Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Candy Men

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1951 Topps Baseball Candy

A couple of years ago I wrote two articles for Old Cardboard magazine consisting of set summaries for Topps’ pre-1960 baseball offerings. One of the intriguing things I uncovered while researching the articles was the relationship all five of Topps’ 1951 sets had to each other in an overarching issue called Baseball Candy. With some additional research since then even more has been found. Hang on, this is one l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g post!

To refresh your collective memories, the five baseball sets released by Topps in 1951 were:

Red Backs, a 52 card baseball game set with two variations, which would prove key in developing a timeline for issuance of all five sets. An easy master set to put together even in nice shape, there was a huge find of these about twenty years ago that swelled an already robust supply. Topps called these the “A” series of 52 and in some of the more expensive packs they were sold as joined pairs in a vertically oriented panel, separated by nubs. Some consider these the first true Topps baseball cards. They were packaged together with the Connie Mack All Stars and undated Team Cards in nickel Baseball Candy packs and also sold on their own. They were sized to fit easily in a child’s hands.

NOTE: I now believe the Red Back printing information below to be incorrect; it appears only two press runs were made.  See here for more information. 2/1/12

Blue Backs, another 52 card baseball game set but with zero variations and harder to find than the similar Red Backs. They also seem to generally seem to be found in rougher shape than the Red Backs. Topps called these the “B” series of 52 and indeed, they can be considered as the second series of game cards issued that year. These cards can also be found in vertically oriented panels of two, although the Blue Backs are much, much more difficult in this form than the Reds. They were marketed in similar fashion to the Red Backs, at least to a degree.

Team Cards, strangely truncated at nine cards (out of a possible 16), they can be found with a 1950 designation on the front, or not. Black and white photos framed by a gold border don’t sound all that attractive but looks pretty sharp to me. These horizontally elongated cards have red text on the backs.

Connie Mack All Stars, an 11 card set of pop out cards featuring retired greats as selected by the Tall Tactician, which should have been 12 in number as it was short an outfielder, which hobby legend suggests would have been Ty Cobb. These too are elongated (vertically this time) and have red text reverses.

Major League All Stars, aka Current All Stars, another 11 card set of pop outs, in all probability also cut short by one (there is no manager) but also featuring three great short-printed rarities of the modern era. Even without the short prints, this is a notoriously difficult set to assemble. Unlike the otherwise similar Connie Mack’s, Major League All Stars have blue text on the back.

The saga of Topps’ 1951 cards begins simply enough. Red Backs and Blue Backs were commonly issued in wax penny packs called “Doubles” with a piece of caramel within. The Doubles moniker relates to the fact two cards (Baseball Playing Cards to be precise) were in the pack. From here on out it gets strange.

Let’s first examine how each set was printed.

Red Backs
You can see nubs on these cards still, indicating the attachment points. There will usually be four larger nubs, almost like a hinge, either on the top or bottom and a smaller, single nub opposite:

Red Backs can be found with a pure white stock back or a less brilliant version I will call cream, which leans toward a browner tone. Here is white:

Here is cream:

The fronts are generally of the pure white variety but some have the cream color and feel like the gloss is reversed, i.e. like the printing sheets were flipped before being inserted into the press. Most of the cream front cards in my set exist with pure white backs. On the other hand, some cream colored fronts mysteriously have cream backs as well, which makes it seem like the sheet flipping theory is not foolproof. Fair enough-this is an ongoing investigation.

What is noticeable about the pure white stock is that is does not seem to fade over time, indicating it is of a high quality. The cards might get dirtied through handling over the years but the brilliance of the white stock does not seem to dissipate. Cream backs seem to suffer a bit from fading.

Now we come to the two variations in the Red Backs, involving Gus Zernial and Tommy Holmes. The former can be found with the White Sox or A’s mentioned in his biography, the latter with either Hartford or the Boston Braves.

