By T.S. O’Connell
Imagine a vintage baseball card set with a boatload of relatively pedestrian photos, no major rookie cards to speak of and a curious design element that can make putting together a Near-Mint complete set a semi-complete pain in the neck. Sounds like a clunker, but, as they say, looks can be deceiving.
With its pesky wood-grain borders and a nice burst of photo variations in the star-crossed second series, plus the famed “Green Tint” mutations from that same print run, and you end up with an issue that’s been genuinely popular with old-time collectors for many of those very same reasons, pro and con.
Come to think of it, you might suppose pursuing the set would be popular with a woodworking aficionado because of all of the different shades and configurations of those wood-grain borders, not even counting the Green Tint thingys.
As had been the case a year earlier, baseball was in the middle of another expansion, this time with two new teams being added to the Senior Circuit: the New York Mets and the Houston Colts .45s. As they did throughout the 1960s and even more noticeably in expansion years, the Topps designers retreated to the default position of either portraying a player with an airbrushed cap to obliterate the offending team logo or with no cap on at all.
Trying to pick one or the other alternative as being less obnoxious is not unlike indicating a preference between lima beans and cauliflower. Sure, you can draw a distinction, but why bother?
Seemingly half the issue is saddled with this problem in either configuration, a lamentable situation that might have signalled the death knell, except for future generations of serious hobbyists there were other priorities.
Like chasing interesting variations. The story goes that Topps officials, perhaps seeing something in early sales in the spring of 1962 that made them want to increase the print run for Series Two, decided to do the additional printing at a plant in Upstate New York.
The idea was apparently not to unduly burden the Zabel Brothers plant near Philadelphia where Topps cards were printed at the time (production would move to Duryea, Pa., three years later). Reportedly, the plates got damaged in transit, a number of cards in that series got thoroughly bollixed up, if we may use a technical term, and the whole run ended up with a truly bizarre green tint.
Needless to say, the printing of subsequent series returned to Zabel, but the hobby ended up with the oddity of an entire series being produced with variations available across the board. Still, it’s doubtful anyone would put together a complete set with all of the green tints, though many obviously try to complete with the more conventional variations.
In the second series, where most of the mischief occurs, that means two different cards of Lee Walls (known as pinstriped or plain jersey, but also two different portraits), two versions of the Angels team card, the Series Three checklist card and capless versions of the cards for Wally Moon and Carlton Willey.
But the most notable merry mixup came with card No. 139, with four distinct versions of what presumably started out as the “Babe Hits 60” card in the Babe Ruth subset that was included as a nod to the guy whose record had been broken amid great controversy the year before.
It’s perhaps unfair to suggest that this was a genuflection to then Commissioner Ford Frick, even though the timing is certainly suspicious. Frick, a former sportswriter who had been Babe Ruth’s ghostwriter and all-around publicity hack, launched a decades-long controversy late in the 1961 season when he announced that the home run records would be listed separately for the 154-game and 162-game seasons, a move that technically left Ruth’s record on the books.
Lore and legend morphed that pronouncement into a kind of apocryphal asterisk; the whole concept got propelled back into the headlines in 1998 and again in 2001 by Messers McGwire, Sosa and Bonds.
Regardless of the motivation, the 10-card “Babe Ruth Special” subset was a neat touch, starting a tradition of honoring record-breaking moments that would resurface a dozen years later when Henry Aaron passed Ruth’s all-time home run mark of 714.
And the Ruth subset is also part of the variation mischief, with card No. 139 “Babe Hits 60” being the champion of the corrected cards in the issue with four different versions. There are two versions of the actual Ruth card, one with a pole showing on the left-hand side and one without, and as a bonus, two different Hal Reniff cards that carry the same No. 139. One is a portrait and the other a pitching pose.
For those of you keeping score at home, the 2010 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards lists the “Pole in Background” on the Ruth card as the most expensive; all four cards might set you back $150 or so in top (unslabbed) grades. Reniff’s actual card, No. 159 on the checklist, lists for about $4.
While the Ruth subset proved to be more popular with the passage of time, the other innovation from 1962, the multi-player rookie card monstrosity, would not be so highly revered.
