Topps 1974 -The Day Baseball Cards Lost Their Luster
November 24, 2008
by William Szczepanek
At some point in one’s life a person reflects on those facets of their childhood that no longer seem to apply and gives them up for more mature endeavors. Some do it later than others. Playing with toy soldiers may be replaced by playing video games. Running joyfully is traded-in for walking coolly. Building model cars is substituted by the real thing. Time spent participating in sports is superseded by time with girls. Those things that were once thought of as important are relinquished for new things that are thought of as more important. One part of life ends and another begins.
Like most kids in the sixties I stopped collecting baseball cards when I entered high school, but something got me started again at a later date that seemed too good to be true. You need to know that I played with baseball cards probably more than any game or toy I ever had. I would play entire seasons on the living room floor. (see story: "It’s Back, Back, Back. It’s over the couch” to understand rules). The season would begin by playing with cards from the previous year. Cards were then traded to new teams, just like the real players. Then, the old cards were replaced with new cards purchased over the course of the current year. Players would get new uniforms. Sometimes the new cards did not look as good as the older cards, but they were replaced religiously anyway. It seemed like I could never get a new Ted Williams card and played with his 1955 card for many years.
Then, years later, after having graduated from college and after returning from military service in the Army, while looking through a magazine, I saw an ad from Larry Fritsch that would enable me to buy an entire set of Topps 1972 baseball cards at one time. I believed I had died and gone to heaven. I could now get an entire set of cards all at once and be sure that the set was complete. I sent in my money and awaited the shipment.
The day the box arrived was an exciting moment. It was April 1972 and campus protests were still occurring because of increased bombing raids in North Viet Nam even after I returned from military service. At first I opened and began looking at the cards all sorted from 1 to 787 (#1 World Champions -- Pittsburgh Pirates to #787 Ron Reed -- Atlanta Braves) one card after another, pausing on players that were favorites. But, it all seemed so overwhelming. Each card did not have the importance it deserved. They were all just part of this big set. And, they were all perfect! ― no patina of scratches, worn edges, or creases, just one perfect card after another. It was as if I was supposed to just leave them in the box so they would stay perfect forever.
I then began to do what I had done my entire young life. I sorted them all by team with the team card on top and carefully put a rubber band around each team. The sorting process took longer than I expected. But now, I needed to adjust for all the trades during the past year. That seemed like too much trouble. I’ll handle that later. It was time to start a game.
The box was carried to the living room where prior Baseball Card World Series’ had occurred. The makeshift stadium somehow looked smaller, but was still as majestic as ever. The teams took the field in all of their splendor, but I did not hear the crowd roar. Something was missing. All the cards looked the same. They weren’t from different years and they were all brand new. The games began and I don’t remember how long they lasted, but there was something wrong, and it wasn’t that I was too old. It was that the enjoyable process of collecting the cards was condensed into a few minutes. It was also that the proper transition from one year to the next did not occur. It was also that I didn’t take the time to read the cards and get more familiar with the players.
Was this the beginning of the end? Was it just me, or was it now all too easy? The fun was gone. Like many things in life certain memories never fade. Catches and plays on real ball fields are remembered forever, but how many people still remember plays from a game of baseball cards, like the “Hail Mary” throw from deep center field by Mickey Mantle that bounced on the infield grass and rolled toward home plate and landed on both the catcher and the runner to cut down the winning run in the bottom of the ninth for the last out. Some things you never forget.
Those cards still remain in the same box sorted by teams and bound in fragile rubber bands. I have never bothered to resort them. They sit in bitter sweet memory of the last moment that I actually played with baseball cards.
I did purchase another complete Topps set in 1974. By September of 1974 Nixon had left office over the Watergate Scandal and President Ford worked on an Executive order to give clemency to draft evaders, and I got married. This box is still sorted by card number and I would say that not more than twenty of the cards were ever looked at. (#1 Hank Aaron -- Atlanta Braves #660 Larry Dierker -- Houston Astros) Baseball cards were no longer sold by series and so the Golden Age of Baseball Cards officially ended in September 1974.
It was the end of an era ― a time that would never be seen again. Was it just me? Cards after this time never really had the same value, either monetarily or emotionally that these cards of the fifties and sixties retained. Sure there were the eighties when the baseball card frenzy promised new wealth to those who bought, only to be quashed by the players’ strike of 1994 and the love affair with baseball and baseball cards withered.
Baseball is more popular and profitable today than ever before. Games are watched by millions both on TV and to packed stadiums. The stadiums are filled with reserve ticket holders, not necessarily baseball fans, but those who can afford the good seats. Baseball cards are now too expensive for most kids. The primary buyers are those who can put down the dollars in this free-for-all market system.
I wonder if any of them play with their cards.