You’ll hear a lot about 1952 Topps during the company’s 70th anniversary, but as avid collectors know, the company’s first significant dive into baseball cards happened a year earlier. The 1951 Red and Blue Back sets were created as part of a simple card game. There were no rookie cards of Mantle, Mays, Whitey Ford or Nellie Fox and each set held only 52 cards. Still, there are some great names tucked inside each set and some represent an excellent value compared to their 1951 Bowman counterparts.
The Red Backs are about twice as plentiful as the Blues. They came in packs called “Doubles” because of there were two cards attached to each other in each pack. The Red Backs were also sold as a pre-packaged set with a foldout paper game board at a cost of 29 cents. That, plus a significant find of unopened boxes quite a few years ago, are probably why there are more Reds in the market today.
With prices for vintage cards on the rise, the 1951 Topps sets do offer a chance to grab some cards with historic hobby relevance for fairly modest prices. We picked out five–three from the Red Back set and two from the Blue–that offer some name recognition along with value based in part on pricing and population reports.
Yogi Berra- Red #1
Look at any price guide and it’ll show Yogi as the most expensive card in either set, so why is he on this list? Compare prices and population numbers for his ’51 Red Back with his ’51 Bowman card and you’ll see.
While the ’51 Bowman is undoubtedly more attractive, the Topps Berra is card #1 in Topps’ first widely distributed set, which counts for something in our book. Add that to the far smaller quantity in the market and the fact that you can own a high-grade example of an early career Yogi for a very reasonable price and it’s hard to beat this one.
Vern Stephens -Red #4
Poor Vern. Despite a great career, even Topps didn’t get his first name right. He’s “Verne” on the front. Stephens is still considered one of the best hitting shortstops in history and one of the best sluggers of his era. He won three RBI titles and between 1948 and 1950, he knocked in 440 runs. He finished in the top 10 in MVP voting six times and is a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame but isn’t enshrined in Cooperstown.
Compared to most others in the Red Back set, high-grade Stephens cards are a little tougher to find, but prices remain pretty modest, especially for a guy every fan in the 1940s and 50s knew well.
Warren Spahn – Red #30
Another early career card of the guy who remains–and will always be–the winningest left-handed pitcher in baseball history.
Along with Berra and Duke Snider, the Spahn is, not surprisingly, among the most heavily graded of all of the cards in both sets. Even though it’s not rare, there are still barely half as many Red Back Spahn cards in the pop reports as there are of his ’51 Bowman and yet you can own one for a lot less– a PSA 8 is often available for under $250.
You could also go with fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller whose Red Back card is in shorter supply than Spahn and at somewhat comparable costs, but nice graded examples of Feller just don’t seem to be available that often.
Ralph Branca – Blue #20
While he was generally a reliable and popular pitcher, Branca will also always be known as the guy who gave up the “Shot ‘Heard Round The World’ homer to Bobby Thomson that sent the Giants to the World Series. Owning a card of him from that dramatic year is just something that will always be cool to do.
There are fewer than 70 1951 Blue Back Brancas graded NM/MT or better and yet prices are more than reasonable.
Vic Wertz- Blue Back #40
Wertz seemed to be in every baseball card pack from the late 40s to the early 60s and there’s good reason for that. The World War II veteran played 17 years–all in the American League. Wertz finished in the top 10 in American League home runs seven times.
A charity-minded businessman after his playing days, he gladly took questions about his famous deep drive to center at the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series–one that turned into a long out thanks to Willie Mays.
There are fewer than 80 examples of his 1951 Blue Back graded NM or better by PSA but prices remain relatively easy on the wallet.