PSA Magazine

The 1964 Topps Baseball Card Set: The Future Has Arrived

Peter Putman
Jul 22, 2014

Fifty years ago this past April, a magical city opened in Flushing Meadows, New York. It dazzled attendees with futuristic views of science, communications, transportation, medicine, movies, television and food, and entertained with colorful exhibits and amusement park rides; all arranged in fantastic buildings that were shaped like giant car engines, computers, pyramids, flying saucers, automobile tires and even a stainless steel replica of the Earth.

That magical city was, of course, the 1964 New York World's Fair. It broke new ground for technical innovation and provided a lifetime of memories for young people like me who marveled at the demonstrations in DuPont's World of Chemistry, rode the Uniroyal Ferris wheel, saw the GM City of Tomorrow, operated an IBM 360 computer, kept a cautious distance from the Sinclair dinosaur, admired the beauty of Michelangelo's Pieta and stared in amazement at AT&T's PicturePhone demonstration.

A Year to Remember

But the World's Fair was just one of many notable events in 1964; a year that was full of turbulence, both in domestic and foreign affairs. A massive 9.2 earthquake shook Alaska early in the morning of Good Friday, March 27. This earthquake and the ensuing tsunami it created took 128 lives and caused about $311 million in property damage not just in Alaska, but also along the Pacific Coast as far south as Crescent City, California. Another earth-shaking tremor was felt in October when China detonated its first atomic weapon, becoming the fifth member of the "nuclear club."

Three civil workers - Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwermer - were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Although several men were arrested in connection with the case, it took 41 years to finally convict the ringleader, Edgar Ray Killen.  A month after the murders, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, outlawing racial segregation in schools, public places and employment.

The Vietnam War - a costly conflict that resulted in over 58,000 casualties, divided the country politically and led to street protests, riots and eventually the Kent State massacre - was set in motion by the Gulf of Tonkin incident in July 1964, when U.S. Navy ships Maddox and Turner Joy were attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats.

But it wasn't all bad news. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in December, while the 24th Amendment to the Constitution - banning poll taxes, which disenfranchised minority voters - was adopted in January. President Johnson declared a "war on poverty," signaling a more active role in promoting income equality for all citizens of the United States.

Culturally, 1964 will always be remembered for the "British Invasion," which got off to a flying start with the appearance of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9 in front of hundreds of screaming girls, and continued with a flurry of hits by Dusty Springfield, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals and Gerry and the Pacemakers, just to name a few. Appropriately, on this side of "the pond," Bob Dylan recorded The Times They Are a-Changin'.

It was also the year of some truly memorable movies, including Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek, My Fair Lady, Goldfinger, Tom Jones and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Popular TV shows that had their debut in 1964 included Jeopardy, Peyton Place, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bewitched, The Addams Family, Gilligan's Island and Flipper.

Ford's legendary Mustang sports car made its debut in 1964, as did Kellogg's Pop-Tarts and the popular action figure G.I. Joe. (All three have nicely survived the five intervening decades!) Construction plans for New York's iconic World Trade Center towers were announced in January, while a 50-cent coin commemorating the late President John F. Kennedy was minted in March and the venerable, 53-year-old Polo Grounds was demolished in April to make room for apartment buildings.

One of the most spectacular engineering achievements of the 20th century - the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the world's longest and tallest suspension bridge at the time - opened in November, leaping over the Hudson River and New York Harbor to connect Staten Island and Brooklyn. Many tourists used this very bridge to visit the World's Fair in its encore year of 1965.

The Year in Sports

In the world of sports, Cassius Clay upset favored Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title in February and then changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The Winter Olympics were held in Innsbruck, Austria, while the Summer OIympics made their first appearance in the Far East in Tokyo, Japan. UCLA captured their first Final Four basketball tournament, Arnold Palmer earned The Master's green blazer, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, the Boston Celtics pocketed yet another NBA championship, Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte was named the Heisman Trophy winner in November and the Cleveland Browns upended the Baltimore Colts in December to claim the NFL title.

Baseball made plenty of news in 1964. Shea Stadium, the New York Mets' brand-new home, opened in April of 1964 just across the street from the World's Fair. (They were joined there in the fall by the New York Jets football team.) Philadelphia Phillies pitcher and future senator Jim Bunning tossed a perfect game on June 21 - giving him no-hitters in both leagues - while Phillies outfielder Johnny Callison slugged a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the National League All-Stars a dramatic 7-4 victory at Shea. And the first-ever pay TV broadcast of a baseball game took place on July 17, as the Dodgers beat the Cubs, 3-2.

