"Giant Size!" That was The Topps Company's succinct description - prominently printed on packs and boxes - of its new baseball trading cards for 1952, but the slogan held vastly more meaning than anyone could have recognized at the time.
America's collectors were accustomed to baseball cards that were rather small in their physical proportions. The tobacco issues of the 1910s (relatively tiny) had given way to Goudey Gum's somewhat larger standard by the 1930s. Just before and after World War II, manufacturers settled first on cards approximating Goudey's 2 3/8" by 2 7/8" dimensions, then down-sized even further. The time's dominant card-maker, Bowman Gum, produced collectibles measuring 2 1/16" by 2 ½" between 1948 and 1950, and granted just a bit more surface area (2 1/16" x 3 1/8') to the cards in its 1951 and 1952 efforts.
Topps wasn't at all bashful about its motives, with respect to the company's decision to release a lavishly designed and extremely comprehensive gallery to compete with Bowman's market-leading 1952 effort. Although the Brooklyn-based manufacturer had only been making baseball cards in a meaningful fashion for a year its 1951 products included elongated die-cuts and roster-challenged game cards - the company formulated an all-out blitz for the 1952 campaign.
The effect on the dime store candy counter's established order, where a complacent Bowman held the advantage by a wide margin, was dramatic and immediate. Topps' "Giant Size" 2 5/8" by 3 ¾" cards were an instant hit among consumers. Not only were the single cards almost outlandishly big, allowing plenty of room for expansion of baseball cards' most popular features, they were well conceived and attractive. Their huge illustrations and starry-bordered caption areas made Bowman's discreetly small artworks pale in comparison, and the backs? No contest. Lengthy player bios and detailed statistics were immediately adjudged preferable to the now terse-seeming Bowman writeups.
As Topps, impressed by its own handiwork, began to recognize that its idea was being validated nationwide by floods of pennies and nickels from young consumers, additional series of cards were composed and released. The same buyers who had been pleased at first by the cards' creative features were now also dazzled by the number of players included in the production. Clearly, the upstart manufacturer had done its homework before mounting its challenge in the baseball card industry!
The 1952 Topps issue adroitly symbolized America's new, postwar prosperity. And as things turned out, the "Giant Size" cards would develop into a milestone holding monumental gravity for the future of trading cards in general. At the time of the cards' first appearance, they were viewed in a much simpler light. Their premium size, flashy designs and generously dimensioned images brought about the sale of a great quantity of Topps product, and won legions of new participants for the collecting hobby. A win-win for all concerned!
Composition - By the time the season ended and Topps wrapped up production of its 1952 set's final components (and probably, at that point, retired to the company's offices to begin plotting its 1953s), the blockbuster release harbored a total of 407 cards - the largest number of players ever seen in a modern card issue. It seemed that every segment of 1952s there were six distinct "Series" groups in all - held its own objects of fascination.
As yet another indicator of thoughtful preparation in view of its target market's preferences, the various series of 1952 Topps played their cards in an insightful manner. New York customers, forming the nucleus of the time's confectionery market, found local heroes Phil Rizzuto, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Monte Irvin and other Yankees, Dodgers and Giants in the very first series. Certainly, gestures were made toward each team's clientele in every series (Spahn, Sauer, Kluszewski, Roberts and stars of similar caliber also represented their respective teams in Series 1, for example) but a decided New York emphasis acted as a predictable and successful theme throughout 1952 Topps' considerable span: Mize in Series 2, Martin in Series 3, Berra in Series 4, Mays in Series 5, and so forth.
For anyone who failed to spot the trend in Series 1 through 5, the New York bias was made crystal clear with the appearance of the 1952 Topps set's final push. Series 6 emerged like a Who's Who of metropolitan- area stardom, beginning with card #311, the first Topps card of the Yankees' youthful phenom, Mickey Mantle. Mantle's card was followed in succession by depictions of the Dodgers' Jackie Robinson (#312), the 1951 Giants' "Shot Heard ‘Round the World" home run hitter Bobby Thomson (#313), Roy Campanella (#314) and Leo Durocher (#315). It looked like the finale at a show of fireworks! After the incredible quintet that led off the segment, such players as Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Mathews and Bill Dickey, and a respectable group of rookies highlighted by Gil McDougald, Joe Black and Hoyt Wilhelm, kept the chase interesting, and encouraged the purchase of baseball card packs well into the months of September and October.
