Venezuelan Topps and the Pirates of the Caribbean

When novice collectors hear the phrase “Venezuelan baseball cards,” they may picture something like this.

More seasoned collectors are more likely to identify Venezuelans as those hard to find, harder to afford, condition-sensitive cards that keep their player collections from the upper echelons of the PSA registries.

Hey, at least the shipping is free!

Other collectors, like this author, simply ignore such gaps in their collection based on most Venezuelan cards being so similar to their U.S. counterparts that there is not enough “there” there to pay through the roof for something you (mostly) already have.

In this post we will look very quickly at the years from 1959-1968 when the Venezuelan cards were nearly identical to their North American brethren and then spend my traditional very long time on the single year when they most certainly weren’t.

But first…1952-1958

My understanding is that Topps was selling cards in Latin America as far back as 1952. From 1952-1958, the cards were produced in the United States and then shipped to other countries to be sold. It was not until 1959 that Topps was not just selling but actually producing cards in Latin America.

1959

The 1959 U.S. and Venezuelan cards appear nearly identical, though in hand you would quickly detect two differences: a flimsier card stock and a less glossy finish. The backs of some of the cards would also replace the standard copyright line along the right edge with “IMPRESO EN VENEZUELA POR BENCO C.A.,” roughly translated as “Printed in Venezuela by Benco, Inc.”

As for the checklist itself, the 198-card Venezuelan issue simply followed the first 198 cards on the 1959 Topps U.S. checklist.

1960

There was even less differentiation in 1960. Again, the 198-card Venezuelan set mimicked the first 198 cards on the U.S. checklist, but this time there was not even a different copyright line. From a design perspective there was no difference between the North American (top) and South American (bottom) cards. From a production perspective, there is still a flimsier feel to the Venezuelan cards.

1962

More significant changes came to Caracas in 1962. The first is easy enough to spot: multiple elements of the card back are now in Spanish!

The second is one perhaps best known to collectors of a certain Latin American infielder. While the Venezuelan and U.S. checklists mirror each other for the first 196 cards, the Venezuelan issue skips U.S. cards 197 (Daryl Spencer) and 198 (Johnny Keane) and instead jumps to cards 199 and 200.

However, the Venezuelan issue didn’t simply jump to U.S. cards 199 and 200, both of which we recognize today as among the key cards in the U.S. set.

Rather, Venezuelan card 199 went to Venezuela-born second baseman Elio Chacon of the Mets, who would not be seen until card 256 in the U.S. set. (Side note: Frank Robinson sighting!)

Finally, card 200 went to an even more prominent Venezuelan infielder, whose card was number 325 in the U.S. set.

As a final note, the 1962 Topps U.S. set is famous for its variations. For example, all five (!) of these cards are number 139 in the U.S. set.

From what I can tell, “Babe on dirt” is the only one of the five variations present in the Venezuelan set, though (as in the U.S.) “Reniff portrait” can be found at slot 159 on the Venezuelan checklist.

Okay, I lied. I’ll say one last thing about the set. It involves a feature that would become commonplace across many Venezuelan and Canadian (O-Pee-Chee) sets during the decade.

As it came straight over from the much larger U.S. set, Venezuelan “3rd Series” checklist must have disappointed or at least baffled young collectors such as the one who this card belonged to. More than half the cards it listed were not in the set!

“¿Dónde está Daryl Spencer (197)? ¿Dónde está M. Mantle (200)? ¿Cuántos paquetes tengo que comprar?”

We know about sets with “chase cards,” but (counting the back of the checklist too) here was a set with 68 of them!

1964

Following the more significant changes of 1962, the 1964 release represented a return to the original formula, only with more cards. The set included 370 cards that mimicked the first 370 cards on the U.S. checklist. Moreover, the card backs reverted to English once again.

From a design standpoint, the most evident difference across continents was the black background color used on the Venezuelan backs as compared to a salmon color used on the U.S. card backs. (I am also speculating that the trivia answers came already revealed rather than requiring scratch-off, but I would love it if a reader can provide definitive information.)

