Baseball Cards of the 1950s: A Kid’s View Looking Back

'55-Mickey-Mantle-BowmanBy Tom Cotter

 

While I am not sure what got us started, about 1955 we began collecting baseball cards (my brother was eight, I was five).  I suspect it was reasonably inexpensive and we were certainly in love with baseball.  We lived in Wichita, Kansas, which in the 1950s had minor league teams (Milwaukee Braves AAA affiliate 1956-1958), although I don’t recall that we went to any games.  However, being somewhat competitive and playing baseball all summer, we each chose a team to root for and rather built our baseball card collections around those teams.  My brother’s favorite team was the Chicago Cubs, with perennial All-Star Ernie Banks at shortstop at the top of his player list.  My team was the Milwaukee Braves, with Hank Aaron my number one player.  Oh, and we both liked the Dodgers and hated the Yankees.  So we collected cards at a nickel a pack (with bubble gum).  We often practiced in our backyard, with ½ acre of lot.  Baseball was our sport.  And we were able to get St. Louis Cardinal radio broadcasts in Wichita via KMOX.  In 1955, we got our first black and white TV with baseball a fundamental.  Of course, at grade school we listened to World Series games during the fall, as most of the games were in the daytime, and baseball was an important part of our national history in the making.

 

During the 1950s, televisions exploded from 3 million to 55 million homes.  From reliance on radio, ABC, CBS and NBC all broadcast televised games in the 1950s and on.  1950 saw the first televised All-Star game; 1951 the premier game in color; 1955 the first World Series in color (NBC); 1958 the beginning televised game from the West Coast (L.A. Dodgers at S.F. Giants with Vin Scully announcing); and 1959 the number one replay (requested by legend Mel Allen of his producer.)  In 1950, all 16 Major League teams were from St. Louis to the East Coast and mostly trains were used for travel.  The National League contained:  Boston Braves, New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburg Pirates, Cincinnati Redlegs (1953-1960 no “Reds” during the McCarthy Era), Chicago Cubs, and St. Louis Cardinals.  Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Athletics, Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and St. Louis Browns comprised the American League.  In 1953, the Braves moved to Milwaukee, in 1954 the Browns to Baltimore as the Orioles, and in 1955 the Athletics to Kansas City.  But the big twist came in 1958 with the Giants moving to San Francisco and the Dodgers to Los Angeles.  Jet airplanes, improved radio, T.V., and fast growing markets all contributed to these moves, the precursors of expansion in the 1960s and beyond.

 

'57-Topps-Hank-AaronOver 500 major league players, coaches, and umpires served in the U.S. military during World War including Hank Bauer and Yogi Berra (pre-Yankees), Joe (Yankees) and Dom (Red Sox) DiMaggio, Bob Feller (Indians), Monte Irvin (pre-Giants), Stan Musial (Cardinals), Phil Rizzuto (Yankees), Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese (Dodgers), Warren Spahn (Braves), and Ted Williams (Red Sox).  Bauer served with the Marines in the Pacific, Berra at D-Day and Europe, Irvin and Spahn in the Battle of the Bulge arena (both with injuries), and Feller and Rizzuto manned guns on Navy ships.  Williams flew for three years in World War II, then another two seasons with 39 combat missions in Korea.  Some of these stars reached their peaks before 1950, but all played into the 1950s and several through the end of the decade.

 

