The summer of 1976 was a firecracker celebration of American excess, from the nationwide commemoration of our Bicentennial to Bruce Jenner’s crowning as the “World’s Greatest Athlete” when he won the decathlon at the Montreal Olympics in record fashion. On the diamond, the star-studded Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees were rocketing through the regular season and already had their eyes on an October match-up by the time the last Fourth of July missile exploded over green Astroturf. Against that background and after the color explosion of 1975, collectors were undoubtedly expecting even more sound and fury when they slid open the wax seals on their first packs of 1976 Topps baseball cards.
Instead, they found a relatively subdued design that reined in the hallucinogenic hues from the year before and generally felt more like a classic issue from the past than the typical garish 1970s pasteboard fare.
Maybe because of that lack of visual pop, or maybe because of weak player selection, the 1976 set has never been a collector favorite. If you crack open those decade-old shoe boxes take a closer look, though, you might be surprised by the gems you find.
Wait, the Twins Wore PINK??
While the 1976 set does not live up to the rainbow reputation of its predecessor, Topps’ 25th anniversary set still offers plenty of color.
In fact, the dominating design features of the set are two solid bars at the bottom of each card front, spanning the entire width, and slathered with bold interpretations of the team’s colors. The top banner displays the player’s name in capital block letters, while the bottom sash shows his position and the team nickname. In the lower left-hand corner of the card, a black and white rendering of a player in action reflects the subject’s position, all the way down to his handedness — Steve Carlton’s card shows a left-handed pitcher, for instance.
A full-color photo of the player is surrounded by thin piping the same color as the bottom (team) bar, and the entire front is set off by a thick white border.
The best rookies from 1975, as determined by the gum makers themselves, are rewarded with the coveted gold “TOPPS ALL-STAR ROOKIE” trophy emblem in the lower right-hand corner, as per the long-running tradition.
If all of that doesn’t convince you that you’re holding a Topps card in your hand, you have only to turn it over to erase any doubts.
On the left-hand side of each horizontal card back is a baseball bat standing on the broad end of its barrel and crossed at the handle by the Topps baseball with the card number between its stitches. Next to this tableau of equipment, at the top of the card, is a green band displaying the player’s name, position, and team. A gray-brown box directly beneath shows vital information, and the middle portion of the card back provides complete player stats.
The bottom section of each card back is dedicated to a player cartoon, rounding out a jam-packed swath of cardboard that screams “Topps!”.
Cheers to the Rookies
One photo that also lets you know you’re looking at a Topps product appears on card #98, which just happens to be the rookie issue of Dennis Eckersley. Before he was The Eck, young Dennis was the ace with a flowing mane who was going to lead the Boston Red Sox to their long-awaited World Series title on his way to the Hall of Fame. Then the 1980s happened, and a struggle with substance abuse nearly cost Eckersley his career.
He was the Sam Malone of starting pitchers.
Then Sandy Alderson, Tony La Russa, and Dave Duncan gave him a shot with the Oakland A’s, and Eckersley became one of the most dominating relief pitchers in history on his way to the Hall of Fame.
He was John Smoltz without a return to the rotation.
All of which is to say that Eckersley’s rookie card is the most important piece of cardboard in the 1976 Topps set, and the only rookie with any real impact. While a graded GEM MINT copy brought more than $7600 in February of 2015 and slabbed MINT versions sell for $700 or more, a check of eBay shows you can easily find them for much, much less in ungraded form.
Like Eckersley, Lyman Bostock appeared to be on a fast-track to superstardom until he found himself in the wrong place in September of 1978, gunned down in Gary, Indiana. His rookie card, #263 is a reminder, as if we need another one, of just how quickly life can turn.
The only other rookie of note is the Yankees’ standout second baseman, Willie Randolph, who was, as Pirates fans know all too well, traded to the Yankees where he became an important part of the late 1970s championship teams. His rookie card is also an easy one to land for under $10.
The good news for the 1976 set is that it contains a wide selection of second-year cards, including Fred Lynn, George Brett, Robin Yount, and the first solo appearance for Gary Carter. All of those cards can be found for less than $50 in graded NM condition, and all are readily available on eBay.
Even with all of the interesting back stories and solid star cards, though, the lack of impact rookies robs the set of the luster of its predecessor and even the 1977 that would follow..
Spiffing It Up
Almost as if to combat that paucity of rookies, Topps infused its Bicentennial issue with enough subsets to satisfy even the most distracted of shiny object watchers. Among the offerings were:
- 1975 Record Breakers: #1-6
- Father & Son – Big Leaguers: #66-70
- League Leaders: #191-205
- The Sporting News All-Time All-Stars: #341-350
- Postseason Highlights: #461-462
- 1976 Rookie [Pick Your Position]: #589-599
In addition, there were also team cards sprinkled throughout the set.
