(OK, it's pretty brazen of me to still refer to this feature as "Card of the Week" given how long it's been since I posted one, plus at this point I have no intention of resuming weekly card posts just yet. They will come back as a regular feature at some point. As with the other most recent CotW posts, this one is written by Greg from Night Owl Cards. Enjoy his writing, which is way better than my own!)
The "last hurrah" is a familiar ritual in modern life. The last day of high school. The bachelor party. The retirement party.
It is familiar in card collecting circles, too. The last set of the Topps monopoly era (1980). The last licensed Upper Deck set (2009). Often, the "last hurrah" immediately concludes something called "the golden era."
For me, the "golden era" of All-Star cards was from 1975-81. And the "last hurrah" of All-Star cards was the 1981 Topps set.
In 1975, Topps came up with a brilliant plan to take the card of each player who was an all-star starter the previous year and present his card as if it was a badge of honor. In '75, each All-Star player featured a yellow-and-red border and an angular, white star in the bottom right corner. The presentation set those players apart from other players in the set. Young collectors often considered them the most valuable cards in the set, simply because of the design.
This pattern continued for Topps for the next six years. In 1976, the All-Stars featured a smaller, yellow star. In 1977, All-Stars wore a blue or red banner across the bottom. In 1978, the All-Star players actually featured an all-star badge. The pattern continued through the 1981 set.
But '81 was the last time Topps honored All-Stars in such a manner. After that year, Topps began issuing separate cards of All-Stars, creating a subset for the All-Star team. That meant that there was more than one card of an All-Star in each set. That was Topps' intent. After seeing new competitors Fleer and Donruss issue multiple cards of stars in one set, Topps wanted in on the action.
But for me, this practice diluted the impact of the card of the All-Star player. I viewed the new extra All-Star card as exactly that, an "extra card." Meanwhile, the regular card of that player was just that, a "regular" card. Nothing special.
The best part of the way Topps presented All-Stars between 1975-81 was that you looked forward to certain players being "All-Starred" in the following year's set. It was as if they had made the club. I'm not talking about perennial All-Stars, like Pete Rose or Rod Carew. Instead, I looked forward to first-time All-Stars getting that badge of honor.
In the 1977 set, it was Toby Harrah. In 1978, it was Rick Burleson. In '79, Richie Zisk. In '80, Davey Lopes.
And for the last hurrah, in 1981, it was Larry Gura.
Except, wait ...
Larry Gura did not start for the American League in the 1980 All-Star Game. The starter was Steve Stone. Gura didn't even play in the game!
Receiving a card of Gura with an All-Star designation when I collected the '81 set was a complete surprise. And that's because Topps had done something it had never done before in the previous six years. True, it still determined All-Stars based on who the fans had voted in as the starters the preceding year. But it also added All-Stars of its own choosing regarding the pitching staff.
Topps selected three pitchers for each side. For the A.L., it selected Gura, Stone, and relief pitcher Rich Gossage. For the N.L., it selected Steve Carlton, Jim Bibby and relief pitcher Bruce Sutter. But J.R. Richard, who had started the 1980 All-Star Game for the N.L., received NO All-Star designation. None. My mind was blown.
So, Topps had already begun to fiddle with how it treated All-Stars in the 1981 set, a year before completely changing the rules and issuing special separate cards of All-Stars.
It took the appearance of the Larry Gura All-Star card for me to know something was up.