When they ripped open their first packs of baseball cards to greet a new decade, collectors couldn’t have known that they were looking at the end of a monopoly AND the seeds of a hobby boom. The 1980 Topps baseball set was not too far removed from its recent predecessors in look and feel, but it was in a different league entirely when it came to making history.
Indeed, by the next spring, Topps was joined on the hobby field by TWO new competitors as Donruss and Fleer each took aim at the old gum company with full sets of their own, and baseball itself stood on the precipice of a disastrous player strike.
In 1980, though, Topps enjoyed one last season of unchallenged baseball card supremacy, and treated collectors to a clean, bright set that made the world seem simple and right for at least a bit longer. The Rickey Henderson rookie card would be the last single manufacturer rookie card of a Hall of Fame player.
It Was a Banner Year
Continuing a run of simple, yet colorful designs, the 1980 Topps set offered up a team-focused theme that fell right in line with the issues that came before it.
Each card front features a rounded-corner photo surrounded by team-colored piping. In the lower right-hand corner, a banner wraps into the photo and shows the team name in large block letters against a solid color. A complementary banner whips into the upper left-hand corner to announce the player’s position.
The player’s own name appears in block capital letters across the top of the card against a thick white border.
All-Stars from 1979 are noted with a color-coded bar at the top of the photo, and each card is adorned with the player’s facsimile autograph.
Card backs, too, fit right in with other sets of the era, and are oriented horizontally, featuring a blue, gray, and black color scheme.
The card number appears inside gray home plate in the upper left-hand corner and is followed across the top of the card by the player’s position, name, and team name.
In a departure from most Topps designs, biographical information and vital stats appear in a band along the bottom of the card. The middle three-quarters of each reverse is dedicated to a player cartoon on the left-hand side and the usual full statistics table on the right, along with a few highlights in prose where space allows.
All in all, it’s a solid looking card that screams “Topps!” every step of the way.
Hot Dog, It’s a Rookie!
Even attractive sets tend to get lost in the shoe box shuffle if they don’t also bring a little pizzazz to the mix, and the 1980 Topps set made good on that front with one shiny bit of (green and) gold.
Leading off a decade that would become known for rookie card hype, Topps managed to include the debut issue of one of the greatest talents that game has ever seen: Oakland A’s outfielder Rickey Henderson (#482).
Almost from the get-go, Henderson got up and went like nobody else before him. Rickey stole 33 bases during a short stint with Oakland in 1979, then 100 in 1980 before breaking the single-season record with 130 in 1982. In a 25-year career, Henderson set the all-time marks for steals and runs, amassed more than 3000 hits, won an MVP award in 1990, and set the bar by which all other hot-dogging showboats would be judged.
Not surprisingly, his rookie issue is the most popular card in the 1980 Topps set, pushing past $300 in graded MINT condition but readily available in lesser grade for much less.
Henderson leaves everyone else in the dust, with Dave Stieb (#77) and Rick Sutcliffe (#544) the only other notable rookies in the set.
Among the veterans, Nolan Ryan (#580), George Brett (#450), a second-year Ozzie Smith (#393), Pete Rose (#540), Mike Schmidt (#270), and the rest of the usual lineup of 1980s superstars are solid buys at less — sometimes much less — than $25 a pop for nice NM-MT copies.
Beyond the Henderson rookie and some hefty prices for really top-grade superstars, the 1980 Topps set doesn’t offer much in the way of challenges for collectors. Heck, even the”special” subsets are pretty mundane:
- 1979 Season Highlights – cards # 1-6
- League Leaders – cards # 201-207
- Team cards – throughout the set
- Checklist cards – cards #121, 241, 348, 484, 533, 646
- Team-based Future Stars – cards # 661-686
Since the entire 726-card set was released in one series, there are no tough high-numbers or short prints to worry about. In fact, 66 cards are generally regarded as double prints, and those include standouts like Schmidt and Carl Yastrzemski (#720).
A handful of cards — Steve Braun (#9), Fred Stanley (#387), John Wathan (#547) and Tom Poquette (#597) — are considered by some collectors to exist as variations. In particular, these players have been found with their names in yellow type, which MAY indicate a printing error rather than a true variation. Either way, collectors do look for them and they occasionally pop up on eBay.
Conditioning is the one area that might drive up the cost of completing a 1980 Topps set, depending on how picky you are. As with most of the company’s issues from the era, card stock is soft and prone to fraying and denting. Many cards also suffer from off-center or off-kilter photos, and some images are chronically blurry.
Still, there is no shortage of 1980 Topps cards in dealers’ stocks, and you can pick up solid commons for just a few cents most of the time. Even big stars won’t set you back more than $5 or so.
If you want to buy the cards all in one shot, you should be able to score a vending-quality complete set for well under $200 and nice NM versions for much less than that.
Enjoy It While You Can
After several years of threatening to meet up in October, the Philadelphia Phillies and Kansas City Royals finally crashed into the World Series at the same time.
Led by a pair of Cooperstown-bound third basemen who would be named league MVPs in November, Philly and KC slugged it out for six more or less tight games until Schmidt and Rose finally got the better of Brett and Willie Mays Aikens — despite four home runs by the latter.
The most well-informed of fans may have sensed the coming impasse blowing across the diamonds that Fall on the cool winds that carried a baseball nation toward disaster, but most of us were blissful in our ignorance of just how ugly the business of sport would become the next summer.
Likewise, the most seasoned of collectors might have been following the trade breezes closely enough to know that, regardless of what happened on the diamond in 1981, the wax pack landscape was bound to be more interesting and active than ever.
Little Leaguers and their Baby Boom dads, though? We were all just happy to have a fistful of 1980 Topps baseball cards and a cheek full of prickly pink bubble gum shards while we pondered just how high Brett’s average would climb and just how many dingers Schmidt would club in 1981.
It was going to be great.
Read about dozens of other vintage baseball card sets here.