The 1966 Topps Baseball Card Set Turns 50
Don't Judge a Set by Its Cover
by Pete Putman
Of all the years in the decade between 1960 and 1970, 1966 is probably the least memorable. The first four years of the decade are best remembered for the Kennedys and "Camelot," the start of the U.S. space program, the New York World's Fair and the transition from doo-wop to British Invasion rock 'n' roll, while the end of the decade was characterized by the "Flower Power" generation, anti-Vietnam War protests and political assassinations. Even 1965 stands out for achievements in popular culture and voting rights, along with the beginning of race-related civil unrest in major cities.
But 1966 seems to drop through the cracks. If you ask Baby Boomers what they remember about this year, you'll probably get a few puzzled stares. Sure, we all remember tuning in to watch the campy Batman TV series (January) and the Beatles sound-alike group The Monkees (September). John Lennon made headlines when he stated The Beatles "were more popular than Jesus" in a U.K. magazine interview (March), a comment he had to walk back in Chicago later that summer (August) after a public outcry. Not long after, the Fab Four played their last-ever live gig in San Francisco.
Some of us were even paying attention when the Soviet Union landed their Luna 9 unmanned spacecraft on the moon (February) and when the United States followed suit with their Surveyor 1 unmanned spacecraft (June). In November, the Gemini 12 space capsule was launched and pilots James Lovell and Edwin Aldrin completed 59 orbits around the Earth, conducting some extra-vehicular experiments and activities along the way. Both men would be an integral part of Apollo moon missions a few years later.
More significant developments included the signing of both the federal Freedom of Information Act (July 4) and a bill creating the Department of Transportation (October) by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued one of its most important rulings in Miranda v. Arizona, stating that police must inform suspects of their legal rights before questioning them.
Internationally, Indira Gandhi was elected prime minister of India (January), and the political purges of the Communist Chinese Cultural Revolution commenced (August). The tiny protectorate of Basutoland gained its independence from the United Kingdom and adopted a new name, Lesotho (October). Another former British colony, British Guiana, became the independent Guyana (May).
The immensely popular musical Cabaret had its first performance at the Imperial Theater in New York City (November), catapulting actor Joel Grey to stardom and staging an amazing 1,165 shows before closing. Down the street, Bob Fosse opened Sweet Charity, which went on to 608 performances before its curtains came down for good. Back on TV, a new generation of Sci-Fi fans was born with the premiere episode of Star Trek (September), while stalwarts Ozzie & Harriet called it quits (September).
The world of sports witnessed a major upset when the 1965 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers were swept 4-0 by the upstart Baltimore Orioles and their rookie pitching star, Jim Palmer. The Dodgers, who had won the Series in 1963 and again in 1965, were the clear favorites despite 1966 Triple Crown winner Frank Robinson (49 home runs, 122 RBIs and .316 batting average) playing for Baltimore.
Game 1 featured Dave McNally holding the Dodger bats to just two runs, tossing 11 strikeouts for a 5-2. His cause was aided considerably by both Robinsons (Frank and Brooks) hitting back-to-back home runs off Dodgers ace Don Drysdale in the first inning. Orioles rookie and 15-game winner Jim Palmer matched up against Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax (27 wins, 1.73 ERA) in Game 2, but LA's defense let them down with three unearned runs. Koufax allowed one more and the Dodger bullpen coughed up a deuce to give ace reliever Moe Drabowsky and the "Birds" a 6-0 shutout win.
Games 3 and 4, played in Baltimore, proved far more suspenseful. Orioles pitcher Wally Bunker held the Dodgers to six hits, and although LA starter Claude Osteen limited Baltimore to just three hits, Paul Blair's 430-foot home run was the game decider, 1-0.
Game 4 featured McNally again against Drysdale, with McNally having the upper hand. Each team squeezed out just four hits, but Frank Robinson made his at-bat count - a solo blast into the left-field bleachers that turned out to be the only run scored in the game. In an eerie turnabout from their dominance in the 1963 Series, Los Angeles scored just two runs in 36 innings - and none in the last 33.
