In the 1960s, you could wear your baseball heroes on your sleeve.
That was possible with the 1966 Topps Rub-Offs set, which was inserted into wax packs of the main baseball product that year.
I lived in Brooklyn when this product was released, and many of my friends wore white T-shirts when not attending school. It was not unusual to see the images of Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle or Mets up-and-coming star Ron Swoboda adorning their cotton shirts.
It was important to wear those images on the sleeve. Wearing it on the front of the shirt was considered odd, since the rub-offs measured a mere 2 1/16 inches by 3 inches.
Nowadays, it’s actually more fun to try and complete the 120-image set. But here’s the rub — try to complete it with each image fully centered. Now that is hard to do. Topps did not seem overly concerned with getting the players perfectly centered. In fact, some rub-offs include parts of two players.
I am very close to finishing this set, needing just three for completion. But how many are centered? Very few. How many are perfectly centered? One, perhaps.
Topps had tried tattoo-like sets earlier in the 1960s. The 1960 version (called Topps Tattoo Bubble Gum) was printed on the reverse of the wrapper and could be applied to a person’s skin. The main product was the gum, but the tattoo was a bonus. In 1961, the tattoos were more cartoonish and could be transferred to the skin or other surfaces.
The 1966 set consisted of 100 player images in a vertical format, and 20 pennants that were horizontal. The photos were realistic, too, unlike the drawings in the 1960 product. There is no numbering system in 1966; most guides list the players alphabetically (designating them numbers from 1 to 100), then do the same for the pennants (101 through 120). The player images included a yellow banner with the player’s name in big red block letters. His position and team name were presented underneath in thinner, black block letters.
The images are much clearer on the rub-off’s back side, even though the backs are in reverse; it is more opaque-looking on the front, but the image is correct. Every image contains a noticeable black printer’s mark; it is located underneath the yellow banner for the players, and to the left of the pennants.
The set itself is a collector’s dream baseball royalty, with 23 Hall of Famers. Other stars include Pete Rose, Curt Flood, Rocky Colavito, Tony Oliva, Joe Torre and Bill Freehan. Other images included Sammy Ellis, Gary Kroll, Johnny Orsino and Pete Ward.
Predictably, the most valuable rub-offs are Hall of Famers like Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente (referred to as “Bob” in the set) and Willie Mays. The latest edition of the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards places an $800 price tag on a near-mint set.
Of the 187 examples presented to SGC for grading, only two graded out at 98 — Juan Marichal and Ed Kranepool. There are 28 that earned a 96 grade, including eight Mantles.
The top PSA set belongs to “Golf Pro Greg.” His complete set includes 85 PSA-10s and four PSA-8s. The rest are PSA-9s.
Some rub-offs can be found in strips, which is a nice discovery, too.
And there are plenty of rub-offs that can be found on eBay.