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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

1952 Topps Baseball Card Article for SCD

The following article was written by Dean and published in the August 13, 2010 issue of Sports Collectors Digest.

1952 Topps: Still No. 1


Simply put, the 1952 Topps Baseball Card Set is the most popular sports card set ever produced. The 1952 Topps set was the first mainstream set issued by the Topps Gum Company and far surpassed all earlier sets in size, quality and quantity. These “Giant Sized” cards set a new benchmark for the hobby.

The 1952 Topps Baseball Card set was the brainchild of Sy Berger - now known as “the father of modern baseball cards”. The card market had been dominated by Bowman since 1948, when Bowman had the insight to sign the players to exclusive contracts to use their images. In 1950, Sy convinced the Shorin Brothers, his bosses and owners of the upstart Brooklyn-based gum company, that Topps could make an impact in the baseball card market.

Mr. Berger carefully planned the Topps assault on Bowman’s dominant position in the baseball card market. Topps issued two clean, but very modest sets in 1951. The 106 cards from the two sets featured Black & White pictures and the cards could be used to play a baseball game.

Fearful of a lawsuit by Bowman, Topps sold the 1951 cards with taffy instead of gum. The taffy idea was a disaster and would never be used again. Not only did the taffy melt and damage the cards, but the varnish used as coating on the cards rubbed off on the taffy, giving it the smell and flavor of paint. The 1951 cards served as a trial run for Topps, but were so unimpressive that they were virtually unnoticed by collectors and totally ignored by competitor Bowman Gum. The lessons learned in 1951, would serve Topps well in 1952.



Sy Berger spent the summer of 1951 in the clubhouses of Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, meeting with the players of the visiting teams and signing just about all of them to a Topps contract. The players received $75 for a non-exclusive and $125 for an exclusive contract.

The major mistake that Bowman made was to use an agency to negotiate the contracts, rather than an employee of the company. This particular agency assigned a woman named Joan Crosby to deal directly with the players. The problem was that in 1951, women were not allowed inside the locker rooms. Joan waited outside that summer, while Berger was inside talking to the players, shaking hands and writing checks.

Whether Ms. Crosby was unaware of what Berger was up to or if she kept quiet to protect her position is not clear, but Bowman seemed caught by surprise when Topps launched such a formable product in 1952. If Bowman had more warning, it is very likely that they would have pursued legal action to halt sales of the1952 Topps set in mid-issue as they did with the Leaf set a few years earlier - and like Topps would do with Fleer in 1963. By the time that Bowman did react, the 1952 Topps cards were in the hands of the collectors.

With the players signed, Sy Berger then spent the winter of 1951 designing the 1952 Topps cards on his kitchen table. The product that Mr. Berger created, with its many innovations, was nothing less than genius. His design topped Bowman’s baseball card in almost every way.

The 1952 Topps Baseball Cards were the first set that was issued in six series. Each series was carefully proportioned with a fairly equal number of stars and players from each team. The 1952 Topps cards were 52% bigger in size at 2 5/8” x 3 3/4” than the 1952 Bowman cards and with 407 cards had 61% more cards in the set.

The 1952 Topps “Giant Size” cards – which came with a stick of gum - were an instant hit with the collectors. Bowman’s established foothold in the hobby was quickly negated, as kids decided to spend their pennies and nickels on the better product. Dime store owners had no choice but to yield to consumer demand and sell the bigger and better cards. As the weather warmed, Topps steadily released additional series of cards and collectors were now dazzled by the number of cards that kept coming.

Not only were the cards bigger, they were extremely well conceived and downright beautiful. 1952 Topps was the first set to have the team logos on the front of the card. Berger, who collected ball player’s autographs as a kid, designed the cards with a bold facsimile of the player’s signature on the cards.

The 1952 Topps cards were designed so that faces of the players were very visible. In the days before TV, fans rarely got to see their heroes’ faces up close or in color. Bowman used color paintings on their cards. Mr. Berger acquired Black & White photographs from each of the clubs and then sent them to a local art studio. Berger even provided each player’s eye color, hair color and even his ancestry to help the artist determine the player’s complexion. Unfortunately, the artist did not seem to take advantage of this information, as every player in the 1952 Topps set seems to have brown eyes and brown hair. The fair skinned Mickey Mantle even has a tan!

To truly appreciate how advanced the 1952 Topps issue was for its day, one really needs to place a 1952 Topps card side by side with a 1952 Bowman card. Although the player’s painted picture on the Bowman card is attractive, the Topps card is twice as big and much more striking.

