In his 1985, top 10 smash "Summer of '69," Bryan Adams wistfully recalls that particular summer as the "best days" of his life.
And hobbyists Greg Libersher and Joe Shroba might agree.
Growing up together in Joliet, Illinois, these childhood friends were seven years old when the memorable summer of '69 rolled around. Yet instead of buying a guitar at the five-and-dime, like Adams in his song, they were loading up on 1969 Topps Baseball packs. And when they ripped open those five-cent treasures, they discovered not only cards and gum, but also a colorful decal.
"You could put the decal on a flat surface and scratch it off, which is what I did as a kid," explained Shroba. "I scratched them off on to my closet door, and then a few years later, we moved out of that house, so that was the end of my decal collection."
Libersher also remembers playing with the decals as a kid.
"I used to scratch them on to the back of the [1969 Topps] Deckle Edge cards," he said. "I would get a Ron Santo decal and scratch it right on to the back of my Deckle Edge Santo."
Although Libersher and Shroba shared many childhood interests, they didn't collect baseball cards together, and after they grew up and moved away from Joliet (Libersher to Florida and Shroba to Colorado), they kept in touch less frequently.
So in 2003, when Shroba decided to build a 1969 Topps Baseball Decals set on the PSA Set Registry, it was purely a coincidence that Libersher was already on his way to owning the top registry set.
"Greg was helpful when I was starting to put this set together for the registry," said Shroba.
In more recent years, they have traded with each other to upgrade their sets, and Shroba's set now sits second to Libersher's on the registry.
Measuring approximately 1" by 1-1/2" each, the 48 unnumbered decals comprising this set are mini versions of the regular 1969 Topps cards. But the decals came on a large white backing that made their total size approximately 1-3/4" by 2-1/8".
Printed on lightweight stock in the U.K., these decals showcase more vibrant colors than the regular Topps cards. And of the 48 decals released, 35 flaunt different photos than their regular 1969 Topps cards.
Of the 13 decals that employ the same photo as their 1969 cards, five – Hank Aaron, Luis Aparicio, Roberto Clemente (Bob Clemente on his card), Reggie Jackson and Tom Seaver – are Hall of Famers.
Some of the decals also feature more up-to-date photos of the players than their regular issue cards. The Hoyt Wilhelm decal, for example, presents him in a California Angels cap, while the cap on his regular Topps card is plain black.
The Tom Haller decal offers a photo of him with the Dodgers, the team he was traded to on February 13, 1968, while his regular Topps card showcases him in his old Giants gear. Similarly, Ken Harrelson was signed by the Red Sox on August 28, 1967. His decal pictures him in a Red Sox uniform, while his regular 1969 Topps pasteboard presents him in his old A's garb.
In 1969, there were 24 big league teams, including four new expansion clubs: the Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots. It appears that Topps intended to feature two players from each club in the decal set and they almost succeeded. The only exception is that there are three Angels and one Royal.
Due to Topps' egalitarian approach, a number of prominent players weren't in the set.
"I thought some of the player selection was really random. For Cardinals, they have Tim McCarver instead of Lou Brock," said Shroba. "Plus, there's no Al Kaline from the Tigers, even though the Tigers were coming off a World Series championship."
Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Bench, Nolan Ryan, Joe Morgan, Catfish Hunter and Rod Carew are other Hall of Famers that are noticeably absent. Though admittedly, some of these Cooperstowners were in the early stages of their careers.
Printed in the U.K., the decals were inserted at the rate of one per every five-card, five-cent 1969 Topps Baseball wax pack. Steve Hart, owner of the Baseball Card Exchange in Lynwood, Illinois, says the decals weren't located next to the gum in the packs.
The 1969 Topps Baseball set was divided into seven series, and the Series 3 wax packs reportedly contained a Deckle Edge card rather than the decals.
Hart says the decals were also included in 10-card cello packs.