The Milwaukee Braves, concerned about declining attendance, announced they would move to Atlanta for the 1965 season but were stopped in their tracks by Major League Baseball, who finally relented and allowed the move in 1966. Meanwhile, the eccentric millionaire Charles O. Finley declared he'd move the Kansas City Athletics to Louisville, Kentucky, in two years, but was stymied by his fellow American League owners and wound up staying put until 1968, when he departed for Oakland, California.

On May 31, the second game of a doubleheader between the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets lasted 23 innings, but the Giants eventually won it in the early morning hours by an 8-6 score. A few days later, Sandy Koufax pitched his third no-hitter, a 3-0 gem over the Phillies. Earlier on April 23, Ken Johnson of the Houston Colt .45's also pitched a no-hitter, but still managed to lose to the Cincinnati Reds, 1-0!

Both pennant races went down to the last days in 1964. The Phillies were in cruise-control mode all summer long and well into September, a sure lock to represent the National League in the 1964 World Series. That is, until the team stumbled in late September, losing ten games in a row to blow a 6 ½ game lead with just 12 games to play. That unfortunate streak opened the door for the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals and resulted in one of the closest finishes ever - the Cardinals wound up on top with a record of 93-69 and a razor-thin, one-game lead over the Phillies and Reds. (The San Francisco Giants finished just three games behind.)

Things were just as close over in the American League, with the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles taking it all the way to the wire. The Yankees finally captured the AL pennant with a 99-63 log, one game up on the Sox and two on the Orioles. That set the stage for a memorable World Series between the Yankees and Cardinals, one that see-sawed through seven games and featured clutch pitching and hitting performances.

Veteran Yankees ace Whitey Ford blew a 4-2 lead in Game 1 and was replaced by three relievers, none of whom could hold off Cardinals hitters in a 9-5 loss. Game 2 saw Yankees rookie Mel Stottlemyre out-pitch Bob Gibson for eight innings, after which New York scored four more runs in an 8-3 victory. The Bombers continued their winning ways with a taut 2-1 win in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, featuring hurler Jim Bouton getting the best of the Cardinals' Curt Simmons and Mickey Mantle launching a home run off reliever Barney Schulz to save the day.

But St. Louis turned the tables in game 4, earning a 4-3 victory on the strength of a four-run sixth inning that featured a grand slam from Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer. Game 5 was a rematch of Stottlemyre and Gibson, with both teams even at 2-2 through nine innings. The Redbirds prevailed when catcher and future broadcaster Tim McCarver smacked a three-run home run off Yanks reliever Pete Mikklesen in the tenth inning.

Once again, New York evened the Series with a decisive 8-3 victory in St. Louis, highlighted by another strong outing by Bouton and back-to-back first-pitch home runs by Mantle and Roger Maris, plus another solo shot from Joe Pepitone. That set the stage for a winner-take-all Game 7, featuring Gibson and Stottlemyre for the third time.

This time, Mel's tank was empty as the Cardinals took an early 6-0 lead and knocked him out in the 6th inning. Mantle hit another home run in the 6th inning (his 18th and last in post-season play) and teammates Clete Boyer and Phil Linz followed with blasts of their own. But they weren't enough, as St. Louis held on and captured the crown with a 7-5 victory, their first World Series win since besting the Red Sox in 1946.

For the Yankees, 1964 also proved to be the end of an era. Manager Yogi Berra, who confronted infielder Phil Linz in the infamous August "harmonica incident," was fired after the Series and replaced with Cardinals manager Johnny Keane. In November, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) bought control of the team from Del Webb and Dan Topping, setting the stage for expanded corporate ownership of sports teams. But the Bronx magic was gone: the Yankees began a downhill slide and wouldn't make the postseason for another 12 years.

The Set

Over at Topps, the times were definitely a-changin. It was time for a new baseball card design, one that didn't borrow from the past. And that's exactly what we got: big, sharp color photographs of players with their team names splashed in bright colors above the photo and the player's name and position set against a black background below the photo. That was it - no team logos, no second inset action photo, no wood-grain borders and no wacky color tints.

