Turn back the hobby clock: 1983

How much were my vintage baseball cards worth almost 40 years ago? I bought this book off of a $1 random item table during my trip to Rockford yesterday.

After finally reading through it, I must say that I’m surprised at a few things and disappointed in a few things.

We’re reaching a window of time where many people active in today’s hobby mindset don’t recall the minor- and semi-stars of vintage-era baseball, even with late-vintage of the 1970s. More people in the hobby back then knew who Vada Pinson was than people in the hobby today.

(BTW – More baseball card talk available elsewhere on my website, click on the box at the top right of the page for prior blog entries)

The book is titled: “The Official Pete Rose 1983 Price Guide to Baseball Cards.” It was published by The House of Collectibles, Inc. and edited by Thomas E. Hudgeons III. When this book came out in 1983, those often forgotten stars were still fresh in people’s minds.

Rose’s appearance in this book was so that it could get some sales. He simply wrote a message about card collecting (he actually has some decent knowledge of the hobby) and about his chase to 4,000 hits.

This was published around the same time Dr. James Beckett started getting a following in the hobby world, so it was a rival. As those in the hobby are well aware, Beckett is far-and-above more of a reliable expert in the hobby than anyone, and has lasted this long. But back in 1983, if you weren’t familiar with the knowledge of Dr. Beckett, you probably grabbed this Pete Rose book.

The book is about 285 pages, with prices for Topps, Donruss, Fleer, Bowman, O-Pee-Chee, Burger King (which was more of a Topps parallel) and some SSPC/TCMA oddballs (but not the Keith Olbermann 1976 set). Notably absent are the Topps Traded sets from 1974, 1976, and 1981-82.

I bought this book because I wanted to see how far my cards have come in value over 40 years. Of course, inflation has a lot to do with it, but the fact that cards wear down with age also gives rise to higher values for those that age gracefully.

Another interesting thing to note is that some players were still remembered fondly then than they are today, so it is interesting to see what players had the most expensive cards in any given year.

Observation #1

Let’s start right off the bat with a HUGE disappointment: Cards before 1974 were NOT given much premium based on what series they appeared in. There are only rare cases when high-series cards are given a slight premium, such as with 1971 Topps. For those that do not know, there are fewer singles of high-series cards out there because the rest were still – and probably still are – left unopened; that’s because those cards came out so late in the baseball season that very few people were interested in buying them. Apparently, this was not taken into account in this book.

Observation #2

The common card pricing is all over the place, and varied by the penny: One quick look at 1975 Topps will give you an idea of how bizarre the card prices (in mint) were. I use 1975 Topps as an example because that’s the easiest Beckett pricing tier to remember: Commons at $0.50, minor stars at $1, semistars at $2 and unlisted stars at $3; the next tiers are 4-5-6-8-10-12-15-20-25-30-40-50 …

Here are some card prices from 1975 Topps: $0.12, $0.17, $0.21, $0.35, $0.40, $0.55, $0.65, $0.75, $0.85, $0.95, $1.00, $1.10, $1.75, $1.85, $2.25, $2.75, $3.25 (incl. Robin Yount rookie) and the George Brett rookie at $18.

Page 142 has a checklist of 1975 Topps cards from Nos. 48 to 147. Here is an example of players and their correlating prices:

$0.12 (bottom): Larry Dierker, Darrell Porter, Ron Blomberg, Blue Moon Odom, Charlie Hough, John Mayberry, Wilbur Wood, Elliott Maddux, Bill Lee, Toby Harrah

$0.17: Freddie Patek, Rick Wise, Willie Horton, Ed Sprague, Gary Matthews, Jerry Reuss

$0.21: Jim Lonborg, Al Hrabosky, Terry Forster

$0.35: Bobby Bonds, Rick Monday, Ken Holtzman, Richie Zisk

$0.40: Tug McGraw

$0.55: Mark Belanger, Dave Lopes, Dan Driessen

$0.65: Fergie Jenkins

$0.75: Phil Niekro, Bill Madlock (although this is a 2nd-year card premium for “Mad Dog”)

$0.85: Rusty Staub, Ken Singleton, Ted Simmons

$0.95: Tommy John, J.R. Richard

$1.00: George Foster (Mike Hargrove rookie card also is in this bunch)

$1.10: Joe Morgan (#180)

$1.75: Carlton Fisk, Willie Stargell

$1.85: Dave Winfield, Mike Schmidt

$2.25: Steve Garvey, Brooks Robinson

$2.75: Bob Gibson (#150), Willie McCovey (#450), and ……. Steve Stone (#388)!!!

