Opening the envelope in late 1972, the young collector expected an updated pricelist or maybe a holiday special on some cards from the mail-order dealer he had bought from over the years.
Instead, Clay Hill stared at the flyer in disbelief. "It was a notice announcing the third series of 1972 Topps Football cards and they wanted $8 to $10 for one series. "It (ahem) ticked off my friends and I. And I remember buying what I thought was the complete set of 263 cards (the first two series) for $8 or so."
"The third series (which he bought-begrudgingly) in '72 caught a lot of dealers and collectors by surprise." added Hill, who has worked for SportsCards Plus in Southern California for several years. "The '72 Football set was very popular when it was issued and there is still strong demand for it."
Ah, the 1972 Topps gridiron offering. The surprises did not start with the third series; actually it was quite the opposite.
In fact, the first card in the set, the AFC Rushing Leaders, came as a bit of a surprise to collectors. It began a run of eight cards featuring the top players in key offensive categories (also passing, receiving and scoring) from the previous season. A football set had never included leader cards; their baseball brethren had done it since 1961.
Maybe as a kind of foreshadowing, the first "regular" card in the set pictured a player, running back Jim Kiick, from the team of the year, Miami. His card back shared this line with collectors: "The Dolphins backfield of Jim and Larry Csonka fumbled only once during (the) 1971 regular season."
The duos' efforts helped the 1972 team to a perfect 17-0 record for the season. No one has had an undefeated NFL campaign before or since.
Another "first" from the '72 collection, the last of the vintage sets issued by series, was the inclusion of several postseason play cards from 1971, with an excellent Super Bowl shot of a scrambling Cowboys QB Roger Staubach.
Yet one more innovation for the '72's was their version of the baseball "In Action" cards, called "Pro Action" in this set. The only real problem with the "Pro Action" cards - or any of the non-posed/helmet wearing shots in the set - is that the helmet logos were air-brushed out. It's a good guess it was a money/licensing issue with the NFL that kept the logos from appearing on the cards.
Close-up poses of one kind or another make up the bulk of the pictures of the individual players in this very colorful issue. Topps did a real nice job of mixing it up in '72 football with both vertical and horizontal format cards by about a 3-to-1 ratio.
A player bio, stats and a cartoon relating to the featured athlete make up most of the card backs, which are easy to read with a color scheme of blue and green on gray stock.
The '72 Topps issue is a solid one for rookies with Roger Staubach ($200), and John Riggins and Charlie Joiner ($25 each) leading the way in the first two series. Archie Manning, the father of quarterbacks Eli and Peyton, also debuts in this set ($20).
The best "low-number" second-year card in the bunch is Terry Bradshaw's ($25). All prices listed in this article are for near-mint condition unslabbed or "raw" cards; professionally graded cards in the same condition often carry much higher prices.
Stars of the day: Joe Namath ($40), Gale Sayers, Johnny Unitas, Fran Tarkenton, Dick Butkus, and "in action" cards of Staubach and Bradshaw round out the highlights of Series 1 and 2. Low-number commons list for 50 and 75 cents, respectively.
With only 88 cards (264-351), the third series from 1972 is noticeably smaller than the other two series that year. Apparently, Topps was a bit behind schedule in producing that final series and had extremely limited distribution to areas in California, New York and Milwaukee (Packers country). Couple that with last series vintage sets having smaller production runs and you have yourself a relatively rare series of cards. High-number commons start at $20 apiece.
Vintage cards are known for miscuts and the '72 high numbers are no exception.
"Good centering on those high numbers is particularly difficult to find and if you can get some in top condition and get a grade of PSA 9 or 10 you really have a rare card," emphasized Andrew Caparelli from B & E Collectibles in New York.
Larry Fritsch estimated the miscuts in Series 3 to be "around 10 percent." The Wisconsin dealer with more than 35 years of experience ought to have a good idea on this subject since he has most likely dealt with more 1972 high numbers than anyone.
Fritsch bought "something like 50 wax cases," 15 boxes per, in late '72 from a Milwaukee-area Topps sales rep who had some leftover stock. Fritsch paid "roughly $5 a case, "the freight cost" for the third-series cards.
Nowadays, one unopened pack from that final series lists for around $300, a 24-count wax box about $6,300. "And there's very heavy demand for those packs," said the veteran dealer.
Regular star cards in the high series are limited to a handful but include Alan Page and Jim Marshall of the Vikings and Charley Taylor of Washington.
Leading the rookie class in the high series is 1966 Heisman Trophy winner and later pro and college coach Steve Spurrier ($60 regular, $40 "Pro Action").
As you might expect, due to its scarcity, the '72 third series contains the key to the set, Namath's "Pro Action" card ($250). Nearly one-quarter of the high-number '72's are Hall of Famers; many of them are in the "Pro Action" or "All-Pro" subsets. The only other final series card to crack the "century" mark, however, is the checklist ($100).
Those voted All-Pro for their 1971 efforts start off the third series. Not only are these distinctive because they are like baseball "All-Star" cards that had been around for many years, and another "first" for this set, but their design jumps out at you. The "All-Pro" cards feature the player in a crisp portrait photo in what looks like an old-style "frame" that could have been on the front of older dollar bills.
Over half of the 24 "All-Pro" cards are Hall of Famers including Larry Little, Paul Warfield and Bob Griese ($75) of Miami. Another Dolphin swimming in this subset of all stars is kicker Garo Yepremian.
Yepremian is mostly remembered for having one of his kicks blocked in the Super Bowl win over Washington during the perfect season. After the block he tried to grab the ball and pass it but he lost his grip on the pigskin and then awkwardly batted it skyward, almost like trying to set up a spike in volleyball and the Redskins Mike Bass snatched it out of the air and ran the ball back for Washington's only score of the day.
People often forget that Yepremian kicked the game-winning field goal, in double overtime, to beat the Chiefs in the 1971 AFC Semifinal contest, still, at some 82 minutes, the longest game in NFL history.
The exclusion of an insert set keeps the '72 Topps football issue from being "perfect." Other than the 1963 football issue, the '72s are the only gridiron packs from 1960-74, the heyday of vintage wax pack inserts, that Topps didn't include at least some sort of bonus.
Booking at $2,300, the 1972 set is by far the most valuable of the '70's football offerings. The only other Topps gridiron issues to eclipse it: 1965 ($3,800), 1955 All-Americans ($3,500) and 1957 ($2,400).
"People know the '72 Topps football set is scarce so they pick it up for that reason," said Caparelli. "They also buy it to complete their run of vintage sets."
With all its twists and turns the 1972 football collection is one of the most interesting Topps ever produced. And when it comes to a group of high numbers at a good price, who knows? Maybe, in its own way, you'll get lucky like Mike Bass and one will unexpectedly pop up that you can run with.
Sorry Garo, I couldn't resist.