Is It the Cards, or Is It the Baseball?

“Beatle cards, Beatle cards!”

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I was a late talker, but somewhere between two- and three-years old, I got it. My Great Aunt used to tell me that I would howl about Beatles’ cards from my crib (Are two-year olds still in cribs?). The love of cards was strong with this one from early on.

Yes, this is a baseball card blog and, partially, this is a baseball card post, but it’s clear from what I gather of my own personal history that my love of cards began with Topps’ Fab Four, not ’64 baseball, cards.

Baseball cards are absolutely the vast majority of my cards. The sets are bigger, I’ve been buying them longer and continuously and, when I became the recipient of the card collections of friends, their shoeboxes were always dominated by baseball cards.

So what came first, the baseball or the card? That I’ve always bought lots of cards, of all sports and some non-sports, means that, for me, it’s always been the cards first, the baseball second.  Cards are talismans, direct memories of the past, but they can also be indirectly evocative. When Munsters’ cards came out in 1996 and 1998, I bought them. When Twilight Zone cards came out from 1999-2002, I bought those sets too. Same for the 2001 Planet of the Apes cards. Though not the original issues ( the 1964 Leaf Munsters and the 1967 Topps Planet of the Apes cards are a tad pricey), the recent sets were good fun, brought back great TV and movie memories, not so much from the time like a 1972 Gary Gentry would, but looking backward. They were definitely as much fun as those year’s baseball cards. The ’96 Grandpa Munster cards were as good, if not better, than the ’96 Derek Jeters.

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Is this off topic? Kinda, but I’d like to know what is at the core of the card collector. How many readers of this blog only collect baseball cards? How many collect other sports? How many collect non-sports? I want to know who’s harboring a secret Partridge Family set.

These days I am fully immersed in baseball cards, but that doesn’t mean I’m averse to picking up the occasional 1959 Fleer Three Stooges card, if the price is right.

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Momma Took Topps’ Kodachrome Away

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Anyone who collected cards in 1969 remembers opening a pack and finding a glossy, black and white card that resembled a photograph. Topps “Deckle Edge” inserts were designed to mimic the photo print style of snapshots. This type of print goes back as far as 1930 but was most popular for a 20 year period starting in the ‘40s and concluding in the late ‘60s.*

I distinctly remember a shoe box full of decal edge photos that my grandma kept in cupboard. My brother won a camera as a prize in ’67. The first set of blurry photos it produced were printed on decal edge paper. I mention this background information to demonstrate that most kids in 1969 would have been familiar with this type of photo print.

 

This subset contains 33 cards with two variations and measures 2 ¼” x 2 ¼”. The backs are white with a rectangular box containing the name and card number in blue ink. The cards are ordered alphabetically starting with the American League. The set features 11 future Hall-of-Famers and players representing the ’69 expansion teams. The two variations are result of trades. Card 11b, Jim, “The Toy Cannon” Wynn, was added because the Houston card featured Rusty Staub, who was dealt to Montreal. Joy Foy is card number 22b and was included to represent the Royals after Hoyt Wilhelm was sent to the Angels.

The deckle edge is unique and we should give Topps kudos for originality, but the photos are mostly retreads. As Mark Armour recently detailed, the player boycott of Topps resulted in old photos being used in ’68 and ‘69. Several cards simply had shots from previous regular issue cards. For example, the Juan Marichal picture was used on his ’65, while Rod Carew and Maury Wills are reprised from ‘68.

The insert set depicts several players wearing their previous team’s uniform with the current club’s cap insignia airbrushed on.  Ken “Hawk” Harrelson has a Boston “B” drawn on his cap though he is clearly wearing a KC A’s vest uniform. Tom Haller’s Giants lettering is airbrushed off his chest and an “LA” added to his lid. Frank Howard has the Senators curly cue “W” on a Dodgers helmet. Also Topps put “Sox” on Luis Aparicio’s two-toned Orioles helmet. Since Luis was with the White Sox originally, why not use an early ‘60s photo?

