Throughout its long history in the baseball-card industry, Topps has sought additional ways to leverage its full MLB license and, once it became necessary, the MLBPA license. Even its first major release set in 1951 was a bit of an oddball in being both a collectible card and a playable game.
There may be something of a pattern to these oddballs, though. It's not a perfect relationship, but it seems like Topps was more prone to issue an oddball set when it had more competition in the baseball world. For example, in 1958, Topps had no competition at all and did not issue any oddballs of its own. In 1959, on the other hand, Fleer jumped into the ring with its Ted Williams set, and Topps responded by printing cards on the backs of its Bazooka brand bubble gum.
It's not a perfect relationship. For example, Topps issued effectively five oddball sets in 1964 (two Bazooka sets along with Giants, Tattoos, and Stand-Ups), but it really did not have any competition that year. Now, those oddballs could have been issued anticipating a loss in court to Fleer on an antitrust suit or just further competition from Fleer. But there were a number of other oddballs throughout the 1960s and 1970s -- during Topps's exclusivity years -- that still got issued.
Again, it may be simply that Topps wanted to leverage its license into making more money and seeking new lines of products. That is rationale corporate behavior, after all.
By the time 1981 came around, Topps was better positioned than either of its new rivals Donruss and Fleer to take advantage of the increasing interest in oddballs. Topps worked with Coca-Cola on some team sets, with Perma-Graphic on a credit card-like set, and had two of its own oddball products -- the Home Team 5x7 photos and these Scratch-offs.
This set was designed to allow kids the fun of playing baseball in the same way that their parents enjoyed playing the lottery -- through scratching off an unidentified substance from a piece of cardboard to reveal the outcome of an at bat.
The cards came in full panels, as shown above. To get to the individual cards, perforations separate the three cards. The panels themselves measure 3-1/4" x 5-1/4", while each individual card measures 3-1/4" x 1-13/16", according to PSA.
In stores, these cards were sold in wax packs which included a total of 6 panels. Each pack included three American League panels, three National League panels, and a stick of gum. Here's a photo from an eBay auction to show you what the packages looked like:
As the backs imply with the empty box next to the player information, those who were using these scratch-offs to play a game were supposed to make out their lineups and slot players into a batting order. AL players were numbered from 1 to 54, while NL players were numbered from 55 to 108.
HALL OF FAMERS
Out of the 108 cards in the set, there are just 17 members of the Hall of Fame. In looking at the checklist, that's due in large part to the nature of this set including players from all 26 teams and in part to a number of players who looked like they might be good in the early 1980s but who never amounted to much baseball-wise (Joe Charboneau and Ken Landreaux, for instance) or were essentially one-hit wonders (like Steve Stone's 1980 Cy Young Award winning season).
The members of the Hall in this set include: George Brett, Reggie Jackson, Tony Perez, Eddie Murray, Robin Yount, Jim Rice, Rod Carew, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson, Jim Palmer, Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ozzie Smith, Andre Dawson, Steve Carlton, and Tom Seaver.
Potential future members of the Hall include Ted Simmons, Alan Trammell, Dusty Baker (as a manager), and maybe Buddy Bell.
This set is a variation-seekers dream.
Let's start with the panels themselves. The first 18 cards of each of the League runs -- 1 through 18 and 55 through 72 -- always appear on the top of the panel. Cards 19 to 36 (AL) and 73 to 90 (NL) always appear as the middle panel. Cards 37 to 54 and 91 to 108 always appear as the bottom panel.
But, each of the first 18 cards does not always appear with the same two other cards and, in fact, each has four different variants in terms of the panel composition. For example, Robin Yount is card 10. His four variations in terms of panelmates include: (1) Rick Cerone [card 28] and Toby Harrah [card 46]; (2) Rick Cerone and Ed Farmer [card 54]; (3) Al Bumbry [card 29] and Frank White [card 47]; and (4) Willie Randolph [card 36] and Toby Harrah.
