This legendary set is hard enough to complete in basic form.
As a master set, it's nearly impossible.
If you've been collecting vintage baseball cards for any length of time, you're well aware of the so-called "monster sets," a rarified category that includes 1909-1911 T206 White Border cigarette cards, the 1933 Goudey gum collection, and 1952 Topps.
Collectors who decide to take on any of these three legendary sets can be likened to bold explorers of the 1700s and 1800s: They're not sure of when (if ever) they'll get to their destination, but they can expect plenty of surprises and hardships along the way.
Each set has its almost insurmountable challenges. No one knows for certain how many T206 front and back variations actually exist, and a complete set requires the ultra-scarce and stratospherically expensive Wagner and Plank cards, not to mention the Magie and Demmitt variations.
The 1933 Goudey set might appear less intimidating at first glance, but it has four high-priced Babe Ruth and two Lou Gehrig cards, plus the rare and costly Lajoie redemption card.
Compared to those two sets, building a 1952 Topps set would seem to be a walk in the park... except that you've got to hunt down at least 407 cards, one of which (Mickey Mantle) currently sells for five figures just in VG-EX condition. No, wait – make it 487 cards – uh, 489 cards. Correction, that's 549 cards. (Or is it 552 cards? 553?)
Amazingly, all of these counts are correct, depending on how thorough you want to be. A basic 1952 Topps set consists of 407 cards, while a true master set that encompasses all printing and back color variations would feature 553 cards. And you'd probably spend most of a lifetime trying to complete it, not to mention a good chunk of your life savings!
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
For the Topps Chewing Gum Company of Brooklyn, NY, 1952 was a watershed year. It marked the debut of Topps as a serious competitor to Haelan Laboratories' Bowman Gum division in the growing baseball card market. And Topps got out of the gate in a spectacular way that spring, with large (2 5/" x 3 ¾"), colorful hand-tinted photos of baseball players that simply dwarfed Bowman's 1952 offering.
To make sure kids got the message, 1952 Topps green and red wax packs featured the wording "giant size" on the front. On the back, the advertising copy stated "... Topps Giant Baseball Picture Cards bring you, for the very first time, full-color photographs of famous Big Leaguers... in the New Big Size!" (Note the liberal use of initial capitalization to drive the point home.) The copy concluded by stating, "... this giant size, prize collection will be cherished through the years by every lover of the great American pastime."
The 1952 set was loaded with stars, from Roy Campanella (#314) to Willie Mays (#261), from Duke Snider (#37) to Bob Feller (#88). Several coaches and managers also made the roster, including Leo Durocher (#315), Chuck Dressen (#377), "Milkman" Jim Turner (#373), and Bill Dickey (#400).
Prominent rookies included Billy Martin (#175), Pete Runnels (#2), Roy McMillan (#137), Minnie Minoso (#195), Clem Labine (#342), Dick Groat (#369), and Gil McDougald (#372). Andy Pafko grabbed the #1 slot, while another prominent rookie and eventual Hall of Famer bookended the set at #407 – Eddie Mathews.
All in all, the 1952 set looked like a sure hit, and kids responded enthusiastically, helped by some incredibly elaborate end-of-aisle displays at national chain stores, such as Woolworth's. Five different printings of cards, numbered from #1 through #310, eventually made it from store shelves into pockets, shoeboxes, and classroom desks.
Duly inspired, Topps decided to print a 6th run of cards, starting with card #311 and ending with #407. Unfortunately, these cards came out so late in the summer that fan interest in baseball had already waned. As a result, many retailers had to return boxes and cases of unsold product to Brooklyn.
Other stores were more prescient. Observing that the calendar was already into September, they didn't bother to order the last series at all. As a result, kids across the country either were completely unaware of the high-number run or searched in vain for them at their favorite candy shops and "five and dimes."
Most of the unsold high-numbers eventually wound up dumped into the Atlantic Ocean in 1960 from a garbage barge. Aboard that barge was Topps executive Sy Berger, who originally designed the 1952 cards and who must have had mixed feelings as he watched several hundred cases of his babies tumble overboard to a watery grave.
