1974 Topps: The “Semi-Vintage Era” Begins
by Dean Hanley
Owner, Dean's Cards
The 1974 Topps baseball card set was the first issue in which all the cards in the set were released at the beginning of the baseball season. Topps finally abandoned its practice of issuing the cards in time-released series as the baseball season progressed -- and this meant the end to short-printed high-number series.
The Topps sets produced from 1974 to 1980, which I refer to as “Semi-Vintage” cards, do not neatly fit in either the vintage or modern categories and deserve to be considered as their own era. What makes semi-vintage sets unique from the sets of the vintage era is that all the cards in the sets were issued at the beginning of the season, but these sets were not produced in the massive numbers of the modern cards.
The lack of a tough high-number series means that the semi-vintage card sets are much easier to complete than the pre-1974 sets. Yet semi-vintage cards have a higher value than modern card sets, because the semi-vintage cards were not produced in the mass-quantities like modern cards.
Vintage cards sets tend to have nice value. Modern sets tend to have a low value. The term “semi-vintage,” which I coined years ago, intuitively indicates that the cards from these years have a middle-of-the-road value. The term has stuck over the years.
America grows up
Topps had two major problems facing the company in 1974. The first was the economy. The oil crisis of 1973 had hit the American wallet hard and baseball card sales were affected.
The second problem Topps faced was that the population of kids of card-collecting age was at its all time peak and the U.S. birth rate was at its lowest since WWII. The Topps baseball card monopoly was still firmly entrenched, but the low 1973 birth rates meant that in 10 years, the Topps target market (boys aged 6 to 15) would decrease by 25%.
Topps sees an opportunity
The kids that began collecting the 1948 Bowman set were now in their 30s, and they now had money. The boomers needed a hobby. Starting in the late 1960s, many guys began retrieving their collections from their mother’s attic and started buying cards to fill in the holes of their collection.
Card shows soon began to appear across the country. For the first time, grown men were now seen in public collecting sports cards. As their sons came of age, their fathers brought them along. My father and I were a part of the new trend.
This changing landscape was not lost on Topps and in 1974, Topps modified its product. The 1974 Topps Wax Pack contained 10 cards and the price was raised to 15 cents. For the first time, baseball cards sold for more than a penny-a-piece.
Topps' decision to release its 1974 set in just one series was a direct response to the wants of the adult collector. Cards could now be bought in 500-count vending boxes. Cards were also marketed as complete sets for the first time and sold in the J.C. Penney catalogs. By selling the cards in large amounts, Topps was able to save money on packaging and gum.
Card Collecting Grows Up
Starting in the spring 1974, the collector had the possibility of getting any of the 660 possible cards in every pack, instead of the just the usual 100 or cards contained in a single series. This meant that kids had far fewer doubles to trade. Kids (or their dads) also began buying complete sets. This took them out of the market, and trading quickly dried up. From this point forward, more money would be spent on trading cards by adults than children.
The Impact of the 1974 Topps Set on the Baseball Card Collecting Hobby
Upon examination, the 1974 Topps baseball cards gives one much to comment on. The blurry action shots, the difficult-to-read card backs, the ridiculous four-player rookie cards, the Washington error cards, the full-sized Dave Winfield Rookie Card and the numerous subsets -- including a nice tribute to Hank Aaron.
The 1974 inserts with the Red Team Checklists and the innovative (but ugly) Traded Set could be an article within itself. With that said, I have left those interesting comments to others and decided to focus on the impact that the 1974 set had on the hobby.
Innovative 1974 Card Design
If the changes in the manufacturing and distribution of the 1974 Topps cards were not enough, the product itself was also loaded with innovations. The most distinguishing characteristic of the 1974 set is the pennant or banner design that wraps around the photo of the player. The most innovative feature of the 1974 cards is that so many contain action photographs.
A negative of the 1974 issue is that Topps printed the player’s statistics on a dark green background, making it difficult to read. Another common criticism of the 1974 set, especially from today’s collectors, is that the photographs appear blurry or feature unattractive shots of the stadium in the player’s picture. Although the photos do not stand up to the action shots on today’s cards, they were quite inventive at the time. As a young collector at the time, and accustomed to the posed shots of the past, I was stunned by the amount of movement on the cards
Although some of the cards may be a bit too busy, Topps did produce some very aesthetically pleasing cards in 1974. One of the most attractive examples from this year is #85 Joe Morgan. The shot shows Morgan right out of his batting stance, about to run to first base, with the opposing team’s dugout in the background.
