Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A history of 1975 Topps tributes

With all of the Topps tributes to itself over the last 15 years, I have no idea which original Topps design has reappeared the most. But if this were the 1980s, my guess would be the 1975 design.

During the early '80s, as a budding collector becoming more and more aware of what was available in the hobby, I would see various '75 Topps style mockups in advertisements when companies were illustrating that they had cards for sale. And there were also actual sets that mimicked what Topps did in 1975. Plus, I distinctly remember one of those tiny ads that used to appear in Baseball Digest, saying "Your FACE on a baseball card!" and showing some unknown boy on the 1975 Topps design.

In short,  the '75 Topps design was instantly memorable and iconic the moment it hit packs. And folks recognized it by paying homage.

That has continued to this day, helped along by Topps' undying love for itself. But I won't complain, because the 1975 Topps set is my all-time favorite and the colorful, two-tone border with the big block letters (which are in yet another color) is part of that.

I thought I'd review the times that this design has been imitated since 1975. I did a little research, and although I'm sure I've missed a number of sets, this is what I've come up with in terms of actual cards that have used 1975 Topps as inspiration.

First, let's address Topps' various "cover sets" (like a "cover song," but a "set"). There has been a lot of them -- most of them in the 21st century.

 In 2001 and 2002, Topps issued an Archives set that showed past players on designs of the past. The cards recognized a player's first year or his last year. And the designs, in most cases, were identical to the original cards with the exception of a gold stamp on the card photo.

I don't have any of the cards that copy the 1975 design, but reader Roger helped me out by emailing a scan of them:

Those familiar with the '75 set will recognize the Killebrew, Perry, McDaniel, Santo, Yount, Gibson and Robinson cards right away. The other cards are altered versions of the player's original rookie card. Fred Lynn, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter all appeared on four-player rookie cards in the '75 set. Topps chopped out the "nobodies" and featured just the star rookies.

A closer look:

The following year, in 2003, Topps ditched Archives as a retro set and converted it into something called "All-Time Fan Favorites". This set did not merely repeat images from past sets, but instead used new images of old players on old designs. Topps stayed true to the design, for the most part, so that if it was showing a past Dodger player on its 1977 design, then that design would feature the team name in yellow letters and the position flag in red because that's how it looked in the 1977 set.

Likewise, the cards that featured the '75 design in Fan Favorites used the same two-tone colors that were used for that player in the 1975 Topps set.

So in 2003, these were the '75 Topps Fan Favorites cards:

Although I prefer the original '75 card for each of these players and we all know the designs aren't exactly like the original '75s, they're still pretty damn accurate and great cards. As you know, Fan Favorites is my most favorite retro set ever.

Fan Favorites continued in 2004 (the year I discovered the set) and there were five more 1975 Topps-style cards, again using the same color combos that were used for the player in the original '75 set. Dynamite cards.

The 2005 Fan Favorites set is my least favorite and this is a big reason why. There are just two '75 designs in the set, both Big Red Machine players. The Bench card is very odd with the disembodied hands lunging at a skittish Bench, something you'd never see on a 1975 Topps card.

In 2006 Topps issued a small "Rookie Of the Week" set, featuring notable past rookie players. One of those cards is a George Brett with the '75 Topps green-and-purple border that the original Brett rookie card wore. It's a different photo than Brett's rookie card, but it's definitely looking like '75.

Four years later, the 1975 design was back but this time in the form of an insert.

Topps issued a large insert set in 2010 flagship, called "Cards Your Mother Threw Out," featuring reproductions of many famous Topps cards. Two of those reproductions are the two most famous cards in the 1975 Topps set:

The Yount and Brett rookie reproductions feature blurbs about the original card on the back. On the Yount card, the 1975 set is described as being "popular because of its brilliant coloration." The Brett back says 1975 Topps features "vibrant colors" but a "straightforward design".

In 2011, Topps spoke to me directly when it issued a set called Lineage that summer. The base cards were nothing to remember, but the inserts were fantastic and are the reason for the inserts in Archives today. One of those inserts was a complete parallel set of the base set -- issued in 1975 Topps mini form.

I had never collected a 200-card insert set before -- nothing even close to that -- but this seemed like the reason to throw all of my rules and regulations out the window.

I did in fact complete it. Here's just a page:

 I'll never do something like that again, but I'm so glad I did.

Topps returned to the Archives set in 2012, using various past designs in its base set. None of those designs in the last four years of the set have been '75 Topps, but some of the high-number cards have featured the design.

More in the style of past Fan Favorites sets, each card features a different photo for the player (and team in McBride's case) than what was used in 1975 Topps. But unlike Fan Favorites, the border colors are different than what was used in '75 (McBride's card is orange-yellow in '75, while Tiant's is yellow-red).

Topps also mixed up the font and spacing for these cards. The letters are more spaced out than in '75 Topps, and the position words are larger.

In 2013, Archives included short-printed '75-style cards of Fred Lynn and John Mayberry (I don't have either), along with autographed versions of each card. (I also believe there's an Al Hrabosky autographed card using the '75 design).

