Saturday, April 15, 2023

What In The Wide World Of Sports Is Going On Here?

There I was, surfing the web, when I saw her, a red tinged beauty; she looked disorderly, wild.  I knew she was trouble but couldn't turn away....OK, I'm no Raymond Chandler but we do have a Marlowe sized mystery on our hands today folks.

I was recently pulling images of uncut 1952 Topps panels together for my April Fools Day post about salesman samples when I came across one that blew up my basic understanding of how the landmark 1952 set was issued.  It's been assumed by everybody and anybody that the six series were issued like this, with one appearing every month or so beginning in late February or early March:

1st 1-80
2nd 81-130
3rd 131-190
4th 191-250
5th 251-310
6th 311-407

Nice and orderly, planned in ordinal progression, with iterations of ten prevailing, excepting the last series, known by hobbyists as the high numbers and referred to by Topps at the time of issue as the second or "new" series.  Easy, peasey, right?

Well, maybe things weren't so orderly after all.

These are the main production facts for each series that I can actually verify:

  • The first 80 cards can be found with black or red backs. (thanks, Capt. Obvious!)
  • Panels of 25 or fewer cards have been seen.
  • A mostly complete proof sheet exists of the 2nd series, showing 50 different subjects.
  • The 3rd series can be found, rarely, with gray backs in addition to the far more common white.
  • The 6th series has three double prints.
Here's some panels from the 1st series, the first is from REA of course and has some great detail on printing dates:

That is the top left corner of one of the slits, all nice and neat:


Here's another, from the Spring 1982 issue of Baseball Cards magazine: 

Two quads, which look to have been cleaved from the same slit (hard to see here but the cuts line up) and also suggest the sheet was designed in 5 x 5 sections as the right side does not really line up the neatlines (the black line around each image) when compared to the left.  And we wonder why there's so many miscut cards!  Anyway, these run:

41-50 (with the Sain/Page pair that led to flipped backs in at least one press run, but hold that thought)
51-60 again

So this represents the last forty cards of the first series (hold that thought too), with one double printed row. We know Topps used two 100 card slits for 1952, so the double printed row makes sense as a total of four rows would need to be double printed to have the half sheets work out, seemingly two per slit (yup, hold that thought).

Friend o'the Archive John Moran sent along the next three panels.  The first is the most complete:

That reads:  

66-70 again

This could be to be the right side quad from from the same slit as the one above it. Next up is this bad boy:

This one sure looks like it's from the bottom two rows of a slit.


Now we get to one that's hard on the eyes, it looks like printer's scrap of what would I think would be from a proof sheet (more on this below) but the order of two passes can be discerned:

Of the cards where you can see more of the subject than not:

37-39 (Snider, Westlake, Trout)
27-29 (Jethroe, Priddy, Kluszewski)
57-59 (Lopat, Mahoney, Roberts)
47-49 (Jones, Page, Sain)

These are overlaid with portions of the second series run, so clearly the first series cards were on a waste sheet, likely just to run off some ink before printing the actual proofs:

117-119 (Lollar, Raffensberger, McDermott)
127-129 (Minner, Bollweg, Mize)
87-89 (Coogan, Feller, Lipon)
97-99 (Torgeson, Pierce, Woodling)

It looks like a third impression, a very misaligned part of a name, is also visible on Page/Pierce proof.

Here's that second series partial proof sheet.  It's low res but you can definitely tell who's who:

It's a little incomplete on both the left and right sections but if you cobble the rows together across both "slits" you get the entire 50 card 2nd series layout:


Each side extrapolates to a five row repeat.  This all makes perfect sense.  However, in 2017, REA auctioned this little sucker off, and it defies all logic:

If you're still with me, that's:



The logic has always been that since the black backs run from nos. 1-80, with the Page and Sain errors was corrected, the black run continuing then with those two having their intended backs, then a third run, solely red backed, finished off the series. Based on this, it should stand to reason those first eighty cards were printed together and formed all of series 1. Another bit of logic has been that the cards run in sequence from x1-x0 in each row.  That's definitely not what we're seeing here. And they are most certainly red backs:

You would really need to see the full, two slit press sheets for each series to be sure of what's what (maybe, this kind of upends that idea) but man, I have questions...Did Topps start mixing in second series cards with the first series?  Why are the sequences seemingly mismatched on this panel? Did they only do it once they started printing the red back series 1 cards? Did they do this through all of the first five series?   Were these intended for a different use than wax packs? 

And still more questions.  There's been a video circulating of a Canadian TV show looking at the "Sportscard Phenomenon of the 90's" that has a number of interesting segments (and a bewildering John Candy cameo):

If you go to the 20:00 mark, you will see an unopened box of 1952 Topps Baseball nickel packs was uncovered at the OPC plant in London, Ontario.  The box was later described by Mastro Auctions in their April 22, 2004 auction catalog as being from both the fifth and sixth series, the latter being the high numbers of course.

Well, OK-I'm not sure there's any way to prove both series were sold together even by looking at some of the slabbed packs and even then there's no guarantee as to how that box was put together. Did Topps just mix fifth and sixth series packs for Canadian distribution? Maybe US distribution too (remember the Mr. Mint find had semi-highs and highs possibly from the same shipping carton)? Did someone at OPC assemble a box from whatever was on hand and just leave it behind? 

Plus, you know, can you even believe Mastro?

I've got some further thoughts on all of this but I'd like to hear from the readers here if any more hybrid panels, packs and boxes are known in 1952.


Matthew Glidden said...

Surviving sheet fragments failed to reach the packing stage, so I see a partial sheet crossing two series as less of an issue than if we found _packs in a surviving box_ with mixed series contents. (Your ending comments captured a similar sentiment.)

Smaller pieces like this 10-card panel could be printed on their own as proofs, marketing samples, or even as a concept that was later scrapped. Perhaps they considered overlapping series releases earlier that year and then changed plans?

toppcat said...

That is the central mystery in a nutshell. Not sure about mixed series proofs though but worth exploring to see if they did this with some other early sets. 1954 Baseball comes to mind but the series printing there may have been planned differently.