The Super Rare (1951)
Most collectors know that Topps started their journey into the baseball card wilderness with a pair (Red Backs and Blue Backs) of 52-card “decks” that resembled playing cards and pictured baseball players in tiny black-and-white photos on the fronts.
But what you might not know is that Topps issued two other sets that inaugural year, too.
One was called “Connie Mack All-Stars” and featured 11 Hall of Famers.
The other set was called “Major League All-Stars” and featured — you guessed it — 11 All-Stars from the era.
Both sets featured long, tall cards measuring 2-1/16″ X 5-1/4″ and showcasing a black-and-white action photo on a red background and perched above a yellow biographical box.
The rub is that the player photo was die-cut so collectors could stand them up like little baseball action figures. Most kids did just that, too, making high-grade specimens extremely hard to come by.
To make matters worse, the cards were apparently distributed only in “fun packs” that season, with each clear plastic bag containing a full set of Red Backs, a game card, and five All-Star cards.
The result is one of the rarer and condition-sensitive runs of all post-war issues, with graded commons bringing $100 or more and decent-grade stars fetching several thousand dollars whenever they come to market.
To give you an idea of just how scarce these cards are, PSA has graded 133 Major League All-Stars cards in total as of this writing, with only one each of the three short prints.
Contrast that with the nearly 13,000 Red Backs and more than 6000 Blue Backs the company has graded, and you might start to think these babies are out of reach. Heck, even the Connie Mack All-Stars are better represented, with 606 submissions.
The Missing Years, Part 1 (1952-1957)
After Topps’ initial foray into the baseball card market in 1951, the company decided to stop nibbling around the edges with cutesy issues and took dead aim at Bowman.
The 1952 Topps set was the largest, in terms of individual card size and overall number of cards, that anyone had seen since the tobacco issues of the early 20th century. Collectors immediately took notice, and the race for hobby supremacy was on.
From 1953 to 1956, Topps issued what would be considered oversized cards by modern standards, but with each set being an icon in its own right.
In 1957, Topps used unaltered full-color photos on their cards for the first time and standardized card size at today’s 2 1/2″ X 3 1/2″.
But all through these years, Topps was focused on improving their base product and taking down Bowman — there just didn’t seem to be time for frivolities like All-Star cards (though there was time for the O’Brien twins in 1954 and a couple of multi-player cards in 1957).
The Magazine Years, Part 1 (1958-1962)
In 1957, Cincinnati Reds fans stuffed the All-Star ballot boxes with Reds’ names at the goading of a local newspaper. The result was a starting lineup for the NL in the All-Star Game that included five Cincinnati players.
His feathers ruffled, Commissioner Ford Frick announced that All-Star lineups would no longer be determined by the players and managers themselves beginning in 1958.
Coinciding with this change exactly, Topps issued their first devoted subset of All-Star cards in 1958, featuring a different design from their base cards. The All-Stars showcased National League All-Stars against a blue background with white stars, while their American League counterparts were positioned in front of a red star-spangled canvas.
The cards also referenced the event’s affiliate publisher, Sport Magazine.
Topps continued this same pattern of including special All-Star subsets in their yearly issues through 1962. Most years, the cards shared some visual elements with the base issue — 1960 All-Stars were horizontal and 1962 featured wood-grained borders — but the All-Stars had their own distinct designs.
The publisher affiliation switched to The Sporting News in 1959, and Topps reflected this relationship on their red and blue cards that pictured each All-Star in a home-plate-shaped photo.
The next year, All-Star cards were dominated by a huge blue and orange “60” that served as a backdrop for player photos. For an added bit of artistic flair, Topps cast a shadow of each player against this backdrop. Sport Magazine was back in the fold, too.
For 1961, Topps went with a newspaper motif, with each player head exploding out of a black-and-white copy of The Sporting News.
Finally, The Sporting News got top billing on each wood-grained All-Star card, which also featured a large player photo.
The Lean Years (1963-1967)
Beginning in 1963, Topps entered a five-year period in which it did not include any explicit mention of the All-Star Game in their base sets.
Your guess is as good as mine as to why this happened …
Maybe the folks at Topps were too busy coming up with the test issues that would proliferate during the latter half of the decade.
