By introducing action cards in the 1970s, the Topps Company created a guilty pleasure for future collectors of baseball cards. A number of the early versions Topps printed in 1971, ’72, and ’73 featured multiple players on the cards, a result perhaps of photographers taking action shots from longer distances. While some collectors frown upon cards that show so many players on one card, preferring a close-up action shot of the one featured player, I love this practice of Topps.
In some cases, it creates an opportunity for sleuthing: the art of attempting to determine the identities of the “other” players on the cards. We can also try to determine the specific game during which the photograph was taken. Finally, it gives us a chance to speculate why Topps cropped the photograph the way that it did. And there’s nothing a card collector loves more than critiquing the art work and photography of a baseball card.
In some cases, trying to identify background players is difficult. The photograph might be fuzzy, or the angle of the photograph prevents us from seeing the player’s number or his facial features. In other situations, it’s easier, because we can see the player’s face, or some other trademark feature about his body or uniform. And then there are those rare occasions when we realize that the other player on the card is actually far more famous than the player who is intended to be the main subject.
A classic example can be found on the 1983 Topps card of Reggie Smith. The card shows Smith, a long-time star near the end of his career, playing first base in a game at Candlestick Park. He is holding on the runner, who just happens to be a rookie named Ryne Sandberg. No one could have known it at the time, but it would be Sandberg who would become the more famous of the two players—and eventually a member of the Hall of Fame.
Another famous example of this phenomenon can be found in the iconic 1972 Topps set. It’s card No. 48, one of the red-framed “In Action” shots that became so popular with young collectors like me. The card showcases Johnny Ellis (or John Ellis, as Topps always designated him on his cards), a catching prospect who came up with the New York Yankees in the late 1960s.
At one time, Ellis was regarded as the equal to another Yankee catching prospect, the great Thurman Munson. In fact, some scouts felt Ellis was the slightly better prospect, owing to his superior power at the plate. But Munson who soon established himself as the team’s No. 1 catcher, leaving Ellis to switch to first base and eventually settle for a role as a backup at both positions.
The 1972 In Action card shows Ellis leading off first base during a 1971 game at the original Yankee Stadium. There is clearly another player on the card, a first baseman wearing the colors of the Minnesota Twins; he is is holding the runner on despite the fact that Ellis did not often steal bases. It shouldn’t take long to realize who this other player is; little sleuthing or detective work is needed here. The player is the highly recognizable Harmon Killebrew, who was in the midst of a long stretch of productive seasons for the Twins.
Given the way the Topps art department cropped the card, Ellis and Killebrew are given relatively equal billing. If anything, Killebrew looks like he might be the slightly more prominent player. Why not crop the card in such a way so as to make Ellis the more central figure while putting Killebrew more to the side? Was this done intentionally, or was this simply by accident or by happenstance?
I don’t have a clear-cut answer, but I do have a theory. I think Topps may have done this intentionally because of Killebrew’s status as a full-fledged star. The card’s creator may have wanted to give the All-Star first baseman the same billing as a still unproven player like Ellis.
If that’s the case, then another question comes to mind. Why didn’t Topps just make this Killebrew’s In Action card, instead of Ellis’ card? The answer to that question is far easier. Topps already had an action card for Killebrew, one that shows him in the midst of an at-bat, in which in he appears to be popping up on the infield. At a time when it still had a limited library of action photographs to choose from, Topps may have decided it could extract some extra mileage from the Ellis/Killebrew card and included it as part of its massive 1972 set. One extra action card is better than none.
Knowing Killebrew and Ellis are sharing space on the card, let’s now try to determine exactly when the photograph was taken. Assuming it is a photo from 1971, we see the Twins visited Yankee Stadium twice that season, in late April and late July. Of those six match-ups in the Bronx, we can narrow it down to two day games in which Killebrew played first base and Ellis happened to reach base. They occurred on April 24 and July 21. Which one is the right date? Unfortunately, there’s no way to narrow down the search any further. That’s about as far as we can go.
Having Killebrew on the card o creates an additional question: What does the presence of a Hall of Famer do to the value of what is otherwise a common card? The answer: virtually nothing. The card is worth roughly the same amount of money as any of the other common cards Topps issued as parts of its low-numbered series in 1972. It’s nice that Killebrew makes a cameo here, and it will always hold a special place in my collection, but it won’t enhance anyone’s bank account by any substantial amount.
