It was the last year in which finishing at the top of the standings in your league meant an automatic berth in the World Series. It was the year in which Nolan Ryan and Johnny Bench made their baseball card debuts and a year in which the American League batting champ barely hit .300.
In 1968, baseball card packs were still a nickel, and while you won’t find even one nice card from the set at that price, here are five cards that capture baseball’s great performers from 50 years ago–and owning all of them in reasonably good shape won’t cost you more than $25.
They had been the Kansas City Athletics just a year earlier, but the move to Oakland worked out just fine for Jim “Catfish” Hunter, who got his nickname from owner Charlie Finley. It was just a marketing ploy–one of many Charley O would use during his stormy tenure as caretaker of the A’s.
He’d grow a mustache and make his Hall of Fame case in the 1970s with the A’s and Yankees, but in the “Year of the Pitcher”, Hunter tossed one of five no-hitters and the only perfect game. During an era when pitchers still batted in the American League, Hunter knocked in three of the four Oakland runs that day. At the time, it was only the ninth perfect game in MLB history.
His 1968 Topps card can usually be found in near mint condition for $15–or less.
Don Drysdale #145
Drysdale had the country talking in 1968 with his remarkable streak of six straight shutouts and 58 2/3 scoreless innings, a record broken 20 years later by Orel Hershiser. Like Hunter, Drysdale was no slouch with a bat, belting 29 homers and seeing occasional pinch-hitting appearances.
Moments before he was assassinated, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy mentioned Drysdale’s sixth shutout to the cheering crowd at a Los Angeles rally. Drysdale kept a cassette tape of that moment with him for the rest of his life and it was found in his hotel room the night he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 56 in 1993.
1968 was his last full season and like Hunter, his card is not expensive.
Today’s analytics may indicate it’s a stat that doesn’t mean much but it’s still a testimony to Denny McLain’s dominance in 1968 that he won 31 games. No one’s done it since. McLain’s ERA was 1.96–one of seven starting pitchers across baseball who were under 2.00 that season, which ended with a hard-fought World Series win over the Cardinals, the club’s first since 1945. McLain was the toast of Tigertown in a year that remains one of the greatest seven month stretches in franchise history.
While extremely popular with Tiger collectors, McLain’s 1968 Topps card is an easy score from the first series and a nice ungraded example usually sells for less than $10.
Bob Gibson #100
Both Cy Young Award winners also won their league MVP award in 1968. McLain in the A.L. and Gibson in the National League, where hitters considered it a great day if they scored more than one run against the Cardinals’ ace. Gibson’s ERA of 1.12 was the lowest for a starter in 54 years. Opposing batters hit .184 against him, had an on-base percentage of .233, and a slugging percentage of .236.
Gibson’s 1968 Topps card is plentiful–and even his status as one of the greatest pitchers in history doesn’t push an average near mint copy past the $20 mark. Grab the much better looking All-Star card, too, for about one-third of the cost.
Year of the Pitcher? Someone forgot to tell Willie Mac. The slugging Giants first baseman was in his prime and led the National League in both home runs (36) and RBI (105). Even Gibson called him “the scariest hitter” in the league. McCovey would win the MVP in ’69 but his 1968 performance in often less than ideal conditions at Candlestick Park helped keep the Giants in the pennant race until the last few weeks of the season.
McCovey’s 1968 Topps card features a beautiful posed action shot and can usually be found for under $10 in ungraded, near mint form.
Honorable Mention: It would probably be remiss not to at least mention Mickey Lolich, who put the cap on the 1968 season by tossing three complete game victories in the World Series. He’s the last pitcher to accomplish that feat and earned a Series MVP for it. He’s not a Hall of Famer and there’s some demand for his card but #414 can still be had for $5-$10.