To make matters worse for the City of Angels, the Boston Celtics defeated the Lakers 4-3 in the NBA championship earlier in the year. Up north, the Montreal Canadiens slipped by the Detroit Red Wings 4 games to 2, while the powerhouse Green Bay Packers edged the Dallas Cowboys 34 to 27 on January 1, 1967, for the 1966 NFL championship, going on to capture the first Super Bowl a few weeks later.
Perhaps the biggest sporting news of the year was when then-unknown Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) upset basketball powerhouse Kentucky in the NCAA championship, 72-65. The Miners made history by becoming the first team with an all-black starting lineup to win an NCAA basketball national championship, contrasting the all-white Wildcats lineup led by Louie Dampier and future Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley.
By 1966, the Topps Chewing Gum Company had created 14 full sets of baseball cards, not to mention numerous Bazooka and Topps subsets and test sets. Along the way, they had come up with some truly colorful and clean designs (1952-54, 1956, 1959, 1963 and 1965 stand out) along with some less-than-memorable attempts (1955, 1960 and 1962) and a few simple but somewhat bland offerings (1957-58, 1961 and 1964).
As January loomed, the artists in Brooklyn had to be scratching their heads. After all, how many different ways can you arrange a player's name, team name and position on a photograph? Even some of the better Topps designs borrowed from earlier iterations (1963 from 1953, for example). And Topps was coming off one of its best all-time efforts with the crisp, clean photos and team banners of the 1965 set. How do you follow that?
Well, by unveiling a design that, frankly speaking, could have been executed by a high school art student. The 1966 Topps set used large player portrait photos with a solid color box along the lower border (borrowed from 1958, 1960 and 1961) listing their name and position. A small diagonal box on the upper-left corner listed the team name, and that was all she wrote! This same design could have been used ten, twenty, even thirty years later and it would not seem dated.
The card backs were a bit more conventional, using white and burnt orange text on a black background for the player's vital statistics and black text on that same burnt orange background for their career stats. The usual Jack Davis cartoon occupied the upper-right corner of this 598-card set.
Topps brought back the League Leaders series from previous years, but stuck them in the middle of the set (Cards #215 - #226). In addition to the usual team cards, Topps also included 42 team rookie cards, a handful of league rookie cards and just five combo cards; all of which appear in the first and second series. While most rookie cards featured just two players, some featured as many as three (Cards #529 White Sox Rookies, #544 Cardinals Rookies, #558 Red Sox Rookies and #579 Orioles Rookies).
The fact remains: 1966 Topps is about as "plain vanilla" as a set can get. But you can't judge a book - or set - by its cover. What 1966 Topps baseball lacked in inspiration, it more than made up for with errors and variations. There are so many uncorrected errors in this set that you have to wonder who was doing the proofreading (maybe that high school art student mentioned earlier)!
Let's look at a few. A's pitcher Jim Hunter's #36 card stats mention "1963 and 1964" when they should say "1964 and 1965." Amazingly, card #126 lists the Oriole's Palmer as a lefthander - and this was his rookie card! Pedro Gonzalez's #266 card misspells his last name as "Gonzales," while Roger Maris' #365 card has his birth year wrong.
In a case of mistaken identity, card #447 purports to show Dick Ellsworth but actually shows Ken Hubbs, who died in a plane crash prior to the 1964 season. (Whoops!) And in a case of a typesetter possibly sneezing while working, card #502 claims player Lenny Green was born on "aJn 6, 1933." Perhaps not surprisingly, card #544 shows Cardinals rookie and future Blue Jays manager Jimy Williams as "Jimmy."
Topps capped off this impressive run of mistakes by stating on the back of the #583 Detroit Tigers team card that the team "finished third" the previous year, instead of fourth. Not that it made any difference in the post-season, but third did look more respectable.
