The Deal With Deadlines

At some point, Topps just had to stop caring.

Now… hold on here. I don’t mean it however you take that I mean it there. What I mean is, at some point when putting together their flagship checklist, Topps had to stop reacting to new player transactions. This is most apparent in the early part of the single-series era, but it also reflects in their multi-series issues of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Between 1957 and 1969, every Topps set reflected at least one trade made in either late March or early April (years prior to 1957 are a little hard to figure due to a lack of meaningful pre-season trades).

Traded to the Pilots (misidentified at the Pirates on the card’s back) January 15, 1970.

Things start to roll back a bit, though, entering the 1970s. In the 1970 set, the latest reflected move is Phil Roof’s trade to the Pilots on January 15 – placing the “deadline” a full two months sooner than it had been in decades. In the 1971 set, the latest is Andy Kosco’s February 10 trade to the Brewers, depicted in the sixth and final series. In 1972, Topps cheated just a bit – depicting transactions that occurred as late as March 4 in the ‘Traded’ series in the sixth series, which featured players who had already appeared earlier in the set (in this era, of course, Topps could only reflect team changes on players who were slated to appear in the higher series).

The inclusion of a late spring move in the flagship set was a bit of a throwback by 1972, but it did not seem to add any appeal to a mid-summer release.

It appears that Topps had been trying to hasten the release of their full baseball checklist in the early 1970s by skipping out on late-spring player moves and moving from seven series to six after the 1970 release. But in ’72, they released their largest set ever – nearly 800 cards – and the inclusion of the actual photos taken at some point in early March (Denny McLain’s March 4 trade is the latest reflected and he is shown in his Oakland uniform) – suggests a release schedule more in line with what they had been doing in the 1960s. But the changes Topps made for the 1973 and ’74 sets (as well as the modern-day scarcity of ’72 sixth series cards) indicate that their 1972 release schedule had been a significant burden on the company’s bottom line. For ’73, the set was trimmed back to 660 cards and five series. The latest depicted transaction was Earl Williams’s trade to Baltimore on November 30, 1972 and the final series contained a card of Orlando Cepeda as an Oakland A, even though he’d been released on December 18 – all of which indicates a transaction deadline about three months earlier than it had been for 1972.

An indicator Topps was rushing things by 1973.

The multi-series concept was ditched for 1974, and for the first time we can see a true line past which transactions did not matter. Jerry Ruess’ October 31, 1973 trade from the Astros to the Pirates was the latest off-season deal recognized in the set. Bob Locker, who went from the Cubs to A’s three days later, had to settle for an outdated offering in the main 1974 set.

Topps issued their first-ever “traded” series that year in an effort to make up what had been lost in the single-series issue. The cards – essentially updated takes on traded player’s 1974 base cards – were inserted into later-run packs. The 43 player set covered transactions that occurred between Locker’s trade and the December 11 trade that sent Ron Santo from the Cubs to the White Sox.

With no traded set in 1975, Nate Colbert’s shift to the Tigers on November 18 was the latest move that Topps included in the flagship. Bafflingly, the two men he was traded for – Dick Sharon and Ed Brinkman – are ALSO depicted as Tigers in the set. Topps brought back the Traded set in 1976, again including the updated cards in later-run packs. While their flagship was deadlined just after Nelson Briles’ trade to the Rangers on November 12, the Traded series covered moves made between November 17 and mid-December.

Free agency complicated Topps’ off-season schedule and would soon change the make-up of their flagship set.

The advent of wide-spread free agency following the 1976 season pushed the flagship deadline back to the beginning of December. Not surprisingly, Topps waited on the offseason’s biggest prize – Reggie Jackson – to land his star in New York City before setting that set’s team designations. Jimmy Wynn, who went to the Yankees from the Braves the day after Jackson signed, would remain a Brave (on cardboard anyway) for another year. The 1978 set waited even longer, issuing a card of Ron Schueler in an airbrushed White Sox cap after he signed on December 3. It would be the latest-ever transaction Topps would acknowledge in the single-series era.

While I’ve been unable to find any information on release dates from this era, by 1979, Topps shifted their priority to getting their set to market as soon as possible. Perhaps wishing to avoid the messiness of only being able to cover half of a given off-season’s moves, Topps stopped acknowledging post-season player shifts all together. In 1980, their cutoff for finalizing player base cards even left two late-September 1979 moves (Ralph Garr to the Angels and Dock Ellis to the Pirates) to be recognized only in passing on the back of each card.

The introduction of an annual Traded set in 1981 gave Topps a means of recognizing off-season moves while still being able to get their cards to market soon enough as not to get swamped in a suddenly-competitive marketplace. But Topps would still be operating with a transaction deadline… a topic I’ll be exploring in a soon-to-come post.

6 thoughts on “The Deal With Deadlines”

    1. I don’t think so… it wasn’t clear they were going to move until the very end of Spring Training. Although in the ’53 set, the Braves move to Milwaukee was also secured just before the season but the latter half of the set does use “Milwaukee” on the Braves cards.

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  1. I did not even realize that Garr and Ellis preceded the 1985 Davey Lopes (with its late season transaction noted on the front)

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  2. The Garr and Ellis are embarrassingly bad. I’m now curious about the lead times for Topps’s late-70s Burger King and Zest sets, many of which have updated player images which reflect trades that occurred prior to the season. In those pre-traded years I like the idea of the retail sets (and OPC in some rare cases like the 1977 Bill Madlock) which actually update cards to the correct team.

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  3. I remember as a kid not being able to find cards at stores until March. That was the time we knew as when the new cards came out. That changed right around 1979-80 when suddenly they were in stores in January.

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