Gus Zernial was sent to the Athletics by the White Sox (via the Cleveland Indians in a three-way deal also including Minnie Minoso) on April 30, 1951. His pre-trade card has him in a Chisox hat:

Post-trade the logo is airbrushed out and blank.

Easy enough to do if you don't have a picture on file with his A's garb and a harbinger of future Topps airbrushing efforts.

Tommy Holmes presents a bit of a quandary though. He had a pretty solid 1950 at the plate for the Braves but was named manager of their Hartford minor league club sometime after the season ended and presumably before spring training in 1951. Topps must have started production on the set late in 1950 as he is shown on his "Hartford" card in a Boston cap.

When Holmes accepted the Hartford job Topps amended his bio on the card front to reflect the fact he managed in Hartford as the photo was likely set and only text changes could be made prior to printing this run.

Then on June 19, 1951 Tommy came back to the bigs as player-manager of the Braves. While his photo remained unchanged, his updated Red Back biography reflected this promotion

This tells us there were multiple printings of the Red Backs. My set has the following permutations of these two players:

Zernial Chicago-cream
Zernial Phila-white (post-trade)
Holmes Hartford-white
Holmes Boston-cream (post-promotion)

In the Net54 thread where I first posted these these observations, it is noted that a large find of these in the late 1980’s contained only Zernial (Phila.) and Holmes (Hartford) variations, which I am advised had brilliant white backs. The evidence at hand then certainly supports a minimum of three press runs. Given the six week spread between the transactions for these two fellows, I have to surmise the Red Backs were selling quite well.

This gives a possible timeline of a first run of cream stock backs, a second run of white stock backs following the Zernial transaction but before the Holmes promotion and then a cream stocked third press run with Holmes shown as Boston’s manager Whew! Another possibility is they were printed in two locations, with a second run in one of the plants. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds, which we will get to in a bit.

Blue Backs
The Blue Backs could not have been printed before May 14, 1951 (per Bob Lemke’s observation of player/team changes) and not too far after June 15th as Andy Pafko, traded on that date to the Dodgers, is shown in his Cubs uniform. Chronologically this places the Blue Back printing around the time of the second Red Back printing featuring the white backed Zernial (Phila.) and Holmes (Hartford) cards. They also appear to only have gone through one printing as there are no variations and the backs are found only in brilliant white. This makes sense as they are four or five times harder to find than the Red Backs in my experience, although they are not scarce by any means. It also may mean they were printed the same time as the white backed Reds.

What does it all mean? Well, did Topps get creative, and co-opt a lucky descriptor on the Red Backs (meaning “A” in “a series of 52” was part of a phrase and not a series identifier) when issuing the Blue Backs with the “B series of 52” wording? It could be happenstance and lead to the logical conclusion the Blue Backs were a second series created after the success of the initial Red Back run. IF that was not the case, then the Blue Backs still appear to be a planned second series. There’s more to come on this front too.

The real fun begins though, with the three larger card sets.

Team Cards
For some reason, Topps printed up these black and white cards in undated and dated versions. That’s odd certainly but no odder than the fact seven teams are not represented.

I had always thought the dated versions had to have come first but close examination of Burdick’s American Card Catalog a little while back led to his statement that the dated cards were reissued. This gives us a timeline with the undated versions being printed first.

Much like the Red Backs, there are distinct cardboard stocks used for the Team Cards. From what I have observed, brilliant white stock was only used on the reverse of the undated cards.

The white backs also feature reverses that feel and look very smooth. Dated cards can also be found with an almost gray back (a minimally finished natural cardboard tone):

The gray backs seem to occur only on dated team cards, although there are tantalizing hints of white backed dated teams (bad scans, just can’t tell if they are white or cream). I have a slabbed 1950 Dodgers card so can't feel the back but it looks rougher than the front of the card or a white back does. It's basically unfinished stock on the back. There is a harder to find dated cream colored version as well:

The jury is still out on undated cards with cream backs. Here is a dated one sold on Ebay last year with a creamy looking reverse but the lighting is bad and I can't be 100% certain:

Once again, we have a set that looks to have gone through at least three press runs. Printing in multiple locations is also a theory we need to examine and will do so momentarily. Let’s look at the die cut cards first though.