1966

The next release was an awful lot like the one before it but with even less variation. The 370-card Venezuelan offering again matched cards 1-370 on the U.S. checklist and featured English-only card backs.

Flimsier stock and some subtle color differences provide the main means of recognizing these cards, and I have encountered quite a few tales of collectors thinking they bought a stack of ordinary Topps cards only to discover some number were Venezuelans.

1967

We’ll skip this one for now as it’s actually the main focus of the article!

1968

We have now reached the final year that Topps produced a parallel set for the Venezuelan market. The formula followed that of 1964 and 1966, a 370-card set matching up card for card with the first 370 cards of the U.S. issue. From a design perspective, about the only distinguishing feature was the nearly invisible (at my age) minuscule white lettering at the bottom of the card backs that read, “Hecho en Venezuela – C.A. Litoven.”

And finally…1967!

Hobby consensus, if not established fact, on every one of the sets from 1959-1968 is that Topps produced the cards expressly for the Venezuelan market to take advantage of baseball’s popularity and hopefully make a few extra bucks. As has been shown, the cards were essentially flimsier versions of the U.S. issues with the only interesting differences coming in 1962.

All this stood in stark contrast with what the kids of Caracas lined their pockets (or more likely their albums) with in 1967. Rather than a low-grade imitation of some early portion of the U.S. checklist, one could argue that Venezuelan collectors ended up with a better set of cards than their North American neighbors. Let’s take a closer look at the set, and you can decide for yourself!

While numbered consecutively from 1-338, there are three very distinct groupings of cards. In fact, the Standard Catalog lists them as three different sets, though most collectors I’ve talked to think of them as a single set in three parts.

Winter Leaguers

Cards 1-138 feature the players and managers of the six-team Venezuelan Winter League. This averages to 23 cards per team, which means this was less a “best of” and more an “almost everyone” sort of checklist.

Though they present at least some visual similarity to the 1967 Topps set, the Venezuelan Winter League cards are immediately identified as distinct by their distinctly non-U.S. team identifiers and their lack of facsimile signatures. (Or you can just flip the card over and see what number it is!)

Two particularly notable cards in this subset are those of nine-time National League all-star Dave Concepcion and Hall of Fame manager (then third baseman) Bobby Cox, whose Venezuelan cards beat their U.S. rookie cards by four and two years respectively.

RETIRED GREATS

Cards 139-188 featured retired (“retirado” in Spanish) greats of the game. Believe it or not, at 50 cards, this was actually one of the larger sets of retired greats produced to this point. While most of the players would have been at home in a U.S. issue, this subset also included a number of Latin American legends such as Alex Carrasquel, Alfonso Carrasquel (more on these two later), and Connie Marrero. There is also one of the more unusual Ted Kluszewski cards you’ll ever see!

ACTIVE MLB PLAYERS

Cards 189-338, a block of 150 cards comprising almost half the set, feature near replicas of 1967 Topps (U.S.) cards, at least as far as the fronts of the cards go, but these cards for once do not simply mirror the first 150 cards of the U.S. set. If that were the case, the top stars would have been limited to the following players:

  • Whitey Ford
  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Al Kaline
  • Roger Maris
  • Tony Oliva
  • Don Drysdale
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ron Santo
  • Frank Robinson
  • Willie Stargell
  • Mickey Mantle

In fact, the 150-card subset included every one of these players except Ford (more on him later) AND also included Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Bob Gibson, Pete Rose, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, and many, many other top stars of the day.

To my eyes, the player selection represents a hand-picked “best of” that not only fully encompassed every major star from the Topps set but sprinkled in a disproportionate number of Latin American players to boot. (It’s important to note here that I’m placing us back in 1967 where Seaver, Carew, and the like were not yet established superstars.)

A quick aside to quantify the “best of” nature of this subset a bit more. In at least an approximate manner we can associate the best players in the original Topps set as the ones with “hero numbering,” card numbers that ended in 0 or 5. I’ve highlighted in green the “hero numbers” from the Topps set that have cards in the Venezuelan MLB subset. Cells in red (e.g., Whitey Ford, #5) reflect cards not selected for the subset.

