Sampling Baseball Cards Of The Past

OK, look carefully. This is the back of the 1964 Topps baseball card of Mickey Mantle:Now, take a look at the back of this 1964 Topps baseball card of Mickey Mantle:

See the difference? I mean, besides the fact that the second card is printed in a vibrant red and the first one is distinctly orange.

It’s in the biography. The first card mentions Mantle’s (then) 15 World Series homers, “breaking a mark set by Babe Ruth.” The second one stops at the reference to the homers. No Ruth. I discovered this literally Sunday afternoon – and I’ve never heard any mention of it before. But if you’re a Mantle collector don’t go nuts and decide you have to go and find this suddenly priceless variation card.

Because it not only isn’t a variation, it’s not even a real card. From 1952 through 1967, Topps produced “Salesman’s Samples” with which to excite candy jobbers and retailers about the upcoming year’s baseball cards.

The one shown here on the left is from 1964, and on the front there are three cards from Topps’ 1964 1st Series (Carl Willey and Bob Friend are the “big” names). On the back, this blood-red pitch for the ’64 set and the special “bonus” – the first set of baseball “coins” Topps ever made.

And then there at the bottom is the variant Mantle card, without the reference to Babe Ruth. Trust me, if two different versions of the ’64 Mantle had been included in the actual set, the scarcer one would cost a fortune.

These Salesman’s Samples are very scarce, too, but it wasn’t until the Mantle biography change jumped out at me did I decide to inspect the others to see if the Mantle change was unique.

It wasn’t. While it doesn’t look like any of the card fronts have been changed, not so for the backs.

Until 1957, only card fronts appeared on the Samples, so there were no backs to check, but sure enough, there’s a change that very first year.

As shown above, by 1964 Topps had long since realized that you needed some star power, even on the Salesman’s Samples and even just on the back.

After his 61-homer season in ’61, a version of Roger Maris’s card number one is on the back of the 1962 Sample. There’s Mantle in ’64, and the ’66 has a picture of a Sandy Koufax insert on the back.

But in ’57 that message hadn’t gotten through yet, so there he is: that great New York Yankees starting pitcher…Tom Sturdivant?

As the bio suggests, he had a big year in ’56, 16-8, and a complete game six-hit shutout over the Dodgers in the World Series, which kinda got upstaged when Don Larsen went out and threw his perfect game the next day. But the point here is not the bio but the card number.

Tom Sturdivant is not card #25 in the 1957 Topps set. His teammate Whitey

1957 Topps Sturdivant Card

Ford is. Sturdivant is #34, as the shown version of his issued card suggests. You’ll notice also that the cartoon quiz at the right side of the card has been changed from something about home runs in one inning, to a question about playing outfield with your boots on.

Again, not a true variation – the obverse of the Sturdivant back shows the Billy Martin front. I suppose somebody could have cut the cards apart and come up with a weird Martin/Sturdivant #25. If one ever turns up, now you know what it is.

There are two other “Sample” variations that jumped off (once it had occurred to me to start looking for them). I’ll spare you the full 1959 Salesman’s Sample back, but here is the detail on the one card back shown.

It was a pretty good guess on the part of Topps: Nellie Fox would be American League MVP as his White Sox won the pennant for the first time in 40 years.

But the original design for the backs of the 1959 cards (or at least Fox’s) was decidedly different than what Topps wound up publishing.

The color design on the Sample card is green-and-black, and quite obviously the color design on the actual issued cards has been dramatically altered to the full Christmas design.

The green “name box” has gone red, the black type in the bio has gone green, and the cartoon is now not just green and black, but red, green, with a salmon pink background.

Still, the other details of the card seem identical both in the preliminary and issued versions.

1960 Topps Salesman's Sample

Not so for 1960. This might be my favorite of the bunch. There was a rationale, even for the changed number of the 1957 Sturdivant, for the inclusion of all the other cards shown here on the Salesman’s Samples. Through 1972, Topps cards were sold in numbered “series,” spaced out over the course of the spring and summer.

