Imagine trying to outmaneuver a grizzly bear while balancing on ice skates. That’s kind of what the USA Hockey team did in the 1980 Winter Olympics when they went ahead 4-3 in a medal round game against the heavily favored Soviet Union squad.
The memorable fourth goal came off the stick of U.S. team captain and left winger Mike Eruzione.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, TV announcer Al Michaels uttered some of the most famous words in sports broadcast history: “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” And with that the USA team celebrated the victory known as the “Miracle on Ice.”
In 1999 Sports Illustrated named the “Miracle” as the top sports moment of the 20th century. The USA Hockey team later beat Finland for the 1980 gold medal, but that game (and outcome) seemed anti-climactic for many fans after stunning the Soviets.
Who knows what, if any, “miracles” will take place in the 2022 Winter Olympics, which kick off in Beijing, China on Feb. 4, but a few trading cards will likely be made to celebrate some of the action.
Olympic trading cards have a limited place in the sports memorabilia hobby, but a few of them stem from the “Miracle,” including some in the 1980 Topps Hockey issue and the 1991 Impel brand set. Of the actual 1980 Olympics US Hockey game action, the 1991 Impel issue wins the battle between those offerings.
Perhaps most notably in the “Miracle” grouping is a handful of 1983-84 collections with Eruzione in sets known as Greatest Olympians (one version with the Olympic rings logo in the upper left-hand corner, the other with a “Stars in Motion” design in that same spot) and Olympic Heroes (available in an M&M’s mail-in offer). Sometimes goaltender Jim Craig, also a huge part of the 1980 US Hockey team’s success, appears in those sets.
The 1983 M&M’s issue, much like the Greatest Olympians sets, also gives collectors a wide range of Olympic standouts, among them Babe Didrikson, Bruce Jenner, Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Jim Thorpe and, from the 1960 U.S. class, one Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali). Many of the cards in the M&M’s set commonly sell for $5-7 in raw and near-mint condition, while the Clay card in similar shape has recently sold in the $22-49 range. Meanwhile, a PSA 10 of Jenner, the 1976 decathlon champ, from the issue snagged $170 in a late 2021 auction.
In that same era, one of the most popular baseball cards with Olympic ties comes from the 1985 Topps issue: Mark McGwire. The former slugger still generates some pop as a few PSA 10 samples of that card sold in 2021 in the range of $2,200 to $3,500 each.
THE DREAM TEAM
But the main draw of the period in our international spotlight originates from the 1984-85 Star Company hoops Olympic subset: Michael Jordan. One collector warned about encountering counterfeits of this Jordan card, so doing your homework to dodge the fakes is key, but there are some real graded samples on the market, with BGS being the slabs one would normally see them in. Expect a price tag north of $700 for even a BGS 6 version of this card.
A couple of Summer Olympics after his mid-80s appearance Michael Jordan returned to the international arena with a few high-profile friends, including Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, to shore up the “Dream Team.” That basketball squad, like in 1984, also delivered gold. The 1991-92 NBA Hoops and Skybox sets of the “Dream Team” still command much collector interest. High-grade examples of those cards easily bring hundreds of dollars.
Logan Ward owns Olympic cards from several eras, a blend of athletes he admires and even a few legendary Olympic broadcasters. “Some are current athletes, some from my childhood (1960s-70s) and some are of the legendary competitors before my time,” Ward said.
One of his prime cards in this grouping: a PSA 10 of the Topps 2012 USA Olympics card of swimming legend Michael Phelps.
“It is from the 2012 Topps U.S. Olympic Team set. I wanted to have a PSA-graded copy of his card since he was the one that broke Mark Spitz’s record of seven Gold medals (in 1972), winning eight Gold medals in Beijing in 2008,” Ward said.
A Spitz card from the 1977-79 Sportscaster issue also lives in Ward’s collection, as does a 1939 British (Churchman’s) tobacco card of sprinter Jesse Owens, who starred at the 1936 Games in Berlin.
Ward noted that Olympic cards of athletes in various sports have experienced blossoming interest, including Owens, since the COVID pandemic hit.
“I would say his popularity has surged at least tenfold in the last 18 months,” Ward said.
Jim Bingaman, a leading Owens collector on the PSA Set Registry, registers a virtual photo finish of that philosophy.
“If you look at the prices some of the early Owens cards have been fetching, in my opinion, Olympic cards are finally starting to take off,” said Bingaman, who attributed some of the swell to “more collectors looking for cards of their favorite Olympic athlete.”
Whether they are from 1936 or soon after, some Owens pasteboards easily snatch sale prices of hundreds of dollars—and often in the thousands if in high grade and slabbed. Among those are the “Champions of 1936” British tobacco cards put out by Ogden’s as well as Hignett Brothers.
Shortly before Owens and his U.S. Track teammates made history, the 1933 Goudey Sports Kings offering included a couple of cards with tremendous collector interest that encompass an Olympic connection: Jim Thorpe and Babe Didrikson.
Both of those 1933 cards mention the athlete’s Olympic history, although each later made a bigger name for themselves in other sports: Thorpe (football) and Didrikson (golf). The Didrikson card landing in the rare high-numbered series also increases its value. Each of those cards from the classic Sports Kings set commonly sell for several hundreds of dollars apiece, even in poor and raw condition.
SETTING THE BAR HIGH
In the vintage Olympic trading cards discussion, one has to include the T218 collection, which represents several sports and debuted in 1910.
“The T218 set is considered by most as the first true ‘Olympic set’ because so many of the athletes participated in the 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912 Olympic Games,” collector Jeff Copeland said.
Copeland fell in love with this tobacco issue “at first sight” in the early 1980s. “It’s a beautiful set and a good challenge (due to hundreds of variations),” he said. Many T218s in average shape and unslabbed can be found in the $8-15 range.
Two of Copeland’s favorite Olympians in the T218s are Harry Porter and Ray Ewry. The hobbyist finds the Porter one of the most captivating cards in the offering “showing Harry leaping over the bar while doing the running high jump.” In that event in 1908 Porter parked himself at the podium’s pinnacle.
Copeland noted that Ewry, another “jumper,” was one of the most successful Olympic athletes of all time. He won eight gold medals in three standing events — high jump, long jump and triple jump — across the 1900, 1904 and 1908 games, a record that stood for decades.
“The really interesting part about Ewry is he had polio as a kid and was in a wheelchair until almost a teenager,” Copeland said. “Through pure determination he worked himself into shape and became one of the best Olympic stars ever.” Overcoming those obstacles, many would say, certainly qualifies Ewry as another Olympic “miracle.”
— Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org