On the field, the 1953 baseball season was not much different than the previous four, as the New York Yankees won the World Series for the fifth consecutive year, downing the Brooklyn Dodgers for the fourth time in seven seasons. In candy aisles that summer, the two heavyweights of the baseball card world also stood toe-to-toe, and Topps’ masterpiece of a 1953 baseball set stunned the reigning champion, Bowman, landing another blow that would help lead Topps to three decades of dominance.
In 1952, Topps had produced a legendary set that was humongous in both card size (2 5/8″ x 3 ¾”) and number of cards (407), but found that the kids who were their target audience had their fill of baseball cards by the time football season kicked off that fall. As a consequence, the later series packs rotted on shelves into the winter, and Topps rolled into 1953 with a streamlined product in mind, building a checklist of just 280 cards.
While one of Bowman’s two 1953 sets featured full-color photos for the first time, Topps took the opposite approach and contracted renowned New England artist Gerry Dvorak and others to create oil paintings of each player to be featured in the 1953 set. Dvorak would go on to work at Paramount Studios, animating many of Hanna-Barbera’s most beloved characters, but it was his artistry in crafting the 1953 Topps cards that endeared him to collectors and became his claim to fame, even later in life. When Topps made the ’53 set the focus of their first Archives issue in 1991, a whole new generation fell in love with Dvorak’s artistry.
In 1953, though, Topps was too embroiled with their rivals for even Sy Berger or Woody Gelman to worry about whether or not their latest release would become a classic. Recognizing the challenge that Topps was mounting to the bubble gum market by including baseball cards with their confections, Bowman had filed suit against Topps in 1951, alleging that the upstart had violated player contract terms. It all came to a head in the winter of 1953, when the two companies tussled over player contracts, and there was a very real chance that Topps’ masterpiece would never see the light of day.
In the end, the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Bowman’s case, just in time for Topps to ramp up their card production that spring.
The plan was to issue the 1953 set in four series (#1-85, #86-165, #166-220, and #221-280), and that’s how it played out, albeit with a few Topps wrinkles thrown into the mix. In an effort to ensure that collectors would maintain the same enthusiasm for later series that they had for the first packs of the season, Topps pulled five cards from each of the first two series and included them in packs of later series cards instead.
While that ploy helped to keep early series on boys’ minds, Topps had a bit of (bad) luck on their side when it came to creating a chase for their late-series cards in 1953.
In the spring, the company had rushed to sign players whose Bowman contracts had expired, but they missed out on six of the subjects that were planned for the fourth series. Topps did not update their checklist, however, and hapless collectors were left to chase numbers 253, 261, 276, 268, 271, and 275 until the last of the fourth-series packs were gone.
Topps seems to have employed a fairly complicated printing scheme in 1953, producing batches of two 100-card sheets wherein 40 cards appeared three times and 40 appeared twice in the first series, for example. This unbalanced approach, with slight variations, was also employed for the higher series. As a result, certain cards are less plentiful than others, and these so-called “single prints” include some of the most valuable cards in the set: Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Warren Spahn, Jim Gilliam, and Johnny Podres.
Despite these obstacles, collectors were rewarded with one of he more beautiful sets the hobby has ever seen.
Card fronts are dominated by Dvorak’s stunning artwork, of course, and also feature a red or black rectangle that contains the player’s name, position, and team. The only other design element is a team emblem inside of a colored geometrical shape. The overall effect leaves the collector with the impression that he is holding a tiny work of art in his hands.
Card backs have a distinctive Topps feel to them, beginning with a red band at the top of the card that contains the player’s name and vital stats. The Topps logo and card number are displayed in a baseball in the upper left-hand corner. In the middle portion of each card is a paragraph of text describing the highlights of the player’s career.
The left-hand side of the card’s bottom half is dedicated to player statistics, showing both previous-year and career numbers. The right-hand side poses a “Dugout Quiz” which tests a collector’s knowledge of baseball trivia and also includes a cartoon drawing of various baseball scenes, a device which would become a Topps staple over the years.
