Prehistory of the Topps World Series cards

The first Topps World Series card I pulled from a pack was bittersweet. On one hand it was Reggie, the biggest star in the game; on the other hand, it memorialized his merciless dismantling, five homers and all, of my hometown Dodgers. Though I wasn’t yet enough of a fan in 1977 to have watched the Series, I remember the gloominess and despair that took over the faces of my classmates. Tears were shed.

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Most collectors already know that 1978 was just one of many years that Topps included a postseason subset. For a complete catalog from 1958-1981, see this excellent post from Adam Hughes of Wax Pack Gods.

My goal here is to connect these Topps World Series cards to their long ancestry across the hobby’s history. Rather than jump straight in to the years before 1958, I’ll set the table by beginning at 1960, the year of the first true Topps World Series subset.

1960 Topps

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Though Topps would include single cards connected to the World Series in each of the prior years, the 1960 release marked the first year of an actual multi-card subset. The subset spanned cards 385-391, including the only Maury Wills card Topps would issue before 1967.

1959 Topps

There was no World Series subset in the 1959 Topps issue. However, the Hank Aaron card in its “Baseball Thrills” subset was dedicated to the Hammer’s game 4 home run and overall awesome performance in the 1957 Fall Classic.

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As we consider the ancestry of the World Series subsets, this card presents us with two “mutations” from the classic subsets that would follow.

  • It is the only postseason card in the set (and in fact from an entirely different subset)
  • It does not feature the prior year’s Fall Classic, instead reaching two seasons back.

As we go further back in time, most of the cards we look at will share these or other departures from the classic Topps World Series subsets of later decades. As usual, were we not to bend the rules a bit, there would be very little article to write!

1959 Fleer Ted Williams

I have featured this set in every one of my prehistory articles to date with the exception of Traded Cards. (And who the hell would even think of trading Ted Williams, right?) Sadly, it is impossible to tell the story of the Splendid Splinter without bringing up the heartbreak of the 1946 World Series, memorialized by card 31 in the set.

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As an aside, the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set comes across largely as a (justified) hagiography of the greatest freaking hitter who ever lived. It is odd then that their “Sox Lose the Series” card makes no mention of the fact that Williams played the series injured and instead attributes the Kid’s disappointing performance to a slump.

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1958 Topps

It is the Hammer once again in the 1958 Topps set, and this time he brought a friend. Okay, a foe! (As an aside, it would be fun to trace the use of the word “foe” on baseball cards over the years. We used to see it a lot more, and I worry we are lesser today for its absence.)

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Oddly the card’s reverse makes no reference to the World Series but simply finds (quite easily) nice things to say about each of the featured players.

1948 Topps Magic Photos

Though off the radar (and out of the price range) of casual collectors, the very first Topps baseball cards came four years before the iconic 1952 set. The majority of the set’s baseball checklist was devoted to all-time greats such as Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner. However, 5 of the 19 cards were dedicated to the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. These cards are light on detail, but the two cards known as “Cleveland Indians 4-1” and “Cleveland Indians 4-3” reference games 2 and 7 respectively.

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1948 Swell “Sport Thrills”

Sorry, Dodger fans. Here comes another heart breaker. Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike from the 1941 Fall Classic was one of eight cards in this 20-card set to feature World Series highlights.

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The earliest World Series highlight featured is Grover Cleveland Alexander’s bases loaded strikeout of Tony Lazzeri to end the 1926 Series, and the most recent is the “Greatest Catch” by Al Gionfriddo in the 1947 Series. The other World Series years featured in the set were 1932, 1935, 1936, 1941, and 1943 (twice).

1948 Swell “Babe Ruth Story”

The Sport Thrills set wasn’t the only baseball set that Swell issued in 1948. They also issued a 28-card “Babe Ruth Story” set to go along with the movie of the same name. While the Bambino did appear on some of the cards, he was more often portrayed by William Bendix, the actor who starred in the film. Card 15 features Babe Ruth’s (okay, William Bendix’s) “called shot” home run from the 1932 World Series.

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1940 Play Ball

For a brief stretch from 1939-1941 Play Ball cards sat atop the cardboard universe. The 1940 Play Ball release is known mostly for the cardboard return of Shoeless Joe. A less ballyhooed aspect of the set was the pennant flags adorning the cards of the Yankees and Reds players. (Oddly, the managers and coaches received no such decoration.)

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Unlike the majority of the cards discussed so far, these “Pennant” cards also doubled as the main (only) card of each player in the set. An interesting comparison will be the 1933 Goudey set, where this is true for some but not all of the players.

1936 R312 National Chicle Pastels

My favorite thing about writing these articles is discovering cards I didn’t know about originally. In this case, the prize goes to these beautiful premiums from National Chicle. The full set contains 50 unnumbered cards with significant star power, including (arguably) a Joe DiMaggio rookie card. There are also a large number of multi-player cards, such as this one of Arky Vaughan receiving playing tips from the great Honus Wagner.

