Saturday, April 8, 2023

Keep On Semi Truckin'

Ah, the 1952 Topps Baseball set. Topps allegedly planned to stop their semi-inaugural issue after the 5th series, resting at 310 cards. Due to Bowman exclusives, a handful of players probably had to be dropped from what was an admittedly rushed production schedule. Topps sure seems like they had a just-deep-enough pool of viable players to carry them through the end of the fourth series (nos. 191-250) but then, in the fifth series they dropped in three manager cards (Tommy Holmes, Red Rolfe and Paul Richards), in what may have been a filling of holes to finish things off.

Let's look at Holmes first.  Known as a card with a variation in the description of his 1951 Red Back card, due to an early season call-up from Hartford, where he was a player-manager, to helm the big league squad and he began 1952 with the Braves.  He also played sporadically after his 1951 promotion, with a handful of outfield appearances but primarily as a pinch hitter. Holmes was released as a player in 1952 before the start of Spring Training but he stayed on as manager.  A poor start cost him that job too and he was fired on May 31st. Topps had an image of him in managerial mode (dig the clipboard) and used it for card no. 289:

Being a semi-high, that image was no doubt composed before his May 31st firing.  The reverse is confirming and revealing:

There's more to it though.  Note the hometown: good ol' Brooklyn, headquarters of Topps Chewing Gum.   He was signed by the Dodgers on June 17th and ended the season with them; he was on the 1952 World Series roster as well, and this was a nice, local story Topps could lean on. I think we can say that, given the notation he was "still in the Braves organization" the text was finalized sometime between May 31 and that date. My thought is the semi-high fifth series was released sometime in early June, not a huge leap given this detail.

So Topps knew he was fired (Ex-Manager, gotta love it!) and was able to note in the text as well but were stuck with the clipboard pose, almost certainly since the art was already locked in and possibly even "shot" by Lord Baltimore Press at the time the Braves let Holmes go.  However, they were able to change the planned text, whatever that was to have been, and the result is what's seen above. 

As an aside, I think it's a great shot! The semi-highs may have the best images in the entire set and Sy Berger always said they learned on the job, series-by-series. with the set.

Now what about Red Rolfe?

Well, he was long retired as a player (we'll get to that in a New York minute) and had been managing in Detroit since 1949.  As with Holmes, Topps had a nice shot they were able to use.  Also, just like Holmes, he was fired mid-season, on July 6th in his case. He is still assumed to be the Tigers manager on the back of card no. 296

The answer as to why Topps used him seems to lie with his playing career, as he spent it all with the Yankees, and was a key member of six World Series teams for them, as they brought home World Championships in five of those tilts. He ended up coaching at Yale and did several overseas "athletic troop" visits during World War 2. Rolfe left Yale following their 1946 season and ended up as a professional basketball coach, with the Toronto Huskies of the NBA-precursor Basketball Association of America. He returned to the Yankees and was thought to be in line to become their manager but ended up as a coach in 1947 when Bucky Harris got the nod instead.  He then left to become head scout for the Tigers before the season ended.  There was a definite New York connection with Rolfe.

The timing of these two managers getting fired is revealing.  The semi-highs were done and dusted by the time Rolfe got canned and were probably out in the marketplace, or very close to it, by then. No real surprise but it's nice to have some clues. 

Then there is the curious matter of no. 305, Paul Richards.  

Another great shot!  The reverse doesn't help much, although maybe one small clue is there:

The Dodgers and Giants connections might have been enough for Topps but he last played for an NYC team in 1935 and would have been more well-remembered by a kid's father than the actual small fry consumer in 1952. It may have just come down to a matter of rights and available images with Richards. Still...

When Topps they decided to go ahead with what they dubbed the 'second" or "new" series in their press releases and advertising, three more managers were added plus a whopping eleven coaches! As part of this approach, and while waiting the the expiry of an exclusive deal Jackie Robinson had signed elsewhere to roll around, I think they had a good handle on the pool of star players they were going to include in the final series, since they were also able to corral the likes of Mickey Mantle, Bobby Thomson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella. They then filled things out with a number of no-names, plus the managers and coaches (an exception might be Eddie Mathews, but he was a rookie in 1952). Each of these could have been signed with the hopes of using the player in the 1953 set, knowing they would again have certain stars in the fold. 

While there were 10 major league cities in 1952 and 97 sixth series subjects, there's a definite New York flavor to the big names and the series in general, with a whopping 35 players included from New York City teams, and 14 from Boston's. That's 20 percent of major league cities with over 50 percent of the cards. Topps then, clearly thought the major market for the second series was metro New York, with Boston not far behind. Given the "rushed" aspect of the high numbers, it sure seems like the big problem was filling in the commons with subjects who didn't play in NYC or Beantown. 

Perhaps some other hoped-for subjects fell through, leading to the inclusion of all those coaches and managers in the last series and of course, the three famous double prints at 311, 312 and 313. It sure seems like they just ran out of subjects, doesn't it?

And now I wonder (how I wonder), did the three managers they used in the semi-highs somehow lead to those three never-filled slots in the highs? Did Topps intend to hold all the managers back for the final series but were then forced to use three as an emergency stopgap in the semi-highs? I welcome any thoughts on this.

I'll take a look at another 1952 mystery next time out.

1 comment:

John Bateman said...

Alternative Theories:

There may have been a lot of New York players because those 3 teams had 3 of the 4 best records in baseball in 1952.

Three managers - Maybe Topps included them in the earlier because they seriously thought they would get fired (in Holmes case it happened before the set was done.) It is a hard sell because of Richards (and with Meyer being in the last series.)