In February of 1974, baseball fans climbed out of their winter cocoons to find history waiting on their icy doorsteps, courtesy of Hank Aaron and his impending assault on Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. Whether they realized it or not, collectors were on the verge of a different sort of history because, by the time Al Downing delivered his fateful high fastball to Hammerin’ Hank on April 8, it was possible to have ALREADY assembled the entire 1974 Topps baseball set.
It marked the first time in the the 23-year history of Topps baseball cards that the gum company issued all of its cards in one fell swoop, and it changed the hobby forever.
Even so, as Aaron put distance between himself and the dusty past throughout that summer, Topps found it necessary to adjust their new all-in-one stance a bit. The accommodations they made in an effort to keep a static set fresh all season long turned out to be visionary in many respects and helped to shape the long-term future of sports cards.
Carrying the Banner for Change
After three years of unusual (or downright psychedelic) designs in the early 1970s, Topps came back with a very subdued design in 1973, which must have had collectors wondering which way the blueprints would fall for 1974.
Topps evidently decided that issuing all 660 cards in one series was a radical enough change for one year, and they settled on another conservative design scheme for their 1974 issue.
Card fronts feature a full-color player image surrounded by a thin yellow border with rounded corners. Dueling team-colored banners flank the photo in the upper left and lower right corner of each obverse, stretching halfway across the card. The upper banner shows the team city name, while the lower banner displays the team name.
In the upper right-hand corner of the card is the player’s position in black ink, while his own name shows up in the lower left-hand corner, also in black.
That’s it for design elements on card fronts, though Topps did introduce some variety by flipping several cards 90 degrees to allow a wider, horizontal orientation for action shots (#80 Tom Seaver, for example).
Card backs are also oriented horizontally and offer a couple of wrinkles not normally seen during the era.
The upper left-hand corner of each reverse shows the card number in a black dot, a departure from the usual “Topps baseball.” Next to the number, in a green band, is the player name in black, followed by a facsimile autograph. The signature provides an interesting bit of asymmetry for the collecting eye to ponder and is one of the subtle novelties which make 1974 Topps worth poring over for an hour or three.
Beneath the name bar, Topps included career highlights against a gray background in the middle of the card and vital stats in a green box on the upper right-hand side. Under the bio box are complete stats (as usual), and the lower right-hand corner treats collectors to a cartoon detailing some little-known fact about the player.
The Dave and Dave Show
Of course, the proportion of real estate devoted to stats or notes varied by player, and rookies, especially, warranted more text since their number lines were sparse.
Among those first-year players, outfielders Dave Parker (#252) and Dave Winfield (#456) made it clear nearly from the start of their careers that the two mammoth right fielders had enormous potential. While Parker ultimately fell short of the Hall of Fame standards set by Winfield, both men terrorized pitchers for the better part of two decades.
Winfield is the ONLY rookie from the 1974 Topps set to make it all the way to Cooperstown, but there are plenty of other solid first-year issues to keep collectors interested. Among those are Bucky Dent (#582), Ken Griffey, Sr. (#598), Bill Madlock (#600), and Frank Tanana (#605), with other first year names you might recognize including David Clyde, Steve Rogersand ‘Stormin’ Gorman Thomas.
We Believe in You, Hank!
Of course, most collectors two generations ago weren’t too concerned with rookie cards. They wanted to see their favorite stars, and none shone brighter in the early part of 1974 than Henry Louis Aaron. Although Aaron faced some social obstacles as a black man chasing down the immortal Babe, Americans were by and large enthralled with the ultimate home run derby, and Topps was happy to provide the cardboard manifestation of that enthusiasm.
Although Aaron entered the season two homers behind Ruth, Topps was confident that the Hammer would eclipse the mark, and they didn’t want to wait a whole year to capitalize on the event. In a move that would become standard practice for the gum maker as other records fell in subsequent years, Topps devoted the first six cards of their new set to Aaron.
