Pulling a Reggie Jackson baseball card from a wax pack in the 1970s was like finding candy corn in your Halloween bag: you were either thrilled because it was your favorite or disappointed because you’d hoped for something with a little more substance.
Either way, though, you were sitting pretty, because Reggie — and candy corn — was the biggest name in the biggest market in the game, and you could always find someone who would trade you, say, a Cubs team set for your Mr. October pasteboard.
But before Reggie became REGGIE with the New York Yankees, he helped the Oakland A’s to three straight World Series championships until Charlie O. Finley decided that success was too expensive and sold off his stars for — well, for a Cubs team set, or so the rumor went. The exact make and model of said cardboard returns were never disclosed, but judging by Finley’s catbird grin in later years, you’d have to assume it was 1974 Topps AND that his trading partner saw fit to include the Bill Madlock rookie.
While Charlie O. may have been delighted to decimate his team in the name of the almighty dollar, Reggie was also more than happy to move on once it became clear that he could ply his trade on the biggest stage in the baseball world. Looking back, it seems almost impossible that Reggie Jackson, under any circumstances, would NOT have made his way to the Bronx to deliver George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin from a position in Boston’s rear-view mirror, so devoted are the baseball gods to the dramatic.
And, while history does show that the Yankees won the Series in both 1977 and 1978, the truth is that “the straw that stirred the drink” and ate away at King George’s stomach lining made a stop between the Bay and immortality in NY.
With free agency looming, thanks to the work of men like Curt Flood, Marvin Miller, and Reggie’s old teammate, Catfish Hunter, Jackson was poised to make a lump of cash that old Charlie Finley was not willing to cough up. To sidestep any further talk of contract disputes or outrageous salaries, Finley traded the soon-to-be 30-year-old slugger to the Baltimore Orioles on April 2, 1976.
Reggie turned in a decent, though not spectacular, year in the harbor during that Bicentennial summer and was gone by November.
Aside from a few snapshots which surface from time to time and the scattered memories of old-time Birds fans who swear that Reggie didn’t fit the Oriole Way, there is scant little evidence that 1976 ever happened at all for Mr. October.
(The Fleer Sticker project has a rundown of available photographic evidence of Reggie in an O’s uniform here.)
In fact, if it weren’t for one of the rarest of all Topps proof cards, we might well be left with the impression that Reggie Van Winkle went to sleep by the Bay in the fall of 1975 and woke up in Yankee Stadium on Opening Day, 1977.
A Hobby Legend
But as early as the first years of the 1980s — and maybe even earlier — rumors swirled in the hobby that a bona fide 1977 Topps baseball card showing Reggie Jackson in his Baltimore Orioles uniform had been sighted on at least one occasion. Most of us shrugged off the idea as nonsense, because Reggie’s #10 base card with his green airbrushed Yanks batting helmet was so iconic.
The idea persisted, though, and then the Jackson Orioles card began to get mentions in the yearly Beckett price guides as a blank-backed “proof” card that never made it out of the factory.
Well, almost never made it out, as evidently at least one had escaped long enough for someone to capture a black-and-white photo of it.
It was mouth-watering stuff, especially when you considered the total population estimate of just one or two and a potential value in the thousands.
How could we get our hands on one? Obviously, we couldn’t.
And so we moved on to other oddities like “C. Nettles” and “All” Hrabosky and even white-letter Mantles, still half convinced that the black-and-orange Reggie was nothing but a wishful myth, all the while holding out hope that we’d find one accidentally jammed into a pack of 1983 Foldouts.
Tales from the Vault
The hobby boomed.
The hobby busted.
Card shops opened and card shops closed.
Children were born and grew up, Cubs and Red Sox fans cursed and hoped and lost.
Reggie Jackson got old and retired.
True collectors did what true collectors do, continuing to buy our cards when we could afford them and working to finish off sets or player runs or wrapper series.
We mostly forgot about the bad taste that the 1990s left in our mouths like a 20-year-old stick of orange O-Pee-Chee gum.
And then, in May of 2004, Topps opened “The Vault” — the archive of material they had collected in 50 years of making the cards that wind through the dreams of little boys and old men alike.
Among the treasures they wheeled out and paraded in front of drooling hobbyists was the PROOF that Reggie had played for the Orioles in 1976 and that he almost had a Baltimore card in 1977.
The card, as legend had always told us, was blank-backed and depicted a beaming Jackson in his un-airbrushed home white Orioles uniform … with the Yankees team name emblazoned on the top border.
It was the Holy Grail of modern baseball cards.
The accompanying press release told the rest of the story:
After Jackson signed with the New York Yankees for the 1977 season, Topps quickly changed the photo to picture him in pinstripes and his Orioles card, which was originally slated for release, was sent to t he shredders. Later, a couple of the Orioles card surfaced and they soon became hobby legend. Today, this infamous card is considered one of the most sought after cards in existence because of its rarity and because of Reggie’s greatness on the diamond.
The card was sold at auction, closing on May 9, 2004.
According to sportscaster (and sometimes other-caster) Keith Olbermann, something on the order of eight of the Reggie proofs exist, and it’s been rumored that Olbermann himself owns a couple of those.
Maybe Keith will open his own vault someday, and we’ll learn what dark, stale (gum) secrets lie within.
Thanks to a funky 1977 Topps Reggie Jackson baseball card, though, collectors can rest easy knowing that treasures do still pop up from time to time, and that the next hobby legend we hear about just might turn out to be real.