One humorous exchange on the PSA Message Boards several years ago went something like this:
"I'm looking for Yogi Berra cards," a collector posted.
"I've got a Berk Ross PSA [EX] 5," responded another hobbyist.
"No thanks," the first collector retorted. "I'm only looking for Berra."
That remark still evokes chuckles from some of the Message Board regulars — and understandably so. But in fairness to the collector, his comment reflects how little is known about the mysterious Berk Ross company that released two sets in the early 1950s and then disappeared.
"I lived in Chicago, and I don't ever remember seeing the Berk Ross cards for sale, not in 1951 or 1952," said Hubert Bernheim, who owns the No. 5 Current Finest 1952 Berk Ross set on the PSA Set Registry. "I was 11 or 12 when these sets came out. That was my peak collecting time and I don't ever remember seeing them."
So even 60 years ago, the Berk Ross cards seem to have been overshadowed by their Topps and Bowman contemporaries. Based in New York City, Berk Ross unveiled its first 72-card set in 1951. These were printed in two-card panels and were available in four different series, each distributed in a box that contained nine panels (equaling 18 cards). This initial offering included 40 baseball players, as well as athletes from several other sports.
The athlete's picture is on the card fronts, while the backs display the company's "Hit Parade of Champions" branding, the athlete's name, biographical details (birthplace, birth date, height, weight, etc.), a single line of statistics and the Berk Ross copyright.
The short-lived manufacturer's second 72-card set was released in 1952 and featured only baseball players. This time, however, the cards were not distributed in panels but rather individually.
"The 1952 Berk Ross cards were larger, at 2" x 3", than the '51s. And like the earlier issue, [they] were printed in panels or, more likely, strips that were originally perforated at top and bottom," wrote Bob Lemke, the former editor of the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, in a blog entry in April 2012. "The strips, however, were separated before the individual cards were placed into paper wrappers."
As a result, you can see perforations on the top and bottom of these singles.
The 1952 cards aren't numbered and boast a similar design to their predecessor. Several of the pictures – including those on the Mickey Mantle, Robin Roberts and Preacher Roe cards – are virtually identical to those used on their 1951 Bowman cards. A number of other 1952 Berk Ross cards employ a variation of their Bowman picture. No link, however, has been established between the two companies.
Unlike the 1951 product, the Berk Ross copyright information is absent from the backs of the 1952 pasteboards, but they still exhibit the "Hit Parade of Champions" branding.
Distributed in one-card packs that featured red, white and blue wrappers, these cards were reportedly sold exclusively in the Northeastern U.S. This would help to explain why 46 of the 72 cards feature players from the New York Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers and why there are no Chicago Cubs or Washington Senators. The Boston Braves, St. Louis Browns, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates also only have one representative each.
In his research, Lemke also discovered that these cards were included as a promotion in popcorn bags. Lemke uncovered an article in the August 7, 1952, edition of The Sporting News that indicated that seven New York Giants players – Larry Jansen, Bobby Thomson, Sal Maglie, Wes Westrum, Monty Kennedy, Dave Koslo and Bill Rigney – launched a lawsuit against the popcorn companies for using their image without consent.
"Represented by sports and entertainment attorney Jones J. Shapiro, who lawyered for Haelan Laboratories [Bowman Gum] in its landmark suit against Topps in 1953, the Giants players, on August 14, 1952, obtained a show-cause order to prohibit the use of their images to sell non-baseball related products without their permission," wrote Lemke in his April blog entry.
Lemke reveals that the legal paperwork also mentions that the players objected to these cards being sold with gum and that companies connected to the Berk Ross cards (such as Hit Parade, Inc. and Hi Lo Packing Co. (the latter of which is the name on the card wrappers)) were targets of the suit.
According to The Sporting News article, the players were seeking $50,000 each in compensation from the popcorn companies, but Lemke found that they were awarded only around $20 each. This research has led Lemke to believe that the Berk Ross cards were likely unlicensed – "the 'broders' of the early 1950s."
There are 23 Hall of Famers in this set, including the only 1952 cards of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio retired after the 1951 season, but that didn't stop Berk Ross from including "Joltin' Joe" in their set.
Of the 147 DiMaggios submitted, there have been three PSA MINT 9s and 14 PSA NM-MT 8s.
But hobbyists say the set's most sought-after single is the Mantle. There has yet to be an unqualified example of "The Mick" to grade higher than a PSA 8. One PSA 8 fetched $4,800 on eBay in February 2012.
"The 1952 Berk Ross Mantle is much rarer than his 1952 Topps card," noted Joe Gherardi, who owns the registry's No. 3 Current Finest 1952 Berk Ross set.
The Mantle was the first single that Gherardi acquired for his set. His wife bought him this card for their 20th wedding anniversary in 1990. The Willie Mays single is another of his favorites in this issue.
"I think the Willie Mays card, in particular, is one of the most beautiful cards of any set," he said. "It's a beautiful close-up of Willie in his rookie year, with the blue background behind his face. It's just a gorgeous card."
One of the six PSA 9 Mays singles fetched $7,183.95 in a Memory Lane, Inc. auction in August 2009.
Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Stan Musial and Jackie Robinson are among the other high profile Hall of Famers in this set. There are also two Phil Rizzuto cards: one presents him bunting, while the other illustrates him swinging. There has been no definitive explanation as to why Rizzuto is featured twice.
The card of Rizzuto swinging is more difficult to track down in pristine condition. There are six PSA NM 7s, with no unqualified examples grading higher.
Sheldon Jones and Orestes (Minnie) Minoso are two other singles which do not possess unqualified examples that have graded above a PSA 7. There are also two cards – Bobby Brown and Whitey Lockman – that have yet to obtain an unqualified example grade above a PSA EX-MT 6.
This offering also boasts a few uncorrected errors. For example, Ewell Blackwell's information is featured on the back of the card picturing Nellie Fox and vice versa, while Bob Elliott's (Elliot) and Gil McDougald's (McDougal) last names are misspelled.
Collectors say that poor centering often plagues these cards.
"There are quite a few of them that are off-center," said Gherardi. "Getting a well centered card is tough."
"The 1952 Berk Ross set was by far more difficult to complete [in high-grade] than the 1951 set because there are so many cards that are off-center," he said. "There are great centering issues with the '52 cards."
Bernheim also adds that the coloring on the cards isn't always sharp.
"The images aren't glossy," he said. "They're not nearly as pleasant to look at as the images in the 1951 Bowman set."
The competition for high-grade 1952 Berk Ross cards has become particularly heated in recent years due to these precise condition issues.
"Sometimes the prices that people bid on these cards are incredible," said Gherardi.
But the veteran collector doesn't see these prices decreasing in the future.
"Once people start realizing how rare it is, I think [the 1952 Berk Ross set] is going to grow in popularity and hopefully increase in price, as well," said Gherardi. "It's probably a set that I'm going to pass down to my grandson."
View the set in the PSA Set Registry
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. A special thanks to Mile High Card Co. who provided photos to go with this article and to Bob Lemke for allowing me to use information from his always informative hobby blog. Please note that the Population Report figures and Set Registry rankings are those as of November 2012.