A funny thing happened in the world of baseball in 1959: After 13 consecutive seasons, a New York City-based team failed to make it to the World Series. Even more surprisingly, a Chicago team did, for the first time since 1945. And their opponent was a recent transplant from New York, playing home games in (of all places) a college football stadium.
Yes, 1959 was a memorable year. It featured what was at that time the longest nine-inning game in history (three hours and fifty minutes), a perfect game lost in the 13th inning by the starting pitcher, and the apparent winner of the American League batting crown being disqualified for lack of one extra at-bat.
It was an eventful year, promising change. Two new states (Alaska and Hawaii) were admitted to the union in 1959, while Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in early January. Mattel introduced the Barbie doll and met with instant acclaim, as did Boeing with their new 707-series passenger jet.
Xerox lifted the curtains on its first commercial copying machine; the St. Lawrence Seaway opened to allow easier shipping between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, and Bonanza on NBC became the first regularly scheduled TV show to be broadcast in color.
A NEW LOOK
Change was also rippling through the Topps factory in Brooklyn, New York. Their 1959 series of baseball player picture cards would be the largest ever offered, with 572 entrants. It would feature a new sub-set of cards devoted to upcoming rookie players and another sub-set of "baseball thrills," while retaining the Sporting News all-star and multi-player/coach combination cards from 1958.
Topps' completely new design for 1959 featured a head and shoulders shot or a full-body pose of each player within a circular vignette on the obverse, with the player's name written in lower-case boldfaced text at an upward-leaning angle across the top of the card. The vignette was surrounded by bright solid colors, with a team logo and name at the bottom. This "look" was quite a departure from the rather staid cutout portraits and action poses, set against solid color backgrounds, that were found in the 1958 Topps set.
The reverse of each card relied on a more traditional layout, combining each player's name, hometown, and vital statistics with year-by-year and career stats. There was also a small cartoon that illustrated a significant event in the player's life or career.
Topps' 1959 offering presaged a new era of card designs that were much heavier on graphics and type treatments and employed bolder and brighter colors. You'd have to go back to the 1955 Topps set to find a similar combination of strong, contrasting colors and graphic treatments with traditional player photos.
In fact, this design was contemporary enough to be recycled for Topps' 2008 Heritage series of cards, many of which reserved famous card numbers from the 1959 set for current-day stars from the same teams (i.e. Alex Rodriguez appears on card #10, which was Mickey Mantle's number in 1959).
Topps' 1959 "look" was as much a surprise as the failure of the favored New York Yankees to return to the World Series that October. In fact, they didn't even finish second in the American League, slumping all the way to third place, 15 games behind the "Go-go!" 94-60 Chicago White Sox that were led by speedy shortstop Luis Aparicio.
In one of the more unusual World Series, the Sox squared off against the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were just two years removed from Brooklyn and playing in the mammoth Los Angeles Coliseum (seating: 94,000 for baseball), a venue better suited to the football Trojans of the University of Southern California. And the Dodgers had to win two extra playoff games just to get there, having finished in a tie for first place in the National League with the Milwaukee Braves at 86-68.
Los Angeles prevailed in six games, splitting a pair in Chicago and taking two of three at the Coliseum. They returned to Comiskey Park where they finished off the White Sox in a 9-3 rout. The series featured tremendous relief pitching from Dodger right-hander Larry Sherry (5 2/3 innings to close out Game 6) and two pinch-hit home runs from bench player Chuck Essegian.
The biggest baseball news from 1959 was Pittsburgh Pirates ace pitcher Harvey Haddix' "blown" perfect game on May 26th against the Braves. Haddix tossed nine, ten, eleven, and twelve perfect innings against the Braves, only to see everything come undone by a fielding error in the top of the 13th inning. This put the first runner on base for the braves, so Haddix issued an intentional walk to the next batter, Hank Aaron (a no-brainer move).
But Joe Adcock, batting behind Aaron, finished off Haddix and the Pirates with a three-run home run. In a bizarre conclusion to the game, the final score was officially changed a day later from 3-0 to 1-0. Apparently, Aaron had left the field before circling the bases and Adcock had passed him, so the National League president's office ruled both players out and disallowed two runs.
John Patsy "Tito" Francona of the Cleveland Indians had to be just as frustrated as Haddix. He finished the season with an impressive .363 batting average, getting 145 hits and 20 home runs along the way while driving in 79 runs. But there was one little problem: 400 at-bats were needed to qualify for the American League batting title, and when all was tallied up, Francona had only 399 official at-bats. (Doh!) Instead, the Tigers' Harvey Kuenn walked away with the crown.
As for the game that would never end? The San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs flailed away for nearly four hours before the Cubs put things away with nineteen hits and five home runs, winning 20-9. (Evidently, the Giants specialize in this sort of thing. They're still in the record books as part of the longest nine-inning game in National League history, an four-hour and 27-minute 11-10 loss to the Dodgers on October 5, 2001.)
