It’s the season for mammoth new free agent contracts in baseball. Zack Greinke is a Diamondback and David Price is a member of the Boston Red Sox after signing a contract which might be worth upwards of $215 million. The reason I say “might be” is there is an opt-out clause after the first three seasons. However, if the contract goes the full length he will earn more money than all the major league franchises were worth circa 1967 or so. Just two generations and boy has the money evolved.
Naturally, my mind shifted to the earliest days of free agency and some observations about baseball cards in the immediate aftermath. The first year of what we now call free agency was after the 1976 season. The first group of free agents, as well the addition of two American league teams, was going to cause even more player movement than usual and yes, the 1977 Topps set reflects many of those changes.
But, to me there is another set which did an even better job of keeping up with player movement. If I recall correctly more than 100 cards in the Canadian made 1977 O-Pee-Chee set had variations as compared to their Topps counterparts. Some were very minor, such as a notation on the front, while others were full-blown pose variations. That may also have been because in the debut season of the Toronto Blue Jays, O-Pee-Chee really wanted to stress the new Canadian team.
Many of the other traded or free agent players also have different poses or an updated team than we saw in Topps cards here in the U.S. Sadly, we didn’t get a single-player card of Andre Dawson, who shares his rookie card with three other players. But to me, the real interesting aspect is that O-Pee-Chee never really duplicated the effort of using a bunch of different photos for their future sets.
Sure there were those occasional one-offs such as in 1988 when cards commemorating high draft picks for each Canadian team were added to the set or in 1992 when a special Gary Carter set displaced a few players. That also happened in 1971 with a couple of pose changes including Ron Hunt and a few notations before 1977 including the 1972 Gil Hodges card which referenced his death during spring training.
To me, the real question was, would O-Pee-Chee been even more popular over the rest of their history (and perhaps even lasted longer as a card producer) if they had replicated the 1977 set in terms of changing many of the player poses? Wouldn’t it have been nice to have had all three 1981 Topps Montreal Expos rookies on single cards so we would have had a Tim Raines rookie while his cards were on fire in 1981, rather than in the post-season Topps Update set? The same goes for Jesse Barfield in 1982. And just imagine an OPC pose variation on, oh let’s say a 1990 Frank Thomas card (maybe even with a no name on front variety to boot, eh?).
While we only got glimpse of that type of innovation from O-Pee-Chee over their next 17 years or so, we always have the memory of the reasonably accessible 1977 set with all those different looking cards.