The Year of The Mick: Collecting 1956 Topps Baseball Cards

Jim Churilla
May 24, 2007

For those of you who are old enough to remember the thrill of buying and opening fresh packs of 1956 Topps baseball cards, the moments and memories must be etched in the mind as if it were only yesterday. It is these recollections that generations of card collectors share. They keep us young and take us back to a time in our lives when everything seemed so simple. Time stood still as we excitedly opened our newly purchased packs with great anticipation not realizing that the small amount of change we invested actually included a purchase for a lifetime of memories, what a bargain!

The 1956 Topps baseball card set is exceptional in that it marked the beginning of a new era in the card collecting industry. Early in 1956, Topps would purchase arch rival Bowman, thus eliminating their major competition and beginning a domination of the market that would last until 1981. That year, Fleer and Donruss would produce their own baseball card sets after being granted trading card licenses from Major League Baseball effectively breaking Topps monopoly and paving the way for other companies.

1956 was a year of experimentation for Topps as they released a variety of sports sets to test the market. Included was Topps Hocus Focus both large and small versions, Topps Pins, and Bazooka Joe Big League Emblems. It was all an effort to gauge the market and fi nd out what really appealed to their target audience now that hey were the only major player in the field. In the end, the collectors remained loyal to the baseball cards and the experiments ended until the 1960’s arrived.

In 1956, Major League Baseball was unknowingly experiencing the end of an era when New York’s inter-city rivalries the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers would meet in the World Series for the very last time. During an incredible eight year time span from 1949 to 1956, New York baseball teams represented fourteen of the possible sixteen teams in the World Series. All eight World Series champions resided in New York, a feat that would never be replicated again because of the move west by the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers following the conclusion of the 1957 season.

New York City Mayor Robert Wagner made a last ditch attempt to keep the Dodgers in New York but it was not to be. The organization was not happy with the offer and, by the end of 1956, the Dodgers would eventually sell Ebbets Field to a real estate group. There was an agreement in place for the Dodgers to stay until 1959 with an option to remain until 1961, but neither would be realized. The New York Giants were also offered plans for a new 110,000 seat, $75 million dollar stadium in 1956 but it was the cost that killed the deal and put into motion the move to San Francisco.

The 1956 baseball season had many highlights which culminated with the New York Yankees game 7 win over the rival Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. This was Yankee revenge for the Dodgers World Series win over the Bronx Bombers the previous year. The greatest moment of the season was the one and only perfect game pitched in World Series history by Don Larsen in game 5 at Yankee Stadium. It took a mere 97 pitches. What is even more amazing is that it was pitched before 10,000 empty seats and that Larsen was roughed up his previous start, lasting only 1 2/3 innings! There were three regular season nohitters, Mel Parnell of the Boston Red Sox along with Brooklyn teammates Carl Erskine and Sal Maglie. Maglie was purchased from the Cleveland Indians early in the season by the Dodgers fi nishing runner-up in both the NL MVP Award and the Cy Young Award to teammate Don Newcombe. This was the first Cy Young Award in baseball history and was instituted by baseball head Ford Frick.

Mickey Mantle would hit monster shot after monster shot on his way to winning the Triple Crown with a .353 average, 52 Home Runs, and 130 RBI’s. The first switch hitter to lead a league in batting since 1889! Cincinnati’s Frank Robinson and Chicago’s Luis Aparicio would win the Rookie of The Year awards in their respective leagues. Pittsburgh’s Dale Long homered in a record 8 straight games while the White Sox’s Jim Derrington became the youngest pitcher ever to start a game at just 16 years of age.

The All-Star Game was won by the National League 7-3 but not without some controversy. Every Cincinnati Redlegs regular was voted by the fans to start in the All-Star Game, however, it was proven the ballot box’s were stuffed by Redleg fans so Ford Frick decided to disallow the vote and replace some of the Redlegs with more worthy players.

Other notable events that happened in baseball in 1956 included the fi rst umpire to wear glasses during a game, the first game played in New Jersey, the induction of Joe Cronin and Hank Greenberg into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the unconditional release of Phil Rizzutto by the Yankees, and Jackie Robinson retiring rather than accepting a trade by the Dodgers to the Giants. Also one of the original architects of the American League and the games longest tenured manager, Connie Mack, would pass away at age 93 as would fellow Hall of Famer and Philadelphia Athletic Al Simmons.