There are plenty of stars in the 1959 Topps set, starting with Mickey Mantle (#10) and continuing with Willie Mays (#50), Stan Musial's first-ever regular Topps issue (#150), Sandy Koufax (#163), Yogi Berra (#180), Roger Maris' 2nd-year card (#202), Ernie Banks (#350), Al Kaline (#360), Hank Aaron (#380), Frank Robinson (#435), Brooks Robinson (#439), Roberto Clemente (#478), and Harmon Killebrew (#515).
Notable rookies in the set include Felipe Alou (#102), George "Sparky" Anderson (#338), future NL president Bill White (#359), Norm Cash (#509), and fireballer Bob Gibson (#514). Among the Sporting News Rookie Stars, Bob Allison (#116), John Blanchard (#117), John Callison (#119), Ron Fairly (#125), and Deron Johnson (#131) stood out.
Some of the more prominent combination cards featured Tigers sluggers Al Kaline and Charlie Maxwell (#34 Pitchers Beware), Ernie Banks, Dale Long, and Walt Moryn (#147 Cubs Clubbers), the ageless Minnie Minoso and Rocky Colavito (#166 Destruction Crew with Colavito's name misspelled), and Hank Aaron and Ed Mathews (#212 Fence Busters).
Other combinations included Gil McDougald, Bob Turley, and Bobby Richardson (#237 Run Preventers), Johnny Podres, Clem Labine, and Don Drysdale (#262 Hitter's Foes), and Roberto Clemente, Bob Skinner, and Bill Virdon as the Corsair Outfield Trio (#543).
The ten-card Highlights series featured action photos with headlines such as Mantle Hits 42nd Homer For Crown (#461), Kaline Becomes Youngest Batting Champ (#463), Mays' Catch Makes Series History (#464), Snider's Play Brings L.A. Victory (#468), and Musial Raps 3,000th Hit (#470). 16 team cards were also issued, each featuring a checklist on the reverse with the first team appearance (Phillies) on card #8 and the last (Pirates) on card #528.
The high number series starts with card #507, and the reverse design on these cards uses a red and black color scheme on a white background, instead of the red and green format employed for the rest of the set. Card backs from 1 through 506 are uniformly gray, with white back variations also appearing on cards #199 through 286.
In a major departure from the format of the previous five years, the first card in the set featured baseball commissioner Ford Frick, and not Ted Williams. National League commissioner Warren Giles grabbed card #200, but American League commish Joe Cronin – newly appointed in January of 1959 – was nowhere to be found.
A special card was reserved for Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, who survived a horrendous automobile accident in January of 1958, only to become a paraplegic. Card #550, Symbol of Courage, tells the story of Campanella's recovery and is one of the more popular cards in the set.
ERRORS AND ODDITIES
Even with a new look and expanded size, there turned out to be a few error and variation cards to chase. In the first series (1-110), Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn appears on card #40 with three different reverse variations: #40A incorrectly lists his birth year as 1931, while #40B also shows 1931, but with the numeral "3" partially obscured. Only #40C shows the correct birth year as 1921.
There are also a few uncorrected errors in the set. Card #260 features pitcher Early Wynn, then hurling for the White Sox, but lists him on the reverse as playing for Cleveland" in 1957. Card #413 dealt a double whammy to Washington Senators ace hurler Camilio Pascual, spelling his first name as "Camillo" on the obverse and his last as "Pasqual" on the reverse.
You'll also see Wayne Terwilliger listed as playing for the Kansas City "Athlitics" on the front of card #496, and Mike Cuellar's last name spelled "Cueller" on his rookie card, #518.
Pascual also figures prominently in one of the variations. Card #316, which was supposed to show Ralph Lumenti of the Senators, features Pascual's headshot and exists in two variations. #316A, the more common variation, states "Optioned to Chattanooga in March 1959"on the reverse just below the cartoon, while the much scarcer #316B is missing this caption.
Several other cards exist with and without "traded" and "optioned" captions, including #321 Bob Giallombardo, #322 Harry Hanebrink, #336 Billy Loes, and #362 Dolan Nichols. Suffice it to say that cards without these updates are much harder to find.
Topps also produced several salesman sample strip cards to preview the set for retailers. The front of these strips showcased three cards from the set, while the reverse contained sample player statistics along with details on the Topps promotion for that year – in this case, team pennants that were available with the redemption of five Bazooka or Blony gum wrappers. These salesman panels are extremely rare, with only four examples currently holdered and authenticated by PSA.
There was also a variation of this set produced for the Venezuelan market. Only the first 196 cards are known to make up this set, which was produced on lower-quality paper stock and is extremely tough to collect. Here's how rare the Venezuelan edition is: While PSA has graded 153,747 individual 1959 Topps cards as of this writing, only 142 of their Venezuelan relatives have been holdered – with no grades higher than PSA 6 awarded.
