Mention Topps 3-D to any collector and as likely as not the conversation will begin and end with one card: the Bob Clemente from the company’s 1968 test set, always in high demand and always high priced.
The other cards, and the story of how and why they were produced, and the variations unreported in any price guide? For all that most collectors know, these details are about as relevant as those almost-creepy bas-relief cards Topps made in the 1980s or the company’s innovative but unpopular and abandoned Dimension III set from 1995.
In fact, the 1968 Topps 3-D set – already
To start with, counting proofs, test cards, and what is or isn’t stamped on the back, the set actually consists of at least 54 different cards, not 12 (or, as they were once described to me, “Clemente and some other guys.”)
Five of the variations are significant, involving notable background changes or photo cropping on individual cards.
The Ron Fairly variety is easily spotted. In the first version, the photo is cropped so that his cap virtually touches the letters “A” and “I” in his last name, and the button on his right back pants pocket is visible. The background is a “full stadium” picture. In the second version, the photo has been placed lower, so that there is space between the cap and the lettering, and the pocket button is not visible. The background is also different: the railing and fencing of a field-level box, and some dirt and grass are visible.
The Curt Flood variety is very subtle and involves the cropping of the background image. In one, the head of a bald fan is plainly visible at the card’s right border. In the other, the bald fan cannot be seen.
The Jim Maloney variety is similar to Fairly. In the first, the photo is cropped high enough for the cap and the “O” in his name to touch, and the background is the full-stadium view. In the second, the figure has been lowered so that the cap does not touch the lettering, and the background is the box seat and field version. Both copies of the “touching” version have the plastic coating notched twice at the lower left.
The Boog Powell variety is very subtle. In one, a fan, looking to his left, has his head placed cleanly between Powell’s head and his bat. In the other, the bat partially obscures the fan’s head.
The Rusty Staub variety involves a slight repositioning of the background shot and its relative clarity. In one, the faces of the fans are distinct, in the other they are blurred.
The background images – central to the 3-D effect – are obviously central to the variations. With the possible exception of the cards of Yankees Bill Robinson and Mel Stottlemyre, the player photos don’t have anything to do with the backgrounds – six of the 12 issued cards share the same kind of generic “field level railing” photo or photos (see glossary, below).
A Willie Davis variety has also turned up, but is probably just an example of a printing problem, not, like the others a true design change. The red circle containing his position and team has been found without the usual black outline.
The back variations are three-fold. As anybody who’s collected any of this set knows, the cards are supposed to be blank backed – a glossy, creamy white. Yet, especially in the last 10 years, just as many cards have turned up with the results of an old “stamp pad” on the back. Namely, the dire warning:
“This is an experimental XOGRAPH ® card produced as a limited edition. Not for public circulation or distribution. Not for resale. To be returned to: Visual Panographics, Inc. 488 Madison Avenue New York, New York.”
The printing can be in black or red – and all the cards have turned up in both colors, and blank. The Fairly, Flood, Maloney, Powell and Staub photo variations have all shown up with all three different types of backs (making six different versions available for each player, for compulsive dreamers of the “Master Set.”)
The rubber-stamps beg the question of whether Topps had anything to do with the manufacturing of the cards. The “experimental” cards, which the Xograph company insisted should be immediately returned to it, are otherwise identical to the blank backs, which Topps evidently distributed in a test run near its Brooklyn, N.Y. offices some time in 1968 (packs – like the traditional wax packs of the time, only in white with a sticker attached to the front advertising “3-D Baseball Picture Cards” – have been discovered).
Topps evidently opted out of the 3-D business after the 1968 experiment. Xograph went on to produce at least the first couple of series for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in the 1970s – the photos of Jim Maloney in the 1968 Topps 3-D set and the 1970 Kellogg’s 3-D set are identical. Whether Xograph obtained the player photos from Topps or another source isn’t clear, but the photos used on the various 3-D sets don’t look much like the ones on the contemporaneous Topps sets. It’s possible Topps was the provider – recent research in their photo files confirmed the company supplied photos and even airbrushing for both the Transogram sets of 1968, 1969 and 1970, and the Hostess sets of the late 1970s.
Getting back to the 1968 set, there has long been speculation that Topps never issued the cards, but merely distributed them to an early card dealer with a pipeline into Topps. There was evidently no reporting about the cards in the embryonic hobby media of the time, but in the years thereafter, plenty of doubt. Yet I can testify to having bought one of the cards outside of the hobby – in fact from another kid in my high school – in 1972. It was a “skinned” version of Boog Powell (the cardboard backing removed), and it seems highly unlikely anybody bought one from a dealer only to deface it, and sell it to the resident baseball card collector in the ninth grade.
Mentioning Powell brings up the fact that 35 years’ experience collecting this set suggests his – not Clemente’s – is the scarcest card in the set. I didn’t see another Powell until 1999. Flood and Staub also seem a little more difficult to locate. The Clemente seems to be as plentiful as any other card in the set (which isn’t saying much), and the Maloneys and Swobodas seem pretty common as well. Which of the photo variations is scarce and which is not is left for further analysis – I believe this is the first public reporting of their existence.
Which leads us into the existence of the proof cards. A very intriguing square version of the Clemente turned up in Bill Goodwin’s auction in October of 2006, with a brownish edge, and, unfortunately, not many clues as to how the cards were produced, or what would account for the photo variations.
Four months previously came the Sotheby’s auction at which three apparently unique proofs were sold. The cards bear no player or team designations – just the photos and the same tiny XOGRAPH logo at the lower border. The cards show John O’Donoghue of the Indians, Tommy Davis of the Mets and Rick Monday of the A’s. Since Davis was only with the Mets in 1967, and the A’s left Kansas City after the 1967 season, these cards may have been produced as early as that year.
The Davis card, incidentally, shares the same “box seats and railing” photo background as half of the issued cards. Either the same card of O’Donoghue – or a second copy – was auctioned by Alan Rosen in the late 1980s.
In 1999, what was apparently the original Xograph test card turned up: a small, square card of Brooks Robinson, but with the only marking being “Orioles” in block letters over the photo at the top. A similar card of a soccer player heading a ball (identified upper left as “Cane,” with the team at bottom, “Napoli”) was sold at the same time.