Critical to reinvigorating post-War baseball was an ongoing group of superstars, starting with those who had served during World War II, including Musial and Williams.  Many of the fans served in World War II and, after returning home, wanted to see their sport – baseball.  The next generation began to appear in the late 1940s, including C Roy Campanella (Dodgers), 1B Ted Kluszewski (Reds/Redlegs), and P Robin Roberts (Phillies).  Following rookie stars were:  1951 RF/CF Mickey Mantle (Yankees) and CF Willie Mays (Giants); 1952 3B Eddie Matthews (Braves); 1954 RF Hank Aaron (Braves), SS Ernie Banks (Cubs), and OF Al Kaline (Tigers).  These stars became the focus of our collecting and trading (though we did little of that), but each team always had an All-Star or several.  Additionally, later 1950s “premium” rookies included:  1955 Roberto Clemente (Pirates), 3B Harmon Killebrew (Senators) and P Sandy Koufax (Dodgers); 1956 M Walt Alston (Dodgers) and SS Luis Aparicio (White Sox); 1957 P Don Drysdale (Dodgers), 3B Brooks Robinson (Orioles), and OF Frank Robinson (Reds – the only player to win MVP in both leagues); 1958 1B Orlando Cepeda (Giants) and OF Roger Maris (Indians); and 1959 P Bob Gibson (Cardinals) and 2B George Anderson (Phillies – a.k.a “Sparky,” HOF Manager).  Most of these gained their fame in the 1960s or later.  Anyone in the Hall of Fame has a premium for their cards, as does any perpetual All-star such as Gil Hodges or 3B Frank Malzone (Red Sox).  Many of the Negro League stars have Topps or Bowman cards in high demand, for though their MLB career might have been short, such as Satchell Paige, their reputation and status enhances card values.

 

After the end of World War II, the Bowman Gum Company of Philadelphia released the first bubble-gum card packets in 1948, with Leaf attempting a set in that year.  Warren Bowman shrewdly signed players to exclusive contracts for the amazing recompense of $10, with an option renewable by Bowman for the next year at $100.  After losing in court to Bowman, Leaf did not make a second set.  Cards were normally printed in “series”, blocks of numbers in a single printing cut apart for circulation.  During the ‘50s, some series were printed in greater volume than others, creating shortages for the lesser produced blocks.  1950 Bowman created 252 hand-painted cards from photos as a pure monopoly at 2 1/16” by 2 1/2”.  Brooklyn’s Topps Chewing Gum, maker of Bazooka Bubble Gum, entered 1951 with a “Blue Back” and “Red Back” sets of 52 cards each at 2” x 2 5/8” plus a piece of taffy that absorbed card varnish and was inedible.  Bowman still monopolized bubble gum with baseball cards.  Bowman’s 324 cards of 1951 grew to 2 1/16” by 3 1/8”, followed in the same size by only 252 cards in 1952.  Topps realized their mistake and turned negotiations to a youngster named Sy Berger.  Berger had two advantages; he was a baseball fanatic about the age of many players and he went into the clubhouses throughout 1951 meeting players, particularly player representatives and youngsters.  Berger developed relationships with many players by leaving cards, lots of bubble gum, and obtaining exclusive and non-exclusive contracts on site.  By early 1952, Warren Bowman sold his business to much less astute capitalists (Haelan Laboratories) and Topps began its assent in the business.  Topps’ 1952 set (with bubble gum) blew Bowman’s set out of the water; the card 2 5/8” x 3 3/4”, with carefully rendered artist-colorized photos of each of 406 players, representing most everyday players as well as stars.  Also, Topps introduced “Past Year” and “Lifetime” statistics on the card reverse.  Facsimile autographs adorned both companies’ cards in 1952.  Lawsuits of player exclusivity with Bowman bounced around the courts, with some success for Bowman, but the more popular Topps’ set created a sharp decline in Bowman’s 1952 revenues.

 