It's hard to identify any faults at all in a production that's exciting on so many levels, but fairness dictates mention of a couple of omissions. Ted Williams and Whitey Ford were away, serving their country at the time of issue, and were left out for that reason. But another key superstar, Cardinals' great Stan Musial, was under contract to Bowman and couldn't appear in a competitor's product. The 1952 season was the first time in a generation that two national manufacturers went head-to-head in marketing like-themed cards of Major League Baseball players, and Musial wouldn't be the last player for whose licensing rights Topps and Bowman were destined to compete.
Key Features and Rarities - In such an expansive gallery as the one formed by 1952 Topps, it's not surprising that key and difficult entries abound.
For starters, an entire series in 1952 Topps - the big-namefilled Series 6 containing card #s 311 Mickey Mantle through 407 Eddie Mathews - is considered rare. The final segment of Topps' inaugural release was only minimally distributed, as retailers, who had yet to become familiar with the allure of all those late-season Topps stars, held to the logical assumption that buying patterns of the past would once again dictate a seasonal falling-off in card sales. So orders were reduced or cancelled altogether. And it's probable that Topps anticipated this and kept Series 6 production numbers low to begin with. Hobby lore provides all sorts of additional conjectures to account for the scarcity of 1952 Topps "High Numbers." They were sold primarily in Canada, they were dropped off a ship sailing out of New York Harbor and so on - but the fact that these subjects are in perpetually short supply, for whatever reason, is indisputable.
The 1952 Topps set also unintentionally laid the groundwork for a pair of concepts that were just beginning to be understood as the set was being sold. The first condition scarcity, was felt whenever a collector tried to find the issue's first card (#1, picturing Andy Pafko) in respectable shape. It wasn't long before that card, and, to a lesser extent, its series-concluding counterpart, #80 Herman Wehmeier, was acknowledged as the customary victim of rubber-banding, and truly nice copies became quite difficult to obtain.
The second notion, demand scarcity, was thrust to a whole new level by 1952 Topps' star content, and by the uncertain distribution of its "High Numbers." Topps' cards for 1953 had barely reached the stores' shelves, and fans were already looking for Mickey Mantle's rookie card from the preceding year. Naturally, there were (and are) precious few to be had. Mantle's card, which was actually double-printed on its press sheet and therefore twice as available, in theory, as most of the 'Highs,' became one of the first gum cards that collectors were willing to pay cash for. The Mantle Rookie, spearheaded a trend to bring about a reduction in the casual trading of the past, and an increase in the focused acquisition mode of the future.
Finally, there are just enough variations, errors and oddities in 1952 Topps to keep things interesting on those fronts, too. Each card in Series 1 (#s 1-80) can be found in Black Back and Red Back configurations; two of those (#s 48 and 49, pitchers Joe Page and Johnny Sain, respectively) are the subjects of error versions wherein each man's card has the other's printed back. And for those who love the impossibly trivial differences, the card of Frank Campos (#307) comes with and without an unusual, overprinted star on the reverse. The former is very seldom encountered.
Certainly, Topps showed the hobby how it's done, when it comes to infusing tremendous variety, innovation and intrigue into a nominally finite set of collectibles!
Bottom Line - In so many ways, 1952 Topps ushered in a new era of card collecting, and acted as the flagship release for several generations going forward. The series gave collectors what they wanted; its manufacturer took note, recognized the preferences of its clientele, and modified future offerings accordingly. The "Giant Size" cards were probably the first such collectibles whose main function wasn't simply to stiffen a pack or act as a come-on for the real product - the gum. No, these items were intended to be sought out and purchased on the strengths of their own merits. Like so many issues of the future, which were patterned in varying degree after the 1952 Topps' model, they succeeded admirably.