Let Us Now Praise Famous Sets

I have been buying vintage Topps cards for 40 years (since I first walked into a “baseball card shop”), sometimes one or two at a time, sometimes in lots. There have been long stretches of inactivity for a year or five, as I dealt with jobs and children and whatnot, stretches where my cards were in moving crates, unseen for months at a time.

Acknowledging that everyone in this hobby gets to make their own rules, I have learned a few things along the way that might help others as you consider your own paths.

Set Collecting Lesson #1: Vintage cards are not a good investment, using any reasonable definition of that term.

I can only speak to post-1950 cards, so feel free to save for college on pre-war cards. According to the January 1991 Beckett guide, the 1965 Topps set (Near Mint) was selling for $3,300, which is $6,300 in 2020 dollars. The most recent Beckett Vintage Collector (thanks @nightowlcards) lists the set for $5,000. The 1967 Topps set has performed even worse, from $4500 ($8600 in today’s dollars) to $5000.

Vintage cards exploded in the 1980s, seeing a ten-fold increase in value, but have severely lagged inflation in the subsequent three decades. There are certainly individual cards that have increased in real value, but good luck figuring that out.

In my young adult years, coinciding with the 1980s boom, I filled in my early 1970s childhood sets and then moved backwards. From 1985 to 2010 I completed back to 1964, with the bulk of that time (and money) spent on 1966 and 1967. I continued to accumulate earlier (pre-1964) cards, content that set completion might never happen. By 2018, I had between 62% and 98% of the 1956 through 1963 sets. Even then, I was not committed to finishing any of them and occasionally contemplated selling one or more of the near-sets.

In May 2019, the Baseball Hall of Fame opened its new permanent exhibit celebrating baseball cards. I had helped with some of the exhibit planning, and I was trying to justify the expense of flying across the country to attend (while also rounding up several card friends to join me). My solution: abandon my 1959 and 1960 sets, by selling off my star cards. 1960 is my least favorite vintage Topps set, and while I like 1959 a bit more, I decided that going to Cooperstown was more important.

I got more than enough money to fund the trip, and it was it was an absolute blast from beginning to end. Looking forward to our next group “meeting” — Chicago 2021? Do I miss my 1959 and 1960 cards? Honestly, not really.

A few months ago, spending day after day shut in the house and having no other extra-curricular outlets, I again took stock of my collection. I now had the majority for six sets (1956-58, 1961-63) , rather than eight.

I decided to push forward.

Set Collecting Lesson #2: Try not to stock up on commons and leave the stars for the end. (A variation of this, which I read over this past weekend: Until you get the Mantle, you aren’t really committed. Fortunately, I had all six Mantle base cards.)

It feels great to say you have half of the 1967 set but (assuming completion is your goal) you want to think of “half” as meaning “half the value.” If you have no high numbers and still need Mantle, Mays, Clemente, and Aaron, you don’t actually have half the set. You have 15% of the set. I have made a concerted effort over the years to mix this up–if I was buying a 100-card lot of 1963 commons, I’d try to add Aaron and Koufax to the pile to stay in balance.

After revealing in an unrelated blog post that I needed just 22 cards from the 1956 set (and no big stars), a few SABR friends (including Chris Kamka and Dixie Tourangeau) contacted me to ask what I needed. And just like that–I was down to 15. (Have I mentioned how incredible SABR is?) Over the next few weeks, having been sufficiently nudged, I spent some time on eBay and bought the missing cards. On August 11, card #251 (Yankees team) arrived and I was finished. My first completed vintage set in more than a decade, and one of the most popular in Topps history.

Set Collecting Lesson #3: Don’t forget the team cards, especially the New York teams.

Because I had always considered team cards to be “commons”, and because they never showed up as commons when I was buying, my “need list” included a lot of team cards. The Yankees and Dodgers teams are priced like star cards.

About this time, another SABR friend sent me 100 cards from the 1950s–what he had saved of his childhood collection. It was an extraordinary act of kindness, one I plan to repay once the pandemic is over. Some were beat up, but many were not, and all are wonderful.

I now had five targets (1957-1958 and 1961-1963), each of which would require several hundred dollars (at least) to finish off. Candidly, I was contemplating abandoning one or more other sets in order to acquire the funds to carry on. Instead, I decided to take the long overdue step of reducing some of my excess cards and memorabilia.

Over the past few months, I have sold a lot of material, including

  • the last several years of Topps Heritage
  • all of my remaining 1959/60 cards
  • vintage baseball doubles (stars and lots)
  • old programs/yearbooks
  • vintage football/hockey/basketball
  • some older oddball stuff that I never looked at

My collection is considerably smaller than it was in July, and my office shelving has become considerably neater.

