Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on May 19, 2016 and is reprinted here by permission.
For Christmas in 1968, my Grandma Armour gave me a card locker that I could use to hold my baseball cards. There was a slot for each team, with the American League on the left and National League on the right, and the 20 teams sorted alphabetically within the leagues. The card locker contained two extra slots on each side for specialty cards (leaders, World Series cards, etc.) but the four new expansion teams immediately took these slots. Thus, I usually kept these speciality cards separately. (I still sort my teams precisely this way, simply adding the expansion teams to the bottom and not moving teams around if their city name changes.)
My card locker always held the current team roster, so if players were traded I would simply move their cards from one slot to another. Also, I never had all the cards from a current year, so the team collection would be the most recent card I owned of each player. If I got a 1970 card of Willie Mays, it would replace my 1969 card, which would be put in a shoebox somewhere. If the Red Sox were playing the Yankees, I just needed my card locker and a radio and I was good to go.
This all presumed that I had at least one card for every player, and this was probably not true until I was at it a few years. I got most of the 1969 cards, so I bet I was pretty current by the next summer. The one guy I could never find was Tony Horton, who was one of the best players on the Cleveland Indians in the late 1960s. Years later I learned that Horton never signed with Topps and never had a card—he is likely the best player that Topps never signed. (During their early 1960s battles with Fleer, there were a handful of players Topps could not sign for several years, among them Maury Wills, Chris Short, Dick Hall, and Joe Adcock. But Topps eventually settled with Fleer, and all of these players had cards in 1967.)
In the late 1960s a standard pack of Topps baseball cards cost five cents, for which you would get five cards and a stick of gum. A decade earlier you would get six cards for your nickel, and you also had the option of a one-cent pack (one card) until 1965. In 1970 we were all shocked when Topps raised their price to 10 cents for 10 cards. This might not seem like a big change—still a penny a card—but if you had a quarter allowance it complicated things considerably. Topps also sold cards in larger quantities (cellophane packs, rack packs, etc.), but I fear that I have complicated things enough. Both the price and size of packs rose a bit more in the 1970s, reaching a quarter for 15 cards in 1980.
Throughout these years, Topps put out other baseball collectibles besides their regular baseball cards—posters, stamps, decals, coins, scratch offs, booklets, etc. Sometimes one of these items might be included in a pack of cards (the 1970 player story booklets), and sometimes you had to make a separate purchase (the 1968 posters). I don’t know that any of these ever took the place of cards for me, but some of them have held up as interesting collectibles even many years later.
My favorite all-time inserts were the 1968 game cards, which allowed two kids to play a game. Each player flips their cards (batters) over one at a time until three outs are recorded, keeping track of runs tallied, before handing the stack to the other player. Topps was still primarily interested in kids, and this was a game only a young kid would enjoy. Getting doubles was not a problem—the more cards the merrier.
Of particular interest, Topps took care to dole out the better results to the better players: Willie Mays on the Home Run card, Frank Robinson on the Triple, Carl Yastrzemski on a Single, etc., while the second-tier stars got ground outs and pop outs and the pitchers got strikeouts. I was still learning how these players all fit into the pantheon, so Mays’s place on the Home Run was, for me, a powerful indication that he was a singular superstar. (Three years later Topps put out game cards in their football set and seemingly randomized the events. The long gains were by Gary Collins and Tom Woodeshick, while Johnny Unitas got a Fumble.)
Many years later I first laid my eyes on the 1964 “Giant-Size All-Stars,” a 60-card set of larger cards sold separately, three cards for a nickel. In my somewhat informed view, this is the best non-base set that Topps ever put out, a simply gorgeous group of frame-ready photos, a clean front design, a photo on the back, and a story about the player’s greatest day or game. Bravo, Topps.
1970 (720 cards)
Topps’ record-sized set included lots of subsets, including the return of team cards, and cards for each game of the two new league playoff series. Topps set aside 20 cards for the two leagues’ “All Stars,” a favorite they would drop after this year. As a big Carl Yastrzemski fan, I appreciated seeing the Yaz card in Series 1, getting the summer off to a fantastic start.
