It's often hailed as The Year of the Pitcher, but 1968 could also be deemed The Year of the Tiger.
Sure, Bob Gibson recorded a miniscule 1.12 ERA and Don Drysdale hurled 58.2 scoreless innings that season, but it was Detroit's Denny McLain who won 31 games. His mound heroics helped the Tigers to a World Series title, one so cherished it's still celebrated 40 years later.
Evidence of this can be found in sales of 1968 Topps Tigers cards. The pasteboard of Mickey Lolich (#414), for example, is one of the most coveted in the set. The sole PSA GEM-MINT 10 copy fetched $4,550 on eBay in November 2007. Also highly sought-after is the Tigers Team card (#528); a PSA 10 example sold for $2,580 in 2003.
"It's open season with the Tigers cards," explained T. Allan Bergquist, who owns the No. 2 Current Finest Basic Set on the PSA Registry. "Some people are willing to pay anything for the Tiger cards."
Even the common Tigers tend to command a premium in this 598-card issue. Released in wax packs, rack packs and cellos, the 1968 Topps cards showcase color photos framed in burlap borders, as well as the player's name, team and position, on their fronts. The backs flaunt a vertical design and exhibit personal information, statistics and a cartoon.
Another version of these cards was included in a Milton Bradley board game called Win-A-Card. These singles sometimes showcase a touch of the white borders featured on the 1967 Topps Football cards (which were also included in the Milton Bradley game). The card backs are also a brighter yellow than the backs on the regular cards.
"Collectors either love the design of this set or hate it," said Bergquist.
Variations are abundant in this offering. Three cards boast versions with yellow or white team names. The yellow team names on the Ed Brinkman (#49) and Casey Cox (#66) singles garner a premium. While the Mike McCormick (#400) single with the white team name is the more desirable one. Text and picture variations also exist on several checklists. None of these, however, seem to net a premium.
Subsets in the 1968 Topps set include League Leader (#1 to 12), World Series (#151 to 158) and All-Star cards (#361 to 380). Singles featuring more than one player are another added attraction. The Bird Belters combo card (#530) showcasing Orioles stars Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson and the Manager's Dream single (#480) with Roberto Clemente, Chico Cardenas and Tony Oliva are two of the most popular. The most coveted, however, is the Super Stars card (#490) that boasts Harmon Killebrew, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Of the 1,668 of these submitted, there have been 6 PSA 10s and 95 PSA MINT 9s. A PSA 10 sold for $4,690.80 at auction.
A large number of other Hall of Famers are also part of this set.
"It's loaded with superstars," said Dennis Ragan, who owns the registry's No. 11 Current Finest Basic Set.
The most notable card is the Nolan Ryan rookie (#177). Unfortunately, collectors must be wary of counterfeits of this card. Buying a Ryan rookie in a PSA holder will ensure its authenticity, but if you're looking at raw examples, your prospective purchase should be compared to an authentic copy, examining it for color discrepancies, blurriness and stock variances.
"Without question, the Ryan rookie is the key card of the set," said Bergquist.
Of the 5,473 Ryans evaluated, there has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just 59 PSA 9s. In recent months, PSA 9s have sold for around $5,300 each.
Another key rookie is Johnny Bench (#247). There are ten PSA 10 cards of the Reds legendary catcher and one sold for $6,000 on eBay in March 2008. Second-year cards of Tom Seaver (#45) and Rod Carew (#80) are also included, as is Mickey Mantle's second-last Topps issue (#280).
"You could argue that Mickey Mantle is the toughest card to find in high-grade. There's only eight graded PSA 10 out of 5,271. That's pretty amazing to sustain that level of rarity considering the number graded," said Bergquist, who picked up a PSA 10 Mantle at auction for $7,300.
Another elusive Hall of Famer in pristine condition is Jim Palmer (#575). Of the 844 Palmers submitted, there has been just 3 PSA 10s and 72 PSA 9s. A PSA 9 sold for $256.51 on eBay in April 2008.
The Roberto Clemente card (#150) is also evasive in top form. Just two PSA 10s and 35 PSA 9s have been uncovered; PSA 9s generally garner around $800 each.
Outside of the variations, the most elusive card in PSA 9 or better is the Braves Rookies single (#76). There are no PSA 10s and just 16 PSA 9s, one of which sold for $357 on eBay in March 2007. Also tough to uncover is the Sammy Ellis (#453) single (one PSA 10, ten PSA 9s).
"In this set, if you have under 10 PSA 9s and no PSA 10s, that's an extremely rare card," said Bergquist.
But 1968 Topps cards generally aren't difficult to uncover in high-grade. Aside from some minor centering and chipping issues, these cards are relatively plentiful in top condition. A rumored recent vending find could explain why so many have surfaced in high-grade.
If this "find" did occur, the demand for pristine 1968 Topps cards was definitely there. With over 150 sets registered, the 1968 Topps set is one of the most popular sets on the registry. One of the appeals of this offering, says Ragan, is that there are enough high-grade cards available to make building a registry set possible.
Bergquist agrees, but adds that the volume of collectors also means increased competition.
"There are so many people involved with this set that it even makes the higher pop cards harder to get," he said.
Whether the popularity of this set will be sustained remains to be seen. But as long as fans and hobbyists continue to celebrate the Tigers' 1968 World Series title, this set will remain desirable and the Detroit cards will continue to serve as a fitting tribute to The Year of the Tiger.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. T. Allan Bergquist provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted are those as of press time.
Copyright © 2016 PSA – A Division of Collectors Universe. Nasdaq: CLCT. All rights reserved.