1957 Topps: Setting the Standard

By John McMurray

Fifty-six years after it was released, the 1957 Topps baseball card set remains one of the most ground-breaking baseball card issues in history. Not only did Topps use color photographs on its baseball cards for the first time in 1957, but the company also reduced the size of each card from 2-5/8 by 3-5/8 inches to 2-1/2 by 3-1/2 inches, establishing the standard size of baseball cards that is still used today.

At the same time, Topps printed multiple-year player statistics on the back of its baseball cards for the first time in 1957, along with a short player biography and a baseball trivia question. Instead of including statistics only from the previous season, along with players’ career totals as it had done in prior years, in 1957 Topps provided collectors with the most comprehensive statistics available in the era before the Baseball Encyclopedia became fans’ primary statistical reference.

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Yet the enduring appeal of this set derives largely from its simple and uncluttered front design and the inclusion of many photos that have become perennial favorites.

According to Dean Hanley, who sells 1957 Topps cards through his online vintage card store at deanscards.com, “When you talk about the beauty of the cards, I think the 1957 Topps baseball card set is unparalleled. In my opinion, Ted Williams (No. 1) has the most attractive card of his career in the set, as does Ernie Banks (No. 55). The Mickey Mantle card (No. 95) is beautiful. My personal favorite is the Ted Kluszewski card (No. 165), where he doesn’t have any sleeves and you can see his bulging biceps. I think the ’57 Topps baseball set was the most attractive set made up to that time, and that’s saying a lot because the 1956 Topps cards are gorgeous, too.”

The player selection in 1957 was just as good. In a 407-card set issued in five series, there are cards of 30 different Hall of Famers, as well as two multiple-player cards in the last series that showcase five of these Hall of Famers.

“I’d bet that first series of 1957 Topps baseball cards contains more Hall of Famers than any single series Topps ever issued,” said Bill Goodwin, the owner of Goodwin & Co. in St. Louis, in an earlier interview. In fact, Goodwin is correct, as there are a record 19 Hall of Famers in the ’57 first series alone.

In addition to cards of Williams, Banks and Mantle, the first series included Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Luis Aparicio, Willie Mays, Robin Roberts, Hank Aaron, Whitey Ford, Pee Wee Reese, Nellie Fox, Richie Ashburn, Roberto Clemente and Larry Doby, as well as the rookie cards of Don Drysdale, Bill Mazeroski and Frank Robinson. Since that first series was made up of only 88 cards, it was hard to go wrong as a collector buying cards early in the season in 1957.

“It was fun going up to Regents Pharmacy in Santa Monica to buy cards that year,” said Kit Young, owner of Kit Young Cards in San Diego in an interview prior to the set’s 50th anniversary. “I don’t know if the cards went off the shelf a lot quicker because of the number of good names in the first series, but you could get yourself two or three packs and you knew you were going to get somebody good. Every pack was a killer pack.”

57koufaxThe rookies in the set were stellar as well. Rocco (Rocky) Colavito’s rookie card in the third series remains one of the most popular in the set. Yankee fan favorites Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek have their first cards in the set’s fourth series, as do Brooks Robinson and Jim Bunning.

Whitey Herzog and Lindy McDaniel are two of the other prominent major leaguers who appeared for the first time on Topps cards in 1957. Jack Sanford, who would win 19 games for the 1957 Phillies on his way to becoming the National League’s Rookie of the Year, also has his first card in the set.

By including player photographs for the first time in 1957, Topps enabled collectors to see players and stadium scenes up close in an era when the Game of the Week with Dizzy Dean at the microphone offered fans their only regular chance to see nationally televised games.

“On his card, Gene Conley had a big rip in his sweatshirt, a big hole,” said Goodwin. “As a kid, when you’re collecting cards, you notice these kinds of things. I said to myself, ‘Man, I thought major leaguers had good equipment!’

“My favorite card in the set was Don Blasingame, whom I followed closely since I lived in St. Louis. It was a great action shot, and you could see Blasingame’s glove really well. I used to enjoy looking at the equipment. I liked the picture of Elmer Valo in the first series going to the bat rack and selecting a bat. I could see what was going on in the dugout, and as a 10-year-old, I had never seen a dugout before. Shots like that really appealed to me as a kid.”

