Each week I look back through my baseball card collection for a deep dive on beloved Bombers and past seasons.
Player: Don Larsen
Set: 1959 Topps
Card #: 205
Variation: Gray back (some cards #199-286 issued with either white or gray backs)
On the first day of 2020, my esteemed colleague Michael Gwizdala stated the “world is less perfect today.” It summed up well our emotions surrounding the loss of Don Larsen, the only man to pitch a perfect game in postseason play. This week I searched through my Larsen cardboard to take a closer look at his career in pinstripes.
The 1959 Topps set remains a landmark offering, 61 years after it was printed. Despite a lack of prized rookies (only Bob Gibson’s #514 fits the bill), the set’s distinct design elements make it one of the most easily-recognizable in the 69 editions of Topps’ flagship set. Topps bought out archrival Bowman in 1956, creating a monopoly in the industry that went untested until the early ’80s. When Topps’ 1956 set closely mirrored their 1955 offering, there was concern that their competitive stranglehold would lead to mediocrity. Instead, Topps churned out one iconic design after another for decades to come.
In 1957 they debuted a clean, minimalist look that allowed the player images to take center stage. In 1958 a pop of color in the background offered a distinctly new and progressive aesthetic. Then, in 1959, they pushed the envelope further, repurposing the vibrant color splash of ’58 into a dynamic “porthole” frame that remains one of the company’s most distinct borders alongside Topps 1972.
In addition to the bright borders, the set’s photography relied less on Kodak’s Flexichrome technology, in which technicians hand-dyed black and white negatives. Depending on the amount of dye, Flexichrome images looked tinted (like in ’57), or painted (like in ’55 and ’56). Though several high-numbered cards in the ’59 set rely on Flexichrome, the rest are more crisp and true to life.
The set was also the largest Topps put out to that point with a 572-card checklist. They also brought back facsimile signatures, first debuted in ’52 and last used in ’56. The set was also the first Topps product to include Stan Musial, absent from Topps’ first eight series due to a holdout. However, Ted Williams is noticeably omitted from due to the Splendid Splinter’s exclusive deal with Fleer for an 80-card set that year.
The Korean War ignited in June 1950 when the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel. The Army drafted Larsen in ’51 and he served in non-combat locales for the next two years, forfeiting his entire 21 and 22-year-old seasons. Imagine a draft scooped up Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, and other MLB stars in their prime. The situation boggles the mind, but that’s exactly what happened during the WWII and Korean War eras. DiMaggio, Whitey, Yogi, Scooter, and numerous other Yanks courageously answered the call.
Larsen in 1959
Larsen played for seven major league clubs over his fourteen-year career. His five years in New York, the longest of his seven stops, was by far the most productive time of his career. While he finished his career with an 81-91 win/loss record, he went 45-24 in the Bronx with a 3.50 ERA, a lower mark than his career average. His 4.6 WAR in New York was a hefty chunk of his career 12.5 mark.
Unfortunately, ’59 was Larsen’s toughest season in the Bronx. He finished 6-7 (his only season under .500 as a Yankee) as his ERA swelled to 4.33 from a 3.31 average over his first four seasons in pinstripes. His 0.1 WAR ranked him 145th league-wide among pitchers, his 5.0 SO/9 placed him a shade below the league average, and his 5.5 BB/9 put him near the cellar.
However, a baffling season in the Bronx serves as a lens to evaluate Larsen’s struggles. After beating the Milwaukee Braves in seven games to take the ’58 crown, the Bombers finished third in the AL in ’59, a full fifteen games behind the “Go-Go” White Sox. It was the first time in thirteen autumns that Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, or Ebbets Field did not play host to the Fall Classic. Drops in production from Mantle, Berra, Skowron, and Bauer and an inconsistent year for Whitey led to just 79 wins, their fewest since 1925. The entire season was an shocking blip, the only year between 1955 and 1964 that they did not win the pennant.
However, ’59 registers as merely a footnote in Larsen’s Yankee legacy thanks to his heroics on October 8, 1956. After Larsen lasted just 1.2 innings in Game 2 of the World Series, the Yankees fell behind Brooklyn 0-2. The series moved to 161st St. & River Ave. where the Yankees clipped the Dodgers in two taut games to even the series and set up Larsen’s chance at redemption. He made the most of his opportunity by retiring all 27 batters he faced in a line-up that boasted four Hall of Famers including Jackie Robinson. It was the sixth perfect game in history, the first since 1922, and the only one ever pitched in the postseason. The Yanks dropped Game 6, but thumped “Dem Bums,” 9-0, in Game 7 for their 17th World Series title. For his part, Larsen earned the MVP.
In raw form, this card went for anywhere from $1.50 to $30.99 in recent eBay sales, depending on the condition. A PSA 9 sold for $184.59 in December.
Notable Yankees in 1959 Topps
#10 – Mickey Mantle
#60 – Bob Turley
#76 – Bobby Richardson
#90 – Bill Skowron
#180 – Yogi Berra
#205 – Don Larsen
#240 – Hank Bauer
#251 – Clete Boyer
#345 – Gil McDougald
#395 – Elston Howard (UER*)
#430 – Whitey Ford
#505 – Tony Kubek
Bonus Hobby Knowledge: Rookie Cards
Identifying true rookie cards can be a confusing and sometimes contentious affair. The Cardboard Connectionput together a helpful, in-depth breakdown which I’ll distill here. A player’s rookie card is his first licensed card (approved by MLB and the Player’s Association). It must be a base card, not an insert, subset, or parallel. Players need not be in their major league uniform for it to be an official rookie card. Mariano’s iconic 1992 Bowman rookie card shows him casually resting against the wall on his way to, what I can only assume is debate team practice.
Players can have multiple rookie cards (though only one in each set) provided they are released in the same year. In 1993 Jeter had officially recognized rookie cards in Bowman, Pinnacle, Score, Select, SP, Stadium Club, Topps, and Upper Deck. Those are his only rookie cards. You may be thinking, ‘But I have Jeter’s 1995 Upper Deck #225!’ Though it says “Star Rookie” on it, it is not a rookie card since Jeter had officially licensed cards two years earlier. Other cards labeled “Future Star,” “#1 Draft Pick,” “All-Star Rookie,” etc. do not necessarily mean they are true rookies, so be careful while you’re out there collecting.
In an effort to cut through the confusion, MLB put down rookie card guidelines in 2006. Beginning that year, a player’s rookie card was his first issued after he appeared on a 25-man roster. Prior to ’06 he only needed to sign a pro contract. It was a great idea in theory. In execution the rule effectively decomissioned any licensed rookie cards from the previous year and earlier. From that point on, rookie cards also included an “RC” logo on the front, designating it a true rookie. Prior to ’06 it is harder to parse out rookies from non-rookies, but The Trading Card Database is a helpful resource as they label all true rookies “RC” in their checklists.
Even with all of the efforts to crystallize the guidelines around rookie cards, things remain muddled. Topps’ numerous prospect offerings, particularly under the Bowman name they’ve owned since ’56, make the rookie card landscape confusing. Numerous sets feature players in their major league uniforms on cards with similar designs to the base set, yet are not rookie cards since they do not feature the RC logo.