Cooperstown Confidential: The 65th Anniversary of Topps Cards

Topps' 1951 set (left) was a flop, but 1952's (right) catapulted Topps to the top of the baseball card market.

Topps’ 1951 set (left) was a flop, but 1952’s (right) catapulted Topps to the top of the baseball card market.

For some of us baseball fans, it has become a joyful rite of winter. By the time those winter months start giving way to longer days and at least slightly warmer weather, we naturally begin to think about the early days of spring training—and the nearly coinciding release of the newest set of Topps baseball cards.

For six and a half decades, Topps and baseball cards have been synonymous, so intertwined that it’s hard to imagine a time when Topps did not produce the wonderful images on the small pieces of cardboard that help us attach faces to the names of major league players.

Baseball cards have existed since 1869, when the Peck and Snyder sporting goods company issued the first card, featuring the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Then came the tobacco cards from companies like Allen & Ginter and Old Judge; those cards were issued with various tobacco products, including cigarettes, which created some controversy because they targeted children as customers. As we moved into the 20th century, the Cracker Jack Company became involved, leading to an association between candy snacks and cards. Then came the gum cards of the 1920s and ’30s, first produced by Fleer and then by Goudey.

Topps did not begin its association with baseball cards until later, years after the forays by Fleer and Goudey. The year was 1951, or 65 years ago (as the title of this piece notes). The timing was just right, in part because of the baby boom, which commenced at the end of World War II, producing more children to buy the baseball cards and bubble gum products Topps produced. Also, baseball itself enjoyed a boom in popularity during the 1950s. Some historians have called it the “Golden Era” of baseball, though I suppose that label could stir its own level of debate.

Just prior to the arrival of Topps on the cardboard scene, the Bowman Gum Company had led the way in the business. Beginning production in 1948, Bowman was so successful that it had developed an apparent baseball card monopoly by 1950.

But the Topps Chewing Gum Company, as it was known at the time, decided to take on Bowman. To make its business viable, Topps needed to secure agreements with most of the major league players. Without those agreements, Topps could not legally reproduce the likenesses of the players. Topps president Joseph Shorin, with the help of a lawyer friend, created a company called Player Enterprises, which was essentially a marketing firm for the ballplayers. Under the auspices of Player Enterprises, Topps secured a sufficient number of player contracts to put out its first set of cards in 1951.

berra crop 2Known as the “Red Backs,” the new cards depicted each player with a head shot, photographed in black and white, such as the Yogi Berra card at right. Each card included a small biography of the player in the lower left-hand corner and an illustration of each player’s position in the upper right-hand corner, with both features superimposed against a colored background, usually yellow. The other two corners, on a background of white, depicted a type of play that would result in an actual game, everything from a walk to a strikeout to a hit. This feature allowed the cards to become playing cards, which could be used to play an imaginary game of baseball between two collectors.

While red was the primary color on the backs of the cards (hence the nickname Red Backs), yellow and white stood out on the front. That combination of colors, along with the black-and-white photos, made for a card that many observers called unattractive or unsightly. Others would call it downright ugly. Additionally, kids complained about the card game, which was too boring and too random. To put it mildly, the cards flopped, becoming a huge disappointment for Topps.

To make matters worse, Topps opted to package the cards with taffy instead of gum. Topps lawyers believed that Bowman held exclusive rights to issuing cards with gum, forcing Topps executives to adopt Plan B. When the printer applied a special varnish to the cards, it seeped onto the taffy, with disastrous results.

“You wouldn’t dare put that taffy near your mouth,” Topps executive Sy Berger told author Dave Jamieson for his critically acclaimed book, Mint Condition. “I won’t mention the printer’s name who print the cards, but we ended up suing him—and that ’51 series was really a disaster.” Unattractive cards, coupled with distasteful taffy, resulted in the Red Backs becoming a money-losing venture for Topps.

