By the time Topps' 1963 production hit the shelves, almost a full generation of collectors had moved along from the year of the company's boldly pace-setting 1952 issue. During the intervening span of more than a decade, plenty of developments in card sets composition had been observed; numerous innovations had been attempted, and many survived from year to year. The resultant "snowballing" of features yielded a fresh and modern production, which displayed such visual complexity and crowded content that the cards likely wouldn't have been fully understood, let alone appreciated, ten years prior. Gum card evolution had been a gradual process, though, and buyers in 1963 were more than ready for the kaleidoscope of delights in the new Topps set.
Each of the 1963 Topps player cards was highlighted by a bright and glossy, large photograph of the athlete as the primary focal point of the card. A much smaller, black and white image, centered within a circular area slightly smaller than a half-dollar at a bottom edge corner, revealed a different pose; the secondary photo, plus caption information, occupied a full-bleed band of color that formed the piece's lower margin. The cards' backs, printed in black with yellow-orange backgrounds, carried neatly arranged layouts with personal info, biographical highlights (some in text form, plus one as a cartoon), and in most cases, statistical records covering the player's entire career.
Composition - The set consists of 576 cards, which combine to cover an amazing gamut of information and a packed roster of baseball's personnel. A quick look at the range of the 1963 Topps special elements shows that the set is relatively dizzying in its scope and causes the viewer to reflect upon the fact that almost none of these features were present in standard Topps or Bowman productions from just ten years earlier. The ideas caught on upon introduction and had become, essentially, mandatory elements of card sets' construction.
Here's an overview of the 1963 Topps themes along with the year the first item of each type was introduced by the company. Remember, all of these are presented in addition to the issue's regular player cards:
League Leaders - First employed in 1961, the Leaders (in such categories as RBI, Batting Average, and Wins) are honored on the 1963 Topps ten opening numbers.
Managers - (1950) Managers had been shown off and on in baseball card sets since the 19th Century, and the current skippers were all present in the 1963 Topps set. An interesting design feature of the managers' cards was the replacement of the standard second picture with their team logo instead - a great touch when sorting the cards into team order!
World Series Cards - (1959) Card #s 142-148 deliver a pictorial recap of the Giants' defeat at the hands of the Yankees.
Multi-Player Cards - This idea debuted in modern times in 1954, when Pittsburgh's O'Brien Brothers shared card #139. This concept was allowed plenty of freedom in 1963, with some marvelously creative and inspired combinations affording Topps the opportunity to add some extra star cards to its production. Stan Musial and Willie Mays formed the "Pride of N.L." (#138), and four Pirates, including Clemente, constituted #18's "Buc Blasters." "Friendly Foes" Hodges and Snider appeared together on #68, Mickey Mantle and two teammates were the "Bombers' Best" (#173), and the "Dodgers' Big Three" card (#412) showed Koufax, Drysdale and Podres. It would be difficult to contend that such items didn't contribute loads of personality to a card set! Topps was finished with the multi-players by the time it concluded Series 5. Presumably, space in the lineup was needed to accommodate the concentration of rookie cards in the higher card numbers.
Rookie Cards - Each of these entries presented four rookie players. First-year players were taking on increased prominence in each new Topps release. Special note of a ballplayer's debut appearance began in 1960 with the company's All-Star Rookie (Trophy) cards; these awards continued in 1963 on certain athletes' individual cards. But many more young players were captured in the small circles of the 1963s' four-in-one rookie cards. Foremost among these is Pete Rose (on "High Number" card #537), whose tiny portrayal remains one of the most vigorously pursued collectibles of its era. Other up-and-comers treated in this fashion by Topps include Willie Stargell, Rusty Staub, Tony Oliva and Gaylord Perry (shown on what was actually a second-year card, as the future Hall of Famer was apparently demoted from his full-card status in 1962). By 1964, the manufacturer drew back on this approach. Rookie cards the next year would feature just two players apiece, but the four-player style allowed dozens of first-year appearances in 1963... and Pete Rose is the undisputed king of this category.
Team Cards - (1956) With the cropped, color-background photos of each squad, these cards remained as popular as ever among enthusiasts.
Checklists - (1956) It had become customary by this time to give consumers a means of record-keeping as they built their sets. The checklists also allowed Topps a bit of self-promotion: the last few numbers on each series' checklist gave a sneak preview by revealing several players who wouldn't be available until the next series went on sale! The checklists were also fertile ground for hunters of oddities, as most of the cards displayed obscure variations in their color arrangement, punctuation or copyright line.
Key Features and Rarities - Late-season production and distribution drop-offs led to two levels of scarcity in the 1963 Topps set. Its "Semi Highs" (#s 447-522) and its "Highs" (#s 523-576) were both hard to find, with the former actually a bit more difficult than the true "Highs." The coveted Rose rookie is situated among the highest-numbered group, along with Stargell, Clemente, Duke Snider and Nelson Fox. The "Semi Highs" are notable for the presence of Lou Brock, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda, as well as Harmon Killebrew and Tom Tresh - both of whom are regarded as especially elusive "Short Prints" within their already challenging numerical group.
Elevated levels of condition scarcity are attached to the 1963 Topps cards, too. Each card has two sensitive corners where solid color extends all the way to the tips, and these are prone to readily expose the slightest bit of wear. Truly uncirculated-looking 1963 Topps cards are particularly tough to obtain on the basis of this (admittedly attractive) quirk in the issue's design.
Bottom Line - The 1963 Topps release set the tone for a different decade and a different generation. The collecting public had matured since 1952, in terms of expectations, and buyers were ready to be dazzled, rather than merely satisfied, by each new season's group of cards. As an eye-catching release packed full of interesting sub-topics and multi-themed specialty pieces, the 1963 Topps set acted as yet another instance in which the premier card manufacturer's offering was perfectly suited for its time.