Who knew, back when a few photos of baseball stars were placed onto cardboard, that the baseball card phenomenon would become an enormously competitive, large industry, one that sparked a series of legal challenges that changed the collecting landscape forever?
Topps baseball cards were virtually the only game in town from 1956 through 1980. Although other companies tried to horn in on their market, Topps fought them off and enjoyed a partnership with Major League Baseball and its players. Finally, the Fleer Corporation was able to defeat Topps, winning the right to produce and sell their own baseball cards, without bubble gum. This opened the door for other companies like Donruss and, eventually, Upper Deck, to get in on the market, the latter company changing the game completely with its high-resolution images and holograms.
Looking back, the last year of the stranglehold on baseball cards produced what many consider to be one of the hobby’s landmark issues: the 1980 Topps Baseball set. It contains but one major rookie card but a host of Hall of Famers that marked the end of what some older collectors refer to as an uncomplicated era that stayed largely unchanged for 25 years.
When Topps cards hit store shelves in the winter of 1980, the company offered a new “Super Cello” 28-card pack with a larger piece of gum along with 25-card cello packs, 42-card rack packs and 15 card wax packs, selling for a newly raised price of 25 cents. Little had changed over the previous two decades, other than the base design and the move to a 700-plus card set in 1978.
The base 1980 Topps set was 726 cards with the first six cards (numbers 1-6) devoted to highlights of memorable moments from the ’79 season. Numbers 201 through 207 were a league leaders collection, with the best performers from both the American and National Leagues. Rookie cards were done by team and were printed with the top three rookies from each franchise shown on one card. Team checklists and managers are scattered throughout the base set.
Backs were blue with black trim–not the easiest to read for those who sorted them by number.
Thin on rookie cards of players who would go on to become great, key cards from the 1980 Topps set include:
- #482 Rickey Henderson rookie card
- #393 Ozzie Smith second year card
- #580 Nolan Ryan
- #681 Jesse Orosco/Mike Scott rookie card
- #544 Rick Sutcliffe rookie card
Keep an eye out for counterfeit Henderson rookie cards. It is an easy catch, however, as the yellow can be seen to be a series of dots, as from a laser printer. The original was printed using offset printing with plates and ink.
Other stars who featured prominently in the set include Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Rod Carew, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, and Reggie Jackson. Schmidt and Yaz are both among the list of 66 double prints, making them among the easiest vintage star cards to find.
There were a few misprints and variations with the 1980 set. Two versions of 164, the Greg Pryor card, exist: one printed without his name on the face and one with his name printed in blue. Fred Stanley’s #387 was printed twice. Once with his name printed in yellow and again with it printed in red.
John Wathan’s # 547 card has two variations. The first is extremely rare with his name printed in yellow ink. The second variation had it printed in red. Tom Poquette, number 597, also had 2 variations with the yellow misprinting and then the red correction.
In the early fall of 1979, Topps was already working on the next year’s cards and created the 1980 Yankees team card with Billy Martin as manager. He seemed safe, even under the ownership of George Steinbrenner, but as the ’79 season came to a close, Martin punched a marshmallow salesman and lost his job. He disappeared from the 1980 team card, replaced by his successor Dick Howser, but some proof sheets have made it into the hobby with the Martin variation.
A quick look at the 1980 roster of stars shows this to be set that offers good value for the money. Prices for complete sets vary based on the grade of the Henderson rookie and to a lesser extent, the Ryan and Smith cards, but there are several respectable 1980 Topps sets with near mint Henderson cards available on eBay in the $85-135 range.
The competition that was to come after 1980 improved the product. A 30-year period of stiff competition ensued until Topps again won the MLB exclusive they now enjoy but the 1980 Topps set represents the end of an era where they were the only game in town for collectors.