Topps also shelved plans to bring out a unique 1952 baseball card collector's album, an idea that made it as far as an artist's comp (a mock-up of the final product) that was salvaged from the company's archives. This erstwhile collector's book had enough space for 100 cards to be pasted in and also featured team rosters, stats, and schedules, all for ten cents.
It was no surprise, then, that Topps scaled back its follow-up set in 1953 to 280 cards, issued in three series. However, they weren't above trying to get rid of excess 1952 inventory by sticking those cards in random 1953 wax packs.
But, the glory days for '52 Topps were yet to come...
There was plenty of news in 1952. Jonas Salk perfected his vaccine for polio, the first hydrogen bomb was tested, and Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin continued his hunt for supposed communists in the United States government. Queen Elizabeth took the throne in England, while Dwight Eisenhower became the 34th President in November.
The Korean War continued to rage on, pulling more than a few ballplayers off the diamond to serve their country, most notably Ted Williams and Jerry Coleman (both fighter pilots in the Marines), Ernie Banks, Whitey Ford, Eddie Mathews, and Willie Mays.
Even so, 1952 was a good year for baseball in the New York City metro area, although attendance for both the National and American Leagues declined from the previous year. The Yankees and Giants had squared off against each other the previous fall in the 1951 World Series, with the Yankees capturing the crown, four games to two.
Highlights included the first appearance of Mantle and Mays in a Topps set, Joe DiMaggio's last Fall Classic, and a grand slam home run in Game 5 by the 1951 American League Rookie of the Year, Gil McDougald (#372). Game 6, a 4 to 3 nail-biter, was saved in the ninth inning for the Yanks by journeyman pitcher Bob Kuzava (#85).
As the 1952 season got underway, Topps hoped that fan interest, particularly among young boys, would mean big sales numbers. As it turned out, another Subway Series was in the offing. The Brooklyn Dodgers captured the National League pennant with one of their strongest teams, finishing with a 96-57 record; 4 ½ games ahead of the Giants. Up in the Bronx, the Yankees edged out the Cleveland Indians by two games with a 95-59 record.
Not surprisingly, the 1952 Series went the full seven games, with the Dodgers capturing Game 1 at Ebbets Field and Games 3 and 5 at Yankee Stadium, while the Bombers came out on top in Games 2, 4, 6, and 7. The Brooks once again came up short despite Duke Snider's four home runs and his .345 batting average, which was matched by Dodgers captain Pee Wee Reese (#333).
In a déjà vu moment, Bob Kuzava saved Game 7 with a 7th-inning appearance, allowing no hits over 2 2/3 innings. He's still the only pitcher in baseball history to save back-to-back Series-clinching games!
In another bit of trivia, Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca (card #274, and he of the "shot heard 'round the world" 1951 playoff loss to the Giants), managed to be the first National League player to be ejected from a World Series since 1935 – and he didn't even pitch during the Series.
At one time, it was possible to buy 1952 Topps literally for nickels and dimes. I've spoken with old-time dealers who remember buying Mantle cards for a dime each and selling them for a dollar apiece in the 1970s.
It took time, but the popularity of 1952 Topps finally took off, ignited by several developments, the first of which was a then-record auction of Mickey Mantle's card (#311) for $3,000 in 1980.
The second was Topps' 1952 Topps reprint set, which appeared in 1983 and featured all but five of the original players on cards printed in Northern Ireland in the modern (2 ½" x 3 ½") card size. (That set now sells for about $150 to $200 in the original, unopened box.)
An issue of the now-defunct Current Card Prices from June, 1985 lists the value of a complete 1952 Topps set in EX-MT condition as $9,844, with first printing (1-80) common players going for $4.25 apiece in near mint condition, 2nd printing (81-250) at $3.50 each, the "tough" series (#251 - #280) for $10 a pop, and the "short print" run (#281- #300) at $11.50 per card. Singles from #301 to #310 were tagged at $10, while high number commons brought $53.
