In the waning hours of 1972, a cargo plane bound for Nicaragua crashed into the ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico, taking with it a true baseball hero and casting a dark pall over the 1973 season before the New Year could even introduce itself to the world. Roberto Clemente had collected his 3000th hit just months before, on the last day of the regular season, and appeared to have a few golden years left to help the Pittsburgh Pirates win another World Series title, but his 1973 Topps baseball card hints at the surreal and tragic events that cut his story short.
Even though Clemente’s face is shrouded in shadow, his celebrated bat flashes in the spring sunshine, taunting fans with the glory that they would never get to see one last time.
And so the mantel of leadership for the Bucs was officially passed to Willie Stargell, who was already well on his way to becoming the “Pops” who would get Pittsburgh another title at the end of the decade. It was just the first of many double-edged changes that 1973 dragged across the horizon before fading away 12 months later.
Three weeks after Clement’s death, President Richard Nixon announced that he was bringing American troops home from Vietnam, and he did. By July of 1973, Nixon was fighting a battle of his own, the Watergate scandal that would force him to resign a year later despite the long-awaited soldier homecomings and his work in defrosting relations with China.
On the baseball diamond, the Pirates fell to third place in the old NL East behind a mediocre New York Mets team that nearly won the World Series. Meanwhile, the fiery paths of Pete Rose and Reggie Jackson converged, as each man won the only MVP award of his long and storied career.
Along the way, boys with stars in their eyes could, as always, turn to packs of Topps baseball cards to learn more about the game they loved and follow their favorite players. Like the Clemente card itself, though, the 1973 Topps baseball was caught between eras, with one leg in the past and one in the future. It was a landmark set that often gets lost in the glitz of the issues around it, but it’s worthy of a deeper look.
Tone It Down!
After two straight years of innovative — some would say outrageous — designs, Topps set aside the black borders, exploding team names, and psychedelic color schemes of 1971 and 1972 to focus on more traditional design elements for its 1973 baseball set. In particular, card fronts feature a full-color player photo surrounded by a small black border, curved at the corners, all set against a white background. Topps went all in on action photos in ’73 with over 100 cards featuring game images.
Under the photo is the player’s name in color print spread across two lines, and beneath that is the team name in smaller black capital letters. In the lower right-hand corner of the card is a colorful circle, protruding into the edge of the picture and showcasing a silhouette that represents the player position, which is also spelled out underneath in the same black small caps as the team name.
Topps also took a different slant with their card backs in 1973, flipping from a horizontal orientation the previous few years to a vertical layout. The top of each card features a player cartoon focused on a career highlight, with the card number and player name following directly beneath. The bottom two-thirds of the real estate is devoted to player statistics, and, where there is room, a biographical paragraph. Sandwiched just above the stats box and below the Topps baseball are player vitals such as height, weight, and birth date.
It’s a solid, though unspectacular, design that may have doomed the 1973 set to an even lower profile among collectors were it not for some fortunate player selection.
Little Powerful One Shall Lead Them
For most of the set’s history, collector interest in the 1973 Topps issue has been driven by the rookie card and big bat of Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt. Even though he had his detractors early on thanks to a hit-or-miss style at the plate, Schmidt had won two MVP awards and established himself as an all-time great by the time the baseball card boom hit in full force during the 1980s. As a result, his rookie card (#615) was the most important single pasteboard from the early 1970s for much of his career.
Today, the Mike Schmidt rookie card still trades vigorously, with prices realized ranging from $50 or so for poor, ungraded copies to five figure for mint, slabbed specimens.
As it turns out, Schmidt is not the only Hall of Famer to make his debut in the 1973 Topps set, as the rookie card of Rich “Goose” Gossage checks in at card #174. And, although they’re not in Cooperstown, Bob Boone (#613) and Dwight Evans (#614) remain popular rookies from this issue, as well. You can find all three cards for $35 or less in ungraded condition, though the Gossage and Evans rookies can run into the hundreds for MINT copies.
A PSA 10 Gossage issue brought more than $4000 at auction in February.
Of course, most fans weren’t focused on rookies in 1973, or even these future Cooperstown inhabitants.
As the new season dawned, baseball had something much bigger to offer than prospects or pennant races, and Topps made sure they were on top of it all right from the start.