When you flip the cards over and look at the card backs, the contest is not even close. 1952 Topps has so much more information. The poor Bowman card even wastes a third of its limited space on the back of the card with an ad! It is quickly apparent that in 1952, Topps was focused on making a top notch baseball card and Bowman was still selling bubble gum.

The backs of the 1952 Topps cards surpassed everything that had come before. Berger had pushed so hard for this project and he had his reputation (and probably his job) on the line. Berger spent many late nights referencing The Sporting News Baseball Register to write detailed bios and statistics for each card.

1952 Topps is the first time that the statistic line was ever used on a card. One interesting note on the line is that is says “Past Year’ and not “1951”. Berger later said that he was not confident that the cards would sell out that year and did not want to date the cards in case Topps had to spend the next few years liquidating them.


Tales of the Black Backs and Red Backs.
That question was answered very quickly. The sales were so successful, that Topps soon requested a second printing of the 1st Series, which contained cards #1 to #80. This caused the major variation of the set. The first printing of the 1st Series had Black Backs. The 2nd printing of Series 1 and the rest of the set all contained Red Backs. Neither back variation is considered rare, but cards with the Red Backs have slightly sharper and brighter pictures.

Some price guides suggest that the cards in the 1st Series of the 1952 have a lower population than cards #81 to #250. I tested this theory against the current DeansCards.com 1952 Topps online inventory of 1393 cards and found no significant difference between the populations of Series 1,2,3 or 4. We have an average of 5 of each card and all series have roughly the same number of cards.

Gil McDougald beat out Mickey Mantle
for Rookie of the Year award in 1951.
The population of the 5th Series (#251 to #310) of 1952 Topps was very interesting. These cards have always seemed harder for us to find and the DeansCards.com database confirmed my hunch. We only have 114 cards from the 5th Series or an average of less than two of each card. Other online marketplaces seem to verify this trend. My feeling is that Series 5 cards are probably more valuable than the price guides suggest. That leads us to the 1952 Topps 6th Series.

High Numbers to die - or swim - for
As great as the 1952 Topps Set is, it has one major disappointment. The last series of the 1952 Topps set was so grand and wonderful – loaded with so many cards of the games best players – but they were never made available to most of the original collectors. We never got to see the Grand Finale!
The 1952 Topps Series #6 was packed with diamond heroes from the Big Apple, starting with the first card in the series #311 Mickey Mantle. This was followed by #312 Jackie Robinson, #313 Bobby Thompson, #314 Roy Campanella, #315 Leo Durocher and #316 Davey Williams.

Topps clearly saved the most popular players for the last series and aimed that series at their hometown and biggest market. These cards were soon followed by more stars from New York City, such as Bill Dickey and the rookie cards of Gil McDougald, Joe Black, and Hoyt Wilhelm, and Boston’s Eddie Mathews.

Of the 48 Giants and Dodgers players included in the 1952 set, Topps saved 28 of them (58%) for the last series. The 6th Series also contained 7 of the best Yankees and 10 of the 23 future Hall-of-Fame Players. By sheer chance, the only three Hall-of-Fame players with 1952 Topps Rookie Cards were also in the 6th series: #392 Hoyt Wilhelm, #396 Dick Williams and #407 Ed Mathews.

Berger said later that he misjudged how long that it was going to take to print and release the last series of cards. By the time the 6th series was ready to distribute, the World Series was over and football had begun. The 6th Series cards were distributed, but did not sell and eventually returned to Topps.

Most collectors would never have the opportunity to purchase these great cards of Series 6. The 1952 Topps 6th series was distributed in such low numbers that it is the toughest and most expensive high number series in the history of collecting and the hardest set to complete.

For the next few years, Topps tried to give away these “surplus” cards at various promotions. In 1960, Topps decided that they needed the warehouse space and loaded the remaining 1952 Topps 6th Series cards onto a barge and dumped them into the Atlantic Ocean off of the coast of New Jersey.
Until Topps released the 1952 Topps Reprint Set in 1983, most of us old time collectors had no idea what most of the 1952 Topps high number cards looked like. The reprint set has further increased the popularity of the original 1952 Topps set because it had given the average collector access to replicas of the cards.


The placement of all of these NY players in the 1952 Topps 6th Series was as well thought out as the rest of the set. New York City was definitely the capital of baseball in the early 50’s. The city had the three best and most exciting baseball teams.

No Teddy and no Stan
A quick refresher in baseball history might be helpful, since many of us were not old enough to remember those years. The Giants’ Bobby Thompson hit the “Shot Heard Round the World” to defeat the Dodgers in a one game play-off in 1951, in probably the most exciting pennant race ever, only to see the Dodgers take back the pennant in 1952. The dominant Yankees then proceeded to beat both team in the World Series and also beat the Dodgers again in 1953. The World Series never left the city for those three years.

