Fifty years ago, Topps created a monster. But this was not their original intention.
In the spring of 1962, kids all over the country rushed to their favorite candy stores and exchanged their pennies and nickels for bright green wax packs of 1962 Topps baseball cards, only to rip them open and find... wood-grain borders surrounding photos of their favorite players? What was this?
After the color combinations on the 1960 Topps set proved to be somewhat bizarre, Topps decisively swung back to a more simple and conservative design with their 1961 series. But then the 1962 Topps set was released. Reminiscent of Bowman's 1955 "TV cards," with their simulated wood frame surrounding a color TV screen, these new cards were completely different than anything Topps had ever done before.
As summer approached, a new wrinkle developed. Cards with a decidedly greenish shade were now being pulled from wax and cellophane packs. On some cards, the player's face took on an unearthly cast. On others, areas of solid lime green appeared within the photos. There were even two different portraits used for the same player! One team card had two tiny inset photos in circles. (Or maybe it didn't.)
To make things even more confusing, four different cards were circulating with the same number. Not only that, more dual-pose cards surfaced. Sometimes the player's team logo appeared on his cap; sometimes it didn't. On other cards, the cap was missing entirely. As the year wore on, the card numbers kept climbing: from 450 to 500, to 525, to 550, to 570 and beyond.
What the heck was going on over at Topps? Was anyone in charge of quality control? Why did some photos look sharp and clear, and others appear blurred and washed out? And what was up with that green "glop" that appeared on random cards? (Of course, no such concern was voiced about the bubble gum itself, which lasted the usual three minutes and 43 seconds before losing its flavor.)
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
The story of the 1962 Topps baseball set is a tale of expansion, hedging bets, damaged printing plates, poor quality control, and flaws in the proofreading and editing process. All of this resulted in one of the more challenging sets to assemble, especially in high grade – and those wood-grain borders are only partially to blame.
Fifty years later, it's a daunting task to determine just how many cards actually make up a 1962 Topps master set. Officially, the last card issued was #598, the last of eight "Rookie Parade" themed cards. In reality, however, there are actually closer to 700 cards in a master set, if you collect all of the errors and variations-but there is still much debate over how many variations truly exist.
Love it or hate it, 1962 Topps has plenty to offer to collectors. In addition to an abundance of stars, the set consists of ten league leader cards, a ten-card commemorative series dedicated to Babe Ruth, a six-card World Series highlights subset, nine "In Action" cards, two ten-card All-Star subsets, and the previously-mentioned "Rookie Parade" lineup. There are also seven checklists, a ton of short prints, and plenty of combination cards that beckon collectors to this set.
Did I mention that Topps also stuffed their wax packs with color stamp inserts? And Baseball Bucks, which were faux dollar bills that featured portraits of well-known (and not-so-well-known) players? These goodies were identified only as "extra features" on some packs, and what impact they had on sales is unknown. But kids sure got a lot of bang for their loose change!
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
1962 was an unforgettable year. The Beatles' first single, "Love Me Do," was released. Andy Warhol's iconic Campbell's Soup painting was created, and Johnny Carson hosted his first Tonight Show. Sam Walton opened a discount retail store in Bentonville, Arkansas, calling it Wal-Mart, while the first Kmart store opened for business in Garden City, Michigan.
Astronaut John Glenn orbited miles above the Earth in his Friendship 7 capsule. Theatergoers flocked to see Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and Gregory Peck in the Oscar-winning film To Kill a Mockingbird. In August, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her home after overdosing on sleeping pills, while aging stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis shocked movie audiences with their performances in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
On a more serious note, Cuba's ally, the Soviet Union, began constructing ballistic missiles on the island that summer, and the United States moved swiftly to blockade the island when they were discovered. After some tense negotiations and the threat of a real nuclear war, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev finally agreed to remove the missiles, and the blockade was lifted.
The big baseball news in 1962 was all about expansion. Two more teams were added to the National League, with a franchise placed in Texas for the first time (Houston Colt 45s) and another "returned" to New York to replace the recently departed (but not forgotten) Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. This new team, officially known as the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club, would wear orange and blue uniforms and occupy the venerable Polo Grounds, just across the river from Yankee Stadium.
