A Quixotic Quest

Recent trends in the baseball card world have caused me to step aside for the time being. Vintage cards, at least the years I might be interested in targeting, have become too expensive, and recent cards no longer cater to the childlike fun that drew me to the hobby as a youngster. I concede that Vincent Van Gogh would have made fine artwork if asked to use a 2.5 x 3.5 inch canvas, maybe even a classic “card” of Jackie Robinson, but (a) why would we ask him to do this, and (b) how would that help 10-year-olds to fall in love with the game?

So now what?

In recent years I have been very slowly working on completing various oddball sets from my childhood, especially Topps inserts or standalone offerings. The first inserts I remember encountering were the 1968 game cards, which Topps included in 3rd series packs. I’ve written about these cards before. They were fun and attractive, but very much treated as an “extra” in the pack, more important than the gum, but less important than the five included base cards. No one traded their “real” Willie Mays card for his game card.

In 1969 Topps produced two very popular inserts, one a black-and-white deckle edged card, and the other a color decal (which could be peeled off and affixed to another surface). Both very fun extras.

In 1970 Topps replaced their long-standard 5-cards-for-a-nickel packs with 10-cards-for-a-dime. This might seem a trivial difference, but for those of us with a 25 cents/week allowance, it required complex budgeting.

Perhaps feeling somewhat guilty, Topps placed three different inserts into packs throughout the summer. Although there may have been regional scheduling variations, in my neck of the woods Topps used posters in series 1/2, scratch offs in series 3/4/5, and story booklets in series 6/7. I hope to write about all of them in more detail soon, but for today I will focus on the scratch offs.

The 1970 Topps scratch off set consisted of 24 cards, picturing a player from each of the 24 teams.

When folded, the photo of Yaz is the “front”, the scoreboard and rules are the “back”. When unfolded, the game is revealed.

If you follow the rules your card might look like this around the sixth inning.

Truth be told, there are *lot* of problems here.

  1. If you actually play the game, your hands will be blackened by the third inning. Even as a nine-year-old, this was annoying. What if you had to touch your “real” cards?
  2. Once the game is played once, the card is useless. With the 1968 game cards you could collect a big stack (doubles are useful), and play the game over and over.
  3. The scratched “card” looks awful. (This point might be up for debate. I know that @vossbrink, for example, likes checklist cards that have been used for their intended purpose. This is a respectable point of view, and might apply here.)
  4. Even fresh out of the pack, the row on the seam (see picture) was difficult to scratch and read.
  5. Not that kids cared at the time, but the cards were often misaligned or poorly cut.

Although I said above that the players represented each of the 24 teams, the team name is not actually listed–this is just something you would figure out if you placed them with their real team. Presumably “Red Sox” is not specified because Yaz is supposed to be the captain of *your* team. Nonetheless, the players chosen are clearly supposed to stand for the 24 major league teams.

McCarver and Allen played for the Cardinals and Phillies, respectively, in 1969, but were traded for each other (along with several others) in October. Since they appear hatless, and since they both appeared on cards labeled with their new teams in the flagship set, we can assume that these are cards for the Phillies (McCarver) and Cardinals (Allen).

Mike Hegan shows up wearing a Seattle Pilots hat, consistent with Topps use of the Pilots team throughout the summer (though they moved to Milwaukee prior to the season). For Yastrzemski and the other 20 cards the real-life team is obvious.

A discerning observer in 1970 (which, if we are being completely honest, I was not) would have recognized the scratch off set as an uninspired, even lazy, effort by Topps.

But … things would soon get *less* inspired.

In 1971, Topps was fresh out of ideas and chose to use the scratch offs as an insert again. Not just the concept — they used exactly the same players, with identical fronts and backs. The only difference is that the background color on the inside is red instead of white. (One wonders why they even bothered to change the inside?)

There were real-life player shifts that upended Topps’ team symmetry. Dick Allen had been traded to the Dodgers and Luis Aparicio to the Red Sox (changes reflected in the flagship set), which gave each of those teams two “captains” in the 1971 scratch off set. Mike Hegan still donned his Pilots cap, now more than a year after the team’s demise.

Of course, the team names were not listed on the “card”, there was no checklist, and the one-card-per-team rule was not stated anywhere. So, says Topps, “where is the lie?”

But, you might be thinking, “who cares if every team gets a card?”

For one, Topps very clearly cared. In all of their insert sets in the late 1960s and early 1970s they made sure to have least one card for every team. I assume that the people at Topps thought that kids in Cleveland would like seeing one of their heroes on a 1968 game card (Steve Hargan!), and that Seattle tots would get a kick out of seeing a Pilot on a 1969 deckle-edged card (Tommy Davis!). For kids who rooted for other teams, it gave these little sets a bit of character. The lesson we learned, in cards and in life: not every player, or person, is a Hall of Famer.

In 1970, Topps’ took this honorable stance one step further. For the three 1970 inserts sets I mention above, there were 24 cards in each set, one per team, and Topps used 72 different players.

Topps deserves a great deal of credit for doing this, for balancing the top-flight stars between these three sets, but also for serving children across the land. Isn’t that, I asked plaintively, the point of all this? Future Giants collectors hardly needed another version of three Hall-of-Famers to be, but look at those Angels, or those Brewers, or those Padres. Well done, Topps.

