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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 DeansCards.com 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 DeansCards.com, 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 DeansCards.com, 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.


Aftermath
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.