Looking Back At The 1978 Topps Burger King Detroit Tigers Set

Ron LeFlore (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Ron LeFlore (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

The Motor City Bengals team has been reminiscing about how the seeds of their love for baseball were planted. For one contributor, the Topps baseball cards given out at Burger King locations in Michigan in the summer of 1978 were his introduction to the Detroit Tigers.

As the front of the checklist card specified, packets of three Tigers cards were given away with any sandwich purchase to kids 14 and under, one set per customer per visit. Having a younger sister that wasn’t interested in baseball was beneficial because visits to Burger King on errand-running day with Mom meant getting two packets!

Discovering the players pictured on each card was a new experience for a youngster that hadn’t known anything about Tigers baseball before then, but was ready to learn.

For the most part, the pictures on the cards distributed by Burger King were identical to those on their counterparts in Topps’ regular issue set. There were some differences, however, including three very key differences.

Card #1: Ralph Houk  

Houk, the grizzled veteran manager, was hired in 1974 to oversee a young team as a rebuilding effort got underway. After four losing seasons, the Tigers finished 86-76 in 1978. With about a week left to go, Houk announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season. Thanks in part to a crop of rookies that emerged that season, he was content that the future of the ball club was in better shape than it had looked when he arrived.

Card #2: Milt May

Through mid-May, Milt May was the leading hitter on a Tigers team that got off to a surprising 21-9 start and spent over a month in first place in the AL East. His biggest hit during that stretch was a three-run homer on May 15 that gave the Tigers a 4-2 over the Mariners. May platooned behind the plate with rookie Lance Parrish (who wasn’t included in the Burger King card set).

Card #3: John Wockenfuss

Although he was listed as a catcher on his card, Wockenfuss didn’t don the tools of ignorance at all in 1978. He became a more important bench player by increasing his versatility. Right field was his main position when he got into the Tigers’ lineup. Wockenfuss was also one of their top pinch hitters. His pinch-hit two-run single in the top of the ninth gave the Tigers a 4-3 win over the Orioles in the first game of a doubleheader on September 23.

Card #4: Mark Fidrych

The 1978 season began on a high note on April 7, when Fidrych took the mound for the first time since the previous July. The Tiger Stadium crowd of 52,528 celebrated as “The Bird” went the distance in a 6-2 Opening Day win over the Blue Jays. He followed that up with another complete game on April 12, a 3-2 win against the Rangers, and Jim Hawkins of the Free Press predicted a 20-win season. Fidrych left his third start on April 17 after four innings due to a sore shoulder. As the season rolled on, the ailment transitioned from a lingering inconvenience into an unsolvable problem. That third start turned out to be Fidrych’s last big league appearance of the season.

Mark Fidrych (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Mark Fidrych (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Card #5: Dave Rozema

After a dazzling debut season in 1977, Rozema’s 1978 card featured the prestigious Topps All-Star Rookie logo. Despite a 9-12 record and an early season sore arm, Rozema’s sophomore season was respectable. His 4.0 bWAR led the pitching staff and was third on the team overall. His ERA (3.14) and WHIP (1.175) were similar to the previous season’s. (He started 28 games in both seasons.) Rozema scattered four hits and walked only one in a 1-0 win in Cleveland on September 15. Afterward, he called the 83-pitch performance the best game of his career.

Card #6: Jack Billingham

Billingham’s regular issue card that year pictured him as a member of Sparky Anderson’s Reds. The Tigers picked him up in a spring training trade to bolster a young pitching staff. He was the only starting pitcher over the age of 30 that the Tigers used in 1978. (John Hiller was the only reliever over 30.) Houk said that Billingham was “a great role model”. His four shutouts led the team, and he finished with a 15-8 record.

Jack Billingham (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Jack Billingham (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Card #7: Jim Slaton

Slaton’s regular issue card that year pictured him as a Brewer. The Tigers got him in exchange for outfielder Ben Oglivie. Eligible for free agency after the season, Slaton came into spring training with the intent of signing with the highest bidder once his contract was up. His team-leading 17 wins in 1978 turned out to be a career high, and he put up his first winning season since his rookie season in 1971. Slaton parlayed his success in Detroit into a new contract with the Brewers.

Card #8: Jack Morris

Morris shared a rookie card with three other pitchers in Topps’ regular issue set that year. None of them went on to have the kind of career that Morris did, but he was far from being a future Hall of Famer in 1978. Of his 28 appearances, only seven were starts. He was hampered by shoulder tendinitis in the early part of the season. Morris was still a year away from becoming a fixture in the Tigers’ starting rotation.