No one could have blamed Topps for giving up on baseball cards completely—after all, chewing gum was the company’s primary product—but Sy Berger would have none of that. Instead, he spent much of 1951 in baseball clubhouses, offering better contracts to players for a newer set of cards that would be more attractive and higher quality, and a set that would be packaged with Topps’ popular Bazooka bubble gum.

Berger, just 28 at the time, and Woody Gelman, the creative director for Topps, set about to devise a new design for baseball cards, working out of Berger’s kitchen at home. Gelman, who would later become famous for his work on the controversial “Mars Attacks” cards of the 1960s and the offbeat “Wacky Packages” of the 1970s, drew a series of mock-ups at Berger’s kitchen table.

Berger and Gelman made several key design choices. They opted for larger cards, at roughly two and a half inches by three and a half inches, bigger than the Bowman cards. They left a space below the player’s name so that they could include a facsimile of the player’s autograph. They also included the logo of the player’s team. The image of the player now featured a colorized drawing of a black-and-white photograph. And on the backs of the cards, Berger and Gelman included tidbits of information about the player, along with his career statistics, and statistics from the previous season. With this latter feature, Berger cheated a bit, by indicating “YEAR” on the back of the card, instead of “1951.” Not knowing if the cards would become popular, Berger wanted to make them as generic as possible, so that Topps could sell any overstock during the next baseball season.

The statistics, the new formatting, and the use of color all became the prototype for the baseball cards that have been produced ever since. This is why Berger, who died in 2014 at the age of 91, is often referred to as “the father of the modern baseball card.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

zernial crop 2Thanks to the efforts of Berger and Gelman, one of the great creative geniuses in the world of cards and comics, the ’52 cards — like Gus Zernial’s at right — became a hit with children, who started to collect them with an unforeseen ferocity. The initial run of 310 cards sold so well that Topps ordered another series of 97 cards, making for a total of 407 cards. The latter series included players who would become two of the game’s most iconic figures, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Many collectors continue to call the 1952 set the most popular sports card set ever sold.

With a wider range of cards than Bowman, not to mention a larger format and richer colors, Topps’ 1952 set emerged as an unqualified hit, both financially and artistically. In spite of a successful legal protest from Bowman, which felt its rights had been infringed upon, Topps managed to continue producing sets in 1953, ’54 and ’55. By 1956, Topps had bought out the Bowman Company. This marked the start of the Topps monopoly.

From 1956 to 1980, Topps was the only company to produce a full set of licensed major league baseball cards. In 1981, Donruss and Fleer entered the fray. The industry became even more openly competitive in 1988, when Major League Baseball signed its first contract with the Upper Deck Company. Known for its innovative ways, Upper Deck became the first card company to include special inserts of autographed cards, which served as an incentive for buyers purchasing packs of cards. Upper Deck, with its reputation for producing high-end cards, enhanced its product with better-quality photographs, improved card stock, and more creative graphics.

Topps still needed the individuals’ permission to feature them on cards, so Berger typically approached players when they were young and still in the minor leagues. Players didn’t receive much money for giving their permission to Topps; in those early years, they received only $5 for agreeing to a five-year contract. Once a player made the major leagues, he would receive $125 for each year he appeared exclusively on a Topps card. By 1960, Topps had contract agreements with 414 of the 421 players in the major leagues.

(Today’s players receive a minimum of $500, plus a percentage on the cards sold. That is the standard agreement, but some star players have special deals with Topps worth much, much more.)

As we head into the 2016 season, Topps continues to serve as the primary producer of baseball cards. Now known simply as The Topps Company, the franchise has made some major changes since the first two sets came out; today’s cards are glossier, contain far more action photos than portraits, and are sold mostly without the gum. There are insert cards, and cards that feature pieces of artifacts. But the basic format that Topps introduced on its cards in 1952 remains the same.

In a game that never stops changing, the modern day baseball card created by Sy Berger and Woody Gelman is here to stay.

References & Resources

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Perry Scott
6 years ago

Somehow when HOF took over rights for Dickinson Perez HOF cards, I lost track a way unable to obtain any more.

