45 Years Later, ‘Imperfect’ 1969 Topps Set Holds Up Well

It is always interesting how something can be seen in totally opposite ways by differing people or groups of people.

Take, for instance, the Woodstock music festival of August 1969 (it was happening exactly 45 years ago from the time of this writing). It was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” and the events that took place on that 600-acre dairy farm in the Catskills are celebrated and remembered by many as the core of the changes the decade of the 1960s brought to the US. Rolling Stone magazine listed it as one of the “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.” Others, of course, see that rainy weekend of some 400,000 people sloshed together as symbolic of the lost virtue of America.

Same event; differing points of view.

1969 Topps wrapperAlthough it is not as culturally seminal as Woodstock, the 1969 Topps Baseball card set has that same sort of effect on collectors, it seems. When researching the release of the 664 cards that make up the set you can find opinions that state “this was a decidedly flawed baseball card set that marked the end of a decidedly flawed decade,” and declarations on the other side of the issue that pronounce the set as “easily one of the most popular sets of the Rollie Fingers rookie card1960’s, the 1969 set, serves as a perfect bookend for the era with its star power, key rookies and quirky variations.”

Of course, it is the presence of those “quirky” variations that largely set people off against the set or set them aglow in seeking them out, but you get the idea. The 1969 Topps set is one of those collectibles that have people in one camp or another.

It would seem, on the surface, that there is not that much about the set to create such passion. When the set was originally released, the set’s 664-card checklist earned it the distinction of being the largest set ever produced. Distribution of the cards could be found in wax packs, rack packs and cellos. A bonus 10-card, blue cello pack was also produced for the set.1969+Ted+Shows+How+(f)

In addition to a few multiple subject cards (e.g., card #539 titled, “Ted Shows How” which features Ted Williams showing Mike Epstein how to bat) the set carried the standard subsets for the day which were the league leaders (cards 1-12), World Series highlights (cards 162-169), and The Sporting News All-Stars (cards 416-435). Also, as with the other sets from the decade of the 1960s, the high number series (cards 589-664) is slightly more difficult/expensive to collect. One change was that team cards were not a part of the set, and this was the first time Topps omitted such cards since the 1956 set.

TPete Rose 1969 Toppshe set features a color photo with the team name printed in block letters underneath. In one of the upper corners of the card a colored circle contains the player’s name and position. The color of the circle was assigned to a team in each league, but the colors were not necessarily related to the team’s colors (the Yankees and Dodgers were red; the Twins and Reds were blue; the expansion Royals and Expos were both pink, and on it went). In many respects the card design is often seen as a more conservative version of the 1968 set, using the same basic graphic elements reorganized and minus the beige cross-hatch border.

The 1969 Topps set also featured two of the more interesting insert sets in the ear of vintage baseball cards: the popular decal insert set and the iconic Deckle Edge insert set (copied in the 2014 Topps Archives offering).

What many collectors find notable about this set is the inclusion of many stars, Hall of Famers, and interesting card quirks. For instance, the set features Mickey Mantle’s last card and Reggie Jackson’s first card. Indeed, the number of Hall of Fame players in this set is substantial and it grew by two more this summer as Joe Torre (card #460) and Bobby Cox (#237) were inducted at Cooperstown.
1969 Topps Bobby Cox
Bobby Cox, of course, is in the Hall because of his managerial success. He’s fourth on the all-time wins list and a four-time manager of the year whose number 6 has been retired by the Braves. But in 1969 Topps issued a baseball card for him after his only full major league season as a Yankee third baseman. No one could have foreseen it when the baseball cards hit the shelves in that summer of ’69, but Cox was basically was a one-season wonder for the Yankees who used him as a starter in 1968 and then replaced him with Bobby Murcer in 1969 and later with Jerry Kenney. Cox suffered from knee ailments on a regular basis, and though his playing career ended shortly after his only baseball card as a player was released, things between Bobby and baseball seemed to work out just fine. His election to the Hall of Fame has caused a stir of interest in his 1969 “rookie” card as well. (Rich Klein did a great piece about the Cox card earlier this year. Find it HERE.)

Several of the other rookies in the 1969 Topps Baseball Card set went on to more distinguished careers as players than did Cox, however. Reggie Jackson (card #260) and Rollie Fingers (card #597) parlayed their time on the diamond into Cooperstown plaques as players. Graig Nettles and Bobby Bonds, although not Hall of Famers, were other rookie players of significant talent and merit in their dugout years, and this set also contains their rookie cards.

