Monday, November 29, 2010

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.


  1. Nice article Dean.

    Personally, the 1968 set is my least favorite set of the 1960's. After coming off a GREAT design in 1967 this just seemed like a weak follow up.

  2. Thanks for the great information about the 1968 set -- I didn't know a whole lot about the dispute between the union and Topps. That explains a lot about both the 1968 and 1969 sets.

  3. couple of key errors in this post :

    1st - both shots of 'SuperStars' and 'Managers Dream' were taken at the 1964 All-Star Game at Shea Stadium in NY. 90% of all Topps cards were photographed at either Shea or Yankee during this timeframe, since Topps was hdq in Brooklyn.

    Also - the Cots became the Astros and moved into the Astrodome in 1965 - not 1966 - as this author has stated...

  4. Couple of fact check updates to this otherwise good article: Both 'Manager's Dream' and 'Superstars' photos were taken at the 1964 All-Star Game at Shea Stadium in NY - not in 1966 at new Busch Stadium. This is fact and had an Uncle who was a photog for Topps at that time. Also obvious that the photos are at Shea because of the orange/yellow wooden seats of both the Field Level and Loge seating. I was a Season Ticket holder for 25 yrs+ and was at the Game with my Dad at the time.

    Also the Colt.45's became the Astros in 1965 - not 1966. Mantle hit the first homer in an exhibition game at the new Astrodome in April,1965 and the team was the Astros. I know - I was there.