The chart shows at least three interesting things about the MLB subset–

  • A very high proportion (89/121, or 74%) of hero numbers were selected vs the 20% that either random selection or any consecutive block of 150 cards would have yielded.
  • All multiples of 50, generally associated with the superstars in a set, were selected.
  • And finally, it shows that more than half the cards in the MLB subset (89/150, or 59%) were chosen from the Topps hero numbers.

“How very unlike Topps to build a set around the players kids actually want!” you say. And don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon enough. For now, just recognize that the full Venezuelan set now includes just about the entire Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, a huge selection of all-time greats, and all the best active players from MLB. How do you beat that!

1967 Card Backs

Diverging from the other years we examined, the 1967 card backs look nothing like Topps. This Mathews card is typical for the entire set, with the note that its blue background is (almost always) red for the Winter Leaguers and green for the Retirado subset.

What are these anyway?

For a variety of reasons including the similarity of the final 150 cards to the U.S. issue, the full 1967 release has frequently been referred to as “1967 Topps Venezuelan” or “1967 Venezuela Topps,” the name suggesting (as truly was the case in 1959, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, and 1968) that Topps was the company behind the set’s issue.

However, conventional Hobby wisdom seems to be that the 1967 Venezuelan set (or sets if you prefer) were produced completely apart from and without the blessing of Topps. The cards were bootlegs, “pirates of the Caribbean” if you will.

More than likely the cards were produced by Sport Grafico, essentially the Venezuelan equivalent of Sports Illustrated or Sport magazines in terms of content and equal to Life or Ebony in terms of size.

From the author’s Hank Aaron collection

Before proceeding I’ll offer that the pirated nature of these cards is great news for all the collectors out there who avoid anything unlicensed. That said, I’d have a hard time imagining too many collectors who couldn’t find even one spot in their binders for beauties like these. (And feel free to click here for the most amazing 1967 Venezuelan collection I’m aware of, online or otherwise. Or click here for another amazing collection covering even more years.)

One of the best pages for learning more about the 1967 Venezuelan cards is here, though you will either need to remember your high school Spanish or use a translation feature on your browser. Among the fantastic information shared on that site is the actual album designed to hold all 338 cards. If you go to the site you can even see what the pages inside looked like.

Among other things, the album seems to all but confirm that the cards were produced by Sport Grafico. After all, their logo is prominent in the upper left corner. Though one might be tempted to regard the cartoon parrot as a nod to the pirated nature of the set, each cartoon character actually represents one of the six teams in the league:

  • Leones del Caracas (lions)
  • Tigres de Aragua (tigers)
  • Cardenales de Lara (cardinal)
  • Tiburones de la Guaira (shark)
  • Navegantes del Magallanes (sailors/mariner)
  • Pericos de Valencia (parrot parakeet)

Most online sources on the Venezuelan league refer to the name of the Valencia team as “Industriales” or the Industrialists! Fortunately, we have baseball cards to set the record straight.

You can even make out the parakeet logo on the Luis Rodriguez card!

When did the 1967 set come out?

On one hand this probably reads like the joke about who’s buried in Grant’s tomb. On the other hand, the Hobby has more than a few sets that came out later than their name would seem to suggest (e.g., “1948” Leaf).

Looking at the album cover again, we see the years 1967-1968 in the bottom right corner. This is no surprise given that the typical Venezuelan Winter League schedule ran from mid-October through early January. This alone makes me think a designation like 1967-1968 would make more sense for the cards than simply 1967. (Collectors of basketball and hockey are already quite used to this convention for dating their sets.)

One card that quickly tells us the Venezuelan cards could not have come out until (at best) very late in 1967 is the Brooks Robinson (pictured earlier) from the MLB portion of the set. In the U.S. set, this was card 600, part of the seventh and final series (cards 534-609), presumably released around September 1967. (This same series also produced 11 other players for the MLB portion of the Venezuelan set.)

