(This is Day 4 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
It seems to be a normal part of the human condition to want what we can’t have.
The fastest, most expensive car …
The most beautiful girl in school …
The perfect job …
The World Series winning team …
We’ve lusted after them all at some point or another.
So it’s no surprise that baseball card collectors are infatuated with the impossible — or at least the improbable — too.
Who wouldn’t love to own a T206 Honus Wagner card?
Or stumble onto a pile of pristine 1952 Topps unopened packs while cleaning out dear old Uncle Abner’s attic once he’s gone?
And to put it in more current terms, isn’t the allure of “hitting the jackpot” what the modern chase card phenomenon is all about?
Happy 20th Anniversary!
I got an early introduction to the enticement of cardboard impossibility when I stumbled upon the 1982 K-Mart boxed set during my first year of real collecting in 1983.
Even then, the Topps-produced set was considered to be cheap, overproduced trash by most hobbyists, and I picked up the whole shebang for less than a dollar — 25 cents if I remember correctly.
For me, though, it was one of the best investments I could have made in my budding hobby, for a few reasons.
First, the K-Mart set taught me who the MVPs were in each league from 1962 through 1981. I was in sponge mode at that point, sucking up everything I could about the game, and K-Mart gave me a crash course in who the biggest superstars of the previous 20 years had been.
Between this set and the 1983 Topps Foldouts issue that I nabbed from the local drug store, I learned more about baseball’s hierarchy than I could have from watching a season’s worth of This Week in Baseball or The Game of the Week.
But the K-Mart cards didn’t just teach me about baseball — they introduced me to exotic baseball cards I never even knew existed.
By illustrating each of the K-Mart cards with a miniature replica of the player’s Topps card from the year he won the MVP, Topps created an early version of the hyperlink, pasteboard style.
Follow the Cardboard Trail
I’d thumb through the K-Mart cards, studying the photos on the front to get a feel for the vintage designs depicted and devouring the copy on the card backs to see just how good the MVP winner really was.
Then I’d “follow” that card out to other resources I had.
Some players had kid-focused biographies that made it to our school library, and I read all of those I could get my hands on.
Some then-current players appeared elsewhere in my collection, and I’d dig those cards out to see what else I could learn.
And all the players appeared in my handy dandy price guide that I poured over in my spare time.
But not all the cards showed up in that price guide.
The White Whale
I was like pretty much every other kid who collected baseball cards back then. We loved the hobby for all its intangibles — nostalgia for earlier times, the community of collectors, the aesthetics of the cards, the smell and feel of the cards, the irresistible allure of player statistics.
But we were also in awe of the big dollar values attached to some of the cards in our price guides, and we all dreamed of the day our collections would be filled with cardboard gold.
Well, I was pretty convinced for awhile that I’d found the hobby Shangri-La with my little K-Mart set.
In one slender box, I’d managed to assemble a collection that included a 1962 Mickey Mantle, a 1966 Frank Robinson, a 1969 Boog Powell (snicker!) , a 1973 Pete Rose, a 1975 Fred Lynn, a 1980 Mike Schmidt, and so many more.
I could look them all up in my price guide — even though the card numbers on the back didn’t quite match up — and I could see that I was suddenly quite an advanced collector.
There was one card, though, that I just couldn’t reconcile with what the “book” had to offer.
As far as I could tell, there was no 1962 Topps Maury Wills card.
That bothered me, and I filed it away for later use, but I didn’t let it stop my enthusiasm for the K-Mart set or collecting in general.
I wasn’t quite as sure about the value of my budding empire, though.
The Maury Truth
Maybe I wasn’t the only one confused by the K-Mart set in general and the Maury Wills card in particular because it wasn’t long before I came across the story of the Wills-Topps flap that kept the speedster out of Topps issues until 1967.
I have no idea where I originally read the tale — Sports Collectors Digest? — but you can find a pretty thorough modern account at The Wax Fantastic.
Basically, someone at Topps made the determination — maybe with the help of some scouting input — that Wills wasn’t a viable Major Leaguer and failed to sign him to a card contract when he was about to break through in 1959.
Depending on the version of the story you read, Topps’ disbelief either miffed Wills or led him to sign an exclusive contract with Fleer, who had dreams of producing baseball cards but faced several hurdles.
Whichever account is the truth, I soon had to come to grips with my own truth: Topps never issued that beautiful Maury Wills card in 1962. Rather, they created it from whole cloth in order to complete their run of MVP winners in the 1982 K-Mart set.
Deep in my heart, though, I really wanted there to be a 1962 Wills card out there. Maybe Topps produced a proof version that never made it to market because of contract issues with Wills?
I already knew about the 1977 Reggie Jackson Orioles proof, so I held out irrational hope.
An Elusive Favorite
Though I never got even a sniff of a hint that there really was a 1962 Topps Wills card beyond the K-Mart set, Maury became one of my favorite non-Hall-of-Fame players from the 1960s.
He was a speedster so fast that you couldn’t even catch him on film, apparently. By the time Topps did slow him down long enough for a shot, he appeared as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates on his 1967 card (#570). It was Wills’ de facto rookie card and, as a high number in a popular vintage set, it commanded a nice premium.
But as great as that card was, it did not show a primetime Wills in his famous Los Angeles Dodgers blue, and I just couldn’t accept it as his rookie card. It debuted eight years after the man himself did, for gosh sake.
Fortunately, Fleer kept tilting at windmills and pushing their invisible flywheel in the years between Wills’ rookie season and his MVP win in 1962.
They followed up their Ted Williams set with two issues of retired (or dead) greats.
In 1963, though, Fleer threw caution to the wind and pumped out a set of 67 cards that featured many of the biggest names in the game. Issued in packs with a cherry-flavored cookie (!), the set was designed to be something much grander until a Topps lawsuit stopped Fleer cold.
It would be another decade-plus until Fleer took up the battle again in earnest, and another 18 years before they hit the market in full force, but the truncated 1963 Fleer issue righted one baseball card wrong.
Finding the One
After four years in the Majors, Maury Wills finally had a baseball card printed by a major manufacturer and it came just in time to celebrate his MVP award with the Dodgers.
I resisted the legitimacy of the Fleer set for years, writing it off as a fluke and an abomination that should never have existed. It was all colored by my irrational lusting for the Maury Wills woody that was never born.
But my Moby Dick is dead — there is no 1962 Topps Maury Wills card (reprints/Archives/Heritage don’t count).
That’s OK, though, because we have the best slab of cardboard from 1963 to salve our wounds and right our wrongs.
Thanks to the 1963 Fleer Maury Wills card, we (or at least I) can move on.