Baseball popularity reached new heights in 1961 as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris battled for the American League MVP and a new single-season home run record. While baseball cards honoring the home run race wouldn't appear until the next year, the showdown would certainly increase the popularity of the sets produced that year, including 1961 Topps. Fleer and Nu-Cards continued to issue sets trying to compete with Topps and 1961 also saw the premiere of the Post Cereal sets which would go on to become a popular food-based product. Take a closer look at the baseball card world from 1961 and a list highlighting some of the best cards issued.
1961 Flagship Topps Baseball Cards
Returning to a vertical design, 1961 Topps featured a large player photo bordered by two colorful rectangles displaying player info. The set was originally intended to have 589 cards but only 587 were released as two cards in the All-Star subset were never issued. For the first time, Topps included statistical leader cards which would become a yearly addition.
Another first, checklists were given their own numbered card after being included with team photo cards previously. The 1961 set features rookie cards for three future Hall of Fame members—Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and Juan Marichal—and each appears in the list below. Additionally, fan-favorite rookies for Ziolo Versalles, Matty Alou, Dick Howser, and Willie Davis are found in the set.
Beyond the flagship product, 1961 would prove to be a down year for other baseball cards from Topps. A dice baseball game was test issued and is extremely rare to find with the Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial cards being the most valuable. The Magic Rub-Offs set was another tattoo release that kids could stick anywhere. Collectors haven't shown the set too much love with Ernie Banks and Yogi Berra releases being available at lower prices.
The miniature Topps Stamps set is another option with limited popularity today as the stamps are less than an inch-and-a-half in size. Mantle is again the most valuable of the bunch. Topps also issued another Bazooka set that was available in panels of three cards on the bottom of the gum boxes. Twelve panels of three cards made for some interesting pairings. For example, Mickey Mantle shares his panel with a Ron Santo rookie card.
1961 Fleer, Nu-Cards, and Post Baseball Cards
Moving to the other 1961 brands, Fleer Baseball Greats again included retired players, plus Ted Williams. Although just one card cracks the list, other highlights include colorized photo cards for Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, and Lou Gehrig. The 1960 Nu-Cards set was called Hi-Lites while the 1961 set went with Baseball Scopes, but the overall idea of the set—newspaper headlines devoted to a player's greatest moments— stayed the same. Mickey Mantle has two cards celebrating his feat of hitting the longest recorded home run and both cards hold peak value.
Another set of note, Post Cereal issued their inaugural baseball cards in 1961. This set, along with subsequent Post releases, became the most popular food-based line of the era. Cards could be found on boxes of cereal and also on team sheets via a mail-in offer. Collectors can tell the difference between the two versions by the thickness of the card with the team cards being noticeably thinner.
1961 Food-Based Baseball Sets
As usual, there were several regional baseball card releases from dairies, beer makers, and meat processors in 1961. The Washington Senators franchise moved to Minnesota and became the Twins after the 1960 season, and 1961 would see several dairy releases honoring their first year. Cloverfield Diary issued 17 Twins players on the side of their milk cartons with the highlight being Jim Kaat. Harmon Killebrew wasn't included in that set because he was featured exclusively as the only Twin on milk cartons for Franklin Milk. Peters Meats also issued Twins cards as part of their packaging and the editions that have a heavy wax finish are a rare find in good condition.
Showing the power of the LA market, three sets were devoted to the ever-popular Los Angeles Dodgers in 1961. This includes a Bell Brand potato chips set with 20 cards and a nearly identical design from the previous year. In addition, Wilson Meats and Morrell Meats each had six-card sets with Gil Hodges being a highlight in Wilson and Sandy Koufax as the standout of Morrell.
Switching gears, the 1961 Kahn's Wieners checklist returned to the traditional lineup of Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds players. For the first time, collectors also had a chance to order the Kahn's cards through the mail, so the number of 1961 cards is high compared to previous sets. Carling Beer issued their final set of Cleveland Indians player cards in 1961 and Jimmy Piersall's card is the most valuable. Harmony Milk released 8 x 10 photos featuring five Pirates, including Roberto Clemente, and the cards feature the humorous tagline of "The Pirates train on Harmony Milk."
Yankees sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were both individually featured by companies in 1961, as well. The Phillies Cigar company offered a photo card (and a baseball glove) of Mantle for 20 cigar bands, plus shipping. To celebrate Maris' 61-home run season, the Sam's Family Restaurant chain in California produced a postcard showing Maris receiving his 61st home run ball.
