Vintage View: The Wonderful World of SP’s (Part 1)

Does it drive you up the wall when you find that the last few cards you need to complete a set are SPs? Do you get a certain thrill when you open a pack to find a card that’s just a little different from what you expect – maybe a team name in an unexpected colour, or an unfamiliar pose – and you think, “Scored! SP!!”?

SP’s, or to give them their full name Short Prints, are nothing new. Vintage sets are absolutely littered with them, but for considerably different reasons than the SPs of today.

Modern printing techniques incorporating computer aided design and layout allows the card companies to produce exactly the quantity of each card that they desire, right down to the dreaded 1 of 1. SPs these days are a totally manufactured phenomena, artificially creating a market for certain cards. Back in the vintage days however, SPs simply a by-product of the printing and distribution processes of the time.

In my last article, I mentioned that up until 1973, cards tended to be released throughout a season in “series”. How did this work, and how did it produce SPs? Well, let’s look at one year – say, 1971 – as an example. The 1971 Topps Baseball set featured a total of 752 cards, broken down into 6 series.

It’s February 1971. There’s still snow on the ground in my home town of Westland, Michigan but down in Florida, Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan, and the rest of the pitchers and catchers of my Detroit Tigers have reported for Spring Training. Within a few days, they’d be joined by the rest of their teammates, and fans would start to look ahead with the optimism that a new season always brings.

For kids, thoughts turned the excitement of this year’s baseball cards. What will they look like? Which players will be featured? Every couple days, I’d trudge along to my local store to see if the new cards had arrived yet, until one day…..they’re here!!! I hand over a crisp dollar for 10 packs of 1971 Topps Series One (only 10 cents a pack…changed days indeed!), featuring the first 132 cards in the set. After about 5-6 weeks, boxes of Series 2 will replace Series 1 on the shelves, followed by Series 3 and so on.

1971 Topps Wax Pack

Topps know their market, and during this early part of the season print runs are high, lots of product are on the shelves, and cards sell in high volume. As the summer progresses, though, things slow down. Kids have gotten over the excitement of the “new” set, their own teams may have already fallen out of contention, and their thoughts turn to other summer ventures. Topps, therefore, start to turn down the volume on their print runs. By Series 4 and 5 (round about July/August), retailers are still stocking cards but already in noticeably smaller numbers.

1971TRegJackson

1971 Topps #20 Reggie Jackson

Come September, Series 6 – the last 130 or so cards in the set – is due for release. But wait! There’s competition on the shelves at the local store! There’s new season football, hockey AND basketball, too. All Topps products, and all being pushed. As the printing presses are turned over to these new products and faced with declining interest, the final series of 1971 Topps baseball is therefore printed is lesser quantities then its predecessors. Some retailers don’t even bother to stock late series cards, making them scarcer still.

6thchecklist

1971 Topps 6th Series Checklist

When you look at a vintage price guide, you might wonder why the “high numbers” in a set seem to command a price premium. Well, there you have your answer! Topps didn’t set out to deliberately short print cards to create an artificial “desire” for them, they did so to address the market forces of the time.

The 1971 set is nowhere near the most extreme example of short printing of high series by Topps. The 1967, 1966, 1962 and 1961 high series all seem to be in shorter supply. The grand-daddy of them all scarce high series though is the 1952 Topps set, where the high numbers can command 3 figure prices even for cards in poor condition. Apparently, the scarcity of that particular series was down not only to a shorter print run, but also due to Topps dumping cases and cases of unsold product into the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1950s.

There are other non-market reasons for SPs springing up in vintage sets, but that’s for Part 2!

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