Bowman countered in 1953 with actual photographs at 2 1 /2” x 3 3 /4”; first a 64 card black and white version followed by a very production-expensive 160 card color set, both with statistics.  The color version contained several multi-player cards for the first time, two cards with Yankees, of course, but without Ted Williams (military), Willie Mays (military), and Jackie Robinson.  Although the 1953 Topps was similar to its 1952 design, they added “trivia” questions but cut back to 274 cards (numbers through 280, but 6 numbers not issued.)  Bowman lost money and market, while Topps flourished.  By 1954, Bowman made 224 full-color cards, initially with a Ted Williams, but lost Williams to Topps during the year and had to fill in with Jim Piersall.  Williams, back from Korea as a decorated hero, graced the 1954 Topps set (all vertical designs) as #1 and #250, both first and last cards.  Also in 1954, Topps created a large torso or head shot color photograph with a smaller overlaid action shot fielding, hitting, or pitching.  Once again, Topps won the battle by design innovation, signing young new stars, and changing to a more exciting format, selling $1M plus to Bowman’s $600K.  Bowman had lost inspiration, players, creativity, and kept losing money.  For 1955, both companies’ designs went horizontal, maintaining their slight size differential.  The Bowman “color TV” set of 320 included more stars, along with umpires, but used their prior year pictures and again missed out on key rookies and second year players.  Topps, with only 206 cards (four never released, therefore numbers through 210) again outsold Bowman.  Later that year, Connelly Containers purchased Bowman owner Haelan Laboratories.  Connelly settled with Topps in early 1956, leaving Topps the only player in the bubble gum card game.  To Topps credit in recognizing their growing market, they enhanced and expanded their sets:  1956 to 340 cards (with two checklists and numbered team cards); 1957 to 407 2 ½ “ x 3 ½” new “standard” vertical cards with select multi-player cards and more unnumbered checklists; 1958 to 490 with 20 Sport Magazine All-Star cards; and 1959 to 572 with a “Highlights” series and “Rookie Prospect” series.  Ted Williams became a bubble gum card free agent before 1959, prompting Fleer to print an 80 card biographical set of him, leaving him out of Topps that year.

 

 “Book values” in this article are estimates only, based on reviewing the 2015 Beckett Baseball Price Guide and the 2015 Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards, reflecting player/coach/manager status and quality, and are not offers to buy.  Even if not star cards among older sets, card #1 and the final number card generally have a premium; the first and last cards protected the remainder of the deck from moisture, rubber bands and other environmental impacts and therefore be much rarer without significant damage.  Production series volume, mid-season changes, and errors all impact cards values.  For example, there exist three different 1959 #40 Warren Spahn versions based on birthdates on the back; one with 1931 (wrong), one with semi-legible 1931 (still wrong), and the final corrected one with 1921 (Right!).  Starting with the 1950 set, the two most expensive “book values,” dependent on quality, would be Jackie Robinson ($450-$1,500), followed closely Ted Williams ($275-1,000).  New York teams created the most attraction; Bronx Yankees C Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra seemed often to have his own tier in the 1950 ($135-$535), with teammates SS Phil Rizzuto, 1B Johnny Mize, rookie LF Hank Bauer, and M Casey Stengel accorded ranges about 1/3 Berra value.  Oddly, the Yankee Clipper CF Joe DiMaggio had no 1950s baseball cards for his last two years through 1951.  Of course, Yogi is recognized as one of the great figures in Major League Baseball, catching many Yankee championship teams, winning three American League MVP awards (1951, 1954, and 1955), coaching and managing, and dropping quotes like rainwater in a desert (e.g., “”He hits from both sides of the plate.  He’s amphibious.”).  In 1950 Flatbush (Brooklyn), after Robinson in “book” and in the same range as Yogi’s teammates were C Roy Campanella (Yogi’s three-time National League MVP counterpart), 1B Gil Hodges, SS Pee Wee Reese, CF Duke Snider, RF Carl Furillo, and P Don Newcombe (rookie); all but Furillo in the MLB Hall of Fame.  Also in 1950 besides Giants’ M Leo Durocher and CF Bobby Thomson (a year before his famous home run), other “pricey” star cards include Red Sox’ 2B Bobby Doerr and CF Dom DiMaggio, Braves’ P Warren Spahn, Phillies’ P Robin Roberts and CF Richie Ashburn, Pirates’ LF Ralph Kiner, Indians’ OF Larry Doby, P Bob Feller, P Bob Lemon, and P Early Wynn, Tigers’ 3B George Kell, Reds’ 1B Ted Kluszewski, White Sox’ SS Luke Appling, and Cardinals’ OF Enos Slaughter.  No premium player “book prices” that year for the Cubs or the Browns.  Notably missing was Cardinals’ Stan “The Man” Musial (appearing finally on Bowman in 1952-53) who, along with Ted “The Splendid Splinter” Williams, probably represented the greatest two hitters in the Majors during the combined 1940s and 1950s.  This takes nothing away from DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, Snider, Aaron, Banks, or others.  The stats speak for themselves.  Musial’s career:  22 active years (one season lost to military service), three-time NL MVP, 3,630 hits, 725 doubles, 475 homers, 1,951 RBIs,  .331 batting average, .417 on-base percentage, .559 slugging percentage, and 2.3 walks per strikeout.  Somebody once asked Spahn how to pitch to Stan Musial.  Spahnnie responded, “I throw him my best stuff, and then go back up third base.”  Williams’s career:  17 active years (five season’s military service), two-time AL MVP, 2,654 hits, 525 doubles, 521 homers, 1,839 RBIs, .344 batting average, .482 on-base percentage, .634 slugging percentage, and 2.85 walks per strikeout.  On Williams, Bobby Shantz stated, “They said he had no weakness, won’t swing at a bad ball, has the best eyes in the business, and can kill you with one swing.  He won’t hit anything bad, but don’t give him anything good.”

