Thursday, February 23, 2017

1968 Topps, the untold story

Topps Heritage is scheduled to be released next week and already images of what is on the way, in the tribute to the 1968 design, are all over the internet.

Of course, the only cards that have been shown so far are cards that will be almost impossible to get. I've seen the dual signature Nolan Ryan-Johnny Bench card about a dozen times now (it's been declared the card of the year -- I don't consider a card whose access is limited to deep-pocket collectors as "card of the year"). I've also seen the signed Mike Trout card a few times. Again, this isn't anything I am looking to pull.

There also have been recently published looks at the 1968 Topps set since everyone -- god help us -- is going to see that burlap design for all of 2017.

Topps just issued its own retrospective of the set. It's worth the read, especially for collectors who don't know a lot about '60s sets. But the piece focuses on the same three items that I often see from these set reviews from hobby publications or others in the hobby:

Rookies. Errors. Stars.

The '80s just ruined us. Every write-up: "here are the hot rookies, here are the errors to look for, here are the stars you player-collectors can find." And nothing else.

I understand why Topps does this, especially with Heritage. Rookies give Topps the opportunity to flaunt parallels or inserts or autographs/relics of those players and they draw a high premium. Errors (and there are a few in '68 Topps) give Topps the opportunity for variations. And stars give Topps the opportunity to backload them into the short-print portion of the set, the final 75 cards. (I checked out the Heritage checklist yesterday and called Corey Seager being a short-print before I even opened the file).

These three items make Topps money. So that's why they're stressed. Why other publications stress rookies/errors/stars exclusively, I'm not sure, other than that maybe the vast majority of readers care about that stuff. I live in a card-blogging bubble where commons are just as treasured as the hottest rookie or biggest star, so my view is skewed. But I would think people who are about to dig into the 2017 Heritage set would want a more accurate, unvarnished look at the 1968 Topps set.

So, here is a little of that for you now.

First, the set is ugly. No offense to Hank Aguirre here -- I wouldn't fair very well if they slapped a goofy, smiling head shot of me with no hat and the wrong uniform onto a card -- but it just is.

There was a reason I ranked it 53rd all-time among all of Topps' base sets a couple years ago. And people who were actually kids in 1968 agreed. That's not to say that there aren't collectors who do like the set and try to collect it. I know a few of them right now. That's why there is chocolate and tutti frutti. But the general consensus is the burlap design is one of the least attractive designs Topps has ever produced.

You'll never see Topps mention that in its retrospective piece though.

The '68 set is filled with players with no hats.

And it's filled with players with blacked-out hats.

Will we see that in 2017 Heritage? I doubt it. And I'm OK with that. The combination of the burlap design and the blacked-out caps heightened the ugly factor. I would think Topps wants people to buy these cards.

The 1968 set is one of the most inconsistent visually because of the difference in the borders in the first series. The border for first-series cards featured much wider spacing in the pattern. The rest of the cards displayed a more old-style television feel (which is what I believe Topps was going for in '68).

The inconsistency in design is a real turn-off for my OCD. I have no plans to ever try to complete this set, but if I were, this aspect of it would create a throbbing pain over my right eye.

The '68 set is all about horned-rim glasses. I don't suppose we'll see any of those in 2017 Heritage. Every year I try to reconcile current ballplayer fashion with old-school Heritage designs. Seeing arm-sleeve tattoos with the burlap borders is going to be freaky.

The '68 set is about players milling about in the background. I hope there's some of that in 2017 Heritage.

It's about people sitting in the background, too. It's about miscut cards. And it's apparently about the flag of Austria.

'68 Topps is about holes in workout clothes.

It's about scribbles on the uniform (because kids and only kids collected these).

It's about guys in slacks half cut out of photos and a random camera lens appearing out of nowhere (at least I hope that's a camera lens).

And it's about puzzles on the back of the All-Star cards. Will there be puzzles on the back of the 2017 Heritage all-star cards? I'm going to say yes.

Who will be featured? In 1968, the players featured were Orlando Cepeda and Carl Yastrzemski, the respective MVPs from the previous year.

That would follow that the 2017 Heritage puzzles would be Mike Trout and Kris Bryant, two of Topps' darlings. So, yes, now I am 100 percent sure there will be puzzle backs in 2017 Heritage.

My bit of rambling gives you a little bit more insight into the '68 set than "these are the rookies, errors and stars, the end." For even more and better insight, find someone who collected the cards then. I was 2 years old at the time, I'm hardly an expert on those cards. But kids who opened packs in 1968 are the experts and they can give you the full picture.

Not just the picture that will make a company more money.


  1. I actually like the design...But I list 1990 as my favorite Topps design of all time, so maybe I should be discounted. (I also love the Edsel)

  2. I think Topps changed things this year and made the last 100 cards the SPa. I'm not planning to collect it because they have been half-assing Heritage since 2012.

  3. I'm with Billy here, I like the design for two reasons. The first, I'm collecting the set right now. Second, when I worked in a baseball card store as a kid, I almost bought a partial set of these burlap beauties but passed for money reasons only a 14 year old would have. Sure, they're not Topps best design of the decade, but they have some important hobby cards within it: Bench and Ryan rookies, Mantle's last card as an active player .... In fact, the burlap design actually helps those like myself building this set in lesser condition in that it hides those dinged corners or border surface creases.

  4. You have to allow some for a few "built-in" disadvantages the set faced. The Players Association was in a feud with Topps and a lot of players wouldn't pose for new pictures. That's a big reason for the surplus of capless players. And it suffered in comparison to the set from the previous year--those gorgeous '67s. That said.... I was a kid at the time. I bought my first pack in 1964. Then came '65, '66 (which I absolutely adored, though I know it's not a popular favorite) and, OMG, '67. So my mindset was, "OMG, this is going to be great!" And, instead, we got burlap. I felt like I imagine Dodger fans felt when Maury Wills (who, in 1966, hit .273 with 38 stolen bases) was traded and the new shortstops were Gene Michael and Dick Schofield (.202 and .216 respectively) who each stole precisely one base. I bought very little of the stuff. I bought so little of it, I think the only Met I pulled in '68 was Tom Seaver. As a Dodger fan with no other choice beyond packs, would you have stopped buying after getting only one Dodger? THAT'S how ugly those cards looked to me. BTW, saw a bunch of previews of Heritage (more than 50 anyway) and didn't see a single player without a cap or with a blacked out cap, but they did use both varieties of burlap.

  5. I thought ugly at first, but now it's one of my favorite sets of the '60s.

  6. Poor Elston looks really sad to be wearing that uniform.

  7. Horned-rimmed glasses? I'd love to see that. Actually... I'm in the market for a new pair of glasses and if I can find a pair that looks decent... I might have to buy them. I have no plans on busting this product... but if I did... I'd be mostly excited about building those puzzle backs.