Connie Mack All Stars
The Connie Mack All Stars were almost certainly created in the wake of Mr. Mack stepping down as manager of the A’s and the publishing of his book entitled My 66 Years in the Big Leagues.

The Connie Mack All Stars have red printing on the reverse:

Incidentally, the original edition of the book came with four baseball cards, which are quite attractive and worth showing here:

The eleven Connie Mack’s can be found with white or tan backs (sometimes veering toward gray), with finishes similar to those on the team cards. I showed a white above, here is a tan, from the back of my Speaker and you can see the corners of the card retains the original color as they were ensconced in photo corners at some point:

Connie Mack's and Team Cards were printed on the same sheets, as this grouping shows:

These two miscuts tell a little bit about the sheet configuration, with team cards printed below the Connie Mack's in one instance but side-by-side in another. We also have two die cuts printed next to each other. Two runs in two locations, one with Connie's and Teams together?

It's an important question as to whether all nine team cards were on the same sheet or if there were more originally and some were pulled. In other words, what happened to the other seven teams? Were they never printed or did they actually roll off the presses? Topps made available some of the Major League All Star cards to people who wrote to them but if that was so, then would not people have also asked about the missing teams? I have to think they would have and that seemingly supports the theory the missing teams were never printed.

This clearly means the Team Cards and Connie Mack’s were designed to be packaged together at some point in the distribution timeline. Since the undated Team Cards have white backs and came first based upon Burdick’s findings concerning the 1950’s being reissues, we can extrapolate the white backed Connie Mack All Star’s also coming first. As there a zero variations with these die cut cards it’s a moot point but a clue is a clue, right? But since Red Backs and Connie Mack's were also sold together, we still have a bit of a mystery on our hands. Before we look for Shaggy and Scooby Doo to help us, let’s look at the toughest of the 1951 Baseball Candy issues first.

Major League All Stars
The eight issued Major League All Stars can be found with white backs only.

You will note they are advertised as being eleven in number, a fact that looms large over the fate of this set. Since the text on the reverse is blue, they likely were not printed along with the Connie Mack’s and Team Cards (which have red text). In fact, there is some evidence they were printed entirely on their own sheet from a 2004 Mastro auction (notice how the indicia plate differs slightly from the Connie Mack's):

Famous for three colossally difficult short prints (mid five figures for a decent, if not pristine example is probably a bargain) that may never have seen the inside of a pack and which could be obtained by writing to Topps and requesting them as legendary collector Frank Nagy famously did. The three short printed cards also have another factor in common. Two of the short printed subjects, Robin Roberts and Jim Konstanty, were teammates on the Philadelphia Phillies in 1950-51 and while the third, Eddie Stanky, played for the Giants those two seasons he was born in--you guessed it--Philadelphia. I have also been advised by a collector that owns all three short prints that they only come with white backs.

Now Philadelphia was where Bowman Gum was located and I have to think the “Philadelphia Connection” got Topps into trouble, throwing a wrench into an intricately planned and integrated series of cards when they ran afoul of players contractually bound to Bowman. Topps used caramel instead of gum to circumvent Bowman in '51 but some players probably had exclusive deals that year, which caused Topps to pull them. It is easy to envision a Baseball Candy multiverse otherwise, where one kid with red backs faced off against another with blues, cheeks bulging with caramel with an array of pop up players spread out before them--current all stars versus all time all stars--with a gold bordered team card pinned to the wall overhead. Alas......

Let's turn to the packaging of these five sets, which is the window into what Baseball Candy was to have been.

Anyone who collects the Red and Blue backs knows that the penny Doubles pack can be found even today in unopened form, although it is far more likely to contain Red Backs, even though the one below has Blues.

