The year 1969 is romanticized in American history, and why not? It was the year of the moon landing, the Beatles’ final studio recording (“Abbey Road”), Woodstock, the Amazin’ Mets, the underdog Jets, and well-documented civil and political unrest.
Jump to 1979 and the headlines weren’t nearly as huge. Similarly, there's a big gap — in terms of both appeal and value — between 1969 and 1979 baseball cards.
• Topps’ 1969 set is a collector favorite. It’s boasts more than 40 Hall of Famers on the checklist; among them are Mickey Mantle (his final player card) and Reggie Jackson (his first). It’s got Rollie Fingers’ rookie plus second-year cards of Tom Seaver and Johnny Bench. It’s has enticing inserts, plus multiple cards that come with errors or in variations.
• Topps’ 1979 set? By comparison, call it “humble.” It’s not nearly as loaded with high-value cards, and the only rookie attraction is Ozzie Smith.
Yet we love the treasure trove of 143 unopened 1979 rack packs that sold on eBay in March. The lot included five full retail boxes (24 sealed rack packs in each) and an almost-full sixth box (one missing pack). Final auction price: $20,000, or around $140 per rack pack.
With 39 cards in each rack pack, the buyer acquired 5,557 cards. Obviously, the big pull would be “The Wizard of Oz,” Hall of Famer Smith.
His rookie card can sell for more than $100,000 in Gem-Mint 10 condition. Of course, a “10” isn’t a given, even with long-sealed cards in packs. Printing defects (like off-centering) can result in an 8 or 9 grade. In Ozzie’s case, it might mean the difference between a six-figure card and something around $3,000 for a 9-grade example.
All that said, there are other worthy attractions besides Ozzie in the 1979 Topps set. Among them is a quartet of big-name catchers. At the head of the pack is Bench, arguably the all-time best backstop in baseball history. His 1979 card, ungraded, can be had for $10 or so. But slabbed with a Gem-Mint grade, it’s a different story. One PSA 10 example sold for $800 in March.
Similarly, a 1979 Carlton Fisk card graded PSA 10 sold for $835 on 32 bids. Gem-Mint Fisk cards also have sold for upwards of $1,000 in the recent past. Gary Carter’s 1979 card can sell in the same vicinity if in Gem-Mint condition.
While Bench, Fisk, and Carter are all in the Hall of Fame, Thurman Munson is not. Yet the circumstance of his 1979 card gives it an even higher value: It was his last player card. The plane crash that took Munson’s life was on Aug. 2, 1979, and amazingly, Topps neglected to dedicate a tribute card to the Yankee captain in 1980. Over the past few years, multiple Munson PSA 10-graded cards on eBay have sold for prices between $1,300 and $1,800.
Beyond that “fab four” of catchers, Topps’s 1979 set includes more than 30 other Hall of Famers. Among them are pitchers Nolan Ryan and Jim Palmer and sluggers George Brett, Reggie Jackson, Paul Molitor, Willie Stargell and Dave Winfield. The 1979 set is also the home of Eddie Murray’s second-year card. Among all of these HOFers, Ryan’s card generates the most value; it can sell for upwards of $5,000 if graded 10. The others, if Gem-Mint, land in the range of $1,300 to $2,500.
Clearly, the sum of the parts of the 1979 set should account for the $20,000 spent by the winning bidder. And one defect-free Ozzie Smith card that draws a 10 grade could be worth five times the purchase price — if the buyer elects to rip open those rack packs.
A VINTAGE SPIKE
Just outside our March Top 10 chart, multiple items account for a vintage slant. The group includes a killer outfield of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron, with Pete Rose in reserve.
• $32,922 on 85 bids: 1951 Bowman Willie Mays (PSA 6)
• $32,289 on 117 bids: 1961 Topps Mickey Mantle (PSA 9)
• $31,601 on 61 bids: 1954 Topps Hank Aaron (BVG 8)
• $25,100 on 61 bids: 1963 Topps Pete Rose (BVG 9)
The Mays, Aaron and Rose cards are all rookies. But the Mantle, interestingly, is not. Rather, it’s his 1961 Topps card — a top-condition (PSA 9) example.
As recently as 2019, 9-grade 1961 Mantles were selling on eBay for between $8,000-$10,000. So this realized auction price — nearly $33,000 — represents a fairly sudden spike.