Maybe they couldn’t figure out a way to fit in an All-Star theme with their base cards from an artistic standpoint.
Or maybe there were just too many other types of cards they wanted to include and weren’t quite ready to expand their sets to accommodate the All-Stars.
At any rate, collectors would have to wait until 1968 to get another shot of regular-issue Topps All-Stars.
One small consolation was the 1965 Topps Embossed cards, which were inserted in packs that year and depicted All-Star players.
The Magazine Years, Part 2 (1968-1970)
After a five-year absence, Topps brought back their The Sporting News All-Stars cards in 1968 and continued the series through the end of the fan-vote ban in 1970.
The 1968 cards were situated in a horizontal fashion instead of the vertical orientation of the base set, and each card featured a large “68” next to the player photo. Card backs were really puzzle pieces that could be fitted together to form one of two large “posters”: Carl Yastrzemski and Orlando Cepeda.
The 1969 All-Stars showed a colored head pose against a black-and-white action shot of the featured player. Yaz was back as one of the card-back puzzle subjects, joined this time by Pete Rose.
The 1970 cards brought back the exploding newspaper theme from 1961, but card backs were dedicated to a cartoon of the player pictured rather than puzzle pieces.
The Missing Years, Part 2 (1971-1973)
Just as fans got the vote back in 1971, Topps again abandoned their All-Star offerings.
It was curious timing made all the more so by the fact that 1971 and 1972 sets were Topps biggest offerings to that point.
Two for One (1974)
Topps moved into a new era in 1974, issuing all their cards in a single series for the first time ever.
As if tipping their cap to their own illustrious past, though, they brought back All-Star cards. This time, the positional counterparts from each league shared one card, which is how we ended up with history’s only piece of cardboard depicting both Bert Campaneris and Chris Speier.
The card-back puzzle returned, too, this time featuring Bobby Bonds in his San Francisco Giants uniform.
The Basic Years (1975-1981)
Topps kept All-Star cards in their rotation for 1975, but with a twist — rather than dedicated All-Star cards, the base card of each honoree was marked with a special designation.
It was a scheme that Topps would leave in place through 1981 and one which also proved popular with collectors, at least according to a recent Twitter poll.
Each year’s implementation was slightly different, though, so it’s worth a quick rundown of the variations:
- 1975 — The usual baseball denoting a player’s position was replaced by a star which noted position and the All-Star designation (“AL ALL STAR” or “NL ALL STAR”).
- 1976 — The usual positional player cartoon denoting a player’s position was replaced by a star which noted position and the All-Star designation.
- 1977 — A banner was added to the bottom of the photo on each All-Star’s base card (blue for NL players, red for AL).
- 1978 — A red, white, and blue shield was added to the photo on each All-Star’s base card.
- 1979 — A banner was added to the bottom of the photo on each All-Star’s base card (blue/purple for NL players, red/brown for AL).
- 1980 — A banner was added to the top of the photo on each All-Star’s base card (black for NL players, purple for AL).
- 1981 — A banner was added to the top of the photo on each All-Star’s base card (green for NL players, red for AL).
The Standalone Years (1982-1989)
Beginning in 1982 and continuing throughout the rest of the decade, Topps brought back dedicated, single-player All-Star cards with each of its base issues.
Most of the All-Star subsets were similar in design to the basic layout for the same year, though the 1986 cards dropped the black top border in lieu of a yellow block and red banner inside a more traditional white border.
And the 1988 All-Star cards, in particular, are difficult to link to the base issue just on sight. While the main set sported a minimalistic design with a large player photo and simple team lettering, the All-Stars swung all the way to other end of the spectrum. In particular, players were relegated to small head shots inside a blue (NL) or red (AL) diamond, all wrapped in enough yellow to make a banana green with envy.
All in all, the Topps All-Star offerings in the 1980s mimicked the themes of the decade itself — big, bold, and gaudy.
And if all those All-Stars weren’t enough, Topps also ushered in the era of rack-pack glossy All-Star cards in 1984. Each set consisted of 22 cards and were seeded one per rack pack, on top of the left-most panel. The card designs were virtually identical from year to year, with just the players, photos, and year designation changing in any material way.
Those glossy inserts carried Topps all the way through the decade and well into the next.