The variations are plentiful and will drive you crazy. Among the more notable, card #43 of Don Landrum can be found three ways -with a dark button on his pants, with the button missing and with the button partially airbrushed out. The last variation is not at all easy to come by. Card #62 of Merritt Ranew can be found with and without a "sold to" statement on the back (shades of 1959!), and the "missing statement" variation carries a higher value.
Perennial fan favorite Bob Uecker's #91 card was printed with and without a "traded" line, while Checklist #2 on card #101 is found with a listing for Warren Spahn as card #115 (incorrect) and Bill Henry as card #115 (correct). Checklist #3 on card #183 has the words "3RD SERIES" in both large and small type.
Checklists seemed to cause a lot of trouble for Topps in 1966. Checklist #4 on card #279 has a graphic of a player throwing a ball, and in one variation his sleeve on his throwing arm and his cap are both black. In the other variation, they're all red. And Checklist #7 on card #517 lists card #529 as "White Sox Rookies" and "W. Sox Rookies." (Okay, so quality control wasn't that big a priority in 1966.)
Talk about minutiae: Cards #303 (Cleveland Indians team), #326 (Atlanta Braves team) and #404 (Pittsburgh Pirates team) are found with and without a small dot. You'll spot it between the words "Place" and "American" on the Indians card and between "Place" and "National" on the Braves and Pirates cards.
The 1966 set contains only four notable rookie cards, although all four players went on to the Hall of Fame. In addition to Jim Palmer's #126 entry, Joe Morgan lines up on card #195, Ferguson Jenkins appears as a Phillies rookie on card #254 and Dodgers ace Don Sutton takes a bow on card #288.
That's not to say you won't recognize some of the other freshmen: The Mets' Cleon Jones got his start on card #67, and future teammate Tommie Agee is shown as a White Sox rookie on card #164. The Yankees' Roy White was a fresh face on card #234, and "Le Grand Orange" Rusty Staub first appears as a Houston Astro on card #273. Future Cubs backstop Randy Hundley shows up on card #392, and Reds slugger and integral part of the "Big Red Machine" Lee May is highlighted on card #424.
Yankees fan favorite Bobby Murcer (and one-time heir apparent to fellow Oklahoman Mickey Mantle) has his day in the sun on card #469, while future Red Sox slugger George Scott makes an appearance on card #558. Later-to-be Mets and Nationals manager Dave Johnson is showcased on card #579, while Yankees pitcher Fritz Peterson - best known for trading wives and families in 1973 with teammate Mike Kekich - rounds out the "almost famous" rookies on card #584.
To be sure, there are plenty of stars in this set, and more than a few Hall of Famers were well into their careers by the middle of the decade. As a result, you can find lots of star cards at reasonable prices. Willie Mays, 16 years into his career, bats in the lead-off position on card #1, while Pete Rose occupies the #30 slot. Mickey Mantle (also 16 years in) shows up early on one of his most affordable cards, #50, and Carl Yastrzemski, who would go on to win the Triple Crown in 1967, is on card #70.
Sandy Koufax - who was about to have one of his greatest seasons and then retire - occupies card #100, and Ernie Banks follows up ten slots later (#110). Twins slugger Harmon "Killer" Killebrew took card #120, and Yankees ace Whitey Ford (in his next-to-last season) pops up on card #160. Former Braves slugger Eddie Mathews is showcased on card #200, followed by rifle-armed Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente (#300), Orioles 3rd sacker Brooks Robinson (#390), Tigers slugger Al Kaline (#410), pitchers Juan Marichal (#420) and Don Drysdale (#430), batting machine Tony Oliva (#450) and "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron (#500).
The "tough" high-numbered 7th series of cards also has a few stars in it, and they command a premium. Here, you'll find Robin Roberts (#530), Willie McCovey (#550) and Billy Williams (#580), while the final card in the set (#598) is occupied by Gaylord Perry. Adding to the fun, 43 of the 7th series cards are single prints and much harder to find, with premiums accruing to the Twins team card (#526), Horace Clarke's rookie card (#547), McCovey's (#550) entry, Ron Perranoski (#555), the previously-mentioned Tigers team card (#583) and Grant Jackson's rookie card (#591).
