PSA Set Registry
Collecting the 1951 Topps Red and Blue Back Baseball Card Sets
The Beginning of a New Era
by Kevin Glew
You could call them the Sammy Vick of vintage baseball card sets.
Vick was the New York Yankees' starting right fielder in 1919, the year before Babe Ruth was acquired and assumed the position. Like Vick, the 1951 Topps Red and Blue Back sets have been overshadowed by their legendary successor, the 1952 Topps Baseball set. And due to their relative anonymity, the Red and Blue Back singles remain relatively affordable.
"I collect the 1951 sets because they were the first baseball sets that Topps released," said Jim Andoga, who owns the No. 5 Current Finest 1951 Topps Red Back (Basic) set on the PSA Set Registry. "Most people tend to think of the '52s being the first Topps set, but the '51s, to me, are the original sets."
Veteran collector Ron Hobbs, who has assembled two of the best Red and Blue Back sets on the PSA Set Registry, believes the way the cards were distributed is one of the reasons they're not more popular.
"It's a stray set," he explained, referring to the Red and Blue Back sets combined. "This was Topps' first stab at baseball cards and they didn't really compete with the 1951 Bowman cards per se because they released the cards as [part of] a game."
According to Dave Hornish's excellent book, The Modern Hobby Guide To Topps Chewing Gum: 1938 to 1956, Topps secured the appropriate licensing to sell baseball cards with candy in December 1950 for their 1951 release.
Contractual restrictions prevented Topps from including many of the era's biggest stars, and though the 1951 Red and Blue Back sets don't appear to have been a huge hit, they did generate enough interest to convince Topps to develop their groundbreaking 1952 issue.
The main difference between the Red and Blue Back cards is, of course, the color of the card backs. The front designs are virtually identical, except that the Red Backs are labeled "A Series," while the Blue Backs are "B Series." Measuring 2" by 2-5/8" each, these cards boast rounded corners and, as Hobbs noted earlier, were created as part of a game for kids.
The middle of the fronts offer a black-and-white headshot of the player inside a diamond-shaped frame, while the top-left and bottom-right corners indicate a game play (ball, strike, foul ball, stolen base, out, home run, etc.) A cartoon player image is showcased on the top right, and the player's name and biographical information are shared on the bottom left. The bio is generally limited to details about the player's previous season, but it sometimes highlights a historic accomplishment. For example, Gil Hodges' Red Back single (#31) notes that he's "the sixth player in baseball history to hit four homers in one game," while Harry Brecheen's Blue Back card (#28) reveals that his three wins in the 1946 World Series represent a record for a southpaw.
The most interesting bio can be found on the Eddie Waitkus' Blue Back single (#51). This card mentions him "bouncing back from an almost fatal gunshot wound." On June 14, 1949, Waitkus was shot by a crazed female fan at a Chicago hotel.
You'll also notice perforations on the borders of the single cards and that there's no repetition of players between the two series.
The backs of the cards are red and blue respectively and showcase a diamond design in the center. Two bats extend diagonally from corner to corner and drawings of various pieces of baseball equipment are also displayed.
Both series cards were distributed in two-card panels, as well as singles. Hobbs, who has assembled the No. 1 All-Time Finest Red Back Panels Master set on the PSA Set Registry, says the panels are more difficult to track down than the single cards and consequently command a premium.
Here's a more detailed look at each of the Red and Blue Back sets:
1951 Topps Red Backs
The 52 cards that comprise this set are identified as "A Series" on their fronts and were released prior to the Blue Backs. According to Hornish, they were originally sold in five-cent "Baseball Candy" packs that included four, two-card panels, either a 1951 Topps Connie Mack All-Stars card or a 1951 Topps Teams card and a piece of caramel separated by a custom wrapper.
There are reports, however, of the caramel melting and staining the cards. Legendary Topps employee Sy Berger would later contend that the gloss from the cards reacted badly with the caramel and the caramel made children sick. As a result, Topps removed their "Baseball Candy" products from store shelves and the caramel disappeared from the ensuing packages. Hornish suggests that it's more likely that the threat of a lawsuit from Bowman forced Topps to stop selling caramel with their 1951 release.
Hornish notes that eight Red Back panels were later sold in 10-cent cello packs without candy, and the full 52-card set was issued in panels in a custom bag, along with Connie Mack All-Stars and Topps Teams cards for 29 cents. In one such set that was sold by Robert Edward Auctions in 2011 for $7,638, there were three Connie Mack All-Star cards and two Topps Teams cards included.
With stock remaining, Topps eventually released the cards as two separate singles without caramel in one-cent packs with the word "Doubles" printed on them. A large find of these packs in the Philadelphia area in the mid-to-late 1980s has resulted in the Red Backs being more plentiful in high grade than the Blue Backs.
There were definitely multiple printings of the Red Backs. This can be concluded by the existence of the two versions of the Gus Zernial card (#36). The first version features him in a Chicago White Sox cap before he was traded to the Philadelphia A's on April 30, 1951. The second version presents Zernial with the logo blacked out on his cap and his biographical information updated to reflect his trade to the A's. The White Sox version commands a premium.
There are also two versions of the Tommy Holmes single (#52). Both versions showcase him in a Boston Braves cap, but the first, which is rarer and commands a premium, indicates that he's with the Braves. In March 1951, however, Holmes was named manager of the Braves' Class-A farm team in Hartford, so the bio in the second version has been updated to reflect this. Andoga owns a PSA EX-MT 6 of the first version and has had trouble upgrading this card.
