Though every year witnesses events that change the world and make us gape in awe, some are more dramatic than others. By the time 1959 faded into a new decade, America had gained two new states, Fidel Castro had brought red power to Cuba, and the New York Yankees had slid all the way to third place in the American League. Along the way, the 1959 Topps baseball set provided collectors a spotlight view into the all of the game’s upheaval.
Though light on impact rookie cards and featuring a somewhat polarizing design, our Vintage Set of the Week is a classic vintage issue that’s always worthy of another look.
In the late 1950s, Topps seemed to be struggling with itself over just how much photo they should include on their cards.
After featuring beautiful full-color, border-to-border images on its 1957 set, the venerable gum company replaced ALL background imagery with a solid color in 1958, leaving only the silhouette of each player.
Topps decided to compromise in 1959, leaving the solid color background in place but opening up the the image to include a porthole view of the player and his surroundings. The circle circumference is the width of the card, though white borders lop off the left and right sides of the photo.
Above the player picture is his name in small block letters and slanted upward from left to right.
Below the photo is a team logo in the lower left-hand corner. To the lower right is the team name, and, beneath that, the player’s position. The card design is topped off by a facsimile autograph scrawled across each photo.
These card fronts “feel” very much like they came from the late 1950s and almost make you want to reach for a frothy root beer.
Each horizontal card back is a Christmas-themed affair, with the card number in a green box in the upper right-hand corner. Next to that is a red box with the player’s name and vital stats.
A biographical sketch on the left-hand side separates the personal information at the top from the table of complete statistics at the bottom of the card. The entire upper right-hand corner is dominated by a Topps staple — a player-centric cartoon.
Those comics are always fun, event 50+ years later, AND they can be super informative.
He’s a Hoot!
For instance, long before they knew just what a fun-loving bloke he was, fans learned that Bob Gibson’s nickname is “Hoot,” courtesy of his rookie card (#514). Today, that pasteboard is one of the keys to the set and can bring around $1500 in graded NM-MT condition.
Aside from Gibson, no other Hall of Fame players made their debut in the 1959 set, but the issue might well hold the record for cardboard debuts by standout management. The set features the rookie cards of future managers Felipe Alou (#102) and George “Sparky” Anderson (#338), and eventual NL president Bill White checks in at #359.
After years of holding out, Stan Musial also made his first Topps appearance on card #150, which sells for $250 or more in slabbed NM-MT condition.
Even though they had dispatched Bowman to the commons bin of history four years earlier, Topps still managed to miss out on Ted Williams in 1959. That year, “Teddy Ballgame” signed an exclusive contract with Fleer, who produced a full set of nothing but the Splendid Splinter.
Huge and … Thrilling!
Even though Topps whiffed on the final years of Williams’ career, the 1959 set was big enough to make collectors almost forget about any such trifling oversights.
In fact, at 572 cards, the multi-series issue was the biggest Topps had ever offered to that point in time.
- Sporting News Rookie Cards (# 116-146)
- Baseball Thrills (#461-470)
- Sporting News All-Stars (#551-572)
- Several multi-player combo cards
- Team cards with checklists on the back
As is often the case with these types of cards, some of the “Thrills” may seem a bit less than exhilarating. Card #465, for instance, details how Roy Sievers broke the Washington Senators single-season home run record in 1957 — a mark he already owned.
And we accuse today’s media of East Coast bias!
Plenty of Option(ed)s
While not everyone clamors for the card of a DC-self-record-setter, the 1959 Topps set holds other pockets of quirkiness to satisfy every collecting taste.
For instance, because 572 pasteboards may not have been enough to compete with Fleer’s 80 versions of Ted Williams goodness, Topps made minor or major bungles on some 64 of their 1959 cards.
Most of those were uncorrected birthdate blunders or position misidentifications, but Topps made a valiant effort to get some of the cards right.
Warren Spahn‘s birth year, for example, went from 1931 to 1931 with a partially blocked “3” to the correct 1921. None commands a significant premium, but each can fetch about $250 in graded NM-MT condition.
Somewhat tougher are the five cards that can be found with or without a line of text on the back that indicates the pictured player had been optioned or traded. These include Ralph Lumenti (#316), Bob Giallombardo (#321), Harry Hanebrink (#322), (#336), and Dolan Nichols (#362).
The variations without the traded or optioned tags are more difficult to find than their labeled counterparts, and can fetch big numbers on the auction circuit. The “no trade” version of Hanebrink, for example, sells for more than $1700 in slabbed NM-MT condition.
All told, variations add about 11 cards to the master-set count for 1959 Topps.
High and Hard
Though the various corrections make collecting EVERY card issued by Topps in 1959 a tough task, even completing the base set can be a challenge.
As in most years when Topps issued their sets across multiple releases, the high-number cards (#507-572) are harder to find than those produced early in the baseball season.
Nice ungraded commons can bring $20 or more, and the overall cost of building the high-number series is boosted by the presence of the Gibson rookie card and the Sporting News All-Stars. The Mantle All-Star card (#564), for example, brings north of $400 in graded NM-MT condition.
All those relatively scarce high-number cards allow complete sets to sell from around $1500 for unslabbed mid grades to several thousand for examples with a large portion of higher-grade slabbed singles.
‘Go-Go’ then Go Back?
That last series also reminded fans throughout the winter that baseball, and life, can change in a blink, but that humans are resilient.
New AL MVP Nellie Fox, the spark plug who led the upstart ‘Go-Go’ Chicago White Sox all the way to the World Series, appears on card #556 as a 1959 All-Star selection.
Meanwhile, “Symbol of Courage” shows Roy Campanella (#550) in his wheelchair nearly a year after the accident that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down and out of the Dodgers’ lineup forever, but not without his big smile and will to improve.
The next season, the Yanks and Sox would change places in the standings, and new Yankee Roger Maris would win his first MVP award to set up a historic home run battle with Mantle in 1961.
And when you look back on Maris’ second-year card (#202) in the 1959 Topps set knowing how his story unfolded, it’s easy to wonder whether that circle of focus was intended to be a spotlight or a fishbowl. Or maybe a target.
However you interpret Rajah’s joyless, distant gaze or the set’s porthole architecture, there is no denying that both are classic symbols of a simpler time when America and the game were on the brink of monumental changes.