Card #9: John Hiller

Hiller, whose career was threatened by a heart attack in 1971, had become a respected and dependable veteran. He pitched effectively out of the Tigers’ bullpen in 1978, saving 15 and winning nine. He allowed only 15 of his 72 inherited runners to score. On May 16, he took over with one out in the seventh and pitched scoreless ball against the Mariners through the 13th inning (in a game that the Tigers won in the 16th). The team held a day in Hiller’s honor in June to recognize his longevity and success. On August 27, the Tigers honored the 1968 World Series champs, and Hiller, a member of that team, capped off the day by saving a 4-2 Tigers win.

Card #10: Steve Foucault

A season earlier, the Tigers had acquired Foucault in the trade that ended Willie Horton’s playing days in Detroit. Foucault was an adequate reliever in 1977. In 1978, however, Foucault had become a forgotten man by late summer. Other than a one-batter appearance on July 31, he was idle from July 23 until the Royals claimed him on waivers on August 16.

Card #11: Milt Wilcox

1978 was Wilcox’s first full season as a Tiger. Originally slotted in as a long reliever, he joined the rotation and led the team in complete games (16) and strikeouts (132). May was his best month. He completed five of his six starts and threw two shutouts. On May 21, he struck out a career high 11 and led the Tigers to a 2-1 win over the Red Sox. With that win (in the first game of a doubleheader), first place Detroit was able to maintain its lead over Boston by percentage points. Both Wilcox and the Tigers stumbled in June, however.

Card #12: Jason Thompson

First baseman Thompson contributed 25 doubles, 26 home runs, 96 RBI, and a slash line of .287/.364/.472 as the Tigers’ cleanup hitter.  He led the team in HR, slugging percentage, and bWAR (5.6). His most memorable homers of the season included an Opening Day bomb that bounced off the right field roof, a clutch two-run shot that gave the Tigers a seventh inning lead in Milwaukee on May 17 (and led to a win), and a first inning grand slam off Boston’s Luis Tiant on September 19. Thompson finished 10th in the AL in hits (169), 5th in total bases (278), 9th in bWAR, and was tied for 8th in RBI. He was the Tigers’ lone All-Star in 1978.

Jason Thompson (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Jason Thompson (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Card #13: Lou Whitaker

Fans fell in love with Whitaker early on in his career. The now famous chants of “Looooou!” began on Opening Day in 1978, and the second baseman initially thought he was being booed. He generated excitement. Of the Tigers’ seven walk-off hits in 1978, Whitaker had three; a two-run single on April 17, a two-run single on July 3, and a home run on July 28. He only hit three homers, but the first was the walk-off (which resulted in his first ever curtain call), and the second was an inside-the-park job on August 13 in Chicago’s Comiskey Park. His defense got him to the majors, but “Sweet Lou” hit .285/.361/.357 in his first full season. He batted second for much of the year.

Whitaker had the most memorable season of the four players pictured on his regular issue rookie card, a season that culminated with an American League Rookie of the Year award.

Card #14: Aurelio Rodriguez

Rodriguez was in his eighth season of providing the Tigers with excellent defense at third base. Maybe the consistency of using the same glove that entire time was a factor in his success. He was also known for having a “rifle arm”. 1978 may have been his finest season manning Detroit’s hot corner. Advanced fielding metrics weren’t available back then, but Rodriguez led AL third basemen with a .987 fielding percentage. He made only four errors in 311 chances.

Card #15: Alan Trammell

Trammell was a rookie who played with the poise of a veteran. By mid-July, it was clear to some observers that the shortstop was blossoming into a player who “will be the heart of this team for years to come”. Like Whitaker, defense was his calling card. Trammell mostly hit ninth, but he did have some nice moments at the plate in 1978. His first big league homer on May 7 contributed to a 6-0 Tigers win in Oakland. His second home run, on June 21, was a game tying shot that triggered a five-run rally in a 10-8 win in Toronto. He enjoyed a five-hit game on July 7 in a 12-7 win in Texas. Trammell’s six triples (including two in a 7-5 win in Baltimore on September 22) were second on the Tigers to Whitaker’s seven.

Trammell shared his regular issue rookie card with three other shortstops, including another future Hall of Famer, Paul Molitor.

