The 1966 baseball season was marked by a series of jarring developments that would change the way fans looked at the game and help to shape the campaigns that followed. From player retirements to upheaval in the standings to the renaming of a franchise, it seemed as if all aspects of the game were in flux. Against that backdrop of uncertainty, baseball card collectors found comfort in their wax packs that summer, as the 1966 Topps baseball set was as solid and predictable as ever.
While it has lagged in popularity over the decades, at least when compared to the sets around it, 1966 baseball is an underrated classic that deserves another look, especially with the fresh ode from the 2015 Topps Heritage product.
Color-Coded Classic Design
About the same time that Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace Sandy Koufax was working his legendary left arm into pitching condition one last time, Topps rolled out the first of a whopping seven series in their 1966 wax packs, eventually releasing 598 cards in total. In contrast to the previous year’s issue, which was dominated by a team banner and had a very collegiate feel, Topps’ 1966 baseball cards rely on subtle design elements to highlight the rich full-color photo of each player on card fronts.
The team nickname appears in a diagonal band in the top left-hand corner of the card, and the player name and position are featured in a narrow rectangle that stretches across the card bottom. Each team was assigned a color scheme, which was used for all of that club’s players, and teams from the American League and National League were matched as follows:
- Baltimore Orioles and Houston Astros: black print on light green background
- Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates: white print on pink background
- California Angels and Atlanta Braves: white print on light purple background
- Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies: red print on gray background
- Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs: white print on orange background
- Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals: red print on yellow background
- Kansas City Athletics and New York Mets: yellow print on yellow background
- Minnesota Twins and Cincinnati Reds: white print on blue background
- New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers: yellow print on red background
- Washington Senators and San Francisco Giants: yellow print on green background
Some of those pairings were obviously based on history (Dodgers and Yankees) or geography (Cubs and White Sox), while at least one seems to have been especially prescient on Topps’ part. Just two years later, in 1968, the Cardinals and Tigers would stage one of the most dramatic World Series ever.
Card backs feature a horizontal design dominated by complete players stats on the bottom panel in black ink against a pink background. For players with shorter tenures, and therefore more space, Topps included a biographical paragraph at the top of the statistics block. The top quarter of the card shows the card number in a baseball labeled “Topps” baseball, along with the player name in pink ink and vital stats in white ink against a black background, all on the left half. On the right half of the upper banner is a cartoon describing one of the player’s baseball accomplishments.
Uninspiring Rookies and Double-Printed Stars
One of the reasons that the 1966 set has lagged behind its 1965 and 1967 counterparts in terms of hobby profile is a lack of impact rookie cards. While Hall of Fame hurlers Jim Palmer, Don Sutton, and Ferguson Jenkins all have their first cards in the 1966 set, that trio lacks the overall star power of Joe Morgan (1965), Steve Carlton (1965), Tony Perez (1965), Tom Seaver (1967), and Rod Carew (1967). Among the 1966 rookie cards, Palmer’s is generally the most coveted.
Also dinging the price potential of 1966 Topps baseball are several cards that were double printed, including #30 Pete Rose and #50 Mickey Mantle. The effect can be seen in PSA’s population report, which shows that about 5300 of the 1966 Mantle cards have been submitted for grading, as compared to just 4800 of the 1967s and 2900 of the 1965s. That’s good news for budget-conscious collectors who are looking to pick up an attractive Mantle card at a reasonable price. If you are looking for a truly top-notch, graded copy of the 1966 Topps Mantle card, though, be prepared, as centering issues push its price past comparable cards of The Mick from other mid-to-late 1960s sets.
Not Quite Centered
In fact, just about every card in the 1966 set is challenging to find in really prime condition. Of the nearly 130,000 cards graded by PSA, just 681 of them warranted a 10, and less than 12,000 check in at a 9. Particularly tough are the first and last cards in the set, Willie Mays and Gaylord Perry, respectively.
The main culprit in conditioning for 1966 Topps baseball seems to be centering, a problem that runs rampant throughout the entire set. High-number series, in particular, are plagued by off-center cuts, and a few cards appear to be hardest hit. Among these are the Cubs Rookies card (#482), Hank Aaron (#500), the Giants Rookies card (#511), and the Cardinals Rookies card (#544).
Putting It All Together
Building a complete set of 1966 Topps baseball cards should be a fairly straightforward endeavor as long as condition is not your top priority, although the last series does contain 43 short-printed cards. Among those are Willie McCovey (#550), Billy Williams (#580), and Gaylord Perry (#598), all of them Hall of Famers who can command $70-100 or more for mid-grade slabbed examples. That seventh series, in general, is more difficult than cards issued earlier in the year, and even ungraded high-number commons can bring $20 and up, while a handful of the very toughest cards can set you back significantly more than that.
