#CardCorner: 1977 Topps Tommy Helms
Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.
If I had to vote for the most bizarre-looking card in the history of baseball cards, I would be tempted to vote for this one.
Some would prefer to use the words “ugliest card,” but I’d like to be bit more genteel and polite in my observation. Besides, there are cards that probably rank as uglier; at the very least, the 1977 Tommy Helms card has a degree of brilliant gaudiness that makes you look twice, or even three times at it. It’s just so shocking that you feel like you can’t look away, as if what you’re seeing is just not quite possible.
In the past, we’ve noted about examples of airbrushing gone mad on cards. Well, this is airbrushing in a rubber room. In attempting to airbrush Kelly Green (the shade of green preferred by owner/general manager Charlie Finley) onto Helms’ Oakland A’s helmet, the artist at Topps has produced a strange lime green that seems to be specked with yellow highlights. It has almost a kindergarten feel to it. Beyond that, the bill of the helmet is a bright yellow, while the shade of Helms’ jersey is an even brighter yellow, almost to the point of fluorescence.
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It’s as if someone plugged Helms’ jersey into a socket and watched it light up like one of Michael Keaton’s outfits in Beetlejuice.
As outrageous as the airbrushing is, the audaciousness of the card is augmented by Helms’ appearance. With his bright red hair, which appears to be permed (at least where it is not covered by the helmet), and with his heavy sideburns, Helms has a look that screams of the 1970s. (When Helms first came up, his hair was as straight as an arrow, but like many players in the mid-1970s, he experimented with a perm.) It was a time for curly hair, Afros, sideburns, mutton chops and pretty much every other form of facial hair. All that Helms is missing is a mustache and a beard, which would have completed the picture of mid-1970s counter-culture brilliance.
There is more intrigue to this card, too. We see Helms, fresh off a wintertime trade from the Houston Astros, sporting the airbrushed green and gold of the A’s, but he never actually wore the Oakland uniform. Well, at least he never wore the uniform in a regular season game. Helms spent the first half of Spring Training in 1977 with the A’s, but then came the major development of March 15. On that day, the A’s announced a blockbuster deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, sending Helms, Phil Garner and minor league righty Chris Batton to the Steel City for a gigantic package that included Mitchell Page, Tony Armas, Doc Medich, Rick Langford and Dave Giusti.
So from the time that Helms’ 1977 card hit the shelves, it became obsolete almost immediately. Never playing in a real game for the A’s, Helms would last only slightly longer – 15 hitless games – with the Pirates before he was sent packing again. As a result of the constant motion, he would not appear on a 1978 Topps card wearing the Pirates uniform. Instead, his ’78 Topps card would show him as a member of the Boston Red Sox, the other team that he played for during that wild, fragmented season of 1977.
Tommy Helms has become somewhat of an obscure player over time, but at one point, he was a household name. A touted shortstop prospect with the Cincinnati Reds, he earned a cup of coffee with the club in 1964 and then batted .384 over a 21-game stint in 1965. Unfortunately, he was blocked by incumbent shortstop Leo Cardenas, a skilled defender and capable power hitter. In 1966, the Reds initially shifted Helms to second base, but ultimately placed him at third base. Playing the entire season for Cincinnati, he performed well enough to earn National League Rookie of the Year honors.
Though Helms hit only nine home runs, he batted a solid .284, rarely struck out, and gave the Reds dependable defense at third base.
As well as Helms played in 1966, he did not have the ideal profile for a third baseman, where his lack of extra-base power stood out. So in 1967, the Reds shifted him to second base, a position that he was more than capable of handling. Helms’ batting average dropped to .274, but his defensive play was so good that he earned selection to the National League All-Star team.
Over the next four seasons, Helms remained a solid contributor for the Reds, a gritty, hard-nosed player who always remained alert in the field and on the basepaths. He picked up another All-Star Game selection in 1968 and played well in the Midsummer Classic, collecting a double and a walk, and executing several standout plays in the field. That performance earned him praise from his Reds manager, Dave Bristol.
“I couldn’t have been prouder of Tommy if he were my own son,” Bristol told Si Burick of the Dayton Daily News. “He has really worked hard to make himself a star in the field. He’s that rare infielder who bats .300… He has a better concept of second base play than most people think.”
Along those lines, Helms would earn Gold Glove Awards in 1970 and ’71. Though he was not a great hitter, Helms’ ability to make contact and handle the demands of second base made him a valuable player, one who contributed to the Reds winning the pennant in 1970.