Life as a Major League baseball player simply doesn’t get much more glamorous than it was for Roger Maris in the spring of 1962. Not only did he break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record and win his second consecutive AL MVP award as his New York Yankees marched to yet another World Series title the year before, but he was featured in all his sleeveless glory as the #1 card in the audacious 1962 Topps baseball set.
As we would learn in the decades that followed, though, that 1961 season took a huge toll on Maris, and he would have just as soon been at home in Fargo, ND, as in the glare of the Bronx spotlight. In contrast, the 1962 set grabbed collectors’ attention with zeal right from the beginning and has yet to loosen its grip, like the cardboard embodiment of Norma Jean herself.
Even with their mismatched personalities, Maris and the 1962 set have become inextricably linked in the annals of baseball cards, and it’s tough to think of one without the other popping into your mind, too. And, like the man himself, the 1962 Topps set is a complicated soul that has enthralled generations of collectors but never truly seems to divulge all of its secrets.
They Call it a Woody
Perhaps emboldened by the brash assault on Ruth’s record that Maris and teammate Mickey Mantle waged the year before, Topps abandoned the conservative design elements that had crept into their cards since dispatching Bowman to the commons heap of history six years earlier and went for something a little more daring in designing their 1962 set. Indeed, Topps dusted off their competitor’s very last trick by “treating” collectors to the return of wood-grain borders.
While Bowman’s swan song in 1955 featured a horizontal design with each player slotted neatly on the screen of a console television, Topps turned the concept sideways in 1962. Card fronts sport a dark, vertical “wooden” background as if the card maker traded in their cardboard stock for walnut boards during the winter. Laid over top of the timber background is a full-color photo of the player surrounded by a thin white border.
The lower right-hand corner of each photo is curled up toward the center of the card, creating the effect of a poster that has been pasted down but is starting to lose its grip. In the extra wooden real estate that such aging provides, Topps displayed the player’s name, position, and team name.
Apparently fearful of pushing the envelope so far that it would burst, Topps toned down their ambitions for 1962 card backs, which feature a typical horizontal design with both previous-year and career stats at the bottom of the card. The top is divided, roughly, into two halves, with the right-hand side dedicated to a cartoon rendering of player highlights.
On the left-hand side, the familiar Topps baseball, complete with card number, butts up against the player’s name, position, and team name. All of that is perched on top of his vital stats and a brief biographical note.
The backs were a welcome respite from the forest for some and just Topps being Topps to others, but the 1962 card fronts have always been the real story of the set.
Whether you loved those wood borders or hated them, it was hard to deny the impact that they had on popular culture almost immediately. In 1963, for example, Jan and Dean released their smash single titled “Surf City,” which begins with these lyrics:
“I bought a ’30 Ford wagon and we call it a woody…”
Is it a coincidence that the 1962 Topps set was issued just the summer before, or were Jan and Dean closet baseball card collectors? The world may never know.
Big and Cheesy
While the 1962 baseball set has become a classic and there is some argument to be made that its design is actually perfect for the era, there is little debate about its status as one of the cheesiest motifs in Topps’ long history. And, as if to drive home the point that collectors were stuck with the new look, for better or for worse, the 1962s were the largest single baseball card set ever produced at the time of its release.
Issued in seven uneven series, the 1962 set stretched shoe boxes to a whopping 598 total cards, released as follows:
- Series 1 :#1-109
- Series 2 : #110-196
- Series 3 : #197-283
- Series 4 : #284-370
- Series 5 : #371-446
- Series 6 : #447-522
- Series 7 : #523-598
Collectors had lots of choices when it came to buying the 1962s, as the cards came in 1-cent and 5-cent wax packs, cello packs, and, at Christmas time, 12-card rack packs.
No matter how they got their mitts on the cards, though, boys must have been rubbing their eyes when they peeled back the wrapper and saw those wooden borders staring back at them all through the summer and into the fall. Some may have even dug out their stashes of 1961 cards for a bit of sensory relief.
Blazing Vaseline and Dreamy Specials
While the 1962 Topps set is dominated by stars like Maris, Mantle, “Bob” Clemente, and Willie Mays, it’s also home to the rookie cards of two colorful Hall of Fame players. Lou Brock (#387) would go on to set the single-season and career record for stolen bases before Rickey Henderson demolished both marks, and ball “doctor” Gaylord Perry (#199) would slather his way to 314 wins before hanging up his utility belt in 1983.
Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre also makes his debut in the 1962 set, crouched on card #218 as a Milwaukee Braves catcher.
All three rookies are strong sellers on eBay, with PSA 7 copies of Perry and Torre bringing $100 or more, and Brock fetching a few hundred in similar condition. Copies of the Brock card in PSA 8 generally top the $1000 mark.
Among other star rookies in the set are “Boog” Powell (#99), Tim McCarver (#167), Tim Fregosi (#209), Al Downing (#219) Ken Hubbs (#461), Sam McDowell (#591), Jim Bouton (#592), Bob Ueker (#594), and Joe Pepitone (#596).
