By Doug Koztoski
It was late September 1973, the year that MLB introduced the controversial designated hitter, and just a few weeks before the Oakland A’s won the middle portion of three straight World Series crowns.
With 20 victories, including two via no-hitter, and tossing more than 300 innings thus far in 1973, California Angels fireballer Nolan Ryan’s right arm felt a little fatigued.
Going into the game at Anaheim Stadium that early autumn day, Ryan had notched 367 strikeouts, a healthy 16 Ks away from breaking the single-season strikeout mark set by the legendary Sandy Koufax in 1965.
But, really, what were the chances of eclipsing that record with the mountain’s summit still so far away under less than moderate conditions?
Before a home crowd of about 9,000, Ryan began his last start of the season against a solid Minnesota Twins team featuring Rod Carew, who won his second straight batting title in 1973, and slugger Harmon Killebrew, another future Hall of Famer. The Twins DH? Tony Oliva, with three batting titles. It was seemingly all uphill for The Ryan Express that day.
Giving up three runs in the first inning might have derailed some, but not Ryan. The right-hander settled down. The strikeouts mounted.
In the seventh inning with the score knotted at four, Ryan fanned the side, but still stood a lone “K” away from Koufax’s mark. He tied the record in the eighth, but otherwise not much else happened through the 10th inning. “Chugga-chugga,” progressed The Ryan Express. Finally, in the 11th inning, the Twins’ Rich Reese whiffed to end the frame. The halo had said hello to history and the record still stands.
Moments later, California scored to apply the icing on this angel food cake.
In 1973, Topps produced the last major baseball set of its era distributed by series. Also that season, the card maker put out a near 1-ounce tub of bubble gum with baseball player photos on the underside of the tops. Known as Candy Lids, the 1973 oddball set features 55 players of the time.
The search is on
No surprise that Ryan keys the collection. Slabbed mid-grade samples of the Hall of Famer have recently sold for around $175-$200.
“Usually when we break a set the Ryan, Willie Mays and Thurman Munson are among the first to go,” said Scott Cowan, general manager of Kit Young Cards. “But 99 percent of the lids we get are ungraded (commons or stars),” he noted. “The lids are popular with team collectors.”
Other stars in the set include Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks and Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Tom Seaver and Carl Yastrzemski. The last two players likewise appear on the lid tops as part of the advertising.
Cowan added, however, that the color bordered lids that measure about 2 inches in diameter suffer from limited appeal partly because the airbrushing of the logos from the players’ hats, likely a licensing issue, and centering problems.
“If you buy the average-condition set of the ’73 Topps test issue,” Cowan said, “about half of the group is off-center.”
Rob Lifson, owner of Robert Edward Auctions, recalled the ’73 lids debut.
“It was a bit more about the gum than the cards (lids),” Lifson said. “Little pieces of gum with a lot of hard sugar candy around it; they were like rocks.” He added the plastic tubs had a modest distribution. “I don’t think it was all that big a hit.”
But this somewhat ugly duckling eventually matured into more of a swan. The auction house owner said he likes the fact that the lids, all unnumbered, are unusual and relatively uncommon.
“They went from nothing to attaining a little bit of respect, and I think they deserve more,” said Lifson. “They are really scarce.”
Individual ’73 Candy Lids appear on eBay, for instance, on a regular basis, usually with about a couple dozen samples to choose from, many of them graded. But rarely does one ever find a sealed tub on the website, or elsewhere, for that matter.
Yet Steve Hart of the Baseball Card Exchange said they sell one or two tubs on occasion, for $200 apiece.
“Five or ten years ago,” Hart said, “they sold for $50 to $100 each.” But the dealer of vintage unopened sports cards said the ’73 Candy Lid containers also have some other drawbacks, too.
“They are tough to display and store, because of their size. It’s not like a normal pack that lays flat.” He noted that PSA and GAI have never encapsulated them, either.
The 1973 Candy Lid set qualifies not only as one of the era’s more out-of-the-ordinary offerings, but one that collectors have a reasonable chance of finding, whether it be for a type set, team collection or completing the entire run. But, much like Nolan Ryan in ’73, to attain some of the most impressive highlights from the issue it will likely take hard work, perseverance and perhaps a little help from some baseball angels.
Testing, testing, 1, 2…
Although they seem to appear mostly in “proof” form, Topps produced the same basic 55-piece Candy Lid set in 1972 as they did in 1973, except with a borderless design.
Extremely rare, the ’72 Candy Lids are often found with a healthy square or rectangular area around the actual item, having been hand-cut out of a production sheet, although these type examples are normally referred to as “uncut.”
Shortly before this article’s publication, eBay had chiefly the “uncut” versions of the ’72 lids, many priced in the $50-$100 range. One seller asked $149, or best offer, for a raw “tabbed” Amos Otis. A few PSA 9 “punched out” stars and semi-stars, meantime, had asking prices from $1,295 to $5,900 each. A PSA 8 1972 lid of Mike Marshall showed up for $900, OBO.
In 1970, Topps did a test run with 24 different candy lids, featuring borderless photos and logos on the player’s hats.
The 1970 Topps Lids are difficult to find. Lifson said 2004 was the last time Robert Edwards auctioned off one set – and that was coupled with the 1973 Candy Lid collection. Overall, that pair of sets, which averaged around Excellent condition, sold for about $1,800.
Heritage Auctions, in the meantime, did not have much with respect to 1972 lids in their auction result archives, but they did have some 2008 auction numbers on a handful of 1970 Topps Candy Lids. Six of the 1970 Lids were PSA 9s, with a Willie Davis as the most affordable at $335 and a Hank Aaron the most in that grade at $2,271. Of the eight PSA 10s, the lowest price was a Lou Pinella ($508); Yaz led the pack at $3,585.
As for some of the eBay listings of 1970 lids this summer, a few raw Excellent looking versions were available for sale/bid: Luis Aparicio ($95), Denny McLain ($150), Frank Howard ($199) and a Richie Allen for $799, OBO.
At press time the PSA Population Report numbers on the lids, a decent barometer of the issues’ availability, unfolded as follows: 1970 (85), 1972 (68) and 1973 (1,264).
Doug Koztoski welcomes comments or questions on this article at email@example.com.