By Doug Koztoski
Part dynasty, part transition. One way or another the 1951 big league baseball season featured both.
On one hand the New York Yankees won their third of a record five straight World Series crowns, this time over one of their crosstown rivals, the Giants. The “Jints” had snatched the National League pennant by beating the Brooklyn Dodgers in a three-game playoff when Bobby Thomson smashed his famous “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” walk-off home run. The Yanks in ’51, meanwhile, saw the final season of the legendary Joe DiMaggio, whose centerfield spot would soon get filled by Mickey Mantle, who debuted that same campaign with the Bronx Bombers.
With respect to trading cards, the Bowman Company had been cranking out sets in strong numbers since 1948 and by 1951 produced another memorable baseball issue, which included the mainstream rookies of Mantle and Willie Mays, who both appeared in the Fall Classic that year.
The Topps Company, in the meantime, first entered the pasteboard market in ’48 with their Magic Photo set, which included some athletes from several sports, a handful of them baseball.
In ’51, however, Topps announced their cardboard presence with lasting authority with several baseball issues: the Blue Backs, the Red Backs, the Connie Mack All-Stars, the Major League/Current All-Stars and the team cards.
Those last three sets, each 5 1/4 by 2 1/16 or the other way around depending on the issue, appeared together in 5-cent packs. Of that trio, the All-Star cards get much of the press, understandably, when you see names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Walter Johnson, Yogi Berra and Ralph Kiner among them.
But the team cards deserve their due, too, partly for their general history, but also for whom they did and did not include. The ’51 Topps team issue contains black-and-white images of nine squads, even though back then MLB had eight teams in each league.
Why weren’t the other seven teams in the issue?
“Probably something to do with licensing,” Hubert Bernheim said. Bernheim owns the top graded version of the ’51 team collection and he thinks it might have been tough for Topps to get all the teams/players to sign on since Bowman was the king of the card hill at the time. Either way, Bernheim remains more than just interested in the issue. As he put it, “I love orphan sets.”
The collector first started chipping away at the issue in the late 1990s and he calls it “a funny set,” partly for its variations as well as for its history. “It’s at the very beginning of Topps in sports cards.”
Unnumbered, the team photos are normally listed alphabetically, so in this case it begins with the Boston Red Sox. Slugger Ted Williams highlights that card, like all in the collection, comes in two forms, with and without the date 1950 accompanying the team name on the front.
Next comes the Brooklyn Dodgers, with Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella, for many collectors likely the most in-demand card from the set.
Other teams include the Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Giants, Philadelphia Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Senators. Of those, the Stan Musial led Cards stands out the most from a superstar angle.
The Philly A’s card is worth extra attention since it marked longtime manager Connie Mack’s final team with him at the helm. The Phillies card gets extra attention since it shows the 1950 National League pennant-winning “Whiz Kids,” a team that has charmed Phils fans since the team bubbled up to fame in the days when television was still in its infancy.
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
The biggest franchise not in the set is the team of the era, the Yankees. Can you imagine how popular that card would be if it showed the players of the 1950 squad that included future Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto, rookie Whitey Ford, manager Casey Stengel and, of course, Joe D?
In his two decades of collecting the set Bernheim has noticed something about the team backs: “The dated teams seem to be found with a grayish back, while the undated ones are more white.”
The collector also noted “the undated team cards tend to be more expensive than the dated (ones), so that must indicate there are fewer undated cards than dated.”
Looking at the set via the PSA Population Report, Bernheim’s take on the issue is spot on. In five of the nine teams (Bosox, Dodgers, Reds, Cardinals, Senators), the undated version shows up less frequently than the dated one, but sometimes only by a slim margin.
For that set, only about 800 cards overall have landed in PSA slabs, the Dodgers, Reds, A’s, and Senators appearing the most (104 to 109 each, depending on the team) and the Cardinals and Giants the least (both in the mid to upper 60s). Where you see the biggest differences is with the Dodgers: 65 dated against 45 undated, and the Senators: 57 vs. 47.
There are no PSA 9s or 10s yet for this issue—and only eight PSA 8s. In most cases you are looking at finding these in mid-grade if they are encapsulated.
One thing is for sure, dated or not, graded or raw: There do not appear to be an abundance of the ’51 team cards out there.
Peering down the pike
So a decade or so from now, when the set is pushing 80 years old, how will it fare in the hobby? I think one factor to consider is that team collectors will keep a certain amount of them in demand. Also, those who are Topps completists, who maybe do not come close to loving the set, will have their say, just so they can have the entire run of early Topps issues. And, of course, some enjoy the set for what it is and will begin to pursue it, or continue to pursue it, in its entirety, over time.
Perhaps Bernheim said it best about the issue when he noted, “they are really neat, not many of them around and it’s getting more difficult to find them in good condition.” And because of those and other factors it appears this set will have a solid enough place within the hobby for the foreseeable future.
In the near future, meanwhile, this set is ripe for at least a fantasy card or two, a la those “cards that never were,” and start with the Yankees team. That would make even DiMaggio smile.
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at email@example.com.