It should be no surprise that card #10, Mickey Mantle, is the key to this set. PSA 8 examples of this card regularly show up in auctions, and while it's not particularly scarce (258 PSA 8s, two PSA 8.5s, 23 PSA 9s, and one PSA 10 have been awarded), this extremely popular card SMRs for $2300 in NM-MT 8 and consistently realizes that price (and sometimes more) at auction.
Bob Gibson's rookie card, #514, currently carries the second-highest price tag in the 1959 Topps set, with an SMR value of $850 in PSA 8. 244 of these cards rest in PSA 8 slabs, with an additional three nestled safely in 8.5 holders and 25 locked up in PSA 9 lucites. (There are also three Gem Mint 10s out there, and one brought $32,450 in a 2008 auction.)
The third most expensive card? This may come as a surprise, but it's the last card in the set - #572, Billy Pierce All-Star, which is valued at $500 in PSA 8 grade. Perhaps the fact that only 25 PSA 8s and one PSA 8.5 have been awarded for this card (with nothing higher) has something to do with it?
Other high-value cards include #163 Sandy Koufax, which is also valued at $500 in PSA 8 but much more common as 128 PSA 8s, 1 PSA 8.5, and 13 PSA 9s have been given out; #478 Roberto Clemente, valued at $415 in PSA 8 (even though an astounding 399 of those grades exist along with 5 PSA 8.5s and 43 PSA 9s), and #50 Willie Mays, which is listed at $375 in PSA 8. It's earned that grade 253 times, not to mention 25 PSA 9s and two (count 'em) Gem Mint 10s.
Card #380 Hank Aaron, currently listed at $350 in PSA 8, has 218 examples slabbed, along with one PSA 8.5 and 20 PSA 9s. Norm Cash's rookie card, #509, also fetches $350 in a PSA 8 holder, but is scarcer with 123 PSA 8 grades and nine PSA 9s issued. Stan Musial's appearance on card #150 is tagged at $275 in PSA 8 and has made that grade 207 times, with 1 PSA 8.5 and 21 PSA 9s in the logs.
Of the Sporting News rookies, #125 Ron Fairly commands the highest price tag ($60 in PSA 8), while card #461 (Mantle's 42nd Home Run) is the price leader among the Highlights set at $215 in PSA 8.
The special Roy Campanella card also commands a healthy price tag, valued at $350 in PSA 8 grade. 82 of them have made the NM-MT 8 cut, while six PSA 9 copies exist and one example even made it into a PSA 10 holder.
Common cards in PSA 8 range from $36 in the low-number series to $28 for cards #111 – 506. High number commons fetch $45 in the same condition, and in case you're wondering, a complete set of 1959 Topps graded "8s" currently SMRs for $32,558.
THE TOUGH ONES
Every set has its P.I.T.A. (Pain In The A--) cards to hunt down, and the 1959 Topps set is no exception. Card #11, Billy Hunter, is tough in high grade with just 36 PSA 8s and two PSA 9s awarded. #92, Dave Philley, is similarly difficult with just 39 PSA 8s given out.
#178, Ruben Amaro, has been awarded an "8" only 35 times, while #222, Bobby Shantz (my personal P.I.T.A. card) has earned just 33 PSA 8s as it's usually found way off-center. #250 Billy O'Dell is also scarce, with just 32 PSA 8s and a pair of 9s known. Billy Pierce's #572 card is the toughest high number in high grade, if not the toughest card of the entire set, with just 25 PSA 8s, a single 8.5, and one PSA 9 issued to date.
If you really want "scarce", then check out the Pop Report for the five traded/optioned variations. Only 11 PSA 8 copies of card #316B Lumenti (without the option statement) exist, and just three PSA 8s of card #322B Hanebrink (no trade statement) are in collections somewhere in the world.
Card #336B Loes (no trade statement) is just as difficult, with ten PSA 8s and a pair of PSA 9s registered. As for card #362B Nichols (no option statement), just 8 PSA 8s are known with no higher grades registered. Of these five, card #321B Giallombardo (no option statement) is the easiest to find in high grade with 27 PSA 8s, 1 PSA 8.5, and 2 PSA 9s recorded. (Good luck with your high-grade master set!)
Even with its known scarcities, the 1959 Topps set is still very collectible, particularly in EX-MT to NM-MT condition. You'll find plenty of singles at card shows and in auction lots, and it's not unusual to pull raw cards right out of albums and boxes that wind up getting PSA 7 and 8 grades. The set has a nice mix of stars and semi-stars, and the sub-sets are fun to put together. Unopened wax and cello packs also come up in auctions on a regular basis, if you want more of a collecting thrill.