Topps Proofs Part II – Was ’67 Maris deliberate?

As you read in the first part of this series, while Topps had begun “proofing” – making test prints – of its baseball cards no later than 1957, the number of major changes between the first runs and the final issued versions had been few, and relatively minor.

But in the early 1960s, Topps baseball cards began to get more iconic, and more comprehensive. After two bursts of expansion, there were suddenly 100 more major leaguers in April of 1962 than there had been in September of 1960. And more players meant more players changing teams, more cards, more details, and more variations between proof and issued cards.

1962 – A treasure trove of proof variations, nearly all of them discovered because a non-collector happened to read my 1985 article on proofs a day or two after one of his friends had mentioned all the sheets of “old baseball cards” he’d discovered when he went to remodel the false ceiling in his house.

   The previous owner had worked for a Connecticut printer in 1962, and the company had been awarded the Topps printing contract after some other firm had produced the disastrous press run for that year’s 2nd Series (the infamous “Green
Series.”) They not only printed proof sheets for Topps, but they apparently made dozens
for themselves, too. And when they discarded them, this fellow figured they’d cut down his heating costs in his remodeled rec room – so he stuffed them up there.

Besides full sheets of the 6th and 7th Series, the “insulation collection” also included several tests of the 6th Series with just the photographs seen on the issued cards (along with a number of photos, oddly, from the 1959 Topps set). There were aluminum printing plates of many series (which have long since been cut up and dispersed into the hobby as individual metal “cards”). And there were similar collections for that year’s Topps football and hockey sets (featuring several dozen football cards with mismatched names and photos, and a hockey card identifying Frank Paice of the New York Rangers as Marcel Paille).

The baseball proof variations were not outstanding, but they were intriguing. All of the American League All-Stars (including Mickey Mantle) were printed without the players’ positions listed, several of the “Rookie Parade” cards were misaligned so that the players’ names touched the tops of their caps, and there were team changes for the cards of No. 531 Bobby Gene Smith (Cardinals in the issued version, Cubs in the proof), No. 462 Willie Tasby (Indians in the issued, Senators in the proof), and No. 478 Don Zimmer (Reds, Mets). There’s also a 7th Series Checklist (No. 516) variation: the heading is there, but not the list of players).

The 7th Series sheets, and thus the Smith and Rookies proofs, are not unique. I think perhaps as many as a dozen of them have found their way into the hobby over the years. All 1962 proofs are blank backed.
As an aside, when I went to see the Connecticut “find,” which the owner was eager to sell, I was between jobs and had about $500 to my name. 

1963, 1964, 1965 – Nothing major has yet turned up for any of these series as yet. There are two minor 1964 proof variations: No. 404 Tony Martinez exists without the black box around the player’s name, and No. 533 Johnny Klippstein’s name is printed in yellow, not white, letters.

1966 – Only one reported minor variation exists. Some of the 7th Series proofs have made their way into the hobby, and one, No. 568, the Kansas City A’s Rookies, reportedly exists with both of the players’ positions missing. But I’ve never seen the card nor a copy of it.
Some 2nd Series proof sheets have turned up but show no deviation from the issued cards, which is especially disappointing to collectors because the checklist issued with the 1st Series cards listed No. 115 as Warren Spahn instead of Bill Henry. The proof sheets all show Henry; it appears the Spahn card was never made even in proof form.

1967 – The year containing the most common proof – common enough to have been offered in the catalogs of two card dealers well into the 1970s, and to turn up, it seems, in every second or third major auction, these 40 years later – and even on eBay in January of this year.

 The issued card No. 45, Roger Maris, depicts the great slugger after a winter trade to the Cardinals. But the proof – using the identical photo – lists him with the Yankees. It is my estimate that there may be 100 or more of the Yankees cards in the hobby. At one point, they were offered by The Card Collectors’ Co. – which had a family pipeline into Topps and used to offer nearly all of the manufacturer’s famed test series of the 1960s and 1970s. And as late as the 1971 catalog, Wholesale Cards sold them at $1 apiece.

