PSA Set Registry: A River Runs Through It - Collecting the 1970 Topps Baseball Card Set

Doug Koztoski
Jul 31, 2020

PSA Set Registry

A River Runs Through It

Collecting the 1970 Topps Baseball Card Set

By Doug Koztoski

It started as a drip and ended with a crashing wave. In 1970, Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium hosted the MLB All-Star Game. Construction delays, however, meant the ballpark did not open until late June, just two weeks before the Mid-Summer Classic. In the bottom of the 12th inning of a tied game, the first pair of National League All-Stars made outs, the next pair singled; Cincinnati Reds' outfielder Pete Rose represented the lead runner.

Moments later California Angels' hurler Clyde Wright tossed a pitch to Chicago Cubs' first baseman Jim Hickman, who promptly singled up the middle. Kansas City Royals' outfielder Amos Otis scooped up the grounder and fired it toward the plate. Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse waited for the throw, its trajectory, just up the third base line, included a late shoulder-high bounce.

At this point "Charlie Hustle" turned into a breached version of the nearby Ohio riverbank in flood season as he barreled into the catcher in a "Rose meets Fosse just before the ball arrives" moment, making the horsehide uncatchable. The game-winning score made this one of the most memorable plays in All-Star Game history. 

For a couple months on either side of that All-Star contest, collectors of Topps baseball cards enjoyed the company's 720-card release, the biggest issue to date. But just as Fosse was never the same after that collision, collectors paid a permanent price for it in 1970, too - as wax pack costs compared to the previous season doubled to a dime.

Pack prices aside, one of the great surprises of the era took place with card #1 in the 1970 set, as it features a New York Mets World Championship team photo. The Mets franchise started in 1962 and finished their inaugural season at 40-120 - still the worst record for a 162-game MLB season. Occasional improvements occurred over their next several years. A massive transformation in the 1969 season, the first year of divisional play, allowed the Mets to rally from a nine-game deficit in August to win the National League East Division by eight games. The Mets then quickly dismissed the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 Fall Classic.

The 1970 card offering seemed tailor-made for avid Mets' fan James Nahigian, who collected the issue as a pre-teen. Earlier this year he completed a graded set that now ranks No. 7 Current Finest on the PSA Set Registry.

"Every time I look at the set, it takes me back to the Fall of '69 and allows another moment of joy while reliving fond memories of those Miracle Mets," Nahigian said. "I love the #1 Mets team card, as you do not often see a team issue kicking off a mainstream set, all the Mets NLCS and World Series cards, the [Tom] Seaver [#300] and, of course, #712, Nolan Ryan, a great high-number gem with a terrific image of the young flamethrower."

That third-year Ryan is among the set's most desired cards. The PSA Population numbers show about 4,800 graded examples with 123 PSA MINT 9s and just three PSA GEM-MT 10s. Recent '70 Ryan Auction Prices Realized sales in PSA 9 range from $1,750 to $2,378.

Nahigian's favorite Met, however, is more footnote than noteworthy. It is third baseman Ed Charles, who played his last MLB game in the '69 Series finale. The collector's main draw to that Met? His nickname and the rhyme associated with it: "Never throw a slider to The Glider." An Ed Charles card was not included in the 1970 Topps set, but he shares space on the Fall Classic celebration pasteboard (#310). In that photo Charles, wearing #5, holds the record album of "The Amazing Mets."

Other more mainstream "regular card" favorites within the issue include Roberto Clemente (#350), Hank Aaron (#500), Willie Mays (#600), Johnny Bench (#660) and Frank Robinson (#700).

Wide and Deep

Another of the set's great benefits is strong availability in high grade. A quick look at the PSA Population Report shows almost 220,000 samples graded, with about 32,900 in PSA 9 and nearly 3,200 PSA 10s. The tough black-bordered 1971 Topps baseball offering, in comparison, has approximately 298,000 graded examples with around 9,200 PSA 9s and just 237 PSA 10s.

Mark Arum, who owns the 23rd ranked Current Finest Set on the Registry, scored his first 1970 Topps cards in the early 1980s when an older cousin gave him a stack of commons from the issue. "I was the only one of my friends that had ANY 1970 Topps cards," Arum recalled. "I was super proud of them. Ever since then, it has been my favorite set."

