Monday, November 29, 2010

1974 Topps: The “Semi-Vintage Era” begins

The 1974 Topps baseball card set was the first issue in which all the cards in the set were released at the beginning of the baseball season.  The 1974, Topps abandoned its previous practice of issuing the cards in time-released series as the baseball season progressed. There was no longer a short-printed high-number series as there was in previous years.

The Semi-Vintage Era of Baseball Cards
The “Pre-War Era” of baseball cards ended when Japanese planes appeared over Hawaii and ended the successful run of Play Ball sets that were issued from 1939 to 1941.  The paper, ink and chicle (which was used to make the bubble gum) were now needed for the war effort.

The “Vintage Era” of baseball began when Bowman issued a set in 1948.  The beginning of the “Modern Era” is also well-defined at the point that Topps lost its legal monopoly and competing companies began issuing sets in 1981.    Interestingly, the 2011 Topps set will probably signal the beginning of the next era for baseball cards, since Topps has regained it’s monopoly over the market.

The Topps sets produced from 1974 to 1980, which I refer to as “Semi-Vintage” cards, do not neatly fit in either the vintage or modern categories and deserve to be considered as their own era.  What makes semi-vintage sets unique from the sets of the vintage era is that all the cards in the sets were issued at the beginning of the season, but these sets were not produced in the massive numbers of the modern cards.

The lack of a tough high-number series means that the semi-vintage card sets are much easier to complete than the pre-1974 sets.  Because the semi-vintage cards were not produced in the mass-quantities like modern cards, semi-vintage cards have a higher value than modern card sets.

“Semi-Vintage” is a term that I coined years ago to help to assist selling in assessing the value of their collections.   Dean’s Cards buys over 500 collections a year.  It seems to me that their has been more confusion over the value of these sets than the sets from other years.

Vintage cards sets tend to have nice value. Modern sets tend to have a low value.  The term “semi-vintage” intuitively indicates that the cards from 1973 to 1980 have a middle-of-the-road value. The term has stuck over the years.

A new era begins
There was huge spike in the number of babies born from 1948 to 1955.  The men returned from World War II and Americans started having families and making babies.  These so-called “Baby Boomers” overloaded the hospitals when they were born and then flooded the schools in the 1950’s.  The Boomers have influenced almost every aspect of American life that they have touched and baseball cards were no exception.

For the boys of the baby boom, collecting baseball cards was a right of passage.  Vintage baseball cards and the baby boomers were both born just after World War II and grew up together.  The boomers feasted on the improved sports cards that evolved during the gum wars of the early 1950’s.

Topps marketed their cards to boys and they responded.  We played with them for hours on end.  Baseball card trading sessions were often reason that we gathered socially.  We learned math from studying the statistics on the back of the cards.

A survey of 339 boys, from the early 1960’s, showed that 89% of them collected baseball cards.  This percentage is lost on us today.  Can you imagine getting that percentage of the population to agree on anything today?  To put this huge percentage into perspective, only 60% of today’s “tweens” (ages 10 to 14) own cell phones.

Topps had an addicted audience.  Boys of the Baby Boom generation would collect the cards religiously from ages 6 to 15, until we became hopelessly distracted by the female of the species and were lured away from our real true love.  We soon became involved with college, careers and family and temporarily forgot about our boyhood passion.

America grows up
Topps had two major problems facing them in 1974.  The first was the economy.  The oil crisis of 1973 had hit the American wallet hard and baseball card sales were affected.

The second problem that Topps faced was that the population of kids of card-collecting age was at its all time peak and the U.S. birth rate hit the lowest since WWII.  The Topps baseball card monopoly was still firmly entrenched, but the low 1973 birth rates meant that in 10 years, the Topps target market (boys aged 6 to 15) would decrease by 25%. Please see the chart below.

Topps sees an opportunity
The kids that began collecting the 1948 Bowman set were now in their 30’s and they now had money.  The boomers needed a hobby.  Starting in the late 1960’s, many guys began retrieving their collections from their mother’s attic and buying cards to fill in the holes of their collection.

A kid has plenty of time on his hands, but a limited budget.  Kids could easily go to the store every few weeks and buy packs of the latest released series of cards – but there was a limit to what he could spend.  He could then entertain himself for hours, by trading with his buddies. Adults do not have this amount of free-time, but they have much more money to spend than kids.

Card shows soon began to appear across the country.  For the first time, grown men were now seen in public collecting sports cards.  As their sons came of age, their fathers brought them along.  My father and I were a part of the new trend.

This changing landscape was not lost on Topps and in 1974, Topps modified its product.  The 1974 Topps Wax Pack contained 10 cards and the price was raised to 15 cents.  For the first time, baseball cards sold for more than a penny-a-piece.

