Dad’s old sets: A look back at the sports cards of 1971

Gas was 40 cents a gallon. Stamps were 8 cents. The average monthly rent was about $150. A new house? In the Midwest, you could still snare a decent one for less than $25,000. A pack of sports cards cost pennies unless you could nab a 25-cent cello pack or a rack pack (54 cards for 39 cents!).

 Of course, the average income was barely into five figures, too. The world was a different place in 1971 and those cards you pulled out of a wax pack were a little different, too. 

We thought it would be fun to journey back into cards as they were 50 years ago when wax packs were still, well, actually made of wax paper.

1971 Topps Baseball

It’s not possible to convey the feeling kids had when they opened their first pack of baseball cards sometime in February or March of 1971. The gum was the same. The cost hadn’t changed. But the cards looked like nothing we had ever seen before. Jet black borders, that was a first. The letters that spelled out the player’s name and position were all lower case. That was a first, too, but cool in a 1970s sorta way. There were some action photos, too, and they weren’t just posed action shots. These had been taken in actual games.

The bummer was that the career stats we used to look at on the back had been replaced by a scaled down version that made it impossible to see how many homers Hank Aaron had hit in 1965 or how many strikeouts Bob Gibson had recorded in 1968. There are now 40 Hall of Famers on the checklist.

It was a crazy ride with a crazy number of cards issued — 752, up 32 from the year before by the time the last series was issued later that fall.

1971 Topps Football

Topps didn’t bring black borders over to the football side in ’71, even though it probably worked better in a league that was still gritty, rough, tough, and in hindsight, more than a little reckless with safety. There was plenty of color, though. Red and blue borders surrounded the images but game action shots wouldn’t become prevalent until the following year.

The Steelers weren’t quite ready to be great yet, but we know now that the ’71 set gave us rookie cards of two all-time greats: Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene. Hello to one dynasty, goodbye to another as Bart Starr made his final appearance on a Topps card as an active player. Johnny Unitas appeared as card #1 as he regularly did in the 1960s.

1971-72 Topps Basketball

After two years of giant, rectangular cards, Topps made basketball the same size as everything else. Their set grew to 233 cards — more than double the size of their ’69 set that had re-launched the company in the NBA world. The checklist swelled because of the addition of the ABA players who finally got to appear on cards. Some of the league’s all-time greats have their rookie cards in the set.  

And jet black was back! Not on the borders of the regular cards but on the unique three-player stickers that served as the insert. It’s a great set in its own right with different photos and a great checklist of stars.

1971-72 Topps/OPC Hockey

Depending on which side of the border you lived, your hockey cards were somewhat the same but also different.

The look was the same, but as usual, O-Pee-Chee’s hockey set featured French and English text on the back with green and yellow coloring rather than Topps’ gray. The front design incorporated the player’s image inside an oval design that offered a very 70s look.

The rookie card checklist was a bit lean in ’71, but you’ll find the first appearance of Ken Dryden, who was shown in a rare action pose.

The Topps set was just 132 cards, half the size of its brother to the north.  Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne were in the OPC set but not the smaller Topps issue.

1 thought on “Dad’s old sets: A look back at the sports cards of 1971

  1. I just purchased that exact Reggie Jackson the other day from a lady dumping a collection. Later I snagged the same Terry Bradshaw that’s in the article as well.

    I was born in 71 so I look for them all the time!

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