Spring training in 1971 washed over baseball fans with a wave of relief, assuring them that the strange dream world they had endured for nearly a year was finally over. The mighty Baltimore Orioles reported to their Miami base that February flashing the confident smiles of World Series champions, intent on helping the game recover from the shock of the Amazin’ Mets’ run to a title in 1969. The baseball world was beginning to right itself after nearly flopping over on its axis, and the future looked, well, staid. Imagine the horror, then, when collectors ripped open their first packs of 1971 Topps baseball cards to find their vernal anchor had been snipped free by the confectioner’s cardboard chain cutters.
While President Richard Nixon was thawing relations with China even as the Vietnam conflict raged on, and while Charles Manson and his “family” were finally convicted for crimes committed during the Mets’ run two years before, it was the baseball card hobby itself that spun into a helter-skelter spiral.
Stodgy, dependable old Topps had ripped up its 20-year-old blueprint and decided to try something new.
That 1971 Topps set is a polarizing issue that can be evoked in the minds of collectors everywhere with one simple phrase.
The Chipped Black Elephant in the Room
From the moment that the first youngster pulled a two-batted Del Unser card from a wax pack on his way home from the diamond, the 1971 set has been ridiculed, reviled, celebrated, and exalted for the thick black border that dominates every single card in the set.
As any good collector knows by now, black borders show every little bit of wear, and they cast a somber pall when laid out on a bedroom floor or arranged neatly in a three-ring binder.
Although the borders monopolize collectors’ thoughts, each design element of the 1971 Topps builds on the last to make the set an anachronism that could belong to an earlier period or to a later, but certainly not to the early 1970s.
Laid over the black rectangle of the top border on each card are capital block letters announcing the team nickname, though not necessarily featuring a team color — yellow “Tigers,” for example. Beneath the team designation, the player’s name appears in all lower case letters, followed by a colored dot, and then his position.
The player photo is surrounded by a thin white border with rounded corners, and a facsimile autograph adds a finishing flare to an otherwise geometrical card front.
At first glance, the 1971 cards look very old, or maybe like something produced in a high school print shop. There are no team logos, no mention of Topps, and no trademark symbols. Other than the black borders, the design imparts a very generic feel to each card.
If you take a step back and look at the cards through the lens of the 2010s, though, you find elements that would feel right at home on the most elegant of modern websites. Simple is better when it comes to web design, and some of the biggest names in technology employ the all-small tactic that Topps embraced in 1971.
Whether the set transports you to 1920 or 2020, there is no doubt that it’s a departure from normal Topps fare. For shell-shocked collectors rifling through the cards for the first time in 1971, flipping them over did not ease the trauma, either
For the first time ever, Topps included player photos on card backs, dedicating nearly a third of the real estate to a square(ish) black-and-white head shot tilted into the left-hand side of the green canvas. Next to the grainy image is a curved-cornered box that contains the player name, vital stats, a biographical note, and a listing of his first year in “pro ball” and his first year in the majors.
If the disembodied head staring at them didn’t make boys think they were looking at anything but a Topps baseball card, then the stats bar at the bottom surely convinced them of it. Breaking with their tradition of including ALL of a player’s stats, Topps had room to display only 1970 and lifetime numbers thanks to the card-back photo.
Issued in the same year that the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) was founded, cheaping out on stat lines was nothing short of blasphemy!
You Want MORE Black?
If collectors were reluctant to embrace the oddball black-bordered 1971s, Topps seemed determined to give them plenty of chances to warm up to the idea.
Issued over seven series, the 1971 set checked in with a mammoth 752-card count that broke all previous records and would stand as the largest set ever for … a whole year.
As would be expected, the final series was produced in lower quantities than the six that proceeded it, and those cards are 📷tougher to find today. Topps also double printed 44 of those seventh-series pasteboards and short printed the other 66, making them really tough to find in nice condition.
Among the bigger names on the short-print list are Sparky Anderson, Boog Powell, and the combo rookie card of Dusty Bake📷r and Don Baylor. The Baylor/Baker issue is popular with collectors and high grade examples can be expensive.
One of the toughest issues in the set is card #733 of Lee Maye, not to be confused with card #40 of Lee May. The Maye issue is not only a short print in the seventh series, but nearly always suffers from terrible centering, kind of like Bill Lee (#58), only in a different sort of way.
Even if you’re not a fan of black borders, ghost heads, and misaligned card-cutting scissors, it’s hard to fault Topps’ player selection in their 1971 set. With so many cards issued, it would have been difficult for the gum maker to completely whiff on their lineup choices, but they did significantly better than just not striking out.
Aside from the Baylor/Baker first-year issue, notable rookie cards include Dave Concepcion (#14), Bert Blyleven (#26), and Steve Garvey (#341).
The Garvey card can be found for $100-200 in graded NM/MT form but much cheaper at the lower levels while the Blyleven rookie is quite a bit harder to find with good centering and near perfect corners.
Meanwhile, the 1971 set is absolutely loaded with non-rookie cards of Hall of Famers, including Willie Mays, Willie Stargell, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, and Ernie Banks, among many others. One of the most popular veterans in the set, as is the case with just about all issues of similar vintage, is Nolan Ryan on card #513.
