The history of baseball is written out on the fronts and backs of our baseball cards like a tiny but sprawling cardboard Bible millions of “pages” long. Each pack we open is like a verse in the Book of Topps or the Gospel of Fleer.
The secrets of the game are wrapped inside if we’ll only put in the time and effort to find them.
So, when I read a recent story about how Cleveland Indians relief ace Andrew Miller is going to revolutionize the role and vanquish the save to the scrapheap of history, my thoughts naturally turned to baseball cards.
Just when did card companies begin stuffing their packs with information about everyone’s favorite superfluous pitching statistic?
In order to understand that, we first need to delve into the …
The diminutive righty reliever appeared in 57 games for the eventual world champions and recorded an impossible 18-1 record to go along with his tidy 2.70 ERA and 1.064 WHIP — though “whip” was officially reserved for cowboy movies at the time.
Despite those gaudy figures, Face didn’t score a single vote in the 1960 Cy Young race.
At the same time, Don Elston and Seth Morehead toiled in the Chicago Cubs‘ bullpen, an even more obscure outpost. Where at least Face had victories to elevate his profile, Elston and Morehead logged 127 and 123.1 innings, respectively, but their records were just 8-9 and 2-9.
Famed Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman recognized that something wasn’t quite right in the relative adulation that the three pitchers were receiving. Face, Holtzman argued, had actually given up the lead in 10 of his 18 wins, only to be bailed out by his teammates.
The entire notion of wins for relievers was flawed, Holtzman argued to his bosses at The Sporting News (TSN), and he offered an alternative: the save.
It was a concept that had been around for awhile, albeit in an unofficial capacity. According to Holtzman later in his life: “The term ‘save’ had been in use as far back as 1952, five years before I started covering baseball.”
The general idea was to credit pitchers who were on the mound at the end of winning games but who were not actually credited with the victory.
Beginning in 1960, The Sporting News published save counts as part of their vast array of weekly baseball statistics, a practice they continued throughout the pitching-happy 1960s (and beyond). They also instituted their “Fireman of the Year” award, bestowed on the reliever in each league who accumulated the most combined saves and wins. By the end of the decade, the role of the reliever had changed dramatically, and most outlets recognized the save in some fashion or another.
Finally, the save was officially adopted by Major League Baseball for the 1969 season to coincide with expansion and the advent of the playoff system.
The Save Memorialized on Cardboard
As a child of the 1980s who cut my hobby teeth during the early boom years, I sort of assumed that the save had always been part and parcel of my cards. I clearly remember, for example, quietly chastising Topps for wasting so much real estate on the back of Tom Seaver‘s late-career cards — a column full of zeroes with a single, lonely “1” in 1968.
But in doing research for this piece, I found something quite different.
Yes, baseball cards do reflect the history of the save, but there is a significant lag.
For instance, take a look at the back of Roy Face’s 1961 Topps card:
We know now that he registered 10 saves in 1960 according to 1969 rules, but there’s no mention of that on the back of his card.
Same story for Lindy McDaniel, who led the Majors with 27 saves in 1960 but is “unsaved” on the back of his 1961 Topps pasteboard:
Now, of course this makes sense from a logical, historical standpoint since saves didn’t even exist in 1960 — at least not officially. But it’s something I had always assumed was just there, like the chalice in The Last Supper:
But not so much, on either account.
And official adoption of the save didn’t change the situation, either.
Well, unless you read the little blurb in the blue box, that is:
Ron led the majors in Saves in 1969 with 31 and was AL Fireman of the Year. The bullpen ace helped the Dodgers to 3 NL pennants.
So was this the first baseball card to mention saves?
Almost, but not quite.
At #208, Gladding beat his (barely) more famous counterpart by 18 cards.
These are off-hand comments relegated to the nether regions on the backs of cards of obscure relief pitchers for teams that fell far from the limelight in 1969, though
Do these count as the cardboard debuts for the save?
I suppose — technically.
But when did the save finally make it out of the shadows and into the baseball-card limelight?
To find that answer, I had to put in a special request …
Take Me to Your Leaders
One of the staples of Topps sets throughout a good hunk of its existence was the yearly inclusion of a “leaders” subset. You know, 1962 AL Pickoff Moves Leaders, 1977 NL Pinch-Run Appearance Leaders, 1984 AL Rundown Leaders, and the like.
