While baseball cards remained a consistent profit driver, the late 1970s marked a pivotal moment for Topps as it dove hard into the world of non-sports cards. Among these years, 1978 stands out as one where Topps was really trying to capitalize on a wave of T.V., movie, and other pop culture properties. This article will cover a bit of Topps’ history, the fervor for non-sports items, and the nostalgic allure of 1978’s non-sports card sets today from the perspective of the unopened market.
Background and a bit of Topps Non-Sport History
First, Topps didn’t start as a sports card company; it began as purely a gum company. The Modern Hobby Guide to Topps Chewing Gum: 1938 to 1956 notes that their first commercial product was a penny gum tab called “The Change-Maker,” which first hit the streets in December of 1939 and was called Topps gum. They then started creating humor products to wrap around the gum and novelty products in 1948 with ‘Tatoo’ subjects. Next, Topps had an engineering breakthrough when they figured out how to wedge a card into gum packs; that’s when the Magic Photos were packed with chews of Hocus Focus gum. According to David Hornish, 1949 became “the year of many cards,” with the X-Ray Round-Ups, Varsity, License Plates, Flags of All Nations, and Soldiers of the World. So you see, Topps card history kicked off primarily with non-sports items!
In the premier issue of Topps Magazine (Winter 1990), Jim Nicewander wrote, “More than 95% of all collectors’ cards ever issued have had nothing to do with sports. Even Topps started in the card business with a non-sport set in 1948 called Magic Photos. (Okay, so there were a few baseball players mixed in with the movie stars, generals and explorers, but it’s still generally considered a non-sport set.) Over the next 40 years, Topps non-sport sets – including Wings, U.S. Presidents, T.V. Westerns, Mars Attacks, Civil War News, Batman (an illustrated set from 1966), Star Trek, Wacky Packs and Dinosaurs Attack – have outnumbered its baseball issues almost 4 to 1.”
As a company, Topps had been privately held for decades before company stock was offered to the public in 1972 – though management remained with the Shorin family. But pressure for profits likely became more intense around then. Around this time, inflation in the U.S. started heating up, and to stay profitable, Topps was also changing how many cards came in packs and how much they cost. Furthermore, Topps also experimented with many test sets in 1974 (Action Emblems, Deckle Edge, Stamps, Jigsaw Puzzles), looking for new markets.
The profit pressure must have been intense because, in 1975, Topps started releasing many more non-sport trading cards like Bay City Rollers, Comic Book Heroes Stickers, Good Times, Planet of the Apes, and Wanted Stickers. In 1976 Topps released Hysterical History, King Kong, Mad-Ad Foldees, Marvel Super Hero Stockers, Shock Theater, Star Trek, and Welcome Back Kotter sets. And in 1977, Topps made sets for Charlie’s Angels and Star Wars. Maybe Topps saw the writing on the wall about their monopoly for sports cards (that was finally broken in 1980), but in 1978 it seemed like if there was a market for a non-sports set, Topps would enter it. So we were rewarded with a ton of sets, whose unopened material seems to be the most nostalgic and desired by collectors today.
1978 Topps Battlestar Galactica
The 1978 Topps Battlestar Galactica set has 132 cards and 22 stickers featuring photographs from the ABC science fiction series. In late 2002, a few Baseball Card Exchange (BBCE) authenticated wax boxes sold for ~$550.
1978 Topps Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Topps released a product with 66 cards and 11 stickers featuring movie photography from the 1977 Spielberg classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In late 2022, BBCE wax boxes were selling for just over $200 – down from 2021 hobby boom prices of over $300.
1978 Topps Grease
Topps released two series of cards in honor of the 1978 American musical romantic comedy featuring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Both series featured movie stills and had 66 cards and 11 stickers. In early 2021, 1st Series boxes sold for between $175 and $200, while 2nd Series boxes were a touch cheaper.
1978 Topps Jaws 2
The sequel to Spielberg’s 1975 classic was released on June 16, 1978, and Topps made a set of cards for it with 59 numbered cards and 11 numbered stickers. BBCE boxes were selling for over $350 in February 2021 but were closed to $180 in January 2023.
1978 Topps Mork and Mindy
Na-Nu Na-Nu! Mork and Mindy premiered on ABC on September 14, 1978, and Topps released 99 cards and 22 stickers—a BBCE-authenticated wax box sold in January 2023 for $156.
1978 Topps Star Wars
The Star Wars Trading cards were first produced and released by Topps in 1977 with Episode IV – A New Hope, but because of its success, they kept printing more series. Series 4 and Series 5 are both attributed as 1978 releases. The fourth series cards have green borders and are numbered 199-264, while the fifth series cards have orange borders and are numbered 265-330. Stickers 34-44 came one per series four pack, and stickers 45-55 came one per series five pack. In April 2023, Robert Edward Auctions sold a 4th Series BBCE Star Wars wax box for $1680; earlier in January, they auctioned off a 5th Series BBCE Star Wars wax box for $1080.
1978 Topps Superman The Movie
Like the cards for the movie Grease in 1978, Topps released a first series (cards 1-77) and an all-new second series (cards 78-165) for the Superman movie too. In October 2022, the first series of Superman boxes were selling for $270, down from a high of $750. Also, in October 2022, a second series Superman box was sold for $216.
1978 Topps Three’s Company
Three’s Company premiered in March 1977, but Topps didn’t make their 44 stick and 16 puzzle card set for the series until 1978. In late 2022, a few BBCE-authenticated wax boxes sold for ~$300.
Topps would continue releasing non-sports sets, but not at the same scale as in 1978. For example, 1979 saw the release of sets for Alien, Buck Rogers, The Incredible Hulk, Moonraker, Rocker II, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Classic releases continued into the 80s with incredible sets like 1982’s Donkey Kong and E.T., the A-Team in 1983, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984, and the introduction of incredible Garbage Pail Kids in 1985. But that’s just too much unopened nostalgia for one article!
For a bit more non-sport fun:
- If you’re into Star Wars cards, check out my deep dive about Everything We Know About the 1977 Topps Star Wars #207 C-3PO Anthony Daniels Error Card.
- I also wrote a few words about what a lot of collectors call the ideal non-sports set in the post-war hobby, the 1952 Topps Look ’n See Set.
- And finally, I tend to include a lot of non-sport stuff in The Post War Cards Newsletter.