The box had some simple rules: "Winner deals!"

There were also Baseball Candy penny packs though, with colorful wrappers that are not all that easy to track down these days. I initially thought these contained but a single card (“Card” not “Cards” is shown on the wrapper but the nickel pack uses the singular as well) and piece of caramel hidden within but now think otherwise. (EDIT SEPT. 2009-I NOW BELIEVE THIS TO BE INCORRECT, SEE UPDATE HERE)

It’s the nickel Baseball Candy packs where things really get interesting.

There were advertisements tying together the Red Backs and Connie Mack All Stars too:

As you can see the Red Backs and Connie Mack’s co-habited in the nickel Baseball Candy packs. At some point, it appears the Team Cards joined the mix:

The fact the caramel is in a glassine wrapper is interesting as there is anecdotal evidence it was going rancid from contact with the cards in the penny packs. The description of the contents gives me pause however and is a little confusing in mentioning “product residue” which makes it seem the caramel was still touching the cards:

1 1951 New York Giants Team Card (undated)
4 Two card Red Back Panels

That’s a pretty good haul for a nickel!

Did Topps take previously packaged Red Back panels from Doubles packs and reuse them in the nickel packs, which could explain how product residue got on the cards from caramel that was sealed off in a glassine envelope? It might rabbit, it might.

Adding to this intrigue is the nugget that the Blue Backs also are known in hobby circles to have come in nickel Baseball Candy packs. My theory is that they were designed to be marketed with the Major League All Stars thus tying together both of the ’51 sets known only with brilliant white stock and blue printing on their backs. I suspect when the Philly connection killed the Major League All Stars, Topps halted production of the blue-themed card packs. The Major League All Stars went into limbo, the Blue Backs were certainly repackaged in either Doubles or Baseball Candy penny packs.

There is an issue with this though, brought to light by Irv Lerner.

An article in SCD written by George Vrechek which primarily covers the 1962 Topps Green Tints had some recollections from Mr. Lerner, a long time collector and dealer. It’s a great article, as I would expect from George who is the best chronicler of the hobby's history I can think of. You can read it here:

You’ll see Irv mentions that 1951 Topps Red Back nickel packs had undated team cards and Connie Mack's in them which is no surprise. He then states the nickel blue back packs were issued in New Jersey with dated Team Cards and ML All Stars. Well, that could mean the Team Cards were repackaged as well as I would expect only undated white back team cards to be found with Blue Backs and ML All Stars.. It might also mean there were two different production facilities, which is possible since I believe Topps did sub out work to a Philly area (Camden, NJ?) printer in the early 50’s. Then again, maybe the dated Team Cards with white backs tie into this and could be as rare as the Major League All Stars. Or, Mr. Lerner is not 100% accurate in his recollection (hey, it happens after six decades) and it was undated team cards in the “Jersey” packs.

The Blue Back packaging leads to a related theory that all of the red print backs were brethren as well and there is proof of this:

The contents of this amazing package are described as:

“ a complete set of fifty-two Red Backs in their original uncut two-panel form, an instruction sheet for playing the game, three 1951 Connie Mack All-Stars cards, and two 1951 Topps Team cards.” Red backs all, one way or the other!

That is cream backed Reds with gray backed Team Cards packaged together (no idea what back the Connie’s had) btw. Here is what the playing diamond looked like:

One thing is worthy of note—this bagged and (presumed) “set” and ancillary cards does not mention Topps anywhere on the package and they may have sold excess inventory to a third party.

So what really happened in 1951? Perhaps this is the correct timeline, perhaps not (EDIT SEPT. 2009-IT'S NOT-SEE UPDATE HERE)

1) Red back First Printing, sold in Doubles one cent packs and five cent Baseball Candy packs. Penny packs were possibly not sold until after the nickel Baseball Candy packs came out.

2) Blue Backs sold in Doubles penny packs.