Outside of baseball, the federal minimum wage was increased to $1 an hour, the Interstate Highway System was born, Dwight D. Eisenhower was re-elected president, the cruise ship Andrea Dora sinks, the Hungarian Revolution occured, Grace Kelly Married Prince Ranier the third, the Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 500 points, and Elvis entered the charts for the fi rst time with “Heartbreak Hotel”. Yahtzee, Busch Beer, the snooze alarm clock, Certs breath mints, Jif Peanut Butter, the computer hard disk, the Hovercraft, “mistake off” or liquid paper as it is better know today, and the first videotape recorder made their debuts.

The 1956 Topps Baseball card set is considered by many to be one of the most attractive and highly desired sets ever produced. With most of the games big name stars of the day included, the set itself has an aura about it which reflects a time when the game was pure and the era was golden.

Topps having just bought out rival Bowman was free to rule the market, however, it would still be a few years until every player appeared in a Topps baseball card set. The reason for this would be because card contracts with players who were under agreement with Bowman before the buyout would have to be re-negotiated in time for the production of the 1956 Topps set. This proved difficult since Bowman had signed exclusive agreements with a number of players and, as a result, Topps could not issue a complete set of cards in 1956. The most notable player omission was Stan Musial, who would not appear in a Topps set until his 1958 All-Star card. 1956 MVP Award runner-up and Cy Young Award runner-up Sal Maglie also did not have a card in the set. On the other hand, Mickey Mantle would be the most heralded addition with his first Topps card since 1953. This would be his last card that featured artwork instead of a photograph.

The 1956 Topps baseball card set contains 340 numbered cards along with 2 unnumbered checklists and has the official set designation of R414-11. This was the first year that checklists and team cards appeared in a set. The set is broken down into four series with Series One cards 1 thru 100, Series Two cards 101 thru 180, Series Three cards 181-260, and Series Four cards 261-340. Series One and Series Three cards can be found on one checklist while Series Two and Series Four cards are found on the other. The checklists are very appealing with their red, white, and blue front colors and orange, brown, and grey back colors. As is true with all checklists, fi nding one that is unmarked has always been the challenge.

The key cards in the set are #135 Mickey Mantle, #5 Ted Williams, #33 Roberto Clemente, #79 Sandy Koufax, #31 Hank Aaron, #130 Willie Mays, #251 New York Yankees team card, #166 Brooklyn Dodgers team card, and both checklists. There are also 13 rookie cards in the set highlighted by #292 Luis Aparicio but missing from the set is the National League Rookie of The Year Frank Robinson. Card #8 of Walter Alston, #1 of William Harridge, and #2 of Warren Giles are obviously not of players but do get a rookie card designation since it is their first appearance on a card.

I recently read a story from a person describing his experience as a child growing up in New York City and collecting the 1956 Topps baseball card set. He claims that the hardest card in the entire set to attain was the New York Yankees team card. No matter how many packs he and his friends bought, that particular card was no where to be found. Finally, after spending a kids version of the Gross National Product, one of his friends did get the elusive card which, of course, he refused to part with. The Yankees team card is one of the prized examples in the set and it makes one wonder why it was so scarce at least in this incident and of all places in New York City?

During production, the 1956 cards were printed 110 to a factory sheet or 10 x 11. With the fi nding of an uncut sheet, it is known that there are 20 double printed cards in the first series. They are #2 Warren Giles, #9 Ruben Gomez, #14 Ken Boyer, #15 Ernie Banks, #19 Chuck Diering, #21 Joe Collins, #27 Nelson Burbink, #30 Jackie Robinson, #31 Hank Aaron, #34 Tom Brewer, #46 Gene Freese, #50 Dusty Rhodes, #52 Bob Grim, #60 Mayo Smith, #66 Bob Speake, #72 Philadelphia Phillies team card with name at far left, #75 Roy Sievers, #80 Gus Triandos, #82 Bill Renna, and #86 Ray Jablonski.

The 1956 Topps baseball cards could be purchased in either one card penny packs or six card nickel packs. Twenty four nickel packs made up a box and 24 boxes were in a case. The penny and nickel pack wax wrappers both have yellow backgrounds with the nickel pack showing a single drawn player and the penny pack with two drawn players. The nickel pack has advertisement such as Bazooka Gum while the one cent pack does not. Both packs are extremely hard to find unopened and the few that are out there demand a very high premium.

There also were gumball machines back in 1956, which gave you one 1956 baseball card and a gum ball for one cent. The gumball came through the dispenser while the card would emerge and have to be pulled out. The question then arises if the cards were from vending boxes or were the cards taken out of packs and loaded into the machines? It is unknown but the gumball machines can occasionally be seen at auction on various sites. There were also special three-card advertising panels, which were displayed in stores to promote the 1956 Topps baseball card set. The front of the panels show three cards as they actually look and on the back of each card printed in blue ink on a white background is "Topps Baseball", "2 Thrilling Color Photos on Each Giant Sized Card!", "Every Big Star In The Major Leagues". One known three card panel example has Johnny O’Brien, Harvey Haddix, and Roger Craig. I have found a single card cut away from a three card panel of George Susce JR.