Topps decision to release its 1974 set in just one series was a direct response to the wants of the adult collector.  Cards could now be bought in 500-count vending boxes.  Cards were also marketed as complete sets for the first time and sold in the J.C. Penny catalogs.  By selling the cards in large amounts, Topps was able to save money on packaging and gum.  The savings was then passed along to the buyer.

Adult collectors could buy cards quickly and sets could be assembled with little effort.  Topps increased the price of the cards.  By producing the all the cards at once, Topps was also able to lower their costs.  It was much easier and cheaper for Topps to manage and distribute one series of cards rather than seven.

Business wise, it was a great decision.  Topps raised it prices, while at the same time, decreasing production and distribution costs.  Even though there was a recession throughout the 1970’s, baseball card sales still increased!  Topps started a trend of record profits that would continue to grow for several decades.

How kids bought and traded vintage cards
My friends and I would space out our card buying over the summer, so that we could participate in every series of cards.  Each series of cards was limited to about 100 cards and the collector would end up with many doubles.  Trading cards with friends was the obvious next step.  It was a social ritual among friends.

Topps carefully managed each series of cards, making sure that there was an equally distributed amount of stars and players from each of the teams.  Beginning in 1958, Topps would ensure this equal separation by giving the super stars the card numbers of 100, 200, 300, etc.  The next lower tier of stars would have numbers ending in 50, such as 50, 150, 250, etc.  The next tier of semi-star players would be numbered 10, 20, 30, etc.  

At the beginning of the season, we would all buy cards from Series 1, sort through them and pick out the “doubles”.  Then the trading would sessions with our friends would begin.  There was no reason to buy more cards until the next series hit the stores.

Every time my parents would run an errand to the dime store or go pick up a gallon of milk, I would tag along to buy some more cards.  Merchants became well aware of this cycle also, as their cards sales would spike when the latest series appeared on the counter.  Mom and Dad would often anticipate my need while at the store and bring me home a pack of cards.  After all, they only cost a nickel.

Card collecting grows up
Starting in the spring 1974, the collector had the possibility of getting any of the 660 possible cards in every pack, instead of the just the usual 100 or cards contained in a single series.  This meant that kids had much less doubles to trade.  Kids (or their dads) also began buying complete sets.  This took them out of the market and trading quickly dried up.

In 1974, I was 9 years old.  1974 Topps was the sixth baseball set that I had collected and the changes in distribution hit us kids like a ton of bricks.  I can remember gathering with my buddies in 1974 to trade cards, just like we had in previous years.  In past years, the “trading sessions” would take hours and we would pass the idle time by looking at the cards and discussing the exploits of our diamond heroes.

In the spring of 1974, we quickly discovered that none of us had as many doubles to trade and the sessions did not last very long.  We soon decided that there was no longer a reason to meet.  The gatherings quickly dried up and disappeared.  Topps killed decades of tradition with one simple business decision.  The era of kids trading baseball cards was over.

Cards could now be bought more efficiently at card shows or through the mail - from guys who were calling themselves “dealers”.  There was no reason to buy pack after pack of cards and waste your time trading.

There was no longer any reason spread the buying out over the summer because you could buy the complete set in April.  It took much less effort.  The local five-and-dime stores saw sales evaporate and eventually quit carrying the cards.

The tradition of building sets with each years release was done, but collectors still loved the challenge of building sets.  If you wanted to build sets, you had to do it with the vintage cards, in which Topps no longer had control.  The set building focus soon shifted to the older sets that had to be assembled.

Vintage set building appealed to grown men who wanted to relive their childhood and complete their collections and created the hobby that we know today – but not with out a cost.  Our fathers had hijacked the hobby.  From this point forward, more money would be spent on trading cards by adults than children.

The impact of the 1974 Topps set on the hobby
For most of the vintage card sets for which I write commentaries, I have taken on the role of a “cold case detective”.  Although I have seen tens-of-thousands of the cards from each of the set that I write about, I was too young (or not yet born) to have collected many of those cards as a kid.  As I sit down to opine about the 1974 Topps baseball card set, I find myself in an unusual position – an actual witness to an historical event.

# 2 Aaron Special 1954-57
It always amazes me that when I sit down to write these set commentaries for SCD, I never seem to know where the story is going to lead.  The first thing that I do is to take this week’s featured set from the inventory and do through it card by card.  From there the story takes on a life of its own.