In addition to that rookie lineup, the 1962 set is home to several special subsets, including
- League Leaders: #51-60
- Babe Ruth Tribute Series: #135-144
- World Series Highlights: #232-237
- In Action: #311-319
- The Sporting News All-Stars: #466-475
- Rookie Parade: #591-598
Little Green Men
As if all of that star power weren’t enough to make your wallet scream for mercy, the 1962 Topps set contains a sufficient number errors and variations to keep master set collectors hopping right through Easter and on past Opening Day.
Most of the second series cards exist in their normal configuration and as “green tint” variations, so named due to the decidedly green pallor that was cast over the card photo by some printing problem or other. The wood grain on the “green” cards is also typically much lighter than that found on the regular cards.
While the green tint cards don’t bring much of a premium, they add up quickly if you’re trying to collect them all.
Card number 139 exists in four variations, with two showing shots of Hal Reniff (pitching or portrait) and two depicting Babe Ruth (with or without foul pole). Several other cards show up featuring players with or without hats, facing left or facing right, facing left when they should be facing right, and with different positions from card front to card back. Heck, even the checklist cards get in on the act, as variations in color, cards listed, and typography exist.
All told, there are close to 700 cards in a true master set of 1962 Topps baseball.
Stamp of Approval or a Buck for Your Thought?
Collectors who did not care for the design of Topps’ base set in the summer of 1962 had a couple of other options for satisfying their baseball card cravings, though both fell squarely in the oddball category.
Inserted in wax packs of the “regular” cards were individual baseball stamps, each picturing a player headshot in front of a red or yellow background. There were 200 stamps in all, and collectors could order an album to hold their tiny treasures for 10 cents. The stamps are still pretty easy to come by today, though high-grade examples can command $50 or more.
For the hobbyist who just couldn’t get enough of gaudy designs, though, the 1962 Topps Bucks set may have been more to his liking. Sold separately from the base set, the Bucks looked like US currency, with baseball players taking center stage in lieu of the Presidents. Also plentiful on eBay, the Bucks are a bit more sought after than the stamps and carry prices ranging from 10 “bucks” or so for commons to a few hundred dollars for Hall of Famers in nice graded condition.
It’s more than a whiff ironic that a baseball card set built on a hardwood theme is so soft that, out of more than 163,000 cards sent to PSA for grading, less than 90 of them have received a perfect 10. The main condition culprit for the 1962 set, as it is for the 1955 Bowman and 1971 Topps issues, is chipping around the edges on card fronts, and it touches every card in the set.
Many of the 1962s suffer from poor centering, as well, so even if you manage to find a card with strong borders, there is a decent chance it will warrant the dreaded “OC.”
Mickey Mantle is generally the king of any set that he appears in when it comes to collector interest, regardless of whether or not he won the home run derby with his teammate. With nearly 3000 cards slabbed by PSA, Mantle predictably leads the way in the 1962 Topps set, as well. Of all those cards of The Mick, though, only one has graded at a 10, and just 15 warranted a 9, one of which sold for nearly $19,000 in April of 2014.
While more Mantles have found their way to PSA, the Maris card is even more scarce in top condition. Of nearly 2000 Maris specimens submitted for grading, none exists in PSA 10 condition and only five have graded out at a 9. When one of those beauties came up for auction in December of 2013, then, is it any wonder that it brought more than $27,000?
The special cards don’t fare much better than the single stars, as just one of more than 2000 submissions of “Managers’ Dream” graded at a PSA 10, and nine others came in at a 9. When one of the less than 200 copies that warranted a PSA 8 comes up for sale, you can expect to pay around $400.
Even common cards can bring in the neighborhood of $100 when they’re slabbed as PSA 9s.
Beyond the condition rarities present throughout the entire 1962 Topps set, a few dozen short prints in the seventh series present something of a challenge for complete-set collectors. The good news is that, even though they exist in smaller quantities than the cards around them, these high numbers are generally available on eBay, where you can expect to see prices from $10 to $50 depending on condition and whether the cards are graded.
When Roger Maris’ numbers dropped off the table in 1962, his homer total plummeting from 61 to 33, many old-time fans were quick to call him a fluke. They were likely the same crowd who clamored for an asterisk next to his 1961 home run total, and, though that indignity never stuck, Maris never again approached the dizzying perch he reached as card #1 in the 1962 Topps baseball set.
Still, his story has continued to enthrall us for more than five decades, and baseball karma transformed him into a diamond hero and the rightful home run champ in the minds of many fans during and after the bash barrage put on by Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds a decade ago.
Likewise, even though the design of the 1962 Topps set turns some collectors way, the issue is popular enough that many have tackled the task of building a complete set, and you can usually find them for sale without too much trouble. Prices realized in recent years have been all over the board, from nearly $23,000 for a high-grade, mostly PSA-slabbed set in December of 2013, all the way down to $1400 for a mid-grade, unslabbed set in January of 2015.
For all its green men and dinged borders and general funkiness, the 1962 Topps baseball set continues to charm us more than 50 years after it first splintered the hobby status quo and crashed into our lives.