The return of National League baseball to "The Big Apple" was enthusiastically welcomed. The 'Ol Perfesser, Casey Stengel, would skipper the team in its inaugural season-a season that would feature more than a few ex-Dodgers (Roger Craig, Clem Labine, Don Zimmer, and Gil Hodges) and a smattering of former AL and NL stars (Gene Woodling, Gus Bell, and Richie Ashburn) in Mets uniforms.
Houston's opening day roster was even more of a hodgepodge. The list of players consisted of various benchwarmers along with a former AL MVP (pitcher Bobby Shantz, 1952), a member of the 1961 New York Yankees' World Series champions team (outfielder Bob Cerv), and a key player in the Game 7 Series victory for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates (catcher Hal Smith).
Unsurprisingly, the Yankees were an easy pick to repeat as American League champions in '62. They didn't disappoint, finishing at 96-66, five games ahead of the surprising Minnesota Twins-a team which was a year removed from Washington, DC. The second-year Los Angeles Angels also exceeded expectations, coming in at ten games over .500 at the wire in third place. Yankee players led the league in walks (Mickey Mantle, 122), hits (Bobby Richardson, 209), slugging percentage (Mantle again at .605), and pitching wins (Ralph Terry, 23).
However, the National League field was wide open. Would it be the pitching-rich Cincinnati Reds or Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series? The heavy-hitting San Francisco Giants? Perhaps the Pirates or Milwaukee Braves would surprise everyone and sneak in under the radar.
1962 was the last year for the dual All-Star Game format. The first installment, played on July 10 at Washington's D.C. (Griffith) Stadium, resulted in a 3-1 win for the senior circuit. President John F. Kennedy threw out the first pitch, and Juan Marichal earned the win after relieving starter Don Drysdale in the fourth inning; all while hometown favorite Camilio Pascual was tagged with the loss after replacing starter Jim Bunning.
In the rematch at Wrigley Field twenty days later, the American League had its revenge, 9-4. Pete Runnels, Leon Wagner, and Rocky Colavito all homered in support of eventual winner Ray Herbert (a twenty-game winner in '62 for the White Sox). Johnny Podres, Art Mahaffey, Bob Gibson, and Juan Marichal all pitched for the National League but couldn't hold back the AL bats.
Alas, neither of the NL expansion teams had much to show for their efforts at the end of the season. The Mets finished 42-120, with former Dodger pitcher Roger Craig going 10-24 with a 4.51 ERA. The team wound up an almost unbelievable 60 ½ games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants. (The Colt 45s fared somewhat better, edging out the Chicago Cubs for eighth place with a 64-96 record.)
Those same Giants finished the regular season in a tie with the Dodgers at 101-61, forcing a three-game playoff. San Francisco drew first blood 8-0, as Billy Pierce got the better of Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax. L.A. came back in Game 2 to win 8-7, but the Giants clinched the decisive Game 3, 6-4, as Don Larsen (yes, THAT Don Larsen!) relieved Juan Marichal in the third inning; the Giants scored four runs at the top of the ninth to put it away.
The '62 Fall Classic was indeed that. It went the limit and see-sawed back and forth between Yankee victories in games 1, 3, and 5, and the Giants taking games 2, 4, and 6. In a strange piece of déjà vu, Larsen won Game 4 in relief, exactly six years to the day of his perfect game against Brooklyn in the 1956 World Series.
Game 7 was perhaps the best of all. Hard-luck pitcher Terry, who served up Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run in Game 7 of the '60 Series, reversed his fortunes this time, going the distance with a three-hit, 1-0 victory. But it wasn't easy. In the ninth inning, with Felipe Alou on third, Willie Mays on second and two outs, second baseman Richardson speared a hard smash off Willie McCovey's bat to get the third out and preserve the win.
THE BEST LAID PLANS...
As the new year dawned, Topps faced a dilemma: the Brooklyn confectioner needed to complete its color photography early enough to begin the printing and production of the first card series (#1 - #109), but it was still unknown which players would be taken in the expansion draft. The solution? Photograph two poses for each player: one with the player's team logo displayed on both his uniform and cap, and one without the logo.
It wasn't a bad plan, as long as someone at Topps made sure that the correct poses were separated from the unusable ones. But that didn't quite work out, as eight players wound up appearing in the set with dual poses. (We'll get to those shortly.)