Other 1961 Baseball Sets
Closing out the year, the 7-11 chain briefly issued a low-quality baseball card set with vibrant, hot-pink card stock. Stan Musial and Willie Mays are the most sought-after of these rare cards. Exhibits issued a Hall of Fame photo card set that was exclusively for sale at Wrigley Field and the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig appearances are the top cards. Finally, the Golden Press company issued a booklet filled with 33 cards of Hall of Fame members that could be removed from the book and Joe DiMaggio's card is a popular option.
While Topps continued to dominate the baseball card world, two other card makers earned a spot in the list below. In determining each card's placement on the list, hobby relevance and card value were both considered.
Top 10 Vintage Baseball Card Singles of 1961
Click on the card titles or images to shop for specific cards on eBay. Links in the descriptions go directly to card guides.
Just making the cutoff, the 1961 Topps Ron Santo rookie card features a rather robust All-Star Rookie Cup logo in the corner of the card. Santo earned the Cup with his respectable rookie season in 1960, hitting nine home runs and 44 RBI in 95 games. He would finish in fourth place in Rookie of the Year voting, losing to Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Frank Howard. Santo was a rare combination of power and great fielding at third base, winning five Gold Gloves during his career.
Despite a disappointing 8-13 record during the 1960 season, Sandy Koufax was developing into a dominating pitcher, finishing second in the National League with 197 strikeouts. That fact is highlighted on the back of his 1961 Topps card. Along with his base card, Koufax is also featured on a Strikeout Leaders card with his teammate Don Drysdale and a Dodgers Southpaws card with fellow Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Johnny Podres.
The final Ted Williams card as a player can be found in 1961 Fleer Baseball Greats as Williams would retire from the Red Sox after the 1960 season. To be fair, Williams also makes a 1961 Nu-Cards Baseball Scoops appearance but that card honors his heroics in the 1941 All-Star game rather than his on-field performance at the time. Williams would eventually return to the game as the manager of the Washington Senators in '69 and fans can find him featured again in Topps products in the 1969 set.
The Boston Red Sox fan favorite Carl Yastrzemski held the top spot on the 1960 list, and his 1961 Topps card featured him as a Star Rookie for the second time. Yaz's card uses basically the same image again but the card is an anomaly in 1961 as his portrait is a colorized version of a black-and-white photo while nearly every other card features color photography. It wouldn't be until 1962 Topps that Yastrzemski would finally get a full-color Topps card.
The second Chicago Cubs release to crack the list is the 1961 Topps Billy Williams rookie card. Williams is featured as a Star Rookie after playing in 30 games over the 1959 and 1960 season. A product of the Cubs scouting team that included Buck O'Neil and Rogers Hornsby, Williams would be a popular figure for the Cubs over his 16 seasons. He would blossom into the power hitting slugger that earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame during the 1961 season, winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
The crown jewel of the first Post Cereal set was Mickey Mantle's card and collectors can find two versions for "The Mick." One version was hand-cut right from a Post Cereal box where card quality varies greatly based on the collector's scissor-cutting ability. The other version came from the 10-card team sheet that fans could order from Post directly. Those cards typically have perforated edges and are thinner than the cereal box editions.
Hank Aaron is about to throw a baseball on his 1961 Topps card with what looks like a fastball grip. Aaron had another statistically great season in 1960, continuing the trend that would allow him to eventually become the home run king. He totaled 40 home runs, drove in a league-leading 125 RBI, and even captured a Gold Glove for his defensive play in the Milwaukee Braves outfield that year.
The Roger Maris rookie card from 1958 Topps made the '58 list and he returns here with his 1961 Topps base card. After being bounced around from the Cleveland Indians to the Kansas City Athletics to the New York Yankees, Maris became a player possessed in 1960, hitting 39 home runs and winning the American League MVP. His performance during the 1961 season as he approached Babe Ruth's home run record made him even more popular and his baseball cards followed suit.
The king of the rookies in 1961 Topps is the Juan Marichal card which features the San Francisco Giants pitcher sporting a big smile. Although he wouldn't pitch a full season until 1961, Marichal would become the winningest pitcher of the 1960s but he never won the Cy Young Award. This may have been due to his fiery personality and his tendency to be aggressive on the mound which included regularly throwing at batters' heads.
The American League's most feared slugger, Mickey Mantle has his bat on his shoulder in this 1961 Topps card. Although he fell short in MVP voting to Roger Maris in 1960, Mantle lead the AL in home runs with 40. Mantle was able to win three MVP awards over the course of his career, and impressively finished in second place in MVP voting another three times. Near-mint/mint graded versions of this card regularly top $2,500 at auction.