There's no set sequence to the cards in this series. With nine players featured, the Cleveland Indians are the most represented team, while six New York Giants and Boston Red Sox players are also highlighted. In contrast, there isn't a single member of the Detroit Tigers and only one Philadelphia Phillie and Washington Senator respectively.
One of the main reasons the 1951 Topps Red Backs set is not more coveted is that, unlike its Bowman counterpart, it does not house rookies of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or even a regular single of Ted Williams. But the 1951 Topps Red Back set does house cards of eight Hall of Famers: Yogi Berra (#1), Phil Rizzuto (#5), Early Wynn (#8), Ralph Kiner (#15), Bob Feller (#22), Warren Spahn (#30), Duke Snider (#38) and the rookie card of Monte Irvin (#50). First-year singles of Dave "Gus" Bell (#17), Ray Boone (#23) and Luke Easter (#26) are also part of this issue.
Andoga says the Berra card is the most sought-after Hall of Famer card.
"Because it's card No. 1, it's hard card to find [in high grade]," noted Hobbs. "There was a time when it was hard to get a [PSA NM-MT] 8 of that card."
The Berra was often subjected to additional wear and tear on top of collector piles. Of the 473 submitted, there has yet to be a PSA GEM-MT 10 and there have been 21 PSA MINT 9s. One PSA 9 fetched $449.05 on eBay in February 2016.
The Irvin rookie (#50) is not particularly evasive in high grade. There has been one PSA 10 and 45 PSA 9s.
The most elusive Red Back single in mint condition is the Al Zarilla (#49). Hobbs points out that this card was worth a home run in the game, so it was one of the most widely handled and desired cards by kids. There has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just nine PSA 9s.
Andoga says poor centering is the most common condition issue with the Red Backs, but these cards are also sometimes found with staining from the caramel and general wear and tear from kids handling them while playing the game.
1951 Topps Blue Backs
Fashioning distinct blue backs, these 52 cards are clearly noted as "B Series" on their fronts and were unveiled after the Red Backs. Fewer Blue Blacks seem to be available, especially in high grade, likely because the bulk of the cards uncovered in the aforementioned 1980s find were Red Backs.
"The Blue Backs are a little bit more expensive and harder to get," noted Hobbs.
Andoga has had a similar experience.
"I have my Red Backs set completed in high grade, but the Blue Backs have been much more difficult to find," he said.
Hornish notes that the Blue Backs were released in penny "Baseball Candy" packs that included one card and a piece of caramel, as well as five-cent "Baseball Candy" packs that housed four, two-panel cards, a 1951 Topps Major League All-Stars card or Topps Teams card and a piece of caramel that was separated from the cards by a custom wrapper.
Similar to the Red Backs, there are reports of the caramel melting and staining the cards. Moreover, Berger's claim that the gloss from the cards reacted badly with the caramel and made children sick has also been applied to the Blue Backs. Whether it was for this reason or due to legal pressure from Bowman, the caramel disappeared from ensuing packages.
Like the Red Backs, Hornish notes that eight Blue Back panels were later issued in 10-cent cello packs without candy. They were also released as two single cards in a "Doubles" pack without the caramel.
Examining the photos and reading the bios on these cards offers insight as to when they were produced. For example, the Joe Page card (#10) shows him with a blank team cap, while his bio discusses his accomplishments as a pitcher with the New York Yankees in the past tense. He wasn't released by the Yankees until May 16, 1951, so from this we can deduce that these cards were not printed until after May 16, 1951.
If we want to further narrow down the time period these cards were manufactured, the Andy Pafko card (#27) still showcases him as a Chicago Cub, even though he was dealt to the Brooklyn Dodgers on June 15, 1951. So we can assume that the Blue Backs were printed before June 15, 1951.
There's no set sequence to the cards in this series. Unlike the Red Backs, there are four Detroit Tigers players highlighted, with the New York Giants being shut out this time. Topps also compensated for its lack of Philadelphia Phillies in the Red Back series with six of them in this offering.
Former Chicago White Sox ace Billy Pierce (#45) is the most high-profile rookie, but first-year singles of Chico Carrasquel (#26), Don Lenhardt (#33) and Tommy Byrne (#35) are also included. The Blue Back series also offers cards of five Hall of Famers: Richie Ashburn (#3), Red Schoendienst (#6), Enos Slaughter (#30), Bobby Doerr (#37) and Johnny Mize (#50).
Hobbs notes that the Ashburn (#3) is the most sought-after single. Of the 208 evaluated, there has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are 25 PSA 9s. One PSA 9 fetched $800 on eBay in May 2015.
Hobbs says the Mize is likely the second-most sought-after Hall of Famer. The sole PSA 10 Mize garnered $2,627 on eBay in January 2007.
Hobbs also cites the Eddie Yost, the first card in the series, as one of the toughest to track down in pristine form. Like the Berra in the Red Back series, this card suffered additional wear and tear being on top of collector piles. Of the 109 evaluated, there has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just five PSA 9s.
According to the PSA Population Report, the Eddie Waitkus (#51) is the most elusive Blue Back single in mint condition. There are just four PSA 9s (with no examples grading higher).
Also, similar to the Zarilla card in the Red Back series, the Hank Sauer card (#49) is the only Blue Back card that's worth a home run in the game, and because this card was coveted and handled by kids, it's elusive in top condition. There has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just nine PSA 9s.
For more information on the 1951 Topps Red and Blue Back baseball card sets, please visit http://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/baseball-cards/1951-topps-red-back/5130 and http://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/baseball-cards/1951-topps-blue-back/4762.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of November 2016.
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