By Doug Koztoski
Between the look and feel and designed function, it is a combination of a handheld transistor radio, walkie-talkie and primordial iPod, for the sports collectors set from decades ago.
The “it” in this case comes from the early 1970s: Mattel’s Instant Replay record player. The player’s sports-themed audio discs easily slide into the battery-operated device to produce about 30 seconds of a recapped highlight or two, ideally anyway. More on that later.
Normally listed as a 1971 issue, some research indicates that the Instant Replay records first rolled out in 1970. The top of one box lid, for instance, shows an illustration of a little boy listening to the record player and, on the lid’s underside, a 1970 copyright. Another box lid, by comparison, features a closer photograph of a boy using the device, and on the other side, a 1971 copyright as well as a fuller list of available discs and ones soon to be rolled out.
Whatever year these Mattel collectibles first hit store shelves, they deserve the occasional revisiting, if, for nothing else, their quirkiness.
As issued in the box, the portable player accompanied a quartet of records: Lew Alcindor, Willie Mays, Bart Starr and an AA Rail Dragster.
Beyond that, one could buy more records in four-piece blister paks (as spelled on the packaging) or eight-disc collector’s albums, the latter came with a booklet with more disc information. Eventually the sports moments “replayed” by Mattel not only included baseball, basketball, football and speed machines (cars, planes, motorcycles), but also hockey.
On the underside of the box lid with the 1971 copyright, there is this announcement: “MORE INSTANT REPLAY ON THE WAY! Watch for THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS and NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE STARS!” Apparently, of those two groups, only the NHL discs came to market. Maybe there was some sort of rights issue with the Globetrotters.
The easier-to-find records have a sticker with the athlete’s image on one side and the grooved recording on the other. At about 2-1/2 inches in diameter, each single-sided sound circle is basically “a miniature version of vinyl records,” said Mike Hattley of Touchdown Treasures. “And each record is player specific.”
Difficult-to-locate double-sided Replay discs also exist.
“The double-sided records are substantially tougher to find,” said Mike Mosier. “I couldn’t keep enough of them, especially baseball and hockey.”
Mosier, of Columbia City Collectibles, has dealt a great amount of oddball sports items for some 35 years and has not owned any of the dual-sided “Replays” for a while.
“The hockey discs sold best,” he said. Some of the ice stars included Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr.
As for the baseball in the issue, the Indiana-based dealer said Ernie Banks is popular, and Al Kaline “always sold well.” The Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Tom Seaver highlights on hard plastic round out the more well-known “regular” baseball Mattel records.
Let’s see that again
In December 1963, Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh took the snap and a few steps and scored a touchdown against Navy in a big college football game. CBS play-by-play commentator Lindsey Nelson advised TV viewers at the time “This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!”
With the footage and the declaration, millions witnessed the first real instant replay. One small step for man, one giant leap for man caves.
Since “instantaneous replay” has roots in football, perhaps it is fitting that the Mattel Instant Replay records with the best representation feature gridiron play, in this case, of the NFL kind.
While most sports in this set have either eight or nine different single-sided representatives, 17 “regular” football discs can be found.
The biggest names in addition to the “starter-set” Starr are Dick Butkus, Joe Namath, Gale Sayers and O.J. Simpson. “It’s 18 discs for football,” noted Hattley, “if you count the double-sided Starr,” the only gridiron type issued in both versions. “That double-sided one sells for $30-$35.”
When it comes to PSA-slabbed samples of “Replay” recordings, however, the sport with the best coverage, surprisingly, highlights the kings of the hardwood.
At a total of 169 in the Population Report, basketball wins the best PSA coverage competition. Football is runner-up at 94 pieces in the California-based company’s slabs.
Of the hoops records to hit the PSA “Pop” charts, the leaders include Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek, Pete Maravich and Jerry West.
PSA is not encapsulating Mattel records at this time, and they only did so for a short while. The reason? Low demand and the company was not completely comfortable with the holders for the early ’70s discs. But a company spokesman said they are keeping the door open for possibly grading the Mattel product again at some point.
Players gonna play, play, play, play, play . . . well, maybe
And then there are those temperamental turntables. Mosier said the mostly plastic Instant Replay record players were “cheaply made” and, in his experience, only about 20 percent of them have worked. Many of those that do function, he added, “play too fast or too slow.” The dealer said non-working Instant Replay players go for about $20; working copies bring around $75.
Two types of record players are available: A blue version, from the box with the 1970 copyright, and a slightly larger red version (1971 copyright box), which features a handle.
At least that is what I found looking at a handful of the Mattel boxes.
For a few samples of audio of these records, visit YouTube.com and search for “1971 Mattel Instant Replay.” It should be noted, however, some of the videos found under this general search are, for some strange reason, identified by their disc number and not by the athlete or set. So you might have to rely on the thumbnail image to help find some of the recordings.
One of the better YouTube videos/audio from this issue recreates Mays’ 600th home run, hit on Sept. 22, 1969, off of San Diego Padres pitcher Mike Corkins.
It’s true that since the average Instant Replay record player one finds now does not work, most collectors these days cannot enjoy the full experience, to any degree, of the Mattel toy. Even so, just adding a few of the discs to one’s collection can still conjure a fun “back-in-the-day” replay for many, if even for an instant or two.
No doubt Lindsey Nelson would have called it in the same basic way.
Doug Koztoski and The Offbeat Beat welcome comments or questions on this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.