Believe it or not, prices of Mantle's card actually dropped after their 1980 spike, with that 1985 issue of CCP quoting $1,970 for a near mint example. Andy Pafko's card brought $100 in the same condition, while Eddie Mathews' cardboard fetched a little over $400. At the first card show I ever attended in 1984, one dealer had a complete set in Excellent to Mint condition for just over $10,000.
Those low prices didn't last long, propelled higher by a major find in Massachusetts of pristine, unopened high number cards by Mr. Mint, Al Rosen, in 1986. According to his website, over 6,000 untouched high-numbers and 65 Mantle cards were uncovered. Quite a few mid-series cards were also unearthed in the attic discovery of cellophane-wrapped packs, and many of these "find" cards are now encased in PSA holders.
Additional discoveries in the past two decades have included unopened wax packs, primarily of first series cards. The advent of grading by PSA only drove the frenzy higher as collectors began to realize just how tough it was to find centered, near mint examples of 1952 Topps – particularly those cards placed near the corners of sheets prior to cutting.
The November 2007 issue of SMR describes the opening of a 1952 Topps 1st series pack at the Cleveland National, revealing five cards that ultimately received PSA grades as high as PSA NM-MT 8 (Wayne Terwilliger) and as low as PSA EX 5 (Ferris Fain). Corner damage and a big wax stain on the Fain card were the culprits.
Here's how far we've come in nearly 30 years: In the August 2008 Goodwin and Co auction, a complete set of 1952 Topps in PSA 8 holders, including black and red back variations for 79 of the first 80 cards (excepting the #1 Pafko card), plus the #48 Joe Page/John Sain back and #49 John Sain/Joe Page back errors, sold for over $1,000,000.
Several cards set record prices, including $49,636 for a Pete Runnels black back variation, $15,866 for the aforementioned Wayne Terwilliger with a red back, $11,919 for #9 Bobby Hogue with a red back, and $11,919 for #75 Wes Westrum, also with a red back. The Page/Sain back fetched $16,350 and its counterpart Sain/Page back realized $14,863. Even the Sain correct back/black back variation gaveled down at $13,344.
Takes your breath away, doesn't it?
BUILDING THE SET
As mentioned earlier, a basic 1952 Topps set consists of 407 cards, with either red backs or black backs making up cards #1 through #80. If you choose to collect both color backs, you'll need to add another 80 cards to the set. To be even more thorough, you'll have to find copies of the two error cards (#48 and #49). The first series has also produced error cards that are missing the black ink printing, although these are not considered part legitimate variations.
There are also front color variations, most notably card #55, Ray Boone. You'll find this card with an amber-colored background behind his head and shoulders photo (red background), with a greenish-colored background (black back), and with an amber-colored background again, but with a black back.
The Pop Report shows many cards in the first print run that are scare. A few years back, PSA started to differentiate black backs from red backs, but cards graded prior to that time are not differentiated. As a result, it's not possible to determine how many actual red and black back variations have been graded, unless the owners of those cards decide to re-submit them to PSA for re-holdering and classification.
As for market value, SMR currently values common players anywhere between $95 to $135 in PSA NM 7 condition, with PSA 8 cards fetching $300 and up on average. Pafko's card is listed at $72,500 in PSA 8, and recent auction results are driving other stars and semi-stars even higher.
The next print run is probably the easiest to find. It consists of cards #81 through #130, and there are no known variations within this series. It's also largely devoid of Hall of Fame players, featuring only Bob Feller and Johnny Mize (#129) among a run of mostly commons. Not surprisingly, these are some of the lowest-priced cards you will come across as you build your set, with PSA 7 commons valued at $70 and PSA 8 examples pegged at $215.
Cards from #131 through #190 are available with both white backs and gray backs, and if you are committed to building a master set, you'll need to find examples of both. A few common cards in this series are scarce in high grade, including Del Crandall (#162), Eddie Kazak (#165), Ed Erautt (#171), and Charlie Maxwell (#180). SMR prices are similar to the 81-130 series.