NettlesThe Graig Nettles card (#99) is one of the substantial number of variations found in this set. The variations, if included in the count of separate cards for 1969, would bring the total number of cards in the set to nearly 700. The Nettles card, one of the standard “Rookie” cards shared by two players (Danny Morris being the other), has an “error” variant which includes a black line loop in the upper left corner of the card. Card #653, a rather prominent and uncorrected error, features a Los Angeles Angels batboy (Leonard Garcia) in the place of Aurelio Rodriguez. Several stories occur explaining that incident, and it is hard to separate truth from myth. But it is rather humorous.

White letter variation Gaylord PerryThe most significant cards among the varieties are white and yellow letter cards from the run of card #’s 440-511, with the “white letter” variations being the more scarce and, thus, more valuable. It is hard to know if these variants would have always had such appeal to collectors if it had not been that the last regular season baseball card of the great Mickey Mantle is one of the white letter variations. His card is #500 and, according to current Beckett value, is a $350 card in Near Mint condition. That price guide jumps to $2,000 for the same card in the white letter variation. Two other Hall of Famers boast white letter variations: Willie McCovey (#440), and Gaylord Perry (#485), but, of course, neither approaches the Mantle level in regard to value or collector interest.

Letter color changes are not the only variations that command great interest from collectors. 1969 was a year of great change in baseball as the leagues separated into two divisions each to accommodate the arrival of four new expansion clubs (Expos, Padres, Pilots, and Royals). This meant that several players would change clubs during the off-season due to the expansion draft and trades. It was a different day then, and the photography techniques and ease enjoyed in 2014 was science fiction in the year of Woodstock. So, the Topps company often used older photos of players and attempted to airbrush off the remnants of uniforms no longer applicable.Two of the most prominent variations are the Paul Popovich (#47) and Ron Perranoski (#77) cards that can be found with or without an emblem on their caps. Cards with the emblem command a premium.

There are also two versions of the Clay Dalrymple (#151) and Donn Clendenon (#208) singles. Dalrymple is featured in a portrait pose as an Oriole on one card, while a rarer version reveals him in a catching pose with the Phillies. Similarly, Clendenon is noted as an Astro on one pasteboard and as an Expo on another, more elusive single. What is particularly interesting about the Clendenon episode is that he would finish the season as World Series MVP for the Miracle Mets.
As best as we are able to put it together, here is a list of the many variants in the 1969 Topps Baseball Card set (VAR = variation; ERR = error; COR = correction; UER = uncorrected error):
47a Paul Popovich                         VAR: Thick Airbrush
47b Paul Popovich                         VAR: Light Airbrush
47c Paul Popovich                         VAR: C on helmet slightly visible through airbrushing
49a Royals Rookies (Steve Jones, Ellie Rodriguez)     ERR: Rodriquez on front
49b Royals Rookies (Steve Jones, Ellie Rodriguez)     COR: Rodriguez on front
50 Roberto Clemente                         UER: Bats right listed twice
77a Ron Perranoski                          ERR: LA visible thru airbrush
77b Ron Perranoski                          COR: cap emblem completely airbrushed
99a Twins Rookies (Danny Morris, Graig Nettles)         ERR: black loop above “Twins”
99b Twins Rookies (Danny Morris, Graig Nettles)         COR: no black loop
107a Checklist 110-218 (Bob Gibson)             ERR: 161 is Jim Purdin
107b Checklist 110-218 (Bob Gibson)             COR: 161 is John Purdin
151a Clay Dalrymple                          VAR: Portrait
151b Clay Dalrymple                          VAR: Catch
208a Donn Clendenon                          VAR: Astros
208b Donn Clendenon                          VAR: Expos
209 Larry Haney                              UER: photo reversed
230 Rusty Staub                              UER: for 1966 stats, Houston spelled Huoston
278 Gary Geiger                              UER: batting wrong
319 Ken McMullen                          UER: headings on back are for a pitcher
440a Willie McCovey                          VAR: last name in yellow
440b Willie McCovey                          VAR: last name in white
441a Dennis Higgins                          VAR: last name in yellow
441b Dennis Higgins                          VAR: last name in white
444a Joe Moeller                              VAR: last name in yellow
444b Joe Moeller                              VAR: last name in white
447a Ralph Houk                              VAR: last name in yellow
447b Ralph Houk                              VAR: last name in white
451a Rich Rollins                          VAR: first name in yellow
451b Rich Rollins                          VAR: first name in white
452a Al Ferrara                              VAR: first name in yellow
452b Al Ferrara                              VAR: first name in white
454a Phillies Rookies (Larry Colton, Don Money)         VAR: names in yellow
454b Phillies Rookies (Larry Colton, Don Money)         VAR: names in white
461a Mike Epstein                          VAR: last name in yellow
461b Mike Epstein                          VAR: last name in white
464a Dave Marshall                          VAR: last name in yellow
464b Dave Marshall                          VAR: last name in white
468a Pirates Rookies (Bruce Dal Canton, Bob Robertson) VAR: names in yellow
468b Pirates Rookies (Bruce Dal Canton, Bob Robertson) VAR: names in white
470a Mel Stottlemyre                          VAR: last name in yellow
470b Mel Stottlemyre                          VAR: last name in white
471a Ted Savage                          VAR: last name in yellow
471b Ted Savage                          VAR: last name in white
473a Jose Arcia                              VAR: first name in yellow
473b Jose Arcia                              VAR: first name in white
476a Red Sox Rookies (Ken Brett, Jerry Moses)         VAR: names in yellow
476b Red Sox Rookies (Ken Brett, Jerry Moses)         VAR: names in white
482a Jim Gosger                              VAR: first name in yellow
482b Jim Gosger                              VAR: first name in white
485a Gaylord Perry                          VAR: last name in yellow
485b Gaylord Perry                          VAR: last name in white
486a Paul Casanova                          VAR: last name in yellow
486b Paul Casanova                          VAR: last name in white
491a Twins Rookies (Jerry Crider, George Mitterwald)     VAR: names in yellow
491b Twins Rookies (Jerry Crider, George Mitterwald)     VAR: names in white
493a Wes Parker                              VAR: last name in yellow
493b Wes Parker                              VAR: last name in white
500a Mickey Mantle                          VAR: last name in yellow
500b Mickey Mantle                          VAR: last name in white
501a Tony Gonzalez                          VAR: first name in yellow
501b Tony Gonzalez                          VAR: first name in white
505a Bobby Bolin                          VAR: last name in yellow
505b Bobby Bolin                          VAR: last name in white
511a Diego Segui                          VAR: first name in yellow
511b Diego Segui                          VAR: first name in white
582a Checklist 589-664 (Tony Oliva)                 VAR: white circle on back
582b Checklist 589-664 (Tony Oliva)                 VAR: red circle on back
625 Mack Jones                              UER: batting wrong
653 Aurelio Rodriguez                         UER: photo actually batboy Leonard Garcia

