1954 Topps Baseball Cards: Action Photos Make them Memorable
By Dean Hanley,
Owner, Dean's Cards
While Bowman was still reeling from its expensive 1953 color venture, Topps was enjoying its newly discovered success in the competitive world of bubble gum baseball cards. Sy Berger refused to lose the initiative and was determined to further improve the Topps baseball card offering by adding action shots to the cards.
While Sy Berger had contracted for artists to hand-draw the 1953 cards, he wanted a new and cutting edge design for the 1954 issue. He would borrow from the 1952 set and again use colorized photographs, although this time Berger wanted to include a black-and-white action shot that would lie across part of the colorized portrait. This concept proved to be a tough sell to both Topps executives and artist Woody Gelman, who all initially disliked the concept. Berger, who was never one to be easily discouraged, kept persisting and finally got his way. The result was the most attractive baseball card produced to date.
The 1954 Topps set is unique in that it’s a mixture of aging stars from the pre-war era of baseball, as well as rookies that would be destined for the Hall-of-Fame. Topps had once again manufactured an exceptional set that would stand out among the Gum Cards War chaos of the 1950s.
1954 Topps: A Great Rookie Card Class
The 1954 Topps cards captured the new burst of talent that was beginning to transform the game of baseball. In 1954, Topps was insightful enough to secure the rights to print all the rookie cards of three bright and exciting players who would be perennial All-Stars for the next two decades and eventually be enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame: #94 Ernie Banks, #128 Hank Aaron, and #201 Al Kaline.
“Teddy Ballgame” Comes Home from the Korean War
Topps and Bowman were still competing for the baseball card market as well as the player rights to produce the cards. By 1954, Bowman was pulling ahead in the number of players it had signed to exclusive contracts. Sy Berger, a Red Sox fan, had been desperate to sign Ted Williams, who was exclusive with Bowman.
Berger’s coup of 1954 was signing Williams to a five year contract. For the first time, Topps offered a player more money than the standard contract to get Williams to appear on a Topps baseball card.
To help justify this cost, Topps featured Williams on both the first and last card in the set (#1 and #250). Bowman also printed a card of Williams without realizing that he had signed an exclusive contract with Topps. Bowman was forced to stop production of the #66 Ted Williams card, thus making it the most scarce and valuable card in the 1954 Bowman set.
Other Unique 1954 Topps Characteristics
What frustrates collectors, both in 1954 and today, is that the back of the cards are not oriented in a consistent manner. The 1954 Topps cards do not have a white border on the top of the card, which adds to the card’s beauty. In order to achieve this “bleed” feature the tops of the cards were lined-up against the tops of the cards of the next row on the printing sheet– so that half of the cards would be upside down on the sheet. This is the same technique that Topps used for its 1953 set. However, in 1954, the printer must have forgotten to orient the card backs in the same manner. Therefore, when the front of the cards are stacked to face the same way, half of the card backs have the card oriented to the left and half have the back oriented to the right. When the 1954 Topps cards are sorted in a box, one-half of the cards have the number at the tops of the card and one-half have it at the bottom. Fortunately, Topps never repeated this mistake.
Summary of the 1954 Topps Baseball Card Set
The 1954 set would stand out from the previous three Topps sets for several other reasons as well. Unlike the 1952 and 1953 sets, there were no short printed cards, making the 1954 Topps set much easier to collect. For the first time, Topps used dual images on their card fronts. The black and white action shots that were superimposed next to the color head shots demonstrated just how innovative Topps was at the time. These dual images would appear on many Topps cards for years to come. Although their lack of exclusive player contracts put Topps at a disadvantage when compared to Bowman, Topps certainly made up for it with their brightly-colored 1954 set.
This article is taken from Dean Hanley’s best-selling book “The Bubble Gum Card War: Great Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets from 1948 to 1955," which is available at Amazon.com.