By Reid Creager
There’s nothing quite as powerful as the final time.
Lou Gehrig’s torturous farewell at Yankee Stadium. A smiling but gray and wobbly Bambino at Babe Ruth Day. Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at-bat.
Such are the images that help define icons. And often, the same holds true with the image on their last baseball card: Harmon Killebrew signing autographs, looking up into the stands and presumably listening to a fan’s request. An elegant, poignant farewell portrait of Sandy Koufax. Hank Aaron coming full circle wearing a Milwaukee uniform, striking a classic batting pose 22 years after his pasteboard debut.
In our rookie-card-obsessed collecting world, these gems are under-appreciated and undervalued. A superstar’s last year has a singular drama, regardless of his performance at that stage of his career. Either he has announced his intent or we have a strong sense of it.
By this point, we have a pretty good feel for who these players are. Their bodies and legacies have filled out, decades removed from being fresh-faced prospects with no meaningful baseball histories. And long after their final card is produced and opened in packs, it forever has that unique distinction: The last time.
Here’s a look at some noteworthy last regular issues of Hall of Famers whose careers ended in the 1960s and ‘70s, before or near the close of the vintage card era. Many of these are very affordable in near-mint condition or better (we’ll leave out the always-pricey Teddy Ballgame and Mickey Mantle), while the circumstances surrounding these players’ farewells are rich in interest – and humility.
A sign of his time
On Killebrew’s 1975 card, the Topps photo editor nailed it. Better yet, he killed it.
No typical portrait or in-action shot here. Instead, the man rumored to be the impetus for the 100th anniversary Major League Baseball logo is thanking fans by signing autographs.
“It epitomizes Killebrew the man,” said League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed. “Killebrew followed the Golden Rule and treated everyone with respect, no matter their position in life.”
Reed noted that the beautiful facsimile signature on the card speaks to Killebrew’s character as well, how he “made a concerted effort to make his signature legible for everyone who asked for it. Moreover, he also strongly encouraged every young player in the Twins system to follow suit and start signing autographs legibly for the fans who supported them and made their professional lives possible.”
Previously unaware of the card, Reed said he’s going to get one and carry it in his wallet. “I don’t need it to remind me about Killebrew’s 573 career home runs. But I do need it to periodically remind me to try to carry myself as Killebrew did.”
Charlotte Observer photographer Jeff Siner, a collector and longtime student of cards, said the ’75 Killebrew also rates high in production values. “The color saturation is fantastic. You see that a lot in the ‘75s. Put everything together and it’s one of my favorite cards.”
Although Killebrew played the entire 1975 season with the Royals (14 HR in 106 games) following his release by the Twins, he didn’t sign with Kansas City until Jan. 24. Had this happened a couple years earlier, Killebrew might have appeared on a sixth or seventh series card as a Royal – but starting in ’74, Topps issued all of its cards in one series. (He does appear on a 1975 SSPC card in a Kansas City uniform.)
This facilitated some fitting symmetry: All of Killebrew’s 21 regular-issue Topps cards show him as a member of the same franchise (starting with his ’55 rookie with the Washington Nationals, who moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1961). The cherry on top is that you can pick the ’75 in near-mint condition for about $10. Even PSA 8s go for around $30.
Classics and class
When Dodgers centerfielder Willie Davis doomed Sandy Koufax to defeat with his three-error inning in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, little did we know it was the legendary left-hander’s final game. Those skeptical of Koufax’s persistent claims of an arm injury were silenced when he announced his retirement a little more than a month later, at 30.
Unlike the vast majority of his HOF contemporaries, Koufax retired at the top of his game. His final five years are possibly the most dominant pitching stretch in modern history (111-34, 1.95 ERA, 1,444 strikeouts in 1,377 innings). His final Topps issue in ’66 is a gentle, almost wistful portrait of a man who exuded grace on and off the field.
Because ’66 capped an incredible run for him and because Koufax is so revered by fans and historians, the card is always in demand. With some searching you can find a near-mint example for about $100, but often it will be at least a little off-center. Once you get into PSA 8 territory, you’re into $300 or more.
(Koufax and Killebrew are linked as rivals in the 1965 World Series and as All-Star Game co-captains in 1985, when they briefly participated in a bizarre and ill-fated stunt. From a place called Boom Island in northeast Minneapolis, Koufax was to pitch to Killebrew – who would try to hit the ball 800 feet across the Mississippi River. Killebrew told Koufax to forget about pitching to him and then half-heartedly hit a few fungoes into the water, the longest going about 100 feet.)
Centering can also be an issue with Aaron’s 23rd and last regular-issue Topps card, the only one of him in a Brewers uniform. His ’75 issue, though a Brewers card, showed him in a blue Braves jersey with his head turned sideways. Despite the generic small player cartoon that resembles the follow-through of a right-handed Carl Yastrzemski, the ’76 is an aesthetically pleasing card with a simple, balanced design; strong color; bold lettering; and a smiling Aaron waiting in full uniform for an imaginary pitch.
Siner, a big Aaron fan, said, “What I see on this card is the end of the road” – the second of two lackluster seasons as a Brewer with 22 home runs combined. “He is a man now. Here’s a guy who’s been on the road, been through the day-to-day rigors, put up the day-to-day numbers, who’s probably just getting tired.
“It’s a classic pose, nothing that pushes you beyond the expected. The beauty is, it shows the 44 on his jersey and it’s the first time we haven’t seen Hank as a Brave. I loved this card as a kid.”
