By Doug Koztoski
With the first astronauts walking on the moon in the summer of 1969, Major League Baseball was in the midst of “one small step” and “one giant leap” in its own right.
When the 1969 big league baseball season began, one of the new looks included divisional play, two leagues with two divisions apiece, the winners of each division battling it out in the playoffs to represent their league in the World Series. In the background, however, there was a growing drumbeat of more money requested for the player’s pension fund, free agency and a labor strike, all of which happened over the next few seasons.
While nowhere close to “moonwalk-worthy,” Topps “went big” in 1969, as well, as the card maker distributed its largest regular issue up to that time: the 664-piece baseball set. Many came from the last of the nickel wax packs, as prices doubled the next year.
Within that issue collectors would find the rookie of a budding colorful superstar named Reggie Jackson, second-year cards of Johnny Bench and Nolan Ryan, who would also soon become household names, and even though Mickey Mantle retired in spring training, as his card back states, Topps treated collectors to a final card of the legend late in the offering. Stars such as Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Brooks and Frank Robinson and Tom Seaver also graced the regular set.
And, thankfully, many of those superstars, and a few others of note, made it into one or both of the pair of pack insert issues that season, too.
Slightly smaller than the regular card size, the deckle edge inserts often offer equal parts of fun and frustration. On one hand the scalloped-bordered cards conjure up a simpler time with their black-and-white photos and their faux signatures, but basic printing issues might motivate some collectors to edge away from pursuing them.
“The set is fairly easy to complete,” said card dealer Kevin Savage. “I see most people looking to buy a set, they are readily available.”
Savage said the offering, meanwhile, presents problems in top grade.
“There are issues finding them well-centered and with print issues on the front, indentations and issues with gloss,” the Ohio-based card veteran said.
Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson begins the issue, followed by teammate Boog Powell; both would play key roles in Baltimore’s three straight World Series appearances, beginning in ’69. Carl Yastrzemski, Denny McLain, who in 1968 was the last pitcher to win 30 or more games in a season, and Rod Carew help round out the biggest names in the first 16 cards, all American Leaguers, of the 33 card insert set.
The National League representatives: Clemente, Mays, Gibson, Pete Rose and Willie McCovey provide most of the stardust, and comprise the final 17 cards.
“The variations,” Savage added, “are a little harder to find,” thus adding another challenge to the collection.
Due to some trades, the original #11 deckle of Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm was replaced with Jim “The Toy Cannon” Wynn, then with the Houston Astros. Another Astro, Rusty Staub, first owned the set’s #22 slot, but Kansas City Royal Joe Foy became that card number’s variation. Price-wise, the Wynn and the Foy deckles rank up their with most of the set’s second-tier stars at $7-$10 in top condition.
“All the Hall of Famers, Rose and the variations sell the best,” Savage said, “in a set with limited interest.”
Sticking with it
The other 1969 Topps Baseball insert, the decals, likely lose the competition with the retro looking deckle edge cards for “most visually distinctive” between the two, and the decals are about half the size of their “cousins,” yet still have their merits.
“The decals are a little more popular than the deckles,” Savage said. “They are colorful (designed like the ’69 card fronts) and more aesthetically pleasing to a lot of people” compared to their scalloped edged counterparts.
Savage added that “the decals are not impossible to find, but centering is tough and they tend to separate from the backing.”
Another factor that separates the decals from the deckles, by a large margin, is the overall set size, 48 to 33/35, and many more star players.
While Clemente, Mays, Gibson, McCovey, Yaz and Rose appear in both insert issues, the decals also have Don Drysdale, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and Tom Seaver, not to mention Mantle and Reggie Jackson.
“Mantle and Jackson are, by far, the most popular in that issue,” Savage noted.
“Find” of a large kind
According to The Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards, in 2001 a hoard of two 10,000-piece decal rolls sold at auction. Those rolls produced over 800 of each of half of the players in the issue.
Some of the biggest names that came from those batches include: Drysdale, Gibson, Jackson, Killebrew, Mays, Robinson, Rose and Seaver. All of those players have well above average PSA Population Report numbers, likely related to the “find” since many of those no doubt were submitted for grading.
Jackson, for instance, has 538 graded samples without a qualifier, with 36 PSA 10s; Mantle is not on the “auction list,” and comes out with 420 graded samples and only five PSA 10s. Clemente is also not on the list and he has about 250 slabbed decals, with six PSA 10s.
The SCOVBC lists a complete raw decal set in Near mint condition at $350; $175 for Excellent. Comparatively, the deckle edge set in the same conditions list for $80 and $25, respectively.
The 1969 Topps baseball inserts appeared in a popular season, one where the usually lowly New York Mets stunned many by launching to their first World Series title, will always generate a decent level of interest since ’69 Topps is a popular set in general and the inserts, especially the decals, include many all-time greats.
The astronauts exceeded some of our wildest dreams that year with their mission to the moon and back, deservedly becoming stars in their own right; a couple deckled Astros, meanwhile, and some star baseball players and others helped keep us grounded here on earth while it all unfolded, a memorable year in so many ways. Small steps here and there, and a few giants leaps along the journey, just ask the ’69 Mets.
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He welcomes comments and questions related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.