Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Epic pursuit of 1971 Topps set comes down to Jon Matlack, Ted Martinez and Rick Folkers

Jon Matlack and Ted Martinez were players on the 1973 N.L. Champion Mets, and Rich Folkers was forever one of those players in the small photos in the back of the yearbooks on the “On the Way to Shea” page.

But together they played an important role in a milestone event in my card collecting career – completing the magnificent 1971 Topps baseball set.

Will and I headed to the National Sports Collectors Convention last weekend, an event we’ve attend and covered on and off since we joined forces and formed the cardboard crusaders in the early 1990s, dispensing our wisdom and generally annoying dealers in our weekly Flint Journal sports column.

We both long ago moved on to other jobs, but continued the hobby we embraced as kids, and an opportunity to cover the largest card show in the country as it appeared in Chicago was not to be missed.

And any epic journey must include adventures. We endured coming face-to-face with former Yankee and known Hall-of-Fame autograph ball abuser Reggie Jackson, rogue security guards, disorganized dealers, Diet Coke depravation and traumatic accidental iPhone separation. We barely lived to tell this tale.

We made out way to the convention center, located in the shadow of O'Hare Airport.

Anyway, the completing the 1971 set has been a collecting target since the mid-1990s. My goal is to complete a Topps base set run from 1970 through the present. I’ve had the 1973 issue – the first cards I started purchasing on my own as a kid -- in hand since the early 1990s. But I’ve been chipping away at the other three ever since.

They’re special sets. Topps went through dreadful design doldrums in the late 1960s, recycling design elements and even photos. But in 1970, someone at the company must have remembered that baseball cards are supposed to be really cool.

The 1970 set is a fine return to form, but the 1971 issue made it seem as if someone told the designers to throw away the rule book.

That concept was ratcheted up one more notch in 1972, a fantastic series of pure 1970s pop art. The Tom Seaver card from that set has been declared The Greatest Card Ever.

The 1971 issue was an important step to get there. With its black borders and back-of- the card photos, it was unlike any previous issue. And Topps for the first time made extensive use of action photos. Some are considered classics because they look like they were snapped from the stands, and I don’t mean the expensive seats, either.

Four players and an umpire are on this card, and we have to assume that one of them is Buddy Harrelson.

And it was a set that I needed to build entirely from scratch, having gathered none of the cards as a kid. The mission became more difficult as weekend mall shows became scarce and the remaining cards dwindled to harder-to-find high numbers and short prints. I’d pick up a card here or there, but the pace certainly slowed in the last decade.

So I headed to Chicago with my list of 13 cards needed to complete the 1971 set, along with the 48 1972s and many more 1970s. You bring such lists because you just never know when you might stumble upon a magical 10-cent bin.

Arriving Saturday afternoon, we made a quick pass of the show, which, while not the overwhelming experience it was at the height of the hobby’s popularity, is still pretty huge.

The challenge of a show this big is that you’ll see things you need, things you want and things that you never even knew existed. Focus is important for a budget-minded collector, like me.

We did find three cards on the list quickly, before finding some old friends who operate a family friendly card show back in our old stomping grounds of Grand Blanc. Catching up at his booth, we noticed a minor commotion across the aisle.

It seems that Reggie Jackson, the strikeout prone former Yankee, was admiring one of his old Oakland jerseys that was on display. I noticed that the people running the booth didn’t let Reggie touch anything there. We know from personal experience that Jackson can’t be trusted with prized artifacts. We kept our distance.

We returned extra early Sunday morning, battling misinformed and overzealous security personnel who did not appreciate the important role of the media in the collecting hobby, or, apparently, the rules of the show.

We already were on edge after realizing that the iPhone, the essential tether to the outside world, was accidently left charging on an end table at Will’s apartment. This was a crisis of unimaginable proportions. The previous record for iPhone separation was about 42 minutes, and that was a very, very long 42 minutes. It was a dark time, and I don’t want to dwell on it.