Set quirks
No set is perfect, and the 1957 Topps baseball card set has its share of errors and quirks. On Mickey Mantle’s card, someone – possibly an on-field photographer – appears to be airbrushed out of the background, as there is an obvious blotch to the right of Mantle. Famously, the image on Hank Aaron’s card is reversed, showing him as a left-handed batter with his uniform number backward.

“At the time, collectors thought they had found a rare error card showing Aaron batting left-handed,” said Young. “We all thought we’d found the golden goose. But the stumbling block was that the error was never corrected, and the card had no additional value. That golden goose turned out not to be so golden!”

Jerry Snyder’s card (No. 22) doesn’t show Jerry Snyder at all; it’s Ed FitzGerald, who is best known for breaking up Billy Pierce’s attempt at a perfect game in June 1958 by hitting a double with two outs in the ninth inning. The back of the Cleveland Indians team card (No. 275) refers to the team winning the American League title in 1928, while the Yankees actually were the A.L. pennant winner that year. Also, Smoky Burgess’ name is misspelled on the back of his card (No. 228).

The only error that Topps corrected in 1957 was on the card of Cubs second baseman57fox Gene Baker (No. 176). On the reverse of that card, Baker’s name was initially misspelled as “Eugenf W. Bakep.” While the corrected card is listed as a common, the error card, according to Young, “is considered a true rarity,” and it sells for more than $850 in Near-Mint condition.

An expensive option
Today, the 1957 Topps baseball card set remains one of the more challenging – and expensive – sets to complete from the 1950s. The cards in the set’s fourth series, numbered from 265-352, are noticeably harder to find than are cards in the other series. Since cards of Yankee players are always in demand, locating fourth series cards of players like Andy Carey (No. 290) and Darrell Johnson (No. 306) can be particularly challenging.

Hanley expressed frustration that many of the more expensive cards in the fourth series are not major stars. Also, “the fourth series team cards are usually $40-$60 apiece, and not many people can bring themselves to pay that for team cards,” said Hanley.

While common cards in the fourth series cost roughly double what they do in the other series, all of the cards in that series can be found, according to Young.

“They call the fourth series the ‘rare series’ in guides,” said Young, “but those cards are not rare. I wouldn’t even call the ’52 Topps high numbers – which are infinitely tougher – rare, nor would other veterans of the hobby. The fourth series in 1957 is relatively scarce.

“We usually have a couple hundred cards from that series in stock,” said Young. (In fact, a recent survey of Young’s website, kityoung.com, showed that Young’s store has more than 200 of the 1957 fourth series cards for sale.) “That is, it’s typical for us to have two to five of each player. That tells you these cards are not that tough, but they are more difficult than cards in the other series.”

Airbrushed caps were also prevalent in the fourth series.

“I think the hard series is unique in that there was so much airbrushing going on there,” said Goodwin. “When they put the series together, they took minor leaguers, up-and-coming players like Brooks Robinson, and airbrushed the photos to include major league caps. Almost all the cards in the fourth series are minor-league pictures that have been airbrushed.”

The cards that are extremely difficult to find in the 1957 Topps set are the four checklists and the three “contest cards” which were inserted in packs.

“The checklists are killers,” said Young. “The third and fourth checklists are really tough to find in unmarked, high-grade condition.”

In fact, the last two checklists – listing at $1,100 and $1,250 in Near-Mint condition, respectively – cost more than any regular card in the 1957 set except for Mickey Mantle. Top grade ’57 checklists often sell for even higher prices at auctions. Typically, the checklists are not included in the set’s overall price, which is usually about $13,000 in Near Mint condition. Complicating matters, each checklist was produced with both Bazooka and Big Blony backs, so collectors would need to purchase two of every checklist to own all variations.

1957teamcard“I’ve often wondered: ‘How were the checklists produced?’ ” said Goodwin. “We’ve found uncut sheets of the cards, but we’ve never seen the checklists included on the sheets with the regular cards. So they had to have been printed on separate sheets and randomly inserted. They probably weren’t produced that much, and they were thrown away when you got them. Also, like a lot of the other cards, they’re usually off-center, so that’s another challenge.”

According to Dick Decourcy, a former card distributor, longtime collector and present vintage card dealer based in North Carolina, the checklists are “extremely difficult” to find, either marked or unmarked.

