By Dean Hanley
The 1963 Topps baseball card set – with its large, bright, glossy player photographs – ranks among the best Topps sets of the 1960s in terms of eye appeal. The smaller, black-and-white photo inside the circle is an attractive addition to the card. The color of the 1963 Topps set is a refreshing reprieve from the dark, dank cards that Topps produced the previous two years. Even the 1963 card backs, neatly arranged and printed in black with yellow-orange backgrounds, are some of the most beautiful ever produced.
The 1963 Topps multi-player cards are my favorite piece of the set. These cards contained some especially creative combinations of players. Some examples include Stan Musial and Willie Mays on No. 138 “The Pride of the N.L.,” Mickey Mantle and two other Yankees on No. 173 “The Bombers Best,” and No. 242 “Power Plus” with Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron. All of the beautiful multi-player cards were issued in the first five series and are very affordable to collectors.
As beautiful as the 1963 Topps cards are to look at, the set still has some flaws. If I had to select one Topps set for the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” award, it would be the 1963 Topps baseball set. I would give the 1963 Topps set an “A” for the design and appearance of the cards, but when it came to the production – the 1963 set would get a “D+.”
The 1963 Topps can be a very frustrating set to try to build. The biggest production oddity with the 1963 Topps set is that the number of cards printed in the first three series far outnumber the population of cards in Series 4-7. The 1963 Topps set is also unique among vintage baseball cards sets in that it has officially two high numbered series (the 6th and 7th ), starting with card No. 447.
From 1959-73, it was very typical for the last series of cards (or the high numbered series) to be produced in lower numbers than the earlier series of cards. The last series of cards was issued as the season was nearing an end and interest in the cards was declining.
The real problem with the 1963 Topps set is not so much the scarcity of the high number cards, but the abundance of the first 283 cards in the set. For some reason, Topps greatly overproduced the cards in Series 1-3.
One little known fact about 1963 Topps issue is that the cards from the 4th and 5th series are almost as scarce as the cards in the last two series. To verify this, I ran the numbers of the DeansCards.com online inventory. The number of cards that we have from each of these last four 1963 Topps series are roughly the same in each series.
To put this into perspective, Deans Cards has an average of four times as many of the cards numbered 1-264 than we do for the cards for numbered 264-576. Upon inspection, other sports cards marketplaces have roughly the same ratios of cards for each of the 1963 series of cards.
No other Topps set has such a lopsided ratio of low number to high numbered cards. This unbalance makes 1963 Topps a frustrating and somewhat awkward set for collectors to build.
The popular hobby prices guides show high-dollar prices for cards from the 6th and 7th series of cards, but the book values for the first five series of cards are basically the same. Due to the fact that cards Nos. 284-446 (Series 4 and 5) have roughly the same population of the higher number cards, I feel that the real value of 1963 Topps 4th and 5th series cards is higher than the current prices listed in the guides.
The big question is, why did Topps produce so many more cards in the first three series of 1963 compared to the last four series of the set?
By 1963, Topps had a dozen years of experience in the manufacturing and marketing of baseball cards, but for some reason overestimated the market’s demand. Topps produced much more cards at the beginning of 1963 than they had in previous years. This increased production may have had something to do with the fact that Fleer also produced a set of cards that year. Topps had direct competition in the sports card market for the first time in eight years. Maybe Topps overreacted.
It is unclear whether all of the mass quantity of cards from the first three series of the set were distributed in 1963 or if some were sold at wholesale prices in later years. Either way, Topps did scale back the number of cards printed in series 4 and 5, and possibly even further reduced production for Series 6 and 7.
A quarter of the 1963 Topps cards in the set are in the 6th and 7th series of the set. These cards are much more expensive to obtain than the lower numbered 1963 Topps cards. The cards numbered 447 and higher often sell for 10-15 times the price of a comparable card with a number below No. 284. For example, the 1963 Topps cards of Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda are more expensive than their rookie cards! This is a very rare occurrence.
Many set collectors and team set collectors are unsettled by this large price differential and tend to get a bit frustrated when reaching for their wallets. They will often decide to build “friendlier” sets from other years.
Collectors do not seem to mind paying big bucks for stars like Koufax or Drysdale, but are much less likely do so for marginal players like Daryl Spencer or Larry Sherry. No other vintage set (with the exception of the 1952 Topps set) requires collectors to purchase such a large percentage of high number cards at those higher prices to complete the set.
Another disappointment is that there is not a 1963 Topps card of 1962 MVP Maury Wills – who signed an exclusive contract with Fleer. A lot of people like to collect cards of the World Series champions, and it is very disappointing one of the most exciting stars from the 1963 champs did not have a card. Topps did not seem to catch a break in 1963.
A personal gripe that I have about the 1963 Topps set is with the No. 200 Mickey Mantle card. The Mick was the most popular player in postwar baseball. In 1963, he was thought to be a lock to break the Babe’s career home run record. So what do we collectors get from Topps? The answer: Yet another boring portrait card. You have got to be kidding me!
Topps used portrait shots of Mantle on all his cards from 1958-63. These years were a real dry spell for collectors of Mantle cards. The 1960 and 1961 cards do have Mickey holding a bat, but they are not very interesting photos. At least Mickey’s 1963 Topps card is a “low number” card, so it is relatively affordable to collectors.
The most noticeable blunder of the 1963 Topps set is the Rookie Star cards. Each Rookie Star card contained tiny pictures of four player’s faces with a solid colored background. The Rookies Cards with four players were first introduced on a limited scale in 1962 as the last few cards of the set.
The idea was to get more players into the set, without increasing the number of cards. Topps was very eager to lock up as many images of the young players as possible in exclusive contracts so that Fleer could not get them for their set of cards either in 1963 or in the future.
The 1963 Topps Rookie Star cards turned out to be a bad idea. Kids did not like them and would routinely pitch the cards. The feedback was so negative that Topps redesigned the Rookie Star cards again in 1964, so that the rookie cards had pictures of only two players. The four-player Rookie Star cards would not rear their ugly head again until 1974.
What makes the four-player rookie cards shortcomings so glaring is that the most valuable card in the 1963 Topps set (or any card produced after 1960) is the No. 573 Rookie Star card with Pete Rose. Growing up in Cincinnati, Rose was my boyhood hero. I love Pete (even with his faults), but his rookie card has to be the ugliest $1,000 card in the hobby!
Even as unattractive as the Rose rookie card is, it is still the cornerstone of the 1963 set and highly sought after by collectors. If this card had a full-size image of Pete and better eye appeal, it would sell for several times its current price and completely dominate the value of the 1963 set – much like the Joe Namath rookie card does with the 1965 football set.
If you find that statement questionable, then please just imagine Mantle’s 1952 Topps card with cropped headshots of Mickey and three other no-name players.
If Rose was pictured on a single-player card, it would also benefit the prestige of the 1963 Topps set as a whole. If the set had a full-sized attractive Rose rookie card as its focal point, it is probable that 1963 Topps would be remembered as one of the best sets of all time and rank just below the 1952 Topps set in popularity. Unfortunately, it was just not meant to be.
In conclusion, 1963 is one of the most attractive of the Topps vintage sets. It is a bright and refreshing change from the previous five Topps issues. The two high number series cards are more of a mental block to collectors than a real problem. The 1963 Topps set is very collectible and there are still a large amount of high condition cards available in the market.
Dean is the founder of Deanscards.com. He has also published “Before There was Bubble Gum: Our Favorite Pre-World War I Baseball Cards” and “The Gum Card War and the Great Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets of 1948-1955.”