Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Top Five Vintage Team Cards for Player Collectors

Say Hey! What did I send you again?

In November 2023, I mailed some vintage Giants to a collector friend. When they arrived, he said, "thanks for the Willie Mays card!" That gave me pause. Did I package up a key card, a top-tier HOFer, and then forget about it? Is age catching up with me in a way that benefits others? (That'd be my preferred outcome for aging, to be honest.)

In truth, I sent a sort-of Willie Mays, and he clarified receiving my 1960 Topps Giants team card in the name of its biggest name.

1960 Topps #151: Say Hey! (lower right)

My own player collections (Spike Owen, Jamie Quirk, Steve Garvey, David Segui) focus on named cards 99% of the time. It's rare, if possible, for team cards to show off someone you need.

One "team card" that does belong in a Spike (or Wade) PC

If you collect specific players, do you try to fill every niche, including team cards with hard-to-identify faces? I've avoided group photos myself, since many vintage team shots came out indistinct, 1960 Topps included. Half of your battle as a player collector comes down to confirming your guy is on the card at all.

The new expert in vintage team cards

In 2023, hobby researcher Roy Carlson wrote a pair of exemplary 1951-1980 Topps team card overviews for Sports Collectors Daily. He's done the legwork to prove whether your collecting obsession did or didn't appear on any vintage Topps team cards.

Want a standout surprise? I had no idea Ted Williams kept popping up on 1959-64 Topps Red Sox team cards despite his exclusive 1959-1962 trading card contract with Fleer and after retiring as a player. Topps reused their 1958 photo each year and Fleer missed complaining about it. All these team cards for Ted fans!

  • 1959 Topps #248
  • 1960 Topps #537
  • 1961 Topps #373
  • 1962 Topps #334
  • 1963 Topps #202
  • 1964 Topps #579

I used Roy's excellent work as inspiration for five team cards that player collectors should know about.

Stan Musial: 1956 Topps #134 St. Louis Cardinals team

I propose two reasons that Topps first added team cards to their main set for 1956.

  1. Topps designed much of their 1956 set prior to Bowman's post-1955 collapse and wanted to test whether a group photo would violate exclusive contracts for stars like Mickey Mantle. Would a Yankees team shot gratify his fans, even if Mick's smaller than a thumbnail?
  2. Topps hoped to knit holdouts like Stan Musial, who refused all pre-1958 Topps contracts, into group shots that players wouldn't take seriously as "stealing their image."
The 1956 Cardinals card mentions Musial by name twice and he's easy enough to find at lower-right.

The 1956Topps blog notes just 13 of these 30 gentlemen appeared on individual cards in that year's set and exclusive Bowman contracts no doubt limited who Topps could include.

Its back text claims, "Later, Stan Musial made the Cards the number one team of the 1940s." Indeed, their .642 decade winning percentage outpaced all other franchises and they won three titles in five seasons (1942-46). I believe that Stan's reticence to sign with Topps or Bowman in 1954 explains why pitcher Memo Luna garnered a late season replacement card (see Memo to The Man for full details).

Musial appeared on two more Topps team cards, 1951 and 1957, prior to signing an individual contract in mid-1958, which triggered their first All-Star subset.

1951 Topps team cards, St. Louis Cardinals

I circled Musial (center) for context and a youthful Joe Garagiola (right) for fun. Look close and see how St. Louis cut-and-pasted their backup catcher into its second row after he missed its original team photo. 

1957 Topps #243, St. Louis Cardinals team

1957's muddier photo quality make this a tough card to love, with or without the circled Musial. I borrowed this image from Roy's first article to show how Musial's Topps on-card appearances continued beyond his retirement as a player. Topps reused a 1962 team photo (with Musial) for their 1965 set, a real twist of the knife considering St. Louis won the 1964 World Series!

While I consider 1965 #57 a curiosity with some Musial appeal, the 1956 team card's a great option for player collectors who want mid-career cards of The Man.

Carl Yastrzemski: 1965 Topps #403 Red Sox Team

The 1959-64 reuse of Boston's 1958 team photo that created extra Ted Williams cards also delayed Yaz's first appearance to 1965, years after his debut. (This kind of Topps laziness also postponed team photos with Pete Rose and several other 60s stars.)

Yaz sits at front right, between bullpen coach Al Lakeman and outfielder Lou Clinton.

Boston traded Lou Clinton to the Angels in June 1964, so this serves as his sole Red Sox team card, thanks to those 1959-1964 shenanigans. While 1965's flat backgrounds make individual faces tough to discern, it remains a decent choice for Yaz collectors as his first cardboard pose with teammates.

Hank Aaron: 1977 Topps #51 Milwaukee Brewers Team

By 1977, Topps improved print clarity enough to make Hank's legendary #44 visible without squinting.

I think most Hammer collectors know about this post-career appearance already, so consider this my bona fides for anyone seeing him there for the first time. It should be part of Aaron collections and costs little to acquire.

Yogi Berra, Jim Hegan, & Thurman Munson: 1980 Topps #434 New York Yankees team

This card meets three goals, two hobby-related and the other humane, each circled in red.

The two hobby-related details come from Roy Carlson's second article, where he shares that Yogi Berra (right circle in sunglasses) appeared on more vintage team cards (24) than any other HOFer, leading Red Schoendienst (23) by one. This card pushed him over the top! To build on that achievement, Jim Hegan (center circle) leads everyone in team card appearances with 28! Zounds.

Last but not least, vintage fans will remember Yankee captain and star catcher Thurman Munson (left circle) died in an August 1979 plane crash. Topps chose not to produce his individual 1980 card, so 1980 #434 capped his career cardboard appearances.

Many modern collectors made custom Munson cards in that double-banner style to recognize his personal importance to them. This is my favorite.

1980 Munson by When Topps Had Balls

Munson collectors should grab that team card if you missed it up to now.

Tim Raines: 1980 Topps #479 Montreal Expos Team Card

1981's most exciting rookies included Fernando Valenzuela and Tim Raines, just in time for Topps, Donruss, and Fleer to battle for the first competitive card crown in decades. Donruss won my heart with its strong borders, bold team names, and unusual back highlights. Rock's performance that year can claim real influence on our hobby's enthusiasm for rookie cards.

...but did you know Raines appeared on 1980's Expos card, circled in red? I suspect they considered him for the major league roster late enough in spring training to attend team photos. My young head woulda popped off to know this card connection back then.

What's your take on team cards, do you include them in player collections? If so, does your guy need to be in the photo itself?


GTT said...

Thanks for pointing out those articles! Very interesting.

Brett Alan said...

I will include cards like the Leaders card you show in a player collection even if he's not named on the card. Same for players prominent in the "celebration" team cards Topps has favored in recent years--Pete Alonso has been on the Mets card 4 years running (with 1 to 4 teammates), so those are in my Alonso binder, although I'm not thrilled about it.

But full team photos? No, they're team cards, not cards of individual players. I actually prefer that format, but they don't go in my player collections.

Anonymous said...

If the player I collect is prominently pictured then I tend to want the card. The Boggs/Owen you showed is a good example. Team cards don’t really meet that bar, aside from when the manager has the larger inset photo. Still, it makes sense to me that other collectors consider team cards an important aspect of player collecting. A bit more on the fringes are the collectors who want checklists that show their player’s name!

night owl said...

I read the updated team card article today, just awesome stuff.

Mark Zentkovich said...


Matthew Glidden said...

Good takes so far. While adding checklists for each player's name sounds extreme, I _did_ take the trouble to identify players on each of 1961 Topps checklist photos, so Ernie Banks or Ted Lepcio fans can take advantage!