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The reverse of each card listed the player's name and vital statistics along with a short biographical write-up and their batting/pitching records in white, all set against a light orange background. A baseball quiz, positioned at the bottom of the card reverse, required you to use a coin to rub a white box and reveal the answer to such compelling questions as "What does it mean when a team gets nine goose eggs?" or "Who holds the A.L. strikeout mark in an extra-inning game?"

There are 587 cards in a complete 1964 Topps set, issued in one-cent and five-cent packs. Topps also issued a set of coins in 1964, and many wax and cello packs included these coins. (And of course, there was the famous slab of bubble gum that lasted about as long as it took you to open a nickel pack and sort out your prizes.)  All cards used a vertical (portrait) orientation, except for combo and team cards.

If you like rookie cards, there are 58 of them in the 1964 Topps set, presented in a dual-player "by team" or "by league" format. Other 1964 Topps sub-sets include A.L. and N.L. league leaders (cards #1 - #12), a recap of the 1963 World Series (#136 - #140), seven checklist cards and a handful of player combo cards. (The World Series set is largely mundane except for card #136, Koufax Strikes Out 15.)

As an 11-year-old, the 1964 Topps set appeared to me at first glance as kind of - well, bland; it was a "plain vanilla" set of cards about as exciting as simple color photographs and one that really lacked the eye appeal of the previous year's edition. The good news was that 1964 Topps cards were largely free of the printing errors and mistakes that plagued the 1962 set.

The only comparable sets to 1964 Topps were the 1957 and 1961 editions, both of which also adopted an austere design approach.  But at least the 1961 set contained plenty of hard-to-find high numbers and all kinds of sub-sets (World Series, MVPs, All-Stars, highlights) to keep us busy through the spring and summer. In comparison, ripping open packs of 1964 Topps didn't create the same level of excitement.

Accordingly, it should be no surprise that during the resurgence of card collecting in the 1980s, 1964 Topps had the reputation of being a "bargain" set. Looking back at a June 1985 issue of Current Card Prices, the average market price of near mint Topps sets from 1958, 1959, 1960 and 1962 was $434, while the more attractive 1961 and 1963 sets averaged $710. But a complete set of 1964 Topps would set you back just $359.

The Players

One reason that 1964 Topps cards don't command the higher prices of other sets could be its scarcity of high-value rookie cards. Still, Tommy John, Phil Niekro, Richie Allen, Tony LaRussa and Lou Piniella all made their debut in this set. John (#146) was a tough sinkerball pitcher who may be more famous today for the groundbreaking ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction process he underwent in 1974 to restore his pitching arm. (It worked; John went on to win 288 games in his career.)

Allen (#243) was and remains an enigma: a true superstar who had his ups and downs over a 15-year career with the Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, White Sox and A's, all the while compiling a lifetime .292 batting average with 351 home runs, 320 doubles, 1,848 hits and 1,556 strikeouts. Piniella (#167) came up with the Orioles and played in four World Series with the Yankees, winning rings in 1977 and 1978 before going on to a successful and often explosive career as a manager with New York, Cincinnati (World Series champions in 1990), Seattle and the Chicago Cubs.

LaRussa (#244) started with Kansas City and spent most of his career as a utility player in the minors and majors. His managerial stints began in 1979 with the White Sox, winning an A.L. West title in 1983. He moved to Oakland in 1986 and skippered the A's to a World Series title in 1989, losing in a sweep to Piniella's Reds in 1990. A third move to St. Louis in 1995 led to two more World Series rings in 2006 and 2011.

Niekro (#541) went on to have a distinguished 24-year career with the Braves, Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays, retiring at the ripe old age of 48! His secret? A dancing, mystifying knuckleball, which he used to amass 318 wins, 3,342 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.35. Although Niekro only won 20 or more games three times in his career, he finished six seasons with an ERA under 3.00. Not surprisingly, Niekro was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997.

Aside from a few notable rookies, the set does contain a nice assortment of Hall of Famers. One of the oldest living Yankees, Yogi Berra, leads off on card #21. Mickey Mantle makes an early appearance on card #50, while Ernie Banks follows closely behind on card #55.

Other HOFers in this set include Don Drysdale (#120), Willie Mays (#150), Duke Snider (#155), Harmon Killebrew (#177), Sandy Koufax (#200), Carl Yastrzemski (#210), Brooks Robinson (#230), Al Kaline (#250), Frank Robinson (#260), Hank Aaron (#300), Willie Stargell (#342), Willie McCovey (#350), Whitey Ford (#380), the ageless Warren Spahn (#400, and 43 years old in 1964!), Roberto Clemente (#440, with an uncorrected team name of "Pittsburfh"), Bob Gibson (#460), Luis Aparicio (#540) and Bill Mazerowski (#540).

