In the years that followed their buyout of the rival Bowman Gum Company in 1956, Topps treated collectors to a gaudy variety of designs as they tried to settle on “the” standard that they hoped would keep them on top of the hobby for decades. When Little Leaguers tore open their first packs of 1961 Topps baseball, they may have been disappointed at first by the subdued cards staring back at them, but the old gum company struck just the right balance for the era.
Amid the growing tensions of the Cold War and an intense “Space Race” with the USSR that spring, Americans looked to new President John F. Kennedy for some assurance that our world would be OK, eventually. Baseball fans, as always, turned to the diamond that spring for relief from the building anxieties, and looking back, Topps’ clean, calm design probably smoothed the jagged edges of everyday life with a strong focus on the game itself.
More than five decades later, 1961 Topps baseball is a hobby classic and all-time collector favorite.
After two years of card fronts dominated by solid color backgrounds (1958 and 1959) and another that featured an innovative and colorful horizontal layout, Topps returned to the simple formula that had made their 1957 issue one of the most beautiful ever produced — a focus on the player photo with minimal design elements.
In fact, other than a white border and thin black piping, only a couple of blocks of color along the bottom separate 1961 Topps cards from being ALL about the full-color image. In lower left, the player’s name appears in capital block letters, with his position underneath. In the lower right, with a different color background, is the team name.
And that’s it: no team logos, no fake autograph, no anything else to distract collectors from the player himself.
Aside from special subsets, rookies were the lone exceptions to this uncomplicated layout. Up-and-comers received a “1961 Rookie” star in the upper reaches of their cards, and Topps All-Star Rookies proudly displayed their trophies just above the bottom bar.
As you would expect from a Topps issue, card backs contain a lot of information. Across the top of the horizontal layout is the Topps baseball with card number, the player name, team name, and position. Just beneath those elements, and still in the heading black box are vital stats and basic biographical information.
The middle half (or more) of the real estate displays complete player stats, and the Topps-fest is polished off with two or three cartoon panels along the bottom of the card.
If you were to cull the most solid, basic components of Topps cards during their first 50 years and then compiled them onto one piece of cardboard, you very well might come up with the 1961 Topps design.
Introducing the Louisville Senators!
It’s easy to appreciate the uncluttered look of the 1961 set today, but that doesn’t mean that Topps’ job was simple heading into that historic season.
After two teams — the Giants and Dodgers — moved to the west coast for the 1958 season, Major League Baseball was ready to beef up their fan base on the other side of the Mississippi.
The Washington Senators had threatened for years to move from the nation’s capital, with potential targets in LA, San Francisco, and even Louisville. Owner Calvin Griffith finally pulled the trigger after the 1960 season, announcing that the Senators would head to Minneapolis to become the Twins.
In conjunction with Griffith’s news, MLB voted to expand by two American League teams, the Los Angeles Angels and the … Washington Senators.
All of this maneuvering played out during the off-season while Topps was scrambling to put their set together, and the wholesale player movement had two consequences for the final product.
First, because baseball expanded, Topps could, too, and their seven-series 1961 set checked in at a biggest-ever 587 cards.
Second, Topps had no way to get photos of the Twins, Angels, and Senators (v 2.0) in their new uniforms, so they turned to photography tricks that they would use again and again over the coming years. Shots of hatless players and the underside of cap brims abound in the early series, and, though the paint kits made a couple of appearances, we can only imagine the horrors that would have been unleashed had Topps already been the airbrushing experts we came to know in the 1970s.
The Best Was Yet to Come
Of course, the biggest stars in the game, didn’t need to worry too much about their place in baseball or with Topps.
The 1961 set leads off with 1960 National League MVP, shortstop Dick Groat of the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates. In that historic World Series, punctuated by Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run, the Bucs defeated the New York Yankees and rightfielder Roger Maris.
Maris was acquired from the Kansas City Athletics prior to the 1960 season and almost immediately transformed into a superstar in the Yanks’ outfield. In a prelude to the theatrics that would unfold, Maris out-slugged (barely) teammate Mickey Mantle and nabbed the AL Most Valuable Player award.
