Decks By The Decade - 1950's
The 1950's saw the introduction of some of the best players to ever play on the field. We also saw the establishment of perhaps the most popular card manufacturer in the hobby. Combine these two factors, and it's safe to say that the 1950's were the most important decade in card collecting.
Before we can get into the decks themselves, it's important to mention the two rookies that strengthened the value of these sets: Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays
Perhaps the most famous switch hitter, Mickey Mantle patrolled center field for the most popular team in the country at the time - the New York Yankees. Mickey was signed out of high school by the Yanks and shot through the minors. Thanks to Joe DiMaggio's retirement at the end of the 1951 season, Mantle took over center field full time. Mickey was a 5-tool player that possessed power from both sides of the plate which was unheard of back then. He challenged Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs twice by hitting 52 and 54 in one season. He won 3 MVP awards, grabbed the triple crown in 1956, won numerous Gold Gloves, 20 All Star appearances and 7 World Series rings. He finished his 18 year career with a .977 OPS and a 172 OPS+ with 536 home runs.
While Mickey Mantle might have been the more popular center fielder, some say that Willie Mays may have been better. Mays was already playing professional baseball at the age of 17 in the Negro Leagues, even making it to their World Series in 1948. Once he graduated high school, Mays was immediately signed by the New York Giants in 1950. While he had a rough start (1 hit in his first 25 at bats) Mays went on to win Rookie of the Year in the NL by 75%. Mays was drafted into war in the middle of the 1952 season and missed the entire 1953 season because of this. Mays was back in time for the 1954 season and that started the Say Hey Kid's assault on baseballs. Mays immediately won the MVP award by hitting .345 with 41 home runs and 110 RBI's with an OPS of 1.075. Mays flirted with numerous MVP awards, barely losing to Ernie Banks and Maury Willis, but ended up with another for his 1965 season of 52 homers, 112 RBI's, and a 1.043 OPS. Mays had an incredible stretch of 6 years (1955-1960) averaging 36 homers and 31 SB per year while batting .321. Mays finished his 22 year career with 660 home runs and .941 OPS and a career batting average of .302.
Now that we've established the importance of Mays and Mantle, let's dive into the sets:
1951 Bowman Baseball: Even though Bowman cemented it’s roots a a baseball card company in the late 40’s, the arrival of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays created a demand for cards like no other. In its original 252 card set, this set of Bowman featured greats like Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Ted Williams, and Duke Snider. It wasn’t until later in the year that Bowman released a “high number” addition of 72 cards which was catered to the rookies of that year. These cards were more rare than the base set, which made these already valuable cards worth more. Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle rookie cards are a part of the 72 card set. A PSA9 of Mays card sold for $65,000 back in 2009, with an estimated value now of $600,000. Mantle's sold back in 2018 at a PSA9 of $750,000.
1952-1955 Topps: This was the inauguration of the most popular card manufacturer in the hobby which increases the value of the set tremendously. This 407 card set was released in six different series with number six featuring Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews. The cards were bigger than the typical cards we know today. There were a couple of variations like the Series 1 cards that featured either red or black backs. Even the #1 card in this set, Andy Pafko, is valuable given the inauguration year of Topps. Back in 2018, a PSA9 of this set for Mantles card pulled in a staggering $2.8 million.
The 1953 set slimmed down to 274 cards and didn't feature any rookies for this year. Still, players like Jackie Robisnon (who was #1 in the set), Mickey Mantle, and WIllie Mays make this set extremely valuable. The new portrait style really made this set pop. A PSA9 of Mays sold recently for $132,000 while a PSA9 of Mantle in 2019 went for $396,000.
The 1954 set also saw a decline in cards. clocking in at 250 cards. The first 50 cards of the set featured short prints of gray backs. Updating the style from the previous year, the players portrait now also featured a smaller picture of them in the field or up to bat. Ted Williams, Al Kaline, as well as the aformentioned Mays and Mantle support this set. The 1954 season saw the introduction of Henry "Hank" Aaron and Ernie Banks, both impact players in their career. A PSA10 of Hammerin' Hank popped up for auction back in 2012 and sold for $357,000.
In 1955, things went sideways...literally. Topps made the change from all vertical portraits to all horizontal. They kept the same style from 1954, featuring the players face with an "in action" shot but shifted the name and team name to the bottom of the card. All of the players mentioned before appear in this set and hold incredible value. The 1955 season saw the debut of Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente.
Although he frequently struck out his opposition, Koufax's dominance didn't start until his 7th season. For the final 6 years of his short 12 year career, Koufax amassed a 129-47 record while averaging almost 8 innings per start. In that run, Sandy lead the leauge in strikeouts four times while in 1965 striking out 382 batters. He won three Cy Youngs, one MVP, had four no hitters and one perfect game. His 1955 Topps rookie card at a PSA9 recently sold for $88,000.
Roberto Clemente started his professional career with the Dodgers back in 1954. He was signed to a minor league contract by Tommy Lasorda and optioned to Triple-A Montreal. Clemente was then scouted by the Pirates and eventually selected in the rookie draft later that year. Throughout his career, Clemente routinely would volunteer to do charitable work and even enlisted in the Marines which is what he focused on during the offseason. Clemente spent a majority of his career playing at Forbes Field (a massive field where center was 459' away with roughly 21' walls all around) which is telling by his career OPS+ of 130. His career was tragically cut short by his death in 1972 where he was on a plane to provide assistance and disaster relief to Nicaragua who was struck by an earthquake crashed due to an engine failure. One of the more eerie coincidences is Tom Walker, then a pitcher for the Expos, wanted to join Clemente on the trip. Roberto told Tom to not come with him and to go enjoy the New Years festivities. Interestingly enough, Tom went on to have a son, Neil, who then played second base for the Pirates from 2009-2015. There's one PSA10 in existence for Clemente's 1955 Topps rookie which sold in 2012 for $432,690.
You've heard of the tobacco cards and the caramel cards, but what about the hot dog cards? Much like it's candy and tobacco counterparts, Stahl-Meyer and Wilson Franks saw the oppurtunity to get into the card market as well, featuring popular players from the era packaged with their mystery meat dogs. The 1953 Stahl-Meyer set featured only 9 players from the New York area, with Mantle being the most valuable with an estimated PSA9 price of $85,000. Wilson Franks hopped on board in 1954 featuring a 20 card set with Ted Williams as the headliner. These cards were in direct contact with the meat, so finding a high grade card is extremely difficult. A PSA9 of this card estimates at $150,000.