1956 Topps Baseball: Gray Backs vs. White Backs

Many vintage baseball card collectors love oddities and one-offs. Errors, variations, you name it. The 1956 Topps baseball set was the first year without Bowman as a competitor since Topps acquired its rival. The issue within oddities and variations concerns the back of many of these cards goes well beyond paper quality and the continual instance of rough cuts on many cards — Gray Backs and White Backs.

Topps’ 1956 baseball card set was much larger in numbers than the 1955 Topps set from the prior year. More players no longer had exclusive contracts with Bowman and Topps now effectively had the baseball card monopoly and Topps went big again in its issuance of 340 baseball cards for the whole set. The 1955 set was only 206 cards (with some missing numbers) and the 1954 Topps baseball set had 250 cards in total.

Some of the portraits used were identical to the 1955 set and some also were used from the 1954 set. Topps also introduced team cards from the 1956 baseball card set. It also brought back Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Bob Feller back on the Topps cards. Luis Aparicio is the prime rookie card of the set, but the major money card is Mickey Mantle. After that are the Mays and Aaron cards, and then the second-year cards for Clemente and Koufax. Along with two of the key baseball executives, Topps also had unnumbered “Check List” cards (which are now usually found with pen and/or pencil marks for each card that was collected.

So, what about these Gray Back and White Back variations? There is a lot to consider here, and opinions may vary. Perhaps wildly.

The series of cards number #1 to #180 come with white and gray variations on the back. The cards #181 to #340 are only seen with gray backs.

According to the PSA CardFacts site — Card collectors lean toward the gray backs for cards #1- #100 and then the white backs from #101 -#180. The first two series are #1-100 and the second is #101-180. Series 3 is #181-260 and the high-number series 4 is #261-#340. Most price guides put a premium on the common cards in the series 2, 3 and 4 over series 1’s #1-100 cards.

There is one obvious issue to consider between the White Backs and the Gray Backs. The clarity of the print and the overall attractiveness of the white backs are far superior visually than the gray backs. The downside to that is that the white backs will also show more handling and discolorations much more clearly than the gray backs.

Now you wonder why some collectors want the white backs and some want the gray backs. And then there are the other collectors who just do not care and are only happy to have the card in hand. But are the ratios of white to gray trustworthy of are they even real?

A recent article from outlines a potential flag here for the variations — PSA didn’t account for the variation of backs prior to October of 2008. That means that all of the grading numbers may not be representative and why some of the gray and white ratios look so skewed. Yes, yet another grading asterisk for vintage collectors to ponder.

Another issue is that not all collectors give one a premium price over another. The Cardboard Connection states (among other things):

Despite the abundance of variations, virtually none are known to command any premium.

Dean’s Cards shows where it sees a premium and where it does not:

While cards #1 to #100 were made in fairly equal numbers, the 1956 Topps “White Back” cards are harder to find for cards #101 to #180, especially in the higher grades, and sell for a premium. For this reason, we have listed only these 80 cards as variations.

Keep in mind that just the PSA graded population alone (without BGS and SGC) is 337,855 graded examples in total. Of that total population, there are 302,538 used for comparisons to individual cards below without “+” and “Q” designations on the grading.

Because PSA has the most cards graded of the top three grading houses, the data here is being kept as PSA data from mid-November only. This data also does not include every Hall of Fame player but is focused on the most frequently graded cards of 2,500 or more in White/Gray backs combined and without “+” and “Q” designations. Here you go:

  • #5 Ted Williams (Gray Back) at 1,364
  • #5 Ted Williams (White Back) at 3,748
  • #15 Ernie Banks (Gray Back) at 1,035
  • #15 Ernie Banks (White Back) at 2,570
  • #30 Jackie Robinson Gray Back) at 1,800
  • #30 Jackie Robinson (White Back) at 4,644
  • #31 Hank Aaron (Gray Back) at 1,787
  • #31 Hank Aaron (White Back) at 5,196
  • #33 Roberto Clemente (Gray Back) at 1,586
  • #33 Roberto Clemente (White Back) at 4,323
  • #79 Sandy Koufax (Gray Back) at 1,385
  • #79 Sandy Koufax (White Back) at 4,160
  • #130 Willie Mays (Gray Back) at 4,643
  • #130 Willie Mays (White Back) at 478
  • #135 Mickey Mantle (Gray Back) at 7,188
  • #135 Mickey Mantle (White Back) at 636
  • #150 Duke Snider (Gray Back) at 2,739
  • #150 Duke Snider (White Back) at 123
  • #164 Harmon Killebrew (Gray Back) at 2,483
  • #164 Harmon Killebrew (White Back) at 83

And for the cards with no variations:

  • #200 Bob Feller at 2,014
  • #240 Whitey Ford at 2,026
  • #292 Luis Aparicio (rookie card) at 2,576

Again, Mickey Mantle is the anchor card of the 1956 Topps baseball set as there are no major rookies to pull rookie collectors’ attention away. And whether the 636 White Back versus 7,188 Gray Back ratio is accurate, that is probably not based on the notion that PSA hasn’t distinguished the variations for so many years.

1956 Topps Mickey Mantle

Here is why Mantle’s card is so attractive. According to the PSA CardFacts site, minus the issue about Mickey Mantle’s stats and card size:

This is, quite simply, one of Mickey Mantle’s most attractive and popular cards. On this card, Mantle is captured grinning ear-to-ear. And you would be too if you had a season like he did in 1956. Mantle captured the elusive Triple Crown… This card is certainly the key to the 1956 Topps set, which lacks any serious rookie card power… There are two variations of this card, one with a white back and one with grey back. While the white backs are tougher to find and sell for a premium, the grey backs are usually seen with superior eye-appeal. Even though this card is not one of Mantle’s more difficult issues, it is challenging to find centered, and some 1956 Topps cards are found with severe rough-cuts. The existence of rough-cuts do not tend to hinder the technical grade of the card, but some collectors do not like the appearance.

And for yet another “error” among 1950s cards, take a look at the base runner image of Hank Aaron on card #31 and ask if that looks like Hank or not. If you think not, you would be correct. It’s actually Willie Mays. Errors occur in card making. Whether they are intentional or just simple errors is often to leave up to your imagination.

At the end of the day, how you view the variation of Gray versus White on the back is going to be entirely up to you. Figuring out the why and the real ratios between the two variations is also going to be up to you!