There are a few interesting poses. The Bill Freehan card shows him in a classic catchers crouch with coach, Wally Moses, hitting “fungos” in the background. The Boog Powell shot has bunting in the background indicating opening day or an All-Star game. The hat style precludes it from being the ’66 World Series.

Black and white photography can be used artistically to great effect, but there is very little artistry demonstrated in these inserts. Dull as they are, the cards are memorable. The images have been etched in my mind for close to 50 years. Then again, I’ve been told I’m not playing with a full deck(le).

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Topps resurrected the deckle edge design with a “test issue” in 1974. The 72 cards are 2 7/8” X 5.” The set had limited distribution and featured 21 Hall-of-Famers to be. On the back, in script intended to imitate hand lettering on old photos, is the date and location of the photo session. Here is a link to Rich Mueller’s post on “Sports Collector’s Daily” that provides all the particulars of this rare set.

*Krentz, Anna (2014). A Study of the Deckle Edge in the North American Snapshot (master’s thesis).   www.digital.library.ryerson.ca

Amazing Stuff

In the wake of the Mets winning the World Series in 1969, a flood of cool items hit the market -buttons, records, Daily News portraits (“A Portfolio of Stars,” drawn by cartoonist Bruce Stark), ugly Transogram action figures, even an IHOP placemat (which I have, which is remarkable considering I’ve eaten at an IHOP maybe three times in my life).

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The one that grabbed my interest the most was a gas station giveaway that came out during that championship season.

Nostradamus-like, Citgo put out an 8 card set BEFORE the Mets won the World Series. Way to get on the bandwagon before the bandwagon even existed! At 8” X 10”, are they cards? I don’t know. They’re card-y enough to make it into the Standard Catalog. The fronts of the cards have both portrait and action shots, the eight lucky Mets featured were Tommie Agee, Ken Boswell, Gary Gentry, Jerry Grote, Cleon Jones, Jerry Koosman, Ed Kranepool and Tom Seaver. No Jack DiLauro? No Bobby Pfeil? For God’s sake, where the hell is Nolan Ryan?

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The backs have brief bios of the players (Cleon Jones, football star), some statistics, and a longer bio of the artist, John Wheeldon. Wheeldon gets some pretty heavy duty coverage here. Clearly he was a big deal – he painted Gene Kelly! There’s solid PR for him on the back, as well as for Citgo. “A nice place to visit” – really? I can’t think of a place more dirty and sad than a 1969 era Citgo gas station. Only your local porno theater was more gross.

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I didn’t collect these when they came out. I was six- years old, going on seven, in the summer of ’69, and didn’t have my card collecting and gas station promo game down. By 1972, when Sunoco issued NFL stamps, I was all over it.

Years after the Citgo Mets were issued, I found a nice set at a Chicago National and, having completely forgotten about them, was consumed by a flush of warm nostalgia when I saw them. I was instantly brought back to the Canarsie of my youth and the pure heaven of the Mets World Series win. I stopped being a Mets fan years ago (mid-1977 to be exact), but 1969-70 has a special place in my heart, as does this set, which was yours for $0.35 per gallon.

What’s in the box? *

Long before the advent of storage boxes, boxes created solely to hold cards–properly–sized and designed to keep corners crisp–collectors of a certain age relied on shoeboxes. (Collectors of a much older age relied on cigar boxes. I am not that old.) I still have a few odd shaped cards in 1970’s era shoeboxes. I don’t really care to put them in sheets. The old boxes have done yeoman service over time.

As I do every week, I got to thinking about what to write for the blog. Last week’s post on oddball sets got some nice traction, so I didn’t really want to write another post about that. There’s no glory in becoming the “oddball king,” but I started thinking about the old shoeboxes and thought a layer by layer reveal might be fun to write, and read, about. You be the judge.