Card #1 was a tribute card that declared Aaron as the “New All-Time Home Run King,” while each of the next five displayed four of Hank’s previous Topps issues in miniature form. While the #1 card isn’t rare, it’s hard to find with sharp corners and good centering. Expect to pay $150 for an ‘8’ and $600 for a ‘9’. A nice ‘7’ can be had for around $30. Decent ungraded examples are usually under $20.
Aaron was the biggest story of 1974, but he wasn’t the only superstar plying his trade, and Topps delivered them all to hungry wax-pack rippers. Among the most popular cards, then and now, are those of Pete Rose, Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, the second-year car of Mike Schmidt, and an aging Willie McCovey.
Nostradamus in Wax
If you happen upon one of those McCovey pasteboards, you might think you’ve slipped into a time warp, depending on when in 1974 the particular card you encounter was printed. Prior to the season, the San Diego Padres appeared to be heading across the continent to D.C., and Topps made a decision to capture the change by labeling Padres players with “Washington” and “Nat’l Lea.” since they had no idea what the team name would be.
The deal fell apart before clubs headed north to start the season, though, and Topps was left as the only party with a tangible tie to the nonexistent Washington team since the first print run had already made it out the door. They reverted to “San Diego Padres” for subsequent print runs, but their gamble leaves collectors with 19 variations to add to their master sets. Curiously, there wasn’t a ‘Washington’ version of the Winfield card.
Aside from coining “Washington Nationals” more than 40 years before the team became a reality, Topps gave hobbyists a handful of special subsets to spice up the 1974 set. These included:
- Hank Aaron Tribute (cards #1-6)
- League Leaders (cards #201-208)
- All-Stars (cards #331-339)
- Playoff Highlights (cards #470-471
- World Series Highlights (cards #472-479)
- Topps Rookie Stars (cards #596-608)
These baubles may have appeased collectors but they weren’t enough to keep Topps from tinkering with its new formula, and the old gum company cranked up the presses one more time late in the year to give hobbyists another glimpse of the future.
That fall, just in time for the holidays, Topps pushed into the JC Penney catalog with the first-ever “factory” set, issuing all 660 cards in one box. As a bonus, Topps indulged their compulsion to break out of their one-series constraints by including a 44-card “Traded” set in the same box. Popular and not very prevalent today, you can usually find a few factory sets on eBay.
To make sure every collector had a shot at the airbrushed beauties slathered with a yellow banner and a bold red “TRADED” stamp that made the cards look like lineup photos, Topps also inserted the updates in late-season print runs of wax and cello packs.
Topps wasn’t the only source of baseball prognostication in play by the end of 1974, as the game itself had stepped in to give fans a preview of historic events looming in the future.
That October, the 90-win Oakland A’s took care of the 102-win Los Angeles Dodgers in five games for their third consecutive World Series victory. Fourteen years later, the scrappy Dodgers turned the tables on a slugging A’s team that notched 104 regular-season wins and looked invincible, and Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series stands as one of the most dramatic baseball moments.
It’s fitting that baseball mirrored itself across a generation of players and collectors, because baseball cards did much the same. The 1974 Topps set marked the beginning of the modern card era, an epoch noted for exploding production numbers that had reached epic proportions by the time Gibby hobbled home as Dennis Eckersley watched in disbelief.
Today, there are enough 1988 Topps cards in closets and landfills to stretch from Ebbets Field to Candlestick Park, and enough 1974s to make them an affordable way for just about any collector to step back in time 40+ years. While really high-grade examples can top $1000, it’s not too tough to find solid complete sets for well under $300.
Bulk commons sell for a few c ents each, and even the biggest names, like Ryan, bring under $10 in nice raw condition.
Collecting history never looked so prescient, nor so inexpensive two generations later, as the 1974 Topps baseball set.
Get a look at the current most popular 1974 Topps auctions on eBay below.
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