Monday, March 28, 2011

1966 Topps: A Glimpse

It's almost Opening Day! Time to dive into a baseball-related topic here.

Around the Blogosphere, there really isn't a lot of love for the 1966 Topps set. Since I'm the type of guy who tends to march to the beat of my own drummer, I've decided to present a look that won't be matching what anybody else is writing about. Plus, as a person who also blogs about popular music (for those who aren't aware, I also ruminate on 70s music weekly and 80s music each weekday), any opportunity to add a little about that into an article is always a plus.

Card #50 -- Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees
(I own this card, the other images are borrowed from another source.)

1966. It seemed like an exciting time from those retrospectives they show on TV. I wasn't born until six years later, and grew up in the 1980s when a lot of '60s nostalgia was in vogue. I was fond of "oldies radio" and as a history buff, I watched a lot of documentaries and read more books on that decade than I care to remember. One thing I didn't realize until much later was that I lacked a historical perspective. At that time, when I heard "Dancing in the Streets" on the radio, I didn't have the evening news images fresh in my head of civil rights activists having police dogs and fire hoses turned on them. I also didn't understand the significance of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" without having to wonder whether I'd get drafted into the service and sent off to fight.

The conflict in Vietnam was still escalating but the peace movement had not yet gotten vocal enough. Martin Luther King was still alive and spreading his message. President Lyndon Johnson was pressing forward with his Great Society concept. Yet the memories of the Watts riots were still fresh, and would repeat themselves again in Detroit the next year. Richard Nixon wouldn't be just a failed presidential candidate for much longer. Eventually, more leaders would be tragically robbed of their ability to speak out against perceived injustices.

1966 was a great year for music lovers. Album-oriented artists were beginning to get experimental with their sounds, but adult favorites and a burgeoning "bubblegum" sound kept pop fans satisfied. The Beatles' Revolver, Bob Dylan's double album Blonde on Blonde and the Rolling Stones' Aftermath were enjoyed by critics and fans alike. For those music fans who preferred 45 RPM records, it was a great year for The Monkees, The Association, the Lovin' Spoonful and seemingly any act under the Motown banner. Even Frank Sinatra scored a #1 hit on the pop charts ("Strangers in the Night") for the first time since Elvis arrived on the scene; Elvis, on the other hand, had momentarily stopped being an important singer and was busy making his films. Interestingly, retrospectives showcasing 1966 on radio and television usually fail to include the fact that the biggest single of the year was Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets," opting instead to play "Cherish," "Monday, Monday" or "I'm a Believer." Or "Last Train to Clarksville," which had a different point of view about the War, even if it's not blatantly stated (Clarksville, Tennessee is near Ft. Campbell, the home of the 101st the words "and I don't know if I'm ever coming home" indicated this man is getting ready to ship overseas).

 Card #126 -- Jim Palmer, Baltimore Orioles

In hindsight, 1966 was something of a transition between the Camelot years of John F. Kennedy's presidency and the much different America of 1969. The Civil Rights movement had started to wind down after the Civil Rights Act of '64, but some of the nation's poorest urban areas were prone to rioting. The protests against U.S. intervention in Vietnam was still largely confined to small pockets but would grow as more Americans questioned why the soldiers were there. The "Summer of Love" was a year away, and the race to put a man on the moon was about to enter its final phase. Soon, Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy would be killed, and the anti-war demonstrations were about to turn scary ('68 Democrat National Convention) or downright deadly (Kent State).

All this turmoil meant very little to those who were young in 1966. Like most American kids of every era since the Great Depression, they weren't concerned with the stuff they considered unimportant. The U.S. was still in its post-World War Two economic expansion, and the first Baby Boomers were turning twenty. There were more young Americans than at any other point in the nation's history, and they were changing many aspects of American life even then. By 1966, advertisers, movie makers and other businesspeople understood the power of attracting such a sizable audience and coveted the 12-25 demographic.

It was a simpler time for those who were still growing up. For the average 11 year-old kid in '66, Vietnam was an answer to a geography question. A sixth grader was unlikely to know Robert S. McNamara from U Thant in the newspaper but could tell you if that was Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale pitching on a thirteen-inch black and white TV screen. When major league baseball broke spring training camp in 1966, those kids knew that Topps was once again sending new cards to candy stores. Once the packs arrived on the shelves, hundreds of thousands of nickels were dropped to buy them.