I don’t claim to know all the steps and turnaround times involved to go from a stack of Topps cards to a full-fledged Venezuelan set (or even just the final third of one), but I would imagine at least the following things would all need to occur:

  • Select the players
  • Capture images from the Topps card fronts
  • Write bios and other info for the backs
  • Print, cut, and pack the cards
  • Get the cards to the stores

I’m sure I’m leaving out some important steps, but I’ll still say all of the above feels like at least two months of work. I’d be surprised if at least this final third of the Venezuelan set was out in time for Winter League Opening Day, and it definitely wouldn’t shock me to learn this final subset might not have hit the shelves until early 1968.

“Okay, but that’s the final portion of the set,” you say. Might the other portions have come out much earlier?

I’ll start with the Winter Leaguers since at least their numbering suggests they would have been the first out the door. We can gather some clues about timing from some of the players who made their Venezuelan Winter League debut during the 1967-68 campaign. One example is Paul Schaal, shown here with the Leones del Caracas team.

As 1967-68 was Schaal’s first year playing in Venezuela (also noted by the last line of his card bio), it stands to reason that the photo on the card could not have been taken before October 1967. Ditto for Jim Campanis (yes, the son of Al), who also made his Venezuelan debut in the 1967-68 campaign but is already shown in his Cardenales de Lara cap.

As these two players were still with their Major League teams (the Angels and Dodgers respectively) through the end of September, their cards would be a good month or so behind Brooks Robinson in how soon they could hit the shelves. I don’t want to underestimate the production team at Sport Grafico, but Christmas actually feels optimistic to me here.

Another interesting example here is Jose Tartabull, who remained stateside with the Red Sox all the way through the seventh game (October 12) of the 1967 World Series. However, as a returning player to the Leones del Caracas, it’s certainly possible his photo could have been a holdover from an earlier year.

We have now looked at cards in both the MLB and Winter League portions of the Venezuelan set that suggest either an extremely fast production process or at best a very late 1967 (e.g., December) release. What you probably wouldn’t expect is that even a card in the Retirado subset tells us something about the release window. His card also puts a bow on a minor mystery you might be hanging onto from a previous section.

Recall that Whitey Ford was the one big star from the 1967 Topps set not present in the MLB portion of the Venezuelan set. Given Ford’s retirement on May 30, 1967, it actually makes perfect sense that he would A) be excluded from the set of active MLB stars and B) find himself included in the set of retired greats. Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t make sense is why he’s posing with what I assume is Joe Pepitone’s jersey! (UPDATE: A reader provided an excellent explanation in the comments section.)

Ford’s retirement was early enough in 1967 that it wouldn’t have exerted any real pressure on releasing the Retirado cards by the opening of Winter League. Nonetheless, it takes the one subset that at least theoretically could have come out the soonest and probably pushes it back to August/September at the earliest.

Yes, one certainly could argue that the team at Sport Grafico simply had a feeling in advance that Ford would retire. However, the back of the card shows that he had in fact already retired.

Translated into English the last sentence of the card reads, “The lefthander’s career was shortened by muscular pains and although he underwent surgery he could not recover his effectiveness, so he voluntarily retired in 1967.”

Ultimately, the question of when these cards came out, if not established by the distinct memories of contemporary collectors, might be settled by a thorough enough review of Sport Grafico magazines from late 1967 and early 1968. Assuming the cards genuinely were the work of the magazine, then perhaps there would be an ad dedicated to their release.

That said, the bulk of the ads in the issues I have (early 1970s) are primarily targeted to adults who would not have been the target market for cards, at least not back then! Still, I’d enjoy the search if I ever found the right issues, and depending on what I found I might annoy my fellow collectors by referring to the set as 1968 Sport Grafico rather than any of the various names it goes by today.

“VEN” diagrams

Everything I’ve offered thus far is simply a curation (but with less accuracy or authority) than what you’d find on the Web if you spent a dozen or so hours trying to learn everything you could about these sets. Of course the reason I’m the highest paid blogger at SABR Baseball Cards (okay, fine, tied for highest with all the other guys making $0.00) is because I try to bring something new to the table whenever I can.