“On the other side of the coin, though, there are not an awful lot of people out there who desire to have those checklists,” he said. “I would think (the checklists are among the hardest cards to find from the 1950s) because I haven’t seen one for the last five or six years since I’ve been working as a dealer.”

In fact, according to the PSA population report, fewer than 100 of each of the last two checklists have ever been graded by PSA, a level well below that of any regular issue card in the set. Of course, since many checklists were marked by collectors when they were first issued, the supply of unmarked checklists available for grading is relatively small.

“Those contest cards are also very difficult,” said Decourcy, who is also known in the hobby as “Uncle Dick.” “They don’t book for $800-$1,000 like the later checklists do, but I don’t ever see them.”

Multiple avenues of appeal
The 1957 set marked the reintroduction of Topps’ popular multi-player cards. The two multi-player cards in the ’57 set are longtime collector favorites: Dodgers’ Sluggers (No. 400, showing Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella and Duke Snider) and Yankees’ Power Hitters (No. 407, showing Yogi Berra and Mantle).

These two were the first multi-player cards that Topps had produced in three years, and they are reminiscent of the popular Hank Bauer/Berra/Mantle and Billy Martin/Phil Rizzuto cards from the classic 1953 Bowman color set (Nos. 44 and 93, respectively). The next year, Topps would introduce multi-player cards with players from competing teams (like Rival Fence Busters with Willie Mays and Duke Snider, for instance), but, in 1957, only teammates were featured.

“There are people out there whom I’ve met at the National Sports Collectors Convention who come around just looking for multiple-player cards,” said Decourcy. “Everyone has their own budget, and if people can’t afford to collect full sets, they either are team collectors or some of them are multiple-player card collectors. And Yankee cards like No. 407 are always popular.”

After appearing separately on the first two cards of the 1956 Topps baseball card set, William Harridge and Warren Giles, presidents of the American and National Leagues, respectively, appear together on card No. 100 in the 1957 set.

“It’s kind of funny because I don’t think collectors really were interested in a card of the league presidents,” said Hanley. “You see these guys in different years on these cards, and it’s almost like Topps was trying to get on their good sides or something. I always find it kind of interesting. How many of those league presidents cards got dumped in the trash can by 12-year-old kids?”

Sy Berger, who retired as vice president of Sports and Licensing for Topps in 1997 after 50 years with the company, had to make a quick decision about how to number the league presidents card.

In ’57, Berger had originally assigned prime card No. 100 to Bob Keegan, the Chicago White Sox pitching ace and an old Bucknell University friend who would go on to throw the major leagues’ only no-hitter that year. But before Topps went to press, Berger learned that the league presidents were going to be included in the set.

“At the last minute, we took the pictures of the league presidents, and I had our people switch the card numbers,” said Berger in 2007. “Typically, the best players received card numbers ending in fives or zeroes. Keegan was originally supposed to be No. 100, but when the rights came through to print cards of the two presidents, I said, ‘We’ve got to make them No. 100.’ I wanted to keep Keegan in the first series, so I made his card No. 99.”

Condition factors
One additional variable in grading and pricing ’57 Topps baseball cards is “snow,” little white specks that appear on some cards as part of the printing process. Snow is routinely apparent on many prominent 1957 Topps baseball cards, including the Mantle card.

“My theory on why ’57 cards have so much snow is that the sheets they were printed on were stacked, leading to little spots appearing on the cards,” said Goodwin. “But it also could be imperfections on the photo negatives, since snow seems to show up on certain cards all the time. The Mike Garcia card usually has a lot of snow, for instance. Snow shows up a lot in the cards with darker backgrounds. Of course, on the final card in the set, No. 407, there’s always snow in the hats there.”

To some dealers, the snow on the cards is significant. Goodwin, for one, said, “Most dealers are concerned with centering, but I always try to find the clearest or prettiest photo on the cards. If you work at it, you can find some really exceptional photos even if they’re hard to locate. So, to me, the snow does matter a whole lot.”

Still, according to Goodwin, the clarity of many of the photos is a reason for the popularity of the set: “There were several different print runs of each of the series,” Goodwin said. “The most beautiful cards are in that first series when you find that really natural early print run, where the cards are so clean. You can frequently find what I call “blue tint,” especially on that Williams card in the first series or with the Mantle, where the cards are almost a greenish blue.”

