Not only do the words “popular” and “passion” both start with “p,” but they are also related in the hearts of many collectors. At least that is how it appears from some of the great reactions and statements that the piece on 1900-1949 generated. And that is how it should be. There is little joy in collecting something if there is no passion attached to it. And, if passion is attached, that collection is at the very least popular to the one collecting.
The latter half of the 20th century had a lot more baseball cards from which to choose than did the first 50 years. Even though the Topps company held a seeming monopoly from 1956 until 1981, there were still multiple national issues throughout those years that could be considered. And some of those baseball sets do have passionate followings. However, if we use the same criteria for the last half of the century as we did the first half, there is no real competitor to Topps until 1989. That year, of course, is when Upper Deck came along and changed things.
As we stated in the first article on this subject, the task we are undertaking is not to list the “best” sets with regard to future value or artistic merit. We are not even really looking at what the cards do or do not convey about the national pastime. Rather, we have tried to put together the facts regarding which sets are most popularly collected, by decade, using some data that is readily available.
The data collection that we used for this judgement is fairly simplistic.
We began by researching what has been selling on eBay using the “Sold Items” filter that the online auctioneer makes available. That sounds easy, but when you are looking at 50 different years and multiple products within a year it takes some time. But, it does provide a good snapshot of which cards are actually selling…and it is infinitely easier than polling every local card shop or show dealer in the nation.
Added to those figures we studied the population reports from PSA and Beckett regarding the number of cards that have been submitted for grading. As we mentioned before, it seems unlikely that many grading dollars would be used to slab unpopular cards. And, especially in the case of the PSA report, it is easy to get down to the actual sets that have been submitted as well as the individual cards. Frankly, it is easy to get lost in chasing down interesting tidbits in that database.
Finally, we took a look at the number of “hits” that major search engines give for each set under consideration. It seems right to take into account the blogs, articles, and more that have been written regarding each set, which is another measurement of popularity.
In the end, as best as we possibly could, we came up with the most popularly collected set from each decade of the 1950s through the 1990s. Three of the decades had very decisive winners. However, the 1961 set came out over the 1962 set by only a small margin, and the 1970, 1971 and 1975 sets were very close to one another using the formula we had in place. There were no ties, but it was close.
Actually, the closeness of the sets mentioned just above is probably not too large of a surprise. Those who were in the prime of baseball collecting age in 1960 or 1961 are just beginning to enter retirement years or, at the least, a stage of life where they can pursue a bit of their past. And what memories those two seasons provided from the major league diamonds. The sets from the next decade are newer, but it is likely that many are trying to complete their beloved sets before the rising prices of vintage cards gets any higher.
Going into the research I thought there might be some closeness in the last year of the Bowman franchise or that the 1952 Topps set might run away with it all. But neither was the case. The winner, and with a sizable lead, was the 1959 Topps baseball card set. In second place, the 1952, 1955 and 1956 Topps sets were all very close together, however, the winning 1959 set easily outpaced them all.
Frankly, this surprised me a bit. I have long considered the 1955 set one of the most visually appealing sets of Topps history, and the 1956 set has always been a steady selling set. It’s possible, too, that the cost of collecting some of the sets generally accepted as ‘popular’ may steer a lot of people away.
And the 1959 Topps baseball cards certainly has its following. It was the largest Topps set to date at 572 cards. And even though Ted Williams could not be in the set due to a new contract with the Fleer Gum company, several popular players (and eventual Hall of Famers) populate the set, such as Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays. Card #10, Mickey Mantle, is the most valuable card in the entire ’59 set. Within the last three weeks, two Mantle’s graded “8” by PSA have sold for $2,500 on eBay, and an ungraded “raw” card sold for over $810 at eBay auction.
In a rather bold move, Topps used a fairly innovative layout that featured the player in a head and shoulders profile or full length body pose set inside a circle. The photo was surrounded by a colored area that went out to the white borders of the card. The player’s full name is printed in a bold lower case font, set at a slight angle on the top area of the card, and the bottom portion was reserved for the player’s team name, logo and fielding position. The style is instantly recognizable when going through a stack of vintage cards, and that may be one reason why the set is still so popular with set collectors.
