In the fall of 1951, young Sy Berger was handed the task of designing a 1952 Topps baseball card that would make boys forget about all the issues that had come before and, especially, any issue that rival gum maker Bowman might put together for the following spring. Berger took a direct approach to the task, incorporating into his design everything that Bowman cards were not, and, in the process, Topps delivered a masterpiece that would eliminate their competition within four years and change the baseball card market forever.
While there have been hundreds (or thousands) of glowing articles written about this classic set in the decades since it’s release, collectors and the general public just can’t get seem to get enough. Indeed, the issue that earned Berger his moniker as “The Father of the Modern Baseball Card” is worth another look because, as with a certain sweet, jiggly dessert, there’s always room for more 1952 Topps baseball cards.
More, More, More
Bowman had ruled the baseball card roost since 1948 by producing a small number of diminutive and elegant cards that featured hand-painted renderings of players and minimal design elements each year. While Topps’ 1951 issue certainly employed a different formula, its playing-card motif was perhaps a bit too adult for its target audience and allowed for just a minuscule black-and-white headshot of each player.
So when Berger set about to give collectors something different for 1952, he had one word in mind: BIG. As legend has it, he sat down at his kitchen table that autumn and drafted a card design that would fuel Little League boys’ diamond dreams for 60 years and counting. Topps acquired black-and-white photos of each player that plainly showed his facial features, and then enlisted an artist to produce colored renderings that fell somewhere between painting and photo. The rich, full-color image each of the each player was surrounded by a thick white border and accented by a neon-light-studded rectangle at the bottom of the card containing the player’s name and facsimile autograph. Protruding into the upper lefthand corner of the name box was, for the first time on a cards, the team logo.
The design was big and bold, and so were the cards themselves, spanning a huge 2-5/8″ x 3-3/4″.
Topps made full use of that extra real estate on card backs, too. The top fifth of the horizontal design included the card number inside of a now-familiar Topps baseball, the player’s name, position, and team, as well as biographical and vital information like home town, birth date, height, weight, and handedness. Heck, Topps even threw in hair and eye color, presumably to allow players to use their cards as driver’s licenses, too!
The middle portion of the card called upon a Bowman device and provided narrative description of the player’s career highlights and other interesting tidbits, while the bottom third was all Topps. There, for the first time on a modern bubble gum card, was the player’s statistical history in tabular form. The 1952s showcased just the “PAST YEAR” and “LIFETIME” stats, but it was a formula that Topps would tweak over the years, and it became part of what made the company’s cards so beloved by generations of collectors. You could also make a pretty sound argument that including player numbers in such a portable format helped to spawn the love of baseball statistics that we have today and may have sped along the proliferation of Sabermetrics.
The big changes for Topps in 1952 did not stop with the design of the cards themselves, but extended to its in-store offerings, as well. Bolstered by large and colorful end-of-aisle displays, Topps had little trouble in selling the first five series of their breakout issue throughout a summer that saw the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers marching toward yet another World Series match-up. With strong sales in their pocket and several player cards still unissued, Topps went forward with production of one last, (yes) big series in September, spanning cards #311-407. By then, though, kids were headed back to school and many wary retailers held off on ordering the cards at all for fear of getting stuck with them when the cold weather, and football, took over.
Whether these cautious stores were especially prescient or helped their own prophecies to self-fulfill, it was Topps themselves who ended up with a glut of 1952 high numbers that they could not unload. For years, whispers surrounded the ultimate fate of this surplus, with most collectors at least partially buying into the legend that Topps eventually shoveled the whole lot onto a barge and dumped them into the Atlantic Ocean.
Later in his life, Berger would confirm that unthinkable horror, telling a special Topps anniversary magazine in 2001 that “300 to 500 cases” were dumped in the Atlantic Ocean “opposite Atlantic Highlands a few miles out”, ultimately swallowing what could have someday been the greatest baseball card find of all time.