This type of action shot tends to work best on a baseball card, because the rest of the card acts as a frame and presents the photograph within it very nicely. As many other Topps issues demonstrate, the action shot does not work well in a “busy” card. Topps photographers applied these “lessons learned” to future releases, and action shots remain a staple on today’s cards.
In terms of rookie cards, the 1974 set initially looked very promising. Dave Winfield, Dave Parker, and Bill Madlock all had their rookie cards in the 1974 set. By the early 1980s, all three players were superstars and seemed like a good bet to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but only Dave Winfield would make it to Cooperstown.
This 1974 Topps set is loaded with Hall of Famers including: Hank Aaron, Catfish Hunter, Johnny Bench, Nolan Ryan, Jim Palmer, Rod Carew, Frank Robinson, Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Ferguson Jenkins, Steve Carlton, Willie Stargell, Carlton Fisk, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, and many more
The Washington Padres
Winfield’s rookie card brings up another key feature of this set: the Washington “Nat’l League” variations. At the time these cards were printed, the San Diego Padres franchise was planning to relocate to Washington D.C. Topps printed the Padres cards with Washington as the franchise city. However, the Padres were eventually bought by McDonald’s owner Ray Kroc and the team remained in San Diego. The Washington cards were printed in much lower quantities than the San Diego version of the cards.
Bring on the subsets
The 1974 Topps set also features one of the highest numbers of subsets in the decade. Cards #1-6 commemorate all of Hank Aaron’s Topps cards dating from 1954 to 1973.
Cards #201-208 feature the League Leaders. These cards are oriented horizontally and frame the American League leader with a pink banner and the National League leader with a blue banner. The top ten leaders from each league are listed on the back.
Playoff and World Series Highlights can be found on cards #470-479. The 1973 World Series went all the way to Game 7, with the Oakland A’s prevailing over the Mets to win their second consecutive championship. The action shots work best on these cards. Each card shows a decisive play on the front and the stats for all the participants on the back. The red, white, and blue banner on the World Series card distinguishes them from the rest of the set.
The final subset of 1974 is the rookie cards, which return to their four-player format not seen since 1963. Cards #596-608 are now farily difficult to find because they were quickly thrown out by many of the collectors at the time. The framing that worked so well on the player cards, makes the rookie cards feel busy. Adding the players’ names and teams to the photographs with stadium backgrounds proved to be too much for these cards.
1974 Insert sets
Topps rounds out 1974, with the first traded set and a red team checklist set. Both of these sets were inserts to the 1974 Topps Set. Topps had originally introduced the concept of a traded card in 1972 but included it as part of the original set. In 1974, Topps decided to make an entire new set of cards for players who had been traded after the 1973 World Series.
The card number in the Traded Set corresponds to that player’s original 1974 card, but then added a “T” to the number. Unfortunately, almost all of the Traded Cards feature players with airbrushed hats. As if that was not ugly enough, Topps added a large yellow “TRADED” banner with red lettering across the player’s photograph. In short, the idea of the Traded Set was very innovative, but still need some refinement. Traded Sets are still issued to this day.
The Red Team Checklists are also considered a separate set. Like the blue team checklists from 1973, these cards featured a checklist on the back and the signatures of all the players on the front. These cards were unnumbered, but organized alphabetically by the name of the city.
Summary of the 1974 Topps set
The 1974 Topps baseball card set was the first issue of the “Semi-Vintage Era” of baseball cards and influenced the card collecting hobby more than any set issued since 1952. The action shots and Traded cards remain a staple to this day, but the most important long-term effect of the 1974 Topps Baseball Card Set was not the individual cards contained in the set, but the issue’s overall impact. The 1974 Topps set bought the adult collector into the hobby.
Some may think that Topps sacrificed its original target market, the kids of the baby boom generation, but that is simply not the case. Topps did not betray us. They followed us into adulthood, like a loyal and trusted friend.