Set Registry: 1953 Topps, Works of Fine Art by Peter Putman

The year 1953 was a watershed year for baseball cards, no matter how you look at it. The "establishment," Bowman Gum, faced a challenge by the "new kid on the block", Topps Chewing Gum, for the hearts and minds (not to mention loose change) of young baseball fans all across the country.

Mantle Mantle

Bowman had staked their claim back in 1948 with a modest, 48-card black-and-white set of baseball players. The years that followed brought successively larger, more ambitious sets with color artwork such as Bowman's 252-card offering for 1952.

But 1952 also saw Topps move from fringe player to full-bore competitor with its now-legendary set of 407 baseball players, sold in packs with a stick of gum just like Bowman. The battle was on, and a lawsuit alleging player contract violations against Topps, filed by Bowman's parent, Philadelphia-based Haelan Laboratories, soon followed.

Mays

While that action wound its way through the courts, Topps was already planning their follow-up act - a set of large (2 5/8" x 3 ¾"), full-color baseball player cards for 1953, featuring individual oil paintings by commissioned artist Gerry Dvorak of New Jersey.

The 1953 Topps set would also be much smaller than the previous year's offering, much of which sat as unsold inventory on candy store shelves late in the summer and early fall of 1952, as children's thoughts turned to football. As a result, Topps scaled back to 280 cards in the 1953 set, almost one-third fewer than the year before.

Robinson

As winter turned to early spring, the Bowman lawsuit against Topps was eventually dismissed by the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, clearing the way for what remains one of the most attractive sets of sports cards ever printed - and one with more than its share of surprises.

Opening Day came, and the cards started flooding into stores. Milwaukee had a new team, the transplanted Boston Braves. The Brooklyn Dodgers made a strong start in defense of their 1952 National League flag, while the New York Yankees set their sights on an unprecedented fifth consecutive American League title and a World Series crown to go with it.

Lown

Out in St. Louis, the sad-sack Browns staggered through their last season before packing up and heading to Baltimore the next year. The Boston Red Sox (minus Ted Williams) and Cleveland Indians set their sights on the Bombers, while the New York Giants (minus Willie Mays) hoped to repeat their miracle finish from 1951. (Unbelievably, the Cincinnati Reds changed their official name in 1953 to "Redlegs" in the wake of the Army-McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts!)

Kids eagerly plunked down five cents to rip into fresh packs of '53 Topps, finding individual museum pieces - beautiful, colorful portraits modeled on contemporary photographs of popular baseball players.

Campanella

Each portrait featured a solid color border below it with the player's name, position, and team, along with a large team logo. American league players got a bright red banner, while cards of National League players sported a black version. This solid color border is easily damaged as it bleeds right to the edge of each card.

On the obverse, each card features the player's 1952 and lifetime stats (pitching or batting and fielding), vital statistics including the player's full given name (no nicknames here!), and a one-paragraph write-up. There was also a "Dugout Quiz" with trivia questions and accompanying cartoons. (Willie Mays' card features a Dugout Quiz about none other than the Iron Horse himself, Lou Gehrig.)

Woodling

1953 Topps were issued in four series: #1 through #85, #86 through #165, #166 through #220, and #221 through #280. But none of the series were complete, as five cards each from the first and second series were "bumped" back, creating chase cards (and a bunch of frustrated collectors!).

To further complicate matters, Topps' contract problems weren't over by a long shot. The Brooklyn, NY-based confectioner had gone on a pre-season signing expedition, hoping to nab players whose Bowman contracts had expired, but they couldn't get to everyone before Bowman did.

As a result, six cards were never issued in the fourth and final series (#s 253, 261, 276, 268, 271, and 275). Set-builders couldn't have known this at the time as there were no checklists included in card packs, and they likely went crazy after chasing down the original ten skip-printed cards, listed at right:

First SeriesSecond Series
#10 Smokey Burgess#94 William Kennedy
#44 Ellis Kinder#107 Danny O'Connell
#61 Early Wynn#131 Harry Byrd
#72 Fred Hutchinson#145 Harry Dorish
#81 Joe Black#156 Jim Rivera

Bolling

Topping things off were the inevitable single prints, including key cards of Pee Wee Reese (#76), Mickey Mantle (#82), Billy Martin (#86), Yogi Berra (#104), Phil Rizzuto (#114), Warren Spahn (#147), and the high-number rookie cards of Jim Gilliam (#258) and Johnny Podres (#263).

The set's two bookends are also valuable, although card #1 commands the higher price - it's Jackie Robinson, who began his major league career 60 years ago. Card #280 (Milt Bolling), on the other hand, isn't quite as valuable but still commands a premium as it, too, was a single print.

