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The Faces in My Basement
Steve Rushin
December 15, 2006
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.
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December 15, 2006

The Faces In My Basement

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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-yard 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 in 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 2½-inch-by-3½-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 wing 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 previous 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.

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