Despite being the biggest rock act of all time and maintaining relevance and popularity for over half a century, there are surprisingly few trading card sets devoted to The Beatles.
In fact, the bulk of all trading card releases occurred in 1964 — the year Beatlemania hit the United States — and save for a few releases in the 1990s, the hobby has all but ignored the Fab Four. Thankfully, 1964 gave collectors plenty to track down as Topps released five different sets dedicated to the Lads from Liverpool in the United States with O-Pee-Chee recreating a few of those sets for the Canadian market.
1964 Topps Beatles Black and White
The largest set of Beatles trading cards was probably intended to be a small batch of cards but as Beatlemania raged on, more and more cards were added to the collection. The 1964 Black and White series included a 165 cards released over three different series. The front of each card was a black and white photograph with a colored facsimile autograph of one of the band members printed across the image. The backs were blank except for a number inscription. Series 1 clearly stated that the set was intended to be 60 cards (#2 in a series of 60 photos) but series 2 and 3 were marked as individual series and left the final checklist numbering open ended (2nd Series #61 through #115, Card #65).
This set remains popular among collectors but can be tough to track down in great condition. The centering of these cards can be pretty horrible with some cards completely missing entire sides of a border. But, nevertheless, they are a big part of the non-sports collecting history. There is also a duplicate of this set produced by O-Pee-Chee the same year.
1964 Topps A Hard Day’s Night
Topps produced one more set of black and white cards in 1964 but this set was specifically commemorating the band’s first film A Hard Day’s Night. The fronts of the cards could easily be confused for the previous Topps set as they both feature an image and a simple white border but the images from this set are often times more interesting because they focus less on publicity stills and more on behind the scenes moments from the film set.
The reverse of each card includes a bit of film trivia which often relates to the image used on the front. Card #1, for example, shows Ringo chatting with some folks on set while the reverse explains some of the many visitors that showed up to watch filming.
The checklist for this set includes 55 cards and is often referred to (including by card graders) as 1964 Beatles Movie thanks to the branding of the packages.
1964 Topps Beatles Color Photos
Not all of Beatlemania was in black and white and Topps did eventually release a series of color photo cards. Like the two sets already discussed, the design is pretty uninspired with nothing more than a simple white background that was just enough to create centering issues throughout the set but not enough to set it apart form other Non-Sports offerings of the day. That’s not to say that this isn’t a lovely set, though, and highly sought after by collectors.
The reverse of these cards may be the most interesting to fans as each includes a bit of trivia, band member stats, or interview responses from the band. Card 28, for example, has George answering what his favorite part of filming a movie was and card 2 lets us know that Paul is 5’11” and his favorite food is roast beef.
There are 64 cards in this set and, like the black and white series, a full replication was released by O-Pee-Chee in 1964. In 2018, Topps also used the wrapper design from this set in their 80th Anniversary Wrapper Art series of trading cards.
1964 Topps Beatles Diary
If the Beatles Diary trading cards look a lot like the other Topps sets from this year, it’s because it is the fourth set to contain the simple design element of a white border. Also, keep in mind, all of these sets have been released in 1964 and The Beatles didn’t really make a splash in America until February of that year so the selection of photographs available to Topps was very limited.
What is fun about this set, however, is the reverse of each card which is designed to look like a handwritten diary excerpt from one of the members of the band. The card fronts — like every other set, prone to misalignment — bore no relation to the card backs with cards like #6A featuring a photo of George Harrison in some sort of promo shot but featuring a diary entry on the reverse, supposedly from Paul, discussing how Pete Best “surprised us today” by announcing he was leaving and pondering whether or not Ringo Starr will accept an invite to join.
Not only are these diary entries written by copyrighters at Topps but they have some revisionist (or more likely ignorant) historical claims. Pete Best would have certainly written a different journal entry.
The images on these cards is fun, though, but tracking down a pristine set of this 60 card set can be difficult.