Yes, the 1975 Topps mid-career Steve Stone was booked at $2.75. It’s less than half of that now per Beckett. But remember, this came out not long after Stone won the AL Cy Young Award in 1980 and retired from the game due to tendinitis in 1981.

You can look at this list and wonder why Ken Singleton was worth more than Fergie Jenkins. The J.R. Richard being higher than several stars makes sense for this time, the book came out only a couple of years after his tragic stroke.

Today, non-superstar players are lumped into one of Beckett’s three “star” categories: minor, semi and unlisted. All cards in this set have risen in value in 40 years, except for Steve Stone (who, mustachioed, was on the Cubs at the time of this card).

Observation #3

Today, Beckett uses a pricing tier system that only true experts know about for post-second-year base cards after 1981. Very rarely does a player float between pricing tiers after that year – when Donruss and Fleer hit the market.

This book uses no such tier system for players, who simply float all among the tiers – and for what reason, I’m really not sure. The cards do get cheaper as they are newer, but you’ll have instances where guys like Patek are worth more or less than some other player at some different year.

Naturally, a player’s cards from 1974 to 1979 would decrease in value as each year went on because of how new they are. Today, only the superstar players see staggered prices during those years (unless it’s a short- or double-print). This is because of demand in today’s market and possibly a premium for a player’s award or World Series appearance; Johnny Bench is the best example of this.

Observation #4

The Steve Stone oddity made me wonder about what Topps cards were worth more in 1983 than they are today.

I took a look at Topps cards from 1974 (the first year of universal series distribution) to 1982 (the last year available in this book) to see what cards had more value then than now – or stayed the same.

Most quad-player rookie cards, unless they had a future star in them, have decreased in value.

Parentheses include today’s fraction of what they were worth; (X) denotes no change.

1974: Steve Stone (2/3rds), Randy Jones RC (X), Vada Pinson (X)

1975: Steve Stone (just less than 2/3rds)

1976: Bobby Darwin (now common), Rusty Staub (slightly), Dave Parker (by a quarter), Ron Cey (X), Bill Singer (now common), Dick Ruthven (now common), Mario Guerrero (now common), J.R. Richard (slightly), Mike Norris RC (2/5ths)


What about the 1976 Steve Stone? Here’s how inconsistent the book was: 1975 was $2.75, 1976 was $0.20, 1977 was $1.00, 1978 was $0.95. So what gives, 1976? Turns out he only pitched half of the 1976 season due to a torn rotator cuff. This led me to believe that maybe yearly performance had something to do with the card value?

If that’s the case, then let’s look at Tommy John, who missed the entire 1975 season undergoing the surgery that now bears his name: 1974 was $0.80, 1975 was $0.95, 1976 was $0.85, 1977 was $0.85. So I guess not.

But maybe the book is poorly edited. As I was looking up the Tommy John card from 1974, it is listed as 450 instead of the correct 451.

So back to finding out which cards made a good chunk of value drop of 1/2 or more:

1978: Mitchell Page RC (5/6th), Jim Kern (more than 1/2 to a common)

1979: Bump Wills Rangers (1/2) and Blue Jays (3/5ths), Bob Horner RC (1/2)

1981: Bump Wills (booked at $3, now a common!)

So what happened to these guys?

Bump Wills stole a few bases, like his more famous father Maury, but only played for a few years.

Mike Norris went 22-9 in 1980 and was an All-Star in 1981. He had a big gap between his penultimate (1983) and final seasons (1990). His rookie card features him wearing a green glove, which isn’t surprising given that this was the Charlie Finley era.

Mitchell Page finished runner-up to Eddie Murray for the 1977 AL ROY honor, hitting .307 with 21 homers and 42 stolen bases. His numbers dipped the following year, and he sank further in the following years. Page, along with another former Oakland A’s player, Carney Lansford, had a bit part in the 1994 remake of “Angels in the Outfield” where he played California’s first baseman.

Jim Kern played four good years for the Rangers in the late 1970s and was a 3-time All-Star. From his Wikipedia page: “In 2013, FanGraphs named Kern as the best relief pitcher in baseball history over a given 4-year period of time in their January 25 article “Jim Kern’s Four Incredible Seasons.” From 1976–1979, he won 42 games and registered 75 saves out of the bullpen, and he averaged more than 100 innings per year and 1.88 innings pitched per game appearance.”

Bob Horner had the better overall career out of the aforementioned few players, but his career wasn’t all that lengthy. He averaged 21 homers a year in a 10-year career that was bothered by injuries and a year in Japan.

Observation #5

Since this is a 1983 price guide, the question you all have been waiting for is …

How about that 1982 Topps Cal Ripken?

It’ card #21 in the set.

Take a look, next to the purple dot:


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