Call them the Killer Bs of the 1976 Topps Baseball set.
Yes, long before Biggio, Bagwell and Berkman, 1976 collectors were concerned with Bevacqua, Brett and Briggs – and two of these Bs have been attacking hobbyists' pocket books in recent months.
Trumpeting his victory in the Joe Garagiola Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Contest, Kurt Bevacqua's single (#564) is the most memorable "B" card, but it's also the least difficult to uncover in high-grade.
"For me, it's my favorite card in the set," said Bill Koughan, a Red Sox fan and owner of the PSA Set Registry's No. 4 Current Finest, 1976 Topps set. "My two distinct memories from this card are trying to blow a bubble that big myself all summer long and being mad at (Red Sox outfielder) Rick Miller for losing in the first round of the bubble-blowing tournament."
Larry Mayer, proprietor of the Registry's top current set, also loves this card, but points out that despite its popularity, this single tends not to garner big bucks.
"It certainly sells for more than a common," he said, "but it's a high population card (in the PSA Population Report), so it doesn't command a huge price. But I think that it's a wonderful part of the set."
One of Bevacqua's rivals in the bubble gum contest was George Brett (#19 card in the set). The most heralded of the Killer Bs is also one of the set's most elusive singles in mint condition. Of the 755 submitted, there has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just seven PSA 9s.
"It's notoriously off-center," noted Rick Probstein, who owns the Registry's No. 2 Current Finest set.
Allan Pavek, whose Registry set ranks third, agrees.
"The Brett card is hard to find centered and has a staining issue," he said, noting that the staining is generally found on the bottom of the front.
Mayer says that, in most cases, the Brett is off-center left to right.
"I can't think of another card from the early '70s that you just can't find centered. And obviously for it to be a major star like George Brett, it makes it kind of exciting when you come across one," he said.
A PSA 9, 1976 Brett sold for $1,775 on eBay in December 2007. In comparison, the last PSA 9 Brett rookie sold for $505 on eBay in March 2008. Mayer says this price disparity makes sense when you consider the PSA Population Report numbers of each. As noted, no PSA 10s and just seven PSA 9s exist of Brett's 1976 single and eight PSA 10s and 155 PSA 9s have been uncovered of his rookie.
Unlike Brett, the third Killer B, Johnny Briggs, did not have a Hall of Fame career. His 1976 Topps single (#373), however, is the toughest card in the set to obtain in mint condition. Of the 49 evaluated, there are no PSA 10s and just three PSA 9s.
"Somebody paid $500 for a PSA 9 (Briggs) a few months back, and I bet you if it was up for sale now, somebody would pay $1,000," said Gerald Infantino, who owns the No. 6 Current Finest Registry set.
"I actually think you could make an argument that it's (the Briggs card) the toughest card in the 1970s. I don't think there's another card in the 1970s that has a lower population than that," added Probstein.
The savvy collector owns six 1976 Topps uncut sheets and Briggs is not on any of them.
"Officially, this set doesn't have any short prints, but it would not surprise me if it's a short print," he said.
This card is also plagued by condition woes.
"That card has print problems. There are black spots all over the place on most of the examples," said Mayer.
Poor centering is also a common hindrance.
"It just seems like it's really hard to find centered properly," said Pavek.
But the Killer Bs are just three of the cards in this 660-card set. Distributed in wax packs, rack packs, cellos and vending boxes, this set was issued in one series. Measuring 2-1/2" by 3-1/2", these cards showcase a tamer design than the 1975 Topps set.
Card fronts flaunt colorful pictures, with the player's name and team showcased along the bottom. The player position, accompanied by a drawing representing this position, is located in the bottom left. Card backs boast a bat and ball with a card number, as well as statistics, personal information and career highlights.
"I've always considered them very sharp looking. I love the player position depictions on the lower front corner of the cards," said Koughan.
Pavek expresses similar sentiments.
"There were a lot of good action photos ... for me, it was a perfect set. Of course, I was eight years old (when it was released). I think that's when baseball cards will mean as much to you as they ever will," he said.
A series of Record Breaker cards lead off this issue (#1 to 6). The first card – the Hank Aaron career RBI record breaker – is highly coveted by collectors.
"Everyone knows that Hank Aaron was the all-time home run king and for some of us purists, he still is, but I also think when he broke the RBI record ... it was really an incredible record to break and I like that card a lot," said Mayer.
Featuring baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Ted Williams, the All-Time All-Stars subset (#341 to 350) is also very popular.
"The All-Time All-Stars is a great subset," said Pavek. "It introduced me to guys like Pie Traynor and Lefty Grove."
A series of Rookie Prospects (#589 to 599) is also featured. The singles showcasing Willie Randolph (#592) and Ron Guidry (#599) are the most desirable. A Guidry PSA 9 rookie sold for $217.83 on eBay in June 2007.
Of course, the most coveted rookie is Dennis Eckersley (#98). Just two PSA 10s have been uncovered; one sold for $9,400 in 2006.
On top of "Eck," this set also showcases a number of top-tier Hall of Famers, including singles of Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan and Hank Aaron. The Aaron card (#550) is his last regular Topps card and is difficult to find in high-grade. Of the 932 submitted, there are no PSA 10s and just 31 PSA 9s. A PSA 9 sold for $325 on eBay in March 2008.
Joe Torre (#585) is another star that's tough to obtain in pristine condition. There are no PSA 10 Torres and only nine PSA 9 examples. A PSA 9 sold for $153.51 on eBay in July 2007.
Aside from Briggs, a number of other commons are difficult to find in mint condition. Just five copies of checklist (#392) have graded as high as PSA 9, and there are just six PSA 9s each of Tom Dettore (#126) and Rick Miller (#302).
Poor centering and miscuts generally explain why most of these cards have received lower grades.
"There are a lot of centering issues. I know from the three raw sets I had where I pulled out the cards and had them graded, a lot of them were very sharp, but the cuts are just way off," said Infantino.
A 44-card Traded set (43 cards and one unnumbered checklist) was also produced. Inserted in packs towards the end of the production run, these pasteboards employ a similar design to the regular series singles. The only alterations to the design are headlines on the card fronts announcing the trades and newspaper-style stories on the backs.
Hobbyists say there has been an increase in interest in 1976 Topps cards in recent months.
"It seems as if a bunch of people have gotten interested in putting together high-grade sets just within the last few months," said Mayer.
Pavek agrees, but adds that some of the Registry's top sets have also been sold in the past year.
"I think there are more people involved and it has become more competitive," he said.
This spike in interest can only mean that more collectors will have their pocket books attacked by the Killer Bs in the future.