50 Years Later... The 1961 Topps Baseball Card Set in Retrospect

Peter Putman
Jun 6, 2011

It was a year of black-and white television, dial telephones, nineteen-cents-per-gallon gasoline, bomb shelters; rock-and-roll, big cars, The King, Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis; Dick Van Dyke, Top Cat, ABC's Wide World of Sports, the first civil rights marches, and Top 40 AM radio.

Yes, 1961 was a classic year, particularly when viewed in retrospect. In many ways, the first year of the 60's decade marked the true dividing line between the old and new 20th century, as the first Baby Boomers – the largest percentage of the population, and including such notables as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton - were beginning high school, while the United States was simultaneously entering a "New Frontier" – outer space.


The Year

There were several memorable events in 1961, including the first manned space flight (Yuri Gargarin on April 12), the inauguration of the youngest and first Catholic president (John F. Kennedy), the birth of the Peace Corps (March 1), and declarations of independence for Sierra Leone (April 27) and Kuwait (May 19).

It was also a politically 'hot' year for the Cold War, as witnessed by the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion (April), the formal adoption of Communism by the government of Cuba (December), and the construction of the Berlin Wall (August). The United States launched the Apollo space program and responding to Gargarin's feat with two manned spaceflights by Alan Shepard (May) and Gus Grissom (July).

Back on the ground, Americans found welcome distractions on the silver screen. Marilyn Monroe appeared in her last movie The Misfits with screen legend Clark Gable, who passed away right after production was completed. Paul Newman's classic film The Hustler opened in September, followed by Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's in early October and West Side Story a few weeks later.

The Beatles were just getting started in England, with occasional side trips to Hamburg to perform, while singer/songwriting legend Bob Dylan made his public debut in November to the acclaim of the New York Times. Left alone at home for a Labor Day weekend, five teenage California musicians rented instruments and recorded Surfin', the first hit record to be released by the newly-christened Beach Boys.

Notable 1961 birthdates included Wayne Gretzky on January 26, Princess Diana (Spencer) on July 1, U2 guitarist The Edge on August 8, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on October 18, and of course President Barack Obama on August 4.


The Game

In the world of sports, baseball reigned supreme. There were two brand-new American League franchises positioned in Minneapolis (Twins) and Los Angeles (Angels), along with an 'expansion' franchise in Washington, DC (Senators) hurriedly assembled to fill the vacancy left when the original Senators decamped for Minnesota.

The addition of two more teams to the original sweet sixteen (that had made up major league baseball for decades) meant eight more games on the schedule, resulting in a 162-game season and inadvertently creating a controversy for the record books that no one could have foreseen; one that lives on even to this day.

The Angels found themselves playing in Los Angeles' picturesque but antiquated Wrigley Field, formerly home of the Pacific Coast League L.A. Angels, while the re-christened Senators once again occupied Griffith Stadium. Both clubs benefited from the first-even expansion draft, grabbing cast-off players from every other team in the hopes of cobbling together a respectable starting nine that wouldn't embarrass itself too much in league play.

The addition of two new teams did nothing to distract from the powerhouses lining up to contest the 1961 pennants. In the American League, the perennial favorite Yankees were picked to repeat, led by 1960 MVP Roger Maris, a new manager (Ralph Houk), a rejuvenated Mickey Mantle, and a top-flight pitching staff featuring ace Whitey Ford.

Repeating as AL champs wouldn't be a cakewalk. The Bombers had stiff competition from the Detroit Tigers, with hurlers Frank Lary and Jim Bunning supported by sluggers Al Kaline and Norm Cash, and the upstart Baltimore Orioles with an equally-impressive pitching staff and batting lineup featuring Jim Gentile, Brooks Robinson, and rookie Boog Powell.

Over in the National League, it looked to be a four-way race between the World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates, the Milwaukee Braves, led by Hammerin' Hank Aaron and Ed Mathews, the pitching-rich Los Angeles Dodgers, and the San Francisco Giants, featuring the two Willies – Mays and McCovey. But things don't always turn out as we might expect.


