When frigid collectors were finally able to shed their heavy coats and stroll to the corner store to pick up a few wax packs of Topps baseball cards 38 years ago this spring, they must have been even more rabid in their enthusiasm than normal. Not only did the arrival of 1977 Topps baseball mean the end of an especially brutal winter, but the new set also featured the rookie card of everybody’s favorite phenom, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.
During the Bicentennial summer of the previous season, the 19-year-old Fidrych had dominated American League hitters every time he took the mound for the Detroit Tigers, and the baseball world was on fire with speculation about just how great he might eventually become.
Fidrych was so big that he upstaged just about every other baseball story from 1976, with only the continued excellence of the Cincinnati Reds’ “Big Red Machine” giving him any real competition for media coverage. The Reds steamrolled to their second World Series title in as many years, and, like The Bird himself, seemed destined to stay on top for as long as they wanted.
Just like the year before, 1977 was going to be epic for Fidrych and for the Reds.
By the time the last of the leftover cards had been carted away to a dark storeroom that fall, though, Fidrych was injured and more or less done with his baseball career. The Reds, meanwhile, weren’t able to recover from the loss of Tony Perez, and didn’t even make the playoffs.
Instead, the New York Yankees, led by slugger Reggie Jackson, defeated the defense-heavy Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, four games to two. It was the first of two Fall Classics that would play out in exactly that fashion, and it must have seemed to traditionalists that the game was finally back on track after having been dominated for most of the decade by the upstart Reds and Oakland A’s.
And fans in new cities had something to celebrate, too, as the expansion Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners put the finishing touches on their first (though abysmal) big league seasons.
All along the way, dreaming boys found that the world was pretty alright, too, because they could follow the whole soap opera of a Major League Baseball season through the lens of their spiffy new 1977 Topps cards.
After several seasons of dingy issues marked by heavy, colored borders or dark and grainy photos (or both), Topps changed course with the design of their 600-card 1977 baseball set.
Card fronts are dominated by a thick white background that forms a wide border around the bottom three quarters of the card and provides a broad banner at the top that stretches about one-sixth of the way down the length of the card.
Inside this large white canvas at the top of each card is the team name in italic capital letters, branded with one of the franchise’s colors. Underneath the club designator is the player’s name, also in all caps, and a diagonal banner near the upper right-hand corner of the card displays the player’s position in capital white or black letters.
The bottom of the card sports a full-color image of the player with a facsimile autograph, all set off by yet another narrow border.
Although Topps managed to cram their 1977 full of fairly heavy design elements, they don’t feel overpowering, partly because so much white (from the border) gives the cards a clean, fresh look that had been lacking with other 1970s sets.
Also adding to that effect are photos which, in general, are much crisper than those that Topps had rolled out during the previous few years. Gone were most of the shots of players standing in the dark recesses of Tiger Stadium, replaced by sunlit infields and blue-sky backdrops.
Card backs are typical of Topps offerings during the 1970s and 1980s, with the bottom two-thirds dedicated to a player cartoon and complete statistics. The top section contains only the player name in large block capital letters, with the player’s vital stats in a thin gray band beneath. The Topps baseball, complete with card number, sneaks into the upper left-hand corner of the cartoon box.
Despite some serious centering problems, for many collectors, paging through an album of 1977 Topps cards is a happier visual experience, with a lot less dreariness, than the issues that came immediately before.
Of course, just because a set looks bright and shiny doesn’t mean that it’s a collector favorite, because collecting vintage baseball cards is often more about substance than flash.
In this case, substance means Hall of Fame rookie cards, and that’s where the 1977 Topps set falls short.
Now, for most of the 1980s, this issue appeared to have all the makings of a hobby classic. Not only did it look nice, but it was home to the rookie cards of a bevy of superstars, many of whom seemed to be bona fide future Hall of Famers:
- Dale Murphy won the National League MVP award in both 1982 and 1983 and was set to keep slugging well into the 1990s.
- Jack Clark could knock the ball out of a canyon and might set all kinds of records if he could just stay healthy and happy.
- Scott McGregor was one of the Baltimore Orioles’ young guns who could win the Cy Young award every year.
- Bruce Sutter was a regular Fireman of the Year winner and helping to revolutionize relief pitching.
- Andre Dawson was considered by many to be the best player in the game, and he smacked 49 home runs for the last-place Chicago Cubs in 1987.
- Dennis Martinez resurrected his pitching career and became, again, a superstar.
- Guys like Tony Armas, Len Barker, and Garry Templeton showed flashes of brilliance for years.
All of these players have their rookie cards in the 1977 Topps set, and all of them helped to push its value hard during the boom years of the 1980s. One by one, though, they all fell on hard times, and most simply ran out of gas before they could put up numbers worthy of Cooperstown.
While Dawson and Sutter eventually did make it to the Hall of Fame, even their elections were not easy, and there are plenty of fans who question whether the duo belongs at all. It also doesn’t help the set’s popularity that most of the “big” rookies, Dawson included, appear on four-player “Rookie Stars” cards that make you squint just to get an idea of what each player looks like.
All of that leaves the 1977 set in a kiss-your-sister purgatory where Nolan Ryan’s tenth regular issue card fetches more than any rookie card in the issue, with Reggie’s ninth-year card pushing hard from behind. With nothing left for any of these players to do on the field, there likely aren’t any surprise Hall of Famers lurking among the 660-card issue, either, though Dale Murphy still might give it a go.
