Newer collectors often assume Topps made its baseball card debut in 1952 and Fleer/Donruss crashed the party in 1981. This post will go a bit further back in time to the real starting point for each of these companies in the hobby.
What collectors wouldn’t give to go back in time to this Woolworth’s in 1952, particularly if the high numbers were out already! 1952 Topps…where it all began…right?
True, the 1952 Topps set was absolutely groundbreaking. It featured 407 different cards, which works out to an average of MORE THAN 25 players per team. In other words, this set had pretty much everybody in it, at least unless your favorite players were Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, and Ralph Kiner! But being awesome and being first are two different things unless your name is Usain Bolt.
Before traveling further back in time with Topps, I should also note that there was a second 1952 Topps set called “Look ‘n See” that was nearly entirely non-sports (still awesome!) but saw fit to include this famous baseball player.
Just the year before Topps put out two decks of game cards, Red Backs and Blue Backs, featuring 52 players each. These sets would get a ton more attention if either one had seen fit to include a certain beloved New York Yankees centerfielder or even Mickey Mantle, but you can be sure these cards are on the radar of the various Ed Snider supercollectors out there!
Still, if you REALLY want star power, you’d do even better with a different 1951 Topps issue.
1951 Topps Connie Mack All-Stars
Sadly many of these names have been lost to history as these were players who were popular in some cases more than a century ago: George Ruth, John Wagner, Henry Gehrig, Christopher Mathewson, and the like. Still, I would encourage you to look up their stats someday, and you might just be impressed.
And if you’re not into the stars of baseball’s ancient past, Topps had something a bit more contemporary for you.
1951 Topps Current All-Stars
Pretty much the same idea as the cards above, which I neglected to mention can be folded in such a way that they stand up very nicely. (Caution: Doing such a thing MAY lower the value of your sports card collection.) The main difference between this set and the Connie Mack set is the era the players came from. For every kid excited to pull a Ruth from the Mack set, I have to imagine there were hundreds chasing Cleveland Indians slugger Robert Lemon out of this set!
But wait, there’s more. 1951 was a really busy year at Topps.
1951 Topps Team Cards
This very hard to find Topps issue featured team photos of all…okay, hang on…sorry…NINE of the 16 major league teams.
My immediate thought when I learned of this issue was, “Hey, maybe 1952 Topps #311 really isn’t the first Topps card of the Mick!” And then I thought how great a Yankees team card with both DiMaggio AND Mantle would be.
And then I saw the checklist: Boston Red Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, New York Giants, Philadelphia Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, and Washington Senators.
Hey, Topps was new at the baseball card thing. It takes experience to know the Yankees might be good for business. (Or maybe the Yankees, Browns, Indians, Braves, Cubs, Tigers, and Pirates were part of an elaborate “chase card” scheme.)
But even these team cards weren’t the first Topps baseball cards though. For that, we still need to go back a few more years.
1948 Topps Magic Photos
We have finally arrived at the earliest Topps baseball cards, with 19 of the 252 cards in this set devoted to baseball subjects. A novelty feature of the set was that cards were actually blank on the front until exposed to sunlight. Player selection was a mix of baseball immortals and the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians, not that those two categories are mutually exclusive.
As a quick footnote before heading to Fleer, most modern collectors have long regarded Topps and O-Pee-Chee as BFFs or maybe sisters. In terms of actual baseball cards, O-Pee-Chee began largely mirroring the main Topps release in 1965, preceded by a quick toe dip in 1960 on a parallel set of Tattoos.
What many collectors don’t know is that O-Pee-Chee actually entered the baseball card business 11 years ahead of even this 1948 Topps release. When you have a moment you owe it to yourself to flip through the 1937 O-Pee-Chee baseball set, which boasts among other things very early cards of Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio and a super late card of the Rajah!
And now, without further ado (except for me saying “without further ado”), onto Fleer!
Fleer took the hobby by storm in 1981, gifting a fortunate few collectors such as myself THE card of the year across all three major sets. Hint: It was one of Reggie’s teammates. For kids my age, it was our first introduction to Fleer baseball cards. However, older collectors were already familiar with the brand.
For the four previous years, Fleer had been cranking out team stickers. On the reverse of each sticker was either a World Series highlight (1980 set), a puzzle piece (1978-1979), or nothing (1977).
Now that I think about it, I DID buy these in 1980, though I don’t remember how many came to a pack or if there was gum or anything else inside.
1975 Fleer Pioneers
Fleer hit a home run in 1975 with its “Pioneers of Baseball” offering, featuring 28 player cards and 24 pennants. When Fleer said pioneers, they really meant it, focusing largely on stars of the 1800s. As there was no internet and even the Baseball Encyclopedia was hard to come by, my guess is this was the first time many kids were exposed to teams like the Boston Beaneaters (Hoss Radbourn), Detroit Wolverines (Dan Brouthers), Buffalo Bisons (Pud Galvin), and Cleveland Spiders (Cy Young).
1974 Fleer Baseball Firsts
Fleer once again reached back into the early days of the game with another set that taught kids a lot of baseball history they might not have been able to find anywhere else. (Never mind that not all of the history was correct!)
1973 Fleer Wildest Days and Plays
I realize my taste differs from most collectors, but I’m calling this set right here the greatest baseball card set of all time! No, I didn’t mean out of all the wacky Fleer issues. I mean out of everything ever. I mean, where else are you gonna learn about the Unglaub Arc?