The Season

As expected, the Yankees put it all together and won the American League with an astounding 109 victories – and they needed every one, as the formidable Tigers finished just eight games back with a record of 101 and 61!

Surprisingly, the '61 Angels and their patchwork team managed an 8th-place finish with a 70-91 record, a mere 39 games out of 1st. Not surprisingly, the Senators (Version 2.0) team brought up the rear, tied with the Kansas City A's with a 61-101 record. (Well, someone's got to be last!)

The '61 Yanks set an MLB standard for team home runs (240) and drew national attention with the "M&M Boys" – Mantle and Maris – chasing Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs all season long. Hampered by leg and hip injuries, Mantle ultimately fell out of the chase in late September with 54 homers, leaving Maris to contend with the Babe's ghost.

In July, Commissioner Ford Frick, a long-time friend and biographer of Ruth, had announced that Maris would have to break The Bambino's record within 154 games if the new mark were to be considered 'official,' instantly creating a controversy. And Maris came darn close, hitting his 58th round-tripper in game #152. But he didn't club number 59 until game #154 and didn't tie Ruth until game #159. The coveted 61st blast finally took place in the fourth inning of the last game of the season at Yankee Stadium, with Boston right-hander Tracey Stallard the victim.

The '61 Yankees weren't all about hitting, though. Cut loose from former manager Casey Stengel's restricted pitching rotation, Whitey Ford twirled in enough starts to post his best season ever, winning 25 games and losing 4 while throwing 209 strikeouts and compiling a 3.21 earned run average... good enough to take home the 1961 Cy Young Award.

The 1961 season was one of four that featured two All-Star Games as a way to raise extra money for the players association. Given all of the 'firsts' associated with 1961, it should come as no surprise that the second All-Star game (played in Fenway Park on July 31) was called after nine innings due to rain, and went into the record books as a tie – the first and only All-Star tie until 2002. You can still find programs from that game at memorabilia shows, and every one I've ever seen has water damage.

Over in the senior circuit, Sandy Koufax set a new NL record for strikeouts by a lefthander with 269, while the ageless Warren Spahn picked up 25 victories. Spahn also led the league in shutouts (4), ERA (3.02), and complete games (a mind-boggling 21!). Giants outfielder Orlando Cepeda clubbed 46 home runs and drove in 142, while Roberto Clemente's .351 batting average was tops.

Despite the odds, the Cincinnati Reds surprised the pundits by capturing the 1961 National League pennant with a 93-61 record, edging out the Dodgers by four games. And they did it largely with pitching, thanks to aces like Joey Jay, Jim O'Toole, and Jim Brosnan. Jay went 21-10 in '61, while O'Toole picked up 19 victories and Brosnan added 10 more. The Reds' power came from a potent outfield trio of Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, and Gus Bell, but the Reds were more about pitching and defense potent outfield trio of Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson and Wally Post.

After the thrill of the Mantle-Maris-Ruth home run chase, the 1961 World Series was almost anticlimactic. It quickly became evident that the Bronx Bombers wouldn't let good pitching undo their championship aspirations this time around. Even though Reds starter Jim O'Toole pitched a brilliant two-hitter, those two hits were (unfortunately) home runs by Elston Howard and Bill Skowron, giving Ford enough of a cushion to win Game 1, 2-0.

Joey came back in Game 2 to tie things up with a two-hit, 6-2 victory over Ralph Terry, but that was as far as the Reds' luck would take them. Led by rookie starter Bill Stafford and ace reliever Luis Arroyo, New York nipped the Reds 3-2 in Game 3 on home runs by John Blanchard and Roger Maris, and then clobbered Cincinnati 7-0 in Game 4 for Ford's second victory of the Series. The Yanks closed things out in Game 5, backing up Terry with five runs in the top of the 1st inning and coasting to a 13-5 laugher for their 19th World Series crown.



Like the American League, Topps was in an expansive mood, too. The 1961 set would be its largest ever with 587 cards and numerous subsets that featured league leaders (cards 41-50), managers (cards 133-139 and 219-226), highlights from the 1960 World Series (cards 306-313), baseball highlights (cards 401-410), AL & NL Most Valuable Players from 1950 - 1960 (cards 471-486), and All-Star players (cards 566-589). The 1961 set was also the first to feature checklists separate from team cards, and there were seven different checklists issued, along with some variations.