Ron Kivatinos
6 years ago

I collected the Perez-Steele cards they were fabulous. Was very sad that it stopped. I know Steele died. But wished it could have continued.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

One of the great uses of baseball cards in school recess time was the equivalent of small stakes poker. The games all involved flinging a card from about 6 feet away against a cement wall with a width of about four feet. The various games were tops (you had to land your card on top of an opponents), farzies (whoever flung his card closest to the wall), tops you lose (the opposite of tops). The winner collected all the cards left on the ground. Another fun game was seeing how many consecutive players you could name when presented with the card while the name was covered.

6 years ago

“By 1960, Topps had contract agreements with 414 of the 421 players in the major leagues.”

I’m guessing that this is based on opening day rosters. 421 divided by 16 is about 26.3, and it seems plausible that the average team was carrying 26.3 players on its major league roster. At the time, teams didn’t need to get their active roster to 25 until a month into the season, but were allowed to carry up to 28 players until then.

I wonder who the seven players were that Topps didn’t have under contract? An educated guess as to three of them: Ted Williams, Maury Wills and Chris Short.

6 years ago
Reply to  MCT

Apparently Topps did not have much faith in Maury Wills. I remember reading someplace not only did he not have a rookie card, he didn’t even have a card for himself until 1963, after he had won MVP and stolen 104 bases in 1962.

6 years ago
Reply to  GFrank

IINM, Wills didn’t have a Topps card until 1967! He did appear in Fleer’s truncated 1963 set. I’ve heard two stories as to why Wills didn’t have Topps cards all those years, which may both be true:

1) Topps typically tried to sign rising prospects before they reached the majors. When Willis was coming up in the minors, Topps didn’t think he was that good of a player, and didn’t offer him a contract. This angered Wills, and once he became prominent enough to catch’s Topps attention and they tried to sign him, he refused to.

2) When Fleer was planning its 1963 set, they signed a small number of players to contracts which specified that Fleer would have the exclusive rights to produce baseball cards of that player (presumably giving these players a bit more money for agreeing to this exclusivity). Wills was one of these players. Even though Fleer quickly abandoned its plans to challenge Topps in the baseball card arena (abandoning later series of its ’63 set that had originally been planned, and producing no baseball sets in subsequent years), they continued to enforce the contracts for several years, preventing Topps from signing these players. At that point, either the contracts expired or Fleer just decided to stop enforcing them.

6 years ago
Reply to  MCT

The players did have the choice to sign with whom they wanted as far as cards were concerned – once they signed however, it was hard to find out when the contracts expired or began – to look at your contract you actually had to go to the Topps office in Brooklyn – they would not mail it to you. Players were also offered money or choices of gifts from a catalog they had – a powerful incentive to stay with Topps. Plus it was cool to be on your own card.

6 years ago

The article indicates that the 1952 set was an unqualified hit, but reports at the time of Mr. Berger’s death indicated that the results of that set were mixed. From ESPN:

“Despite having a Mickey Mantle “rookie” card in the set, sales were not good. Since they overproduced the second part of the set that year, Berger, for years, would try to unload the cards anywhere they could.

“Around 1959 or so, I went around to carnivals and offered them for a penny a piece, and it got so bad I offered them at 10 for a penny,” Berger told Sports Collectors Digest in 2007. “They would say, ‘We don’t want them.'”

In 1960, still saddled with a huge number of cards from the 1952 set, Berger put the remaining cards into three full garbage trucks and commissioned a barge to dump the remaining inventory into the Atlantic Ocean.”

Bruce Markusen
6 years ago

Jimbo, in comparison to the 1951s, they were definitely a big financial hit. And they were certainly an artistic success, given how the template of Berger and Gelman became the template for future cards.

There’s always going to be an excess of cards left over; I think Berger regretted dumping all of those cards into the Atlantic Ocean. They could have been put to better use.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Cover
6 years ago

Samsung really believes these rumours. At the launch of its latest flagship phablet Samsung Galaxy Note 7 in New York City, the company took a dig at Cupertino giant over the speculated ‘miss’.