It can be safely concluded that the decals were produced prior to April 8, 1969. That was the date that Rusty Staub's long-delayed trade from the Houston Astros to the Montreal Expos was finalized. Staub's decal still portrays him as a member of the Astros, while his regular Topps card reflects his trade to the Expos.
The Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards reports that in March 2001, a lot that equated to 833 (each) of 24 of the decals in this issue was sold at auction. Shroba and Libersher had not heard of this sale, but this would explain why half of this set has proven to be easy to track down for them, while the other half has been considerably more difficult.
Of the 15 Hall of Famers highlighted in this set, 10 – Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Ron Santo, Tom Seaver, Hoyt Wilhelm and Carl Yastrzemski – were part of this lot. As a result, they are relatively easy to find. There are, for example, a whopping 35 PSA GEM-MT 10 Jackson rookie decals.
Libersher and Shroba say that two of the key decals are the Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle.
"Hank Aaron is very tough," said Shroba. "I think the population is only two [PSA 10s] for Hank Aaron."
Shroba points out that there are only four PSA 10 Mantles.
"You'll see a [PSA MINT] 9 every now and then, but I think a lot of people are working on Mantle Master Sets," he said. "I think there are only two PSA 10 Mantles on the set registry, and I'm not sure where the other two are."
A PSA 9 Mantle garnered $202.50 on eBay in May 2012.
Pete Ward and Tony Gonzalez are the only decals that do not have PSA 10 examples. Libersher needs these to have all PSA 10s in his registry set. He says production issues plague both of these decals.
"It's 100 per cent a production flaw," Libersher said about the imperfections on the Ward decal. "If you look at his face, his face is blurry and it's blotched. I've seen a few that have clean photos, but then something else in their condition prevents them from getting a [PSA] 10."
Similar condition woes hamper the Gonzalez.
"It's usually out of focus," said Libersher of the Gonzalez, adding that these decals also sometimes have a thin line on their surface from the production process.
Jerry Boresow, who owns the No. 4 Current Finest registry set, notes that both the Felipe and Matty Alou decals are also elusive in pristine condition.
After Gonzalez and Ward, "I would consider both Alous – Felipe and Matty – the third and the fourth toughest decals," he said.
Libersher, who owns the only PSA 10 examples of Felipe and Matty Alou, says the McCarver single is also evasive in top form.
"The Tim McCarver is impossible," he said. "On each one you see, his face has this big blob on it. It was a production flaw and it was just a bad picture from Topps."
But for an insert that was designed to be scratched off more than four decades ago, a surprising number of these decals have survived in nice condition.
"Since the decals are manufactured on such thin paper, they're easily creased," said PSA President Joe Orlando. "In addition to looking for light paper creases, the graders look for other flaws such as print defects [PD] and print lines on the decals. If they're absent of these condition obstacles, the decals do tend to grade fairly high."
Boresow says there's a lot of competition for the Hall of Famers in this issue.
"It's all about fighting the player collectors for these decals," he said. "There are way more player collectors out there these days than somebody putting together sets."
But with 35 sets registered, the 1969 Topps Decals set is one of the most popular insert sets on the registry.
"I think that the star power and the eye appeal is going to keep people interested in the set – that and the fact that it's relatively easy to put together," said Shroba. "Still, it is tough to put together a really high-grade set. You really have to be committed to it in order to break into the top five on the registry."
Libersher expresses similar sentiments.
"I think it will always be coveted because it's vintage and it does have a nice smattering of Hall of Famers," he said. "It's got a rookie Reggie Jackson. It's got Mantle's last card. It goes nicely with the last set of the '60s." Moreover, he shared, "I think there's enough quantity out there for somebody to get going on it."
Regardless of how popular these decals become, however, these childhood friends plan to continue to upgrade their beloved sets from the "Summer of '69." Now, if they could just go back in time to buy more five-cent packs at a five-and-dime.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Greg Libersher and Joe Shroba for their efforts in providing pictures to go with this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of January 2013.
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