The actual point of all of this is to celebrate that I recently completed my 1970 and 1971 scratch off sets (my final card was the 1971 Stargell). This was more challenging than you would think because most dealers have no idea what the difference is between the two sets, so if you order something listed as a 1971 Aaron you might end up with the 1970 Aaron when the mail comes. Also, eBay listings will not reveal that the inside has been scratched so you really need to see an image for both the inside and outside, and dealers are occasionally annoyed when you ask for this. One person asked, in obvious exasperation , “does it really matter?”

Then once you get all the cards, you might put them in nine-pocket sheets and discover the two sets now look identical. Are you really going to pull out the card, unfold it, and stare lovingly at the black-on-red or black-on-white insides? Call me unromantic if you must, but I suggest that you are not going to do this.

Frankly, there is no good reason to collect either set, let alone both.

Except this. These “cards” were placed in packs in 1970 and 1971, packs that I opened, packs that I loved, packs that made my day on more than one occasion. They remind me of being 9 years old, when baseball cards were everything to me, and when Topps seemed for all the world to be focused on the needs and desires of me and fellow 9 year olds throughout the land. That version of me is gone, and so is that version of Topps.

But with these silly little scratch off cards, 48 in all, I can pretend that we are both alive and well.

And for that reason alone, I have no regrets.

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.

12 thoughts on “A Quixotic Quest”

  1. 48 cards total. That means you can fit them in five 9-pocket sheets with three left over to store unfolded in a 4-pocket sheet so you can demonstrate what the game looks like.

    Also. Total agreement on the idea of completing insert sets from your peak collecting years. Those are fun and are a great way to remember the stars at the time as well as be reminded of a simple age of “pack hits.” I’m doing a similar thing with a few such insert sets from my youth as well. Not ALL of them of course because my youth was insane here. Just the ones I remember liking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve completed the story booklets set and have probably half the posters from 1970. I would bet I’ve had pretty much complete sets of the 70 and 71 scratch off game but ultimately traded some. I should go back and complete these. Also thought about completing the Supers from 70 and 71.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love it.
    I followed a similar course in recent years, filling in insert sets I didn’t have. I finished the 1969 Decals (which you started me on), and, in one of the happiest set builds, completed the 1971 Coins set.
    I ended up buying a complete 1970 Scratch-off set, but can’t bring myself to buying the 1971, for reasons you state.
    I’d like to go back into the ’60’s for more inserts, but they get pricey. I’m close to done on the 1963 Peel-offs though.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love this post. I have the entire 1970 poster set and 23 of them were ones where I actually opened the packs as a 10 year old. Used to have a bunch of the scratch offs, will be fun to try and get those again.


  5. Thank you for this eloquent presentation of your dalliance with some childhood nostalgia, Mark. Our sentiments dovetail nicely in this regard. My pack-buying, collecting days began in 1960, 1961, and 1962, before getting fascinated again in 1976 (after I entered graduate school! Haven’t anayzed that yet). I bought packs of Fleer, Leaf, and Topps in those days, plus whatever Nucards came in. The Topps inserts in ’61 and ’62 were stamps, for which an album was available. I can’t remember now how I obtained the ’61 stamp album. I never did get one for the ’62 stamps. I also acquired a really nice set of team logo decals, which came either in the ’60 Topps packs or in one of the years of Fleer. (The Fleer cards were all-time greats put out in ’60 and ’61. I hadn’t started with the collecting yet when the ’59 Ted Williams set came out.) I didn’t get too many of the black-and-white Leaf packs, probably because the cards were black-and-white, and all head-shot portraits. I’ve read that the insert in those packs was something weird, either a cookie or a marble (can’t remember which), but I have zero memory of opening a Leaf pack and finding either a cookie or a marble. I do remember having some marbles, but recall playing with them infrequently.

    I still have those cards, and occasionally I like to look at them. Thinking about them evokes the associated memories of walking the two blocks down my street, Hermosa Drive in San Antonio, on a blistering hot summer day, to Zim’s Ice House on Blanco Road, picking out my card packs from the boxes next to the cash register, and handing my pocket change to old man Zim, sitting on his stool behind the counter. He never had anything to say, that I can recall. I handed him my money, and headed back down the street, opening my cards with some eager anticipation as I walked. And of course, chewing some gum. Or maybe eating a cookie.


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post, Mark. One of my pet peeves about modern cards is when they *don’t* have all the teams represented. Those sets where the Brewers were not represented essentially don’t matter to me as a team collector — they are interesting side lights but that’s all. I guess that’s why I gave up on modern cards after a few years, in that every set had dozens and dozens of pick your big market team while often ignoring the Brewers, the Rays, the Royals, and the Twins.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I thought about talking about the modern failure in this regard but I didn’t want to pile on. Heritage has replicated some of these inserts, and of course misses this key policy. As a Red Sox fan, I can assure you: I don’t need 20 Xander Bogaerts cards every year. THERE ARE 30 TEAMS.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. “These “cards” were placed in packs in 1970 and 1971, packs that I opened, packs that I loved, packs that made my day on more than one occasion. They remind me of being 9 years old, when baseball cards were everything to me, and when Topps seemed for all the world to be focused on the needs and desires of me and fellow 9 year olds throughout the land. ” — A finer paragraph of text I have not read in many months.

    But I’m finding I really enjoy all of your posts Mark. Keep them coming!


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