Most of these subsets were pretty standard Topps offerings, but a couple of the themed specialties stand out.
The Father and Son cards feature, yes, fathers and sons who both made it to the Major Leagues. The son of each pairing is shown to the right in a full-color image with team and position information, while the left-hand side of the card showcases one of the father’s vintage Topps cards. It’s a neat concept that Topps would re-use in their 1985 set.
The All-Time All-Stars cards, meanwhile, feature 10 of the game’s legends — eight position players and two pitchers. Each pasteboard looks like a miniature newspaper with “The Sporting News” branding at the top and a black-and-white photo of the Hall of Famer at the bottom. Card backs are pretty close matches to the base set, and it’s a little surreal to be flipping through a pile of 1976s and stumble across the number overload provided by Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth.
The Unburstable Bubble
There, with his abdomen sunken from exertion and exhalation and his face not even half visible, you’ll find Milwaukee Brewers infielder Kurt Bevacqua, the 1975 Joe Garagiola/Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Champ!
In the black-and-white shot, Bevacqua is battling with a watermelon-sized bubble protruding from his face while a set of bats-and-ball calipers measure his accomplishment.
If that card doesn’t make you nostalgic for the carefree days of summer vacation when you spent all day playing ball and chewing gum, and all night pouring through your baseball cards and chewing gum, then you probably need to spend some more time with your cards…and besides, it’s cheap.
SPORTS EXTRA – Traded!
All of those special subsets made Topps’ decision to issue only 660 cards for the fourth year in a row in 1976 an even bigger strain on player selection. Collectors hungry for more variety could have turned to the unlicensed SSPC set, if they knew about it, or they could have just waited until late in the season.
That’s when Topps resurrected the “Traded Set” idea they had first tried in 1974, and in the process created one of the most outrageous and iconic baseball card images of all time.
Randomly inserted in packs from the last print runs of the year, the traded cards featured players who had changed teams since the original issue was produced, and they maintained their card numbers from the base set. While the 44-card traded set included Willie Randolph’s first solo issue and updated images of stars such as Fergie Jenkins, Dusty Baker, and Bobby Bonds, the unquestioned winner of the traded-card wars is #74T, Oscar Gamble.
By 1976, Gamble had established himself as a solid power hitter who couldn’t stick with a team, having burned through three franchises by age 26. That summer, though, he helped lead the Yankees to a division title, and fans were happy to get the chance to see him in pinstripes.
No one was prepared for the full glory of his traded card, however.
Sporting an Afro that was roughly the size of a GMC Pacer and was surely the envy of every man in the local discotheque, Gamble still managed to get his Yanks cap secured to his head before staring squarely into the camera. The effect leaves Oscar looking like a combination of Fozzy Bear, Princess Leia, and Billy Dee Williams, and no one who has seen the card will ever forget it.
For an entire generation of Americans, this image flashes through our minds whenever someone utters “Oscar.”
An Easy Get
Despite the wide variety of cards available, the 1976 Topps set is modest in size, and a lack of big-name rookies or series-based scarcity make it relatively easy to put together or to buy as a complete set.
You can find a variety of lots in nice condition and for a decent price on eBay and at shows, and even complete sets with a large number of high-grade, slabbed cards bring less than $300.
For collectors who bought these cards first-run, building a 1976 set is an inexpensive way to reconnect with childhood memories, but you should be aware that you’ll probably also soon be hankering for an 8-Track player or some Bee Gees vinyl.
For younger hobbyists, 1976 Topps baseball offers an affordable entry into the world of (near) vintage cards and showcases much of the flavor of the mid 1970s.
Different Than You Remember
Less than a month after our Bicentennial fireworks and as the Yankees tightened their grip on the American League, the Son of Sam killer began to terrorize New York City, robbing whatever little bit of innocence was left.
The Olympics did not play out quite as proud Americans had hoped, with the US finishing in third place behind the twin Eastern Bloc powerhouses of the USSR and East German.
And then, well, Bruce Jenner.
Sure, it doesn’t have a stellar lineup of rookie cards, and its design does not inspire poetry or seizures like some of its 1970s brethren, but take another look.
The cards are clean, yet colorful, spiced by tiny touches of detail that only Topps could deliver.
And if you bristle because Hank Aaron’s last card is punctuated by a band of pink and lists him as a designated hitter?
Pull out card #74T and drink in those Oscar Gamble earmuffs one more time. As the Brothers Gibb might say, “You should be smilin’, yeah!”
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