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1974 Topps Washington Nationals: The Year Topps Jumped the Gun

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Every once in a while a set of unusual circumstances can dictate the interest and value of  a baseball card and the 1974 Topps “Washington Nationals” variations are one such example.  The “Nationals” didn’t arrive in Washington, DC until the 2005 season, yet that “team” has some of the most coveted cards in the ’74 Topps issue.

As long-time vintage collectors know, this strange occurrence is the result of Topps anticipating something that seemed like a slam dunk but turned out to be a swiJohnny Grubb 1974 Toppsng and a miss.

The San Diego Padres were not exactly a world championship caliber team in 1974. In fact, nobody wanted them. The team was going to be sold to businessman Joseph Danzansky and moved to Washington, DC to play their 1974 season in RFK Stadium.  The Senators had moved to Texas to become the Rangers just a few years earlier and some were anxious to make amends. Most people seemed to think that the move of the Padres was a done deal, even though they had been in the league themselves only a few seasons.

New uniforms were being created… and new baseball cards were being printed.  The team had no nickname yet so Topps went with “Nat’l Lea.” on the bottom.

It was quite a surprise when McDonald’s co-founder Ray Kroc called Padre management to see if the team was still for sale. Since Danzansky’s offer was conditional and Kroc’s unconditional, the team was sold to Kroc and remained in San Diego. Kroc paid $12 million for the team, which might seem like a deal until you consider that George Steinbrenner (and group) had bought the Yankees for $8.8 million just the year before.

The buyout halted production of 1974 Topps, creating an unbelievable error subset with 15 cards; 13 players, a team card and manager card. Although Topps did correct the error by printing the rest of its 1974 cWillie McCovey Washington Nationals 1974 Toppsards with San Diego Padres information, there was nothing they could do about the cards already printed. Pulling the short-printed error cards from 1974 packs became one of the highlights of the season for collectors young and old who were either confused or laughed about the screw up.

Topps made several different decisions in 1974 which would forever change the way cards were released and collected. Up until 1974, Topps had always gone about printing their season’s cards in a certain progression. Usually, seven different series would be released–one every few weeks over the entire course of the season.

In  ’74, Topps put all of the cards into one gigantic series that would become the standard until just a few years ago.  The change meant that collectors had 660 or more cards from which they could pull their favorites right from the beginning of the year. No longer did you have to wait for the short prints of higher numbered cards to come out at the end of the summer to complete your sets.

One of the reasons for this change and many others for Topps was the state of baseball card business in 1974. A recession lingered on throughout the 1970s. There were fewer jobs and increasing oil and gas prices just like today. With the bad economy came a downturn in the number of sports cards buyers. Kids were no longer buying cards in the quantities they had in the baby boom years of the 1950s and 60s.

On top of that, the birthrate in the U.S. was down. There were going to be fewer and fewer kids each year and that meant selling baseball cards was going to get tougher and tougher. So, Topps started to cut production cuts by limiting the number of sets issued each year to one.

Cards had typically sold for around penny apiece but in 1974, for the first time, Topps increased card prices. Topps baseball cards were not affected but those that ran later in the year, such as football and basketball card packs cost 15-cents for 10 cards.

Topps started to market themselves more and more aggressively. For the first time, you could even buy 1974 Topps cards in the J.C. Penney catalog.

Washington Nationals 1974 Topps ColbertThe 1974 Washington Nationals cards eventually appealed to the adult baseball card buyer that Topps had found to be passionate and loyal, if not a little bashful about participating in what was still considered a kid’s hobby. The ideal sports card purchaser was now at least thirty years old, not a teenager. As adults,  collectors were looking to find cards which might increase in value or at least be worth conversation over a beer at the local softball game.  So, while the printing was a mistake, it actually generated interest in Topps.  People wanted to locate the error cards and may even have bought more  cards in their search.  The whole episode even garnered some national attention, no pun intended.

Players in the 1974 San Diego Padres/Washington Nationals error set  include: #250 Willie McCovey, #32 Johnny Grubb, #53 Fred Kendall, #77 Rich Troedson, #309 Dave Roberts, #102 Bill Greif, #125 Nate Colbert, #148 Dave Hilton, #197 Vicente Romo, #173 Randy Jones, #226 S.D.Padres Team Card, #241 Glenn Beckert, #364 Cito Gaston, #387 Rich Morales, and #599 Dave Freisleben. Beckett lists the error Washington Nationals cards as “B” versions and the San Diego cards as “A” versions.

It would be impossible to end a discussion of the 1974 San Diego Padres without mentioning the biggest rookie card in the entire set, Dave Winfield. Winfield was not part of the error printing and all of his cards had the correct San Diego location.  A Winfield rookie can bring anywhere from $25-150 depending on grade.  What would a “Nationals” Winfield have brought?  We’ll never know.

Click here to see Washington NL cards on eBay.

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