A Brief History of Topps
By Patrick Mondout
Topps Chewing Gum was founded by brothers Abraham, Joseph E., Philip
Ira, and A.J. Shorin in Brooklyn, New York in 1938. Ironically,
considering the type of company that first made baseball cards, the
Shorin's were sons of Morris Shorin, who founded America Leaf Tobacco.
That company fell on hard times during the Great Depression and the sons
decided gum was a better bet.
See also: You can also read our Brief
History of Baseball cards, Brief History
of Fleer, and Brief History of Donruss
Morris Shorin founds American Leaf Tobacco, not to be confused with the
huge tobacco trust called American Tobacco Company. Shorin's sons will
start Topps 48 years later out of the ashes of this American Leaf (pun
Topps Chewing Gum is founded by brothers Abraham, Joseph E., Philip
Ira, and A.J. Shorin.
As part of the war effort, Topps promotes the anti-espionage slogan,
"Don't talk chum - chew Topps gum." (Sort of a corporate version
of "loose lips sink ships.") Despite its origins, the company
will use the slogan for decades to come.1
Their first "bubble" gum, Bazooka, is introduced by Topps in
5¢ packs. It will eventually become available in 1¢ packs as well and
will soon rival Double Bubble as the most popular bubble gum.
Topps produces a set of 252 cards called "Magic Photos." The
cards seem to be blank when first opened, but "develop" into a
black and white picture when exposed to light. Nineteen of the cards
feature baseball players.
Topps announces a deal with Cincinnati-based Barker Greeting Card
Company which will see humorous birthday cards distributed with a new line
of gum called "Hocus Pocus."2
Topps Chewing Gum of New York begins marketing Hopalong Cassidy cards
with its gum products. It also works late in they year with a company
called Players Enterprises to get the rights to produce baseball cards.
Topps uses the fact that Bowman's "exclusive" contracts only
cover cards distributed with chewing gum to its advantage. The company
produces its first sets of baseball cards and distributes them with
caramel candy instead of gum. Sy Berger of Topps later claimed the cards
were a disaster and the finish "smelled like kerosene."3
As the players had contracts with Bowman that only lasted a year or
two, Topps also began signing "free agent" (in the baseball card
sense) players to contracts that allowed the company to include gum. Their
contracts also contained a provision requiring that the player not assign
similar rights to any other firm.
To make sure no one else can use the "caramel" trick as Topps
had, Bowman also include language in their new contracts regarding their
exclusive right to market baseball cards with "confectionary
With the new contracts in place, Topps produces packs of cards with gum
in them. A showdown was inevitable. Haelan Laboratories (Bowman's parent
company) promptly sued Topps.
The '52 Topps set is one of the most popular of all time and contains
early cards of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. It was also the biggest one
year set ever, with 407 cards and Topps increased the size of each card to
2⅝ x 3¾.
After a judge initially ruled for Topps, Bowman wins on appeal. In a
landmark decision that established an individual's marketing/advertising
rights to their own image,4 the Second
Circuit court of appeals sided with Haelan/Bowman. Getting a picture of
your favorite player during this era often means buying the right brand of
cards as many appear in only Bowman or only Topps sets (in fact Stan
Musial only appeared on Rawlings "cards" after 1953 until
finally appearing on a Topps card in 1958).
Topps purchases Bowman in January and enjoys a monopoly position in the
current-player bubblegum baseball card business for another quarter
century. Topps retained the "confectionary" language in their
standard player contract. This was an era where cards were used to get
kids to buy a particular company's gum and not the other way around.
Topps standard practice in this timeframe was to determine who the
potential Major Leaguers were while they were still in the minors and sign
them to an exclusive contract for $5. Topps does nothing unless the player
reaches the majors; these contracts are only to prevent others from ever
signing a major league player. When the player reached the majors, Topps
gave the players merchandise, such as a color TV, each year that their
pictures were used. This later changed to a flat payment of $125, though a
catalog of electronic goodies from RCA and GE was sent out to players. The
players could choose the merchandise, which Topps picked up for wholesale
prices, in lieu of the check.
A few did slip through: Maury Wills was with
the Detroit Tigers briefly in his early minor league career (on loan from
the Dodgers, such arrangements were possible then) and Topps' contract
representative - a former Dodgers scout - Turk Karam was told by a team
official that Wills wasn't a prospect, and so he wasn't signed. He signed
with Fleer later and would not appear on a Topps card until 1967, five
years after he won the MVP award.
