A Closer Look: New Findings on the 1953 Topps Baseball Set

By George Vrechek

Tom Billing of Springfield, Ohio, is a long-time collector of vintage baseball cards. Billing is among a small group of collectors who continue to stay enthused about old cardboard by discovering and collecting variations, printing differences and other oddities.

Often such discoveries are of interest to a fairly limited audience. Occasionally though, such discoveries amount to a loose string that, if pulled, unravel mysteries of interest to many. I pulled on one of Tom’s strings recently.

Hudson

The loose string was an off-center Lou Hudson showing an adjacent black border.

The loose string was an off-center Lou Hudson showing an adjacent black border.

Sid Hudson throws the first curve
The “string” that Billing sent me was an image of a miscut 1953 Topps card of Sid Hudson. The right edge of the base of the off-centered card had a tiny sliver of black to the right of the otherwise red base nameplate. Was this a variation, a printing difference or none of the above? Would anyone care? As I thought about it, I voted for none of the above since it was really just a miscut card showing some of the adjacent card on the print sheet. But wait a minute! That shouldn’t have happened with the 1953 Topps. Why not? We will see.

An almost great article
Ten years ago I wrote an article in SCD about the printing of the 1952 Topps. I received some nice feedback on that effort in which I utilized arithmetic, miscuts and partial sheets to offer an explanation of how the 1952 set was printed and the resulting scarcities.

As part of that exercise I looked at the printing of the 1953 Topps set and was quite proud that I had figured out the print runs. I use the term print runs rather than series, because, as we will see, the cards printed didn’t always follow in a numerical series. No one said I was wrong, and no new discoveries regarding the printing of 1953 Topps had crossed my path. It turns out I was wrong on some of my conclusions about the third and fourth print runs of 1953 Topps.

Single prints never existed
My 10-year-old article concluded that in 1952 and 1953, Topps printed each print run on two sheets of 100 cards each, resulting in an “A” sheet and a “B” sheet. A base of 60 or 80 players would be arranged to print two, three or four of each card on the two sheets. Eighty player cards could be expanded to 200 cards by printing 40 players three times and printing 40 other players two times. Sixty players could be expanded to 200 cards by printing 40 players three times and printing 20 players four times. There was no such thing as a single-printed card. Double-printed cards were about as scarce as they came.

Why do some people still refer to single and double prints for certain cards in these sets? My view of it is that the terminology is left over from the early days of the hobby and it sounds more valuable if sellers tout single prints rather than double or triple prints, even though that’s what they are in many cases.

Half a picture can be misleading
Uncut partial sheets of 1952 Topps appeared at a 1980 Baltimore show. An uncut 100-card sheet of 1954 Topps appeared about the same time. In the early 1980s, collectors concluded from looking at the sheets in front of them that, if there were 80 cards in a run, 60 were single prints and 20 were double prints. However, they were only looking at one-half of the picture. They missed finding that there were A and B sheets of 100 cards each with 40 cards printed two times and 40 cards printed three times. Mathematically they thought that single prints were twice as scarce as the regular cards and priced them accordingly. In the above example of 80 cards in a run, the reality is that double prints are 1.5 times as scarce as triple prints. In a 60-player run example, the scarcer 40 cards are printed three times versus four times for the other 20 cards. The scarcer cards are not twice as scarce; they are only a lousy 1.33 times as scarce. How they should be priced is another matter.

Current nomenclature for SP and DP
Price guides today have adjusted their language to describe print run scarcities, but there is still confusion. The designation “SP” does not mean single print today but rather short print. The DP designation in guides is usually defined as a double print, which would imply that other cards are single prints. However, you can also find price guide explanations acknowledging that DP does not mean that the cards were printed twice as often but perhaps 50 percent as often – or some other percentage that remains a mystery.

I like SP for short print, but a better abbreviation than DP would be “CTWAPSWPMFTOCITSPRBDBTFOI,” meaning “cards that we are pretty sure were printed more frequently than other cards in the same print run, but don’t bet the farm on it.” Perhaps this is too long an abbreviation. I will use the designation DP to save space, as long as you promise to remember that it doesn’t mean double print.