Soft Spot in the Lineup
Beyond a rookie class generally lacking in pop, Topps helped doom the 1977 set’s reputation by using notoriously cheap card stock. While the gum giant made a noticeable improvement in the brightness of their cards, nothing much changed in terms of the cardboard itself. It was the same old dingy gray stock that they used in 1976 and 1975 (and 1974 and 1973), and in fact may have been the softest of the 1970s.
As a result, the 1977s are tough to find in super high grades, and many cards are plagued by frayed or rounded corners, chipped borders, surface creases, and centering problems. Population reports from both PSA and SGC show that under six percent of all slabbed 1977s have received the highest grade possible, as compared to around 10% of 1978s. Even stepping down a notch to a NR-MT grade, just 40% of 1977 Topps submissions make the cut — compared to 47% of 1978 cards.
This condition scarcity shows up in selling prices for the cards, as a Ryan card in “10” condition can bring more than $5000, while perfect copies of the Dawson rookie or the George Brett third-year card trade for around $2000.
Show Me the Proof!
In addition to condition scarcities, the 1977 Topps set contains a handful of errors to keep things interesting. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your perspective) even those don’t present much of a challenge for master set collectors since no corrected versions exist.
If you’re looking for something REALLY tough to find, though, then Topps and Mr. October cooked up the perfect dish for you.
Reggie Jackson spent one mostly forgotten summer with the Baltimore Orioles in 1976 before he became the straw that stirred the Yankees’ drink for 1977. By that late date, Topps had their airbrushing skills honed to a fine point, so they had little trouble in whisking up a card of Reggie smirking under the NY logo.
It turns out, however, that Topps also created a “proof” card showing Jackson in an Orioles uniform. Never issued, a few of the blank-backed beauties have nevertheless made their way out of the Topps Vault over the years, and it’s estimated that only about eight of them exist.
Value? Tough to say, but one was rumored to have sold for around $6000 in 2004. Suffice it to say that the next one to come up for auction could bring considerably more.
In reality, there were other cards in the 1977 proof “set,” including Jerry Grote and Danny Thompson, but none compare to the mystique of that beaming shot of Reggie in the strange black and orange uniform.
They Were Very Special
Even though the 1977 set is light on reasonably attainable challenges, that doesn’t mean that it’s all boring.
Like all good Topps sets of the era, the 1977s featured several subsets that treated collectors to various themes. Among them were:
- League Leaders (#1-8)
- Record Breakers(#231-234)
- League Championships Highlights (#276-277)
- Turn Back the Clock (#433-437)
- World Series Highlights (#411-413)
- Rookie Stars (#472-479, #487-494)
- Big League Brothers (#631-634)
Man, you just haven’t lived until you get the chance to see the intimidating Rick and Paul Reuschel staring you down, together, in their powder blue Cubbies uniforms. They’re like the Barbarian Brothers of the diamond, and we would have missed it all were it not for Topps’ foresight!
Get ‘Em All
The good news about the relative lack of interest in the 1977 Topps issue is that it’s pretty easy to put together a complete set for a reasonable price. Just about every card in the set can be found on eBay, and even the Ryan won’t set you back more than $15 for a solid NM copy. Dawson checks in around the same level.
You can often find complete sets for under $200, and pretty nice starter lots are available for modest sums, too, if you just need a jump start before taking the piece-by-piece route to finish off your set.
Can You See the Parallels?
If you just can’t get enough of the 1977 Topps set and want to expand your repertoire into the wild world of parallel and test issues, then you might want to consider a couple of more offbeat sets that retained the design of the base issue.
As was usual during the 1970s, O-Pee-Chee produced a Canadian version of the Topps set, but with several differences. Sporting a checklist trimmed to just 264 cards, the O-Pee-Chee issue featured many different photos from its Topps counterpart, and, not surprisingly, there was a strong focus on players from the Montreal Expos and Toronto Blue Jays. The OPC cards are readily available on eBay, and even stars can be found at reasonable prices.
Even more obscure is the 55-card set of cloth stickers that Topps issued separately from its base set in 1977. The photos used for the stickers were the same as those on regular Topps cards, but sticker backs contained just a few career highlights plus peeling instructions. There were also a couple of nine-card puzzles that could be pieced together to form pictures of the AL and NL All-Star teams. Like the O-Pee-Chees, Topps cloth stickers are still pretty easy to find on the secondary market, and even the Nolan Ryan issue can be had for less than $50 in solid NM condition.
All that Glitters …
Even in a limitless universe, no star can glitter forever, and so it was for Mark Fidrych and the Big Red Machine. Who could have guessed that both of their performances that left us in wonder at the end of 1976 were just the tail end of a Bicentennial fireworks celebration, and not the beginning of supernovas that would burn for decades?
By comparison, the 1977 Topps set fared better, if only a bit. It built our hopes over the course of more than a decade and kept us holding out for more — more Hall of Famers, more undiscovered variations, more fireworks — well past the peak of the baseball card boom.
Nearly forty years on, we can finally see 1977 Topps baseball for what it is: a solid, quirky set that brought a little brightness to collectors’ lives in the heart of the disco era. It’s not a hobby classic on par with 1953 Topps or 1989 Upper Deck, but it’s an integral part of our collecting history.
And for the most part, that’s plenty.
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