In this case I’m talking about my trademark needlessly detailed analysis of the set’s checklist. Since we’re talking about a VENEZUELAN issue, it stands to reason that I will be employing VEN diagrams. (And yes, I know I spelled it wrong. Work with me, please, work with me.)

This first VEN diagram looks at the 338 subjects in the set, organized by which group(s) they appear in. The main thing to notice is that five of the subjects have cards in multiple groups.

Since the numbers are small, I’ll show each of the cards that land in the overlapping sections of the VEN diagram.

First here are the three players represented in both the Winter League (1-138) and the MLB (189-338) portions of the checklist. Probably not coincidentally, the three players are all Venezuelan-born and were assigned to the first three cards in the MLB subset (i.e., 189-191).

Next up are an uncle and nephew who are both Winter Leaguers (coaches, anyways) and retired greats.

Collectors in Peoria, Illinois, may wonder how either Carrasquel managed to join the hallowed list of retired greats otherwise populated by the likes of Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige. In fact, Alejandro was the first Venezuelan to play MLB, and Alfonso was the first Venezuelan MLB all-star.

Now that we’ve made it through the VEN diagram of the full Venezuelan set, we can now compare each part of that set to the (real) 1967 Topps set. The first VEN diagram I’ll look at compares the Retirado portion of the Venezuelan issue with the full U.S. set.

If you were paying attention just a few minutes ago, you already know the player in the overlap is Whitey Ford, so I won’t rehash any old explanations. I’ll just note that another good candidate would have been Gil Hodges, who had a manager card in the 1967 Topps set and at least in my book would have fit every definition of a retired great.

The next VEN diagram compares the Winter League portion of the Venezuelan issue with the full U.S. set. From previous work, we already expect to see Davalillo, Tovar, and Aparicio within the overlap, but these three players represent just one-seventh of the total number.

Here is a complete list of all 21 overlappers. As you can see, nearly half were confined to multi-player rookie cards in the Topps set but now had solo cards they could show off to their families and friends.

And while the money wasn’t as good in Winter Ball, at least you got to wear your hat on your baseball card and have your uniform match your team!

The final Venezuelan subset to compare against the 1967 Topps (U.S.) set is the collection of 150 pirated Topps cards at the very end. A VEN diagram here would be dull since all 150 of the cards are drawn from the U.S. set. Therefore, what I’ll do instead is show how the U.S. versions of these 150 cards match up with the U.S. checklist.

As the barely readable plot shows, the 150 cards came from all areas of the Topps checklist, including the dozen already noted from the final series.

Postscript: North of the border

As a guy who gets paid by the word, even if my rate is $0.00 per word, I’ll do anything to make my articles longer. (Editor’s note: Even adding superfluous editor’s notes when he’s not even the editor!) In this case that means the one last comparison nobody would have presumed relevant (and probably still won’t even once I’ve presented it).

While Topps most likely had no hand at all in the 1967 Venezuelan set, aside from having their images ripped off, it’s not like Topps was ignoring the rest of the world. As had been the tradition for the previous two years, Topps once again issued an O-Pee-Chee set up in Canada.

Much in line with how the (true) Topps Venezuelan sets went, this 196-card set simply mimicked cards 1-196 from the U.S. set and would be indistinguishable (at least to me) from their American neighbors if not for the “Printed in Canada” line at the bottom of each card’s reverse.

What this means is that multiple players had cards from not one or two but THREE different countries in 1967, even if for most players the variation from card to card to card was fairly uninteresting. (And yes, this was true in 1966 and 1968 as well, bu my focus here is on 1967.)

To support your internationally diverse collecting interests I now bring you my final VEN diagram, one that will allow you to triple up on the cards of some of your favorite players. Among the 49 three-country sensations are these star players.

  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Al Kaline
  • Roger Maris
  • Tony Oliva
  • Don Drysdale
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ron Santo
  • Frank Robinson
  • Willie Stargell
  • Steve Carlton
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Eddie Mathews

Aparicio collectors, it should be noted, can score the four-point play by adding his Winter League card to their binders also. (Ditto, Vic Davalillo.) And of course Ford collectors just miss the cut but can still rep all three countries by “settling for” his Retirado card as the Venezuelan piece of the trio.

