It’s that most mysterious of aspects of hobby lore about the Topps Co.: those eccentric “test” issues that the Topps mad scientists came up with primarily through the tumultuous 1960s. And the quirkiest of those may have been the bizarre little Topps All Star Baseball Plaks from 1968.
Brian Drent of Mile High Card Co. knew all that when he got an e-mail mentioning the elusive little hosers late last summer. The e-mail was intriguing, coming from a man who lived near Duryea, Pa., outside of Scranton. Drent thought, “Duryea, hmmm.”
Topps had its factory in Duryea until a couple of years ago, and the man said he had found a quantity of odd little plastic “statues” in his mother’s garage just a few blocks from the former Topps plant in Duryea.
According to the man, both his mother and his mother-in-law had worked at the plant, and his mother would bring home the plastic pieces from work. He said Topps officials would come to the local elementary schools from time to time, testing various new card designs or flavors of bubble gum.
While Drent was at the September Philly Show in Reading, Pa., he drove to Scranton and met with the man. Together, they visited the old garage that had housed the Plaks for nearly 40 years, later returning to the man’s home, where the Plaks were arrayed in shoeboxes on the kitchen table.
“I was floored,” said Drent in describing the scene. While the seller has asked that the total number of pieces included not be released, Drent explained that – as in the case of so many major finds – the actual number turned out to be more than the man had originally described in phone calls.
“It was fairly typical that he would have more than he initially said,” Drent continued. “I kept thinking, ‘What does he want for these things?’ I didn’t know what to pay, and I didn’t know how many people would be interested and how much they would pay.”
Drent explained that while he had seen the Plaks in the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, he had never handled any and didn’t even think he had ever seen any of them. It was an awe-inspiring and scary moment, but one that produced a euphoria once the deal was actually completed a few weeks later. Drent called it “the most significant Topps find since Alan Rosen’s discovery of 5,500 pristine 1952 Topps cards (more than 4,000 high numbers) in 1986.”
He insists that what separates this find from the incredible 1986 Mr. Mint find was a question of quantity. Drent says he could likely have squirreled away all of the Plaks in the admittedly spacious pockets of his winter coat. Several of the players turned out to be represented by as few as four examples, all of which Drent figures are the only four known to exist.
The very rarity of the pieces would have made negotiations problematic anyway, and the normal dance between dealer and collector ensued. “I asked him what they wanted for the pieces,” Drent continued, adding that he had tried to explain to the man how difficult it was to figure out values.
The bargaining continued until Drent had upped the ante to every bit of cash he had brought along, but the man still balked. Ultimately, Drent flew home to Colorado without a deal in hand but with a well-honed sense that he wasn’t out of it, either. “The whole time as I flew home I was telling myself, ‘Don’t let this get away.’ ”
He didn’t and it didn’t. Drent got home and started calling around to close confidants in the hobby trying to gauge what he could reasonably pay and what they might sell for. The man had insisted that he had other offers for the Plaks, but it only took a week or so and they were back in touch and nailing down a final, uh, imposing, number.
Drent didn’t have to wait too long to find out how much enthusiasm was out there for the pieces, as he sold a Mantle at the GBSCC show in Boston in November for $15,000, and a Clemente for $8,000. The Plaks, which typically come three to a sprue like the pieces in a plastic model kit, also proved to be a popular way to move the pieces. A sprue with Catfish Hunter, Pete Rose and Al Kaline sold for $7,000 at that same Boston show.
Drent’s concerns about moving the rare treasures subsided pretty quickly with another private sale to one collector who spent $45,000 for four different “trees” of three players on each tree, and two other individual players.
With some of the pressure off in trying to get out from under much of his original expenditure, Drent and his Mile High crew could direct themselves to the more fascinating task of sorting through the remaining pieces.
Drent said the Mile High Plak find is significant for a number of reasons, but primarily because it helps to clear up several questions concerning the checklist.
"From the 24 players slated for production, no collector with whom we’ve spoken has ever seen a single example of Aaron, Drysdale, Mays, Peters or Frank Robinson, and it is our belief that they were simply never produced,” said Drent.
Given that this find almost certainly represents the single most significant body of evidence concerning the population and configuration of this rare issue, it was inevitable that the absence of those five players would have profound implications.
"As far as we can tell, every player in the set can be found in two separate three-player sprues, save for Pete Rose, who only appears in one sprue arrangement, and another five players: Tommy Davis, Catfish Hunter, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Longborg and Jim Wynn, who all appear on three different sprues,” Drent continued. “We believe that these five players, for whatever reason, took the place of the notorious five whose existence, after weeks of telephone calls to the hobby’s most prolific collectors, we still cannot confirm.”
The checklist to the 1968 Topps “All Star Baseball Plaks” test issue is likely complete at (19):
1. Max Alvis
2. Dean Chance
3. Jim Fregosi
4. Frank Howard
5. Jim Hunter
6. Al Kaline
7. Harmon Killebrew
8. Jim Longborg
9. Mickey Mantle
10. Carl Yastrzemski
11. Richie Allen
12. Orlando Cepeda
13. Roberto Clemente
14. Tommy Davis
15. Tim McCarver
16. Ron Santo
17. Rusty Staub
18. Pete Rose
19. Jim Wynn
Drent noted that since acquiring the Plaks, the staff at Mile High has been diligently scouring every major auction catalog in their research library and has been unable to locate a single record of a 1968 Topps Plaks sale. “We’ve also spoken with numerous collectors, two of whom identified themselves as experts on this scarce issue,” Drent said.
The Mile High president said they determined that the only known examples to come to market within the last decade occurred earlier in 2008 when Kit Young Cards auctioned off eight common single players on eBay in separate lots, averaging $1,000 per sale.
Testing the market, Mile High released seven singles on eBay in late October of this year, and the results were the same. “In short, we believe the Topps Plaks to be the second or third scarcest, non-proof, Topps test issue ever produced, behind only to the 1961 Topps Dice Game and possibly the 1967 Topps Stand-Ups, which, in an uncanny way, are quite similar to the Plaks.”
Drent added that a final note of interest that potential collectors should bear in mind concerns one of the key issues from the set: Mickey Mantle. “Upon sorting our small find and attempting to understand the mysterious absence of the five aforementioned players, we discovered that, while the bust for each player is consistent in shape and size, there exists two distinct Mantle variations,” Drent continued.
He said the first displays a slanted, interlocking “NY” on Mick’s cap, as opposed to a perfectly square logo on the second. Mick’s lips, nose and ear are also of noticeably larger proportions on the first, and the placement of his right eye and the width of his collar also vary to a degree well outside the bounds of manufacturing error. Drent concluded that they came from distinct molds.
“So, while a very good question to ask an advanced Topps collector may be: ‘Do you own a Mantle Plak?’ – a better question might be: ‘Do you own, or have you ever even seen, a Mantle Plak variation, or more precisely, the “Big Nose” variation.’ ”
The 1968 Topps Plaks Mickey Mantle “Big Nose” variation shows considerable enough variation to assume that it came from a distinct mold before Topps decided to scrap the whole project. Confirming the scarcity of this test issue, such variation suggests that the Topps gang had yet to finalize the design before terminating the project.