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Every baseball card tells at least one story, and the cardboard tales vary in import and length as widely as the tomes on the shelves of your local library.

Take the 1976 Topps Traded George “Doc” Medich card, for instance. A quick look reveals a gaudy swath of cardboard with a cheesy headline. But look deeper, and you’ll find that this card really is a Dickensian masterpiece, a cardboard version of the Tale of Two Cities.

The Best of Times …

For the second time in the three years since they eschewed issuing card in series in favor of one big cardboard dump, in 1976, Topps treated collectors to a late-season set of traded players.

It was a concept they had toyed with over the years, with previous attempts taking the form of “TRADED” stamps on card fronts,  “Now with …” typed over photos, or mentions of player movement on card backs.

But with the advent of dedicated traded cards in 1974, Topps set the stage for their 1976 effort and, more importantly, the year-end sets that would help drive the rookie card craze beginning in 1981.

Each 1976 Topps Traded card sported an updated design that featured an angled, ripped newspaper complete with exciting headline on the front. Ever one for minding their details, Topps adorned each “SPORTS EXTRA” with the completion date of the depicted transaction.=

George Medich’s newspaper, for example, is dated December 11, 1975. When you flip the card over, you get a bigger hunk of newspaper and a more complete account of the deal that sent Doc to the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The obverse maintains the muted green, brown, and gray color scheme that makes the base sets one of the easiest-on-the-eye issues of the 1970s.

It was a cool concept with pretty good execution overall.

1976 Topps Traded Doc Medich

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But then came …

The Worst of Times …

The big problem with issuing your cards all at once is that you can’t do much to address late-breaking deals. And “late-breaking” by the standards of card companies who need to get their product out the door sometime before the first of the new year basically means anytime after, say, October.

So fans of the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates spent most of the 1976 season looking at cards with Medich in a Yanks uniform and Willie Randolph in Bucs togs even though the deal (in which they switched teams) went down with three weeks remaining in 1975.

And since the trade happened in the off-season, there were no photos of the swapped players in their new uniforms. Well, at least until the next spring, which was apparently a bit late for Topps.

Instead, TGC dug into their old box of tricks and wheeled out a photo that lets us see most of Doc’s brain through his nostrils but obscures the majority of his hat. It’s not a bill-only shot, so Topps had to do something to eradicate the last vestiges of those hated Yankees.

Enter Mr. Airbrush and his can of mustard paint to render Medich a nifty, squishy, glowing, shadowy hunk of Pirates hat.

And then there is the glowing prose and hopeful prognostication proffered by Topps’ writers.

“THE PIRATES GET THEIR DOCTOR,” the headline proclaims.  Hurray … Three Rivers is saved!

The card back expounds on that idea …

It was felt that the Pirates needed another starting pitcher to bolster their staff. They took a giant step in that direction today by acquiring right-hander George “Doc” Medich from the New York Yankees. Medich was 16-16 with the Yankees last season, was 19-15 in 1974 with 154K’s.

That sounds pretty good — comma splice notwithstanding — except …

You Can’t Go Home Again

Well, you can go home again, of course, and sometimes it even works out OK.

But things didn’t go so swimmingly for Medich when he returned home to western Pennsylvania.

Born in Aliquippa, northwest of Pittsburgh, Medich eventually made his way to the University of Pittsburgh and pitched well enough for the Yankees to draft him in the 30th round in 1970.

After spending a couple of seasons working through the Yanks’ minor league season, Doc landed in the Bronx late in the 1972 season. The next year, he went 14-9 with a 2.95 ERA to finish third in the voting for the American League Rookie of the Year award.

And, sure, his record jumped to 19-15 in 1974, but his ERA climbed even faster, to 3.60. This was at a time when the Yankees were building into the team that would win two World Series later in the decade (1977 and 1978), so you know all those runs didn’t sit well with manager Bill Virdon, general manager Tal Smith, and owner George Steinbrenner.

That .500 record in 1975, together with a 3.50 ERA, the late-season arrival of Billy Martin, a revamped pitching staff, and the ouster of Smith conspired to make Medich expendable.

That’s why, as Topps tells us, he was dealt to the Pirates in December of ’75.

1976 Topps Traded Doc Medich (back)

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What Topps doesn’t tell us is who New York received in exchange: Ken Brett, Dock Ellis, and Willie Randolph.

Brett would be gone to the Chicago White Sox before the next summer officially began, but Ellis won 17 games for the Yankees in 1976 and helped them win the American League pennant. Randolph would become a cog of two world champions en route to crafting an 18-year career as one of the best second basemen of his era.

While the Yankees were streaking toward October glory like only they can, Doc Medich was struggling back home in Pittsburgh. In 1976, he went 8-11 with a 3.51 ERA and then was part of a blockbuster off-season trade with the Oakland A’s that brought Phil Garner to the Pirates.

Medich spent the 1977 season bouncing from Oakland to the Seattle Mariners to the New York Mets, somehow managing to notch 12 wins against 6 losses despite a 4.55 ERA.

That winter, Doc signed a free agent contract with the Texas Rangers and finally found a somewhat stable rotation home. Over parts of five seasons in Arlington, Medich won 50 games for the Rangers before closing out his career with the Milwaukee Brewers at the end of the 1982 season

All in all, Medich compiled a 124-105 record in his Big League career, along with a 3.78 ERA and appeared on exactly one Topps baseball card with his hometown Pirates.

The Tally Sheet

As much of a mixed bag as Medich’s own career turned out to be, his 1976 Topps Traded card matched it blow-for-blow.

To the good, the card …

  • Gave collectors another shot of 1976 vintage Doc Medich
  • Featured an innovative (if not overly attractive) design
  • Was easy to read
  • Kept card collections (almost) up to date

To the bad, the card …

  • Gave collectors another shot of 1976 vintage Doc Medich
  • Was late to the game
  • Featured mustard airbrushing
  • Whiffed on prognostications

In the end, this card hovers right around .500, with a touch of nostalgia adding the extra weight necessary to tip the scales into winning territory.

It was the best of Topps. It was the worst of Topps.

But slightly more of the best.

(Check out our other player card posts here.)