The design for 1961 was quite austere for Topps, resembling the 1953 Bowman Color set. Each card measured 2 ½L x 3 ½ and presented color player photos in a portrait (vertical) orientation with a simple two-color box positioned below the image that contained the player's name, position, and team. Gone were the colorful team logos and black-and-white inset photos from 1960 (not to mention the often-bizarre text color combinations used that year).

While most of the cards in the 1961 Topps set used a vertical orientation, landscape (horizontal) images appeared in the League Leader, World Series, and Highlights subsets, not to mention all of the team cards. Topps also threw in plenty of combination cards, featuring combinations of pitchers, hitters, and even managers. In short, the 1961 set had something for everyone, and had it in abundance.



The 1961 set got off to a flying start with the coveted #1 card, honoring 1960 NL Most Valuable Player Dick Groat. But it is the #2 card that commands attention, as it features Roger Maris in a serious, all-business pose that foreshadowed his run at the home run record – a feat that took its toll on him both mentally and physically.

Not surprisingly, Mickey Mantle's #300 card is the key to the set, and one of the last photos of him smiling. Brooks Robinson is featured on card #10, while Nellie Fox appears on card #30, Harmon Killebrew on card #80, Ed Mathews on card #120, and Willie Mays on card #150.

Other prominent HOFers in the set include Ford (#160), Warren Spahn (#200), Bob Gibson (#212), Carl Yastrzemski (#287), Stan Musial (#290), Sandy Koufax (#344), Ernie Banks (#350), Frank Robinson (#360), Roberto Clemente (#388), Hank Aaron (#415), Al Kaline (#429), and Willie McCovey (#517).

Topps' predictions for the next crop of 'All-Star Rookies' were off the mark, with picks like Indians pitcher Dick Stigman (#77), Phillies catcher Jim Coker (#144), and Cardinals infielder Julian Javier (#148). Even so, there are a few rookie stars in the set that went on to stellar careers. The late Ron Santo makes his debut on card #35, followed by fellow Chicago Cubs star Billy Williams on card #141. Dick Howser takes a bow on card #416, next to Juan Marichal (#417).

The League Leaders cards also featured a few Cooperstown-bound players. Clemente and Mays appear on card #41 (NL Batting Leaders), while Banks, Aaron, and Mathews show up on card #43 (NL Home Run Leaders) and Mantle and Maris share the spotlight on card #44 (AL Home Run Leaders) with Jim Lemon and Rocky Colavito.

Compared to the nearly-spotless 1960 set, Topps' 1961 collection has quite a few uncorrected errors, not to mention checklist variations that will keep master set collectors busy. For starters, Warren Spahn's All-Star card (#589) is skip-numbered from Whitey Ford's All-Star entry (#586) because cards #587 and #588 were never issued.

Among some of the more prominent goofs: Whitey Ford's height on card #160 is listed as 5' 0", while card #161 portrays Eddie Fisher instead of Sherman Jones. Don Buddin got an unexpected gift from Topps on card #99, when he was credited with 66 home runs in 1960 (wonder what Frick would have said about that), while Dutch Dotterer's brother Tommy wound up featured on Dutch's #332 card.

The Milwaukee Braves team card – numbered #463 – is actually #426, as enumerated on checklist #5. (Card #463 belongs to Jack Fisher of the Orioles.) Card #435 – Orlando Cepeda – lists him as a player for the 'San Francis Giants.' And Don Zimmer (#493) must have been quite surprised to discover that he played for a previously-unknown team in Brooklyn in 1960, one that was in the American League!

As for the checklists, only the first one (#17) is variation-free. Checklist 2 (#98) can be found with the word "checklist" in red or yellow and the card number in yellow or black, while checklist 3 (#189) has the copyright symbol on the reverse in two different locations. Checklist 4 (#273) also has its copyright appearing in two different locations, while checklist 5 (#361) can be found with and without a 'Special Feature!' advertisement on the reverse.