The king of tough cards to find in top condition in the 1966 set, at least by reputation, is the Grant Jackson rookie card, #591. While the numbers in PSA’s population report are certainly skinny for Jackson — 304 total cards graded, just 14 PSA 9s, and no 10s — they are not so far out of line with the other high numbers to suggest anything extraordinary. There is at least one school of thought that says the clamor for the Jackson card is mostly an artificial construct created by one dealer who snatches up every copy he can find.
Building a master set presents additional challenges, as several cards exist with or without player transaction information on their backs, and minor variations of the checklist cards exist, as well. Two errors of note involved the hapless Chicago Cubs, whose ignominy was only exacerbated by Topps’ lack of attention to detail.
Card #43 originally showed outfielder Don Landrum with the his fly open and the button visible, and Topps’ attempt to rectify the situation left Landrum with a only a partially closed fly. The gum maker gave it a third try, though, and finally got Landrum’s fly secured in a more decent fashion.
The Dick Ellsworth card, #447, is not technically a variation, but it certainly casts a dark shadow, as the photo actually depicts Ellsworth’s former teammate, Ken Hubbs. Hubbs was a promising infielder who died in a plane crash at the age of 22 in February of 1964.
While none of these command extreme premiums, they do add another 11 cards for the master set collector to pursue.
1966 Topps complete sets, or near-complete sets, hit the market on a fairly regular basis, and they can bring anywhere from $2000 to $5000 or more, depending on condition.
One fact that might interest collectors of oddball issues is that the 1966 exists in two parallel forms: 1966 O-Pee-Chee and a 1966 Venezuelan issue. While the O-Pee-Chee set, issued in Canada, more or less mimics the base issue, the Venezuelan version was limited to just 370 cards and printed on thin paper stock intended to be pasted into an accompanying album. While you can find the Venezuelan cards in the marketplace, condition is generally Good or worse, with prices ranging from $10 to several hundred dollars. Add in the Rub-Offs issue, inserted in regular Topps packs, and 2015 Topps Heritage, which revives the 1966 design, and there is enough variety to keep treasure hunters on the search for a good long while.
Stability Amid Upheaval
Even as Koufax steamrolled toward his third Cy Young award in four years in September of 1966, his arm was falling apart, and he would call it quits after his Dodgers were swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series that fall. The 1966 card would be his last regular-season issue.
The Orioles’ hero who helped dispatch Los Angeles was Frank Robinson, whom the Cincinnati Reds had traded after the 1965 season because he was deemed an “old” 30. Thus motivated, Robinson won the Triple Crown in his first American League season. Topps was not agile enough in those days to capture Robinson in his new uniform, and the delightful advent of airbrushing was still several years away, so the man who dominated Major League Baseball in 1966 appears on card #310 with no cap, donning his white-vest Reds uniform from the prior year. If you didn’t know better, you might think that F. Robby was a hoopster rather than the best hitter on the planet, judging by that photo. In spite of the Triple Crown season, Robby’s card is very inexpensive, except at the highest grade.
In darker reaches of the game, Mantle was clearly deteriorating by 1966 and for proof that his Yankees were doing the same, all collectors had to do was glance at card #92, which proclaimed the team’s 1965 fate: “6th Place – American League.” The story was even worse in 1966, as the Yanks fell all the way to the AL basement with a 70-89 record. It was an unfathomable turn of events for a franchise that was accustomed to nothing but winning.
Meanwhile, Topps did not issue a team card for the Houston Astros, possibly because of legal wrangling in which the team was involved the year before over their renaming from “Colt .45s” to coincide with their wondrous new ballpark, the Astrodome.
And, as Koufax flamed out while Mantle tried to tape his knees together for another go-round, Series 7 of Topps baseball cards found its way to store shelves, offering one last reminder of the changes that 1966 brought to the game. Nestled there on card #530 in his Houston Astros uniform was future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, as solid and reliable a performer as there was during his 19 years on the mound. After a mid-season trade to the Chicago Cubs, Roberts slid into retirement with a 286-245 lifetime record.
It’s perhaps fitting that Roberts’ final baseball card came in the final series of the 1966 set, a typical solid and reliable Topps set that gave collectors an anchor in a stormy baseball season. It remains an underrated classic.
To see the current ‘most watched’ 1966 Topps baseball cards on eBay, check out the live list below. Be sure to check out our other stories on vintage baseball card sets.