A Look Back at 1968 Topps Baseball: The Burlap Set

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The times were turbulent, but 1968 Topps endures as a testament to tradition.

Two key Rookie Cards have also added to the set's legacy.
The burlap-border cards are the inspiration for this year's Topps Heritage set.

Amid war and assassinations, racial strife and social change, counterculture and free love, 1968 Topps offered collectors a bit of innocence, a straightforward release that isn't flashy and doesn't need to be.

The 598-card set, released in seven series, includes League Leader cards, World Series Highlights, All-Stars, combination cards -- featuring players posed together -- and team highlight cards.

The set also features Rookie Stars pairing two prospects together.
Two of those cards are among the most revered in hobby history: the Rookie Cards of Nolan Ryan and Johnny Bench.

Ryan, who struck out 5,714 batters during his 27-year career, appears on card No. 177 with fellow Mets farmhand Jerry Koosman.

Beside almost anyone else, Koosman -- who has more career victories than Pedro Martinez, Sandy Koufax or Curt Schilling -- would be a key Rookie Card by himself. But he happens to share his Rookie Card with the most unhittable pitcher in Major League Baseball history, the Ryan Express, the author of seven no-hitters, the man who threw a quarter-century of smoke.

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The set's other key Rookie Card, No. 247, shows Reds catching great Bench alongside journeyman pitcher Ron Tompkins (who had already appeared on a "Rookie Stars" card in 1966 Topps).

Bench redefined the catching position, providing stalwart defense, a strong throwing arm and middle-order power for the Big Red Machine teams of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Bench -- a 14-time All-Star and two-time league MVP -- was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1989.

Ronald Everett Tompkins, meanwhile, appeared in five games for the 1965 Kansas City Athletics and bounced between five organizations before returning to the majors for the final time in 1971 with the Cubs.
While Tompkins' career MLB stat line might seem unassuming -- 0-2, 3.96 ERA, 3 saves -- he held Bench hitless, with one walk, in the three times the card mates faced off.

Interestingly enough, both the Ryan and Bench Rookie Cards featured spelling errors.

On the reverse of Ryan's card, the word "sensational" is spelled "senational," a mistake that was not corrected.

Bench's card, which originally featured "the" spelled "tne," was corrected in later printings, with both versions equally sought.

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Veteran stars also make up an important part of 1968 Topps, especially card No. 280, Mickey Mantle.

The Mick's card shows him in a left-handed stance, and even posed for the camera you recognize his presence: his eyes peering from beneath his cap, his forearms flexed, his bat coiled.

But note the bottom right corner of the card, where Mantle's position is listed: 1st base, not his usual outfield, due to years of wear and tear on his body.

Mantle struggled in 1968 and retired after the season was over.

Mickey also appears on a combo card, No. 490, dubbed "Super Stars," alongside fellow sluggers Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew. The trio hit more than 1,800 home runs between them during their Major League careers.

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Other standout cards include Hank Aaron (No. 110), Roberto Clemente (appearing on card No. 150 as "Bob"), Mays (No. 50), Tom Seaver (No. 45), Rod Carew (No. 80), Pete Rose (No. 230), Steve Carlton (No. 408) and Bob Gibson (No. 100), in the pitcher-friendly season he would record an otherworldly 1.12 E.R.A.

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Another key card is No. 40, Denny McLain, who went 31-6 that season for the Tigers.

While the burlap border is a notable facet of this set, giving the cards a resemblance to vintage radio or TV mesh, it's important to note the design change between series. The first series features a bolder, more pronounced burlap border, where the design is more subdued in subsequent series.

Beyond packs, some series one and two cards, including the Ryan RC, were also released in the failed Milton Bradley "Win-a-Card" game -- in which players would spin a wheel and exchange their cards with other players ... a great way to damage your cards and thus diminish their value. The cards were also packed in rubber bands, so edge wear is also common.

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The so-called "Milton Bradley" cards feature backs with a deeper yellow hue. The game series also brought about some color variations on card fronts -- notably yellow team names, instead of white, for cards of Ed Brinkman (No. 49) and Casey Cox (No. 66). Card No. 400 of Mike McCormick also features a color variation, but it was not included in the board game.

Given the nature of 1968 Topps, it's somewhat fitting that some of its most sought-after cards were included in a board game meant for children -- a bit of burlap-bordered innocence in a changing world.

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