Ryan owning several #1s near the end of their career feels like Topps poking and prodding them to retire, especially Nolan Ryan. At least with this group, they’re all worthy of owning that first slot for their respective years.

Year Player WAR for season prior to #1. WAR for season selected #1. Total WAR prior to #1. Total WAR after #1. Cumulative WAR.
1954 Ted Williams 2.0 7.8 86.0 37.1 123.1
1957 Ted Williams 6.0 9.7 106.7 16.4 123.1
1958 Ted Williams 9.7 4.0 116.3 6.8 123.1
1974 Hank Aaron 4.7 2.1 140.1 2.5 142.6
1975 Hank Aaron 2.1 0.0 142.1 0.5 142.6
1976 Hank Aaron 0.0 0.4 142.2 0.4 142.6
1990 Nolan Ryan 5.1 3.6 73.7 10.2 83.9
1991 Nolan Ryan 3.6 5.2 77.3 6.6 83.9
1992 Nolan Ryan 5.2 2.0 82.5 1.4 83.9
1996 Tony Gwynn 2.3 2.3 58.0 10.8 68.8
1998 Tony Gwynn 4.3 1.6 64.5 4.3 68.8
2003 Alex Rodriguez 8.8 8.4 55.2 62.5 117.7
2005 Alex Rodriguez 7.6 9.4 71.1 46.6 117.7
2006 Alex Rodriguez 9.4 4.5 80.5 37.2 117.7
2008 Alex Rodriguez 9.4 6.8 94.3 23.4 117.7
2009 Alex Rodriguez 6.8 4.1 101.1 16.6 117.7

Active leaders

Year Player WAR for season prior to #1. WAR for season selected #1. Total WAR prior to #1. Total WAR after #1. Cumulative WAR.
2007 John Lackey 4.7 6.3 13.4 24.6 38.0
2011 Ryan Braun 5.7 7.8 18.4 27.2 45.6
2012 Ryan Braun 7.8 7.0 26.2 19.4 45.6
2013 Bryce Harper 5.1 3.7 5.1 21 26.1
2014 Mike Trout 9.3 7.9 20.7 34.5 55.2
2016 Mike Trout 9.4 10.5 37.9 17.3 55.2
2017 Kris Bryant 7.7 6.1 13.6 6.1 19.7

John Lackey, and Ryan Braun(‘roids) aside, you won’t hear many arguments that Trout, Harper, and Bryant are the faces of the next generation of MLB players. I find it surprising Mike(err…Giancarlo) Stanton hasn’t been first, but maybe after this season’s All-Star, MVP, and 59 home run(!!!) season he’ll finally get that honor in 2018 Topps. Go vote now! Bracing for the inevitable Aaron Judge #1 announcement….

Best of the rest

Andy Pafko gets an honorary nod as leading off the first full set Topps produced. Jackie Robinson was MLB and Topps’ first African American player. Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in ’61 obviously influenced his spot. Yastrzemski, Rose, and Yount all featured near the end of their careers, while Piazza, Thomas, and Bonds were establishing theirs in their own right. If only Prince Fielder could have stayed healthy, what might’ve been…

Year Player WAR for season prior to #1. WAR for season selected #1. Total WAR prior to #1. Total WAR after #1. Cumulative WAR.
1952 Andy Pafko 1.8 3.2 29.0 7.7 36.7
1953 Jackie Robinson 8.5 7.0 43.7 17.8 61.5
1955 Dusty Rhodes 2.6 1.7 3.9 -0.4 3.5
1960 Early Wynn 2.8 2.5 45.0 6.6 51.6
1961 Dick Groat 6.2 2.0 17.5 19.2 36.7
1962 Roger Maris 6.9 3.7 20.3 17.9 38.2
1966 Willie Mays 11.2 9.0 120.3 35.9 156.2
1978 Lou Brock -0.9 -1.9 46.3 -1.1 45.2
1980 Carl Yastrzemski 2.3 0.8 93.7 2.4 96.1
1986 Pete Rose 0.6 -0.9 80.0 -0.9 79.1
1993 Robin Yount 1.6 2.1 74.9 2.1 77.0
1994 Mike Piazza 7.0 3.6(strike season) 7.1 52.3 59.4
1995 Frank Thomas 6.3(strike season) 5.3 28.8 44.9 73.7
1997 Barry Bonds 9.6 8.2 83.4 79 162.4
1999 Roger Clemens 8.2 2.9 101.4 38 139.4
2000 Mark McGwire 5.2 4.2 57.5 4.5 62.0
2001 Cal Ripken Jr. 1.4 -0.6 96.1 -0.6 95.5
2002 Pedro Martinez 5.1 6.5 57.1 28.9 86.0
2004 Jim Thome 4.7 3.2 52.0 20.9 72.9
2010 Prince Fielder 6.3 1.5 10.7 13.1 23.8

SO, I don’t see how you could argue any of these #1s are undeserving. A testament to Topps that they’ve all been decent picks. No Brien Taylor’s here. I won’t dump everything, but here’s the best and worst for each category, starting with:

Lowest/Highest WAR for the season prior to being featured on #1:

1978 Lou Brock -0.9 -1.9 46.3 -1.1 45.2
1966 Willie Mays 11.2 9.0 120.3 35.9 156.2

Lowest/Highest WAR for the season featured on #1:

1978 Lou Brock -0.9 -1.9 46.3 -1.1 45.2
2016 Mike Trout 9.4 10.5 37.9 17.3 55.2

Lowest/Highest Career Cumulative WAR prior to #1:

1955 Dusty Rhodes 2.6 1.7 3.9 -0.4 3.5
1973 Babe Ruth 0.2 0.0 162.9 0.2 163.1

Lowest/Highest Career Cumulative WAR after #1:

1978 Lou Brock -0.9 -1.9 46.3 -1.1 45.2
1987 Roger Clemens 8.9 9.4 13.5 125.9 139.4

Lowest/Highest Career Cumulative WAR:

1955 Dusty Rhodes 2.6 1.7 3.9 -0.4 3.5
1973 Babe Ruth 0.2 0.0 162.9 0.2 163.1

 

Let me know who your favorites are in the comments. :). Might run through Donruss, Fleer, Et. Al. when finished adding them.

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