1953 Topps: Up Close and Personal

By Dean Hanley

The 1953 Topps Baseball card set is considered the most personal set of the 1950s. Everything, from the hand-drawn sketches on the front to the signature, biographical paragraph and thorough statistics on the back, demonstrates that Topps had hit its stride with the 1952 set and now was ready to push the envelope with the 1953 set.

While these cards do not have the notoriety of their predecessor, they have their own special place in sports card history.

image4mantleWith the exciting success of the 1952 Topps set, Sy Berger and Topps wanted to refine what they had already done so well in 1952. Instead of colorizing black-and-white photographs as they did for the 1952 set, Topps went to the expense of paying artist Gerry Dvorak $25 per card to sketch and paint the players. Although the 1953 Topps Baseball card set contains some attractive action shots, the set is primarily noted for its carefully drawn expressions, which are chronicled on the headshots shown on the cards.

The major drawback of the 1952 Topps set was that many of the players depicted in it inaccurately look very similar, particularly in terms of hair and skin color. The 1953 Topps set rectifies this flaw, especially on the headshots. The color paintings of the players’ faces have warm, relaxed and friendly expressions, completely dominating the large cards. The 1953 Topps cards showcase more “flesh” than any other set ever made.

To fully appreciate the beauty of the 1953 Topps Baseball card set, one should take a complete set and go through it card-by-card. The players’ faces are so large and life-like, the cards give the impression of standing right in front of the players at the ballpark. Rarely, even today, can we see so much detail in players’ faces. The 1953 Topps Archive (or reprint) set, with its wider white borders, smaller card size and shiny gloss, does not offer the same experience as one gets looking at an original 1953 Topps set.

A perfect example of a detailed head shot is card No. 220, Satchel Paige. The Topps artist captures the 47-year-old Negro League star perfectly. He looks like the wise, well-travelled pitcher that was playing for the St. Louis Browns in 1953. The only imperfection with the card, however, is that Topps misspelled his first name as “Satchell,” making it the only real error card in the set.

Although the 1952 Topps cards did have stadium settings and natural backgrounds, there was little emphasis on making the background look as good as the players. However, that was not the case in 1953. When making this set, the Topps artists paid close attention to every detail on the cards, including the backgrounds. When looking at the 1953 set, you will see that many cards feature fully occupied stadiums with the colorful advertisements on the outfield walls behind the player.

The 1953 Topps set also features a number of innovations on the card backs, starting with the vertical orientation. The banner on the top with the card number, the player’s name, height and weight were similar to the 1952 cards; however, this time they were enlarged to make them easier to read. The biographical paragraph was updated and features a facsimile signature over the black text in red ink. Topps kept its statistical information consistent with the previous year’s table but also included a “Dugout Quiz” on the back of each card.

Fewer cards than in 1952image2feller
Due to the court ruling, the 1953 Topps Baseball set significantly decreased in size, down to only 280 cards, from the previous year’s 407 cards. The 1953 Topps set was issued in four series: Cards Nos. 1-85, Nos. 86-165, Nos. 166-220 and Nos. 221-280.

The competition for player contracts between Bowman and Topps would create a unique problem for Topps in 1953. Topps would begin to print a series of the set and then find out that they had failed to secure the contractual rights for a player whose card was about to be printed. There was no sense in wasting a valuable spot on the printing sheet, so Topps would either promote a player from the next series or “double print” one of the current cards in the series.

None of the series were actually fully completed, as five cards each from the first and second series were “bumped” back to later series. This action created what is known in the hobby today as chase cards. With no printed checklist available, set collectors of the day probably went crazy looking for the missing cards, only to have them appear in a wax pack of the next series of cards.

The five cards skipped in the 1953 first series were: No. 10 Smokey Burgess, No. 44 Ellis Kinder, No. 61 Early Wynn, No. 72 Fred Hutchinson and No. 81 Joe Black. The skipped cards of Series 2 included No. 94 William Kennedy, No. 107 Danny O’Connell, No. 131 Harry Byrd and No. 156 Jim Rivera.

This makeshift practice continued up until the fourth and final series of the set, when Topps finally ran out of players under contract and was forced to leave a total of six holes in the set. Cards numbered 253, 261, 267, 268, 271 and 275 were never printed.

These spaces in the printing sheet were again filled with plates of current cards in the series, thus adding even more “double printed” cards to the set. Set collectors had no idea that these cards were not forthcoming and most likely bought a couple dozen extra packs of cards before giving up on finding the six missing cards.