Collectors Dug the Long Ball
In the 1960s, many fans figured that Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle would have a great chance to slug past Babe Ruth’s all-time record of 714 career home runs sometime in the 1970s. But as Mantle’s knees fell apart, another, more subdued, contender kept smacking 40 homers per year without ever causing much of a stir.
By the end of 1972, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron had plodded his way past Mays, who was then toiling for the New York Mets and was clearly nearing the end of the line. They entered 1973 in second and third place, respectively, on the career homer list, and Topps commemorated the impending chase with a #1 card featuring the Big 3: Ruth on top, Aaron and Mays below.
Aaron would pop, yes, 40 home runs in 1973 to move within one of The Babe, and leaving Mays 53 dingers in his rear-view mirror. Willie hung up his spikes after famously stumbling in the World Series, but Hank kept raking, all the way to 755 homers.
You can buy the triumvirate card these days for under $20, though expect to pay much more for graded copies in NM-MT condition.
Don’t Be So Series-ous
As Ruth unwittingly prepared to fall, so too did another baseball (card) tradition — scarce high numbers.
For the last time in the vintage card era, and in some respects marking the end of the vintage card era, the 1973 set was released in multiple series, as follows:
- Series 1 – cards #1-132
- Series 2 – cards #133-264
- Series 3 – cards #265-396
- Series 4 – cards #397-528
- Series 5 – cards #529-660
Those 660 cards represented a marked step down in production from the mammoth 787-card issue in 1972, and Topps would not surpass the 700-card barrier again until 1978. In 1974, Topps issued all of their cards in one series for the first time, though they would treat collectors to a limited traded set later in the season.
Even though Topps slimmed down their 1973 set considerably, they still managed to squeeze in several “special” subsets. Among those were:
- League Leaders – #61-68
- Playoff Highlights – #201-202
- World Series Highlights – #203-210
- Boyhood Photos – #341-346
- All-Time Leaders – #471-478
- Topps Rookie Stars – #601-616
There were also 23 team cards and a series of 24 manager cards. Those manager pasteboards provide the only real variations in the set, as several were produced with two (or three) different background shades.
In addition to the cards issued through normal distribution, a set of team checklists with facsimile autographs were inserted into final-series packs. The blue bordered cards are tough to find in really nice shape and can bring close to $100 a pop in NM graded condition.
The Soft and The Off(-centered)
Even if you include the team checklists and all of the manager variations, you would still need to collect only around 700 different cards to build a master set of 1973 Topps baseball. Just about all of them are readily available and you can pick up complete or near-complete sets in nice shape for a reasonable price.
The real challenge with this issue comes into play if you’re looking to build a top-notch set, as centering problems and soft stock make the cards somewhat condition-scarce.
Setting Things Right
When the dynastic Oakland A’s dispatched the New York Mets in Game 7 of the 1973 World Series, they finally pulled a cock-eyed baseball season off its ear and gave fans some hope for stability heading into the winter. The Mets, after all, had reached the post-season by winning the National League (L)East with a paltry 82-80 record, and with Willie Mays looking every bit of his 42 years. They had no business taking the defending champs to the brink, and yet they did.
For all their wild personalities, then, the A’s were the right team to win the Series, and fans needed “right” after losing Clemente and then watching Richard Nixon spiral into scandal. There had been more than enough dark changes for one year.
Like Clemente and Nixon, the 1973 Topps baseball set stands as a mixed-bag mile marker for collectors. What it lacked in visual beauty and artistic flash, it made up for with Hall-of-Fame swagger and historical importance. For the budget-minded collector, the issue represents a good opportunity to latch on to the cards of legends or build a vintage set without spending thousands.
It’s somewhat fitting, perhaps, that the last set of the vintage era was issued in the last full year that Ruth held the home run record. Within a few seasons, Aaron had left The Babe far behind, and single-series baseball cards, featuring players in garish, tight-fitting uniforms, were the norm. By 1980, Schmidt was a household name, and Rose was well on his way to breaking Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record when the two converged in Philadelphia to lead the Phillies to a title.
In 1973, though, Clemente was still on collectors’ minds, and kids could pull obscure rookie cards from late-season packs of Topps baseball cards — if they could find them — one last time.
Below is a live list of the ‘most watched’ 1973 Topps Baseball cards on eBay right now.