In much the same way that foreign change finds its way into piggy banks, jars and ashtrays, O-Pee-Chee baseball cards invaded the stacks of cardboard that resided on every level surface in my room when I was growing up. It may have had something to do with my location; the wood paneled, split level, suburban sprawl that surrounds Boston. It may also have stemmed from summer trips to Canada by family and friends who returned with the bilingual backed pictures of my heroes. Regardless of how they appeared, much of my childhood was spent trying to stamp out evidence of baseball’s reach north of the boarder as I tried in vain to complete Topps sets, summer after summer.
O-Pee-Chee’s first foray into baseball card production occurred in 1934. That summer the confectionary company produced a 58 card set of oversized premiums similar to the R130 Butterfinger premiums being distributed in the United States.
Three years later, in the summer of 1937, O-Pee-Chee gave baseball card production another try. The 1937 O-Pee-Chee set is valued among collectors for several reasons. Visual appeal and relative rarity are important to its popularity but the inclusion of Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg in the 40 card set is most likely the biggest factor. The cards O-Pee-Chee produced that year of the three future Hall of Famers are among the earliest examples from each player’s career. If the following production gap is any indication, baseball cards must not have had the positive effect on sales the company had expected as they failed to package baseball cards with their candy for the next 28 summers.
The world had changed greatly between 1937 when O-Pee-Chee stopped printing baseball cards and 1965, when they reentered the market.
The top story of 1937 was the disappearance of Amelia Earhart over the Pacific Ocean and in baseball Lou Gehrig carried the Yankees on his wide shoulders to a World Series victory over the crosstown Giants. 1965 saw the passing of the Voting Rights Act and that summer the Mets dugout provided a comfortable place for manager Casey Stengel to catnap while his team floundered in last place all season long. In fact, the only Shea Stadium highlight that summer was a memorable concert in August by the Beatles, completing the British Invasion by filling the ballpark for the first time that year.
In early 1965 the Topps Chewing Gum Company of Brooklyn New York licensed O-Pee-Chee to produce a Canadian version of their baseball card sets. The O-Pee-Chee sets were different from their American counterparts in several ways. First, the size of the sets O-Pee-Chee produced were much smaller than the Topps sets of the same year. Secondly, the paper stock used by the fledgling company was different from what Topps was feeding its printing presses. This variation in paper quality led to much clearer and appealing photos on the front of O-Pee-Chee cards. This is one of the reasons why collecting vintage O-Pee-Chee baseball cards is becoming more popular, even south of the Canadian border.
“About 50 percent of my online business now comes from within the United States,” said long time baseball card dealer Thomas Salem of OPCBaseball.com. In fact, his O-Pee-Chee only internet sales platform is based in the heart of Texas. To fill inventory, Salem makes up to four trips a year to the Canada where he has built a network of dealers with whom he relies to keep his coffers full. Salem originally decided to specialize in O-Pee-Chee product when he reentered the memorabilia business after a layoff of several years. “I was looking for something different,” he explained. “Something no one else was really doing.” He obviously chose the correct niche as his business has grown annually for more than a decade.
The past few years have seen a serious uptick in O-Pee-Chee baseball sales both online and at sports card shows. The demand for O-Pee-Chee product has also driven up the price of cards once considered an odd ball collectable and a distant second in terms of interest to their American counterparts. Recent market trends have seen high grade O-Pee-Chee cards surpassing Topps cards of the same year. Examples would include the 1984 Don Mattingly rookie in PSA 10 that lists at around $100 for the Topps version and over $300 for the O-Pee-Chee. The 1983 Ryne Sandberg rookie is an even more dramatic example, as a Topps PSA 10 regularly trades at around $275, while an O-Pee-Chee in the same grade will set you back more than $1000, if you can find one.
The reason for the steep purchase price can be explained simply as a result of supply and demand. The population numbers of high grade O-Pee-Chee cards are extremely low in comparison to Topps cards that are being slabbed in record numbers.
Standing in direct juxtaposition to the high print quality of O-Pee-Chee cards are centering issues that affect every set issued from 1965 to 1979 and have had collectors scratching their heads for years. No example better demonstrates this than the first card of the 1973 set. The card that depicts Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays is often found so poorly centered that just one PSA 8 example exists, with no PSA 9 or 10 yet encapsulated. This super low population of high grade examples, along with the popularity of the three players pictured easily makes it the most sought after card for high grade set collectors.
It’s not only the high grade O-Pee-Chee rookies that are selling but also complete vintage sets and unopened wax packs. “Star power still sells,” said Salem. “I recently sold a 1977 Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver league leader card in PSA 10 for $1500, but I’m seeing more and more interest in vintage sets. Within the past few months I’ve moved a 1966 set, a 1970 set and a couple 1972 sets. I get comments all the time from buyers telling me that they’ve been looking for years for a certain card or set. My Canadian customers are always looking for 1977 Toronto Blue Jays cards because that was the team’s first year in the league. Or 1970 Montreal Expos cards, when O-Pee-Chee baseball went bilingual for the first time.”
O-Pee-Chee baseball cards seem to finally be having their day in the sun. No longer considered a cheap Topps imitation by American collectors, they are increasing in value and finally gaining the status as a collectable they have long deserved. Looking back, I would have done better to have tossed the mass produced cards Topps flooded the market with during my childhood and have put the O-Pee-Chee cards aside for safe keeping. Given the monumental increase in value the cards are experiencing, it looks like I’ll be searching my mother’s attic this weekend for that box of O-Pee-Chee I threw aside 30 years ago.