My original thought was to write about the 1974 Topps cards themselves.  Upon examination, the 1974 Topps baseball cards gives one much to comment on.  The blurry action shots, the difficult-to-read card backs, the ridiculous four-player rookie cards, the Washington error cards, the full-sized Dave Winfield Rookie Card and the numerous subsets - including a nice tribute to Hank Aaron.

The 1974 inserts with the Red Team Checklists and the innovative (but ugly) Traded Set could be an article within itself.  With that said, I have left those interesting comments to others and decided to focus on the impact that the 1974 set had on the hobby.

My next theme was “Our Dad’s hijacked our hobby”, but then I thought about how great is was spending time with my Dad and how sports cards still connect us today.   I have so many found memories from that time of my life that this story angle quickly changed.

Today, vintage card collecting is all about middle-aged men reliving their boyhood.  Sorting through the cards takes us back it a simpler place and time.  We are magically transported back to a warm summer day, sitting on the porch with our boyhood buddies, chewing gum, swapping cards and telling stories about our heroes

As the owner of, I have sold millions of vintage cards over years.  I have the pleasure of interacting with many collectors and I have heard many similar stories for other collectors.

Bringing adults into the hobby was a great thing for our generation.  If adults never started collecting cards, the hobby would not have ever reached the great heights that it did in the early 1990’s.

Not just for kids anymore
The great part of this story for me (and many guys under 45 years old) is that card collecting became a Father-Son event in 1974.  Dad and I spent many hours together building our collection.

When I abandoned (or as I often say “escaped”) my software career in 2001 and started, my father supported my decision.  Just about everyone thought that I was having a mid-life crisis.

My Dad is a collector and was excited by the idea.  He even gave me all of his “doubles” to help start the Dean’s Cards inventory.  Today, my father still sorts cards for us and reads my SCD articles religiously.

Over the years, the baby boomer generation has literally bought millions of cards from Dean’s Cards.  I feel blessed that I have been able make a living off of my boyhood passion.  The hobby never gets old for me.  I love it as much today as I did back then.  In this sense, I never had to grow up.

Innovative 1974 card design
If the changes in the manufacturing and distribution of the 1974 Topps cards were not enough, the product itself was also loaded with innovations.  The most distinguishing characteristic of the 1974 set has a pennant or banner design that wraps around the photo of the player.  The most innovative feature of the 1974 cards are that so many contain action photographs.

# 105 Carlton Fisk
Topps introduced action shots in 1971.  In 1972, Topps made separate “In Action” cards for stars and some semi-stars.  Many of the 1974 cards are in fact action shots and some even cards even have a horizontal orientation that includes the stadium or the crowd in the photograph.

A negative of the 1974 issue is that Topps printed the player’s statistics on a dark green background, making it difficult to read.  Another common criticism of the 1974 set, especially from today’s collectors, is that the photographs appear blurry or feature unattractive shots of the stadium in the player’s picture.  Although the photos do not stand up to the action shots on today’s cards, they were quite inventive at the time.  As a collector at time, and accustomed to the posed shots of the past, I was stunned by the amount of movement on the cards

Although some of the cards may be a bit too busy, Topps did produce some very aesthetically pleasing cards in 1974.  One of the most attractive examples from this year is #85 Joe Morgan.  The shot of Morgan right out of his batting stance, about to run to first base, with the opposing team’s dugout in the background.

This type of action shot tends to work best on a baseball card, because the rest of the card acts as a frame and presents the photograph within it very nicely.  As many other Topps issues demonstrate, the action shot does not work well in a “busy” card.  Topps photographers applied these “lessons learned” to future releases and action shots remain a staple on today’s cards.

In terms of rookie cards, the 1974 set initially looked very promising.  Dave Winfield, Dave Parker, and Bill Madlock all had their rookie cards in the 1974 set.  By the early 1980’s, all three players were super-stars and seemed like a like a good bet to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall-of-Fame, but only Dave Winfield would make it to Cooperstown.

The Washington Padres
# 125B Nate Colbert - Washington variation
Winfield’s rookie card brings up another key feature of this set: the Washington “Nat’l League” variations.  At the time these cards were being printed, San Diego Padres franchise was planning to relocate to Washington D.C.   Topps printed the Padre cards with the Washington as the franchise city.  However, the Padres were eventually bought by McDonald’s owner Ray Kroc and the team remained in San Diego.  The Washington cards were printed in much lower quantities than the San Diego version of the cards.

This set features three error cards.  The first is the #608A Rookie Pitchers card with a misspelling of Bob Apodaca’s name and the second is the #645 Jesus Alou “no position” card .  Card #599 Dave Freisleben has three possible team variations: Washington, San Diego in large print, and San Diego in small print.

