Topps 1961 Baseball Card Set - To the Moon, Alice!
December 3, 2010
by William Szczepanek
The 1961 Topps Baseball Card Set design was in stark contrast to the previous year. Multi-colored text was replaced with simple, easy-to-read type in a small font, leaving ample room for graphics. In most cases though the pictures were head shots and often the player posed in a relaxed manner, sometimes with no hat or other team identifying logo, due largely to Topps concern that the AL Expansion Draft would leave many players with wrong uniforms in print. Team logos were also missing from the cards themselves, but in general the cards exhibited a very clean look. Most collectors preferred full uniform and action shots. The vertical design would become the standard going forward.
Expansion Dilutes the Game, But Adds Interest to Baseball Cards
1961 was the year of expansion with the American League adding the Los Angeles Angels, formerly a minor league franchise, and the new Washington Senators. Confusion reigned as the old Washington Senators moved to Minneapolis. Because of the draft many players were wearing new uniforms and playing in new cities. For as long as anyone could remember, baseball had two 8-team leagues. Now, with ten teams in the American League and 2 more to be added to the National League the next year, the standings seemed bloated. Topps expanded their set to 587 cards, which seemed like a good thing.
Expansion was inevitable, but it had not gone the way everyone wanted. There was a plan to add a third league, and the Pacific Coast League was one option. The move of the Dodgers and Giants in 1958 killed the idea. The Continental League concept, led by Branch Rickey, also folded. In retrospect, adding another league at the time could have done more for baseball than the addition of teams every few years. This idea played out well for the American Football League, which started in 1960, built interest in the cities where teams were started, surprisingly merged with the NFL in 1966 and was competitive from the start. The popularity of football grew rapidly and the new progressive format grabbed Americans hearts. Baseball continued to drag its feet and to this day can't seem to move in any direction with the speed that's necessary put a spark in the game.
It's In The Cards
While the cards were numbered to #589 only 587 cards were issued with a few numbering errors. Topps continued with specialty cards with a series of League Leader cards (41-50), checklist cards (17, 98, 189, 273, 361, 437, and 516) rather than putting checklists on team cards, another "Baseball Thrills" subset (401-410) and a Most Valuable Player series (471-486). Two manager subsets (131-139 and 219-226) were added. All-Star cards were again toward the back of the last series separated by another World Series Highlights set (306 - 313).
Rookie cards looked the same as veterans except with a gold star in the corner indicating the player as a "1961 Rookie". All Star rookies received a trophy. As part of Topps' 10th anniversary, a special subset was included in tribute to all of the Most Valuable Players from the past decade. Cards 471-486 each show an MVP from the American and National League. Multiple winners (Banks, Berra, Campanella and Mantle) were depicted on one only card.
The back of the cards contained good stats and bio information with an occasional cartoon. Topps went back to using a full career's worth of stats, including minor league information when room allowed.
Maris and Mantle Duel It Out
Another occurrence that makes this set collectible is the home run battle between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Everyone knows the story, but it is interesting to consider it the last pure home run race in baseball. The McGwire/Sosa race was tarnished by the actions of both of them. The same holds true for Barry Bonds' total for a season. To say that drug use is a product of the times and that respective records will be viewed as such says a lot about the difference in perspective of the fans of the different times. But, some players will always try to get an edge no matter what the era. Tiger first baseman, Norm Cash admitted to using a corked bat during the race for the 1961 batting title hitting .361. His drop to .242 in 1962 was the largest ever for a batting champion. Roberto Clemente would hit .351 for the National League Batting Title.
With that said, the American public at the time could not accept the fact that Babe Ruth's record could be broken by anyone other than Mantle. Yes, the pitching was weaker because of expansion in the American League, but the record was set not with the aid of steroids or loaded bats, but with the pressure of death threats and persistent reporters that heaped attention on a player who would rather have been left alone. With lack of sleep and his hair falling out in clumps Maris beat the odds and deserves a great deal of credit for his accomplishment. Maris's 61 homers and 132 runs scored with 142 RBIs, earned him the AL Most Valuable Player Award for the second year in a row. The National League MVP would go to Frank Robinson of the Reds.
Baseball Leads Civil Rights Movement
People like Frank Robinson, Bill White and Bill Bruton would lead the way for equal rights. In 1961 White suggested that black players refuse to play in cities that did not offer integrated housing. Bruton indicated that white players should support their Black and Latino teammates off the field as well as on. Baseball made things happen first, before schools did, before the military did and before the Civil Rights Act would.
More Baseball in 1961
In the World Series the New York Yankees would defeat the Cincinnati Reds 4 games to 1 with Whitey Ford taking the Series MVP Award. The AL Rookie of the Year would go to Don Schwall of the Boston Red Sox and the NL award would go to Billy Williams of the Chicago Cubs. The lone Cy Young Award was awarded to Whitey Ford of the New York Yankees. Whitey Ford led the Majors with 25 wins. Camillo Pascual of the Twins lead the American League in strikeouts with 221, while Sandy Koufax fanned 269 in the National League for the Dodgers.
In August the Phillies would beat the Milwaukee Braves 7 -4 in the second game of a double header to end a modern-day record of 23 consecutive losses. John Buzhardt was the winning pitcher. He also won the previous game for the Phillies before the steak started.
Mickey Mantle became the highest paid ballplayer with a salary of $75,000. Adjusting for inflation, if ballplayers today were paid equivalently the highest paid player would make about $531,000. Seems fair to me.
Eisenhower to Kennedy to the Moon
In January President Dwight Eisenhower gave a Farewell Address the same day as the State of the Union and warned of the increasing power of a "military-industrial complex". The reigns of the country were then turned over to a young John F. Kennedy.
Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners had left the scene in 1957, but the Ralph Kramden quote, "To the moon, Alice!", would take on a new meaning as President Kennedy would declare our new goal to the world of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely before the end of the decade. At the time it sounded impossible. We had barely been able to consistently put little objects into space, much less get full-sized people to the moon and back. No one thought it was made of green cheese, but many did not have a clue of what it was really made of.
The Cold War
Within the first three months of his presidency, Kennedy would suffer his first defeat at the hands of the Cubans and Fidel Castro when the invasion of Cuba (Bay of Pigs) fails. In the month preceding the invasion the Cuban government, Fidel Castro, abolished professional baseball and ended the Cuban League which was started in 1878. What is particularly interesting is the young and inexperienced Kennedy would receive the support of the American people because he accepted full responsibility for the defeat and no longer would act based only on the word of his generals.
In defeat Kennedy became stronger. He needed all the strength he could muster in his meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, a couple of months later in Vienna as Khrushchev pushed his view to spread communism through Europe and Kennedy refused to give in. Khrushchev told Kennedy, "Force will be met by force. If the US wants war, that's its problem." Kennedy replied, "Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be a war. It will be a cold, long winter." Kennedy told Hugh Sidey, Time magazine’s White House correspondent. “I never met a man like this, I talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill 70 million people in 10 minutes, and he just looked at me as if to say, ‘So what?’”
The Cold War dragged on unrelentingly as the Soviet Union continued to explode larger and larger atomic bombs. The Berlin Wall was constructed and American troops in Germany stared eye to eye with the Russians at the border. The Soviet Union detonated a 58-megaton yield hydrogen bomb. It remains the largest ever man-made explosion. These were the worries of kids who collected baseball cards in 1961. Something that was not an immediate worry of the time was that The Vietnam War officially began when 400 U.S. personnel arrived in Saigon.
In April Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and a feeling of gloom spread across the U.S. The following month the U.S. sent Alan Shepard into space and the race was on.
Today's Cold War between the US and China does not get the same exposure in the news. The cyber cold war between China and the U.S. is just getting started. China has demonstrated its ability to "manipulate" the Internet. Websites have been redirected through Chinese servers. The mushroom clouds of the past are being replaced by computer viruses and hacking. The Cold War of 1961 was very visible. The cold war today is hidden in the Internet.
The Beatles performed for their first time at the Cavern Club, but were still unknown in the U.S. "Barbie" got a boyfriend when the "Ken" doll was introduced. Pampers the first disposable was diaper introduced. What did people do before that? Talk about a crappy job.
Music was a mixture of folk, intrumentals, love songs and rock and roll. It was still a time when you could understand the words and the words were actually relevant to the time.
1. I Fall To Pieces,
Movies had stars galore with many from the past and a few new
A Time of Challenge
1961 was a time of challenge. The Soviets were exploding bigger and bigger atomic bombs. Satelites began to populate the starry night. Our presence in Viet Nam was expanding. Inflation was at a reasonable 1.07%. The cost of a gallon of gas was 27 cents, not really much different than today, considering inflation. However, unemployment was only 5.5% and the US was ready to embark on the most prolific time in its history by educating their young better than any other country and encouraging them with new jobs in many sectors depending upon their abilities.
Manufacturing was churning out the best products on the planet in the U.S. Technology advances and innovation were pushing us ahead of everyone. Our new president challenged us to be more physically fit and get up from the TV sets. Educational policies made it possible for just about everyone to go to school if they worked hard at it. Parents realized the need for a college education and encouraged their kids to be the best. Competition was fierce and awards went to the winners, not all participants. Having everyone feel good was not a consideration. Careers were delayed until an education was achieved and/or military service was completed. In fact, it was the age of "delayed gratification". Work hard, save money and you will be rewarded in the long run. Teachers encouraged this, parents encouraged this and students understood that to move ahead they needed more education. It worked back then.
The Challenge Today
The same things are happening today except not as well. By and large colleges and universities are in the business of making a profit. If they were paid based upon the ability of their students to land jobs in the various curriculums, the courses of study and teaching methods would be very different. More and more institutions are geared to vocational areas that sound like they will lead to lucrative jobs, but the jobs do not really exist. They have been replaced by technology, or outsourced to other countries where education levels are just as good or better than ours with wages that are much lower.
For those that really couldn't make it in college in 1961, there were other jobs where their skills could be used. College was for learning how to learn, not learning how to do a job. It is the government's responsibility to create jobs that best make use of the skills of its citizens. That's how countries succeed. But, our government no longer is interested in whether the people in the country succeed, but rather whether the corporations in the country succeed. The government failed to protect the people from their most dangerous enemy, that of not being able to work and pay taxes. When everyone pays taxes the entire system works. It has been proven that trickle-down economics no longer works. Why is it still being discussed? What is needed are new jobs, in new areas, using new technology that will spawn the next "Age". In the past we knew what age we were entering from agricultural to manufacturing to service work in the computer age. What is the next "Age"? Shouldn't we know that so we can prepare ourselves and our kids.
In 1961 people were beginning to leave the factories for office jobs, but America still had the best factories in the world making the best products. Americans enjoyed the fruits of their labors. The country expanded due to its ability to produce things. Today we produce fewer things and are expected to spend to keep our economy going. If we continue to outsource our manufacturing and service jobs then we better find out what else we can make that no one else can make, or what we can do that no one else can do; otherwise, the ball game is over.
At least the baseball cards of today are still produced here and their quality has never been better. But, will they keep their value over time as Americans change their views of what is important to them? It really depends on what these cards mean to people, not what price books say they are worth.
"Alice, did you see my baseball cards?"