Card #16: Steve Dillard

Dillard’s regular issue card shows him with the Red Sox, who traded him to the Tigers in January 1978. The Tigers platooned him with Whitaker until late May, when Whitaker proved he was ready to handle the job full-time. Dillard’s playing time dwindled rapidly after that. He only appeared in a total of 56 games. His biggest game as a Tiger was a three-hit day (two doubles) on August 22, in which he scored the go-ahead run in a 7-3 win over the Twins.

Card #17: Phil Mankowski

When Mankowski made the team out of spring training, he was given a new jersey that had his name spelled “Makowski” on the back. Luckily it was fixed in time for Opening Day. Mankowski got the start at third base in the opener against the Blue Jays and enjoyed the biggest game of his career. He singled and scored the tying run in the second. In the fourth, his three run home run (which scored Whitaker and Trammell ahead of him) broke the tie. The Tigers went on to win 6-2.

Card #18: Steve Kemp

Kemp felt like he’d become a more mature and selective hitter in 1978, his second season. The approach paid off, as he led the Tigers in walks (97, a career high) and on-base percentage (.397). He finished third and seventh, respectively, in the AL in those categories. His attempt to hit for a better average also paid off (he hit .277, up from .257), although it cut into his power numbers (he was down in doubles, home runs, and slugging percentage). Kemp still showed flashes of power, though. The left fielder drove in six runs with his first career grand slam and a two-run double to lead the Tigers to a 9-3 win over the Indians on August 17.

Card #19: Ron LeFlore

LeFlore had quite a year in 1978, leading the majors in runs (126) and leading the AL in steals (68) and singles (153). He was second in the AL in hits (198). He hit .297/ .361/.405 as the Tigers’ leadoff hitter. His walk-off single gave the Tigers a 5-4 win over the White Sox on August 3.

LeFlore’s biggest moment of the season didn’t actually happen at the plate, on the basepaths, or in center field, though. In September, a made-for-TV movie about his rise from prison to the major leagues, One In A Million, premiered. The script, which was printed in its entirety in the Detroit Free Press, was based on an autobiography he wrote the Free Press’  Jim Hawkins. LeFlore was happy with the movie and how actor LeVar Burton portrayed him.

Ron LeFlore (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Ron LeFlore (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Card #20: Tim Corcoran

Corcoran was the Tigers’ primary right fielder in 1978, although there were ebbs and flows to the amount of playing time that he got. Of his 119 appearances, only 87 were starts. He was the hero of the day on April 22 when his walk-off single against future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins gave the Tigers a 7-6 win over the Rangers. Corcoran enjoyed a big day against the A’s on August 22 when he racked up four hits (two doubles), drove in two and scored two in the Tigers’ 11-2 rout.

Card #21: Mickey Stanley

The Grand Rapids native was the last of the 1968 Tigers’ position players to suit up in the Olde English D, but Stanley saw limited action in 1978. Houk relied on his younger outfielders, even though they weren’t considered to be as strong defensively as Stanley. His last big game as a Tiger was on August 11 in Chicago. His leadoff single in the third kicked off a six-run rally, and he added an RBI single in his second at-bat of the inning. He later doubled in the 7-3 win. A Tiger since 1964, Stanley was released in December.

Card #22: Rusty Staub 

Staub was the only Tiger to appear in all 162 games in 1978. He hit .273/.347/.435 as a full-time DH, a role he took on the previous season. Resistant at first, he came to enjoy being the DH. His meticulous preparation on game days paid off, as he led the Tigers with 121 RBI (a career high, which placed him second in the AL). Staub drove in five runs on April 25, as the Tigers beat the White Sox 8-4. He had five games with four RBI, including April 17, when all four came on a grand slam. The popular redhead’s 24 home runs were second only to Thompson amongst Tigers hitters. The biggest was a three-run walk-off homer on June 11. He and LeFlore tied for the team lead in doubles, with 30 apiece. Staub had two RBI doubles and an RBI single as part of a four-hit day on July 1 as the Tigers beat the Yankees 8-4.

1978 Topps Burger King Cards Set Detroit Tigers
Rusty Staub (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Looking back, it was fortunate timing to discover baseball just as the core of a future World Series winning team was starting to come together. The 1978 Topps Burger King Tigers baseball cards turned out to be an incredible gateway to fandom. (It’s too bad, though that Lance Parrish wasn’t included in the set along with fellow rookies Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, and Jack Morris.)