Saturday, October 12, 2019

Semi Tough

One of the more fascinating, popular and somewhat studied byways of the 1952 Topps Baseball set is, of course, the high numbers spanning #311-407.  Planned to coincide with the 1952 World Series, the set is heavy with New York and Boston players -- more than half of the high numbers at 49 in total -- reflecting the main, limited distribution areas of the time. The highs followed on the heels of the semi-high numbers, a fifth series spanning #251-310 and the last one planned to be part of the now legendary 1952 set until Sy Berger allegedly/possibly/definitely talked Joe Shorin into issuing a sixth and final series (or "second" series as Topps referred to it at the time).


The highs fanned out from the Northeast, spreading south and west and some didn't hit the West Coast until 1953, but the general gist is sales were extremely subpar.  I believe there was vending produced too, although any Topps vending numbers at the time were miniscule. I have never seen mention of a penny pack or ten cent cellos for the high numbers and some highs were issued in a blue and red wrapper, distinct from the green and red wrapper that held cards from #1-310. This wrapper is probably the source for the stories of 1952 cards being found in 1953 wax packs. Conversely, Topps did sometimes use older wrappers for newer product, a practice they followed into at least the mid-1970's. There would have been returns for the highs from the wholesale jobbers, consolidators and direct accounts as well and Topps likely had a bunch that never left the warehouse floor.  

Topps kept their set counts lower in the following years and didn't issue a set as large as the 52's until 1957, when they matched its 407 cards, albeit without what we would call high numbers today. That was partially due to lack of players under contract prior to the acquisition of Bowman in 1956 and there may have been some gun shyness involved as well. The first set to really go all in again on high numbers would be issued in 1958, as baseball expanded to California, and they continued through 1972 (or 1973, sort of) in patterns tat sometimes defy logic. Topps attempted to smooth out the availability issue of the highs in 1968 and '69 but 1970-72 resulted in traditional high numbers being marketed before they went to issuing all their cards at once following a phase-in during 1973. But make no mistake about it, the 1952 high numbers are the daddy of them all, in large part due what is assuredly a Sy Berger tall tale detailing how a couple truckloads of high numbers were loaded from Topps HQ on a garbage scow one day in 1960 or so, after various creative attempts to dispose of same failed, and towed out to the Atlantic Bight, where they became fish food.

Topps certainly could have hired a barge to dump their stock as there were ample dock facilities available to them at Bush Terminal, which commands a large stretch of the Brooklyn waterfront along Gowanus Bay.  There are, to my mind, several problems with the barge story though:

1) Topps would never have spent money to discard something they could have just tossed out or flash fried in the incinerator at Bush Terminal back in the day.

2) The excess 1952 inventory was probably not located at Topps HQ in Bush Terminal. rather, it probably ended up at one of their historical Brooklyn locations, all still in use as storage and distribution facilities during the Swingin' Sixties.  I would think either 60 Broadway (the Gretsch Building) or 383 3rd Avenue (the old Shapiro Candy plant) would suffice for such purposes and then whatever was left just sat around for several years until it was either rediscovered or someone came up with a plan, to wit:

3) Card Collectors Company, Topps preferred secondary selling market for leftovers and the like, and operated by Woody Gelman, ran out of the '52 highs by the late 50's.  They then restocked sometime after 1960 and were selling singles and full high number runs through at least 1968. That many highs being sold for that long?  They would have to come from Topps in such quantity, especially as they were already known to be hard to find by the time of the alleged dumping at sea.

4) Topps never tossed anything unless they had to.  They would just put it out in Fun Packs, or some other type of setup.  The one set I am aware of them dumping is the 1968 B&W Football Team cards, which look more and more to me  like they had to be destroyed on orders from the NFL.

So I call shenanigans on the barge story!

This all got me curious about the potential universe of 1952 semi highs and highs, so I did a canvass of eBay on October 4, 2019 which yielded some interesting figures.  Here's the raw data:

SEMI HIGHS HIGHS
CARD COUNT PLAYER CARD COUNT PLAYER
251 62 311 42 MANTLE
252 92 312 22 ROBINSON
253 80 313 51 THOMSON
254 100 314 23 CAMPANELLA
255 81 315 26 DUROCHER
256 107 316 27
257 57 317 22
258 83 318 37
259 87 319 31
260 84 320 30
261 72 MAYS 321 26
262 38 322 26
263 57 323 37
264 99 324 22
265 83 325 31
266 78 326 47
267 87 327 21
268 52 328 23
269 69 329 20
270 92 330 16
271 49 331 20
272 31 332 7 BARTIROME
273 36 333 37 REESE
274 28 334 22
275 60 335 13
276 35 336 38
277 41 337 39
278 53 338 25
279 57 339 14
280 25 340 24
281 36 341 23
282 30 342 23
283 54 343 27
284 55 344 33
285 67 345 24
286 48 346 38
287 25 347 22
288 61 348 26
289 20 349 41
290 41 350 34
291 53 351 38
292 67 352 28
293 61 353 27
294 36 354 17
295 27 355 29
296 27 356 28
297 48 357 19
298 49 358 48
299 60 359 17
300 50 360 28
301 51 361 31
302 51 362 16
303 43 363 41
304 45 364 37
305 42 365 48
306 53 366 45
307 31 CAMPOS 367 52
308 33 368 60
309 34 369 13
310 37 370 17
TOTAL 3,310 371 30
372 30
373 28
374 28
375 26
376 16
377 54
378 23
379 38
380 28
381 32
382 22
383 22
384 21
385 38
386 16
387 41
388 38
389 36
390 38
391 39
392 8 WILHELM
393 33
394 34 HERMAN
395 30
396 19 WILLIAMS
397 31
398 16
399 30
400 20 DICKEY
401 29
402 27
403 19
404 24
405 29
406 19
407 15 MATHEWS
TOTAL 2,776

There were between 25 and 107 of any individual semi high's available on the 'bay on October 4, vs. 7 to 60 of the highs. The decadal tranches reveal cards #251-270 were the extra prints in the semi-highs (three of them for every two between #271-310):

COUNT TRANCHE AVERAGE
833 251-260 84.3
727 261-270 73.7
415 271-280 42.5
437 281-290 44.7
478 291-300 48.8
420 301-310 > 3,310 43.0
253.5 311-320 26.4
269 321-330 27.9
239 331-340 24.9
291 341-350 30.1
279 351-360 28.9
360 361-370 37.0
301 371-380 31.1
304 381-390 31.4
260 391-400 27.0
219.5 401-407 > 2,776 23.0

It further works out to 55 semi highs on average compared to 28 highs (I accounted for the DP's of #311, #312 and #313), or almost exactly a 2:1 ratio. Furthermore, the PSA pop reports show several hundred of each high number have been slabbed. I would think there is a bit of a skew toward a higher percentage of high numbers being listed on Ebay vs. semi-highs and also in the pop reports but the 1952 highs can certainly be found without much of a problem. Your experience may vary, especially if you want a certain card in a certain condition, but they are out there.

Popularity certainly seems to be a big driver with the highs.  They were hard to find in 1952, could eventually be found at Card Collectors Company (or more accurately "Sam Rosen" prior to Woody's Father-In-Law passing away on New Year's Eve 1958) and eventually saw a rebirth in the 60's at CCC.  Woody really amped up the CCC presence once he took over in 1959 and was a big advertiser in The Sporting News, Boys Life and other publications, raising visibility of the hobby and the 1952 high numbers. The ither thing driving them could also be appearance-they look super, at least to me.



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