If you’re not fastidious about perfect centering, you can get a near-mint copy in the $20 range. A PSA 8 will run you about three times as much – still a bargain for the card of a man who retired as the all-time home run king, known for his class and humility.
Mays, Clemente ’73 finales
The man to whom Aaron long played second fiddle, Willie Mays last appears on a regular Topps card in 1973. It’s historic not just because it’s his only card as a Met but because so many remember Mays stumbling and falling in pursuit of a fly ball during that year’s World Series. To this day, some say he exemplifies the perils of retiring too late.
It’s still a Willie Mays baseball card. But dark circles are forming around his eyes. The “Say Hey” smile looks different, somehow lacking the carefree ease of earlier years. He’s not even holding the bat in a menacing way – maybe apropos for a guy who hit .211 with six homers in 66 games.
“Willie is just old here,” Siner said. “You look at that big smile from earlier years and the regal pose on the 1965 card; that aura is gone.” Such factors and the nondescript appearance of the ’73 set help explain why Mays’ cardboard finale sells for just $30-$40 in near-mint condition and not much more in PSA 8. Not a bad investment in perhaps the best all-around player of the modern era.
Roberto Clemente’s final regular-issue card is also in the ‘73 set. His death on a flight while delivering relief supplies to Nicaragua occurred on Dec. 31, 1972, after Topps had produced the first series. The ’73 Clemente and ’69 Mantle represent rarities: HOFers appearing on a regular-issue card the year after their careers were over.
An auction house wrote of the ’73 Clemente: “You can almost feel the intensity of Clemente as he prepares to swing at what is most likely another walloped baseball, with this classic pose highlighted by an unparalleled array of rich hues.”
Hmmm. First, this is an odd “action” shot; it’s unclear whether Clemente is beginning his swing or checking it. Also, his face is half-shadowed, and the only real rich color is in the graphics, not the picture. The pose is a far cry from some of his earlier issues – the artistic 1966 card with the heavenly gaze and bat on shoulder comes to mind – perhaps keeping near-mint prices in the same neighborhood as the Mays.
Pretty cards, ugly exits
If there were a Mount Rushmore of Sixties-era aces, Koufax would probably be joined by Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal. Unfortunately, the latter three were treated very rudely in their last year.
Gibson’s and Marichal’s final cards are striking. Gibson’s ‘75 issue is the perfect storm: a classic portrait pose, The Intimidator wearing a macho smile while looking off-camera and appearing a decade younger than his 39 years; a prominent and legible facsimile signature; the splendid ’75 color saturation referenced by Siner complemented by a vivid design in orangish-red, yellow and blue. Best of all, near-mint and near-mint/mint issues are in the same range as the Mays and Clemente finales.
Good thing Gibson’s stats from that year don’t appear on the card: 3-10, 5.04 ERA – capped by a career-ending one-inning nightmare in which he gave up five earned runs, three walks, a wild pitch and a grand slam to Pete LaCock. Ten years later, Gibson drilled LaCock in an old-timers game.
Marichal also pitched his last game in ’75, though he doesn’t have a card from that year. That’s probably a good thing. After contemplating retirement the previous winter, he signed with the Dodgers March 15, long after spring games had begun and Topps had finished producing the set. The signing was blasted by many L.A. fans who remembered Marichal hitting Dodgers catcher John Roseboro over the head with a bat during a Giants-Dodgers brawl 10 years earlier.
The Dominican Dandy’s performance in two regular-season starts made that moot; after being shelled by the Big Red Machine for four runs in 2 1/3 innings on April 16, he retired. So collectors can bask in the ’74 issue that shows Marichal in his classic high leg kick, ball in a cocked right wrist near his knee while in the Giants uniform where he made his mark. (Incredibly, this card sells for only $30 or so in a PSA 9.) There’s also a ’74 traded card reflecting his acquisition by the Red Sox, but it’s not memorable in terms of aesthetics or significance.
Lefties Koufax and Spahn were both dominant for only about half of the Sixties, but in remarkable ways. Though much of Spahn’s excellence came in the Fifties, three of his 13 20-win seasons came in the Sixties as he approached and surpassed age 40. His numbers fell off a cliff at age 43 in 1964, his last season as a Brave; instead of retiring, he joined the Mets as pitcher-coach for ’65 and fared no better (4-12, 4.36) before his July release and signing by the Giants through the end of the season (3-4, 3.39).
The capless, balding, beaming Spahn on the ’65 card almost warrants a double-take. Collectors of that set are left to argue which looks most odd: Spahn on a Mets card after two decades as a Brave, or Yogi Berra on a Mets card after two decades as a Yankee. Spahnnie is affordable even in a mint grade (though not so much for Berra).
Solid portrait shots of franchise lifers Stan Musial (1963) and Ernie Banks (1971) make for other strong last-year cards, though prices are higher due to their being in condition-sensitive sets. Conversely, hot corner Famers Brooks Robinson (1977) and Ron Santo (1975) are very affordable in mint grades, with the Santo routinely selling for $15-$20 in a PSA 9.
The main reason for the Santo’s lack of value could be that he appears on a White Sox card – not something that likely appeals to fans of either Chicago team. Sometimes, the last time wasn’t a good idea the first time.
Reid Creager is a frequent contributor to SCD. He welcomes questions and comments related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.