Jason’s Mount Rushmore of Vintage Sets

I expect fellow author-collector Dylan has really started something with his post on the subject a couple weeks back. The topic is one just begging for the pen of each of our members, even as the idea of choosing “just four?!” often feels impossible.

1934-36 Diamond stars

I’ll lead off with a set that Dylan included on his Mt. Rushmore, the “Diamond Stars” issued by National Chicle from 1934-36. Like Dylan, it’s the look of the cards that hooks me in.

The color palette jumps off the cardboard like ink off a comic book page, but I am also a big fan of the baseball scenes depicted in so many of the card backgrounds. I’ve already written about these scenes coming more from the imaginations of the artists than real life, but for me that’s a feature, not a bug.

From a purely visual standpoint, Diamond Stars is my favorite set of the 1930s and perhaps my favorite set of all-time. Where it falls short with many collectors is in its player selection. Conspicuously absent from the set are Yankee greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. For the budget set collector, this is yet another bug-turned-feature.

If you’ve read a few of my pieces already, you also know I enjoy sets with some novelty and mystery. Diamond Stars definitely fits the bill, not only for its various quirks but also offers early instances (though by no means the earliest) of “Traded” cards.

If I had to choose one thing I dislike about this set, it’s the repetition of 12 players at the end of the set’s 108-card checklist. Particularly as these final cards are more scarce than the first 96, the duplication introduces disproportionate pain for set collectors forced to pay a premium for cards they already have.

1933 Goudey

Here is another set I’ve written about quite a bit and the set under whose shadow all other sets of the era reside.

While the set’s iconic status goes hand in hand with its trademark “Big League Chewing Gum” banner along so many of the card bottoms, my favorite cards come from the set’s final three releases (e.g., Morrissey, Root, and Herman above).

Where Diamond Stars lacked Ruth and Gehrig, Goudey brought these players on steroids, combining for six cards across the set’s 240-card checklist. Counting the Napoleon Lajoie card issued the following year, the set includes 66 cards of Hall of Famers and all but two players who competed in the season’s inaugural All-Star Game.

Were I to find fault with this set, it would be in a flaw common to all other baseball sets issued in the United States around this time. The set included players from the National League, American League, Pacific Coast League, International League, Southern Association, and American Association but no players from the Negro National League or other Black baseball leagues.

Kudos to my bud Scott Hodges who is filling some big holes in the 1933 Goudey set and others with his own digital card creations.

I’ve attempted similar in analog fashion though I’ve been less faithful to the history. Here is Buck Leonard on the Grays a year before he joined the team.

I will definitely treat the absence of Black stars as a bug, not a feature, but if there’s a silver lining it’s that there is no chance I could afford a 1933 Goudey Josh Gibson, and its absence from my collection would absolutely torment me daily.

1911 T205 Gold Borders

Like Dylan I had to include a tobacco set on my list. The T206 set, which initially did little for me, has grown on me immensely over the past couple years. Still, it would have to gain a lot more ground to surpass its gilded sequel.

The set features three different designs: one for National Leaguers, one for American Leaguers, and one for Minor Leaguers.

I absolutely love the NL and Minor League designs and am somewhat ho hum about the AL one, so I’m fortunate to be a Brooklyn collector.

As brilliant as the card fronts are, the T205 card backs are not to be ignored. While some feature brief biographies and one of several tobacco brands, others include…stats!

As with the two sets covered thus far, you will not find a single Black player in this set. You might suppose no card set from 1911 included Black athletes, but this was not the case. For example, here is Jack Johnson from the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets (mostly baseball) set.

Once again then there is the knowledge in collecting T205 that you’re not collecting the very best players of the era. But again, did I mention I was a Brooklyn collector?!

AND…

Here’s where it always gets tough. I probably have ten or more sets I’m considering, but the rules are that I can only choose one. Though I love the cardboard of the 1930s (and earlier!) so much, my favorite era of baseball is the early 1950s. Though integration was slow, it was at least happening, and the mix of new talent and old talent was simply off the charts.

