Distinctive in its own way, kind of like George Harrison’s memorable opening guitar chord from The Beatles’ tune “A Hard Day’s Night,” those who know some Topps vintage inserts history probably immediately recognize the sound of their baseball coins when they clink against something.
The fact that The Beatles hit U.S. soil in 1964, including their iconic “Hard Day’s” flick, and Topps gave baseball collectors a big shift from the previous three years of pack inserts (rub-offs/tattoos, stamps or peel-offs) with its initial metal coins offering remains a happy coincidence.
Jon Leonoudakis experienced the arrival of The Fab Four and the then fresh 1964 sports cards and pack premiums as it all happened, and for him the coin set remains among “the greatest Topps’ inserts of all time.” Those 1-1/2” diameter coins resonate with Leonoudakis in his heart and ears. “They meant a lot to me in my childhood because they represented the moment in time when Topps baseball cards in general were introduced to me by my older brothers,” said the baseball historian and filmmaker.
“And I remember when the coins fell on the floor they made a really unique sound, so much so that it had sort of a Pavlovian effect on me later in life when I heard some fall on the floor I said: “Oh, wow, that takes me back to 1964.”
Leonoudakis’ sports film producer/director credits include “Hano! A Century in the Bleachers,” and the Amazon Prime streaming series “The Sweet Spot: A Treasury of Baseball Stories.”
While talking with the hobbyist by phone he thumbed through his full collection of the 164 coins; well, complete in the respect that he owns them all except the Wayne Causey and Chuck Hinton All Star variations, where Topps inadvertently printed some with the wrong league affiliation (National League) but also produced the correct version.
Leonoudakis’ ’64 coins are all in raw shape, never close to the shadow of encapsulation. “I consider myself a possession collector, meaning I don’t really care that much about condition, I just want to have it,” he noted. “Once I completed the set I didn’t do any further enhancements.”
Hors d’oeuvre or Orsino?
Ah yes, completing the set and continuing to enjoy it equals adventure for the collector. Several years ago, after a decades break from collecting, he only had a coin or two left over from his brothers, the Frank Howard disc the sole exception, he recalled. “I had to build everything from there.” And construct he did, mainly through eBay auctions, but in the process, he compiled a stash of extras that came into play, and not just clinking around in a box or bag.
“The doubles of the coins I have are very special to me, because I’ll take them to various baseball functions and if I meet a new friend or see an old friend I will give them a coin as a goodwill gesture, a conversation jumping-off point.”
On one such occasion Leonoudakis shared a coin with a friend at a baseball conference, leading to a fun chain of unforeseen events. “He said a friend in his apartment building has a whole bunch of them and might have some extras that he’ll just give you.” And sure enough, in this collector’s coin karma universe the contact came through. “I told him which ones I needed (that he had) and he sent them to me. He was very generous.”
The hobbyist owned much of the insert set at that point, but the one that eluded his grasp until 2014, the one metallic morsel that stood between Leonoudakis and 100 percent of the offering made his mark in a Detroit Tigers uniform: coin #100, outfielder and future Hall of Famer Al Kaline.
“Kaline is a big favorite because it brought the hunt to a close, it took me forever to find that coin, I finally found a good deal on one in very nice condition on eBay.” Another “regular” coin in the issue that the collector places atop his cherished list: childhood favorite Willie Mays.
Among others in the set he likes: the All Stars (#s 121-164) of Ken Boyer, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax and the two Mickey Mantles (one from each side of the plate). One thing rings true with this insert offering: if the player was an MLB star or semi-star in 1964 he normally has a chair within this symphony of metal.
A Cornucopia of Coin Choices
Unless someone searches for ultra high-grade samples, the coins in “raw” or graded fashion readily exist. Currently about 16,000 of these inserts live in PSA holders, up from around 9,300 nearly a decade ago, with a couple handfuls earning PSA 10 status.
The issue exhibits strong interest on the PSA Set Registry where the first eight slots, for instance, deliver almost all complete high-grade collections.
Raw or slabbed, Leonoudakis and other “seamheads” gravitate, on occasion, toward the insert issue like bleacher bums scrambling for a home run ball. “They are sort of well known amongst baseball geek friends of mine, ages 40-65, and I think they are prized because they were rendered so well, especially the printing and registration of the images on the All Star coins, those are striking, the graphic design was just superb and they were so vivid and it really stands out.” As a “practical object” he emphasized the colorful coins “pack a ton of value.”
And for the California-based collector that means multiple levels of value. “The most important part of these coins was reclaiming my childhood. It was a very special summer and when I touch these coins it’s kind of like Christopher Reeve in the (1980) movie “Somewhere in Time,” when he touches the period coins from a certain era and sort of transports back, that’s kind of the feeling I get.”
Maybe someday you will meet Leonoudakis and he will give you a ’64 coin, perhaps a few will come your way by other means, unexpected or not. In any case, the experience could just send you back to the mid-1960s. And as The Beatles, and Leonoudakis, might describe the era: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahhhhh!”
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org