In July of 1979, adults around the world kept one eye on the heavens as they strapped on their Skylab helmets, waiting for America’s first space station to crash back to earth after six years in orbit. While collectors may have had an easier time focusing on more grounded events, courtesy of another compelling Major League Baseball season, the 1979 Topps baseball cards they cracked open that summer gave a more silent nod to Chicken Little.
As the we would all discover less than two years later, Topps’ sky was falling, and the hobby would never be the same.
We Are Topps … This Is Ours!
Even if you didn’t know anything about the pending antitrust lawsuit that Fleer had brought against Topps in 1975, you might have noticed that there was something different about the 1979 set.
It may have been hard to put your finger on, but it was right there in front of you, plain as the ball on your (card) face.
For the first time in a regular-issue set, Topps included their name on card fronts, inside a baseball lodged between the player photo and the team-colored banner with the club name at the bottom of the card. The baseball gives each card a very, well, baseball-y feel, but it’s easy to see looking back that the intent was to brand these cards as the company had never done before.
Next to the ball and just under the full-color image is the player’s name and position in all-capital block letters.
Overall, it’s a very clean design set off by crisp photos (for the time) that make 1979 Topps one of the more elegant issues of the decade, even WITH the addition of a corporate logo.
Card backs are typical of Topps sets, too, featuring the card number, team name, player name, and position across the top of each horizontal pasteboard, followed by vital stats and personal information. As usual, the heart of the real estate is devoted to a table of complete career stats, with a quick biographical note at the bottom. The green, black and gray text and small card numbers can make them a little rough to read or sort.
A final all-Topps touch is the “Baseball Dates” quiz that occupies the right-hand fifth of each card back.
Cards were still being packaged with big sticks of gum in ’79. Topps put in in all of its packs and distributed the product in wax boxes, cello boxes (18 cards per pack), super cello boxes (28 cards), rack packs (39 cards) and of course, in vending boxes that made up 12,000-card cases that sold for a little over $100 each.
Molly and The Wizard
It was always those stats on the back of his cards that were the problem with Ozzie Smith as far as collectors were concerned.
Early in his career, even after he joined the St. Louis Cardinals, Ozzie was a marvel at shortstop but widely discounted for his lack of potency at the plate. As the 1980s unfurled and The Wizard piled up Gold Gloves as his Cards continued to win, though, hobbyists began to take notice of Smith.
Oh sure, we had dalliances with the rookie cards of Bob Welch, Bob Horner, and Willie Wilson as they oscillated into and out of superstardom, but it was Ozzie to whom we returned again and again, and card #116 is easily the most desirable in the set today.
Like most cards from the 1979 Topps set, that Ozzie Smith rookie is tough to find in really nice condition thanks to centering issues, soft card stock and those pesky stray print lines and smudges. You can find pretty rough raw versions for just a few bucks, but expect to pay close to $1000 for a graded MT copy. In 2012, one of only three PSA 10s sold for over $20,000. Since then, a fourth has been graded. The card comes right after #115, Nolan Ryan, putting Hall of Famers in back-to-back numbers in the set. The two cards combined make up about half of the $115 value of the entire set.
It took collectors awhile to figure out what to do with Paul Molitor, too. Unlike Ozzie, Molitor showed us lots of potential at the plate and was solid in the field, but he seemed on the verge of disintegrating physically at any moment. If only we could trust Molitor to stay in the lineup, we could have loved him, but he had played only a couple of full season by the time he was 31.
We crossed him off our list of potential Hall of Famers.
Then Molitor started getting some time at DH, then some more, and before we knew it, he was playing 161 games at age 39 and closing in on 3000 hits. Everyone wanted Molitor’s rookie card, but it was one of those ugly four-player deals from the 1978 set, so many of us turned to his first solo issue, in the 1979 set (#24). Centering crushes the dreams of many grading customers and today, that card can bring $75-$100 in slabbed mint condition.
Beyond Molitor, Ozzie and Nolan Ryan, the most popular cards in the 1979 set belong to Eddie Murray (second-year issue), George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, and the other Hall of Fame (type) players of the era. Card #310 holds special sentimental value for many fans, as it’s the last regular-season card issued of New York Yankees catcher and team captain Thurman Munson, who died while piloting his new plane in August of that year.