While Ellis and Killebrew shared space on the 1972 card, and both happened to play first base, they shared little else in common during their playing careers. They did play against each other extensively (Killebrew would not retire until 1975), but they were never teammates despite Ellis becoming a journeyman who would make stops in Cleveland and Texas before retiring in 1981. Killebrew remained with the Twins through the 1974 season before finishing his final year with the Kansas City Royals.
Yet at one time Ellis was a top-notch prospect, albeit one who was something of a late bloomer. He was bypassed by all 24 major league teams in the 1966 amateur draft despite a reputation for power hitting. Born in Connecticut, Ellis was known as the “New London Strong Boy.” The Yankees jumped at the chance to sign him as an amateur free agent and quickly grew to love not only his power but also his aggressive style of play. Ellis played the game hard and tough, with the passion of an old school player.
By the spring of 1969, Ellis was deemed the equal of Munson, if not superior. In fact, the Yankees called him up to the Bronx earlier than Munson, even though Ellis was playing at Single-A while Munson was already at Double-A. On May 29, Ellis made his major league debut and did it in style, hitting an inside-the-park home run and calling Stan Bahnsen’s two-hit shutout from behind the plate. Ellis eventually would return to the minor leagues, but his first game left an impression with the Yankees.
In 1970, Ellis emerged as the star of the Yankees’ spring training camp, earning the team’s James Dawson Award. Both Ellis and Munson made the Opening Day roster. Knowing that only one catcher could play regularly, the Yankees shifted Ellis to first base and made Munson the No. 1 receiver. That made perfect sense, since Munson had the stronger defensive skills, while Ellis seemed to have more offensive potential. Ellis also struggled to throw out opposing baserunners, so what better way to hide a questionable arm than to stash him at first base?
The plan looked good on paper, with two top-tier prospects rejuvenating the new-look Yankees. How highly regarded was Ellis? Well, Eleanor Gehrig, the widow of the legendary Lou Gehrig, wrote Ellis a note that contained the following words: “To John, For 30 years, I’ve been looking for Lou’s successor, and I’m rooting for you.”
Perhaps feeling the pressure of playing every day in New York, Ellis and Munson each endured horrid starts to the season. Munson eventually started hitting, but Ellis soon found himself on manager Ralph Houk’s bench. Munson would win Rookie of the Year honors, while Ellis settled for a .248 average, 18 walks, and seven home runs in 78 games.
Ellis struggled again in 1971 before hitting a respectable .294 in 1972. But even that performance came in part-time duty, just over 50 games as a backup catcher and first baseman. Unable to establish himself as an everyday force in New York, Ellis disappointed the Yankees’ front office and coaching staff. After the 1972 season, the Yankees decided to move on, sending Ellis to Cleveland as part of a package for the power-hitting third baseman they craved, a young Graig Nettles.
As a member of the Indians, Ellis became the first DH in franchise history. He also caught Dick Bosman’s 1974 no-hitter. On the down side, he clashed with manager Frank Robinson, who described Ellis as a selfish player and refused to play him for a stretch of time. It was a strange characterization of Ellis, who had a reputation as the kind of player who would always stick up for teammates during clashes with other teams.
Ellis played three moderately productive seasons with the Indians before being traded to the Texas Rangers as part of a complicated three-team deal in 1975. By 1978, the Rangers thought so much of Ellis’ smarts and leadership skill that they made him a player/coach. Spending the final six seasons of his career with the Rangers as a part-time catcher, first baseman, DH, and pinch-hitter, Ellis retired in 1981.
On the surface, Ellis’ 13-year career looked nothing like the Hall of Fame resume of the late Killebrew. But Ellis’ character and generous nature are very similar to that of Killebrew, who had a well-deserved reputation as one of the game’s nicest and most giving players and who tragically lost a battle with cancer in 2011.
In 1987, Ellis founded the Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer, a reaction to his own battle with Hodgkin’s disease. (Ellis had been diagnosed with this form of cancer at the age of 33, just a year after retiring from baseball.) A long-term survivor of cancer, Ellis annually hosts a charity dinner at the Mohegan Sun Casino, an event that draws many former Yankee players and raises thousands of dollars for the foundation in its efforts to help cancer victims pay for their medical and travel expenses.
Ellis and Killebrew, the two players who shared a 1972 Topps card, turned out to have something important—far more important than just baseball—in common.
References & Resources
- John Ellis’ biographical file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library