The so-called “British Invasion” began in earnest when The Beatles made their first U.S. television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964, just weeks before pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training. By the time kids popped open their first packs of 1964 Topps baseball cards that spring to background strains of “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” they couldn’t have foreseen just how poetic the collision of pop culture and cardboard dreams would become that year.
For, while the Brits were rising in the west, the Yanks’ empire was crumbling in the east.
Coming off a season in which they led all of baseball with 104 regular-season wins yet were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, the New York Yankees were a wounded giant. Their post-season failure had tarnished a sterling dynasty and cast doubts on their future for the first time in a generation.
Though the Yanks would shine through one final campaign before fading into the background of the tumultuous 1960s, keen observers might have noticed, even as John, Paul, Ringo, and George stormed our shores, that those exalted pinstripes were starting to resemble cracks in a foundation.
As if to commiserate with the limping former champs, Topps issued a solid but uninspiring set that was clearly a step down in design and impact from the classics that preceded it.
And, if you look closely at card #50 of Mickey Mantle today, it’s easy to see the foundational problems that would doom the Yankees and make 1964 Topps an afterthought for most collectors.
At Least They’re Easy to Sort
The most striking design element of the 1964 Topps Mantle card, and every other regular-issue card from the set, is the huge team name in block capital letters that spreads across the top seventh or so of the front. It’s a device that must have made sorting cards into teams easy for boys trying to keep their Roses with their Maloneys, but it eats an awful lot of real estate and is not even color-coded for the team.
Topps seemed to concede that the team name may have been just a tad overpowering by allowing the top of each full-color player photo to extend beyond its normal frame and into the letterbox. Most of the time, it’s the player’s cap that breaks its bounds, producing a slight 3-D effect that gives the cards an extra touch of visual depth.
Beneath the photo is a band of color, about half as thick as the team-name banner at the card top, containing the player’s name and position.
All of this is set against a white background, with narrow side and bottom borders. The overall effect is a clean design that could have been even better had Topps not decided to scream the team name from the top of each pasteboard.
Card backs, on the other hand, are all about the players themselves.
Well, that and making you crave a delicious, creamy smoothie, courtesy of the yummy peach-apricot-orange background.
The Topps baseball, complete with card number, leads off in the upper left-hand corner, followed by the player’s name in large block letters. Player vital stats appear beneath his name, with position and team name rounding out the upper band on the right-hand side.
The heart of each card back is a white rectangle containing a biographical paragraph and (as usual) complete career stats, all in creamsicle type small enough to make King James proud.
The bottom of each card back features a baseball trivia question on the left and … an empty white box on the right (hopefully).
In the ultimate vintage card version of the struggle between delayed rewards and instant gratification, Topps hid the trivia answers there in plain sight, requiring collectors to rub the right-hand box with a coin to reveal the answer. To rub or not to rub? That’s the question that has tortured collectors for more than 50 years and which impacts the condition of the 1964s as a whole.
Mickey Mantle himself presented no such conundrum for collectors, as his card was different. Just like the Mick.
Thanks to his long career and Topps’ need to explain away his 1963 numbers, Mantle’s stats box runs all the way to the bottom of the card. That’s were collectors could see the results of “several serious injuries in ’63”: 65 games, 15 home runs, 35 RBI.
Those digits might have been shocking enough to prompt a quick flip back to the front of the card seeking reassurance. Mantle’s steely stare was focused out of frame, maybe on a pitcher but maybe on the 1970s. Would he make it that far? His arms and shoulders still bulged with muscle, but weren’t his hips and waist looking a little thicker?
Rookie Stars … Eventually!
While Topps was propping up a legend, it was also throwing its support behind a budding star for the first of many times.
Card #167 featured “1964 Senators Rookie Stars” Mike Brumley and Lou Piniella.
Piniella signed with the Indians in 1962 and then was snatched up by Washington in the expansion draft that same year. The Senators traded him to the Orioles in 1964 just as he appeared to be on the verge of making it to the big leagues, and he found the going a bit tougher in Baltimore. He spent all of that summer in the minor leagues before a four-game call-up in September led to another year in the bushes for the Baltimore and a trade back to Cleveland at the beginning of 1966.
Three more years in the minors with the Indians earned Piniella another Rookie Stars card in the 1968 Topps set and his next call-up in September.
The Seattle Pilots selected him that winter in another expansion draft, and Topps stood by their man, making Piniella one of the Pilots’ Rookie Stars on card #394 in their 1969 set.
Ah, but the Pilots weren’t so convinced and traded him to their brothers in expansion, the Kansas City Royals, on April 1. The Royals then inserted Piniella into their lineup for 135 games, and the 25-year-old won the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
Finally, Topps was vindicated!
Piniella went on to play 18 star-level seasons in the majors and then enjoyed a 23-year run as one of the best managers in baseball. He may yet make it to the Hall of Fame, and Topps called it.
Today, you can buy his 1964 rookie card in solid ungraded condition for $10 or so, and NM-MT slabbed copies can push close to $100.