All the Sample cards were drawn from the first series – except in 1960. See that nice unspectacular version of #66, Bobby Gene Smith?

He would not be in the first “series” of 1960 Topps cards. Even though they had already mocked up a back for his card, and evidently made no changes in it other than the by-now traditional color re-thinking, Smith was for some reason bumped from #66 to #194.

In the actual card set #66 is an obscure pitcher named Bob Trowbridge – it was not like there was some urgent need to drop somebody to make room for him. Sadly there are no files hanging around a back room at Topps annotating the arcane decisions about card numbers (though I know one later editor liked to give card number 666 to players who had hurt his favorite team). So we’re on our own figuring this all out.


  1. Stephen S. Power

    Did you notice the typo on both Mantle cards? The league in 1953 on both includes an apostrophe. I wonder if other Mantle cards include it, Topps simply copying and pasting old data and adding the stats for the previous year.

    It would also be interesting to learn how the Topps style changed over time. When, for instance, did the position go from lowercase to upper? When did the state go from the old style postal abbreviation with periods to the new? And what is the Topps font? It looks like Helvetica here, but this font is very similar to that used in 1956, a year before Helvetica was introduced?

  2. ShoeBeDoBeDo

    Keith, it’s always fun when you share some of your collection with us. I’ve never heard of “baseball coins.” Were they as collectible as baseball cards, or was it an idea that never really caught on? I’d be interested in seeing them. If you have some, perhaps you could share them with us sometime.

    Sounds like you had fun digging around in your baseball card collection. I can relate, because I do that with my shoe collection! LOL. 😀

    • Patricia Ellyn Powell

      Okay, Shoe, this is scaring me! We were writing back on Keith’s blog at exactly the same time! I bet the man has those coins, gal. I recall getting some bubble gum coins somewhere, too! Yes, he is digging around in that collection…and could probably dig for years! You and that shoe collection! You’ve got me laughing here like a hyena, Shoe! Or should I say…like a hyhill? I used to have collections…one of my faves was fake food. I downsized so much, now I collect real food at the food bank. 🙂 Love ya, gal! xo

      • ShoeBeDoBeDo

        Hyhill? Patti, you’re too funny. One of my brothers collected baseball cards as a kid and while I remember the little rectangles of bubble gum that came in the packs (you see, I was his baby sister, so naturally he gave the gum to me :)), I have no recollection of baseball coins. And that’s why I’d love to see them. As for your fake food collection, I won’t go there! But the food bank is a beautiful idea and one that doesn’t surprise me coming from you. 🙂

  3. Patricia Ellyn Powell

    I don’t do color well anymore…but I trust your commentary about the variations. I love these old cards. I really love me some Bazooka Joe. We would walk blocks to get that (block) gum and the little cartoon strip wrapped around it. Sometimes if we could only get one piece, we would divide it in half, since there was that demarcation line already there for us. Even with half a piece, one could blow bubbles for hours! I sampled a few baseball card packs myself, just to get that flat gum. I collected Beatle cards that way. But back to the issue…YOU, Keith are one of the best samples of a human being I have seen, baseball fan or not. Chew on!

  4. Doomer

    There is an amazing blog that features old school jays cards along with notables stories of each player. Good for a laugh.

  5. Diane Webb


    I liked your blog and I personally invite you to join htttp:// – The World’s Free Collectors Zone.
    We will also be happy to cooperate with your blog such as adding its link to our site.
    All the best,

  6. Pingback: $1 million for a baseball card? A Honus Wagner T206 is back on the market | Off the Bench
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  8. Thomas W. Billing

    I have a 1957 card that made no sense until I read this. It has the exact ad panel back as you have shown but mine has Joe DeMaestri on the front. That makes at least four different players on the obverse side. Keep up the good work on the blog and in the hobby.

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