Another problem arose early on when Topps faced a higher demand for the second-series (#110 - #196) cards than the quantity they had originally ordered from their contract printer, Zabel Brothers of Philadelphia, PA. Since Zabel was about to start printing the third series cards, additional second series printing plates were accordingly shipped to another printer in upstate New York to handle this increased demand.
The name of that printing company is still uncertain, but speculation has it that Stecher-Traung of Rochester, a leading printer of seed packets, fruit crate labels, and nurseryman's plates, was the production source. (Stecher-Traung is also believed to have printed a portion of the 1952 Topps baseball set, cards which have been found in large quantities in Canada.)
Regardless of who actually took on the job, the plates were allegedly damaged in transit, and the entire second series of cards had to be reprinted. But once they were recreated, there was still one problem: either someone forgot to print the magenta plates, or the magenta color separations were made incorrectly. The result? Large swatches of bright lime green on certain cards and washed-out, yellowish flesh tones on others.
The theory that a second, new set of plates was prepared for the extra cards is supported by the eight pose variations mentioned earlier. The first seven are: #129A+B Lee Walls (facing left and right respectively), #132 A+B (Los Angeles Angels Team card, with and without two small inset photos), #134A+B (Billy Hoeft facing left and straight ahead), #147A+B (Bill Kunkel in a portrait and in a pitching pose), #174 A+B (Carl Willey with and without a cap), #176 A+B (Eddie Yost in a portrait pose and batting), and #190 A+B (Wally Moon in a portrait pose and batting).
The eighth pose variation stands alone because it shares a number with another pair of cards. Card #139A in the 1962 Topps set is the fifth card in the Babe Ruth Special subset, and it's titled "Babe Hits 60." This card shows Ruth teeing off against a stadium background, and on the green tint version (#139B), the field is completely green and part of the left-field foul pole is visible.
However, card #139 also exists as a portrait of Yankees pitcher Hal Reniff (variation C), but there's no evidence of any green tinting. The wood grain border is just a warmer, lighter color. On the other hand, variation #139D shows Reniff in a blurry pitching pose, hands above head, and with a green tint that is impossible to miss. Just to confuse matters more, Reniff also appears in a portrait pose on card #159 – which is actually the "correct" Reniff card in the checklist.
Confusing? You bet, but we're not done yet. The cards of Bob Buhl (#458) and Willie Tasby (#462) are available with and without team lettering on their hats. Checklist #1 has been found with two completely different series of cards listed on its back (#33 - #88 and #121 - #176), while the front of checklist #6 comes in two different font sizes. Checklist #7 can be spotted with white and yellow boxes, and there are even variations in the wood-grain borders for the second, fourth, and fifth series checklists.
Topps' woes with the color green didn't end after the second series printing misadventures. You can find cards in the sixth series that also appear to be green tints, even though they were printed at Zabel Brothers. Officially, these are not considered green tints because the photos are uniformly sharp, unlike the real thing. Therefore, the only possible explanation for these variations is (once again) a problem with the magenta color separations or the magenta printing plates.
To sum up, depending on which hardcore 1962 Topps collector you talk to, there are at least 690 cards in a "master" set (598 "regular" cards, 84 green tint variations, two pairs of #139 Reniff variations, the Buhl/Tasby cap variations, and four checklist variations). Possibly 695 cards if you include the checklist 2/4/5 grain variations. But who can say for certain?
Let's set aside the variations and green tints for a moment and look at the rest of the set. The 1962 Topps cards use a vertical orientation for most cards, with a player photo centered on the wood grain background. In the lower right corner, a photo peels away to show the player name, position, and team.
The reverse has a dark red and black color scheme with a black baseball behind the card number. The player's bio appears below the ball, and his past year and lifetime stats are along the bottom-just like the design used for '61 Topps. A Jack Davis cartoon completes the layout, again repeating the 1961 motif.
Not surprisingly, the #1 card features Roger Maris. Coming off his historic 61-home run season, "Rajah" was a logical choice to hit in the leadoff spot. Maris also found his way onto cards #53 (American League Home Run Leaders), #234 (Game 3, 1961 World Series), #313 (Maris Blasts 61st), and #401 (AL-NL Home Kings, with Orlando Cepeda).