 

New York opened the post-war era as the center of the baseball world.  Under the quirky but effective managing of Casey Stengel, the Yankees won the American League Pennant eight of the ten years, claiming the World Series crown 1950-1953, 1956, and 1958 (six times).  Of course, the Yankee stars represent many of the most prized and expensive cards from the 1950s.  Particularly prized are Mickey Mantle’s “Rookie”, or a company’s first year of printing, cards from 1951 with Bowman “book” priced from $5,000-$15,000, depending on demand and condition, then with the first Topps Mantle (still viewed as a “Rookie” card) from the highly popular 1952 Topps set might ranging from “book” of $15,000-$75,000.  Oddly, Joe DiMaggio did not have a baseball card in the 1950s, retiring after a painful, injury-filled 1951.  Mantle generally dominates card prices throughout the 1950s, but the Aaron, Banks, Berra, Feller, Kaline, Musial, Reese, Roberts, Jackie Robinson, Snider, Spahn, and Williams’s cards carry their premium whenever available.  The Cy Young Award to the best pitcher(s) did not start until 1956 and was not given in both leagues until 1967, so does not figure prominently in 1950s prices.  There are services that provide authentication of sports cards and other memorabilia, the primary one being Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) which evaluates card conditions on a scale of one (poor) to ten (mint).  When shopping in stores and on-line, one pays a premium for a PSA-authenticated card, which is placed “…in its own tamper-evident case.  A label within the case displays the card’s pertinent information and unique certification number.”  In 2014, Larry Pauley, a noted dealer, developed “figured values” (FV) from sales and auctions, including EBAY, and condition (PSA 9 Gem Mint or 8 NM-Mint*, if 9 not available), to list the following as the top 15 prices for 1950s cards:  #1 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle (FV $254,196, very high compared with the above range from a Beckett book); #2 1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC (FV $156,050); #3 1952 Topps #1 Andy Pafko (FV $69,442)*; #4 1951 Bowman #305 Willie Mays RC (FV $61,092); #5 1953 Topps #82 Mickey Mantle (FV $59,423); #6 1952 Topps #407 Eddie Mathews RC (FV $53,912)*; #7 1953 Topps #244 Willie Mays (FV $35,173)*; #8 1955 Topps #164 Roberto Clemente RC (FV $30,536); #9 1954 Bowman #65 Mickey Mantle (FV $29,147); #10 1951 Bowman #1 Whitey Ford RC (FV $28,919); #11 1954 Topps #128 Hank Aaron RC (FV $28,608); #12 1955 Topps #123 Sandy Koufax RC (FV $26,671); #13 1954 Topps #94 Ernie Banks RC (FV $25,146); #14 1952 Topps #261 Willie Mays (FV $18,117); #15 1952 Bowman #218 Willie Mays (FV $17,391).  Before you say “Andy WHO?” at #3, Andy Pafko happened to be on the very on the first card of the most popular and expensive set of the decade, which ups his high-quality card disproportionately.  He was a 4-time All Star, 17 year MLB outfielder for the Cubs, Dodgers (in ’52), and Braves.