Centering is another frequent problem with 1957 Topps cards.

“I have to say that centering is a huge issue with the set,” said Hanley. “It tells me that Topps possibly went to a different printer in 1957 (since cards were of a different size that year), and maybe they just didn’t have the process down to the routine they had achieved in the past. I’ve never really heard a definitive reason for why that year’s cards had centering problems, but they definitely do.”

Still, certain cards are difficult to find well-centered, and card values are frequently adjusted to reflect poor centering.

“I’ve always had trouble finding Johnny Temple’s ’57 Topps card centered,” Decourcy said. “You could look at 50 of them, and 48 of them will be either mildly off-center or extremely off-center. When I do my pricing of cards, if a card is perfectly centered, I might price it at 90 or 100 percent of guide value. If a card is mildly off-center and the corners are sharp, it’s 40 percent. If it’s extremely off-center, it might only be 20 percent, and I’m talking with really sharp corners. As far as the snow is concerned, I don’t put the same kind of weight on that. I put a lot of weight on centering.”

Regardless, these cards provided many first-time poses.

In a set where most players were photographed on the field in various routine poses swinging, fielding, at-bat or simply with a headshot, a few players were shown standing in the dugout, including Dusty Rhodes (No. 61) and Joe Collins (No. 295). Mack Burk (No. 91), who came to bat only twice in his major league career, is pictured in catcher’s gear on his card.

Richie Ashburn (No. 70) and Jim Bolger (No. 289) are both shown bunting. Gus Zernial, perhaps best known to collectors for holding a bat with six baseballs attached to it on his 1952 Topps card, appears in the ’57 set holding three bats (No. 253). Although no cards in the 1957 Topps set depict actual game action, including so many variations from traditional poses was a first for Topps baseball cards.

Final thoughts
The last series of the set is only 55 cards, in contrast to the four 88-card series which preceded it. Unlike many contemporary Topps baseball card sets, the last series is nowhere near as scarce as the fourth series, although conventional wisdom is that Topps would produce fewer cards of the last series so as not to be left with more product than it could sell at the end of each season.

According to Levi Bleam, who owns 707 Sportscards in Plumsteadville, Pa., it is not always fair to assume that the last series in a given set will be the hardest to find:
“You look at the ’59 set, and the first series is a lot more scarce than the last. Even though the last series tends to book for more money that year, the first series is far and away more difficult in condition. There have always been different series that are harder to find, and it doesn’t necessarily relate to being the last series. The same is true in 1957.”

The 1957 season turned out to be a fantastic year on the diamond as well, with many of baseball’s established stars having stellar years.

Warren Spahn came within one first-place vote of winning the National League Cy Young award unanimously. Mantle and Hank Aaron won their league’s respective Most Valuable Player awards. Ted Williams, at age 39, won his sixth batting title with an average of .388. Stan Musial, who won that season’s National League batting title, is the one major star who is not included in the 1957 Topps set, as he did not sign his first contract to appear on Topps baseball cards until 1958.

In 1957, Roy Sievers had the best season of his major league career, leading the American League with 42 home runs and 114 RBI while playing for a Washington Senators team that won only 55 games and finished last in the American League. The Kansas City Athletics led the league in home runs that year, but in a statistical oddity, the Athletics finished last in the American League in runs scored.

On May 7, 1957, Cleveland pitcher Herb Score, the 1955 American League Rookie of Year, was seriously injured by a line drive that struck him in the right eye. And, in perhaps the most recounted events of the year, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants each played their final seasons in New York before moving to California to start the 1958 season.

At the end of the year, the Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees in the World Series in seven games, with pitcher Lew Burdette winning three games and pitching 24 consecutive scoreless innings to shut down the defending World Series champions.
Regardless of the season’s ups and downs, one thing is certain: 1957 was a good year for baseball cards.

“The 1957 Topps set is a classic,” said Goodwin. “The set has its rarities and difficulties, but I believe it will always be thought of as one of Topps’ best issues.”

John McMurray will debut his monthly column in the next issue of SCD. He can be reached at jmcmurray04@yahoo.com.

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