As a fan of vintage unopened sports cards, I’ve studied a lot of the products and have a goal to document them all on the Unopened Archive. Recently, the BBCEmporium listed for sale a pair of vintage unopened items that I had only ever heard actually existed; factory-sealed 1976 Topps basketball boxes. See, before 1990, the only boxes Topps ever officially sealed were 1976 Topps hockey and Basketball boxes (OPC sealed their boxes at the factory). The hockey items, while rare, have been seen across the hobby more regularly in recent years, but the basketball boxes have been a unicorn. This article summarizes everything I know about them and what I think is left to be discovered.
Because we have more information, I’ll start with the 1976 Topps hockey boxes. In 1976, Topps distributed “standard” 16 box/36pack boxes of hockey cards. You can see an example of a wax case below.
Notice that the case code is #311-76. If you look at the bottom of a standard box, you can see its code; 1-311-70-01-6.
The 1 means it’s a box, 311 is the product code (like on the case), 70 means it’s a 36-count box, 01 is the first production run, and 6 is the years the box was designed (for 1976).
However, randomly an ultra scarce box will show up on the market with a sticker that says, “$2.70 FREE GOODS You get 4 boxes. Pay for 3 1/2.”
These boxes came in cases that held four 36-count boxes. $2.70 of free goods comes from half the packs in the box being free; 18 times .15 cents a pack equals $2.70. Collect Auctions has sold 4 of these unopened cases in the past few years; In November 2020, one sold for $11,753; in March 2021, another sold for $16,261; in July 2021, another sold for $11,306; and in November 2021 a case sold for $13,715.
Notice that the case code for the smaller case with “$2.70 FREE GOODS” has a different case code of #493-76. Inside this case were, obviously, four boxes, but one of them had a special sticker on it; the other three boxes did not have the seal.
The sticker has a code of 5-493-46-01-6. Notice the unique 493 code from the case? I suspect the first number being a 5 and the third number being a 46 are unique codes for the Free Goods stickers.
1976 Topps hockey wax wrappers have unique codes; they have a leading 0 on their codes and a 21 (0-311-21-01-6) for the third number, with the others being the same as a box.
Also, I found a 1976 Topps Hockey display box with the Free Goods sticker that sold on Lelands in 2019, and the box code is 1-311-70-01-6, just like a standard box, giving me more confidence in 5/46 being unique to the sticker.
Now, let’s talk about the 1976 Topps basketball boxes. First, here is the bottom of a standard 1976 Topps basketball box.
The box code is 1-378-37-01-6. Like the hockey box, the 1 is for being a box, 378 is the product code, Topps used 37 for 24-count boxes, 01 for being in the first production run, and 6 for the year the box was designed (1976).
In my newsletter, I recently shared the details of a DACardWorld find of a partial case of 1976 Topps basketball cards in 2011. Again, like the standard hockey case, you can see that the basketball box code matches the case code of 378-76.
Here are the two Free Goods boxes that BBCEmporium listed on eBay a few weeks ago.
The first, with the unbroken seal, was listed for $15,000 as a Buy it Now item, and it wasn’t available (I presume they sold it offline) a few hours after being listed. The Free Goods box with the broken seal was listed for $10,000 as a Buy it Now item and, after two weeks, was still on eBay after its listing on August 5th, 2022.
For the basketball cards, the sticker reads “$1.80 FREE GOODS You get 4 boxes. Pay for 3 1/2.” The reason for only $1.80 in Free Goods instead of $2.70 like the hockey boxes is because the tall-boy basketball boxes only held 24 packs (12 * .15 cents is $1.80).
It’s a little hard to make out the code on the Free Goods sticker, but I think it says 5-438-46-01-6. The leading 5 matches the hockey sticker Free Goods box; the 438 is different from the regular basketball box product code of 378, then 46 again, just like the Free Goods sticker on the hockey boxes.
1976 Topps basketball wrappers have a leading 0 and the third number of 74 (the rest of the numbers are the same as a standard box, 0-378-74-01-6).
Since the basketball and hockey Free Goods stickers have the same 5/46 numbers, I have a lot more confidence they’re the sticker code. I’d be more confident if I could get the code off the bottom of a basketball Free Goods box.
Now, given the fact that in 1976, Topps made uniquely coded 16-box and 4-box hockey cases (with matching product codes), it follows that they would have made a 4-box basketball case as well, and the product code on it would show 438-76 (438 like the sticker’s product code on the basketball Free Goods box shows).
Will a 4 count case of 1976 basketball cards ever appear? Hard to say; Topps printed 1970s basketball cards in far lower numbers than their baseball cards, and even those cases are rare. It’s also possible they were a test from Topps that wasn’t ever distributed, with some employees walking off with a few boxes. Because all the 4/36 hockey cases have come from Collect Auctions (Larry Fritsch vault), it’s possible Topps never released either of them.
If you know more or have examples (or corrections) to share, please get in touch with me, or leave a comment. In the meantime, I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for any intel on these unique Topps’ unopened items; happy collecting!