Revisiting 1967 Topps baseball

Forgive us the obvious gags about how tough it was to get 1967 Topps Baseball high numbers way back when. Truth is, it’s way tougher to find the infamous 1967 high numbers today than it ever was … so much so, in fact, that it probably even deters some collectors from trying to put together the most attractive card set of the whole decade.

   While the final series is always the first thing mentioned when serious collectors huddle up, the set itself ought to be the focus. The full-frame design on the front makes it the 1960s heir to the incredible 1953 Bowman Color issue, with only the unobtrusive player name and position type at the top and the all-caps team name on the bottom differentiating it from the earlier classic.

   Coming 14 years later, the advances in photo technology and printing capabilities left the 1967 Topps issue with some of the most stunning photography that ever graced a baseball card. The essentially borderless design creates an image configuration that ended up being perfect for both head-and-shoulders and close-up portraiture but also for the “posed action” shots that were still very much in vogue at the time.

   If more were needed, it also has two top-flight rookie cards in Tom Seaver and Rod Carew, both appearing in the canary-yellow rookie subset that is sprinkled throughout the then-record 609-card set.
   What’s not to like?

   An expert assessment
   No less of an authority than Dean Hanley of DeansCards.com in Cincinnati is unabashed in his affection for the issue. “It’s the most popular set of the 1960’s and boasts the best card design of any vintage set,” Hanley explained without a hint of equivocation to be found.

   “Topps did a great job visually with the set,” he continued. He confirms the earlier observations about the design – “The player’s portrait dominates the card and because the picture used the entire card, Topps was able to use a much wider variety of poses” – but he also looks at another dimension that isn’t mentioned nearly as often.

   “The backgrounds of the cards are incredible. Take a set and go through it card-by-card and focus on the backgrounds … it’s very interesting.”

   That’s the kind of pronouncement you often hear about 1953 and 1955 Bowman, the idea of using the ostensibly lowly baseball cards as a window on a whole era of ballparks.

   Not surprisingly, Hanley calls the 1967 Topps high numbers the toughest, a situation he says probably scares off some collectors from even making a try at putting together the complete set.

   “Even with the commons in both 1966 and 1967 Topps, collectors are faced with coming up with so much money,” that it could put a damper on the whole project.

   “We build 1968 and 1969 Topps sets for collectors all day long, but you just don’t see that for 1967,” Hanley continued.

   In terms of cards offered by collectors to his company, he says you just never see that particular year. “I go through our inventory numbers, and we just can’t keep the 1967 high numbers in stock.”
  
   Keeping it simple
   In an issue that seems so perfectly conceived and executed, there aren’t a lot of jazzy subsets, but what there are end up being as nicely constructed as the rest of the set.

   The team cards are simply designed as well, with brilliant colors in the background that handsomely set off the traditional team pictures. There is a really nice mix of combination or multi-player cards, often with groupings that were refreshing in that it wasn’t always the same superstar subjects, though that formula worked well for the No. 1 card in the set, The Champs, with Brooks and Frank Robinson flanking their manager, Hank Bauer. Given the Orioles’ stunning sweep of the Dodgers in the 1966 World Series, that was an obvious triumvirate to showcase, but how about the pairings of Don Buford and Pete Ward, or Tony Cloninger and Denis Menke, that last mysteriously entitled Atlanta Aces, which might have led to the uninitiated thinking Menke was a pitcher instead of the versatile infielder that he was.

   There was a teeny weeny dab of innovation in the creation of the Checklist cards, with the Topps designers plopping the cutout portrait of several major stars in the upper left-hand corner, which put Jim Kaat in good company with the likes of Mickey Mantle, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Juan Marichal. That was a nod, no doubt, to his sterling 25-win season in 1966, which didn’t yield a Cy Young Award since MLB was still awarding just one that year and it went to a guy named Koufax.

   The bright yellow of the Checklist cards interspersed nicely with the overall set, which along with the blazing colors (also often yellow again) on the team cards worked perfectly to add some zing to the color meter. And the standard World Series subset, also embroidered with a bit of yellow of its own, utilized the wood-grain television set that was so reminiscent of 1955 Bowman. Only this time the images on the screen were black-and-white, not the full-color treatment from 12 years before. And that was OK, too, since for most Americans their recollections of the World Series were in black-and-white as well.

   And more first and lasts
   The year also marked the first time where Topps tried a vertical format for the card backs; that was the extent of that innovation, since the backs of 1967 Topps pretty much utilized the same elements that Topps had employed for 15 years.

   Maury Wills got his very first Topps card in 1967, which was the good news. The bad news was that it pictured him as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, except that Maury Wills doesn’t look quite right as a Pirate. Kind of like seeing Johnny Unitas as a San Diego Charger.

   Whitey Ford got his last Topps card, a beauty showing the Hall of Famer stiffly completing his throwing motion in a pose that Edward Charles must have undertaken so many times for photographers that he probably developed chronic lower-back pain.

   And an important proof card, too

   Speaking of legendary New York Yankees, one of the most notable cards in the set is one that has a nifty Topps proof card to go along with it.

   I’ll let noted collector Keith Olbermann tell it, since I doubt I can improve on his version from his acclaimed series on Topps proof cards that appeared in SCD in 2008:
   
   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.
– Keith Olbermann

*  *  *  *  *

Not one Brooks in 60,000 cards …
And now back to our regular sponsor. There’s another notable pasteboard that I wanted to mention, one that’s tied up in another whole bunch of hobby lore and legend.

It concerns the Brooks Robinson regular-issue card in the set, a single-printed high number in a series where many of them were double printed, though consensus on just who falls into that category is hard to find.
For many years within the hobby, veteran dealers called the No. 600 Brooks Robinson card perhaps the most difficult to find Topps card of all. In a realm that includes the story of the 400 cases of 1952 Topps high numbers buried at sea, that’s an impressive argument.

It got much of its legs, no doubt, from a story in this magazine more than 30 years ago. Alarmed by what they viewed as the outrageous price of that Robinson card, well-known dealers Gary Sawatzki and Duane Schroen talked about how they had agonized about the pesky pasteboard  for the previous six or seven years.
As two of the hobby’s early pioneers, they had, even by 1979, looked at millions of cards, and with an eye out for Brooks, and said they found fewer than two dozen of the Robinson cards, and purchased every last one of them regardless of condition.

That’s astounding math in any case, but to give it even more context they noted that over the same span they had probably comes across more than 200 specimens of the 1954 Bowman Ted Williams rarity.
Sawatzki also recounted what what he claimed was firsthand knowledge of a dealer who bought five unopened cases of 1967 Topps high numbers and failed to find a Robinson anywhere among the 60,000 cards. Now that’s rare.

No wonder everybody is a scairt to try to put this set together. 

   T.S. O’Connell is the editor of Sports Collectors Digest. Reach him by e-mail: thomas.oconnell@fwmedia.com; (715) 445-2214, ext. 13243.



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