The Parade of Decapitated Heads
When I was a kid, I loved a parade. It didn’t matter whether it was celebrating Memorial Day or Uncle Butchie’s release from Federal Prison, if you lined up a few different forms of entertainment and marched them down the street,
I would have been the first one there.
I have nostalgia for B-grade clowns, shopping cart pretzels and inflatable elephants that deflated the second the vendor turned away down MLK Boulevard.
I got that nostalgic feeling again when I was flipping through the 1962 Topps checklist and came across the last eight cards in the set.
They were the Rookie Parade cards.
The 1962 set is terrific on its own. It’s the year with the wood paneling to match your grandma’s basement.
The cards feature color photos that look like posters hanging on the paneling with the bottom right corner peeling up to reveal the player’s name, team and position. Most collectors love this set and the 1987 revival.
The others can meet me at the Gates of Hell.
The first 590 cards make up the regular issue and then Topps threw themselves a parade with the final eight cards. Things couldn’t be more perfect.
Oh, but things were far from perfect. As I sat on the curb with my pinwheel and dirty water hot dog,
I saw the Rookie Parade in the distance and boy… was I excited. That excitement quickly turned to horror when I caught a glimpse of the first card coming my way, the rookie pitchers.
I thought I’d be getting a crop of young hurlers, eager to whip a fastball by Wally Moon. Instead,
I got five decapitated heads of mediocre pitchers on a blinding yellow background. The rookie pitchers on parade that year were Art Quirk, Ron Nischwitz, Ron Taylor, Dick Radatz and Sam McDowell.
Not exactly the 1971 Orioles, although the fireballing McDowell was used as the inspiration of Sam Malone on Cheers, so he has that going for him. Which is nice.
The card itself was oriented horizontally and divided into six equal square panels. In the top left box, Topps promised me a ROOKIE PARADE in skinny white caps on a ketchup-red background. The other five panels were filled with disembodied faces wearing different expressions of psychosis. Taylor’s head is slightly bowed and he’s glaring upwards creepily. Quirk is in the middle of a transformation from Bruce Banner to the Hulk and Radatz looks like he just ate a helping of Soylent Green, even after he knew it was people. Nischwitz is evidently an extra in The Birdman of Alcatraz and McDowell is just staring at them all, mouth agape. The yellow background clashed with the wood paneling and the little white borders of each panel are barely visible. I’m not averse to floating heads on baseball cards – the Cubs team cards of the 1970s are some of the best cardboard you can find – but Topps seemed to fumble this attempt.
The parade trudged along for seven more cards as I sat half-dejected and half-terrified on the curb. Heads belonging to Jack Lamabe, Don Pavletich, Dan Pfister and their ilk were on the subsequent cards; there were however glimmers of hope with some of them. Ed Charles was a key member of the 1969 Mets and Joe Pepitone is still a fan favorite at Yankees Old Timers Day. Phil Linz was on Pepitone’s card too. He’s the guy Yogi Berra almost bludgeoned to death for playing the harmonica on the team bus after a loss. Overall, this parade was looking like a complete dud.
Just as the sorry event was about to end, the rookie catchers parade came by and that was where Topps kept their hammer. Mixed in with a handful of career backups was Mr. Baseball himself, Bob Uecker! This was like throwing the Grambling marching band into a local street parade. Uecker’s head lived in the bottom right corner, and he proudly wore his Milwaukee Braves hat as he stared off in wonder. It looks like someone told him his substandard baseball career will lead him to star in a sitcom about a family who hires a sage British butler with a sassy attitude. His head is off-center and threatening to float into Doug Camilli’s panel. That wouldn’t matter though, because Camilli is a centimeter away from violating Pavletich’s real estate as well.
The Rookie Parade of 1962 didn’t end up so terribly after all, as a matter of fact it worked out the way many parades do. They don’t put the best balloons at the front of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. They shove Clifford the Big Red Dog and Babar the Elephant at you first before raising your spirits with Snoopy and Dr. Seuss, leaving on a high note like George Costanza. The 1962 set remains one of the champions of the Topps cardboard run. There are interesting subsets, fantastic cards of stars like Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and they awarded card number one to Roger Maris after hitting 61 homers the previous season. The Rookie Parade was more like a small-town trek in the back of pickup trucks past the Old Mill Barn than it was the raucous parade in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But in the end, it had the headliner it needed to make me come back the next time Topps decides to throw a parade.