Series 1 uncut sheet configuration A

In 1984, Lew Lipset reported that Bob Sevchuk reconstructed the first print run Sheets A and B.

In 1984, Lew Lipset reported that Bob Sevchuk reconstructed the first print run Sheets A and B.

News on the 1953s
The 1953 set has been my favorite. I collected them as a kid and can still tell you who the player is by looking at just the top of his hat. This familiarity came in handy as a started to dig into the printing of the set. My 10-year old article made a lot of sense to me at the time, but I wanted to revisit my assumptions as a result of the “string” that Billing provided with his Sid Hudson. I needed to look at what else had been written about the 1953 Topps printing.

Hobby writer Dave Hornish pointed me to a 1984 article in Krause’s Baseball Cards magazine by Lew Lipset which included photos of sheets constructed by Bob Sevchuk from 20-card strips comprising the first print run Sheets A and B. The strips were cut off-center from the dividing line between the cards, making it easy to match the original arrangement of cards that formed the two sheets. Forty players were printed twice and 40 players three times, although the 1984 article didn’t see it that way. Topps carefully matched the red and black bases by inverting every other row of cards. Since the bases did not extend all the way across the bottom of the cards, it got a little complicated to layout the sheets.

In 2014, Bob Lemke reported a memo from the Topps archives identifying the six players pulled from the 1953 set because of licensing concerns. The artwork for the players had also been found. In 2014, Heritage Auctions sold a reconstructed sheet of the first 1953 Topps print run consisting of five strips of 20 cards each.

The first print run could have remained in numerical order with only one exception: trading Hutchinson for Pollet.

The first print run could have remained in numerical order with only one exception: trading Hutchinson for Pollet.

Accounting for red and black bases
Seeing the sheet layouts turned on a light bulb. My old article had failed to take into account the importance of matching red and black bases when I tried to figure out how many cards of each player were in each print run. I had been off base (as it were) trying to account for the five cards, which slipped around between the first three printings (more on that in a moment). I also had to figure out: If Topps had been so careful to match red and black bases for printing, why did Billing’s Sid Hudson have a black edge?

I got out my well-worn set of 1953 cards and arranged them by print runs and by their bases: red boxes justified right or left and black boxes justified right or left. I needed to sort through the confusion created by Topps printing five cards from the first 85 cards in the second print run, moving five cards from the second run into the third run of 80 and deleting and replacing six card numbers from the last run. In the process it became clear what logic had been employed by Topps.

The design idea
Here is my theory of what happened. Sy Berger and Woody Gelman were young and energetic in 1953 and weren’t apparently fazed by cooking up complex design requirements for the 1953 baseball set. Topps had many, but not all, of the players under licensing agreements. Bowman had some of the same players. Topps felt comfortable putting out a set of just 280 players under contract. The plan was to put 80 cards in each of the first two print runs and 60 in each of the last two. The early season first printings were expected to sell better than the later printings. Eighty players would be printed 40 times three and 40 times two on two 100-card sheets. Sixty players would be printed 40 times three and 20 times four.

The Dvorak paintings and interview
Berger and Gelman decided to have each card painted rather than using photos. Hornish raised the possibility that the paintings may have avoided further licensing issues with Bowman as to the use of photographic images for dual-signed players. Bowman was using the opposite approach, going from paintings to photographs in 1953.

The 1984 Baseball Cards magazine had an interview by Paul Green with artist Gary Dvorak, who painted about 50 of the 1953 Topps portraits. Dvorak was brought on by Gelman because he was a young illustrator who could do realistic paintings. Topps provided black-and-white, 8-by-10 photos to Dvorak and maybe four other artists. The artists didn’t necessarily even know who the players were. They were told the uniform colors and created their own backgrounds to use behind the players from ballpark photos. Dvorak painted using opaque watercolors and produced paintings about twice the size of the cards.

