(This is Day 17 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)

There is a forbidden fruit hidden among the piles of vintage baseball cards stashed in corners and under beds across the United States.

If you were a collector during the 1970s or 1980s, you probably heard whispers about this taboo cardboard, but you many never have seen it up close.

Its simplicity and beauty was as legendary as its disregard for rules was offputting to the old guard of the hobby.

It was the … 1976 SSPC set, and its very existence continues to confound collectors and make it nearly impossible to complete simple tasks such as choosing the best card issued in that Bicentennial year.

The Pure Card

All during my adolescence, I read stories and talked to older collectors about the only full-sized set of Major League Baseball cards issued during the years of the Topps monopoly from 1956 through 1980.

Those points of input fell into two broad categories …

Those who loved the cards lauded the full-color images that dominated card fronts and the simple design that featured only thin black piping around the player photo and a plain white border. The card stock was blazing white, in stark contrast to the mushy brown-grey of Topps cards, and provided an easy background for the black type on card backs that provided biographical information.

This simplicity led collectors to christen the issue the “Pure Card” set and gained it a sort of cult following in the hobby.

1976 SSPC Robin Yount

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Besides the sleek design, SSPC stuck it to the man — Topps — by skipping right past all the pesky things that go into making a printed product, like packaging and licensing. The set was only available directly from TCMA through a mail-in offer in Hobby Media.

Those who hated the cards pointed to many of the same attributes — they were “collector-issued” with some quality control issues, they were unlicensed, and they had no stats on card backs.

But it was that licensing bit that really stuck in the craw of old-timers and folks who looked at baseball cards as an investment. After all, with no real external controls on what they were doing, what was to stop TCMA from just cranking up the presses again if they wanted to sell a few hundred (or thousand) more sets?  I mean, besides the cease-and-desist agreement they eventually reached with Topps.

Still, the cards were beautiful, especially by the standards of the day, and have often been compared to both the 1953 Bowman and 1957 Topps issues.

There are tons of great photos in the set, too, and all these years later, most collectors wouldn’t have any qualms about including these babies in their collections.

All of which means that, in the battle for the best card of 1976, SSPC poses some stiff competition for Topps.

Detailed Dominance

The problem for the upstart, even now, is that Topps was and is a master of their craft.

Now, at this point, I have to admit that I’ve had my fair share of critical words for Topps over the years. During the 1980s, for example, it felt like they were stubbornly clinging to old-school ideas, gaudy designs, and crappy cardboard while its competitors were improving year by year.

And I was never much of a fan of the 1976 Topps set in particular — it seemed drab, and the design was uninspired.

But when I stepped back into the hobby a couple years ago, any glimpse of the ’76s was accompanied by that familiar nostalgic twinge that makes some cards impossible to resist.

My Cincinnati Reds looked pretty good with their yellow and red stripes at the bottom of the cards, and with so many All-Star “stars” for added decoration. And that Mike Schmidt card where he is either bunting or carefully laying down his bat after a home run shot really got the collecting juices flowing again.

That was one of the first “old” cards I ever owned as a kid, and it makes me feel like it’s 1983 every time I see it.

But it was a comment from another collector that caused me to really study the 1976 Topps cards. In particular, he told me what he really liked was the fact that the little figurine player on the front of each card was strongly matched to the player position, all the way down to lefty v. righty pitchers.

I had never noticed that before, but a quick perusal through a handful of my cards told me it was true.

It also prompted me to take an even closer look at the cards.

The photos weren’t really that bad, at least not by 1970s standards, and some of them were quite good.

Steve Garvey, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Chris Speier, Dusty Baker — and many others — put me in a set-building mood.

And the card backs, while basic, are very baseball-y. The ball and bat on the left-hand side set the tone for the standard Topps vital-stats-and-baseball-stats layout, and the cartoon at the bottom (of some cards) is always a fun addition. The color scheme is solid, too, with field green dominating and brown accents adding to the game feel.

When you put all those elements together, I can’t turn my back on the base Topps set, no matter how pretty SSPC may be.

1976 Topps Dave Parker

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But Which Is The Best?

Ah, that’s the real question here.

Which is the best (Topps) baseball card issued in 1976?

Even narrowed down to one company, it’s a tough choice.

The best card would need to satisfy some basic criteria:

  • Strong photo
  • Pleasing colors
  • Good design elements
  • Bonus points for a star player

Most of these are straightforward if subjective, but the issue of design elements is sticky.

I really like the All-Star star on these cards, which is not usually the case. But here, it makes the cards “sparkle” just a bit more.

But I also really like the targeted player icons that the star obliterates.

It’s a tough choice, and you can see good examples of each with probably my favorite two cards in the set: Schmidt and Johnny Bench.

But those guys are a) Mike Schmidt and b) a Cincinnati Red, and I’m trying to cut down on both in my blogging diet. There’s a whole big cardboard world out there beyond my favorite player and my favorite team.

In the end, I really want to see one of those little player statuettes on any card that I label “best.” So, the best baseball card issued in 1976 was …

1976 Topps Dave Parker (back)

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1976 Topps Dave Parker

Here are just a few of the reasons that The Cobra comes out on top:

  • Parker somehow wasn’t an All-Star in 1975, so he gets an outfielder shagging down a fly ball instead of the star (check).
  • The green and yellow color scheme, while not perfect for the Pittsburgh Pirates, is still solid from a baseball perspective (check).
  • Parker is/was a superstar (check).
  • The photo is a rare action shot for Parker, who always seemed to be warming up or leaning on a batting cage on his cards. (check)

It also doesn’t hurt that Big Dave was the best player on the Reds in the middle 1980s. Baby steps.

You couldn’t go wrong picking any one of maybe 50 different baseball cards as the best of 1976, maybe even some from the fabled SSPC set.

But if this exercise has reminded me of anything, it’s that “exotic” does not always mean “better.”

Sometimes, the real gems turn out to be the dusty rocks you’ve been carrying in your pocket all along.

(Read all about this 30-day challenge — and jump in on the fun — right here.)

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