Collecting Vintage Baseball Cards: The Giant Size 1952 Topps Set
The most valuable card in the Topps 1952 baseball card set is card #311, Mickey Mantle, which can demand $25,000 to $40,000 in mid-range condition.
Considered to be the most popular post-war baseball card set of all time, the 1952 Topps baseball card set was the first major release by the Topps Company and is attributed for playing a role in the resurgence of the hobby in the early 1980s.
At that time, the country faced high unemployment, falling stock prices and a recession. Collectors, investors and sports fans turned to tangible assets to secure their money from the threat of runaway inflation. This in part created the “perfect storm” in the collectibles market overall, and vintage baseball cards in particular. Prices for vintage cards from the golden age of baseball, in good condition, were beginning to sell for top dollar.
Coupled with the economic climate of the early ’80s, demand for these vintage classics soon out-weighed supply and helped set the market for the pricing these cards see today. As a result, it’s no wonder that the set that features the rookie card of Yankee legend and Hall of Famer, Mickey Mantle, tops the list of most desirable vintage sets.
If you are looking to begin or complete a set of the ’52 Topps set, this is what you should know:
Base Set: 407 cards.
Cards Per Pack: 5.
Original Pack Price: 5¢.
Number of Series: 6.
Card Size: 2-5/8 inches by 3-3/4 inches.
Rookie Cards: Mini Minoso, Billy Martin, Dave Williams, Mickey Mantle and Billy Loes.
KeyCards: #261 – Willie Mays, #311 – Mickey Mantle, #312 – Jackie Robinson, #314 – Roy Campanella, #407 – Eddie Mathews.
Price Guide: $120,000 complete, near mint set.
Most Valuable Card: #311 Mickey Mantle (mid-range condition), $25,000 to $40,000.
Measuring a seemingly monumental, 2-5/8 inches by 3-3/4 inches, these were some of the largest standard-issue cards ever produced (in comparison to the 2 ½-inch by 3 ½-inch format that began the norm in the years to follow). Careful attention to detail was used in capturing player images, which were colorized from black and white photography. Each card front included the player’s name, team and facsimile signature taken directly from their appearance contract with Topps. The card backs included biographical information about the player, a short, descriptive narrative and statistics for the prior season and lifetime totals. These details would become the standard bearer for cards to this day.
The 1952 Topps baseball card set featured 407 total cards, the largest set produced up to that point in time. Facing stiff competition from rival gum and trading card manufacturer Bowman the previous year, Topps executives Sy Berger and Woody Gelman knew they needed to deliver a groundbreaking product, and that they did.
The 1952 Topps series marked the very first Topps card for New York Giants centerfielder Willie Mays.
Released in six, sequentially numbered series, the entire production run of the product was printed on six 100-card sheets. As a result, several of the cards in the set were double printed. For example, the first series of cards, numbers 1-80, contained 60 single-printed cards and 20 double-printed cards, accounting for a total of 100 cards. The first dozen cards of the series are extremely difficult to find in high-grade condition because those were the cards most often seeded against the dreaded rubber-band used by children of the era to keep their cards together. The resulting rubber band damage was significant edge wear and creasing. Key cards in the first series include Phil Rizzuto, Warren Spahn, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Robin Roberts.
A further look at the logistics in the printing of the set account for some of the anomalies, key cards and condition issues often found when building the set. The second sheet in the print run (cards 81-130) contained 50 double-printed cards, accounting for the total 100 cards. These cards are the most easily found of the entire set, with the key card being #88, Bob Feller. The third sheet (cards 131-190) consisted of 40 double-printed cards and 20 single-printed cards. The most notable card from this sheet is the Billy Martin rookie card, #175. The fourth sheet, included cards numbered 191-250. It contained 40 double-printed cards and 20 single-printed cards. This sheet featured the Yogi Berra card, #191—an extremely difficult card to find in high grade due to centering and corner issues as a result of the cutting process employed during that time period.
The fifth sheet is often referred to as the “semi-high” series and included cards 251- 310. This series of the set was released fairly late in the year when children were beginning to return to school and turning their sights towards football. It contained 40 double-printed cards (#251-280 and #301-310) and 20 single-printed cards (#281-300) and was produced in much smaller quantities than the preceding series, causing them to be much rarer. The series also marked the very first Topps card of Willie Mays.
An advertisement for the Topps ’52 series promotes its more than 400 players, as well as the Jackie Robinson Show on WNBC.
