It's difficult for me to imagine what life was like for a kid in the 1950s. Even though the '50s is one of the most romanticized decades in American history, there is still much of it that escapes me.
I don't know what it's like, for example, to live in a world without sugar packets or air bubble packaging or astroturf. All of it was invented after 1956 but before I was born. And I don't know what it's like to put a penny on the counter and receive exactly one wrapped baseball card in return -- which was something you could do in 1956.
But thanks to the cards that came in those packs in 1956, I've often wondered what it was like to be a boy that year. What was it like to go to the corner grocery store or drug store, surrender a single coin, and receive a piece of art on cardboard in return?
I know what it's like to be a 9-year-old in the '70s. The plaid pants, the flowered wallpaper, the yellow smiley faces everywhere. I know what it's like to pull 10 cards of 1975 Topps out of a red-and-yellow package.
It was thrilling. Something to treasure for days afterward. And because 1975 Topps is a beloved set, much like 1956 Topps is, I think I may know a little bit more about the 1956 experience than I think I do. Because 1975 and 1956 really weren't all that different for a kid (for example, I remember all the television shows being in black and white and going to Woolworth's).
So, imagine for a moment that you are 9 years and have a penny or a nickel burning a hole in your pocket.
How did you get that money? I don't know. Were pennies just lying on the sidewalk like they are today? I'm guessing they weren't. The coins probably came from a grandparent or for doing chores.
So you headed out the house, either on foot or on your bike, and traveled to the nearest store that sold baseball cards.
This was the first year of the Topps monopoly. Bowman didn't exist anymore. I wonder it was like for kids who experienced both products in 1955 and then had just one in 1956. I wonder if they bitched about it as much as people do today about Topps being the sole licensed marketer. I'm guessing not. Especially when they saw what the cards looked like that year.
1956 Topps came in a yellow wrapper. There was a drawing of a smiling pitcher in mid-windup, right leg held high. You had two different options when you bought cards in 1956. You either bought one card for a penny or six cards for a nickel.
I get giddy thinking about that -- six cards for a nickel! Six beautifully produced cards -- front and back -- for a nickel! The 1950s really were the golden age!
Those one-card packs must have had a lottery feel to them. One card and that was it. "Please, please, please don't let it be another Chet Nichols." I can imagine that going through kids' heads over and over.
And if you got another Chet Nichols, my god, it must have been crushing. You'd have to wait who knows how long before you'd find another penny.
Yup, I think I like my 10-card pack childhood better.
But, boy, imagine if your one card was this card. I can picture myself as a kid in '56 being absolutely enamored with Vic Wertz diving back to the bag. It would instantly become one of my favorite cards. A card like this was winning the lottery with that one-card pack.
In 1956, you could also retrieve your Topps cards out of a gumball machine. For the price of admission, you'd get a gumball and a card.
My memories of gumball machines is the one that used to stand near the door of the shoe store. We'd go in to try on new shoes and my only goal from that visit was not to find shoes that I liked -- who cares about shoes? -- but to convince my mom or dad to get a piece of gum. The gum in those clear-glass globes were the Chiclet-style gum, square and flatish and in different colors, red, green, white, yellow. I was so used to that kind of gum coming out of penny machines that it took me years to work up the nerve to try an actual gumball.
Anyway -- that was a tangent -- what I was getting at was I would have been absolutely wild with desire if that same gumball machine also featured the chance to get a baseball card. Gum AND a baseball card???? Yes, everyone, the '50s rule again.
Since this was the first year of the Topps monopoly, Topps tried a few things. Besides issuing a card set, it issued a few other kid friendly collectibles. There were Topps pins and Bazooka Joe Big League Emblems and Topps Hocus Focus, which came in regular size and a smaller size.
But most of these disappeared after 1956 because kids decided they liked the cards the best, and why wouldn't they? Look at the ump sizing up the play behind Bobby Morgan!
You got a lot for your money in 1956 -- a lot more than you do now. You received an expertly crafted card. And you came away with a great idea of what the ballplayer looked like, plus that player in action.
You may have been able to view Lassie or the Lone Ranger once a week on your TV in 1956, but seeing baseball players live wasn't a common thing in 1956.
Heck, you couldn't even get all of the players you heard about on your baseball cards. Despite Topps outlasting Bowman and players like Mickey Mantle returning to Topps sets, it wasn't an easy transition. Topps had to renegotiate with "Bowman athletes" and that took time.
That's why Stan Musial isn't in the 1956 set. Or Sal Maglie, who had a terrific year in 1956. The '56 set was definitely more complete than sets from 1954 or 1955, but it wasn't the perfect picture.
Did kids notice then? I'm willing to bet somebody noticed that Musial was nowhere to be found on 1956 baseball cards.
1956 introduced us to team cards -- the first to ever appear. And to checklists. The two unnumbered checklists in '56 Topps are the first of its kind.
I often wonder how difficult it was to build a set in 1956. I mean one card per trip to the store is a slow process. Even six cards at a time for a 340-card set will take a bit of work.
Still, I know it had to be an exciting time to be a kid in 1956. A lot of interesting things were happening then. All of the older kids were talking about Elvis. and the grown-ups were muttering about someone named Rosa Parks and a place called the Suez Canal.
But the most exciting part of 1956, I am convinced, appeared in yellow wrappers and corner stores all over the country.
If I was a kid then, 1956 Topps would be my favorite set of all-time. And you wouldn't get me to shut up about it.
All of these cards that I'm showing here came from carlsonjok from Cardboard Catastrophes. He was nice enough to supply me with some extras that came out of his 1956 set quest.
Since I now have a want list for '56 Topps, the cards have shown up on my doorstep almost immediately.
That is very cool. And although it seems like the '50s would be a great time to collect cards, is there any time better than the present? You write about how you like certain cards and -- presto -- they arrive. I don't even need a corner store.
Besides, if I had been a 9-year-old in 1956, I'd be in my 70s by now, probably allergic to computers and there is no way you'd be reading this blog.
But thanks for the look into the '50s, Jeffrey.
And I know one more thing:
Nobody was pulling autographed cards of Harvey Kuenn out of penny packs in 1956.