Of course I know some of you will not be satisfied even with a three-country collection and are demanding four! Well, good news! I’ve also crosswalked the 1967 U.S., Venezuelan, and Canadian sets with the 1967 Kabaya-Leaf cards out of Japan, and I did manage to find a single hit…as long as you’re okay with the “Japanese Mickey Mantle!”

Author: jasoncards

I mainly enjoy writing about baseball and baseball cards, but I've also dabbled in the sparsely populated Isaac Newton trading card humor genre. As of January 2019 I'm excited to be part of the SABR Baseball Cards blogging team, and as of May 2019 Co-Chair of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee.

15 thoughts on “Venezuelan Topps and the Pirates of the Caribbean”

  1. 1. Bravo, this is wonderful.
    2. Youngster, I will push back on the idea that Seaver and Carew were not stars in 1967. Both were literally on the All-Star team, Carew was the AL starter at 2B, and Seaver was the winning pitcher. So depending on when these cards came out I would say they were stars by May! (This has nothing to do with these cards, and whether they should have been included.)
    3. I LOVE the winter league cards, which make the entire operation fantastic. The retired cards, IMO, are pretty meh.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never taken the plunge on these. Expensive, beat up, and a bit of a rabbit hole to get into foreign issues in a generla sense (even OPC is something I’m wary of). That said I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being insterested in the 1962s for Spanish-language reasons.

    The 67s meanwhile intrigue me because of how they crop off the black keylines from the photos. I wish I had a proper high-res scan of one of these but the PSA images sort of look like the remaining black components are printed in all four inks instead of a single black ink like they are on the real Topps cards. This would confirm that the 67s are bootlegs produced by re-photographing the Topps cards.

    Like

    1. One of the articles I read talked about the 1962 Aparicio and Chacon, both produced by Topps, as nonetheless showing evidence of being made similarly. Comparing the Venezuelan and Topps cards of those two players will show some clues.

      Like

  3. Regarding the Whitey Ford/Joe Pepitone jersey picture, I would venture a guess that it was taken in late 1961 after Whitey won his 25th game of the year. I seem to remember many photos of this type in that era when players reached a milestone. Sometimes it was a photo with the milestone uniform number, sometimes balls arranged to make numbers (I think I’ve seen Gehrig photographed with baseballs spelling out “2000” for consecutive games, possibly DiMaggio with balls spelling out “56”.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Mick seems to have maintained his top spot in the Hobby for quite a while now. As far as the debate goes on whether he keeps the top spot forever (let’s say among players from 1940-2010) I am in the minority who believes future generations will choose Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Satchel Paige, or Henry Aaron above Mick.

      As for my team, Dodgers then, now, and forever!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful piece, Jason! It makes me want to add some of these cards to my collection–especially the Spanish language 1967 or bilingual 1962 cards. It’s a bummer that Topps didn’t introduce some photo variations like they/OPC did for the 1977 OPC set, which remains my favorite foreign issue thanks to those variations. Although the 1967 Sport Grafico set may now be #2. Thanks for writing this!

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  5. Just stumbled on this article… Well done!!!! I’m an avid collector of Venezuelan cards (I grew up in Caracas 1961-70 and bought wax packs) , and love finding anything that addresses the history of these cards! I have talked with Topps officials on at least two occasions at the National in recent years, and it appears all Topps paperwork related to the Venezuelan cards was in a basement at Topps and discarded some time ago… so sadly, it seems all we’ll ever know about these cards is based on assumptions and speculation… Someone with connections at Topps needs to nudge them to find a living former employee from the 1960s (they’d be around 90 years old) who might could shed some light on the history of the Venezuelan cards….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tyson, do you remember much about how the 1967 cards were sold? Did it feel like you were buying Topps just like the year before, or was it evident that these were from Sport Grafico or somewhere else? Also, do you remember when these cards tended to hit the shelves?

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