The card companies issue multiple sets per month these days. The sport doesn’t even have to be in season for some new product to hit the market. That’s not exactly a revelation. The flood of products really began in the 1990s.
The contrast between modern era and the world of collectors of current releases back in the late 1970s is mind-boggling and one unique, one-and-done issue, brings it all into focus.
I think back to December of 1978 (yes, I remember 1978 and quite well, thank you). Today, card companies would have been racing to push out a few more products around the holidays. Back then, though, football cards had been on the shelf since August and most who cared were done buying packs, sets or bricks and singles to put together their sets.
Baseball was clearly king and the next season’s cards were still a couple of months away, although we were placing our orders for cases that we would sort into sets in hopes of making a few dollars to pay for the ones we kept. Basketball cards were out there–if you could find them. Topps was the only game in town and if you wanted new cards, that’s what you bought. There were no ‘chase cards’. No redemptions. Just a 132-card basic set. That’s it.
Fleer had a basketball sticker issue that provided a little competition. Hockey guys bought hockey cards.
Of course, the number of sports card shops in operation back then was probably less than 100–if that. They didn’t depend on a new card product coming out every few weeks to make a go of it.
Once you had your basketball set, it was a long wait until spring. Finally, sometime in March, I think, we had our baseball cards. And another Fleer cartoon set. And we had something that drove the entire sports card market for about three months.
Topps Test Comics.
For those of you who don’t remember–or aren’t old enough–you have to keep in mind that anything Topps did then was national sports collecting news. They were called a ‘test’ issue because supposedly Topps was testing the interest of collectors anytime they put out something new. And when that magic word was used–rumors flew. They were only issued in a couple of states. You could only get the third series in a few cities. They (supposedly) only made a few hundred cases. Who really knew?
The best part? If you could buy them at retail, each one was a nickel. Wholesale cost was even less. Even in the days of 25-cent wax packs, that was a deal.
If you didn’t like gum, you probably didn’t like the 1979 Topps Test Comics. They were sold as just that–Major League Bubble Gum. A big, honkin’ piece of pink gum with a red, white and blue MLB logo wrapper and inside of that, a Bazooka Joe type cartoon illustration of a player. Sometimes the gum stuck to the paper and it took hours to get through a box of 72 pieces without tearing the comics and ruining their collectible value. Hey, we had standards even then.
Anyone who set up at a card show wanted them–even vintage card guys (who dabbled in newer stuff because 1) there wasn’t much of it and 2) it could be profitable).
I was a teenager and remember acquiring a case of the difficult third series just before the regional show in Milwaukee. I thought they might sell if no one else had discovered them.
It was like I was selling dollar bills for a quarter.
Collectors were sucked to my table like a vacuum. They bought boxes and handfuls of pieces hoping to fill out their set. I think my case lasted an hour–and no I wasn’t selling them for a nickel each. There was a hunger for anything new–just like today. The quality of the product didn’t really matter that much. It was baseball. It was Topps. It was new. That’s pretty much all that mattered. We didn’t know anything else.
Today, there are plenty of them available 24/7 on eBay, something we couldn’t have imagined then. Those bright yellow unopened boxes are actually pretty valuable because, well, anything really old and unopened draws a crowd of nostalgia buffs.
If you were a collector back then, “having everything” was still a reasonable goal. You actually could collect all of the major issues from any year and even all of the regional sets if you were ambitious. Anything card-related that was produced was a big deal.
Even a waxy cartoon of George Brett.