Dvorak recalled having to redo the painting for Bob Borkowski because the photo he was given was not that good, and that Topps “rejected” a painting he did for Curt Simmons. Simmons did not appear in the Topps set and the rejection likely related to Simmons being under a license agreement with Bowman. He was in the Bowman sets exclusively between 1953-55. Richie Ashburn, Andy Pafko, Max Lanier and Jim Suchecki were other players who were portrayed on artwork but not on a card. Dvorak said Topps instructed them to do head and shoulder shots and not action images, although this directive must have changed later since there are several body shots in the last two runs.

Building in backgroundBackground art
Topps gave Dvorak a little grief as well for his paintings of Bobby Morgan and Willard Nixon because the backgrounds were too plain. Dvorak spiced up Clem Labine’s background with a fictitious Topps advertising sign. Sid Hudson and Willie Maranda also got Topps signs.

Artists reused background concepts. What looks like a garage roof peaks up over the fence and then moves left behind many players. A commercial building has a consistent design over the shoulders of Billy Martin and others. A scoreboard showing strikes and innings looms over Roy McMillan and others who would not have been in the same ballpark. A purplish-gray outfield fence was another fairly standard backdrop in the last run.

Artist Gary Dvorak told Paul Green that he put a Topps ad in the background of Labine’s card. Hudson and Miranda also had Topps ads.

Artist Gary Dvorak told Paul Green that he put a Topps ad in the background of Labine’s card. Hudson and Miranda also had Topps ads.

Although offered a set of the 1953 Topps cards, Dvorak didn’t take them, and he saved nothing from his work product. He said he was paid $25 per painting and could do two or three paintings on a weekend while moonlighting from his other job. The paintings were incredibly clear, bright and realistic. As a kid I remember thinking the paintings were really nice, and I didn’t notice the shortcuts. I tried doing some of my own.

Planning ahead to pick the players
The $25-per-painting paid to the artists added $7,000 to the production costs ($63,000 in today’s dollars). Artists would have to be given adequate lead time to crank out 280 paintings on the weekends, and Topps had to make some guesses as to who would be playing in 1953. For example, Berger’s buddy Willie Mays was in the Army for most of 1952 and all of 1953. Faye Throneberry and Dick Brodowski were in the service as well. Rookies like Bill Glynn, Dick Bokelman and Cal Hogue were up for a cup of coffee, at best, in 1953. Sam Jones played in the minors for Indianapolis for all of 1953 and 1954. Bill Norman, Dixie Walker and Johnny Riddle were coaches. Fred Hutchinson and Charlie Dressen were managers. All of the above people were included. In any event, Berger came up with 280 guys to put on cards. At least with paintings, Topps could repaint someone’s uniform if they got traded or if the entire team moved, which was the case with the Boston Braves deciding to move to Milwaukee in March 1953.
Logic adds to the challenge

Berger/Gelman further complicated matters by evening out the players with 140 American Leaguers and 140 National Leaguers for not only the entire set, but within each print run. Black name plate boxes were used for National Leaguers and red boxes for American Leaguers. I talked to Len Brown, who worked at Topps from 1959 to 2000. Brown worked on the 1963 baseball set, which had a similar design with colored bases running across the entire bottom of each card. Brown said, “They were concerned about colors running between the cards with the color bleeding to the edges. . . . People who worked on the 1963 set had also worked on the 1953 set.” Consequently, it was logical that the 1953 design involved matching all the red and black bases.

The color bleeding concern may have had more to do with selecting an even split between the leagues than did license agreements or the appeal of the players selected. Topps apparently didn’t want to cover the entire bottom of the handsome paintings and justified the boxes left or right to show more of the painting. This further complicated the work for the layout folks. Collectors in 1953 weren’t too concerned that the black and red card edges easily chipped, nor was Topps.

Brown said Berger would have likely given the production people the players’ card numbers in advance, which would have also required that they figure out in advance the split between the leagues and the left and right justifications. My hunch is that the 160 cards in the first two print runs were all ready to go at about the same time before March 1953.

