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Set apart from the rest

Vintage baseball card subsets stand out in design and star power, and come with a theme

The “modern-era” of mainstream vintage sports cards ran from 1948-1980, with the Bowman and Leaf companies sprinting out of the starting gate; Topps joined the race just a few years later. Individual player cards from the early part of the period came in many shapes, sizes and “looks.”

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In 1958, Topps was the only major card game in town and that year it rolled out the inaugural modern-era “subset,” for our purposes a burst of consecutively numbered cards with a different look and a “theme,” in this case Sport magazine All-Stars.

The first card from the initial subset featured the managers of the 1957 World Series: Casey Stengel (New York Yankees) and Fred Haney (Milwaukee Braves), who also managed their respective 1958 All-Star Game rosters. This 1958 Topps card (No. 475) not only gave collectors Stengel and Haney on the front, but the sixth series checklist on the back, too. The 21-pasteboard run, which concludes the set, also includes Stan Musial, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn and Mickey Mantle, the last of which appeared three times on the printing sheets.

The next season, Topps rounded out its last series in similar fashion. The main differences? Stengel and Haney received their own cards and Williams was a no-show, as he had signed an exclusive three-year deal with Fleer, which, in ’59 produced an 80-card all Williams set.

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But a 10-card “Baseball Thrills” run in ’59 beginning with No. 461 (“Mantle Hits 42 Homer For Crown”) also provides Aaron, Banks, Mays, Musial, Al Kaline and Duke Snider, all in “action photos” (more like lightly painted renditions of pictures), some of the first non-posed shots in modern card history.

All-Stars concluded the set in 1960, too, with Aaron, Mays, Mantle and his Yankee teammate Roger Maris leading the luminaries. The ’60 subsets also included Sport magazine rookie stars (Nos. 117-148), with Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski leading that crop, and some Topps “All-Star” rookies (Nos. 116-325), with the San Francisco Giants newbie Willie McCovey heading up the class that, as the card fronts stated, were “Selected By The Youth of America.”

Elsewhere within the ’60 collection, cards featuring each team’s key coaches (mostly a big yawn) and a new group: World Series highlights. The standout Series card displays the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 1959 win over the Chicago White Sox as “The Champs Celebrate,” where one particular Dodger gets doused in beer.

Ramping Up

The next two seasons Topps increased its subsets. In 1960, more Series play and All-Stars appeared, but it also introduced collectors to various 1960 league leaders and MVPs of each league from the previous decade.

Hall of Famers galore grace many of the non-Series ’61 subsets and it marked the initial appearances in these groups of Roberto Clemente (No. 41, NL Batting Leaders) and Sandy Koufax (No. 49, NL Strikeout Leaders). Mantle and Maris top the 1960 AL Home Run leaders (No. 44) as a bit of a precursor to their historic home run battle pursuing Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record the next season. Maris, of course, set the mark with “61 in ’61.”

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Also in 1961, and maybe Topps had a premonition, it offered up a “Baseball Thrills” block (Nos. 401-410), where the starter commemorates Ruth’s 60 homer from 1927. Other “Thrills” showcase Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Mantle (highlighting his 565-foot homer).

“My favorite (1961) cards are the Mantles, of course,” said Michael Gaytan. “My favorite (1961) subset is the All-Stars. I think the layout was unique for that year and there are so many great players in that subset.”

The 1962 Topps subset selection brought two groups of All-Stars but the league leaders, card for card, are a stronger bunch than the year before. The ’61 AL Home Run Leaders (No. 53) obviously feature Maris and Mantle, but that subset includes at least one Hall of Famer—nine of 10 times.

Maris and Mantle appear individually with the “In-action” group (Nos. 311-319), too, where three and sometimes four photos show up well against the wood-grain borders. Their teammates Whitey Ford and Tony Kubek also see “action,” as do Musial, Spahn, Rocky Colavito, Harmon Killebrew and Mike McCormick.

World Series cards (Nos. 232-237) bring Ford and Maris, but perhaps the best action Fall Classic shot in Topps vintage card history (No. 236) shows a Yankee sliding into home with the Cincinnati catcher’s outstretched glove, as the ball hangs in the balance.

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The “Rookie Parade” that finishes the set lacks oomph, the grouping’s lone Hall of Famer was known more for his broadcasting and comedy skills than his catching and hitting: Bob “Mr. Baseball” Uecker (No. 594).

One other 1962 Topps subset features a short life history of Babe Ruth (Nos. 135-144). Each card is labeled “Babe Ruth Special,” the key is No. 139, “Babe Hits 60.” Funny thing about 1962 Topps No. 139 cards, some have the Ruth variation where a pole shows up on the left in the background, or not. And, due to a numbering mistake, Yankee pitcher Hal Reniff, who usually appears as No. 159, does clock in on some, in either a portrait or pitching pose, as card No. 139.

From 1963 to 1967, at best, the subsets came in two portions: League Leaders and World Series cards. From 1963-65 the leaders led off the collections, with the likely top set-starter for many the ’63 NL Batting champs featuring Aaron, Musial and Frank Robinson in a “floating head” design.

Big Threes

Perhaps just for “variety” Topps trotted out a single 1966 subset: League Leaders, the first (No. 215, 1965 NL Batting) displays an amazing lineup: Clemente, Aaron, and Mays. Sandy Koufax, meanwhile, appears atop all three ’65 NL pitching leaders, a feat he repeated in the 1967 Topps issue, as he won the Triple Crown, for the third time in four years, in his final season (1966).

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Triple Crowns for hitters are uncommon, too, but in 1966 Baltimore’s Frank Robinson joined that exclusive club and the following season Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski did the same, so those outfielders dominate the AL leaders cards in 1967 and 1968, respectively. In the 1968 Topps offering Yaz also shows up in the World Series and All-Star subsets, the latter sports over a dozen Hall of Famers.

Yaz and many others from the first layer of vintage baseball subsets continued to appear in these groups on occasion as the next dozen baseball seasons stacked up. In Part II (1969-1980), coming in a near-future SCD issue, we’ll look at more of Topps’ subset staples, but also a few surprises, that, one way or another, were “Selected By The Youth of America.”

Doug Koztoski is a frequent SCD contributor. He can be reached at dkoz3000@gmail.com.