Or something like that.
So when I couldn’t find the “SV” column that I was sure graced all of the cards from my childhood, I turned to our beloved League Leaders.
Not surprisingly, saves whiffed all through the 1960s when they were not yet official.
They were still absent from 1970 Topps.
And from 1971 Topps.
And from 1972 Topps.
But then, in Series I of the 1973 Topps set, we finally hit saves paydirt.
Flip the card over, and you can see that Topps followed the TSN model of Saves + Relief Wins:
So it took Topps three years to catch up to the save as an official stat and at least 12 years to catch up to trend of the save.
Sort of … because, again, there were those blurbs on a couple 1970 Topps cards. And take a look at the back of Lyle’s own 1973 Topps card:
Still no saves column, though the stat does get a nod (again) in the text block.
My childhood memories shattered, I had to find out exactly when “SV” actually showed up on baseball cards.
It wasn’t in 1974.
Or 1975 … or 1976 … (stop me if you’ve heard this before) … or 1977 … or …
I’ll save you the suspense and just tell you that Topps made it all the way through the Disco Decade without a saves column in their stats block.
In fact, they held out until their hand was forced.
Competition is Healthy … OR … Competition SAVES
OK, so maybe no one held a pin to Topps’ wad of gum and said, “Add saves — NOW! — or the bubble gets it!”.
But The Old Gum Company headed into the design phase for their 1981 set knowing full well that they’d face competition for the first time in forever, courtesy of the antitrust lawsuit that Fleer won against them in 1980.
And so, when collectors ripped open our first packs of Topps baseball cards in the spring of 1981, we found a brand new column on the back — SV:
Why am I showing you Mike Flanagan’s card? Because it’s the first regular (non-leaders) card of a pitcher in the set and because Flanagan did record one save in 1977.
Sadly for Topps, though, they don’t get credit for having the first card to feature saves as part of the stats stack.
In case you didn’t hear, both Fleer and Donruss issued sets in 1981. In my book, the low number takes the saves cake here, and Fleer came in at #6 with Steve Carlton:
Lefty, though, has a column of zeroes and dashes, despite the fact that he has been retroactively credited with a save in 1967 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
I prefer a little more meat with my pitching stats, and Fleer delivered a bona fide closer with Tug McGraw at #7:
Both 6 and 7 are lower than 10, so Fleer beats Topps at the saves game.
Alas, Donruss was full of surprises in 1981. Not only did they come from nowhere to join the hobby party that year, but they showed true saves smackdown muscle by inserting Rollie Fingers with the #2 card of the whole dang set:
If you’re keeping score, it took Topps something like 12 years (or 20, depending on your reference point) to incorporate the Save into their stat block, while Donruss made the jump in the span of two cards.
It’s been a long and winding road, but we have our answers. Again, sort of.
To recap …
A Timeline of The Save on Baseball Cards
Here’s what I’ve learned during this super-rigorous, incredibly consequential study into the history of the save on baseball cards:
- First Mention of Saves on a Baseball Card — 1970 Topps (#208) Fred Gladding (in the blurb)
- First Saves Leaders Card — 1973 Topps “1972 Leading Firemen” (#68) — Clay Carroll and Sparky Lyle
- First Appearance of Saves as a Stat on Individual Card — 1981 Donruss (#2) Rollie Fingers
- First Appearance of Saves as a Stat on Individual Card (Fleer Division) — 1981 Fleer (#6) Steve Carlton (no saves); 1981 Fleer (#7) Tug McGraw (gobs of saves)
- First Appearance of Saves as a Stat on Individual Card (Topps Division) — 1981 Topps (#10) Mike Flanagan
And the real take-home for me is that not everything from my childhood is exactly as I remember it.
Apparently, my baseball cards didn’t always have that nifty little “SV” column on them. If I wanted to cut myself some slack, I might point out that 1981 was the first year I actually collected cards in any form at all and that they were the oldest cards in my collection for several years.
But I won’t go there.
Where I will go, though, is to make an admission and a plea.
The Admission: I did not pour through every baseball card issued between 1960 and 1970 to determine whether or not saves were mentioned prior to the Gladding card.
The Plea: If you know of any cards prior to 1970 that so much as whisper “save,” could you please let me know? I’ve spent something like 1800 words on this topic, so it’s obviously very, very important.
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