Topps Proofs – Classic ‘goofs’ in hobby lore

Have you got that 1977 Topps card with Reggie Jackson trying to out-grin the beaming Oriole on the old Baltimore helmet?

How about the 1968 card of Tom Seaver pitching left-handed?

Or the 1983 Bill Virdon card that actually shows Jim Fanning? The answers to these questions – even from the most ardent of Topps set builders – is likely to be a resounding “no.” Except, of course, in those cases where it’s simply a dumbstruck “Huh?”

Those three cards, and dozens of others churned out by the Topps monolith over the years, were printed – but never issued. They are the Topps Proofs, increasingly known and available to collectors since the company started selling the “junk” in its warehouses in 1989, but still shrouded in mystery and rarely included in any price guides or checklists.

In theory, there’s at least one proof version (usually more than one) of every card Topps ever made, at least into the late ’80s when the company began to compose its series on computers. But virtually all of them are identical to the ones that made it into the packs and sets.

All proofs originate from what are, in essence, test printings to make sure colors and graphics are correct and information accurate. Each sheet of cards (occasionally 44 or 55 at a time, usually 66) was “proofed” as many as nine times. Some sheets were made with only the black printing, others with just the blue, the yellow, or the red. Others came in combinations of two or more colors. The final sheet combined all the colors – and it is from those sheets that the best examples come. Even when the proof card is identical to the issued one, the proof is usually sharper in image and more vivid in color than its issued counterparts, and each is certainly collectible on its own.

For about seven years, Topps has been selling the cards, cut from everything ranging from the full-color “final process” proofs right down to the barely visible “red only” ones, on eBay. But proofs had been making their way into the hobby since the early 1960s. There’s no real way to gauge how many proofs of a particular card might exist, since the sheets were often produced in fairly large quantities to allow Topps artists and editors to “mark up” errors and requested changes. Sheets with particularly large numbers of errors or changes could be printed a second time in proof form. Often the proofs were used merely to see how good a particular printing plant could make the cards look – they amounted to auditions for the various companies which Topps used to outsource the printing of their cards.

So there are literally thousands of “Topps Proofs” out there. But the truly fascinating proofs are the cards that aren’t just better-looking versions of the regular issues. They’re the ones that are different. And for the first time in nearly 20 years, we’re going to list the major ones that have delighted, amazed – and even bankrupted – collectors for decades.

By way of brief preface, there are proofs known for Bowman cards (including large-sized, black-and-white cards tested in 1952, and 1953 cards of Ferris Fain and Warren Spahn not included in the issued set), and T206 (including those of an unissued Eddie Collins pose, eight unissued Southern League players, and several more minor variations). Yet, there’s absolutely no hard evidence of Topps Proofs prior to 1957. Why or how this should be true, no one – even the veterans in the company themselves – can say. It just wasn’t the kind of thing a company struggling to dominate a market bothered to keep records of.

Lots of 1952-56 cards have turned up with blank backs, and might be proofs, but close inspection shows that nothing on the fronts of the cards differs from the standard-issued versions. The same is true of many post-1956 Topps cards. Although many are sold this way, just because a card has a blank back doesn’t mean it’s a true proof.

There are plenty enough of the real kind to worry about.
Over the five special issues of SCD in coming months, we’ll look at the highlights – but by no means the full checklist – of the Topps Proof Variations, beginning with the early years:

1957 – For years, collectors had been mystified by the appearance of the high-numbered cards from that series, printed on glossy paper, with fully printed, shiny-white backs. Something close to a full set of these was auctioned off by dealer David Festberg in the mid-1990s. Only during my explorations of the Topps photo files a few years ago was the secret revealed. The last series was proofed on paper. Several turned up in the photo files of individual players. One had even been used by the Topps design department to do a mock-up of the wood-grained design that would be used in 1962.

None of the 1957 paper proofs have shown any differences – front or back – from their issued counterparts.

1958 – Nothing has yet turned up, in any form. This is especially discouraging because if there is a Holy Grail for Topps collectors, it would be a proof of card No. 145, which was slated to depict first baseman Ed Bouchee of the Philadelphia Phillies. The card is listed on the 2nd Series Checklists issued on the back of the 1958 First Series team cards, but it’s never turned up. It was the last deliberately skipped number by Topps until the brief “retirement” of No. 7 in memory of Mickey Mantle nearly 40 years later.

