1968 Topps Baseball set provided more than just cards of individual ball players

By Larry Canale

On the national scene, 1968 was a crazy year, filled with tragedy (the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy), chaos (a wild riot at the Democratic Convention), and creation (that was the year of the Beatles’ classic single “Hey Jude” and brilliant two-record set known as “The White Album”).

Card collectors found respite in Topps’s most unique-looking baseball set up to that point. The brown “burlap” borders on 1968 Topps cards gave them a comfortable, textured look. How could you not get a good feeling when you looked at, for example, #490 in the set: “Super Stars.” It features sluggers Harmon Killebrew, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle in a candid shot apparently taken during All-Star Game festivities.

In those pre-Tweet, pre-internet, pre-cable TV days, fans had minimal views, compared to today, of the game’s stars. Newspapers, magazines, fuzzy pictures on black-and-white (or, increasingly) color TVs were the normal ways to get a look at your favorite players. So a baseball card like this one gave us a rare view of a trio of stars mingling in a relaxed setting.   

The reverse of the card, in reciting the exploits of Killebrew, Mays and Mantle, notes that the “powerful trio has blasted 1,462 home runs during their careers.” By the time they were done, the three Hall of Famers would combine for 1,769 homers—660 for Mays, 573 for Killebrew and 536 for Mantle.

You can pick up this friendly card for $75 to $150 for an ungraded example in nice condition, or even for one that’s been graded 6 or 7. An 8 or 9 grade can be had for under $500. You want a perfect 10? It’s rare, but we saw just such an example sell during the summer when PWCC listed one on eBay and drew $5,300 on 43 bids.

OL’ SATCH

Looking for a sweet add to your baseball card stash? Go back in time 70 years and find a Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige card—his 1948 Leaf bubblegum card. The front features a colorized photo of a smiling Satch casting a downward grin against a yellow background. The back calls Paige the “most picturesque player in baseball,” an attraction who has “fabulous gate-appeal and high-powered talent to match.” The card also rattles off his profile: 6 feet 3.5 inches tall, 180 pounds, a right-handed pitcher and hitter. And even though 1948 was only his first year in the majors, Satch was already 40 years old. (Remember that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier only one season earlier.) Paige’s Leaf card, issued at the conclusion of the season, made note of his stellar season: a 6-1 record with a 2.48 ERA for the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians.

Paige would pitch one more season for Cleveland and then three for the St. Louis Browns, retiring after 1953 at age 46 with stats (a 28-31 record) that belied his impact. Oh—and at 59, he came out of retirement to pitch in one game for the Kansas City Athletics. He pitched three shutout innings against the Red Sox in that game, allowing only one hit—to future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski. (Neat factoid: Yaz had seen Paige pitch against his father “a generation earlier” in a semi-pro game on Long Island, according to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, Paige’s day would come in 1971, when he took his rightful place in Cooperstown, the first vintage Negro Leaguer to be inducted.

Back to that 1948 Leaf card of Satch: We saw one sell on eBay in August for $31,634, despite a grade of PSA 3.5.

Want examples of more budget-friendly vintage Paige items? Consider these selling prices of items sold recently on eBay:

• $4,750 for a 1949 Bowman card graded SGC 88. Another example graded PSA 7 sold for $2,976.

• $1,381 for a 1953 Topps graded PSA 6.

• $650 for a Paige-signed 8 by 10 photo with Beckett certification. Two other Paige-signed photos sold recently for $553 and $500, both authenticated by PSA.

PRINCE ALBERT

Speaking of Willie Mays’ 660 homers (see first item), and with a certain Satchel Paige quote in mind (“Don’t look back—something might be gaining on you…”) let’s talk Albert Pujols. The L.A. Angels’ slugging first baseman got off to a slow start this season but heated up with the weather. The 38-year-old hit only seven homers through May, but has since hit another 12 (and counting). That gives him 19 on the season and 633 in his career—only 27 behind the “Say-Hey” Kid.

A hot item for collectors of Pujols and home-run hitters in general: his 2001 Bowman Chrome autographed rookie card. Issued in an edition of 500, the card can draw several thousand dollars if in top condition. One PSA 9 example listed on eBay in July sold for $6,700 on 29 bids. At press time, another seller was offering an ungraded example of the card for $7,000 (though it appears to have a corner crease).

THE SANDLOT, BABE & LOU

The Ames (Iowa) Tribune ran a piece this summer on how a local man named Don Johnson had decided to sell a baseball his dad had given him in the 1930s or ’40s. The circumstances, the Tribune reported, mirrored a component of the plot behind everyone’s favorite baseball movie: “The Sandlot” (1993). “Don’t go out and play catch with it,” Johnson’s father told him as he presented him with a gift that was pretty special: a baseball signed by Babe Ruth… and by Lou Gehrig.

Unlike the main character in “The Sandlot,” though, Johnson (born in 1932) obeyed his dad and kept the ball well protected. And after enjoying it for some seven decades, he decided to sell, saying he’s a casual baseball fan who feels his prized ball should be in the hands of a collector.

Based on his research, Johnson figured the ball would sell for somewhere between $2,500 and $35,000, telling the Tribune that he’d “like to get at least $10,000 for it.” And that’s exactly what the ball got in a mid-August eBay sale: $10,000. It included authentication from Global Authentication Inc., which helped draw 47 bids.

The ball’s condition wasn’t bad, judging by the photos supplied with the listing. The autographs look to have had the level of fading you’d expect after all these years; the darker accents of the signatures reveal that parts of it have lightened, although both sigs are easily legible. And it’s a relatively clean ball, showing the type of spotting and yellowing that comes with age.

(And, unlike the ball in “The Sandlot,” this one appears to have no traces of dog drool and slobber.)

ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Wondering what finished just outside of our Top 10? The next few included a mix of names that wouldn’t surprise you:

• $18,999: 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan (PSA 10)

• $17,878: 2009 Bowman Chrome Mike Trout Blue Refractor (PSA 9)

• $17,620: 1939 Play Ball Ted Williams #92 (PSA 8)

• $17,200: 1953 Topps Mickey Mantle (PSA 7).

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