The Oxford Dictionary defines gray as dull and dismal.
For many hobbyists, dull and dismal describes the design of the gray-bordered, 1970 Topps set, but a deeper examination of this issue might convince them that its somber style is appropriate.
Superstitions, curses and jinxes flood baseball folklore. But do you believe in a hobby jinx? A closer look at the bleakly designed 1970 Topps offering reveals some disturbing patterns. This set, for example, showcases the rookie card of Thurman Munson (#189) and one of the last singles of Roberto Clemente (#350), two stars that perished in plane crashes before their playing careers were over. Also featured is the inaugural single of Jim Spencer (#255), the ex-Yankee who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2002.
Adding more credence to the 1970 Topps curse is that it boasts the rookie of Bill Buckner (#286), who despite 2,715 career hits is doomed to be remembered for the ball that rolled through his legs in the 1986 World Series.
Want more? How about the fact that not one of the highly successful big leaguers - Munson, Buckner, Vida Blue, Bill Russell, Larry Bowa, Darrell Evans and Hal McRae - whose rookies are part of this offering have secured a plaque in Cooperstown.
Whether you believe in the 1970 Topps curse or not, the story of this set is certainly more colorful than its gray-bordered design. Unfortunately, collectors have been slow to embrace it.
"It's sandwiched between two really popular years. The 1969 set is really popular and 1971 is really popular," said one veteran hobbyist.
The 720-card, 1970 offering was the largest Topps had produced to that point. Aside from the gray borders, the card fronts boast player photos inside a white frame. Team names are highlighted at the top, while the players' names (in script) and positions are noted on the bottom. The card backs feature biographical information, statistics and a cartoon.
Produced in seven series, this issue's last series (#634 to 720) is the most difficult to track down. This scarcity, however, doesn't necessarily translate into fewer high-grade examples.
With the 1970 Topps series, Topps raised the price of wax packs from five cents to 10 cents. All seven series were available in wax packs. Mark Murphy's The World's Best Unopened Pack, Wrapper & Display Box Guide also lists pricing for first and third series cello packs, as well as first series rack packs.
On top of the standard subsets (league leader, World Series cards etc), this issue unveiled playoff cards (#195 to 202) and reintroduced team cards. The 1969 Topps product did not offer team singles.
Variations exist of six of the set's checklists. Three of the checklists (#244, #343 and #542) boast two versions showcasing different colored bats on the front. The shade of the word "Baseball" varies between two versions on another checklist (#432) and names were corrected on the remaining two (#128, 588). There is little or no premium for these variations.
The most sought-after rookie is the Munson (#189). Of the 1,487 Munsons graded, there have been two PSA GEM-MT 10s and 36 PSA MINT 9s. A PSA 10 sold in a Mastro Auctions sale for $9,582 in September 2007.
"You can find it (the Munson rookie), if you want to spend the money on it," explained Brian O'Donnell, owner of the PSA Set Registry's No. 4 Current Finest 1970 Topps set. "A lot of people are Yankee or Munson collectors, so you've got to compete with those guys."
High-number cards of Al Kaline (#640), Johnny Bench (#660) and Frank Robinson (#700) are among the most coveted Hall of Famer singles. That said, the Nolan Ryan card (#712) is the most sought-after. Of the 2,293 Ryans submitted, there has been one PSA 10 and 59 PSA 9s. A PSA 9 netted $1,100.00 on eBay in April 2008.
Other top-tier Cooperstowners included in the set are Willie Mays (#600) and Hank Aaron (#500).
"Hank Aaron is a really tough card to find. They're usually off-center or they're cut badly," said O'Donnell.
There has yet to be a PSA 10 Aaron and there are just 21 PSA 9s.
Another elusive Hall of Famer single is Reggie Jackson's all-star card (#459).
To this day, PSA has not graded a single 9 or 10.
Like most of the 1970 all-star cards, poor centering hampers the Jackson.
"The all-star cards are very difficult to find in high-grade. They're always off-center and they're always miscut," he said.
The Sam McDowell all-star card (#469) is the most difficult to track down in high-grade, says O'Donnell. Just 21 McDowells have been graded PSA NM-MT 8 or higher.
Another card that's evasive in pristine condition is Mike Kekich (#536). Of the 39 submitted, there have been just six PSA 9s and 24 PSA 8s. A PSA 9 sold for $179.50 on eBay in October 2006.
The Kekich, like many cards from this set, is plagued by poor centering. The gray borders on these cards are also susceptible to chipping and a straight white or black line can often be found along the top or bottom border. According to hobbyists, those lines were placed on the cards to establish where they were to be cut.
With the increase in pack price, Topps introduced three different inserts for their 1970 series. In each wax pack, collectors would receive a booklet, a poster or a scratch-off.
Part of a series of 24, each booklet measures 2-1/2" by 3-7/16". A player picture, a title and the booklet number adorn each cover, while the back exhibits the series checklist. The middle pages tell a comic book style story about each subject.
Posters can also be found in some wax packs. Folded five times to fit into the packs, these 8-11/16" by 9-5/8" collectibles feature color player portraits, accompanied by smaller black-and-white action shots. The posters also include the player's name, team and position.
Scratch-offs were also included in some packs. Measuring 3-3/8" by 5" and flaunting a player picture on their fronts, these singles are made of heavy cardboard and are part of a game. The backs of these cards include a scoreboard and game instructions.
These inserts provide a fun diversion to this seemingly somber issue. Whether you believe in a hobby jinx or not, it's difficult to deny that the story of this set is more colorful than its gray borders.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Mile High Card Co., Mastro Auctions and Brian O'Donnell provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings are those as of press time.