While Arum, a "huge Yankees fan," is focused on building and upgrading his set, he notes that the set seems to enjoy only modest popularity with other collectors. "Being the first year without a Mickey Mantle card [he appeared in each Topps baseball base set 1952-1969], it seems a lot of collectors shy away from it," Arum noted.

Arum and several others place Yankees' catcher Thurman Munson (#189) at the top of the set's desirable rookie cards. Other rookies, with mild luster, are the Vida Blue/Gene Tenace combo (#21) and Bill Buckner (#286). About 4,700 1970 PSA certified Munsons exist, with 86 PSA 9s and a quartet of PSA 10s - one sold in 2020 for some $33,000.

As expected, the 1970 All-Star subset contains some timeless names: Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, Boog Powell, Brooks and Frank Robinson, the last three led the Baltimore Orioles to a World Series win over the Reds in 1970.

The last ten cards of Series 4 and the first ten of Series 5 comprise the All-Star grouping and Mark Wagner (No. 3 on the issue's Current Finest leaderboard) considers that run "the guts of the set." Wagner, a lifelong Chicago Cubs follower, said many All-Star cards are about as tough to nail down as a knuckleball on a windy day, and says that "if one can acquire them all in PSA 9, I tip my cap."

Some collectors say a fire at Topps during the 4th Series production likely caused some relative shortages of those All-Star cards, especially well-centered samples. A dozen of the 20 All-Stars are still without any PSA 10 examples, including Aaron, Bench and Rose. At least the Jackson All-Star (#459), a notoriously off-center card, currently has a single PSA 10 presence, the same as Jackson's second-year base card (#140).

The bookends around the All-Star subset, by the way, include the regular cards of two future Hall of Famers who would face off in the 1971 World Series: Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer (#449) and Pirates' slugger Willie Stargell (#470).

One more solid subset within the inaugural '70s main baseball issue is the 1969 League Leaders. "The leader cards are special because so many exceptional players with long MLB tenures and even [future] Hall of Famers dominated," said Walt Bettinger, owner of the offering's No. 2 Current Finest slot.

In fact, Bettinger, a hardcore Orioles fan, said the American League Home Run Leaders (#66), with Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard and Reggie Jackson, was among the set's few truly difficult cards for him to track down. He now owns the lone PSA 10 example.

Bettinger has a particular affinity for the issue, the first he collected as a youth. He remembers eagerly reviewing the O's exploits in the newspaper and "I recall spending every penny I had on 1970 baseball cards the entire summer." For Bettinger and other Orioles fans, the fact Baltimore beat Cincinnati that year in the World Series remains a fond memory.

In terms of other card bonuses that season, Topps baseball wax packs came with one of three inserts: comic booklets, posters and scratch-offs (the last of which the company brought back in 1971). Wagner collected them all. "The booklets were super cool; the fun is reading the short stories within."

What's Old Is New Again

One hobby theme gaining traction in recent years involves the opening of older unopened packs. For Arum and others, it's 1970 (and additional years) all over again. "Interestingly enough, I acquired a large number of my 1970 set from Vintage Breaks," said the collector. "They often have unopened 1970 cello packs available to break. Any time I see one listed, I try to grab as many spots [individual cards] as possible. It is very exciting to see these packs opened live."

Part of the additional 1970 set's appeal for Arum is the simple design. "The gray borders look sharp and they really pop inside a PSA holder. It was my love of the 1970 set that got me back into collecting modern cards. When Topps introduced the 2019 Heritage Series with the 1970 design, I couldn't resist buying them anywhere I went. Since then I've jumped fully into modern cards and it has really energized my collecting."

But how will collectors feel about the 1970 set in a decade? How much interest will it spark then? The general opinion seems to be that there won't be much change in the immediate future, especially when compared to the Topps baseball sets from 1969 and 1971. Even so, as Nahigian put it, "My experience is that 1970 Topps is a high-grade set that is easily obtainable for those who need a break from a 10-year timeframe necessary to put a high-grade set together from other years."

A refreshing break, indeed, similar to sitting in the shade on the riverbank and watching the water glide by on a hot day... gliding like Ed Charles and the 1969 Mets.

For more information on the 1970 Topps baseball card set, please visit PSA CardFacts.

Doug Koztoski is a long-time guest writer for SMR. If you have any additional information or comments, feel free to email him at [email protected]. Please note that any pricing, Population Report figures and/or Set Registry rankings reported are those as of June 2020.