There’s the box top, with a little note telling me what is inside. Or was inside. Most of those were relocated to an undisclosed site. I have no idea which of my mother’s old shoes were originally in here, but the red and gray of this box has been part of my card world for 40 years.

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Cover off, much to be explored.

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1978 Twins Postcard Set

Why? I have no idea. I think I ordered it from the team, but I’m really at a loss to explain why this is in my possession.  Sure, I love Hosken Powell as much as the next guy, but…

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1977 Pepsi-Cola Baseball Stars

In the mid-late ‘70’s, discs were everywhere. First, they seemed cool. Instantly, they were boring as hell, but not these, oh no, not these. The Pepsi cards were discs, inside a glove on a long rectangle! That’s something that caught my eye big time.

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It’s an Ohio regional set, which explains why they’re pushing a Rico Carty shirt as one of the top shirt options.  Get a look at the “save these capliners” tag at the top. Explain what those are to your kids.

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I don’t know if there’s a sheet around that would work for these cards. In the shoebox they remain.

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1976 Towne Club

I guess Towne Club was a soda maker in and around Detroit. I have no idea really. I just read that it was a competitor of Faygo, which I’m also unsure of.  The Pop Center was a store where people would take a wooden crate and walk around a warehouse to choose their pop. Seems like an idea doomed to fail, which it did.

This was the first disc set I saw and I bought it. Nothing to note; it’s pretty dull.

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1980 Topps Superstar 5” X 7” Photos

I’ve written about the 1981 version of this set in my Split Season post. The 1980 version came in two types – white back and gray back. Like the following year’s set, these cards are beautiful in every way – photos, gloss, size. Perfection!

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1986 Orioles Health and 1981 Dodgers Police

Nice sets, worth the inexpensive cost of admission.  The most important part about the Orioles set is that it proved that a Cal Ripken autograph I got in the mail was real. Cal sent me the Health card signed. Having an unsigned version was all I needed to know that he delivered a real signature.

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1986 Kay-Bee Young Superstars

Rob Neyer recently wrote a post about the Circle K set. These small boxed sets were the locusts of the card world. All through the ‘80’s, some company had a small deck of baseball cards to sell. These two boxes (why two?) have mostly served as a base for the Orioles and Dodgers sets, but I cracked one open and they’re fine, especially the 1971 Topps style backs.

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You can see beneath all the cards is a four decade old piece of paper towel, serving as a cushion between cards and box. No detail regarding proper care was lost on me.

 

*Congrats to those who picked up the Se7en reference.

Those Damned Slabs!

I love the feel of cards. Not modern glossy cards and definitely not those uber-glossy, oily mid-‘90’s cards that stick together when stacked! I hate those.

In 1998 I started working on the 1963 Fleer set. It seemed easy to put together from scratch, a 66 card set with one harder to find checklist. I lucked out with a few reasonably priced lots, then, since I was already hooked on eBay, started hunting down stars. I did well, finding EX-MT or better cards for reasonable prices. Soon enough, I’d have the whole set and sock it away in a box, my preferred method of storage.

Then I started winning auctions for graded cards. Not because I preferred them (see tactile thoughts above), but because the price was right. Now I had a dilemma. How to store the set? I couldn’t put nearly all of a complete set in a box and put what would end up as four graded cards somewhere separate. I thought about cracking the holders, but I’m pretty feeble when it comes to the most basic skills and, for sure, that would have resulted in ruined cards and me bleeding. So I ended up putting 63 cards in top loaders and finding a box to hold those and the oversized graded cards. Now, when I look at that set, I don’t get the enjoyment of having a stack of 50+ year old cardboard in my hands.

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The rise of the graded card ruined the hobby for me (until recently). I get it – it provides a certain consistency of grading, better than the old days when you had to take the seller’s word for how a card looked (though putting up actual scans goes a long way in accurately portraying raw cards). It definitely made it easier to buy online with confidence and, in the beginning, it made sense to grade stars and superstars, but when commons started getting graded, it killed the joy of completing sets for me (again, until recently). Every card in remotely nice shape was slabbed.

