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Putting a 1956 Topps set together, card by card

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Almost 20 years ago, I decided that there were way too many cards in my personal collection,meaning that I never got a chance to look at many of them. Up to that point I had never sold anything of consequence, regarding myself first and foremost as a collector. So it was with a good deal of trepidation that I loaded up essentially everything I had that was post-1976 and promptly sold it all to a single dealer in Delaware.


I didn't have all that much from 1977 forward, mostly it was just the Topps sets, the first eight or nine years of Donruss and Fleer sets and a huge pile of the TCMA issues, which I had accumulated over the years in mail-order purchases from Larry Fritsch.

About the only thing I held onto was the Perez-Steele Hall of Fame Postcard series, which I regard as fine art as much as they are collectibles.
But the principal reason for doing it was that I wanted to get more active in the hobby, and in this instance that meant raising some real money so I could put together a 1956 Topps Baseball set.

For me, it's one of the most beautiful issues from the post-war era, what with the great portraits of the ballplayers and the action shots in the background and the wonderful stadium scenes.

So with all of $2,500 in my fist, I started purchasing 1956 cards. I didn't own even one 1956 Topps card prior to that, and certainly I had been involved in the hobby long enough that I could have gotten a lot more bang for my buck if I had made the effort eight or nine years earlier.

I had been going to shows on the East Coast since 1980 or so, including the Philly shows and local shows around Philadelphia, Newark, Del., Lancaster, Pa., and all the way up to Albany, N.Y., and down into Maryland.

Being the wretched investor that I am, I didn't chase the highest-condition superstars, but did wind up with a preponderance of near-mint common cards in the set, with only a handful of cards in very good and even excellent condition.

I bought quite a few from Bill Goodwin at the Philly show that fall, but the vast majority of the set was put together via mail order. The rest of the mail-order dealer lineup was largely Goodwin, Kit Young and Barnett's Sports Cards.

Here's one aspect of the undertaking that I think is pretty cool: as far as I can recall, I never returned so much as one card that I got through the mail, and I frequently noted that all three of the aforementioned mail-order dealers significantly undergraded their cards.

That's a pretty good testimony to the integrity of those three dealers - all still alive and kicking in the hobby, I might add, but to some extent it was also my tendency to see any card that I actually owned as being a bit nicer than maybe an impartial third party might designate.

But this was largely a pre-grading era, and I was never enough of a stickler about centering as I should have been. About a year later bought a 1957 Topps set all at one time, and it wasn't until years later that it occurred to me that there were at least a couple of dozen badly centered cards that would ultimately have to be replaced.

It was pretty traumatic for me in 1989 to talk about spending $100 on a baseball card, but I needed to cross that difficult threshold only four times for the 1956 set (I didn't get and still don't have the checklists). Roberto Clemente set me back $155 for an excellent condition card from Barnett's; a near-mint Yogi Berra was an even $100 from a dealer in Christiana, Del.; Willie Mays came in at $115, also from Barnett's; and last but hardly least, I ponied up $350 for an ex-mt Mickey Mantle card from Goodwin.

Most of the top stars came in way under $100, and I got most of the commons for less than $10 each. It was easily the most fun I've ever had in the hobby, what with getting mail-order deliveries of baseball cards three or four days each week.

Despite the obvious fact that I had waited so long to try something like that made it all the more curious that I pursued the issue so compulsively. I kept what I would regard as meticulous records of each purchase, and I can't find a one after December of 1989, meaning that I finished the whole process in about five months. That also means that I probably bought a few cards at shows that probably weren't in quite as good of condition as I might have hoped, attributed all to that misguided sense of urgency that I somehow applied to the quest.

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As a side note, I would admit that my unbridled enthusiasm in pursuing the 1956 set also helped propel me to buy dozens of boxes of the 1988 Topps Big Baseball issue the year before. Few things illustrate my extraordinary ability to chase things in the hobby that ultimately wind up being poor investments than this foray into perhaps the first retro-style issue.

I bought all those boxes and dutifully put sets together, thinking I would someday sell the extra sets and get my money out. Ironically, I ended up selling those 15-20 Big Baseball sets the very next year when I liquidated all my later material in favor of chasing the 1956 set.

In terms of the 1988 Big Baseball, That sale was probably good fortune, since the ensuing two decades have been pretty tough on the investment potential of that and subsequent "Big" issues.

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