Was it Mantle at #82 which caused Topps to trade out three like-aligned cards? Kinder, Wynn and Burgess were replaced by Mantle, Hooper and Morgan. Perhaps Topps wanted us to look for some missing numbers and buy more cards to find them?

Was it Mantle at #82 which caused Topps to trade out three like-aligned cards? Kinder, Wynn and Burgess were replaced by Mantle, Hooper and Morgan. Perhaps Topps wanted us to look for some missing numbers and buy more cards to find them?

Dealing the cards
Having finally figured out what Topps was up to, I laid out my 1953s like the layout folks would have. For the first run I had the advantage of seeing the uncut sheets from the Lew Lipset article. I was having fun laying them out to match four black corners and then four red corners. I “played” the cards in numeric order and it almost worked perfectly for the first 80 cards. I laid down 79 of the 80 cards numbered between 1-80. The card I had left in my hand was #72 Fred Hutchinson (or any other card with a red base justified to the right).

Trades to complete the puzzles
What I needed though to complete the puzzle of matching the bases was a black/right-justified base like that featured on upcoming #83 Howie Pollet’s card. Did someone at Topps goof in figuring out who went where? Did someone get traded from the National League to the American League to mess up the colors? I didn’t find anyone like that; the closest fit was Ewell Blackwell, who went from Cincinnati to the Yankees but in August 1952. Topps had no prior history of intentionally skipping numbers in a set and didn’t go that route in later years either. (They may have played around a little with #49 Murphy’s card in the 1951 Ringside set.)

They could have switched Pollet for Hutchinson (or some other “red/right”) and left it at that. Perhaps they looked at card #82 next to Pollet, which was Mickey Mantle, and decided that he might also be a good guy to have in the first run to perk up sales. While the only switch Topps needed to make was trading Hutchinson for Pollet, Topps made three other switches of like-designed cards: #44 Ellis Kinder and #61 Early Wynn got traded for Mantle and #84 Bob Hooper. Smokey Burgess #10 was switched for #85 Bobby Morgan. Joe Black #81 stayed out of the way and remained with the second printing guys.

Another possibility is that there were four players (numbered #10, 42, 61 and 72) originally intended for the first printing, like perhaps Dvorak’s Curt Simmons, who were pulled because of licensing issues and replaced by cards from the second group of 80. Their numbers could have been re-assigned to others in time to join the second printing.

Cards by team
With the above changes, all the blacks and reds evened out nicely in the first printing. The 40 American Leaguers matched 40 National Leaguers. The results by team though were rather strange. You would expect about five players for each of the 16 teams; however, there were nine Indians, nine Red Sox, but only two Senators and one Tiger. There were eight Dodgers (you could tell where Topps was headquartered) and eight Cardinals, but only two (Boston) Braves and three Phillies. Perhaps it was getting all too complicated trying to make things logical.

Catalog history
At least with the first run uncut sheets, we know what cards were printed twice and what cards were printed three times. Former SCD catalog editor Bob Lemke told me that the short/double print designations for the rest of the set likely came from dealer sources like Larry Fritsch, who had an extensive inventory. Dan Hilt, senior market analyst for Beckett Media, didn’t think they had information anymore as to how the initial SP/DP designations were made. I got the feeling that the history of identifying print quantities was rather old and murky.

Dealing out the second printing
The second print run was also 80 cards, and I took my five leftovers from the first printing (Burgess, Kinder, Wynn, Hutchinson and Black) and combined them with the next 75 cards. I was able to lay out 77 of the 80 cards. It was like playing solitaire though. When I got to the end, I still had three cards that didn’t match. This time there were three red-rights rather than just the one in the first print run. To match the bases, I needed one black/left and two red/lefts. Topps solved this problem by taking all of the next five cards (#161 through #165) and pulling #s 94, 107, 131, 145 and 156 to use in the third print run.