But of course, 1960 was just a prelude to the next season, when the M & M boys would launch an assault on Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, and Topps was well-positioned to feed the mania
Maris’ main card (#2) is one of the most popular in the set, as it was the Rajah issue that kids pulled from packs during that frenzied summer. While you can pick one up for under $100 in decent unslabbed condition, a graded MINT copy usually brings several thousand dollars on the auction circuit.
Beyond the reluctant superstar, the 1961 Topps set offers the rookie cards of a trio of Hall of Famers: Ron Santo (#35), Billy Williams (#141), and Juan Marichal (#417). All are active on eBay today, and all can bring in the neighborhood of $1000 (or more) for slabbed MINT specimens.
Other popular cards from the 1961 set include the litany of future Hall of Famers that graced the diamond in the early 1960s, from Willie Mays and Hank Aaron to Harmon Killebrew and Orlando Cepeda. The second-year card of Carl Yastrzemski (#287) has also long been a collector favorite, though it re-uses his rookie-card image from 1960.
No one ever did “popular” quite like Mickey Mantle, though, and his 1961 card (#300) remains near the top of many want lists where this set is concerned. Even though the lost the home run race and the top Topps billing to Maris, The Mick is still The Man in terms of pricing. On eBay, you’ll spend at least $250 for a decent one with high-grade examples stretching over $1,000.
And in This Crystal Ball Over Here …
Even before the season began, fans could sense that something was brewing in the Bronx. Mantle was accustomed to being not just the greatest player on his team, but also the greatest in the game. Rumors swirled that he wanted to snatch the home run record to make it darn clear just who ruled the Yankees’ outfield.
For their part, Topps seemed to have a finger on the pulse of the escalating drama. In particular, their 1961 issue featured several subsets, many of which keyed in on the game’s sluggers. Among those special efforts were:
- League Leaders (#41-50)
- World Series Highlights (#306-313)
- Baseball Thrills (#401-410)
- MVPs of the 1950s (#471-486)
- All-Stars (#566-587)
Maris and Mantle were peppered throughout the first two and last two of those subsets, while Ruth and his 60th homer from 1927 were featured as the leadoff Baseball Thrill.
Apparently, Topps’ crystal ball was clear and shiny in the winter of 1960-61.
More or Less
The venerable card maker may have been on their game in the spring, but they never could quite gauge the late-season demand for baseball cards. As in previous (and succeeding) years, Topps pushed out one last series of cards, numbers #523-587, even as football season began to take hold.
And, while the perception has dampened somewhat in recent years, it was long a widely held hobby belief that the 1961 high numbers were more scarce than any but the 1952s.
Even today, graded MINT commons bring $100 or so, and nice unslabbed copies hover in the $20-40 range. Add in the All-Star cards and minor stars like Felipe Alou, and completing the high-number series gets expensive in a hurry.
A handful of variations exist around coloring and the location of text on checklist cards, and new quirks occasionally pop up, as with the Ron Fairly “green ball” variation uncovered a few years back. Several typos and other uncorrected errors sprinkle the expansive set, with the most egregious being a double-dose of card #463. One correctly shows Jack Fisher, while the other shows the Milwaukee Braves team card, which should have been #426.
Regardless of the blunders and diffic ult high numbers, the 1961 Topps set has been a favorite of collectors for more than 50 years. While it can be a real challenge to build from scratch you COULD rip off the Band-Aid and buy a complete set, with prices ranging from less than $2000 for mostly EX cards to $5000 or more for sets approaching EX-MT or better.
No Asterisk Required
By the time Roger Maris finally eclipsed Babe Ruth on the last day of the 1961 season, Mantle had been sidelined for weeks , and much of baseball had soured on the idea of a record “tainted” by a 162-game schedule. When Maris took Tracy Stallard deep for #61, fans, baseball brass, and the hero himself were ambivalent about the record.
Everyone wanted to see history, but many wanted to see Mantle in the winner’s circle. And Maris had needed eight extra games, after a ll. Maybe, just maybe, baseball should downgrade the new mark somehow in the official record books.
While collectors sitting at home may have also had mixed feelings about the man on the front of their cards, not many were confused about the issue itself. Almost from the beginning, 1961 Topps baseball was a classic issue that set standards for card-design that would live for decades.