Bring on the subsets
The 1974 Topps set also features one of the highest numbers of subsets in the decade.  Cards #1-6 commemorate all of Aaron’s Topps cards dating from 1954 to 1973.

Cards #201-208 feature the League Leaders.  These cards are oriented horizontally and frame the American League leader with a pink banner and the National League leader with a blue banner.  The top ten leaders from each league are listed on the back.

Playoff and World Series Highlights can be found on cards #470-479.  The 1973 World Series went all the way to Game 7, with the Oakland A’s prevailing over the Mets to win their second consecutive championship.  The action shots work best on these cards.  Each card shows a decisive play on the front and the stats for all the participants on the back.  The red, white, and blue banner on the World Series card distinguishes them from the rest of the set.

# 598 Ken Griffey Rookie OFs
The final subset of 1974 is the rookie cards, which return to their four-player format not seen since 1963.  Cards #596-608 are now farily difficult to find because they were quickly thrown out by many of the collectors at the time.  The framing that worked so well on the player cards, makes the rookie cards feel busy.  Adding the players’ names and teams to the photographs with stadium backgrounds proved to be too much for these cards.

1974 Insert sets 
Topps rounds out 1974, with the first traded set and a red team checklist set.  Both of these sets were inserts to the 1974 Topps Set.  Topps had originally introduced the concept of a traded card in 1972, but included it as part of the original set. In 1974, Topps decided to make an entire new set of cards for players who had been traded after the 1973 World Series.

# 270T Ron Santo
The card number in the Traded Set corresponds to that player’s original 1974 card, but then added a “T” to the number.   Unfortunately, almost all of the Traded Cards feature players with airbrushed hats.  As if that was not ugly enough, Topps added a large yellow “TRADED” banner with red lettering across the player’s photograph.  In short, the idea of the Traded Set was very innovative, but still need some refinement.  Traded Sets are still issued to this day.

The Red Team Checklists are also considered a separate set.  Like the blue team checklists from 1973, these cards featured a checklist on the back and the signatures of all the players on the front.  These cards were unnumbered, but organized alphabetically by the name of the city.

The 1974 Topps baseball card set was the first issue of the “Semi-Vintage Era” of baseball cards and influenced the card collecting hobby more than any set issued since 1952.  The action shots and Traded cards remain a staple to this day, but the most important long-term effect of the1974 Topps Baseball Card Set was not the individual cards contained in the set, but the issue’s overall impact. The 1974 Topps set bought the adult collector into the hobby.

Card collectors came of age in 1974 and Topps, like many other companies of the era that wanted to survive and prosper, followed the money.  Topps modified its products to follow the huge population of baby boomers, who were then entering into adulthood. The Topps monopoly continued unimpeded until 1981, until other manufacturers were legally allowed to produce baseball cards.

Some may think that Topps sacrificed its original target market, the kids of the baby boom generation, but that is simply not the case.  Topps did not betray us. They followed us into adulthood, like a loyal and trusted friend.   For many of us, our life-long bond with Topps remains firmly intact.

Collecting sports cards is the only pastime in life that I am still as passionate about today, as I was when I was a boy. Topps has made this world a lot more fun.

I truly pity today’s generation of kids who will never experience the pure fun of collecting sports cards.  They missed out.

1968 Topps: The set with the speckled border

# 177 Nolan Ryan / Jerry Koosman rookie card
The 1968 Topps baseball card set design is one of the most eye-catching of the entire decade, with its distinctive speckled borders.  The 1968 Topps set features two great rookie cards: Nolan Ryan (#177) and Johnny Bench (#274).  The 1968 set features two players per rookie card, so Nolan Ryan is paired with fellow pitcher Jerry Koosman.  This is the greatest pair of players ever featured together on a rookie card.  The two would combine for an astounding 546 wins and 8,270 strikeouts over their careers.

The subsets for the 1968 sets are League Leaders (#1-12), World Series Highlights (#151-158), and The Sporting News All-Stars (#361-380).  The player cards are vertically oriented, while the rookie cards, league leader cards, and World Series cards are all horizontal.  When properly aligned, the All Star cards have a photograph of Carl Yastrzemski on the back.

The 1968 Topps set features the final cards for 28 players, including #330 Roger Maris, #167 Elston Howard, #99 Rocky Colavito and #58 Eddie Mathews.  Unfortunately, none of these fellows' cards feature them on the team of their glory years.  Maris’ last card shows him as a Cardinal, Mathews as a Tiger, Howard with the Red Sox and Colavito with the White Sox.

The 1968 Topps set also features three of my favorite multi-player cards.   Manager's Dream (#480) had a latin theme, with Clemente, Oliva, and Cardenas.   The Super Star card (#490) featured Killebrew, Mays, and Mantle.  Both pictures were taken at the 1966 All-Star Game.  