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I came up with a solution to knock me out of my card doldrums and the problems of slabbing. Starting last year, I completed a 1971 Topps baseball set in a condition only a fool would grade. Many many are EX-MT, some pretty sharp for a set notorious for chipping and bad centering. A lot are VG at best and some look like they were run over by a car, repeatedly. Still, now I can pull out the box and flip through them all, getting that smooth sensation from the fronts and that rough feel of the backs.

Still, as I work to complete multiple older sets, I’m running into the problem of key cards in slabs. I’m not sure what to do – pass them up and wait for a raw card, or suck it up and end up with a card or two in slabs? I know what I’d prefer – raw cards only – but I know that price will dictate results, exactly like it did almost 20 years ago.

Future Stars: Seldom Stars, Sometimes Not Even Future

They say you can’t predict baseball, and the folks who make baseball cards surely agree. Off and on for the past several decades, Topps has made a practice of predicting which players would be future stars and slapping the “Future Stars” label right on the cards. Sometimes they do a pretty good job — Cal Ripken and Tim Raines are among the Future Stars who became Hall of Famers — and sometimes they don’t — just ask Bob Bonner, Jeff Schneider, Roberto Ramos, and Bobby Pate, the four guys who shared those Future Stars cards with Ripken and Raines.

bo-jackson-tim-pysnarskiThe same year that Topps nailed it with Gary Sheffield and (to a lesser extent) Sandy Alomar Jr., they also dubbed Steve Searcy and Mike Harkey as Future Stars. I’ll see your 1987 Bo Jackson and raise you Tim Pyznarski.

So anyway, the point is that predicting which baseball players will become stars in the future is a losing game. That’s why I have so much respect for Upper Deck, who in the mid-2000s made a bold decision: If the Future Stars hardly ever turn into “Stars,” they reasoned (I assume), then why are we so beholden to the “Future” part of the equation?

I recently came across the 2007 Upper Deck Future Stars set. It jumped out at me because I was surprised to see Johnny Damon and Matt Cain in the same Future Stars set. It turns out I was right to be surprised.

I won’t go through the entire checklist, but let’s highlight a few of the players who, in 2007, Upper Deck was willing to go out on a limb and predict stardom for, along with their career accomplishments before they were named Future Stars.

Miguel Tejada. Age 32. Winner of the 2002 American League Most Valuable Player Award. Four-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, and receiver of MVP votes in each of the previous seven seasons.

Andruw Jones. Eleven-year veteran. Nine-time Gold Glove winner. Five-time All-Star.

Chipper Jones. Age 34. National League MVP in 1999. Five-time All-Star. MVP votes in nine different seasons.

Manny Ramirez. Eight consecutive top-ten MVP finishes. Nine straight All-Star appearances. 470 career home runs.

Ken Griffey Jr. American League MVP in 1997. Twelve-time All-Star. Ten-time Gold Glove winner. 563 career homers.

Okay, this is just getting tedious at this point. Others in the set include John Smoltz, David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Jim Thome, Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, and Greg Maddux, among (many) others.

In 2007.

griffey-sheffieldI’m sure there was some rhyme and/or reason to this set. They did a similar set the year before, and they obviously didn’t think they were actually fooling anyone. I’ve looked at several of the cards, trying to find a wink or a nod or some indication that they’re messing with us, but it’s not on the cards themselves. There doesn’t appear to be any “throwback” aspect to the set — Johnny Damon is pictured as a Yankee, Griffey as a Red, Sheffield as a Tiger, etc.

It can’t possibly be true, but it seems, at least to the eye of the casual observer who happens to come across some of these cards ten years later, as if Upper Deck just really wanted to make sure their Future Stars set included some actual stars.