Card #100 -- Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers

By '66, Topps was a decade into its era of total dominance over the baseball card market. Since the acquisition of Bowman in 1956, Topps had seen sparse competition from Fleer, Post and Leaf but were on their own after 1963. In 1966, two significant things happened. First, Fleer finally sold their player contracts (including noted Topps holdout Maury Wills) to Topps, which gave them permission to use images of nearly every ball player on the major and minor league level. Second, the players decided to form a union. The Players' Association and their director Marvin Miller wouldn't affect Topps much in 1966, but would eventually cause headaches for Sy Berger and the Shorin family.

Topps' card set that year was decent rather than flashy. The basic design was attractive but not outstanding. The cards featured a large player photo (a head shot or a posed action shot) with very little obscuring the picture. A diagonal banner in the upper left corner of the card named the player's team, and a similarly-colored box along the bottom gave the player's name and position. The card backs conformed to Topps' standard of year-by-year career stats with a short biography where space permitted. The top third of the card back featured the card number and Topps name inside a baseball-shaped circle, a cartoon spotlighting a particular career highlight, and the requisite "vital stats" (height, weight, birthday, etc.).

As in previous years, Topps peppered its 1966 set with several different specialty subsets. A small handful of regular cards featured the familiar "Rookie All-Star" statue. Manager cards shared the same front design but carried no cartoon or statistics on the back, all teams' managers and two Astros managers (Lum Harris and Grady Hatton) are featured. Rookie cards are presented horizontally, with two (but sometimes three) players generally grouped by their team. League leader cards are also horizontally formatted, with the leader and two runners-up from each league pictured for six different categories. Team cards showed a team photo against a solid background, with the team's league and 1965 standing in the box that runs along the bottom. Card checklists returned, with cards listed numerically by series. Returning in 1966 after a one-year layoff were multi-player cards, which featured teammates together.

Card #99 -- Buc Belters

A full set of 1966 Topps cards features 598 different cards, but a number of variations show up for advanced collectors. Four cards (62, 91, 103 and 104) are found with or without a line that mentions that the player had been optioned or traded, and those that do not have the line are more valuable because of their scarcity. The series two checklist (#101) can be found with either Warren Spahn of Bill Henry listed as card #115.  Henry was on card #115, and the error card listing Spahn is less common. Spahn had recently retired and was probably slated to be in the '66 set before he called it a career. Topps made a sad but unintentional mistake on card #447. The player was identified as Dick Ellsworth but actually showed Ken Hubbs, a promising infielder who had died in a plane crash before the 1964 season.

Card #34 -- Series 1 Checklist

Since 1952, Topps had issued its sets in series throughout the season. Sy Berger has stated in a 1973 interview that sets were usually released in "six series, six weeks apart." The first 110 cards showed up during spring training, and 370 cards were available by the All-Star break. Generally, the series concept was flawed: by late summer, candy sellers weren't willing to buy new cards from Topps because they still had cards from the earlier series they hadn't yet sold. Also, kids began to lose interest in baseball cards by the first day of school; those who weren't interested in football were often burned out from a summer of baseball. As a result, the rest of the set is a little harder to come by. Cards 371-446 are only slightly scarcer than cards 1-370, but the final two series are much tougher to complete. Cards 447-522 are known to collectors as "semi-high numbers," difficult but not impossible. Cards 523-598 are called the "high numbers" and are the hardest series to find. To make matters worse, Topps arranged the printing sheets so that the 76 cards of the final series fit a larger printing sheet and caused over two dozen to be "short printed." Many high-numbered rookie cards were short printed (including #524 and #591, which often are among the final cards collectors need to complete the '66 set), as were the cards of Denny McLain and the set's last card, Gaylord Perry. Thanks to the scarcity of the high number series, the SP status and Perry's membership in the Hall of Fame, card #598 is especially valuable in top shape.

