Forty years ago, Topps made a major change in how baseball cards were distributed. Rather than produce a ‘living set’ that revealed itself series by series from late winter through the pennant race, Topps produced its entire flagship set in one fell swoop. The 1974 Topps Baseball set was a landmark for that reason—and an explosion of unbridled craziness thanks to one franchise.
With that background, Topps started testing, as any smart company would, of ways to decrease returns on their product so they could increase their profit. Thus, in certain parts of the country and in Canada during 1973, Topps released the entire set at the same time. For Topps, that meant increased market longevity plus not having to constantly deal with printing new series and then distributing and taking returns. If you think about this, that business style makes perfect sense.
However, while the early 1974 sheets were being prepared, there were very strong rumors about the San Diego Padres moving to Washington D.C. In fact, when I was with Beckett back in the day, we received an email from Keith Olbermann detailing the series of events of that off-season.
Since the owner, C. Arnholt Smith, had agreed to sell the team to a buyer who would move the franchise to Washington and the deal was basically agreed upon, Topps changed the team name on cards in the first three series to “Washington”. Since there was no word yet on a nickname for the relocated franchise, Topps simply called them “Natl’l League”. As we know 40 years later, McDonalds magnate Ray Kroc purchased the Padres and kept them in San Diego and Topps’ gamble backfired.
They were forced to re-do the Padres cards and put the team back in San Diego but huge quantities had already been shipped for sale. A total of 15 players were printed with the ‘Washington’ designation including Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. The cards became very popular and well known not only within the hobby but also in the national media.
It has long been believed the Washington National League cards in the 300's are more difficult than the other cards in this variation series. Even though in my 1970's-80's New Jersey dealing days we had one dealer with a shortage of the Randy Jones #173 card our eBay search seems to confirm this belief on the three numbers in the 300's as we could not find one of the Dave Roberts #309 variations available.
There are three versions of rookie card #599 with Dave Friesleben and interestingly on his card the Washington designation is the most common. Curiously, Dave Winfield’s rookie card was never printed with a Washington variation.
Those Washington cards aren’t the only variations in the 1974 set, however. Jesus Alou’s card was originally printed without his position in the upper right corner and rookie Bob Apodaca’s name was originally misspelled ‘Apodoco’ on card #608.
The 1974 set leads off with an iconic horizontal card of Hank Aaron, who was closing in on Babe Ruth’s career home run record when the set went to press. Feeling confident Hammerin’ Hank would break the record during the first week or two of the season, Topps promoted him as the ‘All-Time Home Run King’ and included a subset (#2-6) picturing every major Aaron card the company had produced to that time.
Topps’ other innovation was a 44-card ‘Traded’ set, which was utilized to illustrate some of the off season transactions. The set involved heavy use of airbrushing as Topps tried to update its now single-series set. They’d do it again in 1976.
The set included All-Star cards, playoff and World Series cards and the usual checklists.
It was the first Topps set since 1955 not to include Roberto Clemente who had been killed in a plane crash just as the 1973 set had gone to press. Willie Mays’ career had ended with the ’73 World Series and although he has no regular card in ’74, he does appear on one of the post-season cards.
1974 was also the first year that Topps produced a complete retail or 'factory' set in a a special box.
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Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]