The greatest year in baseball card history

I’ll get quick to the point. It’s 1954. Hands down…

Topps had a set.

1954 Topps #32 Duke Snider Front

Bowman had a set.

1954 Bowman #170 Duke Snider Front

Red Man had a set.

1954 Red Man #NL16 Duke Snider Front

Red Heart had a set.

1954 Red Heart Dog Food #NNO Duke Snider Front

Dan-Dee had a set.

1954 Dan-Dee Potato Chips (Reprint) #NNO Duke Snider Front

Stahl-Meyer had a set.

1954 Stahl-Meyer Franks #12 Duke Snider Front

The New York Journal-American had a set.

1954 New York Journal-American #NNO Duke Snider Front

And those were just the ones with Duke Snider!

Dixie had a set.

Wilson Franks had a set.

1954 Wilson Franks #5 Bob Feller   Front

And let’s not forget the single-team issues out there, of which there were many.

1954 Johnston Cookies #NNO Hank Aaron Front

And minor league issues too!

1954 Seattle Rainiers Popcorn #NNO Leo Thomas Front

Popcorn, cookies, hot dogs, ice cream, newspapers, potato chips, dog food (DOG FOOD!), chewing tobacco, chewing gum…you name it! Wait, did I forget the syrup?

Willie Mays and Alaga | Willie mays, Vintage baseball, Baseball

Of course, it’s not just about quantity, else just about any year from the Junk Wax era would beat 1954 hands down. But unlike the macaroni, hardware, and toilet paper cards of the late eighties, these 1954 releases also happen to be fantastic sets! They also marked a turning point.

Just one year later, apart from Topps and Bowman, there were only two baseball card sets other than single-team releases: Red Man and the Robert Gould All-Stars, though we’re be remiss not to mention Armour Coins and Wilson Franks Baseball Books. Just two years later, in 1956, there were none. And there wasn’t even Bowman!

In that sense, 1954 was not only the greatest year to be a collector but also the end of a certain Golden Age of cards. For collectors interested in taking a closer look at this magical year, I’ve compiled a checklist of the Hall of Famers (and Minnie, who belongs!) featured in each of the multi-team sets, with a notes column capturing all single-team releases. (A more readable version is here, which you can also sort in ways other than most cards to least.)

As a window shopper who loves flipping through sets in Trading Card Database or just admiring the collections of others, there is no better year for me than 1954. On the other hand, as a player collectors whose focus includes Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson, I will confess to often cursing the fact that certain sets exist. Then again, I suppose I’m still more likely to get the two 1954 Campy cards on my want list before the Shohei Ohtani completists get anywhere near the 2722 cards Trading Card Database lists for him in 2018 alone!

How about you? What’s your pick for greatest year in baseball card history? And if you’re a player collector, is it a good thing or a bad thing when the want list is a mile long?

And for more SABR Baseball Cards posts on 1954–

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 “The greatest year in baseball card history”

  1. I loved your excel chart. I am a chart guy myself. I sell cards on eBay and keep a chart on all my listings. A lot work but … My favorite card is the 1956 Topps. That’s because it is the first year I was really into collecting. The two photos on the front were nice because they showed the players picture and an action shot. The reverse colors and printing made it easy to read the stats. I’m also a stat guy which leads back to charts!

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  2. This might become a post but for now it’ll live here. I nominate 1989.

    Five Flagship sets: Topps, Donruss, Fleer, Score, and Upper Deck. Each set is vastly different designwise but none of them are dogs.

    Five Traded/Update sets: Topps Traded, Donruss Traded, Fleer Update, Score Rookie & Traded, and Upper Deck High Numbers.

    Two legends sets from Pacific and Swell.

    Two other sets for acquired tastes like Bowman and Sportflics.

    A good rookie class to search for including Ken Griffey Jr, Randy Johnson, Craig Biggio, and John Smoltz.

    A couple fun errors with the Billy Ripken and Dale Murphy.

    A ton of retail releases, box sets, etc.

    And a ton of regional, food, and team issues.

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    1. I put the over/under on people who will agree with me at 5 (and I would take the under), but I would go for an even later year like 1994. A “rare” card might have 1000 copies or 250 copies or something like that, which is not actually that rare, but also not 1.2 million. By 1997 (at least) that is over – I think 1997 was the first year for Flair Showcase Masterpiece 1/1 cards – so I’m thinking somewhere between 1994-1996. I wanted to go with 1997 because of the game-used cards in Upper Deck but I think that’s too late because I don’t want a year that has 1/1 cards and Donruss has been purchased by Pinnacle at that point. I’ll stick with 1994.

