It was a spot usually reserved for a special player. Not always, but more often than not, card companies wanted to kick off their checklist with a memorable name. To this day, Topps makes a big deal about the first card in its annual flagship set, even letting collectors vote on it the last several years.
The roster of players who have been the first card is a Hall of Fame unto itself. Not every player is enshrined somewhere, but all are memorable for one reason or another.
If you want a walking encyclopedia of number one cards in any sport—or non-sport—set, Steve Parthum is your guy. For over thirty years, the Massachusetts collector’s primary focus has been seeking them out in the highest grades he can find.
He’s accumulated more than 400 beauties over the years—all graded by PSA—but has now decided to let them go. He consigned them to Heritage Auctions with the first batch of 142 slated for the company’s Winter Sports Card Catalog auction.
There’s a PSA 9 1962 Topps Roger Maris—one of six with none higher. A 1953 Topps Jackie Robinson PSA 8. A ’52 Bowman Yogi Berra rated 9 with none higher. The first card in Topps’ first basketball set—Nat Clifton graded 8—also with none higher.
The collection includes all four major sports, plus boxing, golf, wrestling and non-sports: Davey Williams (1953 Bowman Color) and Davy Crockett (1956 Topps). Bob Elliott (1948 Bowman) and Bobby Orr (1970-71 OPC). Batman and Batting Leaders.
None of the cards are from later than 1974.
Parthum liked the star power that often accompanied a set’s first card and the fact that number one cards from vintage sets tended to be hard to find in high grade.
“I loved sports and if there was a chance to make money over time, I was in,” he told SC Daily on Wednesday. “I was also a coin collector and had focused on a type collection so when I started with cards I had the same mindset.”
He bought cards at shows, in auctions, traded with other collectors and scoured the internet as he built the collection card by card. He began buying them in ungraded form but the advent and acceptance of grading in the 1990s made it more efficient for a collector whose focus was on quality.
“My favorite card, and it might be off the beaten path for most, might be the 1953 Parkhurst Harry Lumley,” he recalled. “I love hockey and had occasion to buy this one and a 1951 Elmer Lach ungraded at show in Canada in 2005.” Despite some apprehension about his ability to grade raw cards and have them come back in high grade, each came back an 8.
He’s also a fan of Ted Williams and Johnny Unitas and has several number one cards of each player. As collectors know, both icons were featured as card number 1 in multiple Topps sets during their careers.
“My other favorite is the 1969 Wilt Chamberlain,” he stated.
Some cards proved out of reach even after hunting and collecting for 30 years. “I always wanted to find a 1952 Parkhurst # 1 (Maurice) Richard in PSA 8, (but) only could find a 7. Also never was able to buy a 52 Topps Andy Pafko.”
He called the consignment of his unique collection a tough decision.
“I was down to some very hard to find or extremely expensive cards to complete the run and after 30 years, decided to provide an opportunity for others to upgrade or fills holes in their sets.”
The first installment of the “Number One Collection” takes place January 27 and 28. The Maris card is likely to sell for the biggest price. The pre-sale estimate is $60,000 and up. The PSA 8 ’53 Topps Robinson and ’69-70 Topps Chamberlain (PSA 9, pop 4 with none higher) should each go for at least $40,000.
Now, collectors will fight over them and Parthum will look for his next challenge.
“I actually was just known by many (in the hobby) as ‘the # 1 guy’ as I had searched for that specific niche. I guess now I will go back to being just Steve. It’s really hard for me to see it go. It has been a passion and labor of love. It was a great hunt.”