Some collectors believe that the first Topps baseball cards were introduced in 1952 when the famous oversized player pictures hit the market including the Mickey Mantle rookie card. But while the 1952 baseball set was a most ambitious undertaking and for some, the set by which all other cards are judged, Topps issued several products in 1951 as well.
More commonly known are the two 52-card “Red and Blue Back” sets. These were smaller–2 x 2-5/8 inches–than the baseball cards we expect to see today. One set cards had red backs (set A) and the second set of fifty-two had blue backs (set B). The small cards were designed to be easily shuffled so that they could be used to play a baseball game. Each card had a front with a photo of the player and a game action noted in the upper left or bottom right corner. This could be a strike, ball, base hit, double, home run, etc., giving game instructions for the batter at the plate.
The backs were blank and red or blue respectively. Although the same number of red and blue sets were manufactured, the blue cards became scarcer and are worth more money today. The red backs in reality had 54 cards because Gus Zernial was traded and has two cards–one as a member of the White Sox and one as a member of the Athletics. A card was also added for Tommy Holmes when he moved from manager of a minor league Braves team to the major league Braves in June.
The number one card in the Red Backs set is Yogi Berra. Other Red Back stars include Duke Snider, Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Phil Rizzuto, Warren Spahn, Monte Irvin, and Ralph Kiner. Blue Back stars include Richie Ashburn, Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Mize. Eddie Yost is the number 1 card in the latter set.
A paper game board was distributed by Topps in 1951 but the game never really gained any popularity. The cards were sold in packs with caramel candy instead of bubble gum. This practice sometimes made a sticky mess in the product package.
By contrast, in the following year, the 1952 Topps set had more cards than any set ever issued. Two series were numbered from 1 to 310 and 311-407 respectively. A penny bought you one pack with two cards inside. The “reason for being” for the 1952 cards changed the course of baseball card history. The cards were no longer a tool used to advertise another product, like candy or gum. The cards themselves were the “primary buy” and whatever was packed with them was secondary.
In addition to the Red and Blue Backs, Topps also produced an 11 card set of Connie Mack All-Stars in 1951, eleven current all-stars and nine different team cards. 1951 Topps cards were two for a penny.
The 1951 Topps Connie Mack All-Stars featured some of the greatest players of the 20th century, such as Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Lou Gehrig. They were extra large, 2 x 5-¼ inches, and they had a die cut so that the player’s body could be punched out of the cardboard background. All of the All-stars in the Connie Mack set were retired.
Topps also had a regular set of 11 all-stars in 1951. These were also die cut and the set included current all-star players. These cards are extremely rare and much harder to find than the Connie Mack set. They also sell for a lot more money.
Yogi Berra is in this set as are Phil Rizzuto, George Kell, Larry Doby, Bob Lemon and Ralph Kiner. The toughest cards to find are three short prints–Robin Roberts, Jim Konstanty and Eddie Stanky. In 2006 on eBay, someone paid $18,484 for a Stanky card which was graded PSA 1. Cards have gone for as much as $30,000.
Topps began another practice in 1951 which continues to this day and explains why certain baseball players never appear on Topps cards. Like Bowman, the primary card manufacturer at the time, Topps used an agent to negotiate a contract with every player who appeared on one of its cards. The contracts were very specific and is one of the reasons Topps did not market its cards with bubble gum in 1951. That’s because Bowman’s contracts specifically mentioned gum.
Topps also hit the gridiron for the first time in 1951 with its “Magic” football cards. Measuring 2-1/16 x 2-15/16inches, they celebrated college football players instead of those who played professionally. The 2009 Topps Magic Football card set honored the original 1951 set and was well-received.
Click here to see 1951 Topps on eBay.