Sunday marked the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team’s stunning victory over the Soviet Union, the ‘Miracle on Ice’ game that’s a part of the collective consciousness of any sports fan old enough to remember it.
It was about this time when the 1980 Topps Baseball card boxes were popping up in retail outlets. If you are still of a mind that the new Topps packs are cause for celebration today, you have no idea. Since this was really the only baseball product of much substance, its arrival was almost like an extended national holiday for collectors. They chewed more bubble gum from late February through the summer than you could imagine, saved wrappers to send away for whatever Topps was offering as a premium (fold out checklists that year) and put together multiple sets.
As the Olympics gave way to spring training that year, the talk was primarily centered around the price increase (packs were now a quarter… a QUARTER!…which meant full boxes of 1980 Topps were $9 at retail. Even if you could buy them at a bit of a discount through a wholesaler, you still paid around $7. There were now 15 cards in each wax pack, so Topps did throw everyone a bone, even though it seemed there were at least two double prints in every pack, another annoying part of the decision to expand the set from 660 to 726 that had begun in 1978.
Beginning in 1979, my dad and I, together with some other local adult collectors, had gotten together and purchased cases directly from Topps. I believe the minimum order was five cases. We kept a few and sold the rest at local shows ($12-15 each) and after many hours of sorting, wondered what we were going to do with all of the common double prints but also felt relief that Mike Schmidt, Rod Carew and Carl Yastzemski were among them, too.
We knew about the court challenge to the Topps monopoly but never could have expected two new manufacturers to arrive in a year and the chaos it would cause. Now, three major products seems almost quaint.
Before 1980 was over, though, there would be the hunt for 5×7 Topps ‘Supers’, gray backs sold in packs and individually for 20 cents each and white back sets that were meant primarily as a dealer exclusive (yes, we ordered these ‘rare’ sets and unfortunately they weren’t big sellers). I vividly recall stopping by a convenience store and stocking up on stars to re-sell at a larger show in Milwaukee, where most collectors had yet to see them.
Star cards were a big deal, but the rookie craze was really a year or two away. No one except A’s fans really knew a lot about young Rickey Henderson or cared to stick his cards away for the long haul. Ah, if only we’d known.
Those who collected other types of cards could have walked into a drug store and probably seen boxes from two sports that were in the middle of their seasons. They weren’t very exciting, but lot of American kids chose the basketball cards over hockey, which turned out to be a huge mistake in the winter of 1979-80 when Wayne Gretzky’s first card was in puck packs.
Collecting publications (there were three notable ones) carried a lot of display and classified ads including one for the ‘Sport Americana Price Guide’, 2nd edition, by Dennis Eckes and a guy named Jim Beckett. There was another for the Sports Collectors Directory, a paperback book listing anyone who cared to be listed as a sports collector and their address plus a list of sports collecting clubs, which were pretty much everywhere.
If you were a high roller, you could buy a 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle in excellent condition for $490 or mail in a bid and hope to win one for less once the auction ended in a few weeks. A Nolan Ryan/Jerry Koosman rookie card would set you back $6.75 (hey, it was only 12 years old).
The first National Sports Collectors Convention was planned for later that year in Los Angeles and there was much discussion about whether there was really a need for one. Seminars, baseball game outings and contests were all part of the weekend.
One thing changed when spring came in a few weeks: Baseball cards were no longer on the back of Hostess Cakes. Like clockwork, though, Kellogg’s made our breakfast better with its latest 3-D card set.
The college kids on the 1980 Olympic hockey team either went back to school, found a job or played in the pros. Three decades and change later, some had sold their game-worn gear from that moment in the sun for a rink full of cash thanks to the presence of an entity that didn’t exist in 1980: the sports memorabilia catalog auction.
I’m not sure if being a collector or dealer today is better than it was 35 years ago but it would be fun go back and live it all again.