# 490 Super Stars card
The third multi-player card was #530 Bird Belters, showing the Robinsons  – Frank and Brooks.  What is interesting about this photo is that it was taken at the same sitting as 1967 Topps card #1 “The Champs”, which also included Hank Bauer.  Bauer stepped out of the photo and the photographer moved in a couple steps.  You can tell because of the same positioning of the towels in the dugout and fans in the stands.  

The world was upside down
1968 was one of the most turbulent years of the 20th Century.   The Vietnam war was at its worst, the Tet Offensive dominated the television and way too many of our boys were coming home in body bags.  Everyone seemed to be protesting something, whether it be on college campuses against the war or for civil rights in the streets of almost every major city.

As if that was not enough turbulence for one summer, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, there was a 3-way race for President, a politically charged Olympic Games in Mexico City, and to cap it off the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.  

The game of baseball was also having a very strange year. Marvin Miller, became the executive director of the MLB Player’s Association in 1966.  The players were becoming “organized”.  Miller’s career had started with the United Steelworkers’ Union and he applied many of those principles to the MLBPA.  Miller organized the MLB’s first collective bargaining agreement in 1968.  As the 1968 season opened, the players were “revolting” and the owners were pushing back.  The tension was thick.

There were also strange things happening on the field, and 1968 became known as “the year of the pitcher”.  The hitting seemed to disappear and the pitchers dominated the game.  The combined batting average for both leagues was .237 - the lowest ever.  Carl Yastrzemski led the AL in Batting with a .301 average – the lowest ever.  Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12 and Denny McLain won 31 games.  Since that time, no pitcher has come close to either one of those feats.  In 1968, both MVP winners were pitchers. That did happen once before in 1928 with Walter Johnson and Dizzy Vance.

The Players Organize
Although greatly overshadowed, trouble was also brewing in the world of baseball cards.  The images of the players were the reason the kids bought the cards, but players received very little of the profits. Topps had historically signed players to exclusive baseball card contracts (with helpful pressure from the clubs) while they were in the minor leagues for a whopping $5!  

Miller soon turned his attention towards baseball cards and approached Topps President Joel Shorin, to renegotiate the Topps contract on behalf of the players.  By 1967, major league players were locked into long-term baseball card contracts and received only $125 a year to have their pictures on a Topps card.  What Miller really wanted was for Topps to also give the players’ union a percentage of Topps’ sales.  Shorin politely refused, saying “ I do not see the muscle in your position.”  Miller quickly left the office and the war was on.

Miller encouraged players to hold out over spring training to avoid signing new contracts with Topps.  Although most players were still under contract to Topps, many players refused to let Topps take their picture.  Topps soon discovered, as the owners had the year before, that players were now organized and did indeed have leverage.  As a result, Topps was forced to use old photos for the 1968 set, as well as to decrease the total number of cards in the set.  

Although the baseball card “strike” was eventually resolved in November of 1968, it took Topps a few series to get the pictures taken at spring training onto the 1969 Topps cards.  It greatly hurts the image of the 1968 set becausemany of the photographs can be seen again in the first few series of the the1969 set.  Examples include #45 Tom Seaver, #110 Hank Aaron, #355 Ernie Banks, and #144 Joe Morgan to name just a few of the stars.   

If this resistance continued for another year, Topps would have a dwindling number of players for their cards and few new images.  These first few series of cards in the 1969 Topps set used many previously seen pictures.  The first 327 cards of the 1969 Topps set are a collection of boring head shots and recycled photos from the past.  In my opinion, if Topps did not settle the dispute with the players when they did and the 1970 Topps set was a further decline in quality and quantity, Topps might have alienated a generation of collectors.

Shorin eventually caved to Miller’s demands.  The newly negotiated contract required Topps to pay each player $250 (double the previous $125) per year and, more importantly, Topps would pay the Players’ Association 8% of sales up to $4 million and another 10% after that.  The way that Topps compensated the players had changed forever.  

The new contract that Topps agreed to in November of 1968 was a huge financial victory for Marvin Miller and the player’s union  just when they needed one.  The Topps contract added much needed funding for the MLBPA’s coffers.  The union now was generating revenue outside of the player’s dues.

More importantly in the long run, the MLBPA’s victory over Topps showed the players an example of the power that a strong union has in a profitable industry.  The “small” victory over the Topps Gum co. would serve as an example and fortify the player’s resolve against their primary nemesis, the owners.  This new found resolve would eventually culminate in the elimination of the reserve clause in 1975, which allowed free-agency, guaranteed contracts, and insured the continual increase in player’s salaries and that has yet to crest.