Two prominent rookies made their debut in this set, and both are in the Hall of Fame. Gaylord Perry occupies card #199, while Lou Brock – then with the Cubs – is featured on card #387. Other noteworthy rookies include Tom Tresh (#31, the 1962 AL rookie of the year), the Orioles' Boog Powell (#99), Cardinals backstop and long-time broadcaster Tim McCarver (#167), Jim Fregosi (#209), Braves catcher and Cardinals/Mets/Yankees manager Joe Torre (#218), Indians pitcher Sam McDowell (#591), Yankees hurler Jim Bouton (#592), Braves/Cardinals catcher Bob Uecker (#594), Yankees first sacker Joe Pepitone (#596), and Milwaukee/Houston infielder Denis Menke (#598).
Hall of Famers in the set include Sandy Koufax (#5), Roberto Clemente (#10), Ernie Banks (#25), Ed Matthews (#60), Brooks Robinson (#45), Stan Musial (#50), Harmon Killebrew (#70), Warren Spahn (#100), Al Kaline (#150, also found with a green tint), Mickey Mantle (#200), Richie Ashburn (#213), Willie Mays (#300), Whitey Ford (#310), Hank Aaron (#320), Don Drysdale (#340), Frank Robinson (#350), Yogi Berra (#360), Carl Yastrzemski (#425), Duke Snider (#500), Bob Gibson (#530), Willie McCovey (#544), and Hoyt Wilhelm (#545).
The 1962 league leader cards, #51 through #60, are distinguished by their use of disembodied, floating head shots, a popular design gimmick that originated in the 1930s on sheet music and in advertisements with celebrity endorsers. Those endorsers, however, usually had the benefit of a star or some other attractive geometric pattern behind their head. Topps was not so kind.
The Babe Ruth Special subset captures significant moments from his life and career, starting with card #135 ("Babe as a Boy") and ending with #144 (Babe's "Farewell Speech"). The most popular card in this subset is #140, which features Babe and Lou Gehrig in street clothes, palling around. All ten of these cards are found with and without green tint variations, with #139B being the toughest to locate.
The "In Action" cards are dominated by Yankees. In addition to Roger Maris, shortstop Tony Kubek is highlighted as he "Makes the Double Play" on card #311, Whitey Ford as "Tossing a Curve" on card #315, and Mickey Mantle is showcased as "The Switch Hitter Connects" on card #318. Other prominent players featured in this series are Warren Spahn (#312), Rocky Colavito (#314), Harmon Killebrew (#316), and Stan Musial (#317).
Cards #523 - #598 constitute the high numbers, and there are 43 short-printed cards in this series. (Many of the sixth series cards are hard to find in high grade, and they also carry a promotion for Topps' 1962 football cards on the reverse side!) The "Rookie Parade" subset carries the disembodied heads motif to an extreme, positioning them against a bright yellow background. Overall, this was not a very attractive group of cards, but there are simply too many important rookies included in the series to overlook it.
Of the many combo cards in this set, the #18 "Manager's Dream" card is in great demand as it features a rare combination photo of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays posing at the 1961 All-Star Game at D.C. Stadium. Both players are relaxed and smiling. (Look carefully, and you'll spot Elston Howard, John Roseboro, and Hank Aaron behind them.) Card #263 features legendary pitching coach and guru Jim Turner, instructing Reds hurlers Bob Purkey and Joey Jay, while card #351 showcases Braves' catchers Del Crandall and Torre.
THE VALUES AND SCARCITIES
Befitting its "monster" set status, the # 1 card in this series will set you back four figures in high grade. The current SMR value for Roger Maris' card in NM-MT 8 is $1750 because it is so condition-sensitive...and because it is, after all, Roger Maris.
High-grade copies from this set command substantial premiums. Those wood-grain edges are very sensitive! An 8 copy of Mantle's #200 card fetched $1,835 in a recent auction, while Willie Mays' card is worth about $1,000 in the same grade. Frank Robinson's #350 card is very tough in an 8 and SMRs at $1,150, while copies of Koufax's and Clemente's cards in the same grade are priced at $575 and $450, respectively.
