Collecting the 1971 Atlanta Braves

A look back at some great Braves cards from one of the great Topps sets.

There are collecting goals that I’ve established that I always assumed I’d never meet. I have a hard time believing that I will ever actually hold a 1954 Topps Hank Aaron in my hand, let alone in my possession. I find it unlikely that I will ever complete my 1952 Topps Braves team set. Acquiring that Eddie Mathews, the very last card in the set, one of those legendary 1952 high numbers, just seems like a daunting task. My main purpose in collecting has been to acquire every Topps base set released in my lifetime. I was born in November of 1970 so I’ve wanted to complete every set from 1971 to today. There’s never been any doubt in my mind that I would be able to complete every set from 1973 on, even though that 2001 Topps Traded set was going to be terribly expensive. The 1971 and 1972 Topps sets seemed to be out of reach. There are just too many rare and expensive high number cards.

An amazing set of circumstances last year however led to me completing both sets. I found a few boxes full of cards from both years as well as 1970 that were sitting among a bunch of boxes full of cards from the middle 1990s. Those cards from 1970 proved to be pretty important as they allowed me to make some key trades for missing 1971 and 1972 high numbers. A few online purchases later and I had completed both sets. It’s been a few months now and I pull out both binders periodically. When I do, I’m still amazed that the pages at the back of the binders are actually full of cards.

In celebration of my accomplishment, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the Braves cards from each set. We’ll start this week with the 1971 set.

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In that amazing photograph, the Hammer is already in his mid 30s, but he looks impossibly young. Before the season had even begun, he had already amassed over 3100 hits and was closing in on his 600th home run. It was Mickey Mantle that many thought should be the man to catch the Babe, but injuries and years of self-abuse brought about an early end to his career. Willie Mays was considered by many to be the most likely, but the years were already catching up with him and his power was deserting him. (Although, Mays would have his last great season in 1971.) Aaron, however, was still along the best players in the game in 1971 and had a true MVP caliber season. He was still one of the games great players and his card was still the centerpiece of any Braves team set.

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As someone who first became a Braves fan in the early 80s, I’m used to Phil Niekro looking a certain way. He was not young looking in 1981. On this card, Kuncksie looks impossibly young and I’m not used to a young Niekro, no matter how many baseball cards of his I acquire. The young and promising Mike McQueen would spend much of his 1971 season injured. His career was ultimately short as he would never fully recovery from his injuries. To my eye, Oscar Brown looks a lot like Bill Cosby and his career was short and rather uneventful. He shares the card with Earl Williams who won the Rookie of the Year award in 1971. I wrote about the late Earl Williams a few weeks ago.

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How can you not love that Rico Carty smile? Older cards have far more character than newer cards and I especially love older League Leaders cards. Carty was the only Braves player to appear on one in 1971. The Felix Millan and Hal King cards are perfectly representative of the cards in the 1971 set. The photography consists almost entirely of excellent posed shots.

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The versatile Mike Lum was an Atlanta fixture for many years. He could play all three positions in the outfield and was a solid first baseman as well. For most of his career, he was a reserve, but 1971 was a special year for him. When Hank Aaron moved to first base, Lum became the Braves starting right fielder. Bob Priddy was at the end of his short journeyman career and Gil Garrido was a utility man barely holding on to a spot in the big leagues. It’s easy sometimes to forget players like this, or to mark them as unsuccessful. When you think about the shear number of people who play baseball, and the very few who make it to the major leagues, it’s hard to consider anyone who has the picture on a baseball card as unsuccessful.

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Rico Carty had an amazing season in 1970 and was poised to become an even bigger star in 1971. Unfortunately, the affable Dominican with the outsized personality was injured during winter ball and missed the entire season. He may not have been very popular with his teammates over the years, Aaron and Ron Reed in particular, but he was always a fan favorite. He won election to the 1970 All-Star game as a write-in candidate. Cecil Upshaw had an eventful 1970 as well. The sidearmer was one of the better relievers in baseball but he tore ligaments in his pitching hand while jumping to touch an awning. He missed his entire 1970 season and was never the same pitcher again.

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Until I moved to Georgia in 1981, the Phillies were one of my two favorite teams and for that reason, I always think of Ron Reed as a member of the Philadelphia bullpen. He was a solid member of the Braves rotation for almost a decade. He’s won of a select few players to have amassed a hundred wins and saves in a career. Most remarkably, he played three years with the Detroit Pistons in the mid 60s.

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The 1971 Topps set is one of my favorite designs of all time. It’s simple and effective with no distracting elements at all. In particular, I love black borders on cardboard. Sure, it makes it nearly impossible to keep the set in good condition, but the cards all look great. That’s quite an accomplishment for a hatless Ron Herbel photograph. After this set, I don’t think there was a major base set with black borders until the 1985 Donruss set.

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I’ve criticized Topps here a lot lately, but there’s one very important improvement they’ve made over the years. The hatless photo has become uncommon! Tom Kelley looks like anything but a ballplayer on this card. Of course, George Stone has his hat on and he doesn’t really look like a player either. Now, Ralph Garr, he looks like a player. Coming into 1971, he had already spent part of the previous three seasons in Atlanta. 1971 was his first great season.

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Orlando Cepeda didn’t spend his best years in Atlanta, but I think it’s our right as Braves fans to claim in and any Hall of Famer to wear the Braves uniform as our own. We should also continue to claim the solid Sonny Jackson despite those glasses. (Wow.)

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I love photos with little quirks to them like the jaunty angle of Pat Jarvis’s cap. I love team photo cards that actually use a photograph of the team and I wish Topps would bring them back to base Topps. I do not love Topps sloppy, poor airbrushing from the period. In fact, any time I hear someone complain about the airbrushing and photoshopping they do now, I’d like to show them the 1971 Marv Staehle card and ask them to shut up.

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Tommie Aaron is one of those guys that nobody seems to have anything bad to say about. He was your classic AAAA player. He played well for years in AAA, but he never put it together in his chances in Milwaukee and Atlanta. He was a true organizational man though and remained with the Braves until his untimely death in 1984. The true shame of Tommie Aaron is that he was never given a chance to manager at the big league level. It was his dream and he paid his dues in the minors and on the major league coaching staff. Maybe if he had lived longer he would have been given the chance. This was his last baseball card. (That rookie outfielders card is pretty awesome since it features three pretty good players as well. Dusty Baker may have gotten the rookie card in 1971, but it was another year before he really got a chance in Atlanta.)

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