If you think that New York teams dominate baseball today, in the decade between 1947 and 1956 the three NY teams were in the World Series a total of 16 times! The Yankees won seven rings and the N.L. clubs each took home one. That is what I call dominant.


If Mickey’s 1952 Topps card were not a
double print, it would have half its
current population and be worth
multiple times its current value!
The three star players that did not sign with Topps for 1952 were Ted Williams and Whitey Ford, who were in the military, and Stan Musial, who had an exclusive contract with Bowman. Musial would not make his first appearance on a Topps card until 1958.

Even though the concepts were not understood at the time, the 1952 Topps Set introduced the hobby to “Demand Scarcity” with the famous 6th Series of cards and “Condition Scarcity” with the first card of the set. DeansCards.com buys and sells well over a million cards each year and no card’s value confuses people more than 1952 Topps #1 Andy Pafko.

The #1 card in any set is a typical victim of “rubber-banding” as it was often on the top of a collector’s stack and secured with a rubber band. For that reason, the card is often very difficult to find in pristine condition.

The 1952 Topps #1 Pafko card is the most extreme example of Condition Scarcity that I have seen in the hobby. The 1952 Topps #1 Pafko card is extremely tough to find in top condition, but very common in lower grades. This card can sell close to five figures when professionally graded a 7 or 8, but may only sell for “hundreds” when graded a 5. 1952 Topps Pafko cards graded 3 or 4 are lucky to fetch a couple hundred dollars.

1952 Topps hobby impact
As time goes by, the 1952 Topps Baseball Card Set continues to increase in popularity with collectors. This spring, DeansCards.com was fortunate enough to buy a large collection of high-grade 1952 Topps cards that included the Mantle card. Although I was concerned about the large investment that we had to make to acquire the collection, the cards sold extremely well. So far this year, over 20% of Dean’s Cards dollar sales have com from the1952 Topps Set! Never before has one set made up such a high percentage of our sales. That is quite a statement for the continued popularity of the set.

What amazes me is how much interest there still is in the 1952 Topps Set. For fun, I write commentaries on different vintage sets and post them to the Dean’s Cards blog at http://blog.deanscards.com. Earlier this year, I wrote a article and made two YouTube Videos about 1952 Topps sets. The 1952 Topps article and videos already have more visitors than any other set featured in our blog.

It's hardly hyperbole to suggest that 1952 Topps ushered in a new era of card collecting. For the first time, the cards were clearly the product being marketed and driving sales – not the gum or the tobacco. 1952 Topps gave collectors what they wanted and they responded. The manufacturers were forced to take notice and evolve their product.

1952 Topps became the baseline for new card development. The new size was adopted by Bowman Gum and they were forced to enhance their offering in order to survive. In 1953, Bowman “counter attacked” and tried to out do Topps with an even better product that featured beautiful color photographs. The companies also began bidding for the exclusive rights to use a player’s image on a card.

Unfortunately for Bowman the better design of the 1953 Bowman cards did not increase sales enough to offset the increased cost of producing the color cards. Bowman never fully recovered from the impact that the Topps 1952 set had on their sales. By 1955, Bowman was broke and forced to sell the company to Topps. Topps did not have a serious challenge in the sports card hobby for the next quarter century.

Topps never forgot the lesson on how quickly Bowman lost its dominant position in the market with just one greatly superior issue of cards. Unfortunately for collectors, during the 25 years of Topps exclusive reign, Topps invested more effort on streamlining costs and protecting its monopoly than innovating its product offering. This is one reason why the 1952 set remained a hobby standard for so many years.

Cost cutting and profit optimization is the typical strategy of monopolies in any market. Real innovation in the card collecting hobby did not reemerge until competitors were allowed to compete and collectors were again allowed to vote for the best product with their dollars in the 1980’s. The end result was an exciting reset to the hobby and the beginning of a card collecting boom.

Although, I agree that the hobby has had way too many sets issued in the last couple decades, I am doubtful that the exclusive license recently granted to Topps in the baseball card market will increase the quality or creativity of the products that they produce in the near future or bring the kids back into the hobby. Innovation is most often the child of competition, not monopolies. If history is an indicator, we will not see the next card collecting boom until another pioneer like Sy Berger comes along with a great idea and has the passion and drive to make it happen.

Until then, I am waiting patiently …. Well, I am waiting - maybe not so patiently.

Dean Hanley
Owner of DeansCards.com