Once again, Topps went with a simple design that drew your eyes to the bright photography. The cursive name was a nice touch, as was the colored team name at the top. A very easy set to sort, which elevates the set somewhat too. The backs were colorful and easy to read, and featured the classic Topps cartoon and text.
The most-welcome aspect of the cards was that Topps finally had a full library of photos to choose from and no expansion teams, resulting in far fewer modified or hatless cards. The Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee in March, too late for Topps to adjust, and the players were shown in Pilots uniforms in all seven series. Had the move been announced earlier in the offseason we likely would have been treated to a year of hatless Brewers.
One day early that spring a kid in my neighborhood got this card of Gerry Moses, and I decided that I had to have it. He was the Red Sox starting catcher, and this was his first solo card, so in the fake games I was imagining with my cards I was forced to catch Tom Satriano or Don Pavletich, which would not do. Plus, just feast your eyes this beautiful card! The other kid sensed my desperation and drove a hard bargain, forcing me to give up several players more prominent than Moses, but I was thrilled to land my prey. The next day I went to the store to buy a few packs and got my own (second) Gerry Moses, meaning that I had given up several valuable cards in order to have Gerry Moses for one extra day.
Life is filled with hard lessons, but few have been as hard as this one.
1971 (752 cards)
Of all the many trips I made to grocery stores and newsstands during my childhood, one in particular stands out. I was spending a March 1971 weekend at my grandparents’ house near Boston and went with my grandfather to a local market so he could buy the morning newspaper. In that store, I first saw packs of 1971 baseball cards, and fortunately I had a few coins in my pocket. I remember pulling this George Scott card, which I showed to my Red Sox–loving grandfather. My recollection is that Grampa looked more than a bit skeptical at the sight of the Boomer, whose random vacillations between awesome and inept had frustrated Red Sox fans for my entire childhood.
Grampa may have been right about Scott, but I was thrilled to get any Red Sox cards, and there was no experience remotely comparable to opening the first card packs of the season. Topps had this wonderful habit of changing directions dramatically from year to year, which made the new cards even more thrilling.
Following the subtle grey of 1970, the front of the 1971 cards used a stunning black border, a bold choice that was quickly loved by everyone I knew. Topps again employed a color-coded team name as the dominant graphic on the card, with the player’s name and position radically eschewing capitalization. Many of the 1971 cards are among the best ever for some great players, including Roberto Clemente, Johnny Bench, and Rod Carew. Replacing the grey-bordered 1970s cards in my card locker one by one with these beauties was a summer-long treat.
As discussed previously, Topps also used action photos on its base cards, 42 in all (nearly all taken in New York stadia). This was an inevitable step, but Topps proved not up to the task for many of its attempts. The Nolan Ryan card is great, as well as Fritz Peterson and several others, while the poorly framed images of Bud Harrelson and Tommie Agee were clearly awful. I admit to not liking the horizontal images in general—and they used several on their action shots—but I am sure this was just early onset orneriness on my part. The biggest problem was that Topps did not yet know how to crop their images, nor decide that the image they had in front of them was not really worth using.
Turning to the back of the cards, Topps made a couple of pretty important decisions, both of them unfortunate. First, the company switched from the white cardboard stock that had made their card backs so colorful and readable since 1963, to a darker stock they would use for the next two decades. Although I did not yet know it, the glory days of Topps’ card backs were basically over at this point.
Second, Topps chose to place a black and white photo on the back, sacrificing the career statistical lines they had used the past eight years. I never understood the value of this second picture, a headshot and often just a floating head. The 10-year-old me wanted the lines of stats, but I could have handled it better with a cartoon quiz or something like 1956. Fortunately Topps recognized this as a wrong turn and did not go back to the picture-on-the-back well until 1993.
Thank you to The Topps Company for granting me permission to use images of their cards in this series.
Next week: Beginning in 1959, Topps has named an All-Star rookie team, and for most of the years it honored the players on the next year’s set with a trophy on their card. This was always a fun Topps card feature.