If you've managed to locate one copy of everything so far, your master set is up to 330 cards. But the fun is just beginning! Cards 191 through 250 exist with only one back and ink color combination and are also relatively common. Even though there are a few superstars in this series, such as Yogi Berra (#191), Richie Ashburn (#216), and Larry Doby (#243), cards in this series are also very much affordable and easier to come by.
The next print run (251-310) not only has a few "big ticket" cards like Willie Mays (#261) and Bob Lemon (#268), it's also loaded with short prints – specifically, all cards from #281 (Tom Brown) through #300 (Barney McCoskey). Commons in this range command a 20% price premium over the 81-250 series, with PSA 7 copies valued at $90 and PSA 8 cards going for $235.
Here's where you'll also find an extremely rare back variation on Frank Campos' card (#307). On the bottom of the card below the stats, the red star to the right of the wording "Topps Baseball" has been overprinted in black. How rare is it? A PSA 8 copy sold in Goodwin and Company's April 2007 auction for $34,716, and the PSA Population Report shows a total of 9 Campos variations graded (out of 110,000 1952 Topps cards). Talk about scarce...
REACHING THE SUMMIT
And now we come to the last, but toughest part of the chase – the high-number series. There are 97 cards in all, many of which now command big bucks. Still working on your master set? You should have accumulated 452 cards by now, unless you've managed to snag the rare Campos variation.
The prices fetched by high-grade cards in this series are simply astonishing, to say the least. A PSA MINT 9 Mantle from John Branca's collection went for over $280,000 in 2006, while a PSA MINT 9 Jackie Robinson brought $28,016 in 2005. Most recently, PSA NM-MT 8 Mantles realized $112,800 and $98,177 respectively at auction.
There are many known scarcities in this series, and recent prices reflect that. Yankee pitcher Bill Miller is featured on card #403, and is difficult to find centered, let alone in high grade. A PSA NM-MT 8 copy sold for $4,375 in Goodwin's 2008 auction, while Jim Turner's card realized $4,761. The Pop Report shows 14 PSA 8s and 1 PSA 9 of Miller, with 18 PSA 8 and 2 PSA 9 Turners.
Other scarce high-number cards and their final Goodwin auction prices include #316 Davey Williams ($3,285), #320 John Rutherford ($10,321), #326 George Shuba ($16,626), #341 Hal Jeffcoat ($2,243), #388 Bob Chipman ($3,976), and #398 Hal Rice ($3,285). Finally, although PSA has graded 396 copies of the Mathews card, only 13 have earned PSA 8 grades, while 2 have qualified for 9s. The PSA 8 example gaveled down at $41,734.
Not discouraged? Press on, but also be advised that there are also three high number variations involving cards #311, #312 (Jackie Robinson), and #313: They are all double prints, the only ones you'll find in the high-number series. On each card's obverse, you'll find the stitching on the baseball pointing left or right, with all three variations featuring right-hand stitching.
On Mantle's card, his skin tone is darker, and there's a white printing dot alongside the left border at eye level that appears in the variation. There's also no black border around the Yankees logo, and the last "E" in his signature ends with the line pointing down. The outline around his name box is also jagged.
On Robinson's card, the differences are much more subtle. But you'll see less grain in the bat and more of a reddish color cast, plus the image appears to have less contrast. Lower contrast is also seen on the Thomson variation, along with a green line to the left of his cap and a very ragged border around the name box.
THE FINISH LINE?
Assuming you find all three variations, you're now up to 552 cards, minus the Campos variation. And you deserve a big round of applause for pulling off this Herculean task.
Can't even imagine building a high-grade 1952 Topps set? Don't worry, lower grade 1952 Topps are plentiful and highly collectible. As this article was being written, a complete set of 407 cards, mostly VG condition but with a few PSA 5s, 6s, and 7s, had a high bid of $8,470 at auction. (The Mantle was trimmed and holdered by PSA as Authentic Trimmed).
And there you have it – one of the most intriguing baseball sets of all time, with errors, variations, tough cards, superstars, and Hall of Famers. No matter what grade you collect, completing a 1952 Topps set is truly an accomplishment – a chase that will keep you busy for years. Good luck!