Bouchee had been arrested on what used to be quaintly called a “morals charge” in the off-season of 1957-58, and his card was hastily pulled from its planned position at No. 145. Whether the card was actually printed – or proofed – on 2nd Series sheets, remains an unsolved mystery.

There’s only one clue to be found in the Topps archives. Well into the 1960s, two copies of each card issued were painstakingly glued into an ordinary album – one facing up, the other down. Topps sold some of these books, intact, at its famous Guernsey’s Auction in New York in 1989. Others have been systematically deconstructed, with the cards slabbed and sold as “one-of-a-kind” Topps “file” copies.

The 1958 books still in the Topps files in New York not only didn’t include a card of Bouchee – they didn’t even have a blank space where you might expect the card to have been. The book jumps directly from No. 144 (Bobby Morgan) to No. 146 (Dick Gray).

Something might turn up, somewhere, some day. But I doubt it.
1959 – Until 2004, nothing had surfaced, proof-wise, for this landmark set, either. Then a sheet of 7th Series cards was auctioned off – and turned out to be not an uncut sheet of issued cards, but a true proof sheet, complete with the handwritten marking “Lord Balt Topps Gum. May 1959 G-1174.”
The fronts are identical. The backs are not. To begin with, they’re printed not on the bright white card stock of the issued cards, but on more of a dull, creamy gray, just a few shades different from that used for most of the cards in the 1960 set.
And the sheet contains the first two known Topps proof “variations.”

Eleven of the issued 7th Series cards have a line added in red indicating that the player was sent to the minors or traded to another team (as on Bob Gibson’s “Optioned to Omaha in April”). But on the sheet, one of the cards (No. 538 Chick King) is missing the late update (“Traded to the Cardinals in May”) entirely, and another (No. 541 Bob Thurman) has the add-on “Optioned to Omaha in May,” not in full-sized red lettering, but in a different, much smaller font – and in brown ink.

Thus, apparently, did the Topps Proofs truly begin.

1960 – A proof sheet unearthed by collector Chris Shuchart has apparently solved one of the hobby’s oldest questions.

As long ago as 1975, I wrote a column for one of the hobby’s earliest magazines, The Trader Speaks, listing all the known variations in the Topps sets issued to that point. Where I got the information, I can’t say for sure – it may have come from the research of the collecting pioneer Richard Egan. But there they were, listed as the variations for 1960:
–  No. 9 Faye Throneberry (Yankees logo instead of Senators)
–  No. 58 Gino Cimoli (Cardinals logo instead of Pirates)
–  No. 102 Kent Hadley (Athletics logo instead of Yankees)

These cards were so scarce that I never even saw a picture of one of them until 12 years later. They had never been included in checklists of the 1960 set, and had been dismissed in hobby lore as unissued proofs or just unfounded rumors. Yet when the card of Cimoli turned up, it looked almost exactly like the issued card – it was the same thickness, it did not look like it had been cut from a sheet, and it had a fully printed back. The only differences were that it identified Cimoli – front and back – as a member of the Cardinals, had the Cardinals logo, and made no mention of his December 1959 trade to the Pirates. Up until that point, no Topps proof sheet had ever turned up with anything other than a blank back. To all appearances, it looked like an issued card – an incredibly scarce variation.

The Hadley card proved even more confusing. It came to the market in a Mastro auction in 1999 and sold for nearly $14,000 (my fault). Like the Cimoli, it looked like an issued card. But unlike the Cimoli, this one was up to date. It noted Hadley’s trade from the Athletics to the Yankees, and identified his team – front and back – as the Yankees. The only variation was the logo. Where the Yankee insignia was on all the other known copies, there was the Athletics’ symbol. It didn’t make any sense.

But if the Cimoli and Hadley cards were a mystery, the Throneberry seemed to be apocryphal. For one thing, nobody had reported ever seeing it. More importantly, Faye Throneberry had never been with the Yankees – he was with the Washington Senators both in 1959 and 1960. His brother Marv had – in fact, he’d been traded by the Yanks to the A’s in the same December 1959 deal that had sent Hadley to New York. Theoretically, there could have been a Marv Throneberry variation showing a Yankees logo where the Athletics’ one should be, but nobody had seen one of these, either.

