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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 pages.

1890

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 intended).

1938

Topps Chewing Gum is founded by brothers Abraham, Joseph E., Philip Ira, and A.J. Shorin.

1942

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

1946

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.

1948

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

1950

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.

1951

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 products."

1952

1952 Topps

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 3.

1953

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).

1956

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

1962

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.

1969

Topps produces its first set of nationally-distributed basketball cards since 1957.

1970

Topps produces the largest set of baseball cards to date with a 720 card set.

1971

Topps once again breaks its own baseball record with a 752 card set.

1972

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 divisive design.

1974

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.

1975

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.

1976

Topps produces a second set of "traded" cards that are no more popular than the first. It will not produce another until 1981.

1978

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.

1980

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 $3.)

Read more about the case and subsequent battles between Fleer and Topps here.

1981

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.

1982

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.

1983

The size of the football card set is reduced to 396, from its 1976-1982 figure of 528.

1984

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 come.

1987

Topps has its second IPO with investors making an estimated $150 million profit (on a $10M investment) in a little over three years.

1989

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 1990s.

1991

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.

2005

Topps is rumored to be shopping its confectionary line in order to concentrate on the production of cards.

 

 

Notes:
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.
also:
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.

 
 
 

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