Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on April 14, 2016 and is reprinted here by permission.
At this point you might be asking: Why would I start a series of articles about baseball cards in 1956, before I was born but long after trading cards had been part of American culture? Companies had been making baseball cards at least since the 1880s to help sell their products—mainly cigarettes (helpfully hooking a generation of young boys on tobacco), caramel, and eventually bubblegum.
Many people reading this might consider the Bowman and Topps issues of the early 1950s among the best in history. The classic 1952 Topps cards set a new standard, with their larger size and two rows of statistics on the back, turning the baseball card from a simple cardboard likeness into a virtual classroom. The next year Topps used painted portraits, while Bowman, clearly on the defensive, put out gorgeous full-color photographs. The card backs from both companies got steadily better, with cartoons, quizzes, and observations about the players.
A significant problem with collecting in these years is that Topps and Bowman were not just competing for kids’ pennies and nickels, they were also competing for the rights to the players. As rewarding as the 1952 Topps set might be for a middle-aged collector to fawn over today, at the time it would not have escaped notice that the set did not include Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Ralph Kiner, and many other star players, which seems like an important flaw. If you had wanted to collect all of the players from your favorite team, you would have had to buy both brands of cards and take your chances—some players were in the Topps set, some in the Bowman set, some in both, some in neither. This remained true through 1955.
In January 1956 the Brooklyn-based Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. purchased Bowman, their Philadelphia-based gum and trading card rival, and for the next 25 years Topps held a virtual monopoly in the baseball card field. If you wanted to buy baseball cards, there was no confusion about what brand to buy, and Topps had (with scattered exceptions) all of your favorite players every year.
Although monopolies are theoretically not consumer-friendly, Topps deserves a lot of credit for continually trying new things, often radically changing their designs and adding or removing features from the back. Some of their changes worked better than others, but much of that is a matter of taste. When I asked people on both Facebook and SABR’s email list to tell me their favorite Topps set from the 1956 to 1980 period, I was deluged with input, and nearly every year in that period was mentioned by at least one person.
For a generation of baseball-crazed kids, the summer followed a regular pattern. Packs of Topps Series 1 baseball cards appeared at the local store around the middle of March, and kids spent a month or so trying (and generally failing) to collect all of the 100 or so available cards. By the end of that period your pack purchases would be mostly doubles—cards you already had. In mid-April or so (you could never be sure), word would spread that Series 2 cards were for sale, and kids would get on their bikes and head to the store to see a fresh batch of available cardboard. This would happen several times over the summer. There were four “series” in 1956, but throughout the 1960s, when I came aboard, there were seven.
As the summer progressed you never really knew when different players might show up in your packs. In March 1970 I was thrilled to pull my favorite player, Carl Yastrzemski, from a Series 1 pack, only to have to wait the next year until Series 5, probably in July. Fortunately, I was always a set collector, valuing any card I did not yet own. The entire exercise was a marathon, not a sprint. If I had two Willie Mays cards and you had two Dick Schofields, I might make that trade. This is shocking to a price-obsessed collector of today, but any card I did not own held value for me, and doubles were nearly worthless.
As it happened, late-series cards did not reach many towns, and Topps printed comparably fewer of them. Kids tended to move on to other things by August, and stores might keep their previous series packs in stock without ordering new cases. Football cards also started showing up on the shelves. As a result, for many of these years there was a lesser supply of late-series cards, making putting together an entire set a tougher proposition then, and a tough proposition even today in the world of Ebay. This phenomenon was especially true for the 1966 and 1967 sets that I finally finished just a few years ago.
This is the seventh series card that completed my 1966 set.
The familiar summer pattern ended in 1974 when Topps packaged all 660 cards in a single series. This allowed kids to gather a large number of cards in the spring, but most of us dearly missed the monthly resets, when your packs were once again fresh and new and exciting.
1956 (340 cards)
The 1956 Topps set is one of the most popular ever made, and it’s not hard to see why. The front of the cards used a horizontal orientation dominated by two hand-colorized photos—a headshot in the foreground and a live “action” shot in the background. Topps had used the two-photo look the previous two years and went horizontal in 1955 as well, but the action photos were much more interesting in 1956. The cards are gloriously colorful and use appropriate action shots for all of the stars—Ted Williams following through on a swing, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays sliding into home, Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente making great catches in the outfield.
The backs are also bright, very easy to read, and dominated by three comic panels about the player. In keeping with tradition, the card had two rows of statistics (including defense!) for 1955 and for the player’s career.
Topps no longer had to compete for player contracts and put out a fairly packed set of cards. They did not sign Sal Maglie until 1957 or Stan Musial until 1958, but a 1956 Topps collector had the greatest collection of player talent that any card set had ever had. The set size (340) seems low to a kid who came along later, like I did, but most of the shortfall was in lack of specialty cards that Topps later spread throughout a set. In 1956 Topps used two managers (Walter Alston and Mayo Smith), the two league presidents, 16 team cards, and 320 player cards, an average of 20 per team. The set was 95 percent standard player cards, where the sets in the 1960s might be 80 percent.
The team cards, which debuted in 1956, would be featured for the next quarter century—excepting only 1969. The value of the team cards depended on the backs—it was impossible to make out the faces of any of the players depicted on the front. In 1956 and 1957 Topps packed the team card backs with all-time team records, pennant-winning seasons, and stadium details, making the cards a valued part of the collection. The next three years the team backs doubled as checklists, which most collectors either wrote on or ignored. My favorite team cards came in 1961 through 1968 when Topps had useful statistical information about the previous year’s team.
1957 (407 cards)
As popular as the 1956 set remains with collectors, Topps might have outdone themselves the very next year, proving that they had no intention of resting on their laurels without competition. Just five years after setting a standard with their large (2.625 by 3.75-inch) cards, Topps reduced their size slightly to 2.5 by 3.5 inches, dimensions which have been used by all baseball cards (and virtually all trading cards of any kind) ever since. The set was also the first to use color photography, particularly dramatic because the photos took up nearly the entire front of the card, with the player’s name, team, and position laid out on the bottom of the photo. The card backgrounds are mainly the stadia of the time and lots of green grass.
Many famous players had their most popular cards in this set: Ted Williams, following through on his swing with the Yankee Stadium roof in the background; Duke Snider, using a similar pose in Ebbets Field; Ernie Banks; Roy Campanella; Roberto Clemente; Willie Mays; and on and on.
Topps also made history with the backs of the 1957 cards, listing year-by-year statistics for the first time. For many kids in 1957, and for years later, studying the backs of baseball cards was how you began to appreciate some of the game’s history. I recall studying the stats of a reserve Detroit infielder in 1968 and determining, “Wow, this old Eddie Mathews guy used to be good!”
One of the most famous 1957 cards is Hank Aaron, which is reversed, showing him appearing to hit left-handed. It is not terribly surprising that Topps would reverse an image once in a while (there are other examples through the years), but it is somewhat surprising that they would do so with Aaron, who was already a major star. Although many later collectors seem to like error cards like this, I was never a fan—I wanted Topps to get the cards right, which fortunately they almost always did.
Thank you to The Topps Company for granting me permission to use images of their cards in this series.
Next week: Over the next several years, Topps introduced many specialty cards that would help define the sets through the 1960s.