For the older generation of sports collectors who are veteran or lifelong collectors, 1971 doesn’t seem like it was a half century ago.
The harsh reminder comes almost weekly, when another one of the many sports icons that graced the sports card sets of that year are gone. This year alone, baseball has lost home run king Hank Aaron, legendary pitcher Don Sutton, Mudcat Grant and 1979 World Series Game 7 winner Grant Jackson among many others. Among basketball’s losses were Elgin Baylor and Paul Westphal. Floyd Little was among the former NFL players who passed away. Among hockey’s losses were George Armstrong, Ralph Backstrom and Tony Esposito.
All were immortalized by Topps cards in 1971. And for those who collected that year, it is always a stark reminder that you are on the back nine when a boyhood hero whose cards you collected as a kid are disappearing.
When we look back at 1971 from a collector’s standpoint, it seemed like a year that everything just seemed to come together. Mickey Mantle, who had been the most sought after player among collectors throughout his career, was a few years removed from his baseball playing career. But there was a beautiful mix of superstars nearing their end of their careers blended in with emerging young stars.
Not only was the player selection better, but more and more homes were getting color televisions, and more games were shown live. The production quality of sports broadcasts continued to improve. For kids who were collecting cards, these live broadcasts, including the new Monday Night Football telecasts, fueled the passion for buying wax packs.
The NFL and the AFL had come together in one league, and the Super Bowl was quickly growing as a big event. The 1971 Topps football set was the first set to reflect the merger of the two leagues and the creation of the NFC and AFC within the NFL. There were also some new teams emerging as powerhouses who would become popular. The Dallas Cowboys lost Super Bowl V to the Baltimore Colts in January, 1971. But that season, they and the Miami Dolphins would emerge as powerhouses.
Topps used their traditional football pose shots or headshots of players in the set. They did include some game action photography, but the team logos had to be removed from helmets. The set is 263 cards, which may seem a bit odd at first glance. Topps printed their cards 132 up on a sheet, but they included checklist number 106 on both print forms, leaving them with 263 cards rather than 264 cards.
Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers are the two most prominent rookie cards in the set among the many. The set also includes legendary players like Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers.
Ken Dryden Arrives
There was an interesting scenario that played out in the NHL in 1971. Ken Dryden graduated from Cornell and jumped into the Montreal Canadiens line-up late in the season. He led the Canadiens past the Chicago Blackhawks, with Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito, to win the Stanley Cup. Dryden became the first player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, and then win the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year the following season.
When O-Pee-Chee and Topps released their 1971-72 NHL hockey cards late in 1971, the Dryden rookie card became a hot commodity in the set, and it still is to this day.
What makes both the 1970-71 and 1971-72 NHL card sets special is that they are the last sets produced before the WHA arrived on the scene. Many NHL stars, most notably Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull, jumped to the new league. The inclusion of Howe and Hull puts a premium on those sets from the early 70s.
Of course, there are more great players from that era. Bobby Orr, Phil and Tony Esposito, Jean Beliveau, Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, Gilbert Perreault, Guy Lafleur and a great mix of future Hall of Famers and young stars make these sets classics.
In the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks won a championship that would have to stand for 50 years before fans in that city got to see another.
Topps produced an oversized card commonly known in the hobby as Tall Boys. The cards had the same width as standard sports cards but were taller.
Rookie cards from that set included Pistol Pete Maravich, Pat Riley and Calvin Murphy. Young star Lew Alcindor, who would become more commonly known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was a hit pull from that set, as was legendary guard Oscar Robertson. They, along with Bobby Dandridge, are the three Hall of Famers on the Bucks’ championship team. The Baltimore Bullets, who lost in the finals to the Bucks, also had some big names. Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson all became Hall of Famers.
Some of the other big names in that set are Jerry West, Elvin Hayes, Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and many more.
Clemente World Series MVP
The 1971 Topps Baseball set was and still is a classic. Topps went away from some of its tradition and included action photography and more use of horizontal card designs.
The cards have a black border, which makes them very grade sensitive due to the chipping that would occur in the cutting process. The cards also have a facsimile autograph of the player. The backs are green and include a black and white head shot. That limited the space available on the backs, and as a result, full career statistics were not on these cards. Only 1970 and career stats were included.
The rookie card class includes players like Don Baylor, Ken Singleton, Dusty Baker, Steve Garvey, George Foster and Bert Blyleven. Legends like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson and Pete Rose are alongside young stars of the day like Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson and Tom Seaver.
The set was available in seven different series, though the sixth and seventh series are more expensive to obtain because their print runs were smaller.
As was the case in the other sports, the 1971 season was one of the ages. Reggie Jackson’s home run at Tiger Stadium that went off the light standard above the right field seats is still the most talked about home run in All-Star Game history. The World Series saw Roberto Clemente lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a seven-game victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Clemente would play one more season before his tragic death in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve of 1972.
Many sports fans are passionate about collecting because it’s a way to connect to the past and the heroes of their childhood. For many fans who remember how great sports were in 1971 and how great the card sets were, there has never been a year to match it.