To me, there’s always been something suspicious about the Maris proof. The volume is suspect – for 100 or more of them to exist, 100 or more proof sheets had to have been printed (and yet we have never seen similar caches of the other cards on the same sheet). Additionally, they are professionally cut, as if by the mechanized “slicers” Topps has always used. Unlike all other Topps proofs, they didn’t fall off the back of the proverbial truck, nor turn up in a Topps auction. Most intriguing of all, the picture chosen for Maris for both the proof and issued card was the “protection shot” – his cap and head pushed upward so the Yankee logo could not be seen. The number of times Topps has ever used such a photo has been in preference to one with an accurate logo can be counted on the fingers of both hands.

I’m wondering if the Maris proof wasn’t deliberately created to sell into the then-infant hobby.
In any event, more minor variations turned up when a handful of 1967 proof sheets were sold by Topps in the Guernsey’s Auction of 1989. One involves the colors of the lettering of Dave Boswell’s name. The other is a fascinating case study of the meticulousness of the Topps card-makers.

 Ever since I first saw it pop out of a 1967 6th Series pack when I was 8 years old, I’d been confused by No. 487 of Tom Reynolds of the Mets. The back of the card identified him as “Tommie,” as did all of his other cards of various years. More curiously, there was a huge gaping space between “Tom” and “Reynolds.” It annoyed me for 22 years, until I saw the 6th Series proof sheet hanging from an art easel at Hunter College in New York, where the Guernsey’s Auction was staged. The proof version read “Tommy Reynolds.” Between proofing and printing, somebody decided that misspelling his name with a “y” instead of his preferred “ie” was worse than just calling him Tom – and they struck the last two letters off, leaving the gap on the issued card.

It’s nearly 20 years since that auction, and not a month has gone by that I haven’t regretted bowing out of the bidding. The No. 487 “Tommy” Reynolds proof remains the top item on my rather varied want list.

1968 – This was a disastrous year for the Topps art department, and thus a terrific one for Topps proof collectors. It’s the earliest set in which we know of the second-most desirable kind of proof – the changed photo.

The proof cards include four photos not issued in the regular set. Better still, three of them were attempts by pitchers to fool photographers by posing throwing with the wrong arm, and best of all – two of the stunts were by future Hall of Famers.
The “trick the photographer” gag was a popular one among major leaguers in the 1950s and 1960s (Lew Burdette, Gene Freese, and Bob Uecker managed to get “wrong way” poses onto various cards, and, as we’ll see, several others tried unsuccessfully). But with the 1968 1st Series proof sheet we see it attempted by a brash rookie who later became a brash veteran. Tom Seaver (No. 45) hadn’t yet spent a day in the majors when he posed throwing left-handed for the Topps photographer at the Mets’ spring training camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., in March of 1967. But his gag got all the way to the proof sheet stage – there he is, smiling broadly as his left hand extends toward the camera in a follow-through motion.
And a few spaces over on the sheet, a man who would become one of Seaver’s rivals, Bob Gibson (No. 100), was doing the same thing. Instead of the head shot with which collectors of the 1968 set are familiar, there is another “follow-through” in which the glove is on Gibson’s right hand.

The “lefty” Gibson came to the hobby’s knowledge at the Guernsey’s Auction in 1989 (even though it didn’t to the auction’s preparers – they made no mention of it either in the catalog or in a subsequent photocopied supplement). The Gibson sheet went for a mere $1,500 (less than the prices of several uncut sheets of reprinted 1952 Topps cards), largely because it had been obviously trimmed from its original form, and the auctioneers felt honor-bound to note that a card of Willie Mays had been hand-cut from the sheet.

The existence of the twin Seaver error did not become general knowledge until 2004, when Topps auctioned off a series of single-color versions of the Seaver card on eBay. There later surfaced an odd, taped-together amalgamation of two partial 1st Series proof sheets, depicting a Seaver, a full Gibson, and about half of a second Gibson. With the black printing out of color registration, the thing thus looks more than a little blurry. But it contains the only known full-color Seaver – although another could easily have been among the cards cut from the 1968 sheet auctioned by Guernsey’s.

There may not be any other examples. Even besides Gibson and Seaver, the rest of the 1st Series proof sheets were so riddled with errors that Topps actually proofed the 1st Series for a second time – with the new headshots of Gibson and Seaver swapped in. Several of these updated proofs were auctioned at Guernsey’s, right alongside the Gibson error sheet.