As mentioned earlier, the winner in this decade was the 1961 Topps set. Only a year removed from the winning set of the previous decade, there may be something of an era “bump” to be considered as the cards sets from 1958 through 1962 are all fervently collected. Even so, the 1961 set was a clear winner, and sellers of baseball cards can likely attest to it long-standing popularity. A very clean design to the base cards let the picture of the player take center stage as it dominates about 90% of the card front. Many collectors share a quality of wanting to organize their collections, and the team names being on the front right corner make the sorting easy, while the different colors assigned to each team make that sorting even easier. Of course, not everyone likes the looks of this set, and I have even heard the design referred to as a type of “business stationery.”
No doubt the various subsets in the 1961 set adds to the popularity. There were dedicated checklist cards (17, 98, 189, 273, 361, 437, and 516) instead of checklists placed on the back of team cards. Collectors also seek the league leader cards (41–50), “Baseball Thrills” subset (401-410), the Most Valuable Player series (471–486), a World Series highlights set (306-313), and the last-series All-Star cards.
Additionally, although not an official subset, some Rookie cards in the set were graced with a yellow star on the front that declared the player a “1961 Rookie,” and these continue to find favor with those who collect this 587 card masterpiece.
If the research for this article were a horse race, the 1971 Topps set would have won by “a nose” over the 1970 and 1975 sets. These three were easily the closest sets of any decade, and all three have a good set of passionate collectors chasing down the pieces. Interestingly, in spite of the difficulty finding high-grade cards due to the chip-prone black card fronts, the 1971 set continues to attract interest and dollars as collectors seek to assemble the best condition set that they can afford. And there are certainly several reasons why this is so.
The 1971 Topps set is often recognized for some of the early “game action” shots used on baseball cards. Although the cards had long been used for identifying players and seeing how they actually looked, the growing use of television for baseball games and national media made the facial recognition factor less important. But the actual action shots from games captured the attention of the kids who collected that season, and they continue to find appreciation among the collectors now. Cookie Rojas turning a double-play in the air. Thurman Munson making a tag at the plate. Joe Morgan lining one up the middle. These and many more make the winning set of this decade a classic. And people love classics. A grade 9 of Brooks Robinson (an action shot of him at bat) recently sold for $4,450 on eBay, while raw cards of Nolan Ryan pitching (#513) regularly sell for $125.
Another thing that may contribute to the popularity of this set and others like it could be the inclusion of certain “inserts” that originally came with the cards and bubblegum. The 1971 Topps Scratchoffs are popularly collected in their own right, and there may be some connection between the sets and the inserts that contribute to the popularity. Perhaps we can follow that in the near future.
The Topps company lost its run of most popular sets when it came to the decade of the 1980s. Doubtless it is no surprise that the 1989 Upper Deck baseball card set is the most popularly collected set of the decade. Hailed as a “game changer” almost from the start, this particular set of cardboard classics paved the way for the whole new surge of technology that would come into play with the hobby. Indeed, some would even say that the set paved the way for the “boom and bust” that the sports collecting hobby experienced in the years that followed its release. Whether or not that is giving one set too much (or too little) credit, there is no doubt that the initial Upper Deck release had a huge impact on the baseball card business, and its popularity continues to this day.
Granted, there was a stroke of marketing genius in tagging a very young Ken Griffey, Jr. to be the face of the card company by making him card #1 in the very first set ever offered. That iconic smile on the young star’s face was and is instantly recognizable, and it became synonymous with the baseball card. Without a doubt it is that singular card that drives the collecting of the set (even though the set has many design elements and innovations that set it apart). Of all the cards submitted to PSA for grading through the years from the ’89 Upper Deck baseball card set, a full 52% have been of card #1. Recently a PSA 10 (only 4% of the cards submitted have been given this grade) sold for $339 at auction on eBay.
Since we have only been looking at the baseball card sets in this sense for the last few weeks, it is hard to know whether or not the retirement of Derek Jeter has anything to do with the winning set for this decade being the 1993 Topps set. But certainly his inclusion as card #98 has a lot to do with the popularity of this set. Much like the Upper Deck set above, this set revolves, in part, around a singular card with Jeter’s card accounting for more than 50% of those graded from this product. And this is significant as this decade exploded with a plethora of baseball card sets as part of the “mass produced” era, and it saw the beginning of the premium card ramp up as well. But the standard and stable regular Topps set is still that which captures most collectors attention. It is also the largest Topps set offered at 825 cards.
And there we have a brief rundown of the most popularly collected baseball card sets from the last half of the 20th century. Sure, we can all debate why one set or another is better for each decade represented, but the numbers bear these sets out for now. Of course, it is in such a debate that the “passion” comes out to meet the popular.