As of this writing, 151,483 cards from the 1966 Topps baseball set have been examined by PSA and encapsulated. Of that total, about 72% have earned grades of PSA NM 7 or higher, and nearly 50% fall into the PSA NM-MT 8 and PSA MINT 9 categories. This would indicate the search for high-grade raw copies of 1966 Topps won't be all that difficult, although there are plenty of off-center cards in circulation.
With so many high-grade cards in the PSA Population Report, it's not easy to identify "tough" cards - but they do exist. Look for card #43c Don Landrum with his pants button partially airbrushed (just six PSA 8s and one PSA 9 exist), #62a Merritt Ranew without the "sold" statement (23 PSA 8s, one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5 and four PSA 9s), #103 Dick Groat without the "traded" statement (27 PSA 8s and three PSA 9s) and #104 Alex Johnson without a "traded" statement (19 PSA 8s, three PSA 8.5s and seven PSA 9s).
That stray dot that appears and disappears on three team cards, #303 (Cleveland Indians), #326 (Atlanta Braves) and #404 (Pittsburgh Pirates), creates some interesting scarcities. There are three PSA 8s and a single PSA 9 copy of card #303 without a dot between the words "Place" and "American," while card #326 can be found with a dot between the words "Place" and "National" (15 PSA 8s, one PSA 8.5 and one PSA 9).
The Pirates team card also exists without the dot between the same words and is much tougher (15 PSA 8s and three PSA 9s). Getting back to the checklists, the 7th Series card (#517a) listing "White Sox Rookies" is the scarcer variation, earning 30 PSA 8s, one PSA 8.5 and six PSA 9s.
And the most popular cards? Mays' (#1) card has gone under PSA scrutiny just over 2,300 times with 203 PSA 8s, two PSA 8.5s and 24 PSA 9s awarded (no PSA 10s yet!). Pete Rose's (#30) card has done even better, having been submitted more than 2,800 times with an astonishing 361 PSA 8, 15 PSA 8.5 and 46 PSA 9 grades resulting.
But "The Mick" (#50) tops them both with over 6,500 cards graded and 411 PSA 8, 16 PSA 8.5 and 52 PSA 9 examples encapsulated. There's also one PSA GEM-MT 10 copy out there. Those numbers explain why this is one of Mantle's more affordable cards in high grade.
Sandy Koufax' last Topps card (#100) has been graded almost as many times as Rose's, with 256 PSA 8, four PSA 8.5 and 20 PSA 9 grades awarded. Just behind? Jim Palmer's rookie card (#126) with 423 PSA 8s, 15 PSA 8.5s and 61 PSA 9s; Roberto Clemente (#300) with 290 PSA 8s, four PSA 8.5s and 31 PSA 9s; Hank Aaron (#500) with 225 PSA 8s, four PSA 8.5s, 36 PSA 9s and one PSA 10; and Ferguson Jenkins' rookie card (#254) with 284 PSA 8s, six PSA 8.5s, 45 PSA 9s and seven PSA 10s.
Okay, so the design of 1966 Topps Baseball doesn't exactly make collectors swoon. But the set is loaded with stars and Hall of Famers, has several memorable (and some forgettable) mistakes and contains enough variations and tough high-number single prints to keep you chasing a high-grade master set for a long time.
Need proof? The current PSA Set Registry shows only three 100% complete Master sets out of the 34 registered, with the top set containing a weighted GPA of 9.37. Behind these three are ten other sets with GPAs ranging between 7.52 and 9.09 - all missing one or two of the variations mentioned earlier and hovering oh-so-close to completion at 97%, 98% and 99%. In fact, four of the All-Time Finest Master 1966 Topps sets are or were at 99% completion, including three that have been retired.
Like I said earlier, you can't judge this set by its cover...
For more information on the 1966 Topps Baseball card set, please visit http://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/baseball-cards/1966-topps/179.
Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of June 2016.
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