At least four of the five 1st Series rookie card proofs (No. 16 Indians, No. 36 Pirates, No. 76 Braves, No. 96 Senators) are erroneously titled “1967 Rookie Stars.” Three 1st Series cards of Houston Astros infielders (No. 41 Julio Gotay, No. 77 Don Wilson and No. 95 Bob Aspromonte), lack positions for the players. And No. 13 Chuck Hartenstein has his name and team listed inside a dark-green circle instead of the issued yellow.

And it wasn’t just right-handers like Gibson and Seaver who tried to fool the photographers. The proof card shows Jim Brewer, veteran lefty reliever of the Dodgers, with the glove on his left hand and the ball in his right. It was replaced on the issued card (No. 298) by an older photo of Brewer, probably dating to 1965, correctly throwing left-handed, taken at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia.

There were two other photo changes among the 1968 proofs, one major, one minor. The shot of Woody Fryman (No. 112) didn’t have to be replaced because of some trickery on the player’s part succeeded, but rather because the trickery of the Topps art department failed. The proof card shows a Phillies’ uniform painted on to a picture taken of Fryman while he was still with the Pirates, and it was so dreadfully amateurish that it was replaced by a capless portrait. Also, on the same 2nd Series sheet, the photo of No. 171 Don Nottebart was placed backward; it was quickly flipped back to normal for the actual print run.
There’s also a 2nd Series proof version of a color choice that created two very scarce and valuable issued variations in the 1st Series. The issued cards of Ed Brinkman and Casey Cox exist with either the “Senators” team name in white letters (common) or yellow (scarce). The proof of No. 131 Frank Bertaina has “Senators” in the same apparently incorrect white letters – the issued card is only known with yellow lettering.

Additionally, for at least the 2nd Series, some proof sheets were run off on a glossier, almost plasticized, paper that almost makes the cards look like color photocopies. Topps sold one sheet at the Guernsey’s auction, and cut up at least one other and sold some of them as cards on eBay in early 2005.

And just for the record, 1968 marks the first known example of a proof card variation from a specialty, or “test” set. In addition to the 12 remarkably innovative and scarce issued 3-D cards, there are unissued cards of Tommy Davis, Rick Monday, and John O’Donoghue – the last in two different forms with varying backgrounds. The unissued proofs showed up as individual cards in a 2006 Sotheby’s Auction, and on two uncut sheets in a 2007 Heritage Auction.

1969 – After the tumultuous 1968 experience, this was a relatively calm year.

Only four minor variations are known, the foremost of them relating to No. 593, Don Nottebart. On the issued card, he’s identified with the Cubs. The proof, showing the same photograph, depicts him with the Yankees. Additionally, No. 396, Jim Campanis, appears in proof form with the “LA” logo on his cap only partially blacked out. The issued card has a complete obliteration of the logo.

And three 4th Series proofs, No. 338 Del Unser, No. 361 Gary Holman, and No. 402 Ken Boswell, each feature a tiny but pleasing error. The “Topps All-Star Rookie” trophy on each incorrectly reads “1967” on the proofs, and has been corrected to “1968” on the issued cards.

The bulk of 1969 proofs come from the rare “Super Baseball” set. Several sheets of the proofs, with and without printed backs, were cut up, and still appear regularly in auctions. In addition to the absence of the “glossy” coating and rounded edges of the issued cards, there are reversed negatives on the proofs of No. 7 Jim Fregosi and No. 52 Tom Seaver.

There is a fairly common sheet of nine proof versions of the “Deckle Edge” glossy black-and-white cards that were included as an insert with the regular 1969 Topps set, depicting many players not included in the issued set (some, like Bob Johnson, even shown in minor league uniforms), and from the Topps files comes a hand-cut prototype – a 1964 Topps Super Baseball card of Sandy Koufax trimmed to the rough appearance of the Deckles.

The 1970s would bring extraordinary changes to Topps cards – and Topps proofs. By 1973, the now-ritualized process of issuing the cards in series – dutifully recorded on the calendars of American youth – would give way to a mad dash to get all the cards ready at once.

As you’ll see with the upcoming third part of our series, the number of proof variations would, necessarily, explode.     

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