More Big Names
Even though that last series may not have sold well, it swelled the 1952 Topps set to 407 cards, making it, naturally, bigger than any gum issue that had come before it and helped to set collectors’ future expectations for seeing all of their favorites on yearly pasteboards. While Topps missed out on several stars — Stan Musial, Nellie Fox, Ralph Kiner, Casey Stengel — in 1952 due to contractual issues, their expansive checklist gave them plenty of opportunity to fill up on superstars, and they did their best to appease collector appetites.
Among the big names that Topps included on its roster in 1952 were Roy Campanella, Bob Feller, Duke Snider, Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, and many more. One of the top sluggers of the day who is now known more for his position in this set is Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Andy Pafko, perched as Topps’ leadoff hitter on card #1.
As great as it must have been to rip open a five-cent, six-card pack of cards in 1952 and find any of these heroes staring up at you, it was Topps’ lineup of rookie cards that eventually propelled its first full set into the realm of hobby legend. Among the first-year offerings were cards of Pete Runnels, Billy Loes, Billy Martin, Bob Friend, Joe Nuxhall, Dick Groat, and Eddie Mathews.
Another important card is #261, which pictures New York Giants youngster Willie Mays. Though not technically a rookie card, as Mays made his cardboard debut in the 1951 Bowman set, the 1952 is Mays’ first Topps card and therefore highly prized among collectors.
Of course, the most popular card in the set and, by most measures, the most popular card in the history of the hobby is #311, Mickey Mantle. As with Mays, Mantle’s first card can be found in the 1951 Bowman set, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a collector who doesn’t think of the 1952 Topps classic when someone utters the phrase “Mantle Rookie.” This is the card that caused tremors in 1980 when it sold at auction for more than $3000, and it was the impetus for Topps to reprint the set in 1983 just as the hobby was becoming mainstream. Even today, no matter what else is happening in the hobby, all eyes turn to this Mantle card when it hits the market. For proof of the Mantle’s staying power, take a look at the list of the most watched cards on eBay over a period of days. There, amid the Mike Trout rookies, vintage tobacco cards, and Kris Bryant relic issues, you will almost always find at least one 1952 Mantle.
The Scarce, The Variations, and The Fun
Considering how popular the 1952 Topps baseball set is, it’s not surprising that nearly 172,000 of the cards have been submitted to PSA for grading. Of those, just 78 have received a perfect 10 rating, and only a shade more than 1300 graded at 9, meaning that less than one percent of all submissions have been judged as MINT or GEM-MT. The Mantle card, which was double-printed in the last series but is still scarce overall, has nearly 1100 submissions, yielding three PSA 10s and six 9s. The card with the most submissions overall is Mays, at nearly 1300, with nine 9s and one 10 among them.
Pafko and Mathews are true to their reputation as being condition-scarce, as card #1 (Pafko) has yielded zero 9s or 10s, while #407 (Mathews) checks in with just two 9s and no 10s.
Aside from condition rarities, the 1952 Topps set offers challenges for collectors on several fronts. Most obvious is that tough sixth series, which are hard to come by even outside of Mantle (#311), Jackie Robinson (#312), and Bobby Thomson (#313) cards, all of which double-printed. Even within the last series, some cards stand out as being especially scarce: Davey Williams (#316), John Rutherford (#320), George Shuba (#326), Hal Jeffcoat (#341), Bob Chipman (#388), Hal Rice (#398), Bill Miller (#403).
The fifth series, containing the so-called “semi-high” numbers, also seem to be in short supply relative to the four series that came before it. In particular, cards #281-300 were short-printed and generally command premium prices.
For the master set collector, the 1952 sets starts off with a bang, offering black-back and red-back variations for each of the first 80 cards. Third series cards exist with both gray and white backs, and the Frank Campos card (#307) in the fifth series can be found with a black, rather than red, star near the “Topps Baseball” designation on the card back, though the card is pretty rare, with PSA having graded only 55 of them.