As my sales were starting to pile up I had an exchange of DMs with Jeff Katz (@splitseason1981). I told him that I was struggling with (for example) selling a stack of baseball cards for $300 and then buying other cards for $300 without thinking “Why am I spending $300 on baseball cards?” He urged me to think of them as “very long trades.”

Set Collecting Lesson #4 (via Jeff Katz): Using card sales to fund other card sales is properly justified as a trade, not a betrayal of the family budget.

This proved to be a crucial reframing. I will spare you the details, but since late July my PayPal balance has repeatedly grown, and has been repeatedly cashed in. I have not kept precise track of this, but it was essentially a break even enterprise for three months. This has slowed down, because I have run out of excess to sell. I have been glancing suspiciously at some of my old board games, but have thus far resisted.

So, how’d I do?

1963

I needed 12 cards, but unfortunately one of them was #547.

The 1963 Topps Pete Rose card (#547) is just awful. When considering its ugliness and its market price I could argue that it is the worst baseball card in the hobby. (I wrote about this before.) The “rookie card” phenomenon began in the early 1980s at a time when Rose was the biggest name in baseball, and that status in combination with the card being in the final series, made his card skyrocket. The card might have cost $1 in the late 1970s, but it was $500 in the 1986 Beckett guide (in 2020 dollars, $1175).

Employing Lesson #4, I built up some funds, searched for a few weeks for something in my price range at an acceptable condition (VG?), and bit the bullet. The other cards came along and I wrapped up the set on August 27.

Imagine lookin at this page, knowing nothing about card “values” and choosing the Rose card ahead of the Clemente just below it? Seriously, people?

1961

I needed 106 cards, and this proved to be the most difficult ($$) of the sets I was pursuing. While I had followed Lesson #2 by having nearly all the stars (exception: Juan Marichal rookie), I had done a relatively poor job with the high numbers, the special subsets, and the Yankees. I had not consciously avoided the Yankees, but when I was buying commons for 50 cents years ago, or $1 more recently, there were never any Yankees at that price.

The 1961 Yankees are a popular team with their fans, a championship team that featured a famous home run chase. Not only do you have the base cards of Mantle, Maris, Ford and Berra to contend with, you also have to pay a premium for Bill Stafford and Bob Cerv. What’s more, the subsets are littered with Yankees: the MVP set includes Mantle, Maris and Berra; the World Series cards feature Mantle, Ford and Richardson; the Baseball Thrills has cards for Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig and Don Larsen. I am generally a “base card” person, so I dislike paying premium prices for a Baseball Thrills card. But here I was.

This all culminates, of course, in the excellent All-Star subset of 22 cards, in the final series, that includes Mantle, Maris, Ford and Skowron (plus Mays, Aaron, Banks, etc.) If you are Yankee fan, I’d recommend cashing in everything you own and focusing on the 1961 set. If you are not, good luck, but … it’s a truly outstanding set.

Sorry for the lighting in my office.

When Ron Perranoski showed up on September 14, the set was conquered.

1962

I needed 74 and found a way to buy 36 at once to put this set in my sights.

Several years ago I made a giant spreadsheet listing all the cards I needed in various sets, and for the last eight cards of the 1962 set I typed “591 Rookie Parade”, “592 Rookie Parade”, etc. Which was accurate! None of them were big stars so I didn’t bother to list the player names. Each card contained 4 or 5 floating player heads, cards that I was predisposed to dislike. If I saw them at a show over the years, I am sure I just skipped right by.

It turns out that these eight cards are a Who’s Who of 1960s cult heroes, which makes them premium cards in a premium series. Sudden Sam McDowell, Dick (The Monster) Radatz, Bob Uecker, Bob Veale, Jim Bouton, Bo Belinsky, Ed (The Glider) Charles, Joe Pepitone, Phil (Harmonica) Linz, Rod Kanehl, Jim Hickman. My own fault, obviously, but seeing those prices on eBay one day was a bit off-putting.

It took quite a few vintage card sales to build up the balance for these floating heads. On October 2, the mailman dropped off #502, a gorgeous Hector Lopez, and the set was conquered.

1957

The 1957 Topps sets is one of the most important sets in baseball card history. It was the first to use the 2.5″ x 3.5″ size, which remains the standard 63 years later, and its simple design allows the gorgeous photography to dominate the face of the card. In my humble opinion, it is the second best set of Topps’ monopoly years.

While so many Topps vintage sets are beset with a challenging final series, in 1957 the tough series is actually the fourth (of five) series (265-352). Back in July, I needed 147 cards to finish this set, and nearly half of those were from series 4. Because I have always loved this set, I had picked up most of the stars over the years.