What a collector wouldn’t give for a case of unopened ’52 Topps cards.
The wax pack of “Giant Cards.” A nickel would get you five cards and a some bubble gum.
The sixth and final series is where fact and legend become blurred. This sheet consisted of cards 311-407, with 94 cards being single-printed and three cards being double-printed. The print run for this series must have been so small that the fact that Mickey Mantle’s #311 card was one of those that was double-printed has had little effect on supply and demand over the years. The other double-printed cards were, #312 Jackie Robinson and #313 Bobby Thomson.
In addition to the coveted Mickey Mantle rookie card—card #407—the final card in the series is that of Eddie Mathews, also a rookie card. This card suffers greatly from condition issues and is said to be the rarest regular-issue post-war baseball card to find in NM-MT condition. This, the “high-number” series, because of the small print run and late-season release, led to an overstock of unsold cards. Legend has it that Sy Berger himself, long considered the grandfather of the modern baseball card, personally dumped pallets full of the unsold cards into the Hudson River, forever dooming countless Mickey Mantle rookie cards to a waterlogged death.
In addition to the notable names, scarcity and desirability of the 1952 set, other nuances exist that make the set so popular. From card variations, error cards, printing flaws and other quirks, these all contribute to the unique lore this set provides. For example, the three double-printed cards of the sixth series have two versions. Referred to as Types I and II the first variety features the arrows, which form the stitching on the baseball that contains the card’s number, pointing to the right. The Type II version features the arrows pointing to the left. Hardly a big deal to some people but true collectors and vintage aficionados love these subtle variations. Another example, the first series, in the early stages of the print run has card #48, Joe Page with card #49, Johnny Sain’s write-up on the back and vice-versa.
Other Notes of Interest
Card #1 in the set, that of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Andy Pafko, is said to be nearly impossible to find in high-grade condition and even then, they suffer from centering issues. As mentioned earlier, the condition issues of this card revolve around storage and preservation—or the lack-there-of—during the era. Market conditions for this card fluctuate wildly based on current demand at any given time but have seen realized prices of almost $10,000 in recent years.
Card #1 in the set, that of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Andy Pafko, is said to be nearly impossible to find in high-grade condition because of rubber band damage.
The back of the display box is prophetic, as is reads “… this giant-sized prize collection will be cherished throughout the years by every lover of the great American pastime.”
Conspicuously absent from this set is one of the greatest players to ever play the game and a player at the height of his career in 1952: the Boston Red Sox’s Ted Williams. Williams and Topps could not come to an agreeable contract deal during negotiations resulting in the Splendid Splinter being left off of the checklist. Also noteworthy is that shortly before production of the set began, the Yankee Clipper himself, Joe DiMaggio, announced his retirement, leaving collectors to drool at the possibility of collecting a set with the first Topps card of Mickey Mantle and the last card ever for Joe D.
While the reasons aren’t entirely clear, other notable names missing from the checklist include Satchel Paige, Stan Musial, Nellie Fox and Ralph Kiner, to name a few. In recent years, Topps has paid homage to those players by releasing 1952 versions of their cards for promotional purposes at shows and other events.
The Eddie Mathews rookie card usually suffers greatly from condition issues and is said to be the rarest regular-issue post-war baseball card to find in NM-MT condition.
Collecting vs. Investing
Attempting to complete the set, in any condition, will prove to be a challenge due to the scarcity of some cards, the condition of others and pricing of many. However, these factors shouldn’t prohibit you from trying. This beautiful and iconic set is not only a cornerstone of the hobby of collecting baseball cards but also Americana itself. There are many ways to start collecting the 1952 set, but I recommend starting with the high numbers. The reason is simple, if you don’t, by the time you get to needing them to complete your set, they are going to be in shorter supply than they are today. In addition, you will have acquired some of the most desirable cards of the set making for a worthwhile collection all on their own; Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Pee Wee Reese, Frank Crosetti, Hoyt Wilhelm and Bill Dickey, to name a few.
If you are “collecting” for investment potential, purchase cards in the highest grade you can afford. Mint and Gem Mint examples of the high series cards can command tens of thousands of dollars. Many investors choose to simply purchase the high series cards in these grades knowing that over time, true collectors will pay top-dollar for those cards to complete their sets, resulting in significant financial gain for the investor.
Whatever your collectibles pursuit entails when it comes to the 1952 Topps baseball card set, have fun and enjoy the ride because the adventure will take you to many places, introduce you to many people and provide a lifetime of memories simply in the chase.
Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.
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