The Mystery of the Pink Jersey
Mike Laga amassed 423 career AB over the course of nine seasons between Detroit, St. Louis and San Francisco. He had a .199 career average, and is probably best known for being the only player to have hit a baseball actually out of Busch Stadium (A foul ball left the park in September of 1986).
But for me, Mike Laga will always be remembered for something else: The 1987 Topps card which depicts him wearing an airbrushed-pink jersey!
In all my youth, the closest baseball cards came to perfection were those ’87 Topps. Sure the early Upper Decks were nice; and I won’t sell the 1988-1989 and 1991-1992 Donruss sets short. But those ’87 Topps had that special something: the perfect mix between action and posed photos. The player-name box was tastefully understated. The team logo was just the right size. Many remember that set for the wood-grain frame that brought it all together.
The answer to the Mike Laga question has eluded me for years. As a boy I wondered “why is Mike Laga wearing a pink jersey?” Later it became “why would somebody at Topps airbrush a guy’s jersey pink?”
My first thought was that it might be an error card. I hoped that something had happened when the film was being processed that botched the photo. Error cards are worth a lot of money, right? My 1981 Fleer Craig Nettles is an error card, and at one point it was worth $5. $5!!! I’ve got 800 of these Mike Laga cards, I might be rich!
My sister and I must have spent an entire summer trying to track down the 1988 Donruss Mark Grace rookie card; or the Fleer Billy Ripken with the dirty word on the knob of the bat. I knew error cards were worth a lot of money (to a nine-year-old), and so when I saw that the ’87 Mike Laga was worth a mere $0.03, I quickly dismissed the notion that it was a true “error card.”
One possibility is that Topps used a photo from Mike’s time in Detroit, although my first instinct is to reject this premise: the Tigers did utilize the three-band strip of elastic around the neckline, but the Tigers jerseys of 1986 buttoned-down (unless I am mistaken; admittedly I am not an authority on the history of Tigers uniforms). The photo of Laga clearly indicates a jersey without buttons is being worn.
Plus, baseball card photos are traditionally taken during spring training, right? Mike got dealt to St. Louis in 1986, so they could’ve easily snapped another photo of him during spring training of 1987; or they could have easily taken an action shot from the end of 1986.
Even if this was a modified photo of Mike Laga in a Tigers jersey, it differed from what Topps would typically do for this situation. For example, the 1988 Topps Doug DeCinces (card #446) features DeCinces in an Angels uniform having rounded second-base and possibly watching a play develop at third. Across the top of the card the name “Angels” is spelled out in block letters, but in the lower-left corner of the card in 6 or 8 pt black type is written “Now with Cardinals.” If the only thing that Topps had available for Mike Laga was a 1986 photo of him with the Tigers, why not simply note in the corner that he is “Now with Cardinals,” like they did for DeCinces?
I do know that card companies pay players for their photos (although in the 1980s it probably wasn’t much). Did Topps not want to pony up an extra hundred bucks to pay Laga for a new photo? If they felt that Mike was such a marginal player, why include him in the set at all? In any event, the total costs of detailing a Mike Laga photo in 1987 probably far exceeded that of just paying him the $100 for a new photo.
Although the Mike Laga card is a mystery, it is not my favorite card in Topps set of 1987 (no disrespect to Mr. Laga). My favorite was always the Jack Clark card. They chose an action shot for Jack the Ripper that year: He’s trying to stop on a dime after taking a liberal turn at third base. His helmet has flown off somewhere and he looks like a deer caught in the headlights of a catcher who has just dug a ball out of the dirt. You know exactly what’s going through Jack’s mind; everything about the game that is ideal to me is captured in that one photo.
I will probably never solve the Mystery of Mike Laga’s Pink Jersey. But maybe some things are better left unresolved. There has to be some wonder in the world, right?