1953 Topps and Race Relations

53jackieI started getting interested in baseball around the age of 12. The Ken Burns Baseball series grabbed my interest and hasn’t let go since. Around the same time, my father told me that his baseball cards were in the safe deposit box at the bank. My mother took me to the bank a few days later where I pulled out four or five bundles of baseball cards. They consisted mostly of 1950 and 1951 Bowmans, 1951 Topps red backs, a LOT of 1953 Topps, and some 1955 Topps cards. As I flipped through them all I found four Jackie Robinsons, two Roy Campanellas, a Bob Feller, and a Monte Irvin, all from 1953. My father also has a Monte Irvin rookie card from 1951.

Later that night I showed my dad the cards. He looked for a Mickey Mantle card he swore he had. When I showed him pics of Mantle’s 1951 Bowman, and 1953 Topps, my father recognized them immediately. He swore he had those cards. When I asked my parents what might have happened to them, I was told that my aunt probably took them. Long story short, my aunt, who wasn’t the most progressive person, allegedly took the Mantle cards knowing they’d be worth a lot of money in years to come. When I asked why she didn’t take the Robinson too, I was told it was because those players were black. Whether it was because of my aunt’s personal feelings towards blacks, or she didn’t think they’d be worth anything, it made me think about what children across America at the time thought about those same cards as well.

Nowadays it’s not easy to find an original Jackie Robinson card under $100 (at least not one in great shape). His 1948 Leaf rookie card in particular is worth a lot. Last August, I was in a baseball card shop and saw one for $1200, and it only had a grade of 2. Obviously most kids back in the 1950s didn’t think about how much the cards would be worth some day. It’s common to hear stories from old men about entire sets being thrown out after they left for college.

maysBut how many of these kids thought about the black players? Did they value the Robinson and Willie Mays cards as much as Mantle and Duke Snider? Did they care more about completing a set, or only keeping the ones they favored? I wonder how much race played a role in these decisions.

Other questions I think about involve geography. How many baseball card packs were sold in the south vs. the north? My father grew up in New York and didn’t harbor any animosity towards anyone of color in particular. But what about boys who collected cards in the south during the 1950s? Did they deliberately throw out the Robinson and Mays’ cards out of fear their fathers would find them and admonish them? Did they secretly hoard them?

The answers to these questions are very hard to find. Nowadays collectors might be hesitant to discuss such a subject for fear of being labeled. Others probably don’t remember. However, information can be found on eBay, baseball card shops throughout the country (Cooperstown particularly), and eager collectors. They might not have an answer to these direct questions, but their responses might help put pieces of the puzzle together.

Over the next few months, I plan on pursuing this topic to find answers. Not just answers to the questions I asked above, but answers to questions that have yet to be asked about this subject.