By Dean Hanley
While Bowman was still reeling from its expensive 1953 color venture, Topps was enjoying its newly discovered success in the competitive world of bubble gum baseball cards. Sy Berger refused to lose the initiative and was determined to further improve the Topps product offering.
While Berger had contracted for artists to hand-draw the 1953 cards, he wanted a new, cutting-edge design for the 1954 issue. He would borrow from the 1952 set and again use colorized photographs, although this time Berger wanted to include a black-and-white action shot that would lay across part of the colorized portrait. This concept proved to be a tough sell to both Topps executives and artist Woody Gelman, who all initially disliked the concept. Berger, who was never one to be easily discouraged, was persistent and finally got his way. The result was the most attractive baseball card produced to date.
Years later, Berger recalled, “I had advocated action photography for three or four years. They wouldn’t hear of it. And I had two big file cabinets full of action pictures. They did a survey and found out that kids wanted action pictures. They came to me in December and said, ‘Where are we going to get color action pictures?’ – and I had them.”
Each 1954 Topps card features a large color image of the player’s upper torso, which shares the remaining space with a smaller full-body black-and-white photo of the player in an action pose. Each card contains a large team logo at the top of the card and a facsimile autograph at the bottom of the card. Located next to the team logo at the top of the card is the player’s name, position and team name. A bright colorful background that extended all the way to the card’s top edge sets the design and makes the player’s image appear to jump off the card.
The backs of the 1954 Topps cards are just as busy. Printed on the back is personal information, history, statistics and a colorful, eye-catching cartoon about the player.
The 1954 Topps Baseball set includes 250 cards, each measuring 3-by-3¾ inches. The year is unique in that it’s a mixture of aging stars from the prewar era of baseball as well as rookies that would be destined for the Hall of Fame. Topps had once again manufactured an exceptional set that would stand out amongst the Gum Cards War chaos of the 1950s.
A great rookie card class
The 1954 Topps cards captured the new burst of talent that was beginning to transform the game of baseball. In 1954, Topps (or should we say Sy Berger) was insightful enough to secure the exclusive rights to print all the rookie cards of three bright and exciting players who would be perennial All-Stars for the next two decades and eventually be enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame. These were No. 94 Ernie Banks, No. 128 Hank Aaron and No. 201 Al Kaline.
The 1954 Topps set also contains the rookie cards of No. 25 Harvey Kuenn, the A.L. Rookie of the Year, and No. 132 Tommy Lasorda, who would be enshrined as a manager. This impressive list of baseball giants would prove to have a great impact on the sport for years to come and Banks, Aaron, Kaline and Kuenn would go on to play in a combined total of 63 All-Star games.
The 1954 Topps set also features the exclusive cards of Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Warren Spahn.
“Teddy Ballgame” comes back from war
Topps and Bowman were still competing for the baseball card market, as well as the player rights to produce the cards. By 1954, Bowman was pulling ahead in the number of players it had signed to exclusive contracts. Berger, a Red Sox fan, had been desperate to sign Ted Williams, who was exclusive with Bowman.
Berger‘s coup of 1954 was signing Williams to a five-year contract. For the first time, Topps offered a player (Williams) more money than the standard contract to get him to appear on a Topps baseball card.
To justify this cost, Topps featured Williams on both the first and last card in the set (No. 1 and No. 250). Bowman also printed a card of Williams without realizing that he had signed an exclusive contract with Topps. Bowman was forced to stop production of the No. 66 Ted Williams card, thus making it the most scarce and valuable card in the 1954 Bowman set.
Trying to make chicken salad without much chicken
There are 60 cards featuring rookies in the relatively small 1954 Topps Baseball set. Although the set had only 250 cards, Topps once again struggled to fill out the set due to contractual obligations of many of the players.
To reach this number of cards, Topps printed cards of 25 coaches and managers. In fact, many of the players and managers featured in the 1954 set would never have another card printed.
Instead of an expensive high-numbered series, the second series of the 1954 Topps set (Nos. 51-75) is considered more expensive to collect despite a lack of stars featured in this series.
The first series (Nos. 1-50) has been printed as a gray-backed version that may have been released in Canada. Topps also printed its first multi-player card, which featured twin brothers No. 139 Ed and John O’Brien.
What frustrates collectors, both in 1954 and today, is that the back of the cards are not oriented in a consistent manner. The 1954 Topps cards do not have a white border on the top of the card, which adds to the cards beauty. To achieve this “bleed” feature, the tops of the cards were lined up against the tops of the cards of the next row on the printing sheet so that half of the cards would be upside down on the sheet. This is the same technique that Topps used for its 1953 set. However, in 1954, the printer must have forgotten to orient the card backs in the same manner. Therefore, when the front of the cards are stacked to face the same way, half of the card backs have the card oriented to the left and half have the back oriented to the right.
Therefore, when 1954 Topps cards are sorted in a box, one-half of the cards have the number at the tops of the card and one-half have it at the bottom. Fortunately, Topps never repeated this mistake.
The 1954 set would stand out from the previous three Topps sets for several other reasons, as well.
Unlike the 1952 and 1953 sets, there are no short-printed cards, making the 1954 Topps set much easier to collect.
For the first time, Topps used dual images on their card fronts. The black-and-white action shots that were superimposed next to the color headshots demonstrated just how innovative Topps was at the time. These dual images would appear on many Topps cards in the years to come. Although their lack of exclusive player contracts put Topps at a disadvantage when compared to Bowman, Topps certainly made up for it with their brightly-colored 1954 set.
In 1954, there was little doubt that Topps had the most attractive baseball card. Naturally, collectors responded. Each year, DeansCards.com sells about five 1954 Topps cards for every three 1954 Bowman cards. I assume that the ratio was about the same with collectors in 1954, as both companies were very cost-conscious and did not want to waste money to print cards that would not sell. This would be the third consecutive year that Topps outsold Bowman in the baseball card market. u
This article is taken from Dean Hanley’s upcoming book “The Gum Card War and the Great Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets of 1948-1955,” which is scheduled to be released this summer in both print and eBook forms. Please feel free to contact Dean with any questions or comments at Dean@DeansCards.com.