Topps 1953 Baseball Card Set - Where Have All the Heroes Gone?
April 9, 2009
by William Szczepanek
Most everyone knows that Topps created the first modern day baseball card in 1952, which we consider the beginning of the Golden Age of Baseball Cards. But, this fact wasn’t known at the time. Topps and Sy Berger were still competing head-on with Bowman. Now, after a very successful campaign in 1952, what could they do for an encore? How could they make a future classic better?
The release of the newest Topps Baseball Card Set in April of 1953 coincided with the first TV Guide publication. Howdy Doody, and Kukla Fran and Ollie catered to the needs of the very young kids. Other shows which influenced the kids of the time included: The Roy Rodgers Show, The Gene Autry Show, The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley.
Westerns were really big at the time and the heroes in cowboy duds on the screen weren’t real cowboys. They were hardly ever seen herding or branding cattle. The use of guns was prolific, but killings were rare. Horses never got hit. The Hollywood Cowboys spent their time catching bad guys and rescuing cowgirls. Annie Oakley, played by Gail Davis, served as the role model for girls of the time, though I wouldn’t doubt that she had the attention of more boys than girls. These TV heroes played an integral role in shaping the lives of children of the time. When asked by adults what I would like to be when I grew up the answer was always a cowboy or a baseball player. While these actors and actresses were merely TV personalities and had problems of their own, they were larger than life heroes and their screen presence never let kids down. In like manner baseball players were revered. What seems particularly interesting to me was that there was not a shortage of heroes. Everywhere kids looked they found something good to emulate.
The videos shown are just a sample of TV show intros that were meaningful in and of themselves. Today, these scenes look very corny and most would laugh at them, though if these heroes meant something to you, then you might feel a soft spot in your heart for them and the memories they evoke. If you get chills when watching them, then you also probably have a better understanding of what collecting baseball cards meant to young people in 1953.
Topps appeared to be trying to create the look of the 1952 Bowman set, but they went one step further. The 1952 Bowman set was done with line drawings and the 1953 Topps set were prints from small color paintings done from black and white photographs. Action poses were rare, with most of the cards being portraits of the players. In taking this approach, each portrait was carefully rendered by excellent artists, including Gerry Dvorak. There were no bad poses. They were all carefully handcrafted. Ultimately, this set is recognized as one of the most beautiful baseball cards sets in history. In some respects the portraits appear to be caricatures with facial idiosyncrasies gently emphasized, giving the set a unique flavor. While I generally don’t care for baseball card head shots, these offer a sense of art that is unsurpassed in baseball card history.
The player name, position and team were on panels at the bottom of each card. The panels were red for the American League and black for the National League. The set included 280 cards which was much smaller than the previous year most likely because of contract competition form Bowman and because Topps still held unsold inventory from 1952.
The few action poses included:
Some of the best facial expressions include:
The features on #220, Satchel Paige, are incredible. Satchel is spelled incorrectly with two Ls, however.
The following card numbers (253, 261, 267, 268, 271, 275) were never printed probably because a contract wasn’t established.
The back of each card featured the player’s 1952 and lifetime statistics, the player’s full name and vital statistics including the player’s full name. The cards included a "Dugout Quiz" to help kids learn about baseball.
Collecting cards from that year was probably a very frustrating experience. While cards arrived in four series’ (#1-85, #86-165, #166-220, and #221-280), some cards from each series were not distributed until later. With certain numbered cards never produced and some cards showing up later and no checklists to know what was out there, serious collectors, meaning those over age 8, were as irate as 9 year olds could be. In all likelihood, it added a certain amount of mystery to the search for your favorite player. These were the types of things that kids can deal with, but adults go crazy about. Can you imagine if blogs existed in the 1950s and people from all over the world were in search of certain cards they weren’t even sure existed? Today’s adults would crucify Topps. Kids then just continued to pursue their goals.
The closing weeks of the 1953 season saw the Brooklyn Dodgers coast to first place over the first-year Milwaukee Braves. The New York Yankees continued their domination with their 5th consecutive World Championship as Mickey Mantle electrified the baseball world with his tape measure shot out of Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC.
Today, when I ask young people who their heroes are I get
blank stares. In 1953 every kid would have 5 names come to
mind easily, and not just baseball players or cowboys.