Checklist 6 (card #437) was apparently a product of the Luis – Louis – Lew – Lou confusion that seemed to plague Topps for years and led to the Braves' Lew Burdette being repeatedly misnamed 'Lou' (this time around on card #320). On the front of checklist 6, Luis Aparicio is listed as card #440, but on the checklist 6 variation, his name has mysteriously changed to 'Louis' Aparicio. (He'll get no sympathy from Twins rookie shortstop Zolio Versalles, whose #21 card lists him as 'Zorro.' )

The final checklist (7, card #516) isn't quite as exotic or intriguing. Depending on the print run, the second 'C' in the word 'checklist' either sits above the Braves player's cap or is printed directly on top of it. In fact, this printing variation was only recognized in the past eight years.



While the 1961 Topps set is as different from the 1960 set as night and day, both sets share a common problem – miscut and off-center cards. As a result; while it's relatively easy to find 1961 Topps cards in near mint condition, many of those cards would wind up graded with miscut (MC) or off-center (OC) qualifiers. The challenge of finding high-grade cards gets even tougher with the high-number series.

Here's another contrast between the '60 and '61 sets. 1960 wax and cello packs are much easier to find than 1961 unopened wax or cellos. Oddly enough, PSA has graded over 196,000 cards from the 1961 set, while 29,000 fewer '60 Topps have passed through the PSA offices as of December 2010 – numbers that would seem to indicate a large quantity of high-grade '61 Topps found at shows and on eBay originally came from vending cases or cello packs.

Of the 196,248 1961 Topps graded when this article was written, 385 Gem Mint 10s, 11,430 Mint 9s, 1,409 NM-MT+ 8.5s, and 77,464 NM-MT 8s have been certified by the sharp eyes at PSA. Grades of NM-MT 8 and higher (less qualified grades) account for 46% of all the 1961 Topps cards submitted for grading to PSA. The NM-MT 8 total alone equals an amazing 39.5% of all cards submitted (2 out of every 5), which may explain why some NM-MT 8 commons go for as little as $5 - $10 at auction.

Contrast that number with 1960 (33.5% NM-MT 8s) and 1962 (33% NM-MT 8s), and it's easy to see why building a high-grade 1961 Topps set (NM 7 or better) isn't that formidable a challenge. That is, unless you are hunting for some of the truly 'tough' cards, among them the aforementioned checklist variations, Ralph Houk's #133 manager card (54 NM-MT 8s, one 8.5, and two 9s), #137 Chuck Dressen (66 PSA 8s and one PSA 9), #182 Dave Nicholson (67 PSA 8s and four PSA 9s), #247 Billy Goodman (65 PSA 8s and six PSA 9s), and #301 Chet Nichols (59 PSA 8s and seven PSA 9s). Walt Dropo's #489 card is also a toughie, with 74 PSA 8s and just four PSA 9s in circulation.

The World Series subset can be very challenging as they are often found severely off-center or diamond-cut. In particular, card #308 (Virdon's Catch Saves Game), is the toughest to find in high grade with a total of 54 PSA 8s and three PSA 9s. Card #310 (Face Saves the Day) is also problematic, with 69 PSA 8s and 11 PSA 9s awarded. Even though the numbers indicate otherwise, finding a high-grade example of card #312 (Mazerowski's Homer Wins It!) can feel like a wild goose chase with 72 PSA 8s and 11 PSA 9s out there... somewhere...

The Topps Highlights subset, which features mostly Yankee players, is not nearly as difficult to assemble in high grade. A typical Low Pop 8 in this grouping would be card #407 (Chesbro Wins 41st Game) which has earned 109 NM-MT designations, 2 NM-MT+ 8.5s, 13 MT 9s, and two Gem Mint 10s. In contrast, card # 406, Mantle Blasts 565-foot Home Run, has been graded 1,660 times for a total of 388 NM-MT 8s, three NM-MT+ 8.5s, and 68 MT 9s. (Oh, and three Gem MT 10s, too!)

