It was hard to find anything "Terrific" about the New York Mets in the club's early years.
Finishing no higher than ninth in a 10-team league in their first seven seasons, the Mets garnered a reputation as lovable losers.
But when a flame-throwing right-hander from California arrived in 1967, there was suddenly hope. Tom Seaver – or Tom Terrific as he became known – would win 16 games for the last-place team and just two years later would lead the Mets to an improbable World Series triumph. And with the 40th anniversary of this unlikely championship approaching, it seems fitting to shine the spotlight on the ace of the Amazin' Mets.
"I started watching baseball when I was eight years old, in 1969, and Tom Seaver was the best player," explained Ken Kavowras, owner of the top Seaver Master Set on the PSA Set Registry.
The first Mets game Kavowras attended was Game 5 of 1969 Fall Classic at Shea Stadium, when the Mets clinched the championship.
"When I was a kid, we loved Tom Seaver," said Kavowras. "We would all pitch like him. We would do the leg lift and throw three-quarter overhand fastballs."
James Brandow, who spent his childhood in Brooklyn and owns the No. 2 Seaver Master Set, expresses similar sentiments.
"Seaver was the prince of the city," he said
New Jersey native Mike Paul, who owns the No. 3 Master Seaver Set, also worshipped Tom Terrific.
"Being a Mets fan, Tom Seaver has always been the franchise," he said.
A 12-time all-star, Seaver won three Cy Young Awards as a Met (1969, 1973, 1975) and recorded more than 200 strikeouts in nine consecutive seasons (1968 to 1976). The hard-throwing ace, who also played for the Reds, White Sox and Red Sox, is a member of the exclusive 300-win club and was a near unanimous selection to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.
With all of this in mind, it's easy to understand why his cards are highly coveted. The PSA Set Registry boasts four Seaver sets: Basic (38 cards), Master (269 cards), Basic Topps (21) and Master Topps (85 cards).
"You'll never see a high-grade Seaver at a show that lasts for a long time," noted Kavowras.
The Holy Grail of Seaver cards is his 1967 Topps rookie (#581). Just three PSA GEM-MT 10s have been uncovered and one sold for $20,575.40 in a Mile High Card Company auction in February 2008.
"The popularity of the rookie card is going up. I've seen the sales hit almost $3,000 for a PSA 9. When I bought it, it was $2,000," said Jeff Ratzer, who owns the registry's No. 1 Seaver Basic Set.
Much more elusive than his rookie, however, is Seaver's 1968 Venezuelan Topps card (#45). Distributed in Venezuela and boasting a design similar to the regular Topps issue, these cards were printed on flimsy, non-glossy stock. Collectors were encouraged to glue these into albums and, as a result, many showcase glue stains or have paper missing. A line of yellow text on the back of the Venezuelan cards – "Hecho en Venezuela – C.A. Litoven" also differentiates these cards from the regular Topps pasteboards.
"If you get even a PSA 4, it would be worth more than $300. The Venezuelan cards are pretty expensive," said Paul.
Just five have been evaluated, and the PSA VG-EX 4 owned by Brandow is the highest graded copy. A PSA PR 1 fetched $149.95 on eBay in October 2007.
Seaver's 1969 Topps single (#480) is also difficult to uncover in flawless form. Diamond cuts tend to hamper this card, and there has yet to be PSA GEM-MT 10 example. A PSA MINT 9 sold for $725.85 on eBay in October 2008.
The 1971 Topps Seaver (#160) is also evasive in pristine form.
"I think the 1971 card is really tough because the color of the borders is black," said Brandow.
"The 1971 Topps Seaver is a giant pain in the neck. I have it in a PSA 8 and there are about five graded higher. The '71 Topps cards are just tough in general because of the black borders," he said.
Also elusive is Seaver's 1974 Topps Deckle Edge single (#9). Part of a rare 72-card, test series that was reportedly distributed on a limited basis around Massachusetts, this Seaver card measures 2-7/8" by 5" and boasts scalloped borders. The front showcases a black and white photograph and a blue facsimile autograph, while the back features handwritten script highlighting his name, team, position and the date and location of the photo. A mock newspaper clipping with details about his career is also included. Because there were no holders to store cards this size at the time they were released, these are often found with nicks and creases.
Just 23 have been submitted and there has yet to be a PSA GEM-MT 10. A PSA NM-MT 8 sold for $184.50 on eBay in November 2008.
Plagued by centering problems, Seaver's 1977 Topps single (#150) is also tough to track down in top condition. Of the 282 submitted, there has been just one PSA GEM-MT 10. A PSA MINT 9 sold for $107.73 on eBay in September 2008.
"Of all the Seaver cards through the '70s and '80s, the 1977 Topps card is definitely one of the toughest," said Ratzer.
More than 20 years after Seaver's retirement, demand for his elusive cards – and most of his high-grade singles – remains strong. Clearly, he's still "Terrific" in the eyes of collectors.
"I've always said that I would give Tom Seaver my collection if there was ever an interest in passing it on as a legacy to his kids or grandkids, and that offer still remains," said Brandow.