In addition to the cornucopia of rookie cards, Topps also included a few popular combo cards. Card #41, Friendly Foes, features Willie McCovey and Leon Wagner, while #81, All-Star Vets, pairs up Nellie Fox and Harmon Killebrew. Card #182, Sox Sockers, showcases the aforementioned Yaz and Chuck Schilling, and #219 puts the spotlight on Young Aces Al Downing and Jim Bouton. Bill's Got It on card #268, at least according to Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh. And the Ol' Perfersser, Casey Stengel, shows Ed Kranepool how it's done on card #393, Casey Teaches.

Two very popular combo cards are #306, Giant Gunners, and #331, A.L. Bombers. The first card features Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda, while the latter card pairs up Mickey Mantle, Norm Cash, Roger Maris and Al Kaline - a real Murderer's Row! You'll also find Aaron and Mays doubled up on card #423, Tops in N.L. And for some laughs, check out card #561, where the description of Phillies rookie Dave Bennett reads, "The 19-year-old right-handed curve-baller is just 18 years old." (Perhaps Berra wrote the copy for that card?)

Sadly, the 1964 Topps set also includes an In Memoriam trading card of Ken Hubbs (#550), who died in a plane accident in mid-February. Hubbs, who played second base for the Chicago Cubs, was the National League rookie of the year in 1962 and had just obtained his pilot's license two weeks earlier. He and another passenger were found in a crashed Cessna 172 on frozen Utah Lake near Provo, Utah, several days after participating in a charity basketball tournament.

Aside from the uncorrected Clemente typo, there aren't too many errors or variations in this set. Card #279 shows Angels shortstop Joe Koppe with his glove on the wrong hand, while card #517 (Checklist #7) exists with and without the correct numbering sequence on the reverse. Card #523 shows Lew Burdette pitching left-handed, and card #532, Twins Rookies, shows Jay Ward but identifies him as Bud Bloomfield. None of these errors were ever corrected.

The Populations

As this article was being published in early June 2014, PSA had graded a total of 146,102 copies of 1964 Topps baseball cards, awarding 57,375 PSA NM-MT 8 grades, 1,958 PSA NM-MT+ 8.5s, 11,439 PSA MINT 9s and 670 PSA GEM-MT 10s. The percentage of PSA 8s (39.3%) out of all submissions is one of the highest for early 1960s cards. In fact, high-grade cards (PSA 8 or better) amount to almost 50% of all 1964 Topps grades awarded by PSA and clearly account for the lower SMR values when compared to sets from 1963 (44%), 1962 (34.1%) and 1961 (43.8%).

Okay, so we've established that 1964 Topps cards aren't all that hard to find in high grade. How about individual cards? According to the PSA Population Report, there is actually one known copy of card #50, Mickey Mantle, with the wrong back (PSA Authentic). Card #4, A.L. Pitching Leaders, exists with an apostrophe after "A.L." and has been graded 16 times with four PSA 8s awarded. (The non-apostrophe version has earned 69 PSA 8s out of 199 submissions.)

There are only a few cards in the set that could be considered low population cards and those are #461, George Thomas (47 PSA 8s from 95 submissions), #517, Checklist #7 with the wrong numbering sequence (42 PSA 8s from 95 submissions), #521, Tom Satriano (47 PSA 8s from 115 submissions) and #584 Joel Horlen (42 PSA 8s from 133 submissions).

Card #200, Sandy Koufax, is the easiest to find in high grade. Out of 2,197 submissions, PSA has encapsulated 463 PSA 8s along with 74 PSA 9s and three PSA 10s. Tommy John's #146 entry is in second place with 351 PSA 8s, 61 PSA 9s and two PSA 10s. Out of the entire set, two cards have never received a PSA 9 and 230 have never qualified for a PSA 10.

The most popular card in the set? No surprise; it's Mantle with 4,766 submissions for 407 PSA 8s, four PSA 8.5s, 43 PSA 9s and one PSA 10. Koufax's #200 card is right behind, followed by #150 Willie Mays (2,122 submissions for 311 PSA 8s, 13 PSA 8.5s, 35 PSA 9s and one PSA 10), #300 Hank Aaron (1,989 submissions for 290 PSA 8s, 20 PSA 8.5s, 47 PSA 9s and five PSA 10s) and #440 Roberto Clemente (1,869 submissions for 292 PSA 8s, six PSA 8.5s, 40 PSA 9s and a lone PSA 10).