That said, the number of baseball card sets that managed to include all the top stars of the period was practically zero. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Robinson in the same (playing era) set? Your choices are already fairly limited:

  • 1947 Bond Bread
  • 1948 Blue Tint
  • 1949 Leaf
  • 1950 All-Star Pinups
  • 1950 R423 Strip Cards
  • 1952 Berk Ross

Add Stan Musial and Bob Feller and the list shrinks further:

  • 1947 Bond Bread
  • 1949 Leaf
  • 1950 R423 Strip Cards
  • 1952 Berk Ross

Add Mantle and Mays and the list boils down to one: 1952 Berk Ross.

With a selection of players that also includes Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, Duke Snider, Monte Irvin, and an awesome Johnny Mize “in action” card, could this set be the winner?

As much as I love the checklist, the answer has to be no. Most of the images are too dark, too light, or too weird for my taste, and the simple design borders on the boring. Still, what could have been!

The key then is to find a set with beautiful cards and almost all these same players, and–if we add a few more years–Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Ernie Banks.

As much as it pains me to give up Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, it’s hard for me not to land on 1956 Topps. The beautiful portraits, the Kreindleresque action shots, and the awesome cartoon backs offer my favorite overall design of the Golden Age of Baseball, and the absence of Bowman meant nearly every active star was included in the set.

Unlike 1952 Berk Ross, with only 72 cards, 1956 Topps included 342 cards (counting un-numbered checklists), hence was large enough to assign a card to nearly everyone, not just a couple stars per team.

If I have any bitterness toward this set, it’s only the sour grapes of waiting way too long to collect it. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that sometimes to collect your Rushmore you need to…rush more! Luckily, I do have all 24 Brooklyn cards from the set, and hey, did I mention I’m a Brooklyn collector?

How about you? Which vintage (or modern!) sets make your Mt Rushmore? We look forward to your article!

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.

10 thoughts on “Jason’s Mount Rushmore of Vintage Sets”

  1. Agree with 1933 Goudey, 1934-36 Diamond Stars, and 1956 Topps. As I’m not moved by smaller pre-1930s cards, will go with 1954 Red Heart for its star power and presentation as my fourth.

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  2. Fun post. I’ll agree on the Diamond Stars set. 56 is also the best Topps set. My other two would be 33 Delong & 33 Tattoo Orbit .
    Honorable mention 1915 Crackerjack and Hassan Triple Folders

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  3. Enjoy your evaluation of favorite sets.

    Been following cards since I was quite young. My set awareness based on exposure. I fancy the early Topps and Bowman sets of the very late 40’s to somewhere in the 60’s when I found other adventures.

    Would like to see, if not already done, a discussion of reprints.

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    1. Thank you! Perhaps a longer article at some point, but I think reprints are great for the Hobby in offering budget collectors a next best thing to the original cards and sets. Of course like all good concepts, there is potential for things to go badly. These days I see a lot of reprints sold on eBay as if they are the original cards, which gives reprints a bad name.

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  4. Curious that in the early card there was the attempt to keep Roberto Clemente’s name as accurate as possible. That card was a little before my time but I remember many from the ’60s calling him “Bob” which I know he hated. Does anybody when and why that change was made.

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      1. Thanks for the information. It would be interesting to know why they so quickly backed away from his correct name and went to Bob. I have a feeling that someone wanted to make him sound more “American.”

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      2. What’s interesting is that many non-Topps releases used Roberto even as Topps switched to Bob. Also interesting that Topps used Roberto for Roberto Peña’s cards, which began in 1965.

        I ran a Google n-gram search a few years ago and found that Roberto Clemente was MUCH more common than Bob Clemente through Clemente’s career, so it’s not as simple as Topps simply reflecting the rest of Baseball.

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