Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on May 5, 2016 and is reprinted here by permission.
One fine day in the summer of 1979 my friend Lou and I were sitting in the grandstand behind first base at Fenway Park, when a plane flew overhead carrying an advertising banner. Nothing unusual about that, except that this plane was advertising Fenway Sportscards, giving an address on Commonwealth Avenue that we knew was right in Kenmore Square, less than a mile away. Lou and I had met early in our just-completed freshman year of college and had bonded over, among other things, our childhoods of collecting baseball cards.
A decade later there were card stores in every large town in America and probably 50 in the greater Boston area. But Fenway Sports Cards was the first such place I ever entered and an early indication that my childhood hobby had become, literally, a business. The proprietor was older than us but was friendly and loved talking about baseball. (I returned several times over the next few years.) Cards were not as expensive as they would become later, but as a poor college student I had to satisfy myself with spending $20 or $30 on a few dozen cards from my youth that I had never managed to acquire.
In one of the display cases set aside for some of his better cards, the owner had one I had never seen—a “1963 Rookie Stars” card that showed the floating heads of four players, one of whom (on the lower left) was Pete Rose, one of the biggest stars in the game at the time I viewed the card. I had grown up with Rookie Stars cards—Topps had them every year beginning in 1962. By putting a player on a card like this, Topps was suggesting that he might break through this year and contribute. Topps often had many such cards, so they were anointing several dozen players, and only a few were ever going to become stars. Many of them, in fact, never played in the big leagues. But all of them gave hope to fans of their teams.
The Rookie Stars cards from the later 1960s were full color photos of two or three players, nothing like the Rose card. The Rose card, honestly, was sort of ugly, and not a card that I would want other than to fill out a set. Surprisingly, the owner wanted a lot of money for the card, maybe $25 or something. I innocently inquired as to why he wanted $25 for such an undesirable card. “It’s Rose’s rookie card,” he explained. He further explained that the first card of every star player (whether it was an entire card or a shared one like this) commanded a premium, no matter how ugly it might be. He showed me a price guide, and sure enough, the Rose card, and other star rookie cards, carried a heavy premium.
I thought then, and I think now, that this phenomenon was more or less created by national dealers and price guide makers to fuel demand in the hobby. This card was not “rare” in any sense of the term, but the price guide created demand for the card. But whatever the cause, the phenomenon has not subsided in the least. That same Rose card today might cost $1,000, and the rookie cards for Nolan Ryan, Johnny Bench, Tom Seaver, and other stars from my childhood are all several hundred dollars. (Some players’ rookie cards—like Reggie Jackson and Eddie Murray—are not multiplayer cards, they are regular base cards.) Mickey Mantle’s first Topps card, from 1952, might cost you $20,000 in decent condition even though they are very easy to find. If you are a set builder today, the rookie cards more often than not will keep you from finishing.
1964 (564 cards)
For the second straight year Topps reduced the size of their set, despite having an all-time high of 130 specialty cards. They did this by using just 21.7 base player cards per team, the lowest since 1956. The biggest change to the front of the card was the prominence of the team name—heretofore a secondary element. From 1964 to 1972 the team name was large and generally color coded (so that “YANKEES” was in red, “PIRATES” in blue, etc.), making team sorting a snap. (Sorting 1975 cards, which we will meet later, is not for the faint of heart.)
This was also the year that Topps discontinued the disembodied heads on its rookie and leader cards. While the 1963 Rose card is unattractive, at least to these eyes, the multiplayer rookie cards of the next several years were well done, with full color photos of two or three players on the front, and enough space for a sentence and some stats on the reverse. They used 56 Rookie Stars cards in 1964, allowing them to highlight several prospects (many of whom never made it) per team. Great progress, Topps.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when baseball card shows were prevalent in VFW halls and high school gyms on weekends, Lou and I would occasionally set up a table and do some selling and buying ourselves. A few times we ran into a young woman who was trying to corner the market on 1983 Topps Rich Gedman cards. Why this card, you ask? She would not say. In fact, I forgot all about this story until a couple of years ago when I found out about a guy trying to buy up all of the 1964 Curt Flood cards. As of 2014 he had 4,000 of them, which is believed to be about 25 percent of the available cards.
Honestly, who am I to question such a man?
1965 (598 cards)
The 1965 Topps has the most childish design of all their sets, and I mean that as a compliment. The waving pennant and team logo, on top of the large color photo that dominates the card front, is a welcome change after the simple designs of 1964. Moreover, the backs might be the best in Topps history—a blue base, with a simple cartoon and the text/statistics section set off as black on off-white, the absolute pinnacle of readability.