Having held my nose already to pay for the 1963 Rose, the next toughest card in my quest proved to be the 1957 #328 Brooks Robinson. Hall of Famer, rookie card, tough series, it checked all the boxes. Although everyone loves Brooks, and I love Brooks, it is not a particularly attractive card (especially obvious in such a stunning set) and I personally don’t value rookie cards. So, how much should I pay? I actually spent a few weeks finding and rejecting options, and was prepared to walk away from the set entirely if this card could not fall in my price range.

Set Collecting Lesson #5: Figure out what card condition you need.

My core childhood sets (1967-71) are at least EX-MT, maybe Near Mint, not that I know what that means exactly. I have spent quite a bit of energy going through the sets and upgrading them if I noticed a corner defect I had not previously seen. As I started to move backwards in my collecting focus 30 years ago, the hobby was putting more and more of a premium on condition, and I had to modify my standards if I was going to have any success. Without really understanding card grading, I discovered that the condition I wanted was:

  • centered enough so that you don’t notice centering at a glance
  • no creases/wrinkles/scarring on the main image; wrinkles near the edge are of less importance
  • nice corners preferred, but some rounding OK if eye is not drawn to it
  • no writing/marking

As we venture back in time ($$) my standards become looser, but all of the above principles are how I ultimately would score the card. Obviously, I would prefer the card be perfect, but my sweet spot (judging by eBay listings) is VG-EX, though I have found VG and even Good examples that meet my criteria and save me a lot of money.

I don’t buy graded cards as a rule. When I do it is because the card is at a good price based on my own personal criteria. I remember the early days of eBay when people would buy/sell without photos, but with the photo quality today I feel like I know what I am getting. I have bought a few cards that had a flaw that I had not seen, but nothing egregious.

My main objections to graded cards are: (1) you generally pay a premium for something I don’t care about, and (2) they screw up my card storage.

I bring this up because I bought a few graded 1957 cards and now I don’t know what to do with them. I have cracked a few PSA cases in my day, so I suppose that is what will happen but I have not yet taken this step.

This Brooks Robinson is worse than I normally want, but it represents great value for me because its flaws are in the 5% of the surface I care least about. If it had sharp corners but a crease on Brooks’s neck it would get a higher grade but I would had much less interest.

My final 1957 card (#306, Darrel Johnson) arrived on October 6.

1958

I love the 1958 set, though I am not sure precisely why. After the majestic photography of 1957, Topps switched gears and used either a head or body shot on a solid background, a model they have never used before or since. (The next year they split the difference by showing a little background within a keyhole circle–this does not work as well for me, though others seems to love it.)

In July I needed 189 cards from 1958, but a lot of them were commons which you can find in U-pick lots, and there is no really tough series. This is actually a pretty easy set to put together if you have the stars (which I did). I had to hunt for the Roger Maris rookie card, which proved much easier than I had feared.

One of the last cards I needed was #340 Don Newcombe. I bought a copy of the card on eBay in late August (before most of the above sets were finished) and a few weeks later it had not arrived. Understanding that the postal service is imperfect, I wrote to the seller, got no response, wrote again, no response, and finally requested a refund through eBay. I got the refund and bought another card. Too late, I realized I used the same seller! And, believe or not, the same thing happened again. I have no idea whether the guy ever sent either card–I got both refunds, and neither card ever showed up. I finally ordered from someone else.

On November 1, 9 weeks after ordering the card, I finally got Newcombe.

And I was done. Six finished sets in three months, stored horizontally a few feet away.

Set Collecting Lesson #6: Vintage cards are not a good investment, BUT putting money into vintage cards does not carry much risk.

Think of this way: you could buy a really nice 1957 Willie Mays for $400, put it in a frame on your office desk, and if you got sick of it in five years you could sell it and get most or all of your money back. With eBay and other on-line businesses available, the price of buying and later selling is pretty low.

And, importantly: you get to have a 1957 Willie Mays on your desk for five years. Assuming you don’t damage the card, you are merely borrowing it for a time.

And who wouldn’t want that?

Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, founder and past chairman of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, current President of the SABR board of directors, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

15 thoughts on “Let Us Now Praise Famous Sets”

  1. That’s an incredible accomplishment. As someone who stays away from the dollar side of the Hobby (other than spending), I can honestly say I’d rather flip thru binders of 1956-1957 than even 1952.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have definitely down-shifted since finishing this, just dabbling on insert/oddball sets. I need one for my 1970 Topps Super (Seaver), a few 1969 Topps stamp booklets, etc. No big sets in my short term future. (It would probably require some additional selling.)

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  2. Quite the accomplishment.. I’m trying to button up 1970. Don’t know if I’ll chase another vintage set. I like your idea of chasing the smaller insert type sets.

