A few years ago, a Philadelphia librarian named Heather Carbo was going about the drudgery of cleaning out the contents of an old cabinet. It was a hot summer day and the last thing she cared to be doing was stirring up the dirt of a chest full of musty old papers. Little did Ms. Carbo know that when she reached into the cabinet's bottom shelf and pulled out a dust-covered manuscript that she was unearthing a working score for a piano version of "Grosse Fuge" that had been actually penned by Ludwig van Beethoven during the final weeks of his life.
It is stories such as Carbo's that stir the soul and quicken the pulse of any collector. Whether it is the tale of the 1798 unearthing of a Rosetta Stone that became instrumental in understanding the Egyptian's hieroglyphic writing; archaeologist Howard Carter's 1922 locating of King Tutankhamen's tomb, or the accidental stumbling upon of the Dead Sea Scrolls by sheep herders in 1948, people are fascinated with the discovery of historical artifacts that were otherwise not known to exist.
Significant finds, such as the aforementioned, seem to resonate most with those who possess the collecting gene. Nothing stirs up excitement within a genre of the collecting community like when a big find is made. It is for that reason that in the sportscard collecting hobby, this past year will go down in history as the year such a find was made - a find of a highly elusive issue that was put out by Topps in 1968.
Last year, Brian Drent, the founder and president of Mile High Card Company, received a call from a couple who lived near Scranton, Pennsylvania. Accepting the call as a routine inquiry, Drent quickly realized that, if in fact the couple had what they said they had, this call was anything but routine.
"The couple lived in Duryea, Pennsylvania - the former home of the Topps Company," said Drent. "They told me they had a pile of plastic baseball parts that had been produced sometime in the late 1960s and asked if I might be interested in them."
A widely respected sportscard and sports memorabilia expert who founded Mile High Card Company in 1996 and has bought and sold many of the hobby's rarest and most prized treasures, Drent immediately sat up straight and began peppering the couple with questions. Their answers got Drent's heart beating a bit faster and in short term he was on his way from Colorado to the couple's Pennsylvania home.
According to Drent, when he arrived at the house and saw what the couple had, he was amazed. Placed in front of him was in fact "a pile of plastic" - a pile that Drent knew represented a significant find - a 1968 Topps issued experimental test set they called the "All-Star Baseball Plaks" - little, bronze-colored plastic busts of various baseball stars of the era that were issued in three-player sprues. The sprues hold the connected plastic busts in the same way that model car or airplane parts would be. They came in a ten-cent wax pack along with one of two checklists and a couple sticks of gum.
The checklist cards that were included with the Plaks featured 24 players that most experts in the hobby always believed were the ones included in the set. Those checklist cards have surfaced from time to time over the years, but the plastic busts themselves are so scarce no one was ever able to definitively confirm that a Plak had actually been made of all 24 players listed on the checklist card.
As Drent sat looking at the Plaks, he was told that the owner's mother had worked at the Topps factory and would occasionally treat kids in the neighborhood by giving them free candy and cards that had been miscut or damaged. She had also been given permission to take any of the failed test issues being as that they otherwise would have been discarded. One day, she was invited to take a pile of wax packs and the Plaks. Topps management had made the decision that the Plaks had no value and they were more than happy to get rid of them being as that they had proven to be a failure with kids who were far more interested in cards and candy than little plastic busts. Back home with her pile of plastic, they were placed in a bucket, set up on a garage shelf, and forgotten about - for forty years!
"This is one of the rarest Topps issues in regards to anything they have ever put out," Drent recently told Sports Market Report. "This is right behind the 1961 Topps Dice Game issue and their 1967 Stand-Ups. And in regards to scarcity - let me put it this way - I've been going to card shows since 1983. I have probably been to somewhere between 700 and 1,000 shows and had never seen even one Plak on a dealer's table. I read every auction catalogue published and I have never seen them in a catalogue. Now, I have run into a few people over the years who have had some, so I did know they existed. But I'll tell you they are really, really difficult to come by. Many serious collectors, even some of the top advanced collectors in the hobby don't even know about them and a casual collector would have had no clue whatsoever."
Drent said that when he first looked at the Plaks he had been told there was some speculation that they might have been a Maryland issue. "That was sort of confusing," said Drent. "But while Topps had outsourced several things to a company in Maryland, this was not a Maryland issue.
