The baseball cards issued during the 1950s are some of the most popular and iconic ever produced. In fact, it was these issued that spearheaded the increase in prices in the 1980s as baby boomers attempted to purchase back their childhood memories, and in the process turned card collecting into big business. While manufacturers like Topps and Bowman are well known, and names like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays are familiar to almost everyone, there are a few things someone new to 1950s cards might find interesting.
Topps and Bowman are not the only options
To a casual collector it can seem as if Topps and Bowman are the only options for 1950s baseball cards. However, several other popular sets were issued during the decade, many of which were smaller, regional sets. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these cards is the 1954 Wilson Franks set, which are extremely condition sensitive as they were contained within a package of hot dogs. The Wilson Franks card of Ted Williams is arguably the most popular regional card of the era.
Reminiscent of the pre-WW1 tobacco card era, the Red Man Tobacco company issued several sets featuring colorful and desirable player images. For New Yorkers, Stahl-Meyer Franks issued sets from 1953-55 that included a young Mickey Mantle and other New York stars. During that same time Red Heart, another hot dog manufacturer, were also producing cards.
Potato chips of the era also contained trading cards, and in 1954 Dan Dee Potato Chips issued what has become one of The Mick’s most enduring cards. Bell Brand, another chip producer, issued a set in 1958 featuring the Dodgers as they transitioned to Los Angeles and included Sandy Koufax as he was about to come into his prime. Those sets continued into the early 1960’s.
Another regional set was Hires Root Beer, which included a tab that could be used to redeem a guide explaining the game of baseball and counted a young Hank Aaron on their checklist. As the decade came to a close, Bazooka gum – a name still familiar in this day – issued an oversized hand cut set. 1959 Bazooka are very popular and just plain cool but not easy to find, especially in high grade.
Retro sets even existed back then!
Many collectors look at the past decade of baseball cards and assume retro sets like Allen and Ginter are a recent occurrence. However, in 1955 Topps issued a largely ignored set called Double Headers that was inspired by the 1911 T201 Mecca Double Folders set.
Like the T201 set issued more than four decades earlier, the 1955 Topps Double Headers set featured one player on the front and the other on the reverse. The cards were designed to be folded over and results in both players sharing the same lower half. Although not heavily collected, the set does feature a checklist of popular players including Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Jackie Robinson – in the year he would finally win the World Series.
Robin Roberts is the original Topps ‘backdoor’ scandal
Most collectors have heard stories of a generation of parents disposing 1950s cards as their children left home, or how Topps dumped excess product into the Atlantic Ocean, and assume that cards like the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle are rare. However, The Mick’s iconic issue was a double print and is common when compared to the rarity that is the 1951 Topps Major League All-Stars card of Robin Roberts.
Roberts was a Hall of Fame pitcher and a member of ‘the Whiz Kids’ – the nickname given to the 1950 NL Champion Phillies – but the majority of his cards are readily available at reasonable prices.
His 1951 Topps Major League All-Stars card is a horse of a different color, as it is exceedingly rare, and collectors still debate how the set was issued. Most collectors of the set agree that the Roberts card – along with Eddie Stanky and Jim Konstanty – were never issued, and instead were smuggled out of the Topps factory.
How valuable is the Roberts card? Consider that in 2010 Legendary Auctions sold a PSA 2 example for $62,213.
The United States was not the only country producing cards
Baseball has long been considered the ‘national pastime’ in the United States, but the sport has also been immensely popular throughout Latin America for much longer than people might assume. In fact, the Caribbean was a literal hotbed of activity for Negro League players.
Although Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the Negro Leagues continued to exist and in 1950-51 Toleteros – a Puerto Rican tobacco producer – issued what has become an enduring set of cards. Many Negro League players who would go on to become enshrined in Cooperstown are included in the set, but none more popular than Josh Gibson.
Although Gibson had passed away by the time the set was issued, his memory was still fresh with fans and no doubt the commemorative card would have been a popular marketing tactic. While fans will endlessly debate the numbers Gibson would have put up had he been permitted to play in the majors, the popularity of his 1950-51 Toleteros card is universally agreed upon. You can find other Toleteros cards on eBay.
1952 Topps is not Mickey Mantle’s rookie card
If the T206 Honus Wagner card is to be considered the number 1 card ever produced, then a strong argument can be made that the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card is 1a. It was the rapid increase in price of the ’52 Mantle in the 1980s that created the sports card boom that ushered in the secondary market as a business.
While most can only dream of owning a T206 Wagner – the Mantle is readily available to those who have funds. In fact, in lower condition the card can be had for a few thousand dollars. It is the availability of the Mantle that adds to its popularity, as it is more enjoyable for most to pursue a card that they have a legitimate chance of one day owning.
It is surprising then that a card that is so universally known and appreciated can sometimes be mistaken. There are some collectors who identify the card as Mantle’s rookie – however this is incorrect, as the previous year Bowman issued a Mantle card. The enduring legacy of Topps has caused what is ‘Mantle’s first Topps card‘ to still be misidentified as a rookie. The ultimate compliment to the six decade marketing relationship between Topps and Mantle.
There you have it. The 1950s is one of the most popular eras in baseball history, and showcased some of the game’s most legendary stars. Whether you are a Hall of Fame, set, team, or player collector the decade offers something for everyone. With a little research and patience even the most inexperienced of collector can make a splash in baseball’s golden age.