Further evidence of the cards comprising the second print run is found in the treatment of the ink color on the player bio information on the backs. Sometime during the second printing, Topps decided to delete the black ink used and replace it with white ink (actually no ink since it is the color of cardboard) for the rest of the second printing and the next two runs as well. The black ink bled into the surrounding red ink on occasion. All cards in the second run are fairly easily found with both variations.

When the dust settled, Topps had 40 guys to print three times and 40 guys to print two times, although no uncut second printing sheets have been found to confirm the theory. The cumulative breakout by team is still lopsided. While there were exactly 40 more American Leaguers and 40 National Leaguers, there were lots of Yankees (14), Dodgers (12), Indians (13) and Reds (13) but not many White Sox (6).

Series 2 swapsScarce cards which aren’t
The price guides identify five cards left off the first printing (#10, 44, 61, 72, and 81) as short prints and price them higher than DPs and even considerably higher than second printing short prints. These five cards could not logically have been printed in any lesser quantity than the scarcest of the second print run players. The black and red ink would have been all goofed up. The prices for these five guys are too high, unless the hobby has a particular fondness for them, or someone turns up with an uncut sheet to disprove my theory.

More short prints that aren’t
I found inconsistencies between the 40 cards identified by price guides as short prints in the second run and the base colors and alignments needed to get the 40 cards into two strips of 20 cards each. When you add in the five holdover cards from the first printing and take out the five omitted cards and then divide those cards per the price guides between short prints and DPs, you will find that the bases don’t match up like they should. Two cards with black bases aligned to the left (like #95 Willard Marshall and #93 Hal Rice) need to be included as short prints rather than DPs. Conversely, one black based card aligned right (like #151 Hoyt Wilhelm) and one red based card (like #100 Bill Miller) need to move from the short prints to the DPs. I found a miscut of Hoyt Wilhelm, indicating that he was likely on the outer edge of a print sheet which would be consistent with the layout of the DP cards. The other three players I moved based on population numbers (more on that later).

Third printing evens out
I took my five leftovers from the second printing and added them to the next 55 cards (#s 166 to 220) and played my game of Topps solitaire. The cards came out perfectly; nothing was left over and nothing was needed. I have to conclude that Topps figured out what was needed to straighten things out for the third printing. All the bases matched, although this time there were 32 black-based cards (NL) and 28 red-based cards (AL) needed to pair up and total 60 cards. There were no more missing numbers – at least for a month or so. The breakdown by teams had some interesting results. Of the 60 players featured, 10 were Cardinals and seven were now identified as Milwaukee Braves instead of Boston Braves, complete with Ms on their hats. There was only one Senator, one Giant and no Phillies. There were a few cards that were body shots rather than portraits, which could mean that at least some of the paintings were created after those in the first two printings, and after Boston announced its move to Milwaukee in March 1953.

Likely print quantities
Price guides identify the five leftovers from the second printing (#94, 107, 131, 145, and 156) as DPs and do not distinguish between SPs and DPs in the third printing for the other 55 cards. For 60 players to be spread over 200 cards, you would likely print 40 players three times and 20 players four times. The scarcity between the two frequencies could be argued to be immaterial. I missed this likely probability when I wrote about the 1953s 10 years ago because I didn’t understand the importance of the red and black bases. Heck, as kids, we didn’t even pay attention to the numbers (or missing numbers), let alone what color the bases were. But we were able to determine if we had a new printing of cards as soon as we looked at the first card in a new pack. Young collectors were looking for players on their favorite team(s). I was looking for Ralph Kiner (Cubs) and Minnie Minoso (Sox), not Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. They were the opposition. Looking for Ted Williams and Stan Musial proved to be fruitless.

To be continued
This has all been fun, but if we continue on to the complicated final fourth run of the set, we may run out of attention span. Let’s pick this up again in a few weeks with Part 2, when we will cover the last print run of 1953 Topps with some interesting printing possibilities.

George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to SCD and can be contacted at vrechek@ameritech.net.

 

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