The MVP subset cards aren't particularly hard either, with the average card earning well over 100 NM-MT8s and the toughest being card #479, Jim Konstanty, which bagged 79 NM-MT 8s and another nine MT 9s. Mickey Mantle's #475 card is the most popular here, taking home 280 NM-MT 8s out of nearly 2,200 cards submitted. Roger Maris' #478 card is close behind The Mick with 1,021 submissions for 197 NM-MT 8s.

The high numbers (#523-#589) are where things get interesting. Not only will you pay a premium for higher-grade cards from this group, you'll spend more time trying to find 'em in high grade with decent centering. Joe Gibbon's #523 card certainly qualifies with 67 NM-MT 8s, one NM-MT+ 8.5, and four MT 9s, as do #546 Marty Kutyna (63 PSA 8s, one PSA 8.5, and seven PSA 9s), #548 Ted Wills (66 PSA 8s and eight PSA 9s), #553 Bill Fischer (73 PSA 8s, one PSA 8.5, and five PSA 9s), #554 Pirates Team (77 PSA 8s, one PSA 8.5, and five PSA 9s), and #559 Jim Gentile, perhaps the toughest high number of all with 61 PSA 8s, a solitary PSA 8.5, and four PSA 9s certified.



If you could assemble a complete 1961 Topps set in NM-MT 8, SMR would value it upwards of $22,000. (By the way, kudos to the top 22 1961 Topps sets currently in the Registry with GPAs of 8 or better!) In reality, high-grade 1961 Topps sets fetch much higher prices at auction when they do come up for bidding, which isn't all that often. As of this writing, a complete 1961 Topps sets with 246 PSA-graded cards equally divided between NM 7 or NM-MT 8 holders was listed on eBay for $10,000.

PSA NM-MT 8 common cards from 1 through 446 are valued by SMR at $15. Commons from 447 through 522 are slightly higher at $24 and are not usually discounted, while high number commons (523 – 565) are currently priced at $50 in PSA 8 holders.

Top-value cards from the set include these examples in NM-MT 8 slabs: #300 Mantle ($915), #478 Mantle All-Star ($450), #559 Gentile ($350), #475 Mantle MVP ($325), #563 Bob Cerv ($275), #476 Maris All-Star ($250), #477 Hank Aaron All-Star ($250), and #479 Willie Mays All-Star ($250).

Rollie Sheldon's #541 rookie card belies its Pop Report numbers and commands $200 in NM-MT 8 condition, while Aaron's #415 entry is tagged at $275. Roberto Clemente's #388 card currently fetches $240, while Sandy Koufax' visage on #344 is valued at $230 and the #44 AL Home Run leaders card carries a $200 price tag in NM-MT 8.

Among those tough World Series cards, the highest SMR value is accorded card #307, Mantle Slugs 2 Home Runs ($150).



Topps' 1961 set truly has stood the test of time. Many of the photos are amazingly detailed, and the original colors have stood up well over five decades. This set has lots of eye appeal, with numerous sharply-focused and flattering portraits of ballplayers. It also contains enough subsets to keep you busy hunting through albums at shows, and is loaded with Hall of Famers.

Don't be discouraged by all the 'practically mint' off-center and diagonal-cut cards you'll find in your pursuit – keep digging, and you'll come up with some real gems. I've discovered many raw commons at dealer tables that are easy NM 7s and have bagged quite a few NM-MT 8.

If you are really up for a challenge, try finishing the World Series sub-set in high grade, as I recently did to commemorate the '60 Series. That ought to keep you busy for another 50 years! (Well, it seemed like it took 50 years to me.) Or, tackle all of the checklist variations – I bought a raw Checklist 6 'Louis' Aparicio variation for $10 at a recent card show, and it came back graded NM-MT 8.

You can also bid on large lots (50 – 100) of high-grade 1961 Topps commons in auctions, usually for bargain-basement prices. That's a great way to get started on building a high-grade set, as the cost of each card, plus grading and shipping will often be higher than what you'd pay per card for a large lot.

No matter how you want to proceed, assembling a collection of 1961 Topps is well worth your time and effort. And you'll wind up with a classic set from an unforgettable year in baseball history.

Take your time. After all, it's only been 50 years.