The 1979 Topps set marked the end of the Topps careers of a future Hall of Famer. ’79 would be Lou Brock’s last year as the Cardinals’ outfielder rode into the sunset with the career stolen base record and over 3,000 hits to his credit. A player who made his Major League debut in 1979 would break the steals record but Rickey Henderson would not appear on a Topps card until 1980.
The 1979 Topps rookie crop had promise. There was Horner, a national favorite thanks to WTBS’ Braves coverage on the hot new invention called cable television. Willie Wilson. Willie Upshaw. Alfredo Griffin. Pedro Guerrero. Thankfully, the set’s well-established players still have star power today. Even putting the players considered each team’s top three AAA-level prospects together on one card didn’t help.
While the 1979 set is light on impact rookies, Topps at least deep-sixed the four-player concept for their combo rookie cards, scaling all the way back to three players per card for their team-based prospects cards. As if sharing a rookie card were not indignity enough, each photo was rendered in black and white. Maybe, though, that was just a nod to the set’s ambition to become an all-time great.
Well, Maybe Not ALL of All-Time
OK, so maybe even Topps didn’t have that kind of grandeur in mind when they pumped out their single-series 1979 set, but they certainly did infuse it with a bit of all-time flair, if nothing else.
In particular, cards #411-418 were devoted to the season and career record holders in major statistical categories: wins, strikeouts, ERA, batting average, home runs, RBI, hits, stolen bases.
It was jolting to find classic photos of baseball legends like Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Hack Wilson staring back at you from your stack of brand new cards, but also pretty cool. Of course, many of the record-holders have since lost their titles, which makes the cards all the more interesting today.
Aside from the all-timers, Topps also treated collectors to League Leaders (#1-8), Record Breakers (#201-206), and the prospect cards (#701-726) grouped together as subsets.
Add in team cards and All-Star banners on the cards of participants from the 1978 Midsummer Classic, and there is enough visual variety to make paging through the set a fun trip back to simpler hobby times.
Not That Easy
Of course, in order to do that, you have to first put together the set, and that may not be as easy as you’d think for and issue produced in copious numbers.
Very early in distribution, collectors caught the error on the Bump Wills rookie card (#369). Apparently in response to a rumored trade over the winter, Topps put Texas Ranger Bump in Canada before correcting the error after the mistake was discovered. The updated card was scarce for a few weeks, but once the hubbub died down, so did the price. Bump’s career would not send him to Cooperstown and the Blue Jay cards are valued at roughly the same $2 price, but you might not even have to pay that much.
Though the Rangers version is considered a bit tougher, it brings less than $20 in graded MINT condition and less than $5 ungraded and NM. Nevertheless, the master set collector would have to find both versions to truly fulfill his mission.
A far tougher task would be completing the 1979 Topps set in top-notch slabbed condition. Just about every card in the set is plagued by bad centering, and many are consistently marred by ink smudges.
Several cards are still waiting for their first graded GEM MT copy to turn up, and a couple are notoriously difficult to find in nice condition. Among the toughest are Marc Hill (#11), noted for a smudge that dominates the front of the vast majority of the print run, Jerry Turner (#564), and Ken Landreaux (#619). Many others have a low double digit population of 9s.
If you’re willing to settle for less than flawless, and you really have no choice with the 1979s, you can pick up the entire set for a relative song. It’s not uncommon to find the whole shebang in decent condition for less than $100.
Catch ‘Em While You Can
As it turned out, 1979 was as much of a transition year as you would expect the end of a decade to be.
In Washington, the Iran Hostage Crisis sealed the fate of Jimmy Carter and gave Ronald Reagan a clear path to the White House.
Music was shifting, too. Though disco dominated much of the Billboard Top 100, Knack claimed #1 with “My Sharona,” a tune with a definitive Eighties sound.
On the diamond, the Orioles and Pirates gave us a flashback to the early part of the decade with a World Series that went seven games and gave MVP Willie “Pops” Stargell one final shot on the national stage before retiring a few years later.
And on the front of EVERY card, Topps let you know that they were the only game in town. Topps was baseball.
All of those Seventies staples would be gone in the 1980s, but they’re all there to hold in your hands in the snapshot that is the 1979 Topps baseball set.