The sheet Shuchart discovered appears to have answered everything.

It contains a total of 55 Topps 1960 1st Series cards. There are four cards with relatively minor color variations (for the record, they’re No. 2 Roman Mejias, No. 9 Bud Daley, and No. 64 Mike Fornieles, all with their names printed inside light-blue boxes – whereas the boxes on the issued cards are dark blue – and No. 77 Hank Foiles, on which the black-and-white “action” picture is set against a pink background, as opposed to a red background on the issued card). There are also no fewer than 18 text variations on the back (the header “Season Highlights” is on every player card, not just the ones in which dated information is presented, instead of regular biographies).

But the informational treasure trove is to be found on the farthest right-hand column, in the second and third rows. There’s the Faye Throneberry card, with the wrong logo – the Yankees – just as I was told more than three decades ago. Everything else about the card is correct: he’s identified as a Senator on both sides of the card. It’s a mistake – and the card below it on the sheet seems to explain the error.

The card below it is the Hadley, just like the one in the Mastro auction. Yankees designation, front and back. Mention of the trade to New York. And an A’s logo.

Shuchart theorizes – and I agree with him – that when Hadley was traded, the Topps art department moved quickly to replace the A’s logo with the Yankees’ one – and simply placed it on the wrong card: the one of Faye Throneberry, one spot above it on the sheet.

But that still doesn’t explain the Cimoli. As mentioned above, it isn’t just a matter of an outdated team insignia. These are different cards: one corrected to note his trade from St. Louis to Pittsburgh, the other, not.

Why?

The Cimoli card is not printed on the Hadley/Throneberry sheet. It must have been printed on another sheet containing the remaining 55 cards for the 1960 1st Series. And the explanation is probably this: the cards note that Hadley was traded on December 11, 1959. The logo and team ID were hastily (and, as we see, incorrectly) changed – creating both the Hadley and Throneberry variations.

And presumably, within days of the rush job that didn’t completely update the Hadley and created the Throneberry mistake, both the Hadley/Throneberry sheet and the Cimoli sheet were then printed as proofs.

Cimoli wasn’t traded until Dec. 21, 1959. His Cardinals variation already existed in proof form – and only then did Topps completely rework it to reflect his transfer to Pittsburgh.

There remained the slim theoretical chance that a few of the Cimoli, Hadley, and Throneberry cards actually wound up in the packs of issued 1960 1st Series cards. But for that to be true, at least some of those four minor color variations, and the 18 back variations, on the Hadley/Throneberry sheet should’ve turned up in somebody’s collection, too. And none ever have.

The Hadley/Throneberry sheet has all the markings of a true proof sheet. It has the color bars and proofer’s “stars” (in this sheet, little circles with plus signs going through them) known on all printer’s proofs, whether for baseball cards or cookbooks. And the mystery of Topps Proofs coming complete with fully printed backs has been resolved by the discovery of that fully printed 7th Series sheet from 1959.

Thus, the three incredibly scarce 1960 variations are actually proofs – and since there are at least two copies of the Hadley still in existence, it probably means there’s at least one more Faye Throneberry card floating around bearing its erroneous Yankees logo.

1961 – Nothing’s turned up – another disappointment for amateur Topps historians, who’d love to be able to confirm why Nos. 587 and 588 were skipped (a presumed mistake).

The 1960 variations suggest the seriousness with which Topps had begun to address the process of keeping its baseball cards accurate and up to date.
When we resume our story next time with the rest of the 1960s, we’ll get the benefit of the first year – 1962 –  in which large numbers of proof sheets (and thus proof variations) have been found, and recap the sheer joy of the epidemic of National League pitchers trying to fool the photographer – and getting caught only after their practical jokes had made it to the proofer’s press.

More Images:

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The May 30 issue of SCD is the first of five installments in Keith Olbermann's exclusive inside look at Topps Proof Cards.
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1968 Topps proof card of a "left-handed" Bob Gibson
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An uncut sheet of proof cards featuring the Rarest Reggie

One thought on “Topps Proofs – Classic ‘goofs’ in hobby lore

  1. Bob Ruppert on said:

    What was the winning bid on the 1974 Topps Bill Madlock rookie proof card in the Guernsey 1989 auction?
    Thanks for any help that can be extended!

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