Almost any conversation about baseball cards eventually gets around to the 1952 Topps set. Even though the Bowman company produced cards in the late 40’s & early 50’s, the iconic ’52 issue from the Topps company is considered the beginning of the modern baseball card era. At 407 cards, it was the largest ever produced and included an amazing array of legendary stars. Due to the less-than-perfect quality control of the time, it is also a collector’s dream (or nightmare) filled with scarcities, rarities, errors and variations.
The set was issued in six separate series and the story of the last run (#’s 311-407) is part of the mystique. Production of the final series is believed to have been short-printed and distribution was limited because retailers expected a drop in demand with football season (and school) already starting. Rumor has it that Topps still had 300-500 cases of the high number series in their warehouse that were never sold and in the late 50’s, they hired a garbage boat to take the surplus cards from the Brooklyn headquarters and dump them into the Atlantic Ocean.
The cards themselves were beautiful with a 2-5/8″ by 3-3/4″ format, a color photo of the player, the team logo and a facsimile autograph in a frame on the bottom. And, there were some famous players missing from the set – Ted Williams and Whitey Ford were both in the military at the time and Stan Musial had an exclusive contract with Bowman.
With that backdrop, let’s look at the Hall of Famers in this remarkable set. For this exercise, the current valuations are based on a card in “Excellent” (EX) condition, which is graded 5 on a scale of 1-10.
> #11 Phil Rizzuto, Yankees SS ($175) – “The Scooter” was the Minor League Player of the Year in 1940, served three years in the Navy and won the AL MVP in 1950. He later became a legendary broadcaster and yelled “Holy Cow” when Roger Maris hit #61 in ’61.
> #26 Monte Irvin, Giants OF ($60) – A veteran of the Negro Leagues, he didn’t get to the majors until age 30 in 1949. He was coming off his best season in ’51, when he led the NL with 121 RBI’s.
> #33 Warren Spahn, Braves P ($120) – At this point in his career, “Spahnny” had 108 Wins at age 30. By the time he retired, he was the winningest lefthander in history with 363 victories.
> #37 Duke Snider, Dodgers OF ($150) – “The Duke of Flatbush” was one of the three great centerfielders on the New York teams of the 50’s.
> #59 Robin Roberts, Phillies P ($75) – The workhorse of the Philadelphia rotation, he won 20+ games for six consecutive seasons beginning in 1950 and pitched over 300 innings in each of those campaigns.
> #65 Enos Slaughter, Cardinals OF ($75) – “Country” was his nickname and he was the Cards Captain, having broken in with the team in 1938.
> #88 Bob Feller, Indians P ($110) – Another all-time great who gave up three years in his prime to serve in the Navy, he was coming off a 22-8 record in ’51.
> #91 Al Schoendienst, Cardinals 2B ($55) – “Red” played 57 games and handled 320 chances without an error in 1950. That broke the record…that he set in 1948!
> #129 Johnny Mize, Yankees 1B ($60) – “The Big Cat” broke into the majors in 1936 and despite losing three years in his prime to military service, his 351 home runs were the most by any active player at the end of the ’51 season.
#191 Yogi Berra, Yankees C ($300) – Not much you can say about this incredible character of the game that hasn’t already been said, he was coming off a MVP season in ’51.
> #216 Richie Ashburn, Phillies OF ($90) – A great lead-off hitter and outstanding outfielder, he led the NL in hits and putouts in 1951.
> #243 Larry Doby, Indians OF ($50) – The man who broke the color barrier in the American League in 1947, he was a consistently good power hitter in the Tribe’s line-up.
> #246 George Kell, Tigers 3B ($50) – A solid contributor for Detroit, he won the AL Batting Championship in ’49, finished 2nd in ’50 and 3rd in ’51.
#261 Willie Mays, Giants OF ($3,000) – “The Say Hey Kid” won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in ’51 at the age of 20 and went into the Army by the time this set hit the shelves. After missing almost two full years, he came back to win the NL MVP in 1954.
> #268 Bob Lemon, Indians P ($55) – Part of that great Cleveland rotation of the 50’s, he won over 20 games seven times.
> #277 Early Wynn, Indians P ($55) – It was said that he’d brush back his grandmother if she dug in at the batter’s box. 300 wins later, she still didn’t have a single hit.
#311 Mickey Mantle, Yankees OF ($40,000) – Through some twist of fate, this legendary player was on the first card of the scarce high-number series. Even though “The Mick” had his actual rookie card in the ’51 Bowman set, this card is the “holy grail” for collectors of modern baseball cards. When the card was issued, he was taking over in centerfield for Joe DiMaggio, who retired following the ’51 season. And, no, the price is not a typo.
> #312 Jackie Robinson, Dodgers 2B ($2,650) – After five seasons,
this pioneer was already established as one of the best in the game. He was coming off a ’51 campaign where he hit .338 and set a National league fielding record.
> #314 Roy Campanella, Dodgers C ($950) – “Campy” was the NL MVP in ’51 when he hit .325 with 33 HR’s & 108 RBI’s.
> #315 Leo Durocher, Giants Manager ($215) – “Leo the Lip” was one of the most colorful skippers to ever post a line-up card.
> #333 Pee Wee Reese, Dodgers SS ($500) – The Captain of the famous “Boys of Summer”, he had been the team’s regular shortstop since 1940, except for three years in the service. Harold’s nickname was hung on him as a boy when he was a marble champ.
> #392 Hoyt Wilhelm, Giants P ($375) – Wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, this knuckleballer ended up pitching in over 1,000 major league games.
> #394 Billy Herman, Dodgers Coach ($200) – His playing career extended from 1928 to 1950 and he was chosen to every NL All-Star team from ’31 to ’41.
> #396 Dick Williams, Dodgers OF ($250) – This was his rookie card as a player, but his Hall of Fame credentials include over 1,500 wins and two World series titles as a Manager.
> #400 Bill Dickey, Yankees Coach ($450) – As a Catcher, this durable backstop hit over .300 in 11 of the 16 years he was a Yankee.
> #407 Eddie Mathews, Braves 3B ($5,000) – The value of this particular card is driven by three factors…1) it is the rookie card of a Hall of Fame player…2) it is from the scarce high series in the set…3) as the last card in the set, it was susceptible to significant damage when kids like me wrapped our card collection with rubber bands.
If you’re motivated to add a ’52 Topps set to your collection, you might want to start saving soon. In the condition described, it will take around $80,000.