On the auction circuit, a Gem MT 10 Bob Gibson gaveled down at $14,051 in 2010, while a MT 9 John Edwards realized $2,334 the same year; a 9 copy of Kaline's card changed hands for $2,580, and a 9 Brooks Robinson fetched $3,327. Amazingly, a 10 Santo finished at $5,898 in 2011, while a 9 copy of Bill Tuttle's card commanded $1,408.
If you could actually assemble a complete 1962 Topps set (no variations) in NM-MT condition, it's likely that you'd be on the hook for at least $30,000. There's no way to tell what a "master" set would bring in high grade, but it would surely exceed $50,000. The SMR doesn't list values for green tints separately but does list the #139 Reniff variations, if graded PSA 8, at $200.
Now for the scarcities. The consensus of the 1962 Topps "experts" on the Let's Talk Sportscards internet message boards is that the cards of George Witt (#287), Don Landrum (#323), and Paul Foytack (#349) are the toughest to find in high grade, primarily due to centering issues.
PSA Population Report numbers would seem to bear that out. Of the 253 existing PSA-graded Witt cards, only 13 have been awarded PSA 8s, with a solitary NM-MT+8.5 and nothing higher. Landrum's card is just as hard to find-there are only 14 PSA 8s, one 8.5, and a solitary 9. As for Foytack, there are just 15 PSA 8s and nothing higher in the PSA database.
The two #139 Reniff variations are not easy pickings either. The portrait variation has logged 38 PSA 8s, a pair of 8.5s, and five 9s, while the pitching variation shows up 32 times in 8 holders and twice in 9 holders.
Other scarce cards in the 8 category include #3 Pete Runnels (24), #6 Marv Breeding (25), #91 J.C. Martin (29), #93 John Blanchard (32), #129B Lee Walls (32), both variations of #134 Billy Hoeft (37 between the two), #139 Ruth Hits 60 (38 for both variations), #147A Bill Kunkel (31), #174A Carl Willey with cap (31), #176B Eddie Yost batting (32), #295 Vernon Law (24), #298 Bill Tuttle (27), #350 Frank Robinson (27), 365 Charlie Neal (26), #441 Checklist 6 (27 large and small print, 19 uncategorized), #458 Bob Buhl with M on cap (26), and #516 Checklist 7 with yellow boxes (18).
As of this writing, 142,495 cards from the 1962 Topps baseball set have passed through PSA's portals, with 46,089 PSA 8s being awarded. That number represents about 32% of the cards submitted (i.e., one out of three). That may have to do more with the wood grain borders showing wear and tear more readily than white-bordered cards – it's easier to spot and cull EX and EX-MT copies.
Interestingly, there are almost as many PSA NM 7s out there (46,468), an indication that more than one collector sent in what looked like a PSA 8 at first glance, only to receive one grade lower. Contrast those numbers with the 1961 Topps set, which has earned 81,034 PSA 8s (38.5%) and 56,567 PSA 7s out of 209,982 submissions total.
As for the highest grades, 1,179 cards have earned PSA 8.5s, while 4,196 entries eventually wound up in PSA 9 holders; however, just 74 cards made it to the top of Mt. Everest with PSA 10 rankings. For comparison, there are 1,621 PSA 8.5s in the '61 set, along with 12,067 PSA 9s and 399 PSA 10s.
I could go on for many more paragraphs about the quirks of this set. Suffice it to say that collecting a high-grade 1962 Topps baseball set is a real challenge, one that will take a few years and lots of searching through bins and binders to find those elusive green tints, short prints, and errors. (I've been advised that finding needles in a haystack may actually be easier!)
Sound daunting? You could always start by assembling team card sets. Consider the 1962 NY Yankees team set, which contains 60 different cards, including the ten-card Babe Ruth Special subset. (Correction, 62 cards. Wait, maybe there are actually 72 cards, if you count the Babe Ruth green tints. Or is it 76 cards?)
Never mind. Just point me to the nearest haystack...
The author would like to acknowledge the following individuals for their timely and invaluable help in preparing this article: Levi Bleam of 707 Sportscards for card scans, Bob Fisk and Doug Goodman, Kurt Juberg, and David Hornish from the Let's Talk Sportscards Internet message boards for additional scans, back history, and determining the total number of cards in a 1962 Topps baseball master set (if that's even possible!).