The 1954 and 1955 Topps sets are fascinating studies in how the winners can sometimes rewrite history. Today, we all believe the rookies who didn’t have a Bowman card were strokes of genius by Topps but the argument can be made that those cards were actually desperation moves that 60 years later worked out just fine for the then Brooklyn-based company. In fact, the 1954 Topps rookie cards have to be considered among the best collections of all-time.
After the major leap with their 1952 set to over 400 subjects, the next three years involved a continuing reduction of players. By 1955 there were barely over 200 cards in the Topps set, or just a little over half of what was produced for 1952. Of course, in those years, the contract wars between Bowman and Topps were going full steam and Bowman was winning the battle to have established players in their sets like Stan Musial. With fewer than 20 big league teams, it was a problem.
While the first 50 cards included numerous stars, the veteran star ratio really fell off and Topps started scrambling to find players to finish their set. What this does entail is taking more chances on unproven young players. Have you recently heard of Paul Schreiber or Tom Oliver? Unless you study coaches, these were examples of how deep Topps was digging to complete the set. In addition, players such as Jehosie Heard, Angel Scull or Leroy Wheat are only remembered because Topps included them.
However, in these desperate times for Topps, they did get incredibly lucky in retrospect by producing rookie cards of players such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. That's right, Topps chose these players probably for the same reason they chose the players in the previous paragraph. Those guys were not under contract to Bowman and presumably very inexpensive to lock in.
Only Topps had these players (along with Tom Lasorda who was fairly well established as a Dodgers prospect at that time) as rookie cards and they all hit big. It was a gamble but all three became stars in relatively short order and today, they are among the most valuable rookie cards of the 1950’s.
As well as Bowman had done in securing contracts with the game’s big stars, getting Ted Williams was Topps’ biggest win in their war with Bowman. Topps’ Sports Director Sy Berger was a Red Sox fan who couldn’t stand to see Williams missing from Topps products. Finally, he got his man with a five-year contract.
That spring, Bowman had issued a card (#66) of Williams only to find out Topps had the exclusive deal and Bowman had to pull the card from the print run. The biggest name in baseball belonged to Topps, which was was so happy to have Williams under contract they not only issued cards of Williams to start and conclude their ’54 set but even put an illustration of Teddy Ballgame on the nickel pack boxes as an inducement to have kids choose their packs over Bowman.
And while the second Williams card (#250) put the wrap on the set, not too many other established players are featured in cards 51-250. There are some, but the percentage is much smaller compared to the first series. Within two years, of course, Topps who seemed to be losing the player battle, won the war and with minor exceptions produced sets without competition for a quarter of a century.
Of course, it helped Topps that their 1954 and ’55 sets were simply better looking than what Bowman was putting out. Action photos Berger had in his files set Topps apart from the competition.
And while those 1954 rookies we mentioned and the 1955 Topps rookie cards of players such as Roberto Clemente, Harmon Killebrew and Sandy Koufax are great 60 years later, if you really think about why they exist, their importance shows a different side of the baseball card world. And what would have occurred if Bowman had won the war? While we'll never know, it’s an interesting scenario to ponder.
Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]