3)Red Backs second printing, with team changes after mid June, 1951), sold in five cent Baseball Candy packs with Undated White Back Team and White Back Connie Mack's.

4)ML All Stars Philly connection blows up the set. Philly players Konstanty and Roberts are pulled, as is Stanky, who was born in the City of Brotherly Love. We are left to wonder if a friendly pressman printing the set for Topps in Philly alerted George Moll or Bowman? Some five cent Baseball Candy packs with Blue Backs and ML All Stars get out, most don’t. The remaining cards get blown out to a Philly area wholesaler/jobber (in Camden, NJ maybe) and so enter the New Jersey market but don't sell too well under the radar and many boxes are probably discarded when sales tank.

5) Package up the remaining Red Backs with Tan Backed Dated Team cards and Tan Back Connie Mack’s whipped up for another go around, in 5 cent Baseball Candy packs.

6 Sell leftover Blue Backs still warehoused destined for insertion into 5 cent Baseball Candy packs with whatever else is left (ML Allstars, Gray back Team cards, etc.).

7) Sell leftover Blue Backs in rare penny Baseball Candy Wrappers, perhaps without nubs as only one card was in each pack.

8) Sell remaining Red Back, Team Card and Connie Mack stock to a third party, who bags the whole set with a paper playing field and sells for 29 cents. I believe there are tan backed team cards in this bagging as well (see back scan above).

9) Drive intrepid Topps researcher bonkers 58 years hence.

Number nine is the only thing we can be sure of today. And I still don’t know what to make of a reference I found once indicating the Red Backs were also sold in these early 50’s Trading Card Guild cellos which have the manufacturer as Topps for Toys:

Trading Card Guild was a Topps pseudonym and these packs have been identified with early 50’s non-sports connected-pair sets so I guess it’s not too big of a leap.

Thanks to Doug Goodman, Al Richter, Randy Trierweiler and a host of others for providing input on these sets.

Edit: 6/20/19: Brian Wentz has advised "That double-windowed cello actually contained both 1951 Red Back pairs AS WELL AS a white back 1951 Connie Mack All-Stars.  The Red Back pairs sandwiched the white back Connie Mack All-Star.  If you ever have the opportunity to compare size, it all makes sense.  This is first-hand information from someone who opened them in the 1970s from leftover store inventory.  We have  a bunch of those flattened cello wrappers which were saved from buying the collection.  The find yielded lots of Mint 9 Red Back pairs, in addition to a NM-MT 8 and a NM-MT+ 8.5 Babe Ruth as the highlights"


Mark Aubrey said...

What a great lesson. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

Unknown said...

This is great! Do you know where I might be able to find the rules to the 1951 game? I'd love to try to recreate it.

toppcat said...

The Topps version must be rare as it was only in the bagged sets and I've ever seen one in the wild. Also, this post was superseded by later ones with better timelines, etc.

Jason said...

Regarding the Red Backs, a knowledgeable member of our SABR Baseball Cards community offered documentation that Holmes went from the Braves to Hartford in March 1951. His belief is that the Hartford card therefore preceded the Boston card in the set, which would also eliminate the need for the speculated third printing.

toppcat said...

Thanks Jason-I should probably put up a note on the blog indicating the later posts on a subject are more accurate (usually). This later post ( gets into it a little but two printings indeed seems correct on the Red Backs. Holmes Hartford and Zernial Philadelphia can only be found with the brilliant white backs, which indicates to me they were printed when the Blue Backs were, as the blues are only found with brilliant white stock. Blue Backs (Series B) appear to have been printed between mid-May and the end of June, dated by the Billy Johnson trade to the Yankees and Pafko still being a Cub (June 15 trade to Brooklyn). I believe the dingier, cream/tan Red Backs (Series A) came first, then all the brilliant white stock was used for the second Red Backs printing and sole Blue Backs printing. I believe the first printing of Red Backs came out in April of 1951.