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Most relevant to our topic, however, are several cards that explicitly reference the 1935 World Series between the Tigers and the Cubs.

First, here is Gabby Hartnett after his World Series home run in game 4.

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Next, here is Schoolboy Rowe drawing a crowd, even in enemy territory. No wonder they call it the “Friendly Confines!”

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And finally, although Tommy Bridges pitched the Tigers to a 4-3 complete game victory in the clincher, here is Alvin Crowder looking very much like he just won it all for the Tigers. In fact,  the “General” is shown here following his own complete game to take game 4.

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Finally, there are four other cards, a disproportionate number for the set, that include multiple Cubs or Tigers. The photo sleuths among us might let me know if these photos are from the World Series or just “random” shots from during the season.

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1936 R313 National Chicle Fine Pen Premiums

Collectors had choices when it came to the 1935 Fall Classic. Among the 120 cards included in this 1936 release was at least one World Series card, #120, showing the throw from Lon Warneke to Phil Cavaretta arriving ahead of Goose Goslin.

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As with R312, there are also some multi-player cards that may or may not be connected to the World Series. Card 116, showcasing the “Fence Busters” on the Chicago squad, is one of a few examples.

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1934 Gold Medal Foods (R313A)

First a tip of the hat to Net54 member PowderedH2O for alerting me to these cards.

The parent company of Wheaties, Minneapolis-based Gold Medal Foods, issued a set of postcard-sized cards to commemorate the 1934 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the “Gas House Gang” St. Louis Cardinals.

The “Standard Catalog” lists only 12 players while PSA lists 19 while indicating the set has 22. This suggests to me there may yet to be cards discovered here, either to the delight or chagrin of Hank Greenberg supercollectors.

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1933 Goudey

Forgive Goudey for its numbering antics, but sure enough cards 107-114, 121-127, and 232-240 were created specifically to highlight the participants in the 1933 World Series. Those not as familiar with the set might wonder if 1933 was a typo. After all, this is 83 BTN (before “Topps Now”) we’re talking about. “Are you sure you don’t mean THIS World Series?”

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Sure enough, the folks at Goudey were hard at work in late 1933 pushing out the tenth and final release of their iconic baseball debut. The sheet featured twelve participants from each of the pennant winners (New York Giants, Washington Senators) and even included records and results from the Series, as evidenced by this card of Master Melvin.

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Something important to consider in assessing the place of these cards in our prehistory is that they weren’t merely cards issued late enough in the season to include tidbits about the Series in the bios. Rather, they reflected an explicit World Series issue, and a 24-card one at that! Quite remarkable really.

As a final note, nine of the Giants and nine of the Senators already had “base” cards in the set, meaning the World Series cards could be thought of as dedicated postseason extras for these 18 players. However, for six of the players, the World Series card reflected their only representation in the set.

1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream Babe Ruth

Among the six cards in this 1928 set entirely devoted to Babe Ruth is this one, highlighting the first of his two home runs in the 1927 World Series against the Pirates.

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1919-1920 Cincinnati Reds postcards

Black Sox Scandal completists will want to collect this 24-card set of postcards featuring players from the 1919 World Champion Cincinnati Reds team. There are two variations of each card. Later printings include the caption “World’s Champions” whereas early printings include only “Champions of National League.”

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As an aside, Anson Whaley of Pre-War Cards just published an excellent five-part series on the baseball card legacy of the Black Sox Scandal. Part one is here.

1921 Koesters Bread (D383)

Hat tip to Net54 member brianp-beme for this one. This 52-card set uses the same card fronts as the 1921 American Caramel (E121) set but has different backs and restricts its checklist to only Yankees and Giants, the two participants in the first Subway Series.

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If you have a minute, you may want to look at the fantastic card of Hall of Fame hurler Waite Hoyt.

1912 Technical Book Publishing postcards

Not for the budget collector, but these postcards were sold at the World Series itself and doubled as scorecards on the back. The card on the left shows the Boston Americans, and the one on the right shows the New York Giants.

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1911 Philadelphia Athletics (E104-I and D359)

I’ll take some liberty here and merge what pre-war collectors would normally regard as two or three different sets. Certainly they will look more alike than different to the casual collector. In each case, I am a huge fan of the World Champions designator.

The first card, Frank “Home Run Baker,” comes from the 1910 E104-I (sometimes seen as E104-1) Nadja Caramels issue. Variations abound, including cards without the “World’s Champions 1910” banner. The next two cards, Charles “Chief” Bender and Harry Davis, could be construed as Baker cards as well, in that they come from the 1910 D359 Rochester Baking and Williams Baking issues respectively.

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For any of the card displayers or binder folks out there, I have to imagine the variety of background colors would make these cards look incredible arranged as a group.

1910 Tip Top Bread Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s funny how life works sometimes. Just as I’d reached the end of my personal knowledge, augmented by the easier digital searches available to me, I did what I always do: reach for my Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards. But this time I didn’t even have to open it. Here was the 1910 Tip Top Bread Honus Wagner right on the cover, with the caption “WAGNER, World’s Champions.”

