In the 1980s, Topps’ landmark traded sets produced some of the hobby’s most iconic cards of the era. Nearly every release in the decade had an important card. In 1982, it was Cal Ripken’s ‘follow-up’ card (after his rookie appeared in the regular Topps set). 1983 and 1984 produced rookie cards of Mets stars Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. The likes of Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Greg Maddux, and Ken Griffey, Jr. anchored later sets in the decade.
There was a big reason for the cards’ popularity. Save for a test issue in 1985, they could not be found in wax packs. The only way to acquire those cards was to purchase them individually or to buy the entire set. That changed in 1990 when Topps began regularly distributing the cards in wax packs. Traded cards have remained popular ever since.
Topps’ Traded cards became wildly popular in the 1980s with the company making a concerted effort to produce those sets. However, the first Traded cards can actually be found in the 1970s.
1974 Topps Traded
It can be argued that the first Topps Traded cards didn’t get off to a great start. Sure, it was a fantastic idea to distribute early cards of newly-swapped players. But the idea doesn’t seem as if it caught on.
Topps fist tried their pitch in 1974. While the Traded cards were included with factory sets sold through department stores, the way that most collectors found them was through wax packs.
The cards included different pictures of players with their new team. They are easily spotted due to a large yellow banner on the front with the word “Traded” in red. The set included players that were swapped after the previous regular season had ended.
A significant difference is that the numbering system was a bit unique. Unlike the later traded card sets from the 1980s and beyond, Topps chose to keep the card numbers the same as the player’s regular card in the set instead of creating a brand new set with new numbering, starting with No. 1. For example, Ron Santo’s card in the regular set was No. 270. After he was traded by the Cubs to the White Sox, he appeared in the Traded set as number T270. The only difference was the ‘T’ that preceded the card number.
Santo’s card, as do many others, gives us a great glimpse into just how early the regular baseball card sets were created. Santo was actually traded on December 11,1973. Despite that, he still appeared with his former team, the Cubs, in the regular 1974 Topps set, as did other players that were traded before the new season.
That tells us the regular set was well in production even before the new year started and even with that somewhat early date, it was too late to ditch players’ outdated cards. The Traded cards were into later print runs in what was a chaotic year for Topps, with the Padres’ move to Washington on, then off again as Topps prepared its production sheets.
The 1974 regular set, for what it’s worth, did boast some popular cards. Most notably, there were rookie cards of Dave Winfield and Dave Parker, as well as a second year card of Mike Schmidt. A card of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record remains a draw, even today, as do many of the stars in the set, including a youngish Nolan Ryan. But the 1974 Topps Traded set was a bit of a dud. Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and the aforementioned Santo lead a group that was mostly littered with common cards. With all due respect to some other key figures, including All-Stars Tommie Agee, Lou Piniella, and Felipe Alou, there isn’t much that most collectors get excited about here.
1976 Topps Traded
Topps put the brakes on a sophomore Traded series in 1975 and returned with the idea in 1976. The reason for the break isn’t clear but the company was determined to give this update set another shot by 1976.
In 1976, Topps debuted with a new look for their Traded cards. Instead of the ‘loud’ bright yellow banner, Traded cards now featured a more creative newspaper headline snippet to mimic the ‘breaking news’ motif of the set. The somewhat quirky card numbering system, however, remained the same.
Like the regular 1974 Topps baseball card set, the 1976 release also included some key cards. In addition to popular Hall of Famers and stars, second-year cards of young phenoms George Brett and Robin Yount are among the most valuable. The set also includes the rookie card of fellow Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley and the last card issued during Aaron’s career.
The 1976 Topps Traded set, however, did little to generate interest. Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins and star Bobby Bonds do give the 44-card set some big names. And the release did include two pretty interesting cards in Oscar Gamble’s famous afro card and an early card of Willie Randolph. Randolph’s card is often heralded as a rookie, even though that’s not technically correct. He appears in the regular 1974 Topps set and only found his way into the Traded issue due to a late 1975 trade by the Pirates to the Yankees. Still, despite those four cards, today, the set has not held much interest.
Popularity of the Cards
As stated, the popularity of the Topps Traded cards from 1974 and 1976 was quite low. Even the better cards can be found for as little as a few dollars in decent condition.
Why did the cards disappear until 1981? Looking back nearly 50 years later, it’s hard to say for sure. But the most popular Traded cards that have been produced over time were almost always rookie issues and these sets simply didn’t feature those key inclusions.
In 1974, Bake McBride and Mike Hargrove were the Rookies of the Year. While McBride was actually in the regular 1974 set, Hargrove’s rookie card did not appear until 1975. Similarly, while 1976 National League Rookie of the Year Butch Metzger was in the regular 1976 Topps set, rookie phenom and American League Rookie of the Year Mark Fidrych did not get his first card until 1977.
A Fidrych addition into the Traded set, in particular, would have been a must have, considering how wild fans across the country were for him that summer. But the purpose of the Traded set at that time was solely focused on players that were moved to different teams. The idea to include rookie cards of players not found in the regular set didn’t happen until later.
Without the big name rookies showing up in the sets, it’s little surprise that they weren’t a major hit.