The year of 1968 saw Topps roll out a series of experimental issues that were unique for a card company. "(They) produced Deckle Edge Proofs; Color Player Posters; 3-Dimentional Tests; Topps Discs; game cards; tip books, and stickers," he said. "In much the same way that other American companies responded to the turmoil of '68, Topps also experimented with an unprecedented level of countercultural creativity."
According to Drent, the Plak find is significant for a variety of reasons, most notably because it clears up questions about if Plaks were, in fact, manufactured for each of the 24 players on the checklist cards. Since acquiring the Plaks, Drent and the Mile High Card Company staff have done exhaustive studies on what actually was produced. They say that they believe only 19 of the 24 were ever actually made. The confirmed Plaks are those of Max Alvis; Richie Allen; Dean Chance; Orlando Cepeda; Jim Fregosi; Roberto Clemente; Frank Howard; Tommy Davis; Jim Hunter; Tim McCarver; Al Kaline; Ron Santo; Harmon Killebrew; Rusty Staub; Jim Longborg; Pete Rose; Mickey Mantle; Jim Wynn and Carl Yastrzemski.
Of the two dozen players listed, Drent said he could never find anyone in the hobby who had ever seen an example of the Hank Aaron, Don Drysdale, Gary Peters, Willie Mays or Frank Robinson Plaks. In a statement released by the Mile High Card Company that first told of the find, Drent said that, based on his research, it has become his belief that Plaks for those players were simply never actually produced although he admits he cannot positively confirm that fact.
Drent also pointed out that while sorting through his find, he discovered that, while the bust for each player is consistent in shape and size, there were two distinctly different Mickey Mantle variations. One shows a slanted, interlocking "NY" on Mantle's cap, the other displays a perfectly square logo. Drent has also noted that Mantle's features - his lips, nose and ear are also noticeably larger on one of the versions. "The placement of his right eye and the width of his collar also vary to a degree well outside the bounds of a manufacturing error," said Drent who believes they were cast from two different molds.
As for if they were actually ever really distributed, Drent believes they were. "There is a least one display box known to exist," he said. "That indicates that Topps did have some type of distribution in stores. There are also 10 unopened packs that came from a former Topps employee that exist. They surfaced in an auction about six or seven years ago. That was the only time I have ever heard of anything related to the Plaks - I had never seen packs, wrappers, boxes or the Plaks themselves in any auction."
Drent went on to say that his company put some of the Plaks on display at last year's National Sports Convention. "Let me tell ya," Drent said with a laugh. "When people saw them - and I mean everyone from the casual collector right on up to the advanced collector - their reaction was incredible. They would say that they had heard about them or had seen them listed in price guides but that they had never actually seen one in person."
He went on to say that it just can't be stressed enough how extremely rare these Plaks are. "Let's say someone was a diehard Pete Rose or a Roberto Clemente collector, I guarantee you that they would be missing one of these. We get hundreds of wish lists every year and I have never had a collector ask for one of these. That's because they either don't know they exist or, because they are so rare, they don't even think about looking for them. I recently heard from a guy who is a big Carl Yastrzemski collector who told me that he has been looking for one of these for over 15 years!"
Drent, who has already begun making the Plaks available for sale said he will be incrementally offering the rest at auction and also for direct sale through the Mile High Card Company's Web site. "The response so far has been incredible," said Drent. "Before we sent out the release regarding this find, I had sold one collector over $29,000 worth of the Plaks. He was a very advanced collector who knew quite a bit about the issue. I then put seven of them up for sale on eBay and they sold, on average, for over a thousand dollars apiece, and they were just the singles not the groups of three. Then I took some to Boston and sold $53,000 worth there. But I really hadn't talked to many people about them until the release went out via e-mail. We put it out at about 3:00 pm on a Wednesday. By noon the following day we had sold over $70,000 worth. So this find created quite a bit of excitement very quickly."
If you would like more information on the 1968 Topps All-Star Baseball Plaks, you can peruse the Mile High Card Company's Web site at: milehighcardco.com. You can also contact Brian Drent at Mile High: 6841 S. Yosemite St., Suite 101, Centennial, CO 80112, (303) 840-2784, or via e-mail [email protected].
Oh yeah, and just in case you are thinking about cutting a deal with Brian on a Plak purchase, better think again. "These are really special and people know it," said Drent. "We haven't had one person bicker about the asking price. They don't even question it. All I hear from people who see them is that their check is in the mail."