      In 1994 there are now 5 major players (Donruss, Fleer, Pinnacle, Topps, and Upper Deck) all of which have products at various price and quality levels. Pacific is also in the market with its license for bilingual cards. There is an O-Pee-Chee set that is not a Canadian version of the Topps base set. They are all competing with each other and trying all sorts of different things – foil, chromium, refractors, die-cuts, laser cuts (I don’t know if they were in 1994 products), autographs, embossed textures (at least Action Packed had that), etc. The promo/preview/sample market is hitting its stride and there is a reasonably robust minor league card market with team sets and companies like Classic, plus offerings from Upper Deck and Fleer/ProCards. Error cards (at least those that get corrected) are by and large gone because the companies are producing multiple products throughout the year. (I’ve never been a fan of error cards – you’re producing baseball cards and you don’t know his name is Graig Nettles?) Pinnacle has brought back Sportflics. There are some oversize versions of cards plus Starting Lineup is still going strong. I think Topps has stopped producing micro versions of its cards (the cards that are smaller than even the T206 cards).

      There are still some regional/food issues – just looking at Piazza’s list in 1994 I see Church’s, Denny’s, some Dodger sets (Daily News, Mother’s, Police), King-B Discs, Mother’s (Salmon/Piazza ROY combo), Oscar Mayer, Post, Red Foley, Sucker Saver, Tombstone Pizza, a U.S. Department of Agriculture card, and some U.S. Playing Cards. There’s also sets from Kraft and Yoo-hoo. There are Conlon cards. There is the Ted Williams set, which in 1994 has cards of players from the Negro Leagues and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

      There’s a good bit of variety that covers a large swath of baseball history. In 1994 it would likely have been a chore to track all those things down, but none of those cards seem unattainable now. No one likes 1994 because of the strike, but there are a lot of interesting products during that time. Not all of them are winners, but there is a range of attainable products out there.

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      1. I thought about going later but one thing I didn’t like about 93 and 94 was the transition to premium and super premium and being literally priced out of many products.

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  3. I’d say a balance is nice for player collecting. A few years ago I decided to pick up Jose Lind cards. He has about 200 cards according to Beckett, and not much of it is difficult except the 1990 Donruss Aqueous Test. At this point the only things I’m missing, at least according to Beckett, are a more recent minor league card and some recent buybacks. It was fun and not very expensive but also not very challenging.

    Keith Hernandez is a bit more challenging – about 1300 items total. The items from his playing years are relatively easy to find though there are some difficult oddball items. He misses all the 1990s parallels and inserts. His cards from 2001-2003 are an achievable goal, but in 2004-2005 his list goes crazy (there are over 600 cards from just those two years). There are so many 1/1 cards from those years that getting all of them is not an achievable goal. 2006-2007 went too far in the other direction (only three total cards – all autographs). Since then it has been a more even mix which is more fun.

    I also “collect” some players like Gwynn, Piazza, and Ripken with much more extensive lists. According to my spreadsheet, I have over 1,000 different cards of each of those players, but that doesn’t even reach the 10% mark for their total cards. I don’t actively seek them out, but if I buy a bulk lot at a show I’ll pull cards of theirs that I need or if I’m buying a bunch of cards from a seller and see a good deal on some of their stuff I’ll add a few cards, but I can’t imagine trying to chase down about 20,000 Ripken cards, even if the 1/1 cards are removed from the list.

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  4. Great column. 1989 takes it over ‘54 for me. To your Q about long want lists for a specific player I’d say it is fun to collect new issues as they come out each year but the Profusion of parallel Cards have me questioning how far to take it. I collect Eduardo Rodriguez. (Affordable and not too competitive.) But seeing how trivial the design diff is from yellow to blue to pink to etc compels me to resist chunking in too much money. That said, I give credit to Donruss, one brand that has established unique and quirky Variations. And the sheer number of autograph cards out there for many players expands the want List quite a bit. I collect M101-2’s and Turkey Reds, too, so E Rod is a nice, if not always sensible, diversion from vintage.

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  5. After reading this post I would agree with Jason and Randy that 1954 is at the top when it comes to vintage cards. The HOF checklist included with this post is excellent. I started collecting cards in 1961 and for me that will always be the greatest year. I remember accumulating Topps, Post, Fleer and Nu-Card Baseball Scoops cards from that year. Also remember checking the sports pages everyday to see which one of the M&M boys hit a home run. Unfortunately all of those cards were tossed out a long time ago. In an effort to recapture my youth I am slowly working on putting together a 1961 Topps set.

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    1. I am a HUGE fan of the all-time greats sets, so I have to second your pick of 1961. The sets you named plus the Golden Press set made 1961 a year unlike any other (and the last year that looks the same upside-down until 6009 believe it or not)!

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