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Fleer Tops Topps in Court

By Patrick Mondout

On July 1st, 1980, U.S. District Court Justice Clarence Newcomer ruled that Topps - virtually the only company that had produced baseball cards since the mid-1950s - was in violation of antitrust laws by attempting to monopolize the baseball card business. This decision, while later overturned on appeal, opened up the hobby to Fleer and others and is arguably the single most important date in the history of the hobby.

However, the story is much more complicated than that. As former Yankees and Topps public relations director Marty Appel recently told us, referring to the 1981 appeals court decision that ended the case, "The decision in the case did not end Topps' "monopoly" as is often stated. The decision gave Topps the permission to produce cards with gum, or cards without anything. The judge said others were always free to produce cards in another form, that there had never been a monopoly."

It is often assumed that Fleer (or any other company) was barred from distributing baseball cards before 1981 due to exclusive contracts that Topps had entered into with virtually every individual players. In reality, what Fleer - the inventers of bubblegum - was barred from and really wanted to do was to sell their bubblegum with their baseball cards. The 1980 decision temporarily allowed them to do so. While it gave us collectors a chance to taste their gum, it also gave them a taste of the baseball card hobby, circa 1981 - which was changing rapidly from a hobby to an industry complete with speculators.

After the 1982 appellate win for Topps forced Fleer (and Donruss) to remove the gum from their baseball card packages, each learned they could make quite a bit of money selling the cards without gum. Perhaps they would have eventually figured that out on their own, but these contradictory legal decisions at least presented an window of opportunity to learn that lesson and the hobby has never been the same.

I asked current Donruss Public Relations and Marketing Manager Len Shelton what role he believed this case had on the industry and his company. Mr. Shelton said, "We regard the 1980 monopoly decision as the key turning point for today's baseball card marketplace. The new competition of Donruss and Fleer forced all the card companies to be more creative. As a result, baseball cards began the evolutionary process that gave us innovations like game-used material cards, certified autograph cards, serial-numbered rookies - the real staples of our modern marketplace."

So did Topps win the case or did Fleer and Donruss win? The answer is, we all won. This case - in ways unforeseen in 1980 - opened up the hobby to new innovators and forever changed the the way cards were marketed and produced. The increased availability of different types of cards brought on many first-time collectors, which spurred new manufactures to enter the fray with even more cards in a cycle that seemingly only lost momentum with the players strike in 1994. And what about Topps? The company had record profits regularly throughout the Awesome80s leading to a successful IPO in 1987.

To learn more about the case or the history of baseball cards, see our Brief History of Baseball Cards.



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