1968 Topps: The Set with the Speckled Border
by Dean Hanley
Owner of Dean's Cards
The 1968 Topps baseball card set design is one of the most eye-catching of the entire decade, with its distinctive speckled borders. The 1968 Topps set features two great rookie cards: Nolan Ryan (#177) and Johnny Bench (#274). The 1968 set features two players per rookie card, so Nolan Ryan is paired with fellow pitcher Jerry Koosman, representing the greatest pair of players ever featured together on a rookie card. The two would combine for an astounding 546 wins and 8,270 strikeouts over their careers.
The 1968 Topps set also features three of my favorite multi-player cards. Manager's Dream (#480) had a Latin theme, with Clemente, Oliva, and Cardenas. The Super Star card (#490) featured Killebrew, Mays, and Mantle. Both pictures were taken at the 1966 All-Star Game.
The third multi-player card was #530 Bird Belters, showing the Robinsons – Frank and Brooks. What is interesting about this photo is that it was taken at the same sitting as 1967 Topps card #1 “The Champs”, which also included Hank Bauer. Bauer stepped out of the photo and the photographer moved in a couple steps. You can tell because of the same positioning of the towels in the dugout and fans in the stands.
The world was upside down
1968 was one of the most turbulent years of the 20th Century, with the Vietnam War raging and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and then Robert Kennedy.
Although greatly overshadowed by world events, trouble was also brewing in the world of baseball cards. The images of the players were the reason the kids bought the cards, but players received very little of the profits. Topps had historically signed players to exclusive baseball card contracts (with helpful pressure from the clubs) while they were in the minor leagues for a whopping $5!
Marvin Miller, the new head of the Major League Baseball Players Union, approached Topps President Joel Shorin, to renegotiate the Topps contract on behalf of the players. By 1967, major league players were locked into long-term baseball card contracts and received only $125 a year to have their pictures on a Topps card. What Miller really wanted was for Topps to also give the players’ union a percentage of Topps’ sales. Shorin politely refused, saying, “I do not see the muscle in your position.” Miller quickly left the office and the war was on.
Miller encouraged players to hold out over spring training to avoid signing new contracts with Topps. Although most players were still under contract to Topps, many players refused to let Topps take their picture. Topps soon discovered, as the owners had the year before, that players were now organized and did indeed have leverage. As a result, Topps was forced to use old photos for the 1968 set, as well as to decrease the total number of cards in the set.
Topps eventually caved to Miller’s demands. The newly negotiated contract required Topps to pay each player $250 (double the previous $125) per year and, more importantly, Topps would pay the Players’ Association 8% of sales up to $4 million and another 10% after that. The way that Topps compensated the players had changed forever.
Players Union Victory Over Topps Changed Baseball
More importantly in the long run, the MLBPA’s victory over Topps showed the players an example of the power that a strong union has in a profitable industry. The “small” victory over the Topps Gum co. would serve as an example and fortify the player’s resolve against their primary nemesis, the owners. This new found resolve would eventually culminate in the elimination of the reserve clause in 1975, which allowed free-agency, guaranteed contracts, and insured the continual increase in players' salaries that has yet to crest.
Although few collectors would choose 1968 Topps as their favorite vintage set, it was a solid issue that featured a bold and creative design – even though the speckled border would never be used again.