Beyond the “Normal” Cardboard: 1969 Topps Decals

In the spring and early summer of 1969 I was a pre-teen with confidence and joy because I was a fan of the Detroit Tigers.  They were reigning World Champions, and all the guys I hung around with were positive the new division play would make another Series victory even easier for the Bengals. Of course, we were wrong… but we were just kids.

As with so many others our age, following the grand old game was close to an obsession, and one way that practice manifested itself was in the collecting of Topps Mickey Mantle 1969 Topps Decalbaseball cards. Truth be told, we knew nothing of the fledgling ecology movement or even the rightness of litter laws. What we did know was a couple of found pop bottles could be traded in at the corner store for a pack of new cards with a stick of the so-called gum. What a deal! And you are absolutely correct if you think our neighborhood stayed litter-free (well, at least of glass bottles).

When 1969 Topps Baseball was originally released the set’s 664 card checklist earned it the distinction of being the largest baseball card set ever to that date. The set boasted some great players (40+ Hall of Fame players are represented). And accompanying this sizable set were two of the most popular insert sets ever released – Deckle Edge and Decals.

Denny McLain 1969 Topps decalBoth of these insert sets were loved by the guys in my circle of friends during those days. The smaller, black and white deckle edge were cool because of the weird scallop cut on the edges and the inclusion of some great players. We were thrilled that THREE of our beloved Tigers were in the set (Willie Horton, Bill Freehan and Denny McLain), but not one of us could understand why the 1968 World Series hero, Mickey Lolich, and the all-time great, Al Kaline were snubbed.

However, the real insert superstar of that season for us came from the 1969 Topps Decals insert set. Bright, colorful and considered very cool because they looked like the baseball cards…but you could rub them off on stuff. And, much to my current chagrin, rub them on stuff was exactly what we did. In my mind’s eye, in fact, I can still see my formerly gray pasteboard school notebook, at the end of that summer, with a COMPLETE set of the decals rubbed off on to it. Sure, I cringe now, but at the time I thought it was the best notebook that could be owned.

ClendenonThe decals were very similar in design to the 1969 base set. Obviously the decals were much smaller at 1 3/4″ x 2 1/8,″ and the color of the inside of the circle housing the player’s name was different from the regular card. Most importantly, however, for most of the players Topps used a picture that was different from the base card picture. As kids we loved that because it was like being able to get two cards of the player instead of one!

Like the Topps cards themselves, the inserts could not possibly keep up with the player changes that always happen. It seems especially true of that first expansion year with the four divisions and playoffs. One prime example is that of Donn Clendenon. He is pictured on the decal as one of the expansion Montreal Expos. The first-sacker did get into 38 games for the Canadian club before being sent to the New York Mets…for whom he would be World Series MVP that October.

The small size of the decals and the fact that they were designed to perish during “normal” use (like my long ago lost notebook) conspired against their long-term survival. It is really unfortunate in consideration of the fact that the issue contains both a Reggie Jackson “rookie”, and a last-year salute to the great Mickey Mantle. And as was mentioned earlier, a host of Hall of Famers are found among the 48 players in the set. Perhaps that is why I decided a while back to make this set one of the few graded card sets that I would put together.

MaysFinding graded examples of most of the decals has not been too hard. However, the lack of many highly graded examples of certain players is interesting. If you want a “10” of the Reggie rookie or Willie Mays or Don Drysdale it is not too hard to find. But try to find (and then obtain reasonably) the same grade of Pete Ward…well, it just is not that easy. In fact, as of this writing, there are four players who have had only ONE of their decals graded a “10” by PSA. They are Jimmy Wynn, Tim McCarver and the two Alous, Felipe and Matty. By comparison, there have been 90 Bob Gibson decals given that grade.

Now there is no way my friends and I could have done damage to that many of the decals. But we did our fair share of rubbing those mini-cards on to things. How can I be so sure? My mother still remembers telling me to quit.