Admittedly, individual rookie cards in that format would flourish assuming the player(s) involved were important enough (Pete Rose in 1963 would be the prime example), but artistically these things weaved back and forth between noxious and grotesque. Not only did 1962 usher in this tedious genre, it also pioneered the “floating heads” depiction of players’ seemingly disembodied visages, this time against a yellow background.
It’s one thing to treat untested rookies in this fashion, but the severed heads also were used in the 10-card League Leaders subset in the first series. That meant the likes of Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, among others, got the rude treatment. For whatever reason, the RBI leaders didn’t make the cut for Topps from 1961-63, meaning Jim Gentile was spared the indignity. Orlando Cepeda would have escaped as well, except he was also the home run champion and thus was featured on card No. 54.
The rookie lineup in 1962 was interesting if not particularly distinguished. Quite properly relegated to the final eight cards in a record-sized 598-card issue (more if you dabble or immerse yourself in variations), the Rookie Parade features a lot of notable names – Sam McDowell, Bob Uecker, Joe Pepitone, Phil Linz, etc. – but not a Hall of Famer in the group.
There are two Hall of Fame rookie cards in the issue – and a third is virtually a sure thing – but these are individual cards. No. 199 Gaylord Perry and No. 387 Lou Brock ended up with kind of crudely rendered flexichromes; Joe Torre, No. 218, ends up with the most aesthetically pleasing pasteboard, just as he will ultimately end up with a plaque in Cooperstown.
A master set like no other
No less of an authority than Chris Porter of Chris Porter Sports Collectibles in Traverse City, Mich., is a fan, sort of, likening the condition-sensitive issue to others of its era in collectibility, if not aesthetics.
“Putting together a master set of 1962 Topps would be a real accomplishment,” Porter said. He describes the issue as intriguing because of all the variations and even the differences in the wood-grain color through the various series. As would be the case sometimes in Topps 1960s high series, there’s also a frequently noticeable improvement in the photographic quality and even card-stock gloss in the final series.
“The wood grain in 1962 Topps makes it really difficult to find cards that are truly Mint,” Porter continued. “There is no other set with such extensive variations, the Rookie Parade and short-printed high numbers add to the collectibility.”
Even with that glowing recommendation, there is, drum roll, please ... still a but. “But it’s not a loved set,” said Porter, “not a good-looking set.”
Which is not to say there are no good-looking cards within the issue. It’s not a bad descriptor to note how many cards in an issue might represent the best card a particular player ever had, a qualifier that is even more impressive when applied to Hall of Famers and All-Stars who might have had dozens of career-contemporary cards. Roger Maris’ 1962 card is arguably the nicest card of his great career. It also doesn’t hurt that it was the No. 1 card in the set – almost always a vitally important distinction – but that obviously doesn’t have any particular impact on how attractive a card might be.
“The Maris card is really difficult,” Porter volunteered. “You don’t see it offered that routinely; the Yankees collectors seem to have snatched it up and stowed it away. It should sell for even more than it does; it should be even more revered.”
Porter, who has handled a staggering number of vintage cards in his current business and in a previous stints with Superior Auctions, Lelands.com and Mastro Auctions, offers a view of the high numbers in 1962 that is arguably slightly outside of conventional wisdom. “People just assume the high numbers are tough, but sometimes the second, third and fourth series cards can be tougher to find in the highest grades,” he continued. “There is no shortage of the high numbers.”
Another well-known hobby figure, Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen, concurs in that non-traditional view of the 1962 high series, which includes about three dozen numbers that are shortprinted within the 523-598 section. “The high numbers are not as rare as many people think, and they often come in a nice, dark-brown and shiny card when they are found in high-quality bricks.”
Steve Hart of Baseball Card Exchange in Lynnwood, Ill., offers that finding high-quality bricks can be an iffy proposition, since the unopened-pack dealer notes that he has never seen a vending box and rarely sees unopened wax packs.
“There was a cello find about two years, with most of the boxes from the coveted first series,” said Hart. “We had eight cello boxes and sold most of them for $35,000-$40,000 per box.”
And a final note about the legendary “Green Tints.” Rosen also has an unconventional viewpoint about those, and he doesn’t mince words in describing them. “The Green Tint variations are a waste of money, ugly and disgusting and nobody cares,” he said emphatically.
See what we were talking about? No love.