Each week I look back through my baseball card collection for a deep dive on beloved Bombers and past seasons.
Player: Elston Howard
Set: 1964 Topps Coins
Coin #: 135
Eight years after Jackie Robinson heroically broke the league’s color barrier, a young man from St. Louis became the first African-American to put on the pinstripes. Over the next twelve years, Elston Howard not only established himself as one of the league’s brightest stars, but etched his name among the Yankee greats. This week we look back at his 1964 Topps Coin and his time in the Bronx.
In 1964, Topps randomly inserted metal coins into wax packs of their flagship baseball cards. The coins were 1.5″ in diameter (a little large than a Kennedy half dollar) and were imprinted with a color photo of a player. The first 120 coins in the 164-coin set included 60 American League stars with gold rims and 60 National League stars with silver rims. The final 40 coins were an all-star subset with 20 American League players on metallic blue backgrounds and 20 National League on red.
It was the first year Topps created coins but it would not be the last as sets followed in 1971 and a four-year stretch from 1987-90. The last three years of Topps Archives (2017-19) saw the coins return with retro designs from previous Topps releases.
Best from the Back: 1963 MVP
In 1955 Howard became the first African-American to don pinstripes. Eight years later, he became the first African-American to win the MVP Award, beating out Al Kaline by 100 votes. His 28 home runs and Gold Glove-winning .994 fielding percentage led the Yankees to a fourth straight pennant.
Howard in 1964
One year after winning the MVP Award, Howard upped his hits, double, walks, and batting average and nearly equaled his RBIs, but finished third in the MVP voting behind Brooks Robinson and Mantle. His .313 average trailed batting champ Tony Oliva by just ten points. In the field, he notched his second straight Gold Glove with an obscene .998 fielding percentage, registering just 2 errors in 1,008 chances. Both his chances and putouts (939) shattered the previous AL marks set by Earl Battery in ’62 while he made an eighth straight All-Star appearance. His sensational season led the Yanks back to the World Series for the last time in the ’60s. In a franchise swollen with legendary catchers, Howard will always be in the conversation for best backstop in Yankee history.
Because the coins are so susceptible to oxidation and wear, highly graded one can fetch high prices. Though Mantles are not particularly scarce, a high-grade Mick is worth hundreds. In recent eBay sold listings, a PSA 8 of Howard sold for $29.99 while raw coins go between $1 and $5.
“Oddballs” are a catch-all term for baseball card (and card-related) products released by food companies or retail businesses. In the boom years of the late ’80s and early ’90s, seemingly every business put out a card set including Woolworth’s, K-Mart, Post Cereal, Ames, Kay-Bee Toys, Sunoco, Toys ‘R’ Us, Denny’s, and others, sometimes through companies like Topps or Fleer, sometimes not.
Oddballs can also encompass products direct from major card manufacturers that feature baseball players on non-traditional mediums like coins, stamps, jumbo cards, mini cards, and stickers. Topps was a leader in oddball items throughout their 1970s monopoly and into the free market ’80s, producing everything from 1985 Rub Downs (images of players that could be transferred from wax paper with a coin) to 1990 Heads Up (die cut heads of your favorite players that came with a suction cup).
Oddballs are somewhat polarizing in the hobby and tend to be a niche interest.