By Doug Koztoski
It was the early 1960s and Mark Adams was around six or seven years old when one of his grandmothers came to visit. This visit stands out for him more than some since his grandmother brought him a distinctive gift: a complete booklet of the 1961 Golden Press Hall of Fame baseball cards.
“It was my first look at a baseball card and my first collection in my life,” Adams recalled.
Although Adams has since assembled the No. 2 slot for the issue on PSA’s Set Registry Current Finest list, and it is a popular issue with dozens of collectors who own complete or near-full sets in graded or raw form, Adams remembered that as a kid its appeal had certain limits.
“I couldn’t get a good trade for them in the ’60s for cards of current players,” Adams said.
He added that the discussion with other childhood collectors went something like this: “I want your Willie Mays Topps card, I want your Mickey Mantle Topps card, not your Babe Ruth Golden Press, it’s not something I can put in my set.”
Still, he labels the issue “a great set with very good eye appeal, more of a curiosity that has a niche (in the hobby). It depicts the star in their natural pose, in their natural environment.”
The booklet’s front cover features the phrase “trading cards” a few times, including at the very bottom where it reads: “Golden Funtime Trading Cards.” In between it lets collectors know that the 33 cards contained within are of the “punch out” variety, if one was looking to remove them as the manufacturer intended.
But the front cover’s main draw is its trio of “Hall of Fame Baseball Stars”:
New York Giants outfielder Mel Ott jumping to catch a ball in a posed photo, Babe Ruth swinging a bat, perhaps during batting practice and pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, who appears to be warming up.
The back cover, meantime, includes the likes of Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, and Cy Young.
“The cards on the front and back covers are, without a doubt, the hardest to find in higher grades,” Adams said. “Even if you take care with the booklet and don’t really do anything other than put it in a plastic cover, it still gets scuffed back and forth on the front and back.”
“The prices for the cards on the front and back covers in PSA 9 are a lot lower than those in PSA 10,” Adams noted. “I have seen some of the cards on the front and back (in PSA 10) go for $1,600-$1,700 each.”
Some recent prices realized for PSA 9s for the front cover trio: Ott ($222), Alexander ($242) and Ruth ($327).
Occasionally a PSA 10 version of some 1961 Golden Press “inside” cards can be found for $50-$60, but many have sold as of late for $85-$120 apiece. PSA 10s of Rogers Hornsby and Cobb, however, have changed hands recently for $155 and $239, respectively. PSA 9 versions of those two diamond greats have sold in the past month or two for about one-third to one-half of their PSA 10 prices. Lou Gehrig, another “inside” card, in PSA 9 in recent months sold for $137.
The complete booklets, meanwhile, in EX-plus or better condition have brought around $200-$225; nicer versions can bring about double that amount.
The first five members elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame grace the set, so joining Ruth, Johnson, Wagner and Cobb in that group is Christy Mathewson.
Being Hall of Famers, there are no scrubs in the bunch and thankfully Golden Press included cards of those known mainly for their playing exploits, as opposed to executives, umpires or managers. That said, managerial legend John McGraw did make the roster of 33. Joe Cronin, a player-manager for much of his 20 MLB seasons, also appears in the set. Cronin spent most of his career with the Boston Red Sox but in the Golden Press set he is pictured as a Washington Senator, a team he played for and managed, including their 1933 pennant winning season.
Although the images for the set are real, or at least seemingly based on actual photographs, they often appear to have their color enhanced in some form, sometimes with a golden tone. One of the issue’s most natural looking cards shows Yankee catcher Bill Dickey, poised to snag a foul pop up, in what appears to be a publicity photo. Even so, an excellent image.
One of the offering’s best overall “in action” images comes from Dickey’s longtime teammate Joe DiMaggio. With his trademark wide stance, Joe D’s card appears to be from an actual game, although, who knows, it could be from batting practice or a posed shot. As expected, 1961 Golden Press DiMaggio’s are generally among the issue’s top sellers. Recently a PSA 9 DiMaggio from the set sold for $118, while a raw Near-Mint version of “Joltin’ Joe” went for $35. Another solid “game” image depicts Hank Greenberg likely getting good wood on a pitch.
Hold the presses!
And whatever happened to the cards Adams obtained from his grandmother many decades ago? He still has them.
“They are dog-eared,” he said. “I did, as a kid, finally punch those out and play with them quite a bit more than I should have.”
As a result, the set’s popularity will always resonate with him on a variety of levels.
But what about the set’s general popularity in the hobby over the next five to ten years? Adams does not believe it would increase much, if any, in monetary value.
“There are a lot of those (Golden Press) booklets still out there to punch out the cards,” and that might keep prices about where they are now and for the foreseeable future.
Even so, the 1961 Golden Press Hall of Fame set, whether it be a few cards or the entire set, raw or graded, can add some “color” to one’s collection, even if the card’s color in the issue does not look quite as natural as it could.
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.