Topps has branched out the '75 design into nonbaseball card sets as well, most notably in 2009.

The American Heritage set that year featured various inventors, authors, politicians, entertainers, etc., on baseball card designs of the past. Odd concept, but some people ate them up.

The '75-style cards in the set are devoted to "entertainers," which I think is appropriate because 1975 Topps set is definitely entertaining. Each of the cards are purple on top and pink on the bottom, using one of the most familiar '75 color combinations. Entertainers included in the set are Duke Ellington, Harry Houdini, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton and maybe some others.

Two years earlier, Topps issued a Christmas set devoted to Jolly Old St. Nick. Each card features a different depiction of Santa Claus on a past Topps design. I absolutely had to get the 1975 Topps tribute card:

Love it. But you'll have to wait until Christmas time to see the back.

There may be other nonsports examples that used the '75 design, but let's get back to sports.

Thanks to The Shlabotnik Report, I know that there was a set of Scottish "footballers" issued for 1975-76 that "borrowed" from the '75 Topps design. If I cared a wit about soccer, I would want all of these.

This was one of the most immediate examples of inspiration drawn from the '75 Topps set, issued on the heels of that very set.

But there were others.

In 1976, an eight-card set called "Jerry Jonas Productions All-Time Greats" arrived.

I know very little about the set, but I think you can see the resemblance to 1975 Topps.

A set that I know a little more about appeared in 1980.

I first saw it in a TCMA or Larry Fritsch card catalog that arrived at the house. I loved it instantly.

Giant, colorful, two-tone borders -- even larger than anything on 1975 Topps, but definitely inspired by it -- house a checklist of Hall of Famers. Instead of a ball with a position name, there is a flag with the year the player was inducted. But it still screams 1975 Topps.

Plenty of different colored borders, just like in '75 Topps.

TCMA began distributing the "Baseball Immortals" set in 1980. It's fascinated me ever since and I will one day probably try to collect it.

Just look at this:

Amazingly awesome.

In 1982, Kmart issued a special boxed "collectors" set that featured the MVPs for each year on their own individual cards. The sets were available at stores and issued in tremendous quantities.

The MVPs for each year were featured on their card from that year, so 1975 NL MVP Joe Morgan has his 1975 Topps card featured on one of the Kmart cards. The AL MVP in 1975 was Fred Lynn, who was only shown on a four-player rookie card in the '75 set. So Kmart and Topps issued a '75 Lynn mock-up for the set:

You may also recognize that "card" from the 1990 Topps Turn Back The Clock subset as a cropped and repositioned version of it was used:

During the 1980s and early '90s, Baseball Card Magazine would issue what it called "repli-cards" in its issues. These were the precursor to sets like the current Archives. The cards displayed present-day players on past designs.

I'm not sure how BCM got away with this at the time -- it must have had some sort of agreement with Topps -- because it used every Topps design under the sun.

Here is an example of one of the '75 Topps style cards from one of the 1991 Baseball Card Magazine issues. (In 1993, Topps Magazine issued an oversized reproduction -- 5 1/2-by-8 inches -- of the '75 George Brett rookie).

Upper Deck started to get into the retro game at the same time that Topps did. UD did do a little self-retro, but it didn't have the volume of designs that Topps did. So it sneakily stole from past Topps designs, perhaps hoping no one would notice and couldn't help but collect them because it reminded them subliminally of Topps.

When I first saw Upper Deck Decade 1970s during a trip to Fay's Drug Store in 2001, I couldn't believe my eyes:

That was 1975 Topps! Well, OK, not quite. But it was the most '75 Toppsian thing that I had witnessed since the Baseball Immortals cards. I almost laughed out loud at how blatantly Upper Deck was "sampling" 1975 Topps, but yet I couldn't help but love them. And I am now collecting the set and still love it.

These cards had the bold team names on the top and the two-tone colors on the top and the bottom. There were multiple color combinations, too -- much of what I love about 1975 Topps.

Still, Upper Deck went too far and eventually it caught up to them.

In the 2009 set, they issued some insert cards that were "O-Pee-Chee previews". Upper Deck tried to get around the accusation that it was stealing Topps designs by saying it was actually using the company O-Pee-Chee's designs. However, OPC used the same design as Topps during the 1970s and 1980s.

Topps sued Upper Deck. And these cards ...

... note the similarity of the backs ...

... and the inclusion of '75-style minis ...

... led to Upper Deck losing its MLB license. Upper Deck hasn't produced a legitimate Major League Baseball set since 2010.

That's how iconic the 1975 Topps design is. You don't mess with it, no matter how much you love it.

Ever since the advent of the internet, photoshop and card blogs, '75 Topps tributes have appeared everywhere. They're not "real cards" in a lot of cases, but they speak to the fascination that collectors have for 1975 Topps.