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Indeed, this was a 25-card set honoring the 1909 World Champion Pirates team that bested Cobb’s Tigers four games to three. Here is team president Barney Dreyfuss from the same series.

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1910 American Caramel Pirates (E90-2)

This tough regional release of American Caramel focused exclusively on the 1909 World Champion Pirates team. Unlike the Tip Top set of the same year, the cards themselves do not refer to the championship. (Hat tip to Net 54 member steve B for this one!)

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1907 Geo. W. Hull Chicago White Sox postcards

These 16 postcards honor the 1907 World Champion Chicago White Sox, as noted by the “World’s Champions” caption below the player name. You might imagine the “Every One A Pennant Winner” title above the lines of hanging white stockings is another standard feature of the postcards in this set. However, that is just one of many titles used. Others include “A String of World Beaters” and “A String of Game Fish — No Bull Heads,” whatever that means!

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1905-06 Lincoln Publishing Am. League Champs

The Philadelphia Athletics lost the 1905 World Series to the New York Giants, but they did not come up empty on the cardboard side of the ledger. All 20 postcards in this set were devoted to the American League champs and featured the achievement prominently in the card design.

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1902-1911 Sporting Life Team Composites (W601)

For ten years, Sporting Life offered readers the chance to be individual team cards or the complete set as a bound volume. In addition to these very large poster-cards (13″ x 14″), postcard-size team composites were also offered some years.  Pennant winners and World Series winners were specially noted below the team name.

Readers may be puzzled by the “1904 National League Champions” marker here since the Pirates finished the 1904 season in fourth place, 19 games behind the Giants. One thing to note is that the “National League” portion of the marker simply indicates the Pirates were a National League team. This can be seen by comparing the Pirates composite against others in the series. Finally, the “Champions” portion of the marker should be read as “defending champs,” which is how the 1904 Pirates began their season, fresh off the first ever World Series of the modern era.

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At this point you might imagine we’re done. You can’t get much earlier than the first World Series, right? Not so fast…if you’ve read my other posts you know I love to go WAY back, even if it means bending the rules a bit, kind of like how a biologist might spend 58 minutes of the lecture talking about man’s descent from apes and the final 2 connecting us to amoebas or something.

1888 H.D. Smith and Company (formerly known as Scrapp’s Tobacco) die-cuts

Some recent detective work has added to our knowledge of this ridiculously old set and its origins. At first, you might just see too old-time ballplayers with caps you wished you owned.

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However, these aren’t just any players, though that had been my first guess. Thanks to the 1976 SSPC reboot, I now know these are the participants from the 1887 World Series between the St. Louis Browns and Detroit Wolverines! Here is a look at one of the 1976 cards. Kudos to SSPC for their work on this beautiful reissue, which admittedly is almost harder to track down than the 1888 original!

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Source: http://www.number5typecollection.com

1887 Tomlinson Studio Cabinets

If 1888 just isn’t old enough for you, you may be in luck. Even the “Standard Catalog” is stumped in terms of the reach of this set and the extent of the checklist, but here is at least one.

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1887 Old Judge Browns Champions

And for those of you saying, “Hey, was that even a baseball card?” I’ve got an even better one for you! (Hat tip to Net54 member Gonzo for this one.)

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It is at this point in the tour that the bus finally runs out of gas. As always though, I hope the result is an appreciation of some older cards you might not have known about and further reinforcement of the adage that “what’s new is old,” at least when it comes to the baseball card “innovations” of our youth.

As always, additions and corrections are welcome.

Appendix – Ancestry Report

Something I’ve toyed with and was encouraged to dig into more deeply based on a reader comment is an “ancestry report” that evaluates each entry against the key traits of the standard Topps World Series subsets. I won’t belabor the coding scheme or column headers unless asked, other than to acknowledge that blue represents mutations that go beyond the Topps standard. (In this case, I used blue for cards that feature the current-year World Series rather than the prior year.)

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Anyone wanting to play with the raw data can find it here. Let me know if it’s useful at all. If so, I can do similar for Record Breakers and other prehistory work I’ve done.

Author: jasoncards

I mainly enjoy writing about baseball and baseball cards, but I've also dabbled in the sparsely populated Isaac Newton trading card humor genre. As of January 2019 I'm excited to be part of the SABR Baseball Cards blogging team, and as of May 2019 Co-Chair of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee.

14 thoughts on “Prehistory of the Topps World Series cards”

  1. Great post, lots of fascinating stuff. I would make a distinction between cards which show highlights of the Series and cards which just designate players or teams as champions…but this provides a fine history of both!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great comment, Brett. For this and my prior post I was playing with the idea of evolution-style diagrams and distinctions like the one you raise would have been made explicit. Still toying with the idea and may add at some point. Just not satisfied yet with how they look.

      Like

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