Now we were to be separated for most of the day, unable to call, tweet, email or otherwise connect with the outside world for almost the whole day. Unthinkable.

Starting the day under this dark cloud, we attacked the show. Will had already scouted out some potential tables for me, writing down their locations.

I scored three of the cards within the first 20 minutes, then bounced around to several more dealers, finding two here and three there, crossing off numbers and player names as I went along.

Finally, I was down to two cards. One was No. 559 is American League Rookies with Terry Cox, Bill Gogolewski and Gary Jones. Because the Yankees are always seeking to make life difficult for me, cards of their players are usually more expensive and a little harder to find. Jones, sadly for him, will always bear the stain of being a Yankee.

The other was far more enjoyable, but posed a greater problem. No. 648 is Mets Rookie Stars, featuring Matlack, Martinez and Folkers.

Matlack, of course, was part of the Mets fearsome mound trio that included Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. He was a future rookie of the year and a three-time All-Star, even sharing MVP honors in the 1975 game. Plus, his middle name is Trumpbour , which is cool.

Martinez was a nice-fielding utility player who played in five seasons for the Mets.

Folkers was a former first-round draft pick who had a cup of coffee with the Mets in in 1970, but spent all of 1971 in the minors and was traded to the Cardinals after the season with Jim Bibby, Charlie Hudson and Art Shamsky for Jim Beauchamp, Chuck Tayor, Harry Parker and Chip Coulter.

He is probably best remembered for a line by the Padres' malaprop-prone broadcaster Jerry Coleman: “Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen."

And I felt a little like hurling when I could find the card a several tables, but all in the $18 to $25 price range, which is far more than my budget would permit.
I found a table near the back of the room with a table covered with binders of cards from the 1960s and 1970s. I flipped through the 1971 book, and chatted with the friendly gentlemen working there, telling them that I was two cards short of completing the awesome set.

“We’ll get you there,” one of them said confidently, looking at my list. They were nice guys from North Carolina. I know this because reporters are nosey and chatty and I ask questions.

One of the men pulled the Cox, Gogolewski and Jones from a box for a very agreeable price, and I flipped to the page where No. 648 was supposed to be.

There it was, and in very nice shape. The 1971 set is famous for its black borders that scuff easily, making it tough to find in mint shape for people who demand such a thing. I just like having the cards, so I’m not as demanding. When I saw how nice this one looked, I expected it to be in a budget-busting range.

The gentleman looked up the card in the price guide, then looked over at me. “This is the last one you need?”

I nodded.

“How about $5?”

A little pricy for me, but I knew this was the best deal I was going to get anywhere.This was a gift, and I knew it. I threw my fists in the air, a slightly more reserved version of the infamous “Yes! Yes!” dance.

I handed him the cash and he handed me cards in a plastic sleeve.

“Hey, this guy just completed the 1971 set,” the gentleman said to one of partners.
“Congratulations! That’s quite a milestone.”

And it is.


Paul said...


I'm not after the full 1971 set, but at some point I hope to get all of the Mets cards.

Anonymous said...

What? No mention of my completion of the 1970 and 1972 sets? No mention of my putting a serious dent in the 1956 set by nailing down the Mantle? Spelling it A-I-R-E-P-O-R-T in the caption? What in the name of George Thomas is going on here?


Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Aireport? Are you sure?

It should of course be noted that my co-crusader met important collecting goals, more ambitious than mine. Will snagged needed cards for his sets, though the 1968 Al Kaline proved elusive.

His snag of the Mantle was epic, and proof that a show as huge as the National can be made special by the presence of a single dealer.

Dan said...

Sweet! Nice work! Loved this narrative. I had written down the dates for this year's convention, but decided it would hurt the budget to go, so my wife and I vacationed with relatives in Maine instead. But I see next year is back in Baltimore, which I'll be sure to hit. I went to Baltimore last year and could've easily blown my budget were it not for some restraint.