by James Morisette
There was plenty to talk about in 1973, a turbulent time in American history. Forty years ago this summer, the Vietnam War was almost in the rear view mirror and millions of U.S. citizens and returning soldiers sought to return to normalcy. Skylab went to space that year. And the Godfather earned the Oscar for best picture. Meantime, The Sting and Last Tango in Paris both arrived on the big screen. And in the grim of soaring gas prices, President Richard M. Nixon and Vice President Sparrow T. Agnew both felt the sting of Watergate, before dancing their last tango in the White House.
For many baseball fans, 1973 was also a year of grief, tribute and excitement. Still dealing with the loss of Brooklyn Dodgers’ legends Gil Hodges and Jackie Robinson (who died a year prior), fans were grieving the untimely passing of Pittsburgh Pirates superstar Roberto Clemente. On December 31, 1972, Clemente was selflessly delivering relief supplies to earthquake-torn Nicaragua when the plane he was on crashed. The great Clemente was just 38.
Fans in 1973 saw two sluggers who were approaching the all-time home run record. They also watched a young California Angels pitcher take his first steps toward greatness, and a veteran All-Star outfielder with a household name take his final thwacks for the New York Mets. Last, fans saw the debut of a young man who would go on to become one of the finest third basemen in major league history.
Collectors can relive some of those moments through the contents of those 10-cent wax packs of bubble gum cards. Here are my picks for the five 'must have' 1973 Topps baseball cards.
Home Run Leaders (Card No. 1)
Rarely do baseball cards capture looming monumental achievements like Topps did with its Home Run Leaders Card. This yellow card with white border features up-close black and white photos of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. To the bottom right of each player is a red star. Inside these stars are the number of home runs each player had. Ruth had 714. Aaron had 673. Mays had 654. A truly cool card, Aaron went on to break Ruth’s record on April 8, 1974 vs. Al Downing and the LA Dodgers. While Mays’ chance of catching Ruth was almost nil by 1973, he nonetheless retired with 660 home runs. It was the last year Babe Ruth was called the all-time home run king and this card captures the passing of the torch.
Beckett lists the value of the #1 card in ungraded form at $40 in mint condition. Per the PSA Sports Market Report, a PSA graded 8 is worth $85. The value for this card skyrockets in PSA 9 ($500). There has been only one PSA 10 ever graded and it sold for $3,889 on eBay in April of this year. As the #1 card in the set, it's somewhat difficult to find in high grade.
Clemente's death came just a few months after he got his 3,000th big league hit. Topps produced Clemente’s final card showing him as an active player, dressed in home whites and a yellow Bucs’ helmet, moving to swing his bat. The opposing catcher, the Mets' Jerry Grote, crouches ready to accept a pitch, though the pitcher is not visible in the shot.
A green outfield fence sits in the far distance, a bit blurred. For vintage baseball card collectors, this final tribute to Clemente is a must have.
Like the Home Run Chase card, Beckett values Clemente at $40. A PSA 7 is valued at $70. But realistically collectors can get this card on eBay for between $20-$30. A PSA 8 Clemente will usually run $60-75. Also part of the first series, the Clemente is easily available online.
While Nolan Ryan has some sweet vintage cards, his 1973 Topps card is among the best. In this card, Ryan’s resolute eyes glare from beneath the red bill of his California Angels cap. Ryan’s long arms, which are clothed in black, meet his glove above his head in what appears to be a windup along first base side. A red circular halo floats above angels on the front of Ryan’s jersey.
What makes this card special is that 1973 was Ryan’s bust out season. In his first 20-win campaign, Ryan posted a 21-16 record with a 2.87 ERA in 326 innings pitched. Ryan also led the MLB with 383 strikeouts. Never again would Ryan top this number of strikeouts in his storied career. Ryan finished second in the AL Cy Young Award race, losing to Baltimore Orioles ace Jim Palmer.
Beckett value for this Ryan card is $50 ungraded, but they can be found for less in very respectable condition. Typically, a graded 8 will cost about $100; about half that for a 7.
While Mays fell short of Ruth’s record, he nonetheless enjoyed a Hall of Fame career. After spending 20 years with the Giants, Mays was traded to the New York Mets on May 11, 1972 in exchange for Charlie Williams and $50,000. Thus, this vintage card features Mays donned in Mets’ pinstripes, holding a pine tar handled bat straight upward. The significance of this card is that it is the last regular card printed of Mays as an active player.
Again, like the aforesaid players casual collectors can purchase this ungraded Mays card for a reasonable price (Beckett value $40). PSA 7 is valued at $60, but collectors can usually get a PSA 8 graded Mays card for $70-$100 on eBay.
Mike Schmidt RC (Card No. 615)
In the days before coveted triple patch and autographed cards, Topps had mastered the art of the triple photo rookie card. The 1973 Topps rookie third basemen card featuring Ron Cey, John Hilton and Mike Schmidt is prime example. While Cey went on to have a very successful All-Star career, it is Schmidt that drives this card to high value. A three-time MVP, Schmidt finished his Hall of Fame career with a slew of achievements. On top of hitting 548 career homers, Schmidt also earned 10 Gold Glove Awards and six Silver Slugger Awards.
For casual collectors looking for Schmidt’s ungraded rookie, Beckett values this card between $75-$150.
But for serious buyers looking to get a high-graded Schmidt can get a PSA 8 for $300-$350. The Average auction price for a PSA 9 Schmidt is between $1,775-$2,100. It is very rare for a PSA 10 Schmidt to pop up on the market. But when they do, they can go for big money. For example, Topps has a super rare O-Pee-Chee version of this card that sold for $15,765 in Gem Mint condition in 2012.
Other notable 1973 Topps cards include Hank Aaron’s No. 100, Pete Rose’s No. 130 and Carl Yastrzemski’s No. 245. Thurman Munson’s No. 142, Joe Morgan’s No. 230, Rich Gossage’s No. 174, the #614 Dwight Evans rookie and Reggie Jackson’s No. 255 are also among the more significant cards in the set, which features a high number run valued slightly higher than the rest of the set.
James Morisette is a contributing writer for Sports Collectors Daily. He is also the Founder and Chief Editor at the Basebook Baseball Social Network. Follow James on Twitter to receive future features.