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A look at the last wave of ‘modern era’ vintage Topps baseball card subsets

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In the July 17 issue of Sports Collectors Digest, we looked at the first wave of “modern era” mainstream vintage Topps baseball card subsets, a period from 1958 through 1968. Now we roll the focus ring toward the second and last wave of this chunk of hobby time, 1969 to 1980. As a refresher, subsets for our purposes are consecutively numbered blocks of cards with a “theme” appearing in a regular issue.

Like several ‘60s baseball issues, the 1969 set started its cardboard cavalcade with League Leaders. As 1968 was often referred to as “The Year of The Pitcher,” with Denny McLain’s 31 victories for the Detroit Tigers and Bob Gibson’s phenomenal 1.12 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals, those hurlers dominate the moundsmen stat toppers early in the ’69 issue. In fact, those two pitchers met in the ’68 World Series, with the Tigers rallying from a three-games-to-one deficit to win the crown.

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For the hitters in this group, Carl Yastrzemski, Pete Rose, Willie McCovey and Ernie Banks garnered much of the leaders’ spotlight. Many of those players also appear in the 1969 All-Star subset with Rose and Johnny Bench grabbing great attention. Gibson’s 17-strikeout performance in Game 1 of the Series, meanwhile, earned him a starring role in the first 1968 Fall Classic card. “World Series cards (of any vintage year) are always popular,” said Dave Levin of Dave’s Vintage Baseball Cards (gfg.com). “It is hard for me to keep them in stock.”

McLain and Gibson registered big years in 1969 to log league leader time in the 1970 set, as well, as did Rose, McCovey, Roberto Clemente and, for the first time, Reggie Jackson, who appeared among the top AL Home Run and RBI producers.

The 1970 All-Star subset brings 10 Hall of Famers, but the National League Championship Series coverage also deserves solid recognition as New York Mets pitchers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan each receive their own card. “The leader and All-Star cards are great cards,” Levin said, “but for the most part, the ones from this era (as opposed to the early to mid-‘60s) do not generate a huge demand.”

For 1971 Topps thinned its subsets to league leaders and postseason coverage. Likely the most unusual image of Topps World Series cards takes place on the ’71 Topps card from Game 5: (Brooks) “B. Robinson Commits Robbery!” The great third baseman appears to be crawling alone through a desert in this distant shot. Is he looking for a canteen; the photog’s long lens?

Heightened Action

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In terms of quantity, the 1972 Topps issue brought much to the table. In addition to league leaders and postseason play, the company also included some new looks: Boyhood Photos of current players; a few cards in the final series stamped “TRADED” to show the new teams the athletes moved to that season (including eventual Hall of Famers Steve Carlton, Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson); plus, all six card series featured some “In-action” photos where the players’ regular card directly preceded his “action” shot, with many stars throughout. OK, technically not a subset by our definition, but the “In-action” cards are close enough to gain recognition.

Key highlights for 1973 included “All-Time” leaders, where surnames such as Cobb, Gehrig and Ruth are joined by the newest member: Hank Aaron, the Total Base king. The 1973 Rookie Stars subset is all high numbers, the last vintage year Topps distributed cards by series, including budding superstar/Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt.

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For 1974 the story on many baseball fans’ minds revolved around Aaron’s pursuit of beating Babe Ruth’s career home run record. Early in the season, the Atlanta Braves slugger came through; before the season, Topps took a bit of a gamble (albeit very slight) and had Aaron labeled the “New All-Time Home Run King” as the set-starter. The next five cards, meanwhile, were marked “Hank Aaron Special,” highlighting the hitter’s main Topps cards. “They don’t fly off the shelves,” Levin said, but he noted the Aaron “Specials” are, in his opinion, “hugely undervalued.”

In a 1975 “Highlights” subset set-starter, Aaron begins the seven-card run that also shows Gibson, Lou Brock and Al Kaline, while Nolan Ryan appears twice. This same season Topps celebrated its 25 anniversary of card making with an MVP subset that, wherever possible, depicted the company’s card of each league’s MVP from every year 1951-1974.

Aaron also kickstarted the 1976 issue, this time in a “Record Breaker” subset, but overall a generally more in-demand grouping for the Bicentennial year takes place about midway and delivers an “All-Time” roster highlighted by Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb and Ted Williams.

The next few seasons, the Topps subset presence diminished, but a couple items stand out.

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With a “Turn Back The Clock” section in 1977, the card maker jumped back five times in five-year increments to spotlight certain accomplishments; Yaz’s 1967 Triple Crown feat sparks the most collector interest. But perhaps the most interesting “TBTC” card focuses on 1957, where Topps recognized Chicago White Sox hurler Bob Keegan pitching the year’s only MLB no-hitter. Keegan was friends with Topps card guru Sy Berger since their college days at Bucknell University—and that likely made a difference in Keegan getting the nod in this time-travel moment as Berger still worked at Topps in 1977.

In 1978 the set-starting “Record Breaker” group included such superstars as Rose, Ryan and Reggie Jackson. The following season the “All-Time” leaders in several categories, both season and career, crossed many generations and included some of the players still active in 1979. Lou Brock appeared twice on the Stolen Bases card.

Sunset for Vintage Subsets

Collectors unwrapped the last of the “modern-era” subsets in 1980. Nolan Ryan appears as the AL strikeout league leader; no huge names career-wise dot the future stars near the issue’s end; but the offering begins with six “Highlights.” From the “Highlights,” we get four superstars on three cards: Rose and McCovey have their own, and, due to both joining the 3,000-hit club in 1979, Brock and Yastrzemski share the set-starter.

It seems fitting that McCovey and Yaz helped round out the vintage subset discussion, as each played their prime years during the entire period of when these blocks of cards appeared—and both athletes showed up among early Topps subsets, including among the rookie star groups in the 1960 Topps issue. Those players, and many others, gave baseball card hobbyists something extra to look forward to on multiple occasions over a strong MLB era, just like these older subsets.

Doug Koztoski is a frequent SCD contributor. He can be reached at dkoz3000@gmail.com.

Auction action on subsets

Here are some recent prices realized for Topps baseball subsets 1969-1980. All prices, rounded to the nearest dollar, include shipping.

Raw

1973 NL Rookie Third Basemen/Schmidt (NM) $675

1972 Clemente “In-action” (NM) $29

1975 ’74 Highlights, Kaline/3,000 hits (NM) $23

1970 NL RBI Leaders (1971 Topps, w/Bench/Perez/B. Williams) (NM) $21

1969 Bench All-Star (EX) $12

1980 Brock and Yaz/3,000 hits (NM) $2

Graded

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1971 ‘70 World Series Game 5, “B. Robinson Commits Robbery! (PSA 9) $303

1974 Hank Aaron Special (showing 1954-57 cards) (PSA 9) $121

1970 Ryan Saves the Day! (PSA 8) $86

1969 ’68 World Series Game 1, “Gibson Fans 17” (PSA 8) $79

1976 All-Time All-Stars (Ruth) BVG 7/NM $30

1972 Steve Carlton “TRADED” (PSA 6) $22