SSPC: With the exception of some regional and oddball sets, baseball card collectors in the 1970s had the choice of collecting cards from one company and one company alone, Topps. Topps has a stranglehold on nationally distributed baseball card issues from 1956 throughout the 1970s until Fleer took up the challenge in 1980. But even before 1980, in 1975 to be exact, Mike Aronstein set the groundwork by challenging Topps in the market it had enjoyed to itself for two decades.
Aronstein was an ardent card collector who had put out card sets for several years in the 1970s, mostly minor league sets, but also some special team sets and reprints of some classic sets. His company was called TCMA, which stood for The Card Memorabilia Associates. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the initials also stood for Tom Collier and Mike Aronstein, co-founders of TCMA. From TCMA came the Sports Stars Publishing Co. or "SSPC." SSPC published an early baseball card magazine/advertising vehicle, called Collectors Quarterly. Aronstein decided to become a maverick by testing the baseball card waters by printing an unlicensed 630-card collector's set using the 1953 Bowman set as a model. The '53 Bowman's have always been a favorite of card collectors because of their photography and simple, uncluttered design. Collectors Quarterly, or CQ as it became known, was used to introduce and promote the SSPC set. Incidentally, CQ was edited by a young hobbyist named Keith Olbermann. Yes, that Keith Olbermann. Olbermann was charged with the monumental task of writing material for the backs for the 630-card SSPC set.
The winter 1975 issue of CQ contained a two-page cardboard insert previewing the 1975-76 SSPC set. The 18 cards could be cut apart into singles and represented something of a traded set, as each player or manager changed teams between the end the 1975 season and beginning of 1976.
"There was too much ‘gingerbread' on Topps cards," Aronstein said in a 1988 article for Baseball Cards magazine. "So I set out to produce a set that would be purely one of baseball player pictures. I used the 1953 Bowman set as a model. I had always liked the simplicity of that set and the fact that what you got on each card was a picture of a baseball player, period. Nothing fancy. Just a card." That concept spawned what collectors used to describe and identify the SSPC set: The "Pure Card."
Aronstein originally intended to sell team sets in stores. Full sets could be ordered through the mail. Sets were originally offered for $9.99, plus $1 shipping. Today, a complete set in NM is priced at $125. That price has remained fairly consistent for several years despite a large supply turning up in a warehouse find a few years ago. Commons list for 15 cents. The highest priced card is #187, Nolan Ryan, which is a $20 card in NM. Before his cards were able to reach stores, Aronstein was sued by Topps and barred from selling them further. He eventually settled with Topps and part of the settlement was that he couldn't comment on any of the details of the final agreement. Part of the agreement was that Aronstein was allowed to dispose of inventory on hand and that inventory was substantial enough that a good number of sets made their way onto the market. He was barred from additional printings and advertising. Because Aronstein agreed never to reprint the set, some collectors feel it has an air of legitimacy. Photos for the set were taken at New York stadiums by freelance photographers. That could explain why there are a preponderance of Mets and Yankees players in the set.
Many, but not all, managers and coaches are included in the set as well. Aronstein didn't bother with getting releases signed by the players and that could explain some of the erratic behavior exhibited on some of the pictures. A few of the photos are offbeat. On the checklist card for instance, George Brett is pictured making a wacky face, much to the delight of teammate Al Cowens. Phillies pitcher Joe Hoerner is pictured in a straw hat on another card. Expos lefthander Woody Fryman is shown driving a cart normally used by the groundskeepers. A couple of the players are pictured in minor league uniforms of the Toledo Mud Hens and Tidewater Tides.
Although Aronstein's bid to compete with Topps in the baseball card market fell short because of licensing and legal entanglements, some collectors still applaud the efforts to produce simple, uncluttered "pure" cards. That, plus the fact that it helped inspire the groundwork for the challenge by Fleer five years later, makes it a significant factor in shaping the hobby as we know it today.