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Collecting Was Really Different Years Ago

by Paul Angilly
December 21, 2004

Unless you were a card collector back in the 1970s, it probably seems like a fairy tale when long-time hobbyists talk about life back then.

Just imagine a storyteller reciting, "Once upon a time, most collectors were kids who mostly bought packs of cards at drug stores, convenience stores or other retail outlets. Those packs each included a piece of stale pink gum, and cost the same as a candy bar. The cards didn’t include a piece of game-used uniform or equipment, they didn’t come already autographed and the rookies were printed in the same quantity as all the other cards.

Collectors back in that long-ago era didn’t subscribe to magazines to find out how much their cards were worth on a monthly basis. They kept the cards wrapped by rubber bands in shoe boxes, not in airtight hard plastic screw-down holders or plastic pages in a notebook. The kids would trade their duplicate cards with their friends in order to complete a set. And when that set was complete, they would anxiously await the next spring for the next new baseball card issue.

Well, that fairy tale holds a lot of truth, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

The truth is, even in the 1970s there were baseball card dealers who set up at local flea markets, or even the occasional card show -- although such gatherings were more of an annual event, not once a week like today.

And despite what anyone says, Topps was not the only maker of baseball cards -- just the only one that made cards of current players and put them in wax packs with a stale stick of gum.

The card dealers of the ’70s stocked up not just on the annual Topps sets in all four major sports (as well as many non-sport issues), they also had cards from Kellogg’s cereal, Hostess snack cakes and other assorted food-related issues.

And then there were the "collector issues."

A term not often used today, at least not with its original meaning, "collector issues" were card sets often made by some of the country’s largest card dealers or other small companies. They typically featured players from the past or depicted historical highlights. Almost always sold as complete sets, the collector issues got their name because they weren’t available in retail stores, but were created to be sold directly to collectors.

The biggest manufacturer of collector issues was a company called TCMA, fronted by dealer Mike Aronstein. The company survived into the late ’80s, and is perhaps best known by today’s collectors as one of the earliest manufacturers of minor league baseball team sets.

Beginning with the release in 1972 of the first series of a set called "The 1930s," TCMA became the king of collector issues with more than 120 different sets issued over the next 15 years.

"The 1930s" evolved into a monster of a set, with a total of 504 cards (21 series of 24 each) issued over several years. Most of the cards are printed in black and white and about 2x2¾ inches in size, but some series were printed in blue and a couple of other series were printed in the standard 2½x3½ size. With an estimated production run of 1,000 copies per series, complete 504-card sets are nearly impossible to find.

Among the most popular and commonly-seen of the TCMA issues are the 293-card set called "The 1960’s" issued in 1978 and the 291-card "Baseball History Series: The Fifties" set issued in 1979. A second series of "The 1960s" with 189 new cards was released in 1981, but that second series is much scarcer than the first series and rarely seen.

The two sets featured many of the most prominent players from that era -- the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Ernie Banks and Jackie Robinson -- and also included many of the lesser names that played significant roles on their teams, such as Bob Sadowski, Chuck Schilling, Gary Kolb, Jesse Gonder, Nelson King and Erv Palica, to name a few.

Both sets have the "pure card" look -- just a color photo surrounded by a white border, with no other graphics on the front. That look is most commonly associated with the 1953 Bowman color set -- and the backs of the "Fifties" set also copy the design from the backs of the 1953 Bowman cards.

But that "pure card" design is also commonly associated with another collector issue, one of the few to picture current players -- the 630-card 1976 SSPC set, which for many years was commonly referred to simply as the pure card set. The set is also often seen listed as a 1975 issue because the cards carry a 1975 copyright notation, but the set was actually released the following year.

SSPC was an offshoot of TCMA, and was barred from issuing any further card series of current players by a court order after Topps raised objections. Still, SSPC legally issued a current-player set of 270 cards (27 players each from 10 different teams) as magazine and yearbook inserts in 1978.

Ironically, the SSPC set was one of the first collector issues to be treated like a mainstream set -- not because it featured current players and coaches, but actually due to the court order, which prohibited SSPC not only from producing similar sets in future years but also from printing additional copies of that first major issue.

Many baseball card price guides and magazines in the early 1980s refused to give values for collector issues, because if any set gained significant popularity more copies could be easily produced by the original manufacturer to meet that demand. Thus it was believed that, unlike traditional issues like Topps which had finite production and tended to become more valuable as the years passed, collector issues could never gain any real value beyond their original selling price.

Yet many collector issues have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent years, often drawing high bids on eBay simply because they’re interesting, generally look good and are seldom seen anymore.

Next week I’ll take a closer look at some of the most popular collector issues from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

About the author
Paul Angilly is a sports reporter for The Bristol Press in Connecticut, and has been collecting sports cards and memorabilia for 30 years. He is not a dealer, nor does he make a profit from buying and selling cards. His weekly sports card and memorabilia collecting column appears each week in The Bristol Press and several other daily newspapers in Connecticut.

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