The same is true for literally every single card in the set -- whether the player is a top panel, middle panel, or bottom panel. All told, this means that a complete set of panels is comprised of 144 panels. A great checklist for this can be found on the Net 54 Baseball site.
That's not the end of the variations, though. I said above that a complete set of panels is comprised of 144 panels. That's probably true, I think. but it may not be.
You see, Topps made use of the backs of cards as well. Cards 1 through 18 and 55 through 72 -- the top panels -- each have the instructions for how to play the game on the back. So, both the Tony Perez and Ted Simmons cards shown above fall into those runs. Cards 19 through 36 and 73 through 90 -- the middle panels -- each have a scoreboard to keep score of the game on the back:
So far, so good, right? Well, here's where it goes off the rails. Cards 37 through 54 and 91 through 108 -- the bottom panels -- all have advertising on back.
And I've given away the story here by showing you those ads. As you can see, there are two Ken Griffey Sr. card backs above -- one selling a ball-strike indicator and one selling a baseball hat like ones you could find at the truck stops across America in 1981. The Dave Lopes back shows the third item for sale -- a Topps "Super Sports Card Locker."
Each of the bottom-panel cards was printed with exactly two of the three advertisements on the back. Griffey had the Hat and the BSI; Lopes had the Locker and the BSI; Doug Flynn (card 93) had the Hat and the Locker. In other words, taking all 36 of those panels into account, there are 72 total variations for these bottom panels.
So, let's step back to the Yount panel list for a moment. If you are either a crazy completist or a player collector looking for variations to add numbers to your collection, this is a potential gold mine because the reality is that you have a possibility of not four, but really eight possible panels to collect.
I say maybe in bold and all caps because, well, I don't know if there are variations in what advertisement appeared on the backs of the Yount Panels. What I mean is this: Toby Harrah appears both with the Ball-Strike Indicator and the Hat Offer. Were his cards on the Yount/Cerone Panel all BSIs? Were his cards on the Yount/Randolph panel all Hat Offers?
I just don't know and I have not seen anything that ties these two issues together. Does anyone know?
I definitely had these cards available to me in smalltown Wisconsin. I scratched the hell out of them. Later in the 1980s, I bought what I thought was a complete set at a card show or a flea market in Wisconsin, and kept them intact for a while. I have not been able to find that set anywhere, though, so I'm thinking that I may have broken that set up into its constituent parts. I have been known to do that.
This is the kind of fun set that Topps used to make to try to get kids interested in collecting. The same year that the scratch-offs came out, Topps also issued its first sticker set and album. Both the scratch-offs and the stickers took much of whatever money I made that summer cutting the lawn around my house. I mean, I was in the summer after third grade that year, so it wasn't like I had many options to make money. But those two together helped keep my interest as a kid. I wouldn't mind having similar sets getting issued nowadays.
If I were to be collecting this set, I'd be going at it as a completist. I'd want all 144 panels -- all the variations in player composition would be required. If I assume that the 144 panels includes all the proper variations in them such that 144 panels is complete, even that is a bit of a chore to put together. In looking at eBay, people sell the set as "36 panels, 108 cards" in the set. Granted, no one has made the very low opening bid on that set of $0.99 (plus $3.50 shipping).
In the event you're looking to get an unopened box or two to rip, that is a bit more difficult to find. For instance, a three-box lot has been listed at $139.99 plus $10 shipping. That sale does have the option of making an offer to reduce the cost, but in any event that seems to be a steep price to me. There is another single box available for $44.99 (shipping included) that does not have an offer option.
Maybe it's just me, but that seems a bit pricy too. Yet, if there is not much supply out there, perhaps someone will buy it at that price.
If I'm spending that kind of money on this set, I'm going with the uncut sheet in this auction, which will run $59.75 (or less if you make a good enough offer). I feel like that just gives me more bang for my buck, and I have been building a strange affinity for uncut sheets.
What do you think? Too rich for your blood, or worth the money?