Lou Brock 1969 ToppsIn addition to the “normal” off center issues for vintage Topps cards, the 1969 set seems to also be plagued by an unusual amount of blemishes and ink dots from the printing process. As a result, locating some cards in high-grade can be difficult. Through the years collectors have reported cards of stars Lou Brock (#85) and Tom Seaver (#480) as being notorious to find in high-grade condition. Of course, commons would not be a readily reported.

In addition to being released in the United States, the set was marketed in Canada under the O-Pee-Chee brand name. The set is almost identical to the American issue except for two small differences. The first being that the bottom right hand corner on the card back of the 1969 O-Pee-Chee Baseball card backs feature the text PTD. IN CANADA instead of  PRINTED IN U.S.A., which can be found on the American version of the cards. The other difference is that the Canadian version is without the Topps logo that can be found surrounding the card number on the backs of the American cards. Growing up in the Detroit area some of those cards would come back from Windsor, and as kids we had no idea what was going on. Another childhood mystery solved.

As I stated in the beginning, this set seems to be loved or vilified. Indeed, one review I read actually had a problem with the number of “haircuts” that are shown on the cards (photos lacking caps). Whatever. As a young teen in that summer of new baseball teams, and not knowing nor caring about any rock festival on a cow field, I will admit to a great fondness for the 1969 set. And, overall, many collectors seem to join me in that appreciation.
Mantle WL
Many people judge the ball card market by what happens on eBay. By that measure the 1969 Topps set has a good measure of interest with almost 42,000 card listings at the time of this writing (and who knows how many more that are not categorized correctly?). That is good enough for fifth in the decade of the 1960s listings. On July 30, 2014 a complete, ungraded master set (with all variations) sold for $7,000 at eBay auction after 36 recorded bids. And in June another raw set without any variations sold for over $2,100.

If you prefer grading statistics to determine popularity, the 1969 Topps set still stacks up well. The PSA Population Report shows a total of 199,024 cards graded from the set. It is interesting to note that only 1,960 cards have been graded a “10.” Just one of those Gem Mint beauties have been a Mantle White Letter variation.

The 1969 Topps baseball card set is not perfect, but my personal pantheon includes it as a great set. Mantle sails away; Reggie shows up. The Royals get their start along with three other teams who did not end the expansion era. It was the summer of the Mets (which meant more to me than Woodstock). It was the year we noticed the air brushings and didn’t care. It was a good summer.