Rookie Card Paradise: A Breakdown of the 1954 Topps Baseball Card Set

Jim Churilla
Apr 26, 2005

In 1954, one of the most heated battles in the history of the trading card industry was taking place between heavy hitters Bowman and Topps. Both companies were trying to out-do one another by signing the best players in the game, to enhance their products and secure a more solid foothold within the market. Bowman was the established player, having issued the first major baseball card set of the post World War II era in 1948, it was Bowman who had the exclusive rights to a number of players. Topps, on the other hand, was the newcomer who, in 1952, would issue their first true baseball card set.

Eventually, Topps would slowly win the battle of the card giants by paying players $125 for their rights, compared to the $100 that Bowman was offering. That was a nice chunk of change back in the day and, with the price of gas "going up" to .22 cents per gallon, every penny mattered! Bowman would end up suing Topps. They claimed that Topps was interfering with its players under contract, which meant Topps would take a hands-off approach to a number of players until the lawsuit was resolved. The whole scenario resulted in many players not being included in the subsequent Topps sets, with the most notable being Mickey Mantle, who would not re-appear until the 1956 Topps set, after Topps bought out Bowman.

So what did this mean for Topps and its 1954 baseball card set? It meant that Topps would have to scramble to fill out this eventual colorful 250-card set by including anyone they could. "Anyone" included a number of rookie cards, including players who would never make it to the big leagues such as card #204 Angel Scull. Coaches and manager cards were also used to "fill" the set, rounding it off to the 250-card total. Since Topps no longer had Mickey Mantle in the mix, they desperately needed a big name star player to highlight the set, and to make it appealing to the collector. Topps did just that by signing the "Splendid Splinter" Ted Williams to be the focal point of the set.

Fresh back from the Korean War, where he served as a Marine fighter pilot, Williams was the perfect fit for a company eager to break through in the industry. Topps would see to it that Williams would get plenty of exposure by making two different cards of him in the set, card #1 and card #250. To further expose Williams, a likeness of him would be used in all .5 cent 36 pack card boxes in a batting pose with his name on the box. One big problem did materialize once rival Bowman issued their 1954 baseball card set, their production of a Ted Williams card was promptly removed because of contractual problems, and was replaced by Jim Piersall. Both cards carry the number 66 in the set, with the short printed Williams obviously being the key card in the set. Understanding this climate of the time gives a better picture as to how the modern card industry was evolving during its infant stage, particularly in 1954.

The 1954 Topps baseball card set is, in itself, one of the most popular sets produced in the 1950's. The 250-card set was issued in different series throughout the year, beginning with Series One (which consists of cards 1-50), followed by Series Two (which is cards 51-75), and completed with Series Three (which are cards 76-250). It is important to note, however, that there is the possibility that additional series were released within the 76 to 250 card spread but no solid confirmation can be verified. Cards 1-50 were also issued in Canada but had a different card back, which was grey rather than the American white back version.

Each card in the set measures 2 5/8" by 3 3/4" of medium stock cardboard. The cards do not have a border on the top because of the way they were printed and cut. The cards on the uncut sheet with the same colors were printed upside down, on top of each other, and then cut. The front of the card features two player images, one of an up-close large color head shot and a second smaller black and white full body shot of the player in a posed action position. A team logo is on either the upper left or upper right of the card, and opposite is the player's full name, team, and position.

On every card, there is a facsimile autograph in black along the bottom portion of the card. It is determined that there are seven different background colors used on the card front: yellow, light blue, green, red, orange, dark orange, and white. The back of the card supplies the collector with all the vital information about the player. This includes the card number, the player/coach's bio, a short blurb pertaining to the individual's career, previous year's statistics along with lifetime statistics. You will also find a cartoon picture board of either one to three animated photos within a box titled "inside baseball", supplying additional information about the player/coach. The card back colors are green, white, red, black, and flesh tone.

In 1954, the Topps cards could be purchased in either dated or undated one-card penny packs, four-card nickel packs, and in fifteen-card cello packs. The wax packs wrappers combine the following colors, red, green, white, and black, and each one contains the ever-favorite Bazooka bubble gum. If one were fortunate, no gum stains would be on that player's card front or back.

The key cards in the set are the #1 and #250 Ted Williams cards, which being the first and last cards in the set, made them susceptible to damage when put together and stored in numerical order. Any or all Brooklyn Dodger and New York Yankee cards are considered desirable, especially card # 10 of Jackie Robinson, # 13 Billy Martin, #17 Phil Rizzuto, #37 Whitey Ford, #50 Yogi Berra, #132 Tommy Lasorda (Rookie card), and #239 Bill Skowron (Rookie card). Card # 90 of Willie Mays commands a high premium, and it would be Mays and his New York Giants teammates who would become World Series champions in a four game sweep over the Cleveland Indians in 1954. Mays would make his famous over- the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz's deep fly ball to centerfield, immortalizing himself as one of the best centerfielders and players of all time.

The rookie class in this set is a great one, and it includes the first year cards of # 94 Ernie Banks, #128 of Hank Aaron (Topps would use his same photo for their 1955 and 1956 sets) and #201 Al Kaline, all Hall of Famers! It's important to note that a PSA Gem Mint 10 Aaron rookie sold for $110,000 a few years ago and another for $90,199 in 2004. Card # 126 of Ben Wade has become noted as a tough common per the PSA Sports Market Report.

There were a few uncorrected error cards but none that added any value to the standard price. Card # 14 of Preacher Roe has February misspelled on the back; and card #19 of Johnny Lipton has the Orioles team name on the front, White Sox team on the back with Lipton wearing a Red Sox cap. Card #178 of Bill Glynn has his name spelled Gylnn on the front. One very popular card is #139 of the O'Briens, brothers Johnny and Eddie on the same card. Another card of interest was # 226 of the Baltimore Orioles Jehosie Heard, who on the back of his card is listed as "Little Jehosie" standing 5 feet 7 ½ inches tall and weighing only 147 lbs.

On August 16th 1954, the first Sports Illustrated magazine was distributed. Featured in this inaugural issue was a centerfold section, which featured the 1954 Topps Baseball set with both the front and back of the cards re-printed in the issue. The cards were paper-thin. On occasion, one can find this initial issue at various card shows or find the cards individually themselves. It was not the first issue of Sports Illustrated that drew the attention of collectors but, instead, it was the second issue. The second issue featured another spatter of 1954 Topps cards, but only this time it was of the entire New York Yankees team.

The significance of this was the fact that Topps did not have the exclusive rights to all the Yankees, and in particular - Mickey Mantle. All the Yankees that were included in the 1954 Topps set were re-printed straight from the set and in color, but the players that were not in the original set were produced in black and white. Needless to say, the second issue made for a true collector's item!

The year 1954 would prove to be a significant year for Topps, and to honor their 1954 set, Topps released their 2003 Topps Heritage set in February of 2003 in the same design as their original 1954 set. This was a fitting tribute to a set made during a time when much uncertainty evolved around the hobby at the peak of the early card wars.