Card #598 -- Gaylord Perry, San Francisco Giants

Reading card backs is part of the fun of owning baseball cards, and a lot of kids undoubtedly spent rainy summer days in '66 flipping through their stacks and crunching the stats. Some of the backs are entertaining. Card #147 shows Astros manager Lum Harris, and the biography on the back is in the same format as every other manager's card except for the last sentence: "Lum was released as manager of the Houston Astros on December 12, 1965." It appears that the Topps design people had already made the cards up for the second series and the news of Harris's departure came too late for them to pull his card. Harris's former fireballer, "Turk" Farrell, appears on card 377. The cartoon on the back states that "Turk is the all-time winningest pitcher in Houston's history," but a quick check of the statistics show his record with Houston as 46 games won and 54 lost. Cards # 400 and 450 show Zoilo Versalles and Tony Oliva, two of the young stars of the Minnesota Twins team that won the A.L. pennant the previous season. As mentioned on this blog in June, Versalles and Oliva both are named the 1965 A.L. MVP (the winner was Versalles, but Oliva's card was never corrected). 
Card #400 -- Zoilo Versalles, Minnesota Twins (Back)

Few collectors at the time cared about "rookies," but several players make their first appearance on a baseball card in the 1966 Topps set. The three most notable rookies are all Hall of Fame pitchers: Jim Palmer, Fergie Jenkins and Don Sutton. Palmer appears on a regular card, while Jenkins and Sutton each appear on a "Rookies" card with a teammate. Other rookies found in the '66 set are Bobby Murcer, Roy White, Bobby Tolan, Lee May, Andy Etchebarren and Davey Johnson. Ollie Brown also makes his first appearance on a card as a member of the Giants, but he would later become the first player drafted by the San Diego Padres when they began playing in 1969.

Card #254 -- 1966 Phillies Rookie Stars

One thing that is missing, however, is the highlights from the previous year's World Series, a source of disappointment to fans of the Dodgers, who won the '65 title, as well as the Twins, who needed 22 years to get back to the Fall Classic. It would be the only year between 1960 and 1978 where Topps failed to issue at least a single card commemorating the World Series. This blog highlighted those cards in four previous posts: 1960s World Series cards, 1970s Postseason Part 1, 1970s Postseason Part 2, 1970s Postseason Part 3.

The 1966 baseball season saw some surprising highs and lows. In the National League, fans were treated to a late-season pennant race, with the Los Angeles Dodgers edging out San Francisco and Pittsburgh. In the American League, the race wasn't as close; the Baltimore Orioles (and Triple Crown Winner Frank Robinson) led the second-place Twins by nine games. Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson won the MVP awards, and Sandy Koufax won the Cy Young award in the last season before it was awarded in each league. When the World Series got under way (there were no playoffs yet in '66), Baltimore shocked the defending champs by sweeping the Dodgers in four games.

It was a changing of the guard. The Orioles were to become one of the A.L.'s dominant teams for the next decade, and the Athletics -- still playing in Kansas City in '66 before their move to Oakland -- were building their own burgeoning dynasty. When the New York Yankees packed up at the end of the 1966 season, their fans probably bristled at their record: 70-89, which made them dead last in the American League. Although the Mets had a worse record, they finished higher in their league than the Yankees did for the first time in their short history. For the Yanks, the season was a disappointment. Mickey Mantle spent much of the season on the disabled list. None of their regular batters came close to hitting .300, and their ace pitcher (Mel Stottlemyre) lost 20 games. Whitey Ford was finishing out his stellar career in the bullpen and had a losing record for the first time in his 16 seasons. Bobby Richardson was about to hang up his spikes, and the off-season would see Roger Maris dealt to the Cardinals and Elston Howard sent to the Red Sox. Yankee fans chalked up 1966 as an "off year" but didn't know then that they would have to wait another decade before a new generation of Bronx Bombers would play in another World Series.

Card #204 -- Chicago Cubs Team card

Topps has had a lot of great sets over the years. Some are roundly described as classics (like the '57 and '67 sets), and others have their detractors (like the polarizing '72 and '75 sets). In the case of the 1966 set, it doesn't really fall into any category. It rarely gets mentioned as being one of Topps' best designs, but it hardly gets singled out as one of Topps' misfires, either. For the kids who remember pulling them -- five at a time -- out of gum packs after buying them for a nickel, they bring back memories of being young and a time when things still made sense.

1 comment:

  1. The listing of the 1966 Spahn card has had me wondering for years if topps created the card and pulled it. He would have been with the Giants...if they pulled it, does anyone wonder if any exist? Wouldn't you love to own it?
    Paul Dervis