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  3. Oh, I was going to comment on rule number 2. As someone who tends to leave the expensive cards until the end a lot of my logic is that I can wait until I find that card at a price I want. Yes my Giants searchlists look ridiculous now because they’re only Mays + high numbers, but I’m slowly picking off cards from that list as I find them.

    And no I’m not building true vintage sets but I’d be pretty happy with a lot that was complete except for the HoFers and high numbers. Would I say I was “almost” complete? No. But a large part of collecting a set for me is getting to know that set and that exercise is best accomplished in the commons weeds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, my “lesson” (not rule) 2 is more of a warning. But I do agree that there are times when getting a little volume is what your desires are going to call for. My lessons also presuppose that your goal is to collect the set–which is not the same as saying that this is what your goal should be.

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  4. I hear you about the team cards. I’m working on collecting all of the Topps team portrait cards, and some of them are a little out of my range right now. Those Yankee teams, holy moly.

    As far as card condition goes, I have found that Good is acceptable to me. I will take a slight crease for $3 as opposed to the same card in Ex condition for $50. What I usually do is take the best grade that does not involve a large jump in price.

    I am envious of your ’57 Brooks Robinson. That is one of three Robinsons that I need, and I haven’t found one anywhere near my price range.

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  5. Everyone is congratulating you on the set completions, but let me throw in a compliment on this being an extremely well-written and practical post. Thanks for taking the time to write it–I really enjoyed it!

    As for the rules, you have some really good ones there. I agree with your view of condition pretty much spot on–the older the set is, the more flexible I am. My 1952 (low numbers only) are pretty much VG. Then I jump up to my birth year, 1968, through 1975, which I have collected over the years (with 1968-1971 still in progress), which are mostly EX or EX-Mt. 1976 is NrMt because I bought a nearly complete set that way. From 1977 onward (the years I basically collected live), they are pretty much all NrMt and up. Not that the cards from my early childhood are NrMt–those actual cards are in separate boxes; I upgraded 1977 and 1978 at some point but have saved my actual childhood cards.

    This pandemic has been good for one thing–having a little extra time to focus on collecting. I have finished off my 1972 and 1974 sets since March, made substantial progress toward 1968, 1970, and 1971, and started and got 75% through 1969. Under your “percent of valuation complete” method of inventory, I suppose 1968 is only about halfway because I am missing the Jerry Koosman rookie, but for the rest of them, I have most of the key cards.

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  6. Great article. It reminds me of my search to finish sets. I started my 1961 Topps set in . . . 1961 and finished it in 2010. A concerted effort from 1997 to 2010. I then worked on finishing my 1956 and 1960 set from 2010 to 2020. I eventually sold both my 1961 and 1960 set. I am leaving the 1956 set to my son. I am a records guy and discovered that the money I spent collecting the sets just about equal the price I sold them for! No profit but a lot of fun.

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  7. Well that makes my completion of the 1992 Pinnacle set over the summer look less impressive. But I did it through a trade of other similarly inexpensive type of cards (1992 Donruss and Fleer), so that was kind of cool.

    I wonder how accurate Beckett pricing is for higher end vintage sets these days. I don’t think you can find a Near Mint (PSA 7) 1965 Topps Mantle (without qualifiers) for much less than $1,000. Not that you can add up individual card sales to get to a set price as there are almost always good discounts on buying complete sets (I’m doing this with 90s sets/insert sets now; you can usually find a complete insert set for a few dollars more than you would pay for just the Griffey, and sometimes less than the individual Griffey), but if that Mantle is selling for $1,000 in PSA 7 I’d think the complete set price is higher than what Beckett lists.

    The better grade complete 1965 Topps sets I see selling on eBay are going for $3,000, with the most expensive selling for around $4,000 once you toss in the taxes, but that set has some PSA 6 (EX-MT) cards with a few 7s, and only 21 are graded. And eBay is supposed to be the lower end of the price range, where people are searching for good deals. Most of the sets selling are listing as VG-EX, so I am not even sure Beckett has good data on set sales at that card condition range. I don’t have the Vintage Collector magazines, but there are certainly places that the standard Beckett pricing is clearly behind the times (I have 2001 Topps Traded Irvin Guzman’s that I will gladly sell you for the HI price of $4; no? how about the low price of $1.50?).

    On the other hand, a 1979 Baseball Patches (Penn-Emblem) Keith Hernandez lists in Beckett for $4, and one just sold for $150 on eBay (I didn’t buy it; I already have one but I watched that auction with amazement).

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    1. I don’t know if this is allowed but I have some inserts from the 80’s-90’s that are collecting box dust. If you send me a want list I would be glad to look for yours. When I priced my 1960 cards so I could sell the set, I reviewed Deans Cards among others and took off 25%.

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