Though you can pick up a decent ungraded Ryan for less than $50, expect to pay more than $400 for a slabbed NM-MT copy.
Which One Was Ryan’s Card Again?
While Ryan wasn’t quite the draw (drawl?) in 1971 that he would turn out to be more than 20 years later, sharp-eyed collectors might have caught a glimpse of the flame-thrower on card #355 of teammate Bud Harrelson. Ryan is standing near the bottom of the frame with his back to the camera, apparently watching the end of a stolen base attempt. In the background are two Mets players — presumably Harrleson is the shortstop — an ump, and the opposing runner.
Although the image is harried and confusing, it’s a prime illustration of an innovation that Topps introduced in their 1971 set: in-game, regular-season action shots. For years, collectors had been “treated” to only posed photos or lifeless head shots, with any action photos relegated to post-season tribute cards. By bringing the plays to their cards, Topps began to add some verve to their photography, a trend that would continue in the coming years.
That’s Special and Different
That’s not to say that Topps abandoned their action-packed tribute to the World Series. In fact, the World Series subset (#327-332) produced one of the more recognizable cards in the set, as #331 shows Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson crawling through the Sahara looking for a sip of water while his teammates were busy taking care of the Cincinnati Reds.
Other subsets from the 1971 issue includes playoff highlights (#195-202) and league leaders (#61-71).
The ’71 set also features a handful of variations that true master-set collectors would need to consider when building a set. Among those are Jim Northrup (#265) and Jim Nash (#306), issued both with and without a black blob in the background of their photos. No word on how Jim Nelson (#298) escaped the same fate.
Checklists for Series 2, 3, and 4 can be found with either red or orange hats, and the Series 2 checklist exists with a couple of variations in placement of the card number.
None of these variations add much in the way of a price premium, but they do impart a bit of flavor and a few more cards to an otherwise scrawny (!) set.
Build or Buy … or Just Dabble?
Building a 1971 Topps set is not terribly difficult as long as you’re willing to accept a constellation of white-chip stars sprinkled among your night-sky borders, but targeting higher grades means you’ll need to have your budget in order.
Graded singles from the set in NM-MT condition are regularly available on eBay, with prices ranging from around $10 each for commons to $40 or so for high-number, short-print commons to $5000 or more for popular players like Munson.
Complete sets sell over a wide range of price points, from well under $500 for low to mid-grade versions with lots of white showing to more than $5000 for sets with a large portion of cards graded and/or in NM or better condition.
You can also find a decent array of partial lots to help kick-start your 1971 set-building efforts and you can see which cards are popular by checking out the current ‘most watched 1971 Topps’ feed below.
As if more than 750 cards of black-border madness weren’t enough to satisfy collectors, Topps further emphasized its hobby monopoly by issuing three specialty sets in 1971.
Just as they had in 1964, the gum giant inserted a series of 153 metal “coins” in 1971 wax packs, giving consumers a little extra jingle for their money. Coins feature a head shot of the player surrounded by a color band showing his name, position, and team. The coins range in price from about a buck for ungraded commons to several hundred dollars for high-grade specimens.
For something a bit more obscure, you can turn your attention to the Greatest Moments set, generally thought to have been a test issue available in the Brooklyn area, there in the shadow of Topps headquarters. It’s a 55-card set of long, horizontal cards featuring a color head shot alongside a black-and-white action photo. Though not all that common, some Greatest Moment cards are usually available on eBay, with the most expensive graded stars trading for several hundred dollars each.
Feeling really super about their efforts on the year, Topps also issued a 63-card set of, ahem, Super cards. The Supers showcased mainly superstars and featured thick, layered stock and an oversize design with rounded corners and full-bleed photos. No black borders, but at least the backs DID maintain a nearly identical look to the base set.
Today, 1971 Topps Super cards are widely available on eBay, and you can pick up a complete set for around $300.
An Uneasy Calm
By the fall of 1971, collectors were putting aside their black-bordered baseball cards and returning to school for another year of drudgery. On the field, the Pirates and Orioles maintained the order of the MLB establishment, with the Bucs able to take two steps forward from the year before and pick up a World Series trophy for the aging Roberto Clemente.
With 1971 Topps collections slid safely under their beds, Little Leaguers could sleep soundly, secure that their game and hobby were starting to settle down.
The football card collectors among them may have tried to raise an alert when Topps’ gridiron cards debuted with RED borders, but the diamond-only crowd likely ignored those prophecies of lunacy on the horizon. Perhaps a closer examination of the 1971 standings and post-season series would have convinced them that more changes were in the offing.
Although the Oakland A’s whimpered to a 3-0 series loss to the Orioles in the ALCS, Charlie Finley’s wild gang was just getting warmed up.
As 18-year-olds headed to the polls for the first time in November of 1972, courtesy of the 26th Amendment enacted around the All-Star break in 1971, the A’s had just won the first of three straight World Series championships.
Meanwhile, collectors sat in sensory overload trying to comprehend the explosion of stars and psychedelic colors emanating from their 1972 cards. It just may have been at that moment, in the glow of Reggie and Catfish and the glaze from 3-D team names that we began to romanticize the 1971 Topps baseball set.
Maybe those black borders weren’t so bad after all.