1964 Topps Beatles Plaks
Of all the sets released in 1964, Beatles Plaks may be the most inventive as well as the most difficult to find in pristine condition. Unlike the other sets which suffer from poor centering, this set’s difficulty in collecting stems from the fact that it was designed to be destroyed!
Each card front of this 55 card set features a designed image much like the Valentine’s cards you handed out in grade school. The card backs are all identical — a pictorial set of instructions on how to tear the perforations and link each of the cards together. You read that correctly, the bulk of this set was, most likely, tore up and hung on the wall of a Beatle crazed youth so finding this set in tact can be difficult. These cards also don’t measure the standard 3.5″ x 2.5″ of other trading cards which made storing them in card boxes or binder sleeves a bit more of a challenge, too.
All that said, this is still a fun set to track down and a worthy addition to your Beatles collection if you can find it.
1993 River Group Beatles Collection
After Topps released 399 Beatles cards in 1964, the band faded into obscurity and was never heard from again having proven to be a flash in the pan fad, at least that is what the trading card world would have you believe. It took 29 years until another major Beatles set was released and this one came from the folks at River Group.
This set is the first Beatles set to feature full bleed images on the card fronts and the reverse of each card offers historical context and trivia with the benefit of nearly three decades of knowledge to pull from. The series covers everything from the Cavern Club to the Rooftop Concert and also features insert sets for the first time in Beatle card history.
The main checklist contains 220 cards which makes it the largest set to date and, actually, accounted for 35% of all the major release Beatles cards to that point!
Since this was a 1990s release at the peak of “investment collecting”, it isn’t hard to find pristine cards for this set and sealed hobby boxes are not uncommon on eBay. Thanks to the few insert cards and the general size of this collection, it is a fun rip if you find a box and it’s a nice looking collection of cards.
1996 Sports Time The Beatles
Between the release of the River Group cards and this Sports Time release, The Beatles Anthology had aired on television and the first new music from the band in 25 years was released. The band hadn’t been as popular since the 1960s and a new trading card set was definitely welcome.
Sports Time didn’t produce many sets — most of them were related to Playboy and were all released over a five year period — but they managed to lock down a Beatles license and produced a unique, if not uneven, set of cards.
The base set of this collection is 100 cards and the design is daring, to say the least. Images are heavily processed with new colorization, background effects, and other design elements that work on some images and destroy others. Card 90, for example, takes a bit of the Anthology mural designed by Klaus Voorman and makes it look like a film negative, essentially removing the artistry and beauty of the image. What’s worse (or better, depending on how you look at it) is the original version of each card front image is presented cropped into the design of the card back, unaffected by design elements.
There are four insert sets in this collection and you could also purchase two cards made with 23kt gold. Like the River Group series, this one is easy to find online, often in sealed boxes. It is an interesting set for collectors even if some of the design choices are stuck in the mid 90s.
1999 DuoCards Yellow Submarine
In 1999 there was a lot of press around Yellow Submarine. The film was remastered and released in theaters as well as DVD, the soundtrack featured the first remixes of Beatles songs, and Apple’s merchandising division was working over time licensing clothing, toys, high end collectibles, and trading cards.
There are 72 cards in this set, each featuring a full bleed image from the animated classic. The set is no frills but it is filled with great artwork if the design of Yellow Submarine appeals to you. Complete sets are readily available online and since there aren’t insert sets or chase cards to track down, buying a complete set is a perfect way to complete your collection.
This set also marks the beginning of a second Beatles card drought. With 29 years between sets before, we are now over 20 years since the last trading card set was released. With so much material and history available and the incredible popularity of the hobby right now, it seems unlikely that this will be the final say in Beatles trading cards but nobody knows for sure.
Although these are the only major sets to be released in North America, The Beatles have appeared on cards throughout the hobby’s history. There are many Beatles cards included in 1965 Dutch releases with graded copies of those cards commanding high prices. 1970 Lyons Maid Pop Stars features the band as a group and individually alongside other stars of the day like The Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin.