The History of Baseball Cards of the Golden Age - Topps 1952
September 22, 2008
by William Szczepanek
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,
but not baseball cards.
On the first day, around 1840, God created baseball and with it the first baseball cards, which were called “cabinet cards” and made to be shown in cabinets as mementoes.
On the second day, in the late 1860s, God created commercial baseball cards and instructed Peck and Snider to distribute them as advertisements for products of the time. And all was good.
On the third day, tobacco cards were created by Old Judge and were distributed in packs of tobacco. Goodwyn and Co also produced cards to stiffen their cigarette package. Allen and Ginter and others multiplied to populate the earth with baseball cards. After awhile the various tobacco companies comingled (merged) to form the American Tobacco Company. Baseball cards were no longer necessary and darkness covered the earth.
On the fourth day, the U.S. Government broke up the American Tobacco Company into many other companies and baseball cards were reborn, including the T206 series containing the immortal Honus Wagner.
On the fifth day, around the 1930s, another extremely popular era in cards was introduced by the Goudey Gum Company of Boston. The Goudey cards, especially from 1933, 34 and 38, are among the most popular cards ever produced. With colorful art, they depicted all the era's stars, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. With paper becoming scarce due to WWII, this era abruptly ended.
On the sixth day, in 1948, Bowman Gum, begotten by of the makers of the Play Ball cards, issued its first baseball issue. These small black-and-white cards pioneered the baseball card industry as we now know it. Bowman sold their cards with bubble gum inside the package. Their 1951 issue was very attractive and included the rookie cards of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
On the seventh day, in 1952, God rested having completed his creation, but Sy Berger did not. Sy created the 1952 Topps Baseball Card Set. Topps first major issue in 1952 is regarded by most as one of the greatest sets of all time. The cards are highly sought after by collectors today. The 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle is the most valuable card of the Post-War era. God was very pleased and smiled down on Sy, and all was good ― very good. The dawn of the Golden Age of Baseball Cards emerged and flourished through 1974 when baseball cards were no longer sold by series and could be purchased in complete factory sets.
So, now we know the beginning. But, did the Topps 1952 set actually catch on fire from the outset. It’s very difficult to believe, but this set, the cornerstone of baseball card collecting for the ages, was viewed as a failure by those discriminating people of the day ― the kids of the USA. In fact, the statistics on the back indicated that the numbers were from the Past Year, rather than from 1951, which would allow Topps to sell them after 1952 if they were not popular.
The back of the package read, “Topps Giant Baseball Picture Cards brings you for the very first time, full-color photographs of Big Leaguers --- in the New Big Size! Each card includes the player’s autograph, biography and official lifetime statistical record. Never offered before, this giant size, prize collection will be cherished through the years by every lover of the great American pastime.” When can we ever look back at marketing language like this and say that it was not just hype, but actually true?
The 1952 Topps set now goes for about $65,000. It was valued at about $23,000 twenty years ago and was virtually worthless twenty years before that. What caused this all to happen? Prior to this time all companies used baseball cards to sell other items all the way up to and including the Bowman cards of the late forties. Topps was the first company to sell baseball cards for what they were. In fact, I would guess that a large percentage of the gum included in the Topps packages was thrown away rather than chewed because it was really bad. If the sugar didn’t destroy your teeth, the rock hard sticks could break them.
In 1975, Bert Randolph Sugar, in the forward of the Sports Collectors Bible states, “In 1952 Topps introduced cards which have become the prototype for all Topps cards issued ever since. Cards which include statistics, personal information, team emblems and color pictures of the players.” Today we take these things for granted, but before 1952 no baseball cards combined all of the elements that are present on just about every major set issued since.
Let’s take a trip back to the time of the Korean War and see what was going on during this period. Peace talks were underway while battles continued along the front in Korea with both sides maintaining positions. About 1 million UN forces including 480,000 US soldiers could not move the front. Ted Williams decided to fly fighter planes in Korea instead of facing flying pitches in the US.
In the US, then as now, the focus was on peaceful endeavors. Bowman produced cards in the late forties and early fifties. The1951 cards were smaller (2-1/6” by 3-1/8”) and becoming very popular. In 1951 Bowman produced a set of 324 cards, which became very popular with the kids. Prior to 1952 the Topps Red and Blue sets were the same size as the Bowman cards for ’48, ‘49 and ’50 (2-1/16” by 2-1/2”). The 1952 Topps cards were big by comparison (2-5/8” by 3-3/4”). Topps reduced the size of its cards to the now standard 2 ½-x-3 ½ card dimensions in 1957.
The 1952 Topps set was issued in six different, consecutively numbered series.
The first sheet of 100 incorporated cards numbered 1-80. It contained 60 single-printed cards and 20 double-printed cards. The first print run of cards numbered 1-80 had black-printed backs. The second print run also featured cards with black-printed backs, but also included corrected versions of cards #48 and #49 from the first set. The final runs featured red-printed backs. The cards numbered 1-80 are very difficult to find in excellent condition, especially the first 10.
More cards were printed for the second series #81-130 than any other.
The third series included cards #131-190. It contained 40 double-printed cards and 20 single-printed cards.
The fourth series included cards #191-250. It contained 40 double-printed cards and 20 single-printed cards.
The fifth series included cards #251-310. It contained 40 double-printed cards (#251-280 and #301-310) and 20 single-printed cards (#281-300).
The sixth and final series included cards #311-407. It contained 94 single-printed cards and 3 double-printed cards. These cards are regarded as the rarest Topps cards from a regular series. The three cards that were double-printed are #311 Mickey Mantle, #312 Jackie Robinson and #313 Bobby Thomson. These cards have subtle differences among them. All three cards exist with two different back varieties. One type features the stitching on the ball that contains the card's number, pointing to the right. The other type shows the stitching pointing to the left. Also, the first Mantle has slight printing flaws, the black box does not go completely around the team logo on the front of the card, and there is a small white fleck in the upper left. The second Mantle has neither of these problems.
Bowman was more popular in 1952 and kids would look to the Topps set to fill in for players not contained in the smaller Bowman set. Since the Topps cards were not the primary cards purchased that year, kids would cut the Topps cards down to make them the same size as the Bowman’s. Many of the cards in the final series of the Topps 1952 set never reached market since stores replaced them with the football cards for the new season. Around 1960 Sy Berger hired a garbage boat and deposited the excess cards from the 1952 set in the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey shore. Talk about pirate treasure.
The 1952 Topps set was not without its peculiarities. While the intention was to produce cards for all 400 major league players, good or bad, Topps produced cards for only 388 players and 19 cards of managers and coaches for a total of 407. The cards for Stan Musial, the 1951 batting champion, and Ralph Kiner, the home run leader, were missing from the set, along with Ted Williams who had a contract with Bowman. Musial did not sign with Topps until 1958 and Ted Williams was signed away from Topps by Fleer for the 1959 season when an entire set of cards was issued for The Splendid Splinter.
Players missing from the Topps 1952 set include:
A tremendous oversight was that while many managers and coaches were depicted, Rogers Hornsby, who was manager of the Browns and the Reds that year, was nowhere to be found. Casey Stengel of the Yankees was also missing.
Card #31 shows Gus Zernial of the A’s with 6 baseballs stuck to his bat. The balls represented the 6 home runs he hit in three games to tie a major league record in 1951. He also hit 7 home runs in 4 games.
Airbrushing was common. The card for #374 of Al Benton shows an airbrushed “B” for Boston while he was wearing a Cleveland uniform. This was pretty common, but it could have helped if they would have put the “B” in the middle of his hat.
The set had errors to speak of also. Ben Chapman of the Reds, #391, was actually shown with a picture of Sam Chapman, who was with the Indians in 1951. Also the backs of the cards for Joe Page and Johnny Sain, #48 and #49, were interchanged. These were later corrected.
Some interesting facts are that numbers #1-80 were issued with some red and some black backs. #81-250 were the most common, #281-300 were single printed and the most expensive commons, and #311-313 were double-printed with #311 of Mickey Mantle still the most valuable even though his rookie card was actually produced by Bowman in 1951.
One of the most valuable cards of the set was card #1 of Andy
Pafko since so many cards of him were ruined by kids who carried
their cards around wrapped in rubber bands, thus cutting and
scraping many of these top cards. The last card #407 of
Eddie Mathews suffered a similar fate.
With so many firsts associated with it the 1952 Topps set is justifiably considered the cornerstone of modern baseball card collecting and unquestionably marks the very beginning of the Golden Age of Baseball Cards.