To be fair to Upper Deck, the set also included several players you would traditionally find in a Future Stars set. You know, rising stars like Mike Schultz, Sean Henn, and Jamie Vermilyea. For every Andrew Miller or Ryan Braun, you have a Rocky Cherry or an Other Ryan Braun.

Once you get past the first 100 cards, most of which feature established stars, there’s the usual hit-and-miss assortment you’ve come to expect from Future Stars sets. And now Zack Segovia and Devern Hansack will be able to tell their grandkids they were in the same set as Greg Maddux and Derek Jeter.

1964 Giants: Topps’ Photographic Pinnacle

I am just going to say it: the most attractive baseball cards ever created were the 1964 Topps Giant-Size All-Stars. The over-sized cards (about the size of a standard post card)  were sold in wax packs — three cards and a stick of gum for a nickel. You can buy these 60 cards in great condition today relatively cheaply considering the quality of the cards and the depicted players.The design is simple and elegant; my favorite Topps designs (1957, 1961, 1967, 1969, 1976, etc.) are minimalist, and this follows a similar ethic.

All 60 players are shown in their current uniform and hat, a blessing when compared to other Topps sets from the 1960s. How did they do this? They were still putting the set together well into the 1964 season, so they had plenty of time to react to off-season trades. Below you see Rocky Colavito, traded from the Tigers to the A’s during the winter, in Topps base set and its Giants set. Which are you gonna take?

The “Giants” did not hit store shelves until very late in the summer, around Labor Day. This allowed Topps to select the players and take photos well into the season. The back of Johnny Callison’s card tells us that he hit a game-winning home run in the All-Star game, which took place on July 7. (Several cards mentioned that year’s All-Star team.)  Getting the cards updated and onto shore shelves in a few weeks is impressive.

The card backs looked like a newspaper, highlighting one particular date in the player’s career but touching on the full story.

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The 60-card set was comprised of three players from each team, and Topps clearly intended these to be the “best” players on their teams, or at least players who had a claim to be. They were called “All-Stars,” after all.Let’s take a look at some of the selections and see if we can understand Topps’s thinking. I will assume that Topps made their choices in mid-summer of 1964. I am not interested in criticizing Topps for choosing among a group of comparably good players, but I will still point out choices that seem odd.

Baltimore Orioles: Brooks Robinson, Luis Aparicio, Milt Pappas

You could make an argument for Steve Barber or Wally Bunker as the third choice, joining the two perennial All-Stars. But this is a solid group.

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Boston Red Sox: Carl Yastrzemski, Dick Stuart, Dick Radatz

Stuart and Radatz were one-dimensional but famous, and Yaz was their best player. Tony Conigliaro came up that year and was showing promise, but I expect Topps spent little time debating these three.

California Angels: Jim Fregosi, Dean Chance, Albie Pearson

The first two were easy, but Topps had to struggle to find a third guy. Pearson had a fine 1963 which ended up carrying the day. Bobby Knoop probably might have been a better call.

Chicago White Sox: Pete Ward, Gary Peters, Juan Pizarro

They could have gone with Hoyt Wilhelm, or Joe Horlen, or Ron Hansen — the White Sox had a lot of good players. But I think this is fine group.

Cleveland Indians: Leon Wagner, Johnny Romano, Max Alvis

Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant were called up early in the season and became sensations, just a bit too late for Topps. The Indians had no obvious stars, and the three they chose were as close to qualifying as anyone I suppose.

Detroit Tigers: Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Dave Wickersham

The Wickersham choice seems weird today, but he was in the midst of somewhat fluky 19-win season and Topps was suitably impressed. Norm Cash would have been a much better choice, even at the time. Dick McAuliffe too.

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Kansas City Athletics: Rocky Colavito, Jim Gentile, Wayne Causey

These guys were arguably the three best players on a lousy team. By WAR, the best player on the 1964 A’s was reliever Wes Stock, but I’m not really going to defend that hill.