One of the very best Topps subsets every year were the Leader cards, which began in 1961 but had crammed too many heads on the cards for the first few years. In 1964, they settled on six categories per league (12 total cards), and three leaders per card. The backs of the cards listed the top 50 or 60 in that particular category—however many would fit. There were few things more thrilling as a kid than seeing one of your favorite players show up on the front of one of these cards.
Table 1 – Appearances on Leader Cards, 1961-72
Beginning in my college years, Lou and I would use the term “on the card” as insider shorthand for “in the top three.” So Lou might say, “I am not sure if Rubber Soul is my favorite Beatles album, but it’s definitely on the card.” Or I might indicate that a particular girl in my psychology class was “on the card.”
This was life.
1966 (598 cards)
The 1966 Topps set presented the largest base player photo since the 1961 cards—taking up the full card other than a thin white border and two small colored elements that provide the standard name, team, and position info. Topps was taking many of their photos at spring training in this period, so this set is chock full of bright blue skies and green grass, and the photography for 1966 and 1967 is as clear and crisp as anything Topps ever did. Many of the game’s superstars had a beautiful image in this set. All of the Braves players are hatless because of their offseason move from Milwaukee to Atlanta with the exception of Hank Aaron, who appeared late enough in the summer to get a brand new Atlanta hat.
After taking a year off, Topps returned with multiplayer cards in 1966, though with only five of them. While Topps usually found reason to get as many superstars as possible on these cards, the exceptions are often the most interesting.
One of my favorites is this card showing the Giants’ most frequent double play combination from the previous season. While I do not doubt the defensive talents of this pairing, the duo had combined to hit .216 with two home runs, and Schofield would never hold a starting job again. Despite the presence of several star players, the Giants finished two games behind the Dodgers in 1965, and this vaunted “DP Combo” was as big a culprit as anything.
One final thing. In the 1966 movie Penelope, Natalie Wood’s character opens a pack of 1966 baseball cards (because she wants to chew a piece of bubblegum). When she sees the first card inside, she asks, “Who is Ron Swoboda?” This scene, plus Wood, are enough to make it one of the greatest films ever made.
1967 (609 cards)
All the card sets I have reviewed so far came before I began collecting, so I have tried to imagine what a young kid would have cared about as he was acquiring that season’s issue. The 1967 set is where I came aboard the train, and it was a hell of a place to start. One of the features I most value about the front of any baseball card is a bright color photo that takes up as much of the surface as possible; the 1967 card scores well here, with a large color-coded team name and a subtle player name/position graphic laid on top of the photo.
On the reverse, Topps used a vertical orientation for the first time since 1953. To pull this off, they sacrificed three columns in the statistical table: league, games, and runs for batters; league, games, and innings for pitchers. In exchange, Topps had more room for text. For me, this was a welcome tradeoff—I was still learning the players. A couple of extra sentences on Joe Morgan likely helped me more than knowing his “games” total.
A major change in the baseball card market in the past 15 years is the existence of “professional grading.” Thirty years ago I would hold a card in my hand before buying it, so whether the dealer called its condition “excellent” or “near mint” did not much matter. I have my own threshold, which is a well-centered card with no creases, and corners and edges that are intact. Sometimes a card might have a slight bump on a side, or a soft corner, but this was “good enough,” which became the grade I used. “Good enough.”
In the 1990s, as more cards were bought through the mail, professional graders sprang up to grade a card for you and then put it in a plastic, tamper-proof container with grade affixed. You could then buy the card and “know” that it was graded by a professional third party. What happened next is inevitable: an extreme premium on high-end graded cards. Whereas a “good enough” 1969 Mickey Mantle, a card you would pick up and admire, might cost $150, a card that a grader deemed “mint” might cost $5,000. People were going through their previously ignored piles of 1980s cards looking for perfectly centered pristine cards to get graded.
I am sure that many of my 1967 cards would grade highly, since I assembled them with meticulous care and upgraded many of my lesser-conditioned cards over the years. But to me, my current set is all “good enough,” which has saved me tons of time and money.
Thank you to The Topps Company for granting me permission to use images of their cards in this series.
Next week: In 1966 the nascent players union hired Marvin Miller as their executive director, and Miller inevitably turned his attention to standardize the Topps player contract.