Completing the 1968 Topps set
Another notable feature of the 1968 cards is the fact that the high number or 7th series doesn’t have the steep increase in card prices that is so common for previous years.  In 1968, (and again in 1969), Topps did a good job in getting the 7th series of the set to market before the season ended.   In many vintage Topps sets, the cards from the high numbers series are often ten times more expensive than their low number counterparts.  The price difference is even greater for some cards, considering the extremely low population that exists for the high number cards.  

For that reason, builds and sells more complete sets from 1968 than just about any other set from the 1960’s.  The three vintage sets that we find easily to build- in no particular order – are the sets from 1958, 1968 and 1969.

The distinctive speckled edge of the 1968 set also serves to hide corner wear very well.  Therefore, it is still possible to find many 1968 Topps cards in nice condition.  All of these factors combine to make the 1968 Topps the least expensive vintage set to complete.

Photos needed
In 1967, Topps broke the “600 card barrier” for the first time by issuing a set that had 609 cards. The 1968 Topps cards were released in seven series, as in previous years, but the 1968 Topps set only contains 598 cards.  

The lack of fresh photos, greatly reduced the cards that Topps could issue in 1968.  For example, the 1968 Topps set had only 29 Rookie Cards.  (There is not a Giants Rookie card.)  In comparison, 1967 Topps set had 43 team Rookie Cards.

Although the 1968 sets only had 598 cards, Topps struggled to even reach that number.  The 1968 Topps set featured several players for whom had past photos, and were still under contract, but had not been in the major leagues in several years.  Some examples include: Tommie Aaron (#394),  Dick Calmus (#427),  Jimmy Schaffer (#463), and John Tsitouris (#523). The list goes on, but seems as irrelevant as the players on the cards themselves.  As the saying goes, Topps was “trying to make chicken salad without much chicken”.

Old Photos and Hat less Players
Almost all of the photos used in the 1968 Topps set were actually taken in 1966 or before.  Back in the days when Topps had a monopoly on the gum card industry, they would cut expenses by not taking a full portfolio of pictures every year.  Topps would also take several pictures of each player and also take a “back-up” photo, just in case he was traded.  This back-up picture was usually a portrait of the player without his cap.  

During these off years, Topps would supplement their photo library by contacting or purchasing photographs of the handful of players who were traded and changed teams during the winter.  A few photos that appeared in the 1968 topps set that were clearly taken in 1967.  Examples include: Clete Boyer, Bob Bailey, Ted Abernathy and Roger Maris.  All four players were traded before the 1967 season and appear in their new uniforms on 1968 Topps cards.

If all else failed, and Topps was forced to use a photo of a player in an outdated uniform, Topps would simply “black out” the emblem on the players cap.  This was clearly the last resort, because it looked so terrible.  Because there were expansion years for baseball, the 1961, 1962 and 1969 Topps sets feature quite a few cards of players with airbrushed or blacked out logos or missing hats.  Topps had little choice but to use these inferior images, as they did not have current photos of the players.  

# 21 Ron Davis - a great example of a "blackened" hat
The 1968 Topps Astros and A’s cards look the most unnatural thanks to their blackened hats.  The Athletics moved from Kansas City to Oakland and therefore had to change their logo.  Due to the feud with the players association, Topps was unable to get pictures of the A’s in their new uniforms.

The unsolved mystery of the 1968 Topps set is why the Astros’ cards have them all pictured in Colt .45 uniforms, which means they were taken no later than 1965.  The Colt .45s moved into the Astrodome and became the Astros in 1966.  Not only are the pictures on the Astros’ cards old, they were boring.  Most of the 1968 Topps Astros card featured head shots.  What makes this so interesting is that Topps had some great cards of Astros players, in the new Astros uniforms, in both the 1966 and 1967 Topps sets.

One curious note about this set is that although Reggie Jackson’s major league debut was in 1967, Topps was unable to make a card for him until 1969 due to the MLBPA’s activities regarding contracts. The addition of a Reggie Jackson rookie card to the 1968 set would certainly have increased the value of this set significantly.

Was the 1968 Topps set their weakest offering ever?
By the spring of 1968, Topps desperately needed updated photographs, but because of the fight with the MLBPA, they were unable to secure them.  The 1968 Topps set would have to go to press with an outdated portfolio of photos.  

The result was arguably the worst vintage set that Topps ever produced, at least in a non-expansion year.  Of the 598 cards in the 1968 Topps set, 114 of the cards feature  players without hats and 48 cards have blacked out hats.  Two of the cards (#481 Chuck Harrison and #566 Ken Harrleson) were taken so you can only see the underside of the cap.  A surprising 28% of the 1968 Topps cards do not show the logo on the players cap.  This has to be a dubious record, particularly for a non-expansion year set.