Minnesota Twins: Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Camilo Pasqual

Oliva was such a great rookie that he not only forced the Twins to move Bob Allison (a legitimate star) to first base, he probably also forced Topps to kick Allison out of his honored place in this set. “Thanks a lot, rook.”

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New York Yankees: Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard

The toughest omission was Jim Bouton, but I suspect it took Topps about five seconds to settle on these three.

Washington Senators: Chuck Hinton, Bill Skowron, Ed Brinkman

It’s hard to see how Claude Osteen did not make this set given the competition. Hinton is fine, but Skowron was all reputation, and Brinkman was a glove-only shortstop, a type that seemed to be everywhere in the 1960s.

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Chicago Cubs: Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Dick Ellsworth

Don’t laugh: Ellsworth was positively Koufaxian in 1963. (Look it up.) Sure, that season stands out like a mountain over the rest of his career, but it was great enough to get Topps to pick him over Ernie Banks, the most popular Cub who was quite a bit off his great peak of a few years earlier.

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Cincinnati Reds: Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Jim Maloney

A year later and Pete Rose would have gotten one of the slots, but these three stars are pretty easy picks. Guys like Maloney are my favorite part of the set — although he eventually got hurt, he was absolutely not out of place in this group of 60 players.

Houston Astros: Nellie Fox, Ken Johnson, Dick Farrell

In April 1964 Johnson pitched a nine-inning no-hitter and lost, still the only pitcher ever to “accomplish” this. This event was famous at the time, and was probably enough to get Johnson his card, along with two teammates who were also not stars (though Fox once had been).

Los Angeles Dodgers: Sandy Koufax, Tommy Davis, Frank Howard

Don Drysdale’s omission is odd — he was famous, and he really was a better player than Davis or Howard. For proof, he even started the All-Star game for the National League, the fourth time he had done so (he would start again in 1968). Maury Wills ordinarily might have warranted a spot as well, but Topps did not have Wills under contract until 1967.

Milwaukee Braves: Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Joe Torre

Spahn finally collapsed in 1964, but Topps was not ready to give up on him, giving him this spot over over Eddie Mathews, who was in decline but still a very productive player. The other two were easy calls.

New York Mets: Ron Hunt, Galen Cisco, Roy McMillan

Hunt was the only actually good Met. Cisco enjoyed a pretty decent run in early 1964, the best run of his career, and this was just enough to get into the set. McMillan was basically a utility player at this point, but that was true of the entire team.

Philadelphia Phillies: Johnny Callison, Jim Bunning, Tony Gonzalez

Given the inclusion of Oliva, its hard to justify the omission of rookie Dick Allen, who was one of the best players in the NL from April onward. Gonzalez was a good player, but not in Allen’s class.

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Pittsburgh Pirates: Roberto Clemente, Bob Bailey, Bob Friend

Other than Clemente, the Pirates were transitioning in this period and Topps went with a guy on his way in (Bailey) and a guy on his way out (Friend). They could easily have gone with Bob Veale or Bill Mazeroski, but whatever.

San Francisco Giants: Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda

At first glance, Willie McCovey (the NL home run champ in 1963) seems like a shocking miss, but he was having a down year in 1964 and Topps chose three other Hall of Famers. Hard to complain, really.

St. Louis Cardinals: Bob Gibson, Dick Groat, Ken Boyer

The Cardinals acquired Lou Brock in June and he was their best player the rest of the year, but this was a couple of months too late for this set. With apologies to Bill White and Curt Flood, Topps chose well.

For my money, the biggest miss in the set was Drysdale, who lost out to lesser (albeit very good) players. There are many candidates for the “Least All-Star” because many teams did not have three good candidates. I might go with Galen Cisco for this coveted trophy, though.

As I have said, one of the reasons the set holds up so well is that the late release date allowed for up-to-date photography. The late release also likely hurt sales — Topps never tried a significant late summer release again. Fortunately, they printed tons of these cards, making collecting it today somewhat of snap.  It is a fabulous set, and well worth a little time and investment.