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Fifty years ago, pitchers like Bob Gibson and Denny McLain ruled. And also that year, with some hurdles to get past, Topps created a cardboard classic for one of the most turbulent times in American history.

The year was 1968. The escalation of the Vietnam War was dividing America and we mourned the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

On the diamond, pitchers ruled. In the batter’s box, hitters cooled to an all-time low.

Over the years, the 1968 baseball season has become known as the Year of the Pitcher. It’s synonymous with two monumental pitching achievements—Denny McLain’s 31 victories and Bob Gibson’s minuscule 1.12 ERA. Both went on to collect their respective league’s Cy Young and MVP awards, the only time that two hurlers have claimed both prizes in the same season.

But for collectors of those turbulent times, that’s only half the story.

Topps’ 1968 baseball set, known as the “burlap” set for its brown mesh borders, goes beyond the amazing feats of Gibson, McLain and Don Drysdale’s scoreless innings streak. It also tells the story of a group of young hurlers led by Tom Seaver (#45), Nolan Ryan (#177), Steve Carlton (#408), Jim Palmer (#575), and Fergie Jenkins (#410), who were about to embark on one of the greatest pitching runs in baseball history.


Young collectors busting through packs in the spring of ‘68 had a chance at a McLain (#40) and Gibson (#100) base card early in the season. Issued in the set’s first series, if you had the foresight to hold on to their cards as they pitched their way into baseball history, by season’s end both would become two of the fledging hobby’s hottest commodities. Collectors offering up an aging Mickey Mantle (#280), Roger Maris (#330) or Willie Mays (#50) for a McLain or Gibson was not out of the question. But today, rare high grades of the Say Hey Kid and The Commerce Comet are two of the set’s biggest sellers in the secondary market. Over the past few years, a handful of Gem Mint 10s of Mays have consistently sold for $5,000 to $12,000, while a Gem Mint 10 Mantle sold for an astonishing $43,200 in a July Heritage Summer Card Auction.

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November 2018