Card #331, A.L. Bombers, is the most popular combo card with 1,808 submissions and 277 PSA 8s, eight PSA 8.5s, 45 PSA 9s and one PSA 10. John's rookie card tops that subset, with Niekro's #541 card right behind (959 submissions for 277 PSA 8s, seven PSA 8.5s, 38 PSA 9s and two PSA 10s). Mike McCormick's #487 entry has been submitted the fewest number of times (109) with 55 PSA 8s, a pair of PSA 8.5s, 10 PSA 9s and two PSA 10s in the Population Report.

The Values

As we saw earlier, it's not extremely difficult to find 1964 Topps cards in high grade. In fact, raw common cards from #1 - #310 are readily available for less than $5 in near mint condition, with cards in the series #311 - #522 commanding about a 50% premium. The high number series cards (#523 - #587) sell for about twice the value of middle series cards.

Let's take a closer look at SMR values. Not surprisingly, Mantle's #50 card as a PSA 8 is valued at $815, a bargain when compared to his 1950s and early 1960s cards. Perennial HOF lockout Pete Rose is in second place, with a PSA 8 copy of his card valued at $450. (Rose's card in PSA 9 carries a slightly higher value than Mantle's: $4,350 to $4,250.)

Roberto Clemente follows in the third slot with an SMR price tag of $375 and A.L. Bombers is fourth at $280. The Aaron - Mays Tops in N.L. combo card is right behind at $250, followed by Willie Mays ($235), Sandy Koufax ($220), Hank Aaron ($210), Phil Niekro's rookie card ($155) and Roger Maris' #225 card ($135).

The affordability of 1964 Topps superstars should be pretty obvious by now, and it becomes clearer still when you see that the average SMR value for the next 16 Hall of Famers on this list in PSA 8 condition is in the $70-80 range. You'll find players at the end of their careers (Berra, Spahn, Snider, Ford, Mantle), at their peak (Aaron, Mays, Koufax, Drysdale, Marichal, Cepeda, Frank Robinson, Gibson, Banks, Killebrew) and on their way up (Ron Santo, Brooks Robinson, Stargell, Niekro, Yaz).

A complete set of 1964 Topps, all graded PSA 8, is currently valued at $15,892 in SMR - a bargain when compared to sets from 1960 through 1963. Like other sets, 1964 Topps cards frequently surface from vending case lots. But caveat emptor: You will often find miscut cards in those lots that, at first glance, appear to be in mint condition or close to it. (Always carry a loupe…)

Cards from this set in really high grade are getting plenty of attention nowadays. A PSA 9 example of Rose's #125 card went for $5,975 in early 2013, while a PSA 8.5 version realized $1,450.  Yankees Rookies (card # 581) in a PSA 9 brought $1,774 at gavel, and card #548 (N.L. Rookies) sold for $2,218 in a PSA 10. A PSA 10 copy of Giant Gunners exceeded expectations at $3,600 last year. And likewise in 2013, a PSA 9 Niekro rookie exchanged hands for $1,998.

Unopened 1964 Topps wax and cello packs can also be found in auctions and at shows, although the pack pipeline seems to be drying up in recent years. First-series packs currently have an SMR value of $750 in near mint condition, with all other series listed at $550. A near mint wax pack (no series given) sold for $961 in 2012, while a one-cent pack gaveled down at $560. A PSA 9 second-series wax pack realized $1,934 in 2012. In October 2013, a PSA 5 sixth/seventh-series cello pack with two coins closed at $639 after 22 bids on eBay.

The Wrap-Up

Just like the World's Fair, the 1964 Topps baseball set reflects a moment in time when music, art, politics, style and science turned to the future and away from the past. Baseball's expansion and the introduction of divisional playoffs were only five years away, and free agency would become reality in about a decade. The growing influence of network television money was already having an impact on the game, especially on the World Series.

The bottom line: If you want to collect an affordable, high-grade set of baseball cards from the Sixties that is chock-full of HOFers, 1964 Topps is your best bet. The simple design of this set has held up well over the past five decades and the photography is some of the best Topps ever produced. And while it doesn't contain any pricey rookie cards, the 1964 Topps set presents a timeless snapshot of major league baseball during a truly unforgettable year.