The first three cards of the sixth series — Mantle, Robinson, and Thomson — can be found with the baseball stitching on card backs facing either left or right. So, a true master set would contain not one, but two Mantle “rookies”!
Luckily, the 1952 Topps set offers plenty of eye-appealing and just plain fun cards that don’t fall into the category of super-duper scarce and pricey. The Gus Zernial card (#31), in which he performs the “Velcro Baseball” trick is a classic, and even the card of very popular Gil Hodges (#36) won’t set you back more than $50 if you can accept a little “character” in your cards. And, really, who doesn’t enjoy seeing their favorite baseball player posed in front of an amorphous Tang-colored curtain?
Completing a high-grade 1952 Topps set long ago moved beyond the realm of possibility for most collectors, but there are still ways to enjoy the issue without mortgaging several generations of your descendants. For the type collector, or for those looking to get started on compiling a decent percentage of the set, low-grade commons are readily available on eBay for a few dollars each. Even tough cards like Andy Pafko at #1 can be had for under $500 if you are willing to accept ungraded or low-grade (PSA 1 & 2) copies. You can also occasionally find lots for sale that will net you at least a handful of 1952s for a reasonable price.
Once you start getting to the bigger stars, of course, the price jumps dramatically no matter what condition you’re targeting. Campanella (#314), for example, generally tops $1000 in mid-grade condition, and a PSA 8 recently brought nearly $3900. Similarly, the Mathews rookie card (#407) is tough to come by for under a grand in any condition.
The Mantle “rookie” is, of course, the most valuable card in the set, owing to both its scarcity as part of the discarded sixth series and its status as the first Topps card of The Mick. Even in low grade, #311 can bring more than $10,000, with higher grade examples now reaching into six figures.
If you’re looking for a relative bargain among the biggest names in the 1952 set, Willie Mays might be your man. At #261, the Mays card is not part of the same scarce high-number series that features Mantle and Mathews, and it does not suffer from the first-last card syndrome, as do Pafko and Mathews. As a consequence, you can pick up Mays’ first Topps card for under $1,000 if you’re willing to dip down into the Poor-Fair range. The Mays card has been on the rise and isn’t likely to come down anytime soon.
Beyond the star cards, high-number commons can get pricey in a hurry, and even raw copies with serious visible flaws regularly sell for more than $60 a pop.
Every once in awhile, a near-complete set of 1952s comes to market, and, naturally the Mantle is the usual holdout. In February 2015, the number 27 entry in PSA’s set registry sold at Goldin Auctions for more than $70,000, sans Mantle. Lower quality partials can sell for $20,000 or less, while partial sets of the low-number series can be found in a wide range of configurations and price levels.
If you just want to hold all (or most) of the 1952 cards in your hands at one time, you can fudge by snagging one of the reprint sets that Topps issued in 1983. Complete sets in their factory boxes are fairly plentiful on eBay and can fetch anywhere from $75 to $200 depending on whether the box is sealed and its overall condition. If you go this route, be aware that you won’t be matching the originals card-for-card since Topps was unable to secure latter-day contracts with Billy Loes (#20), Dom DiMaggio (#22), Saul Rogovin (#159), Solly Hemus (#196), and Tommy Holmes (#289). The good news is that you should be able to fill in those holes with their vintage equivalents without busting your food budget.
A Forever Love
In just a couple of years, the 1952 Topps baseball set will officially be a senior citizen, but it’s aging better than any hunk of cardboard could rightly be expected to do. If there’s one thing we’ve learned after all these years, it’s that we card collectors just can’t get enough of this classic. It’s the foundation of our entire hobby, for gosh sake, and no matter how much we demure and pretend that other issues are more important to us, we always come back to our big, gaudy dream makers.
It’s OK, too, to acknowledge our insatiable appetite for the cards, the romantic details about their birth and how they launched an American institution.
Which 1952 Topps cards are getting the most bids right now on eBay? Check out the live list below.