Like the 1955 Topps set before, it the card dimensions measure 2 5/8” by 3 ¾” with a horizontal front and back format while using the same card stock thickness. But, unlike the 1955 set, the front of the 1956 card is not as glossy in appearance but has a more grainy look to it. The front of the player cards depict 2 photos, one which is an up close head shot imposed on an action or posed background photo with that particular players facsimile signature in black. Some of the same close up player head shots appear on Topps cards from both 1954 and 1955.

It’s important to note that, in 1956, Topps had one part time photographer and a limited amount of available pictures to use. The card front is ringed by a solid white border which may vary due to the way the card was factory cut. Either at the upper left or upper right of the card will be two colored boxes within a white bordered box. The upper box contains the players name in white lettering against a colored background, which is one of six different colors, red, blue, orange, green, black, or light blue. The lower box contains the player’s position and his team name in black lettering with a background color of yellow, orange, blue, or green.

Cards 1 thru 180 have either white or gray backs with the first 100 cards containing more white backs while the last 80 cards contain more gray back examples. The remaining 160 cards in the set are all of the gray back variety. The back of a player’s card lists a wealth of information. The top portion contains the card number, the players name, height, weight, and home along with his position, team, the way he throws and bats and his birthdate. The middle section of the card takes up nearly half of the card back and has three colorful cartoons depicting different career highlights or personal information. The lower section of the card back supplies that player’s statistical information from the previous season and his career totals from the major or minor leagues. Fielding information is listed on a number of cards but not all. The colors on the card backs are gray, white, black, red, dark green and light green.

Of the sixteen team cards that are in the 1956 set, six come with three different variations and two of those have gray and white back variations. The three team card variations have either the team name centered on the front of the card, are dated with the year 1955, or have the team name to the far left. According to the Sports Market Report, it is the dated examples which are valued the highest followed by the team name to the left and then the centered team name version. Topps certainly did justice to the team card backs providing a great deal of information about that particular team. Included is a brief team history, a diagram showing the fi eld dimensions, all-time season records, and a list of the pennant and championship team years.

Another addition to the 1956 Topps set is the inclusion of card # 1 of American League President William Harridge and card #2 of National League President Warren Giles. Two very neat cards that show a portrait shot of each president on the card front and an awesome card back that supplies info about that particular president. What is really eye catching is how the back information is framed by all eight team logos and full team names from that president’s league. As is the case with most beginning and end cards of vintage sets, the #1 William Harriage card demands more of a premium since it was more susceptible to damage as a result of rubber bands and first card exposure.

There are believed to be over 200 different card variations in the 1956 set due mostly to the gray and white card backs. There are, however, a number of cards that have color line variations on the card front. Most notably is the Ted Williams card which has either no line over his name or a thin green, red, blue, or yellow line between the white border for a total of five variations. None are considered to have any impact upon a cards value. Whitey Ford and Early Wynn are two other cards which have no line or a thin red or yellow line. The only errors known to exist in the set are a handful of uncorrected errors. Card #31 of Hank Aaron actually shows Willie Mays sliding into home, card #218 of Joe Nuxhall is misspelled Nuxall, card #241 Don Mueller shows his height as 6 inches tall, and the #251 New York Yankees team card shows Don Larsen misspelled on the front as Larson. There are also thirteen cards with player name variations that are not error cards.

During the 2006 National Sports Collectors Convention in Anaheim, California this past July 26-30, Topps issued a four card cello pack of their "Cards That Never Were" to each VIP guest. A total of five cards were created to the exact specifications of the 1955 and 1956 Topps cards. The 1956 Topps "Cards That Never Were" are #341 Frank Robinson, #342 Duke Snider, N.L. Homerun King, #343 Brooks Robinson Rookie card, and #344 Mickey Mantle, Triple Crown. The lone 1955 Card is #211 Mickey Mantle. If you didn’t attend the National and get your cello pack, the good news is that I have noticed a number of examples up for sale on some of the various auction sites.

According to the most recent PSA Population Report, over 120,000 1956 Topps baseball cards have received grades which makes it the most graded Topps product of all time. This is amazing for a set of only 340 cards but a credit to its durability and popularity. Even more impressive is fifty years after its release, the 1956 Topps baseball card set remains as golden as the anniversary it celebrates!

Please feel free to contact Jim Churilla at [email protected] with any additional information or comments.