Even though Piniella may have been the most persistent rookie of all time, he is joined in the 1964 rookie-card class by Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (#541) and Tommy John (#146), who may someday make it to the medical marvel wing of Cooperstown.
You can find the Niekro rookie for less than $50 in presentable shape, but it runs close to $1000 in graded MINT condition. Really nice ungraded copies of John’s debut issue, meanwhile, trade for under $20, with slabbed MINT specimens coming in under $300.
Then there’s the superstar that everyone loves to forget, Richie (Dick) Allen. Despite winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1964, nabbing AL MVP honors in 1972, and crushing 351 home runs over 15 years, he never cracked 20% in the HOF vote. His rookie card (#243) sells for well below $100 even in graded NM-MT condition.
In all, it’s a pretty weak rookie class for a 1960s issue, particularly when you consider the yields of its nearest neighbors — Pete Rose and Willie Stargell in 1963, and Steve Carlton and Joe Morgan in 1965. The lack of Hall of Fame power has hurt the 1964s in collector popularity probably at least as much at its just-missed front design and Mary Kay backs.
Now I Recognize Him
While the 1964 set never gave the rookie card crowd much froth-worthy material, it has plenty to offer collectors looking for a good value with a little fun.
Both Rose (#125) and Stargell (#342) made their solo debuts in ’64 after having been relegated to four-man, head-in-a-bubble Rookie Stars cards the year before. Topps saved a little scratch by using the same photo of each man in both years, but at least the 1964s featured a full-size version that let fans see what their hometown heroes looked like.
The Rose second-year card has always been popular with collectors and can bring more than $5000 in slabbed MINT condition, while the Stargell rookie fetches a few hundred dollars when graded MINT.
That Mantle card, meanwhile, gives collectors the chance to own a solid NM graded issue of The Mick–from a championship season no less– for less than $400.
Other popular cards in the set include Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and the other Hall of Famers who paraded across Major League diamonds during the mid 1960s. All of them are readily available, and they’re all affordable by the standards of superstar cards that are more than five decades old.
The Curt Flood card, believe it or not, can be pricey. Flood was a very good but not spectacular player who later gained notoriety for challenging the reserve clause. The 1964 issue isn’t his rookie card, but largely because of one man’s fascination, it’s being hoarded. What should be a $5 card in near mint condition will often cost you quite a bit more.
If you don’t care about the greatest players of the era, the 1964 Topps set still might appeal to you, courtesy of several themed subsets. Among these are:
- League Leaders – #1-12
- World Series Highlights – #136-140
- Multiplayer Cards
- Rookie Stars
- Team Cards
Pretty standard stuff, but some of those multiplayer cards might raise an eyebrow or two.
Card #393, for instance, declares that “Casey Teaches” and depicts legendary manager Casey Stengel studying a baseball bat as he jaws to a daydreaming Ed Kranepool. Though Kranepool would go on to be a solid player, he had hit .209 in 1963 for the Mets and could have used all the wisdom Stengel was willing to dish out.
While Kranepool was trying to establish himself with the Mets, 21-year-old second baseman Ken Hubbs had already solidified his spot in the Chicago Cubs’ lineup. Though he was just average or worse with the stick, Hubbs was steady in the field and well-liked by teammates.
The future looked bright.
Then, in February of 1964, Hubbs was killed when the plane he was piloting crashed in Utah. Topps likely already had plans to include Hubbs its own lineup, but they turned card #550 into a tribute to the fallen youngster. “CUBS” was replaced by a black banner with “IN MEMORIAM” in white letters. The card is very popular and usually runs $40 and up.
The 587-Card Set Contains 589 Cards!
The 1964 Topps set doesn’t offer a tremendous challenge to master set collectors, as there are only about a dozen error cards and only two of those were corrected.
Card #4 of the “1963 American League Pitching Leaders” exists with and without a stray apostrophe after the word “pitching” on the back of the card.
Meanwhile, card #517, the checklist for the last series, is a more significant variation. On the error card, card numbering on the back starts at #542, while the corrected version starts at #565.
The rest of the error cards, all uncorrected, deal with gaffes in birth dates and ages. Maybe the most famous line of text on any baseball card appears on #519, the rookie issue of Phillies’ hurlers Dave Bennett and Rick Wise.
Perhaps showing the strain of creating copy for nearly 600 card backs on a tight schedule, Topps writer Len Brown unleashed a doozy:
The 19-year-old right-handed curveballer is just 18 years old!
It’s a bit of baseball card poetry that makes any box of 1960s commons a scavenger hunt for collectors. It might even make you want to …
Collect ‘Em All!
Like every other Topps set of the era, the 1964 cards were issued in seven series:
- Series One : cards #1-109
- Series Two : cards #110-196
- Series Three : cards #197-283
- Series Four : cards #284-370
- Series Five : cards #371-446
- Series Six : cards #447-522
- Series Seven : cards #523-587
Unlike its cardboard brethren, though, the 1964 set doesn’t present any special challenges in the final series, with some suggesting that the high numbers are actually easier to find than the lower series.
Whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly the case that you can find 1964 Topps cards across all series for reasonable prices. Clean, unslabbed commons often sell for a dollar or less and even NM graded versions don’t bring much more than a few bucks.
You can find partial sets in varying condition for well under a dollar per card, which can be a great jump start toward collecting all the cards in the issue. If you want to cut out the legwork (and fun) of building your own, you have plenty of options and, with a bit of patience, can likely find a complete set that strikes your fancy.
Recent eBay sales range from a lower condition set for under $700 to a high-grade but unslabbed issue that brought more than $2600.
Stand-Up for Your Right to Giant(s) Tattoos
If a shade fewer than 600 pasteboards leaves you wanting more 1964 Topps cards, you’re in luck, because the confectioner would not be confined by their normal wax and cello packs that summer. Or even by their “Fun Packs” as fall approached.
Among the oddball sets that Topps issued in 1964 were these gems:
Coins – Topps included one metal player “coin” in each five-cent wax pack and two in each 10-cent cello pack of 1964 baseball cards. Each coin featured a full-color player photo stamped on the front, along with a banner showing the player’s name, team, and position. Backs showed the coin number, player vital stats, and biographical text. The 1964 Topps coins are widely available on eBay and most sell for just a few dollars each.
Tattoos – The 55-card Topps Tattoos set was a separate issue that allowed collectors to rub player faces onto their skin, clothes, and furniture, making them a favorite of parents everywhere. It’s a tough issue today, and each tattoo can bring several hundred dollars.
Stand-Ups – Another standalone issue was the 1964 Topps Stand-Ups set. Each stand-up card featured a perforated action shot against a colorful background, allowing collectors to pop out the top of the player and fold the rest into a stand. Think of them as crude action figures that sell for hundreds each. If you’re willing to accept a little corner wear and have some patience, you can piece this one together without a second mortgage.
Giant All-Stars – If “big” is your thing, then the 1964 Topps Giants are the set for you. Featuring 60 All-Stars on clean, oversized ( 3 1/8″ by 5 1/4″) cards, the Giants celebrate special achievements with newspaper-style card backs. The cards are abundant today and even superstars often sell for less than $20.
Bazooka – Topps produced two Bazooka issues in 1964 — a 36-piece, blank-back set issued in three-card panels on Bazooka boxes, and a 100-stamp set issued in sheets of 10 inside Bazooka boxes. Both issues turn up on eBay regularly, though they are not abundant and prices vary based on form and condition.
Damned Yankees and Doomed Phillies
July 2, 1964, was a monumental day for the United States, as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Act was a tremendous milestone for the visionary work of early Civil Rights leaders and bolstered the movements that would help shape America into this century.
On the diamond, though obscured by the glare of Beatlemania and the gravitas of the new law, baseball was also hurtling toward history as the All-Star game approached.
At the end of play that day, the Baltimore Orioles stood three games ahead of the Yankees in the American League standings, while the San Francisco Giants held a 1.5-game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies. Three days later, as teams broke for the Midsummer Classic, the Yanks and O’s maintained their gap, but the Phils had reversed the deficit and led San Fran by 1.5 .
Oh, and Mickey Mantle was back.
In 67 first-half games, Mantle slugged 17 home runs with 54 RBI while hitting at a .332 clip, and he looked like an MVP candidate.
The second half held serve until mid September. That’s when Philly manager Gene Mauch slipped into his nightmare.
With just 12 games remaining in the season, the Phillies led the Reds and Cardinals by 6.5 but managed to lose 10 straight before pulling out two victories to end the campaign on a high note — but one game behind the Cards and tied with the Reds for second place. It was one of the worst collapses in sports history and haunts the franchise still.
Perhaps buoyed by their late run, the Cardinals managed to set down the Yankees in a seven-game World Series despite Mantle’s three home runs. The Mick had tailed off a bit during the second half of season but still finished with 35 homers and a .303 average in 143 games to help New York win the AL by one game over the Chicago White Sox, with the Orioles finishing two back.
Mantle would never again smack as many as 25 home runs or hit even .290 in a season, and, by 1969, he was gone. His Yanks would not see the postseason again until 1976.
The Phils, meanwhile, would have to wait another 16 years before Rose and the Wheeze Kids finally brought a title to Philly.
On the day after Christmas in 1964, The Beatles taunted both crumbling clubs by reaching number one on Billboard’s chart for the sixth time that year with … “I Feel Fine.”
None of the Yankees or Phillies felt fine that winter.
As collectors in New York and Philadelphia gathered up their 1964 Topps baseball cards from bedroom floors and brushed off the diamond dust of summer before packing them in shoe boxes, hopeful for better returns in the new year, those big block letters must have seemed like hecklers, too. Even now, the red-alert “YANKEES” and doom-black “PHILLIES” shout across the decades to remind us of what once was, and what could have been.
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