Just don’t go buying this set thinking it’s your big chance to own Eddie Gaedel’s rookie card!
Note: I suspect these cards came with the team stickers listed here, so I’m not bothering to list “1973 Fleer Team Signs” as a separate set.
1972 Fleer Famous Feats
Similar to the 1973-1975 issues, Fleer again took the best of baseball’s rich history and made a set of cards from it. In this case, the focus was on 30 of the game’s greatest achievements.
1970-1971 Fleer World Series
These are two different sets but there is enough similarity to mush them together in this post. These fronts of these cards are also very similar to the backs of the 1980 Fleer Stickers set.
1968-1972 Fleer Cloth Stickers
I debated whether or not to include the four sets that all fall under this umbrella since none of the stickers/cards feature actual players. Each sticker/card features a team emblem, a Major League stadium, or a baseball-themed platitude (e.g., “Excitement and Color are always high at the Ball Park!”). The highlight of the five-year stretch is probably the Astrodome rookie card.
1966 Fleer Match Baseball Game
While the Three Stooges set gets most of the hype, Fleer also put out a small baseball set. The card fronts were used as game cards, and the backs made up a Don Drysdale puzzle.
I will skip the exciting story of this set but just note that legal challenges from Topps cut this set short at only 67 cards. Bummer for me since I would have loved a Hank Aaron card out of this set.
A notable is the rookie card of Maury Wills, a full 196 stolen bases and an MVP award into his career. If you don’t know the story of why he didn’t have a Topps rookie card (or any Topps base card until 1967!), here’s a quick read. And just for fun, here are three Maury Wills cards, including one from Topps, that came out before the Fleer card, along with some revisionist history from Topps out of their 1975 set.
1960-1961 Fleer Baseball Greats
Fleer put out two different sets in two years focusing on the all-time greats of the game. The second set had about twice as many players as the first, and the designs were quite different as well. For my money, the 1960 design (left) was dull and unimaginative while the 1961 design had at least a bit of personality to it.
Beating up a bit further on the 1960 design, this set was also responsible for giving Ted Williams his ugliest looking card.
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
Speaking of the Splendid Splinter…
One of my favorite sets around is this 80-card (though I’ve been stuck on 79 forever) set of the greatest goddamned hitter who ever lived, Theodore Samuel M.F. Williams. The set includes a number of images of Ted off the field (fishing, serving our country, being a dad) that are less popular with collectors, meaning you can easily grab “commons” from this set in decent shape for a few bucks apiece.
<<Hang on a sec…>>
Sorry, the Lord just struck me down for implying that any card of Ted Williams is a common player, even if the entire set is Ted Williams. But I get it. The point is well taken, and I won’t let it happen again.
I don’t doubt that you already know the story of card 68 in this set. Be sure you do before you decide it would be fun to build this set on a budget.
The first time I saw 1923 Fleer on a website, I just assumed it was a typo. Of course, what is it they say about assume? (As an aside, I always felt that the adage was unfair to the other party. How is that when I assume something I make an ass out of you? Of course, you gotta play the hand you’re dealt, and it’s not like the word is spelled assime.) But enough philosophizing…onto the cards!
I said…onto the cards!
Okay, this is embarrassing. I’m having trouble finding any. That’s right. PSA has graded a total of 3 cards from this issue, and they are in registries with names like “The Lone Star Collection.” Jeez, I am gonna have to pony up some serious cash to buy one of these so I can finish my article. Hang on just one more sec.
Okay, I’m back. Hope you like it. I had to sell my house, a kidney, and my kid. And yes, I do know the set includes Ruth, Cobb, and Hornsby, but this Wally Schang card was the best I could do! Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Okay, in all seriousness you can read more about this elusive set from my favorite prewar card specialist and fellow Gooden collector, Anson Whaley, in this article he penned for Sports Collectors Daily.
So there you have it, 58 years before the famous “debut” set of 1981, we finally reach the end of the line. From here there’s only one brand left to look at, and the ride won’t be nearly as long.
1981 Donruss LOL
Okay, so “1981 Donruss LOL” isn’t really the name of the issue. I’m just kind of an a-hole sometimes. The truth is, I bought a ton of these cards in packs back in the day. Sure they were paper thin, sure there was an error in every pack, and sure I often got the same card twice in the same pack if not 15 times in the same box, but baseball cards were baseball cards after all. As much as I knock these cards today, it’s worth remembering that guys my age weren’t the demographic they were shooting for in 1981.
Before trudging through the earlier releases of the Donruss company, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that Donruss had a BFF in the hobby, namely Leaf. Aside from prototype and pre-production odds and ends, I’ll take this opportunity to highlight the three pre-1980s offerings of Leaf: the 1948 set (that came out in 1949), the corresponding 1949 Leaf Premiums (or Premia for you Latin scholars out there), and the 1960 Leaf set. These are beautiful cards to be sure. Robinson almost appears to have a halo.
Unlike Topps and Fleer, Donruss had no real prehistory in the baseball card business. However, they were not strangers to trading cards. I personally was a customer in 1978, spending the off-season sharpening my collecting skills on their Elvis set, and it’s also Donruss we can thank for some early Bruce Lee cards. As for sports, however, their earliest issue other than 1981 baseball was a 1981 golf issue, which I managed to buy a pack of also.
I hope you enjoyed this tour of the early days of the Big Three card-makers of the 1980s. If there’s a set I missed or any corrections needed, I hope you’ll let me know. Thanks, Jason