All the baby boomers who lament that their old baseball cards have been mangled by bicycle spokes or tossed out by Mom have nothing on Sy Berger. Forty years ago Berger, then the Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., sports director, had the equivalent of three garbage trucks full of 1952 cards from the company's Brooklyn headquarters loaded onto a barge, which was tugged a few miles off the coast, where the bounty was dumped into the Atlantic. "Nobody wanted the stuff," Berger says. "Baseball cards were a kid's thing. You put them in your bicycle spokes. You flipped them. Who put them in a book?"
Oh, well. A near-mint set of '52 Topps cards is now among the most valuable in the industry, worth around $65,000. A clean Andy Pafko card, which as the first in the set was often subjected to the abrasions caused by rubber bands wrapped around neatly ordered collections, was auctioned last year for $83,870. A '52 Mickey Mantle, his rookie card, fetched $121,000 three years ago. This year, as Topps celebrates its 50th anniversary in the baseball card business, when it will print many millions of sports cards, when the baseball card industry will record sales of $350 billion, it's easy to forget that all the company ever wanted to do was use baseball cards to help sell gum.
The four brothers Shorin—Abram, Ira, Joseph and Philip—founded Topps Chewing Gum in 1938. After having seen the popularity of Bowman baseball cards in the late '40s, the Shorins decided to insert their own cards into taffy and gum packs to boost sales. Topps tried to make its '52 series stand out and assigned Berger to design a better card than Bowman's. Berger made the card bigger and included career statistics, statistics from the previous year, personal information, team logos and pictures colored by Kodak Flexichrome. Shortly after the 407 cards in the '52 series were introduced, Topps's became the industry standard.
Kids across America suddenly could recite stats and recognize uniforms. They would learn nicknames like Choo Choo (Coleman) and how to spell Yastrzemski. They would revel in mistakes made by Topps: Hank Aaron batting as a lefty in 1957, Gino Cimoli swinging an invisible bat in '58 and the '69 Aurelio Rodriguez card that pictured a batboy, not Rodriguez.
Topps's anniversary series, which debuted last month, hews to its past. The 405-card base set (and a second set to be released in the spring) will include rare cards from the past, including a '52 Mantle. Some lucky buyer who plunks down $1.29 for a pack of 10 cards will end up ecstatic.
Berger was a fixture in major league clubhouses throughout the '50s and '60s, signing players to deals that have been remarkably unresponsive to the game's salary inflation. The first contracts were $75 per appearance for nonexclusivity and $125 for exclusivity. Today players receive $500 per appearance, a pittance but still considered by some players a symbol of having made it. Topps estimates that 80% of next year's major leaguers will appear on a card.
Topps has made it, too, having learned the lesson about the tail wagging the dog. In 1991 it stopped including its sheets of pale pink gum in its card packs. The reason? Gum stains devalue the cards.