by Craig Paulson
Despite its many portraits of players in uniforms without team logos, over 100 capless pictures, and overall plain card design, the 1961 Topps Baseball card set has always been popular among hobbyists, and today is considered a classic. How did this came about you may wonder? Well, the main reason is that the set has no fewer than 587 cards, being one of the largest sports sets ever launched by Topps in the "vintage" era. Also, there are quite few subsets with wonderful cards, as well as a few different versions of some cards, which has given rise to many discussions. The set is undoubtedly nostalgic. The 1961 baseball season was a remarkable one in many ways. Just think of Maris and Mantle. It was also the time when the sport underwent a major expansion. All things considered, the 1961 Topps baseball set still retains some magic, 50 years after kids sat on front porches all over America and sorted, flipped and traded while the Cold War played in the background.
Topps’ 1961 baseball set was the largest the company had created up to that point, featuring 587 cards in six series. Unlike the cards in the previous years, the 1961 cards were vertical and plain, Topps doing away with the fancy logos or autographs used in the past. On the front was a simple portrait of the player, and on the bottom, a colored box featuring his name and team. Many used to the colorful print of the 1960 set were surprised at the toned-down look of the '61s. The back featured the same basic player facts that previous editions did, but the fancy quizzes or ‘Make a Photo’ scratch-off areas were gone. The only exceptions were the Thrills cards, which had a newspaper headline and a story on the backside, and which made up one of the many subsets.
Where are the logos?
It was not the plain design that disappointed the most. The 1961 Topps Baseball set featured loads of cards in which players did not appear in their teams’ official uniforms and hats. They were dressed in plain tops – the logos were just not there. The reason? The 1961 season saw the Major Leagues expand by two teams (Angels and a new Senators team while the old Washington franchise moved to Minnesota). Thanks to the changes and the resulting expansion draft, players were switching sides until just before the beginning of the season.
Topps had to start production of the cards way before the rosters were even close to finalized, and their strategy was to keep the poses and photos used as generic as possible, and then supposedly add the logos just before the set came out. What happened in the end was that the logos disappeared completely. Also, quite sadly, about one fifth of the cards show players with no caps. Though one would have expected that this lack of logos and caps may have made the series less attractive for collectors, the truth is that this has not really happened. The huge number of cards and the cool subsets have alleviated all problems with the photos and for many, seeing the players' heads in all their glory is nostalgic and fun!
Subsets and Top Cards
To compensate for the rather plain portraits, the 1961 Topps baseball card set features a handful of interesting subsets. There’s a league leaders series (#41-50), a Thrills series (#401-410), a Most Valuable Player series (#471-486), two managers series (#131-139 and #219-226), a World Series highlights series (#306-313) and 7 checklists. There’s also a highly-prized All-Star subset that ends the collection. Some cards in the set have become elusive. While the #1-370 cards are relatively easy to find and quite affordable, the #371-446 and #447-522 cards are becoming increasingly rare. Cards #523-589, the dreaded high numbers, were the last one to be released, and they are the hardest of all to find. Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Roger Maris All-Star cards are the highest priced high numbers, but #559 Jim Gentile is a tough one, too and #541 and 563 are hard to find in near mint or better.
The most sought after card in the set is, not surprisingly, #300 Mickey Mantle, which can fetch several hundred to several thousand dollars in high grade. There are several Hall of Famers, of course, including Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, but the rookie card class is limited. The Ron Santo, Juan Marichal and Billy Williams cards are the first for each.
Finally, there are quite a few variations, two notable ones being the two #463 cards(Jack Fisher and Braves team, which is #426 in the checklist) and the three versions of the #98 checklist.
The set is numbered to 598 but there are only 587 cards in the set. #426, 587 and 588 weren't issued. PSA lists the value of graded 1961 Topps sets at anywhere from $4,757 for an excellent condition group to $85,365 for a set of all mint 9's. Ungraded EX-EX/NM sets will generally cost $3000-$3500.
Full of subsets and surprises, the 1961 Topps Baseball card set is today one of the most prized vintage sets. It has many outstanding photos of fantastic players, some interesting sets within the set, a terrific selection of players-- and it celebrates a great season in the history of the sport.