The 1968 Topps set is the “low water mark” of the Topps vintage sets in terms of the number of cards issued, the players pictured on the cards and the the tired photos used on the cards.   In spring training of 1969, Topps restocked its portfolio of player photos and issued a 664 card set.  The number of cards in the Topps sets would continue to expand and never again reach below 660 cards.   The photos used on the cards would also continue to evolve in creativity and quality.

1968 Topps was a set of “lasts”
Topps would never again use the speckled border design employed in the 1968 set.  The 1968 Topps set was also the last set in which the players did not share in the profit that Topps made on the cards.  1968 was also the last year that baseball had 20 teams.  In 1969, baseball added four new teams and divisional playoffs.  More teams means more players, which means more cards to print.  

Although few collectors would choose 1968 Topps as their favorite vintage set, it was a solid issue that featured a bold and creative design.  Considering the challenges that Topps faced in 1968, I think that they made a strong effort, considering the obstacles to producing the set.  The reputation of the 1968 Topps set is greatly enhanced by having the two high-profile Rookie Cards of Johnny Bench and Nolan Ryan.  If Topps could have gotten Reggie Jackson into this set, you would probably be reading a much different commentary.  We would be discussing the set with the greatest Rookie Card class of the 1960’s - but it was not meant to be.

If you are still hungry for more details on the individual 1968 Topps cards, there is a great blog by “Jim from Downington” located at  Jim is a long-time customer of and has written a page of information for every card in the 1968 Topps set!  Some of the interesting facts in this article were taken from his blog.

Most people remember 1968 as a dynamic year in our country’s history.  As a student of baseball card history, I can think of no other set that mirrors the ill effects of the world around it, like the 1968 Topps baseball card set does.  Almost every niche of American society was touched by the turmoil of the times.  It stands to reason that the hobby of collecting baseball cards would also feel the effects of this incredible social friction. Along with the vivid pictures of the Vietnam War, the Mexico City Olympics, the protests at the universities and the riots in the streets, the assasinations of RFK and MLK, the volatile presidential campaign, and the Russian tanks in the streets of Prague – the photos on the 1968 Topps cards helps to document that strange and troubled year.  

May none of those (mostly terrible) things happen again, but hopefully we have a better nation, a better world and even a better hobby because of the events of 1968.  Although baseball cards surely pale in importance to the other events of 1968, the players now had a share of the the hobby’s profits, and also an example of what a strong union could accomplish. The MLB team owners no longer seemed as intimidating to the players. Over the next few years, the owners would begin to feel the sting of the players’ union and new found confidence.  The status quo had changed forever.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

1955 Bowman Baseball Umpire Cards just got a 1955 Bowman baseball card complete set up online and we wanted to take a look at one of the features that makes this “end of an era” set so special.

Collectors of vintage cards may know the 1955 Bowman as the “tv set” but there is another distinction that sets the 1955 Bowman baseball card set apart: the umpire cards.  The set itself consists of 320 cards total with three series.  The high number series (#225-320) is the most expensive and it also contains all of the thirty umpire cards.  All of the player pictures were taken in Shibe Park in Philadelphia, the home of the Bowman Gum Company.  Many of the photos feature the characteristic green wall that is still associated with Shibe Park.  Although the wood-grain border that is the distinctive mark of this set hides corner wear fairly well, it also makes the set somewhat unappealing from an aesthetic point of view.  Color television (and color cards) were a big deal at the time, but they quickly lost their novelty.  The 1955 set would be the last for the floundering Bowman Gum Company.  Topps bought them at the end of the year and immediately began their monopoly on the hobby.

As for the umpire cards, they were, understandably, unpopular with kids, the primary purchasers of baseball cards.  Part of what makes the umpire cards so difficult to find is that they were the first to be thrown away by kids looking for their baseball heroes.  Curiously, the Bowman Company put the umpires in the last series, which historically competed with the football cards sets that were being released at the same time.  Kids had already bought the previous two series full of players and had no interest in the coach and umpire-heavy last series.  Topps was busy releasing the 1955 Topps All-American football card set that featured outstanding college players and Bowman was releasing their last football set, so kids would have probably been interested in those sets instead.