The fourth and last series in the 1953 Topps set was also distributed late, making those cards several times more expensive than the earlier series. Card No. 244, Willie Mays, is in the fourth series and unfortunately for collectors, was not “double printed.”

Therefore, Willie Mays proves to be the most difficult card to find in the 1953 Topps set.

image5spahnDouble-print confusion
There were three “double-printed” cards in the last series of the 1952 Topps sets, and they made perfect sense. In all my life, I have never heard a collector complain about Topps printing too many Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson or Bobby Thomson cards in its 1952 set. While Thomson is not as popular today, in 195,1 he hit the “shot heard ’round the world” and was a hot property in 1952.

The major flaw of the 1953 Topps cards were the underwhelming “bush-leaguers,” who were printed in greater quantities and have a higher population of 1953 Topps cards. So, unlike the 1952 double-printed cards of stars, the cards chosen to be double-printed in 1953 did not make logical sense in terms of the players’ popularity.

However, there were a few exceptions to this. The few Hall of Fame players’ cards that were randomly double-printed in 1953 were No. 37 Eddie Mathews, No. 54 Bob Feller and No. 77 Johnny Mize. But most of the “DPs” are of forgettable players, starting at the beginning of the set.

We’re overwhelmed with the likes of double-printed no-names such as No. 7 Bob Borkowski, No. 8 Clem Koshorek, No. 12 Howie Judson, and No. 13 Connie Marrero. Next we get the likes of No. 15 Bobo Newsom, No. 16 Harry Lowery and No. 18 Ted Lepcio. A cool exception to the “no name” DPs is the No. 1 card in the set, the great Jackie Robinson.

I could continue on for several more paragraphs with more examples of players such as these, but it seems a crime to waste the ink. As a card collector and dealer, it’s frustrating to have the DeansCards.com inventory bloated with cards of these types of players, as I’m sure the kids felt the same way back in the day.

[Knowledge quiz: Just for fun, out of those last seven cards, Borkowski to Lepcio, how many of these guys could you match to the team that they played for in 1953 without looking at their cards? If you could correctly name four or more teams, you’re “good.” If you can name six teams correctly, then you’re a vintage baseball card expert.]

Knowing the care and attention that Sy Berger typically gave to these early sets, it image8wilhelmmakes me think that the double-printed cards were randomly chosen by the printer, who likely knew little-to-nothing about baseball. As a set builder, I consider these random “double-prints” a missed opportunity for the 1953 Topps set. Just think of how collectible (and affordable) the 1953 Topps Baseball card set would be today if the 40 double-printed cards were strategically selected and used on the stars of the set like: No. 76 Pee Wee Reese, No. 82 Mickey Mantle, No. 104 Yogi Berra, No. 114 Phil Rizzuto, No. 147 Warren Spahn, No. 220 Satchel Paige and No. 244 Willie Mays.

A challenge for set builders
Despite all the “double-printed” cards, the 1953 Topps Baseball card set still ranks as moderately difficult to build and complete. I rank the 1953 Topps set as the third-hardest Topps set of the 1950s to build in low-to-mid-grade conditions, behind only the 1952 and 1957 sets. Building the 1953 set in Excellent condition or better is a real challenge and will require quite a bit of time and money. As the condition of the set increases, the difficulty level to complete the set increases exponentially. My dad’s comment on this set is that the cardboard did not wear well and was inferior to other years.

The condition of most existing vintage complete sets will vary greatly. Many vintage sets were built decades ago when condition was not a major consideration. Some early postwar sets will have cards in them that vary in condition from Near Mint/Mint all the way down to Poor. In my opinion, having this wide of a range detracts from the eye appeal of the set. A set looks much nicer when all of the cards are as close as possible to being consistent in grade. While a card in Near Mint condition may add to the cost of the set, it also brings out the flaws of the mid-grade cards, detracting from the set’s overall appeal and value.

Jackie, Mickey and Willie
Another challenge to building a 1953 Topps set is that the value is so heavily influenced by three high-dollar star cards: No. 1 Jackie Robinson, No. 82 Mickey Mantle and No. 244 Willie Mays. The 1953 Topps “big three” represent about half of the set’s total value. The first card, Robinson, is condition sensitive. Mays is a “high-number” and Mickey Mantle is a baseball card god whose cards are always in high demand.