Collins

There are also print variations in 1953 Topps. Cards #81 through #165 and the missing 1st series cards were printed with white or black text below the player's name. The "bumped" 2nd series cards, however, only show white text as they were printed along with the third series cards.

Back in the early 1980s, several uncut strips of cards were found in a warehouse as paper salvage from Topps' Brooklyn plant. According to card historian Lew Lipset who examined the strips, each strip contained ten rows with ten cards per row, or 100 cards per sheet. However, only 80 different card numbers were represented on each sheet, which explains the "skipped" cards.

Calderone

Over 61,000 individual cards from 1953 Topps have been submitted for PSA grading to date. SMR prices for non-star cards within each series reflect the higher scarcity of single prints, with PSA 8 examples commanding 50% more in the first, second, and fourth series. (There are no single prints in the third series.) However, no premium is placed on individual cards having black or white text on the obverse, as they seem to exist in roughly equal quantities.

The key card for this set is (who else?) Mickey Mantle with a current SMR of $7,300 in PSA 8 condition, although these fetch substantially higher prices in auctions. According to the PSA Pop Report, it is also the most-graded card with 1,538 examples graded. Of those, 81 reside comfortably in PSA 8 holders, 10 are parked securely inside PSA 9 frames, and a solitary PSA 10 sold for $94,000 a few years back.

Slaughter

The #2 key card (some say it should be #1) is #244, Willie Mays who was serving in the Army. A total of 763 examples have been graded (half as many as Mantle's card) with 42 PSA 8's, 2 PSA 9's, and a single PSA 10 awarded. It SMRs at $7,650 in PSA 8, and that lone 10 brought $94,798 not long ago.

The #3 slot goes to Jackie Robinson's leadoff card, a double print valued at $2,650 in PSA 8. 889 copies have been graded with 55 PSA 8's and 8 PSA 9's awarded. Right on his heels is the one and only Topps card of Satchel Paige (#220), valued at $2,250 in PSA 8 and graded 1,171 times with 84 PSA 8's and 7 PSA 9's in circulation.

Feller

As for the scarcest graded cards, look sharp for #11 Sal Yvars, #30 Willard Nixon, #79 Johnny Wryostek, #93 Hal Rice, #105 Joe Nuxhall, #146 Granny Hamner, and #251 Sid Hudson. No more than 140 of each have passed through PSA's doors, with few 8's and 9's awarded.

Cards #27 Roy Campanella, #37 Eddie Mathews, #54 Bob Feller, #109 Alvin Dark, #514 Dick Groat, and #207 Whitey Ford also command substantial premiums in PSA 8 and 9 holders. In fact, the Groat card and #277 Willie Miranda (also a single print) are the scarcest of all 1953 Topps in high grade - just 15 PSA 8's have been awarded, with no higher grades in existence.

Morgan

As the 1953 season wore down, the Dodgers and Yankees managed to pull ahead of the pack and clashed once again for the fourth time in the past seven World Series, with the Bronx Bombers coming out on top by a 4-2 margin. 1953 slowly faded into history as those beautiful cardboard works of art were tossed into shoeboxes and abandoned to the backs of closet shelves, in attics, or in basements.

Thirty-eight years later, Topps reprinted the 1953 cards as part of its Archives series. To the surprise of many, the original six missing cards were also left out of the reprint set, leaving that part of the mystery unsolved. Topps did include 57 "Cards That Never Were" to tantalize collectors.

Ford

Among those were three checklists and cards of Bob Lemon, Jim Piersall, Robin Roberts, Gil Hodges, Harvey Kuenn, Leo Durocher, Richie Ashburn, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Casey Stengel, Duke Snider, and Larry Doby. (Stan Musial was almost certainly one of the 'missing' six players as he did appear in the 1953 Bowman Color set. As for the others - well, your guess is as good as anyone's... )

The timelessness of the 1953 Topps set was proven once and for all during the famous Topps archives auction on August 20, 1989. Marriott Corporation bid $110,000 for the original oil painting of Mantle used in the set's production, then snatched up Willie Mays' original oil shortly afterwards for a similar sum.

Complete sets of 1953 Topps do show up at auction frequently, although lower-condition sets are more easily found. Still, those oil paintings from long ago have tremendous eye-appeal in any grade, and nothing that any card company has printed in the past 54 years comes close to making a comparable artistic statement, in my opinion.

If you're up to the challenge, collecting 1953 Topps cards can be exhilarating, with the short prints, scarce high number cards, and printing variations. Who knows? You may even want to frame a few of them for your own museum...