1971 Topps Baseball: 40 Years Later

by Diane Carter

If you want to buy cards which retain their value in any economy, the 1971 Topps baseball set is one you will want to place high on your to-buy list. This treasured set had several innovative features at the time and is one that you will rarely find in mint condition. Because collectors are constantly trying to update individual cards in their sets, 1971 Topps can also be a profitable year for sellers.

Some people think the color of the 1971 Topps baseball set speaks “vintage,” but I think the black, combined with the lower case letters of the player name evokes a more modern style and look. Gaze no further than lower case website names to find the high tech look of small letters. In 1971, it was a look of distinction and the failure to capitalize proper names was even perhaps a little disrespectful.  The cards were unique.  They were a little hip.  And no one back then cared much about how quickly they showed ‘wear’.

A great many factors make the 1971 Topps baseball set popular, not the least of which are the full-color action shots from actual games on the front of regular Topps issued cards. This was the first time action shots were not delegated to special cards such as World Series inserts or relegated to the background.

The smaller photo on the back was also a first as was the inclusion of stats from only one year–1970, instead of the lifetime cumulative stats which had always been a staple of Topps cards. And even 40 years later, the black border around the cards is iconoclast compared to a few of the other brightly colored sets of the 1970s.

The black border is also one of the features of the set which has collectors constantly in pursuit of better cards. Black looks scruffy in no time and when it defines the corners and outer edges of a baseball card, it not only looks rough, it decreases card value significantly. Let’s face it. For the most part, in 1971, kids were buying the Topps cards a pack at a time and they were not immediately placing them in a nifty plastic sleeve or case for protection. The 1971 black cards looked battered after a few trades with fellow classmates.

A few other factors lend themselves to the popularity of the set. This was a set which had an enormous number of cards for its time–the most ever. Plus, it had tons of great players–stars and semi-stars. No one knew when the Topps 1971 set came out that the year would be the last of Willie Mays and the Giants together. However, his move to the Mets was so late he is still in a Giants uniform on both the regular issue 1972 Topps card and the 1972 Topps Action card. Yet today as we look back, the #600 Mays card is one of the most sought after of the 1971 set. So are Nolan Ryan, Pete Rose, Thurman Munson, Hank Aaron, Steve Carlton, Roberto Clemente, and others.

With 752 total cards, Topps released the 1971 baseball set in seven series over the course of the spring, summer and fall. The last release was short printed, although the reasons are nothing more than speculation. Either kids stopped buying the ‘71 baseball in anticipation of 1971 Topps football cards or Topps simply spent too much time trying to get shots of players in their “traded” uniforms. Either way, there are fewer cards with the numbers 642-752. These cards also contain fewer stars and fewer action shots.

The 1971Topps baseball set has the distinction of being shot primarily in New York, at Yankee and Shea stadiums. Two very popular cards in the set have stars in the background. Pete Rose is on second base in the Chris Short card. Nolan Ryan can be seen near the Alpo advertising banner in the card belonging Bud Harrelson.  Ryan’s card shows him in front of a Royal Crown soda sign.

The Short photo was taken at Philadelphia’s Connie Mack stadium–the last year baseball would be played there. Unfortunately, Short had an injury-ridden career. A few years after retiring from baseball, while still in his 40s, Short suffered a brain aneurism. He died in 1991 at the age of 53 never having gained consciousness.

When you look at a collection with 752 cards, you are bound to find tragedies and successes among the players. 1971 was the beginning of the magnificent careers of such rookie stars as Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, George Foster and Don Baylor/Dusty Baker who shared a card.

If you make your living selling baseball cards, the old philosophy that there’s money to be made in vintage common cards proves true in this 1971 set. The black borders make pristine cards hard to find and the limited production of high numbered cards means that someone is always looking for a bunch of players to complete their set. You also have to beware of doctored cards, especially of the use of black magic markers to improve the quality of the black borders.

If you do collect the complete 1971 Topps baseball set, you should be proud of your accomplishment. While the internet certainly makes the process easier, rounding up the set is still a lot of work and takes a large amount of time. The set is pricey, even now when baseball cards values are in the same slump as the economy. The 1971 Topps baseball black-bordered set goes for around $900 to $1500 for slightly above average quality. You can pay $3000 or more for a mint set.

For the first time since 1964, Topps used small metal coins as a “bonus” in its packs.  The ’71 Topps coins aren’t hard to find, but like their card brothers, they are often found with wear.  Most of the big stars of the day were featured on the little metal discs.

Can you remember what you were doing in 1971? As we look back 40 years later most collectors still get nostalgic thinking about the set. Many consider it one of the greatest sets of all time. No question, there were a lot of great players in baseball that year. And if you were a kid in 1971, you probably have memories of trying to pull Mays, Clemente, Nolan Ryan, Steve Garvey or another star. Even if your efforts were futile, unlike today, you still got bubble gum in every pack.

Click here to check out 1971 Topps cards on eBay.


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