The umpire cards themselves were similar to the other 1955 Bowman cards, but had a few key differences.  As previously mentioned, the players’ photographs were taken with Shibe Park as a background, while many of the umpires had head shots with a solid color background.  On many of the players’ cards, Bowman had the interesting idea to ask them to write about their biggest thrill in baseball, made famous by Eddie Waitkus’ story that was the basis for The Natural, the most exciting game in which they had ever played, or the best pitcher or hitter they had faced.  However, the umpire cards feature short biographies written by the Bowman Gum Company.  The Bowman writ
ers included facts such as the national heritage of the umpires as well as personal hobbies, family, and professional sports or umpiring experience.  

Currently, the Bowman umpires set is so hard to complete that they have their own PSA set registry category.  They represent a fun challenge to collectors and another example of baseball cards that went from wildly unpopular to considerably valuable.  There are no parallels to this unique set and we hope you find it as interesting as we do.

1954 Bowman Baseball Card Variations recently received a 1954 Bowman baseball card complete set and it got us thinking about one of the special features of this unique set - the variation cards.  The set itself has 224 total cards that were broken up into two series for distribution: #1-128 and #129-224.  However, many pricing guides maintain only a single pricing series, meaning that all common cards have the same value throughout the entire set.  Interestingly, the 1954 Bowman baseball card set does not have many marquee rookie cards.  Don Larsen provides the only well known rookie card in the set.  Aside from the rookies, this set is also missing many of the popular star players of the time.  Bowman did, however, employ some creativity in its numbering of the set.  There is a 16 card rotation, meaning that one team, in this case, the Yankees, would have card numbers 1, 17, 33, 49, etc, while the second team, the Red Sox, would have 2, 18, 34, 50, etc.  This team rotation arrangement would not be seen in another vintage set.

#12 Roy McMillan variations
As for the variations, a surprising 40 card out of 224 total have some sort of variation.  The most prominent variation by far is the #66 Ted Williams card.  Williams had been serving in Korea, as his 1959 Fleer baseball card set dutifully memorializes, and made his return to baseball in 1954.  However, Williams signed an exclusive contract with Topps, so the Bowman Company, which had rushed to get its set out before Topps, had to withdraw the Williams card and replace it with Jimmy Piersall, who already had card #210.  Bowman’s hurry to get its set released before Topps resulted in not only the Williams/Piersall variation but many others.  Variation cards have differences in statistics, birthplaces, trades, and even answers to the quiz questions on the back.  The example we have included is the #12 Roy McMillan card.  The first card that Bowman released for McMillan has the following stat line: 551 season ABs, 1290 lifetime ABs.  The correct stat line should read 557 season ABs, 1290 lifetime ABs.  Although this seems like a minute difference to the casual observer, Bowman had to correct a similar mistake 40 times throughout the set.

This set represents the pinnacle of the competitive baseball card era and we certainly appreciate the rich history that resulted from this heated competition.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

1909 E92 Dockman & Sons Baseball Cards

#15 Larry Doyle with bat
# 16 Larry Doyle throwing

***The information in this article was used to write our ebook, Before There Was Bubble Gum: Our Favorite Pre-World War I Baseball Card Sets.  To purchase the ebook, please click here.***

Dean's Cards recently received a collection of 45 E92 Dockman & Sons cards.  These cards are listed online and for sale at These cards are particularly interesting because they represent such a small portion of the E92 set, but they are the easiest of the four sets to collect.

The E92 set is unusual because it was produced by four different companies: The Nadja Caramel Company, The Croft’s Cocoa Company, The Croft’s Candy Company, and the Dockman & Sons Company.  Although all of the card fronts are identical, the backs feature one of the four companies’ logos.  Some collectors consider these to be four different sets.  The artwork on these cards will look similar to other caramel card sets, as is common with this genre of cards.  The poses are the same as those found on the E101, E102, and E106 sets.

# 38 Honus Wagner throwing
The Nadja set is the largest, featuring 62 cards total.  The two Croft’s sets have 50 each and the Dockman & Sons set has only 40.  All of the four sets are organized alphabetically by player last name.  The Nadja Company was located in St. Louis, but featured players from all of the major league teams.  This may be because the Browns and the Cardinals were struggling so mightily.  In 1909, both the Browns and Cardinals finished dead last, so the people of St. Louis were probably not terribly interested in their home town teams.  Croft’s Was located in Philadelphia, so those two sets are heavy on Athletics and Phillies players.  That left Dockman’s, which was located in Baltimore, to publish a set that has very few players from St. Louis or Philadelphia.  

The Dockman & Sons cards have a variety to the cards that is somewhat refreshing.  There are action and portrait shots on solid or natural backgrounds.  The Dockman’s set does not, however, have the great number of variation cards that the other three manufacturers have in this set.  The only variations belong to Honus Wagner and Larry Doyle, who are featured both throwing and batting.  We currently have 24 of the 40 possible cards available online.