1954 Topps Baseball Card Set – Peace and Prosperity
July 28, 2009
by William Szczepanek
1954 was the first in a number of years of peace in the US. The Korean War had ended. The USSR would test a nuclear weapon and the Cold War would start, though no one knew it at the time. After one hundred years of colonial rule, France was forced to leave Vietnam, having been defeated by Communist forces. The Baseball Card Wars continued en masse with Bowman and Topps battling for cardboard supremacy. The effect of the baseball card war was felt big time by the diminished sets of each combatant. Each set was watered down by players that could be considered missing in action. The Topps set would include only 250 cards.
The design of the Topps 1954 baseball card set is one of the cleanest ever. The vertical format will stand the test of time as classic. Sy Berger called it his favorite. A color photo of the player dominated the card with a small action shot in black and white. The larger picture was usually a head shot, but often the player posed in a baseball position, ready to hit or pitch. The look varied from card to card with the portrait sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left, or even sometimes in the center. The black and white action picture, while much smaller, always overlapped the foreground picture, so the full figured batting stance, swing or pitching motion was never lost.
On the home front, families were enjoying economic growth and the first of the baby boomers were making their way through the lower grades of elementary school. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at an all-time high of 382.74. More notably, this is the first time the Dow surpassed its 1929 high, preceding the crash.
In many ways it was a time of innocence, when kids were sheltered from the world by parents who expected right and punished wrong. This was the last generation of kids to move through parochial schools when the nuns still “packed a wallop”, an action, which in most cases, was supported by the parents. I still remember my mother telling Mother Superior when I entered 5th grade at a new school, “if he gets out of line, just hit him.” “Thanks, mom.” I have many more fond memories of the nuns in grammar school than bad one’s, and still feel that we could use more discipline in schools today.
1954 was the first full year of television in our house. Prior to that I would lie on the floor and listen to the big console radio, picturing the scenes in my own mind. Television was the most fantastic thing I had ever seen. It was totally mesmerizing, as it was for millions of other people who could now afford TV sets. New TV shows that supported parental viewpoints included Father Knows Best with Robert Young. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet provided similar support for teaching wholesome values. These shows were hardly realistic, and they provided unattainable goals for kids and families, but they did teach many of the lessons of life. It was the year that boys would wear coonskin caps, in honor of the Disney character, Davey Crockett, with raccoon tails flying behind them as they rode their bikes. Many would permanently attach the tails to the seats of their bikes. The Tonight show also premiered with Steve Allen as the host.
1954 was a watershed year for a 5-year old kid moving through kindergarten. I watched locomotives give way to diesels at the local passenger train station. I watched Boeing 707’s replace propeller planes in the skies. Educationally, I was a bit backward at the time. I would not learn to read for another year. It was also the first time I opened a pack of baseball cards. I loved the pictures, though I wouldn’t be able to read the back of the cards for awhile.
These card backs were a mystery to me. The dark green back with the white words made them look foreboding, but the cartoons, called “Inside Baseball”, were something special and I could usually decipher the meaning. The other very bothersome aspect of the backs was that they weren’t printed consistently in the same direction, so when the cards were carefully sorted, the youngsters would be surprised to find the fronts in all directions. This has happened to many adults over the years also.
To me these cards represent the beginning of baseball. They were the first cards I had ever seen, and while the 1952 and 1953 Topps sets were classics in and of themselves, as a child I never remember seeing anyone with any of these 1952 or 1953 cards. 1954 was my introduction in a meager way into the hobby. I knew nothing of Willie Mays’ catch in the 1954 World Series. I didn’t even know who Willie Mays was at the time. Being from Chicago I did know the names Ernie Banks, Hank Sauer, Minnie Minoso and Billy Pierce. I also knew the names Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams, though I didn’t know why. It wasn’t because Ted Williams appeared on the first and last card of the complete set because I didn’t have either of those cards.
Sy Berger managed to sign Ted to a five year contract and
issued two cards for him, the only time that distinction would
ever be given to a player. Ted would leave Topps in 1959 and
sign with Fleer to create the incredible Ted Williams Set
devoted entirely to him. Bowman, which had slated Williams to be
card #66 was forced to remove the card from its set and it was
replaced by Jimmy Piersall, a bi-polar character himself, but
without the popularity of a Williams. Piersall was signed by
Topps in 1956 a few years after time in the hospital for a
The list of famous player cards that were missing from that set is impressive. They included:
The set did include a few notable rookies, like Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. It also had the first card representing twins, Ed and John O’Brien of the Pirates.
The photography for this set was excellent and many of the pictures would be used for the next three years on Topps cards and other promotional material. An interesting aspect of the set is that there is no border at the top of the card, only white borders on the left, right and bottom.
One of the biggest baseball weddings of the century occurred in 1954 with Joe DiMaggio marrying Marilyn Monroe. I didn’t know who Joe DiMaggio was, probably because he wasn’t still playing baseball. I did know who Marilyn Monroe was. I liked her, but I didn’t know why at the time.
The United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are unconstitutional. The words "under God" were added to the United States Pledge of Allegiance. Texas Instruments announced the development of the first transistor radio. And, the first Burger King opened in Miami, Florida.
Baseball in 1954 had a few firsts also. This was the first year that players were required to pick up their gloves when they left the field. Prior to 1954 the players would throw their gloves on the field after the third out and leave them there. Surprisingly, I have never heard of a player tripping over an opposing player’s glove. It was also the first year for the Baltimore Orioles and the last year the Athletics would play in Philadelphia before moving to Kansas City.
Pack ripping seems to be a popular aspect of bloggers today. So, pretend you have been whisked back to 1954 and have the opportunity to open a few packs of baseball cards. These are very likely the first baseball cards that I have ever seen. They are the lowest numbers in the set from 1954 that I have and therefore are most likely the first cards that appeared in packs that were purchased for me. Remember, as a 5-year old, I did not have any money. I did not receive an allowance until I was age 7 and that amounted to a whopping 10 cents a week, enough for two 5-packs of cards. Otherwise, you could get 1 card for a penny. So, here it goes. Move your cursor over the wrappers to see the card inside.
Exciting wasn’t it? Not a single big star in the bunch, though. There were some players who had some good years before 1954 and a few who had some good years after that, but not really anyone who was a star in 1954. And so it went for the rest of that year. Clem Labine was probably the biggest star I got from that year. I would have to wait until 1955 to hit the jackpot.
So, who won the Baseball Card Wars of 1954? It would have to be Topps. The pressure from Topps pushed Bowman to produce too fast, resulting in numerous errors and inconsistencies throughout the year. If Topps didn’t win the War in 1954 then they won the battle and then completed their victory in 1955 when Bowman introduced the unique, but corny TV set series. By that time Topps had won the hearts and minds of the kids and went on to buy out Bowman in 1955 resulting in a Topps Baseball Card domination for years to come.
I will leave you with a poem and a quote from Grantland Rice, considered to be one of the finest sportswriters ever. He died in 1954. He condemned the damaging influence of the salaries of sports figures in the 1920s.
"Money to the left of them and money to the right
“A wise man makes his own decisions, an ignorant man follows
the public opinion.”