Seymour "Sy" Berger of Topps later said, "Maury stayed
angry at us for quite some time..." As a result of the Wills'
miscalculation, Topps stopped trying to scout minor leaguers and gave them
all $5 contracts.3
On February 8, 1962, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) accused Topps
of attempting to corner the market on baseball picture cards. Read more
about the case here.
Topps produces its first
set of nationally-distributed basketball cards since 1957.
Topps produces the largest set of baseball cards to date with a
720 card set.
Topps once again breaks its own baseball record with a
752 card set.
Topps has its first IPO in June offering shares at $17.50. The shares
reach $23 by the end of the week.5
Topps broke its own record for the highest number of unique baseball
cards in a set with 787, but the cards are most remembered today for a
Topps releases a
complete set of baseball cards in one series for the first time.
Factory sets are also sold (through Sears in their Christmas Wishbook) for
the first time. It also produces its first
set of "traded" cards.
In June, Fleer files a suit in the Federal District Court of
Philadelphia seeking damages due to Topps alleged "illegal restraint
of trade" as a result of its exclusive deal with the MLBPA.
Topps produces a set of mini
baseball cards that are exactly the same as their standard
set except for the size. The smaller set will remain one of the most
popular of the decade for years to come yet will not be attempted again.
Topps produces a
second set of "traded" cards that are no more popular than
the first. It will not produce another until 1981.
For the first time since 1972, the number of cards in a set is
increased by Topps. The attractive
1978 set features 726 cards compared to 660 in previous years.
In the case Fleer brought to court five years earlier, Judge Clarence
Newcomer rules that Topps, "unlawfully restrained and monopolized
trade" in the baseball card market. Fleer, which had been prevented
from distributing current-player cards with its gum since a 1965 FTC
ruling in favor of Topps, had asked for $16M in damages. Newcomer cited
his own inability to estimate actual damages and awarded $1, which was
tripled to $3 since this was an antitrust case. (The figure is often
quoted as $3 million, but like in the USFL case six years later, it was
Read more about the case and subsequent battles between Fleer and Topps
Topps produces its first boxed set of
"traded" cards. Unlike previous efforts, the sets are a hit
with collectors and are only sold through hobby dealers.
Topps produces its last set
of basketball cards until the early 1990s.
For the first time since 1978, the size of the Topps set is increase -
this time to a record 792 cards.
Due to a lack of sales, Topps decides not to produce basketball cards
for the first time since the late 1960s.
The size of the football card
set is reduced to 396, from its 1976-1982 figure of 528.
Members of Topps management work with Forstmann, Little and Company on
a leveraged buyout of the company in February, taking in private for the
first time since 1972.6
Topps produces a boxed 132 card
set of USFL football cards, which prove to be even less popular than
the league. This set will prove very popular with collectors in years to
Topps has its second IPO with investors making an estimated $150
million profit (on a $10M investment) in a little over three years.
Topps reintroduced the Bowman (a company it had purchased in 1956)
brand of baseball cards, which featured slightly
larger dimensions. It would eventually become a premium brand in the
Topps announces that it will no longer include gum with its baseball
cards. The gum had long since created value for the packages and instead
was damaging at least one card in every pack.
Topps is rumored to be shopping its confectionary line in order to
concentrate on the production of cards.
1: New York Times; September 20, 1959; "Cardboard League" by
Herbert Mitgang; page SM75.
2: New York Times: October 11, 1948; "Greeting Cards to Carry
Gum"; page 47.
3: The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book
by Brenden Boyd and Fred Harris; pages 42-44; 1975; Warner Paperback. The
$5 figure, which had originally been just $1, was still current at least
as late as 1973.
USA Today; March 27, 2001; "Topps Facts" by Cesar Brioso and
Mike Dodd: http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/stories/2001-03-27-cards-facts.htm
4: AHRC Research Center for Studies in Intellectual Property and
Technology Law: http://www.law.ed.ac.uk/ahrb/personality/uscases.asp#Haelan.
5: "First IPO" may seem redundant, but the company will go
private before going public again in 1987.
6: New York Times; April 23, 1987; "'Reverse LBO's' Bring Riches;
'Reverse LBO's' Bring Riches in a Bull Market"; page D1.