Just a few examples (Thanks to Cards That Never Were, GarveyCeyRussellLopes, The Baseball Card Blog, When Topps Had (Base) Balls, and a few others):

These custom card imitations are actually the sincerest form of flattery, since Topps replicating itself in order to make money isn't exactly sincere, and I don't think Upper Deck did what it did out of the goodness of its own heart either.

The design of '75 Topps is a product of the '70s. It's colorful, features attention-grabbing thick borders, and uses fat, bold lettering.

Examples of these characteristics are everywhere in '70s advertising, publication, entertainment and, of course, cards. It's even on card sets that don't necessarily look like 1975 Topps:

(P.S.: This is my favorite minor league card design. I wonder why?)

If you know of any other 1975 Topps-style sets -- baseball or otherwise -- let me know and I'll try to throw that example into this post.

Meanwhile, I will wait for 2024 when Heritage unveils the most significant 1975 Topps tribute since -- well, 1975 Topps minis.

It will be a momentous occasion.


  1. This is an awesome post -- that 1975 set is so iconic...which is why you love it, of course...but thanks for putting this together.

  2. Imitated but never duplicated.

    Will you go after the Topps Heritage set when they honor the '75 design?

    1. If I break my "don't try to complete Heritage ever again vow" it will be with this set.

  3. Fun post. I had no idea there were quite so many permutations of the '75 design.

    Not really what you're going for, but I think it's worth mentioning the stand-alone Fred Lynn '75 card Topps designed for the 1982 KMart set. http://img.comc.com/i/Baseball/1982/Topps-Kmart-MVP-Series-Box-Set-Base/27/Fred-Lynn.jpg?id=b4b19e84-7296-4db9-83c1-6a4c16d06fee&size=zoom

  4. The 1975 Topps 13th Series Wacky Packages mocked the 1975 Topps wrapper. The puzzle on the back of the stickers was the 1975 Topps pack as well (titled Beastball).


    1. I have that sticker! I considered including it here, but since it featured only a parody on the wrapper, I left it out.

  5. Great post. Topps Magazine (Summer 1991 issue) included a 4 card sheet using the awesome 1975 design (Ripken, Winfield, Gooden, and Bo). The Summer of 1993 issue also included a jumbo reprint card of Brett's RC.

  6. I don't know if this is what you meant when you talked of "mockups in advertising", but for a few years the Renata Galasso ad that appeared in national magazines would feature "1,000 MINT 197x BASEBALL CARDS", and every year the description would be tweaked, but the image would remain a fanned-out stack of 1975 Topps baseball.

    1. In fact, I tweeted out that ad just yesterday: https://twitter.com/nightowlcards/status/613439097730895872

  7. In the Cards that Never Were category is the cards Rolling Stone made for their High and Tight Series Steve Earle, Pete Yorn, George Thorogood, Steve Wynn and others depicted on 1975 Topps Designs http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/high-and-tight-our-rock-roll-baseball-experts-sound-off-20120404 ans http://phungo.blogspot.com/2012/07/1975-topps-rocks-at-rolling-stone.html

  8. Two things I have a slightly different memory of. Upper Deck had already lost their MLB license prior to the 2009 OPC set; the OPC set was not the cause of them losing it (though Topps absolutely did sue and win). If anything, the 2009 OPC set was more a reaction to losing their licence than the cause. Card company contracts and licenses are not awarded year to year. So Upper Deck's MLB deal with MLB was signed in 2006 or 2007 or something and lasted through 2009. Around 2008, MLB notified UD that they would not be extending their contract when it expired as they planned to go with Topps as the exclusive maker of MLB licensed baseball cards. UD figured that, since they were losing their license anyway, they'd stick a finger in Topps eye. That's how I remember it, anyway. You see something like that (minus the design theft) with Topps and football. They've already been told they are losing their football license, so they are issuing dozens of football products to take full advantage of the final year of their deal.

    As for Baseball Cards magazine, those cards were (technically) unlicensed and they had no agreement with Topps. In fact, in a way, you can blame Baseball Cards magazine for a lot of the legalistic crap that appears on cards today. When BCM began issuing their "tribute cards", the baseball card market was just beginning its full on explosion. The general feeling (from all parties concerned--Topps, MLB, the Players Association) was that the promotion of baseball, baseball cards, and baseball card collecting was more of an asset than a liability. They were super thin (unlike the real Topps cards at the time) and lovingly produced and they had zero value on the secondary market. No one felt particularly threatened. Two things changed that outlook. First, multiple magazines got into the card making business--some with the thickness and quality of "real" cards. Many of these even began commanding a premium on the secondary market. But the larger issue was that Topps had decided to produce their OWN magazine containing their OWN "faux" card inserts and they pretty much wanted that field to themselves. So they eliminated the competition, first by a "cease and desist" on the use of their designs (so, naturally, the magazines began creating original card designs) and then by pressuring MLB and the Players Association to follow that lead. So far as I know, the only magazine that has had (and, I believe, continues to have) legitimate agreements with all the major players (MLB, Players Association, etc.) is Sports Illustrated For Kids.

  9. I looked up the Jerry Jonas set. It seems pretty rare. Love the post