 

Just for kicks sometime, try to make up a 1950s All-decade team.  Several have.  Using Wins Above Replacement (W.A.R.), website Saber Analysis identifies the following 11:  C Yogi Berra, 1B Stan Musial (with some outfield played), 2B Jackie Robinson, 3B Eddie Matthews, SS Ernie Banks, LF Ted Williams, CF Mickey Mantle, RF Hank Aaron, LHP Starter Warren Spahn, RHP Starting Robin Roberts, and Reliever Hoyt Wilhelm.  Richard Barbieri in The Hardball Times agrees and also cites E.R.A.+ statistics for pitchers.  Tyler’s Think Tank, a blogspot, offers eleven, with C Berra, 1B Gil Hodges, 2B Nellie Fox, 3B Matthews, SS Banks, OF Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider (position not given, but all Center Fielders!), Utility Stan Musial, RHP Roberts (over Early Wynn), and LHP Spahn (over Whitey Ford).  Consider, if you would, missing names, like C Roy Campanella (his career shorted by a devastating car accident in January 1958); 7-time All-Star and winner of the first 3 Gold Glove Awards 1B Gil Hodges, 2B 9-time All-Star, twice Gold Glove winner and 1959 AL MVP Nellie Fox (though picked by Tyler), SSs Pee Wee Reese, 1950 NL MVP Phil Rizzuto, and 7-time All-Star Harvey Kuenn, LF Ted Williams, CFs (both picked by Tyler) 1954 MVP, 1951 Rookie of the Year, 6-time All-Star, and 3-time Gold Glove winner Willie Mays and 7-time All-Star Duke Snider (the most competitive position of the 1950s), RF 5-time All-Star Al Kaline, and pitchers Whitey Ford, 1954 MVP Bobby Shantz, and many others.  Lest you wonder, the Gold Glove was first awarded in 1957 (given to one player in MLB by position, then by league and position from 1958 on).

 

I can tell you from experience it is easy to get caught up in the glamour of reliving youth through sports memorabilia.  Certainly the recollection of these stars, their lives, and their accomplishments breathes a moment of “WOW” into my day.  I discovered that Hank Bauer was one of only six in his Marine Platoon landing group of 64 to survive the taking of Okinawa, that he earned two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, 11 campaign medals, and that he survived several major injuries and 24 malaria attacks in 32 straight months of combat, then became a Major League star.  I imagined Monte Irvin and Warren Spahn returning after heavy combat in 1944-1945 Europe to star in MLB.  Back then, they just vaguely mentioned shell shock or battle fatigue; now it is officially PTSD.  I contemplated Ted Williams returning from Korean War injuries and an unknown viral infection to stardom at age 35, leading the American League in Walks, Slugging Percentage, and On Base Percentage.  Card #28 in the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set describes the defensive shift and left-handed hitting Williams, so that is nothing new in baseball.  I found out how curmudgeon Casey Stengel went from idiot (managing the Dodgers in the ‘40s) to genius (managing the Yankees in the ‘50s) and back to idiot (managing the expansion Mets in the ‘60s).  I continually ponder the difficulties Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Satchell Paige, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and others have endured over the last 70 years with racism in and out of baseball; it is staggering.  I ached for Roy Campanella, his career cut short while he was driving to his home on Long Island just months before the Dodgers moved to L.A., then teared up when I read of his tribute on May 7, 1959, at a special Yankees vs. Dodgers exhibition game when 93,103 people lit matches and lighters in the darkened L.A. Memorial Coliseum during a 5th inning break after Campy’s friend Pee Wee Reese wheeled his chair to the mound.  People in L.A. never got to see Campanella play live, but they honored and loved him as one of their own, with the game proceeds helping defray Campanella’s medical costs.  I marveled that after the 1952 Yankee World Series victory, Mickey Mantle went back to work in the Oklahoma lead and galena mines to support his family after his father’s death (his mother, three brothers, a sister, and his pregnant wife), that he had multiple injuries and surgeries from high school on, and that despite nearly debilitating damage, is still one of the greats of all time.  There are thousands of stories behind the baseball cards of the 1950s just waiting to be explored.  Have fun.

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