Finding the 1953 Topps “big three” in the same particular condition, at the same time and at a fair price, is usually a challenge. Once accomplished, you then have to locate the scarce high number cards.

image5maysCondition scarcity
The 1953 Topps cards also have a red partial border on the bottom of the cards for the American League players and a black border on the bottom of the cards for National League players. These borders have been known to chip much easier than cards with white borders. This is another reason that it’s hard to find 1953 Topps cards in better conditions.

A survey of the DeansCards.com inventory confirms the condition scarcity of the 1953 Topps set. Of the 1,689 cards from the 1953 Topps set that we have in stock, we have only one card that grades higher than Excellent/Mint! Our inventory has 41 Ex/Mt cards (2 percent), 237 in EX (14 percent), 826 cards in VG (49 percent), 562 cards in Good (33 percent) and 11 cards in Fair or Poor condition. No other postwar set suffers from this degree of condition scarcity.  This is why putting together a 1953 Topps set in pristine condition is a costly challenge for hobbyists.

Missing a few stars
Although stars like Mays and Mantle were featured in the 1953 Topps set, Topps was still missing quite a few stars that had also been omitted from its 1952 set. Ted Williams and Stan Musial were noticeably absent from the 1953 Topps set. Williams would give into Topps the next year, an especially satisfying victory for Berger, who is a lifelong Red Sox fan. Musial, on the other hand, would not sign a contract with Topps until 1958.

The 1953 Topps Archives set was issued in 1991. Topps again omitted the numbers that were left out of the original set; however, this time they were legally able to include cards of Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Richie Ashburn, Larry Doby, Leo Durocher, Gil Hodges, Bob Lemon, Robin Roberts, Duke Snider, Casey Stengel and Ted Williams (see above).

The 1953 Topps rookie card of an over-looked closerimage8wilhelmback
The one thing that keeps the 1953 Topps set semi-affordable is that it was the only Topps set produced before 1970 to not contain a rookie card of a future Hall of Fame player. However, this may someday change if the Veterans Committee ever decides to recognize Elroy Face. Along with Hoyt Wilhelm in the American League, Face was a true pioneer of closing out baseball games.

Starting in 1955, Face would be the premier National League relief pitcher for the next 14 years. Back when relievers were hardly ever invited to All-Star games, Face was selected to three consecutive All-Star games. Face literally forced an invitation to the mid-summer classic in 1959. Please consider his first-half stats: Face appeared in 32 games, finishing 29 of them. He pitched 56 innings. His record at the All-Star break was 12-0, with nine saves (this was before anyone knew what a save was) and a 1.13 ERA. Face did cool off a bit, but finished 1959 with an 18-1 record (all in relief) to give him a win/loss percentage of .947, a single-season record that has yet to be broken.

A short side trip
Looking at Face’s 1959 stats made me wonder, “How is an 18-1 win/loss record for a relief pitcher even possible?” After some research, I concluded that five things were needed: 1) Several below average starting pitchers; 2) a great closer who can pitch multiple innings; 3) a couple of good starting pitchers who can throw complete games and not force the manager to burn up his closer to save too many games, 4) a mediocre hitting team that would not blow out their opponents, but could manufacturer a game-winning run when needed; and 5) a lot of luck.

If the team’s hitting is too good, the closer would only be in position to save games. If the hitting is too bad, the team would never score the winning run. In 1959, the Pirates and little Elroy Face were the perfect combination.

The Pirate starting pitcher would often allow a few runs and be lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh or eighth inning. Face would then enter the game tied or a couple runs down, putting him in a position to win it.

In 1959, Face’s “fork ball” was extra nasty and he would keep throwing it for as many as five innings, if necessary – until the Pirates finally scored a run. Because few modern closers pitch more than one inning per game, this is going to be a tough record to surpass.

Aftermath
The 1953 Topps Baseball card set was certain proof that Topps knew how to manufacture innovative and high-quality sports cards. Bowman had gone to great expense to produce its 1953 “Pure Color” Bowman Baseball card set in an effort to win back the market share that they lost to Topps in 1952. Not only had Topps survived the Bowman counter-attack, Topps once again sold more cards in 1953. The Topps Gum Co. had proven they were in the baseball card market to stay.

This article is taken from Hanley’s book “The Gum Card War and the Great Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets of 1948-1955,” which is now available for sale in both paperback and ebook at Amazon.com.

Hanley is the founder DeansCards.com, and with more than 1 million vintage cards in inventory, DeansCards.com is the largest seller of vintage cards on the web.

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