The most popular card from the 1953 set over the years, and still the most valuable, grade-for-grade, is the Mickey Mantle second-year Topps card. Mid-grade examples regularly bring a few thousand dollars at auction, while cards graded as PSA 8 fall in the $20,000 range if you can find them. Only 90 specimens, out of about 2300 total Mantle submissions, have received that grade, while PSA has judged just eight Mantle cards to be worthy of a 9. Only one 1953 Topps Mantle has ever achieved a GEM-MT (10) rating by PSA.
Aside from Mantle, high-ticket cards in the 1953 set include Willie Mays, the short-print cards from each series, fourth-series cards in general, and cards #1 and #280. Not only does the first card in the set suffer from the typical condition woes that come with finding its way to the top of many rubber-band-bound stacks in the 1950s, but it depicts a gorgeous painting of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson. As such, the card has developed into an icon that fetches several hundred dollars in the middle grades and close to five grand in PSA 8 condition. You can buy a very respectable Robinson for $400 or a little less on eBay. The last card in the set, #280, does not have have the star power of Number 1, but Milt Bolling was a short print and suffers from last-card syndrome and the concomitant condition woes.
In fact, condition is a driving factor in prices for the 1953 Topps set as a whole. Out of nearly 106,000 total submissions to PSA, less than 1000 have garnered a grade of PSA 9 and only 28 have graded at a GEM-MT 10. The 10s hardly ever change hands, and, while PSA 9 copies of various lesser lights from 1953 are available on a fairly regular basis, even the cheapest commons will set you back at least $600, and semi-stars can run into the thousands.
Obviously, piecing together a complete 1953 Topps set is an expensive proposition on its face, and it becomes even more difficult if your target is a master set, including variations. In particular, second series cards plus the five holdovers from the first series exist with the personal information under a player’s name on card backs printed in either white or black lettering. Examples of both variations are available on the auction circuit, but they add another 80 cards to the master set collector’s shopping list.
Complete sets do come available on the market occasionally and generally fall in the VG-EX range in terms of overall condition. Depending on the breakdown of condition across key cards, and on whether any of the cards have been graded, these offerings sell for $1500 to $10,000 or more. These listings almost always contain just 274 base cards, without accounting for white-letter/black-letter variations, so the master set collector would still have some work to do. Another option for those looking to build a set rather than buy one outright would be to start with a partial set as a base and then fill in the gaps from there, as budget allows. Prices and composition on these types of lots can vary widely, of course, but this can be a good avenue for getting started on a higher-grade set without breaking the bank.
Collectors who just want to enjoy the beauty of 1953 Topps cards without the expense and legwork involved in putting together a vintage set can turn to the 1991 Topps Archives issue. Complete sets are readily available on eBay and generally sell for $20-40. The Archives set contains 57 “cards that never were,” including issues of Ted Williams and Hank Aaron, but interestingly does not contain a card of Billy Loes, who was #174 in the original 1953s. It seems that Topps’ contract woes hung with the gum maker through the decades, as they could not persuade Loes to authorize the use of his likeness in preparing for the 1991 set.
For baseball art connoisseurs, the 1953 set offers the chance to own perhaps the ultimate baseball card collectible: Dvorak’s original artwork. While these pieces do not become available very often, they do occasionally pop up at the finer auction houses, and they typically bring several thousand dollars, depending on the subject. If you have a hankering to display 1953 Topps artwork along with your cards, but the price of an original is just too steep, you could opt instead for a lithograph copy of the painting, often available for less than $200.
But, really, it’s not necessary to own a Dvorak original, or even a lithograph copy, to appreciate the beauty and artistry of the 1953 Topps baseball set. Every card is a standalone baseball masterpiece, one that you can hold right in the palm or your hand.
For a live look at the most watched 1953 Topps baseball card auctions on eBay right now, check out the list below.