Topps

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A few Topps Baseball cards from 1977

The Topps Company Template:NASDAQ is a publicly traded company based in New York City that manufactures candy and collectibles. It is best known as a leading producer of baseball cards and other sports-related trading cards.

Company history

Topps itself was founded in 1938, but the company can trace its roots back to an earlier firm, American Leaf Tobacco. Founded in 1890 by Morris Shorin, the American Leaf Tobacco Co. imported tobacco to the United States and sold it to other tobacco companies. (American Leaf Tobacco should not be confused with the American Tobacco Company, which monopolized US-grown tobacco during this period.)

American Leaf Tobacco encountered difficulties as World War I cut off Turkish supplies of tobacco to the United States, and later as a result of the Great Depression. Shorin's sons, Abram, Ira, Philip, and Joseph, decided to focus on a new product but take advantage of the company's existing distribution channels. To do this, they created the Topps Company, with the name meant to indicate that it would be "tops" in its field. The chosen field was the manufacture of chewing gum.

At the time, chewing gum was still a relative novelty sold in individual pieces. Topps' most successful early product was Bazooka bubblegum, which was packaged with a small comic on the wrapper. Starting in 1950, the company decided to try increasing gum sales by packaging them together with trading cards featuring Western character Hopalong Cassidy. Topps then added baseball cards as a product, which quickly became its primary emphasis.

After establishing itself as a manufacturer of baseball and other sports cards for several decades, the company was acquired in a leveraged buyout led by Forstmann Little & Company in 1984. The new ownership group turned Topps into a publicly traded company in 1987.

Topps baseball cards: A history

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Topps Baseball cards from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s

Entry into the baseball card market

In 1951, Topps produced its first baseball cards in two different sets known today as Red Backs and Blue Backs. Each set contained 52 cards, like a deck of playing cards, and in fact the cards could be used to play a game that would simulate the events of a baseball game. Also like playing cards, the cards had rounded corners and were blank on one side, which was colored either red or blue (hence the names given to these sets). The other side featured the portrait of a player within a baseball diamond in the center, and in opposite corners a picture of a baseball together with the event for that card, such as "fly out" or "single".

Topps changed its approach in 1952, this time creating a much larger (407 total) set of baseball cards and packaging them with its signature product, bubblegum. The company also decided that its playing card model was too small (2 inches by 2-5/8 inches) and changed the dimensions to 2-5/8 inches by 3-5/8 inches with square corners. (In 1957, Topps shrank the dimensions of its cards slightly, to 2-1/2 inches by 3-1/2 inches, setting a standard that remains the basic format for most sports cards produced in the United States.) The cards now had a color portrait on one side, with statistical and biographical information on the other. This set became a landmark in the baseball card industry, and today the company considers this its first true baseball card set.

The cards were released in several series over the course of the baseball season, a practice Topps would continue with its baseball cards until 1974. However, the later series did not sell as well, as the baseball season wore on and popular attention began to turn towards football. Topps was left with a substantial amount of surplus stock in 1952, which it largely disposed of by dumping many cards into the Atlantic. In later years, Topps either printed series in smaller quantities late in the season or destroyed excess cards. As a result, cards with higher numbers from this period are rarer than low numbers in the same set, and collectors will pay significantly higher prices for them. The last series in 1952 started with card #311, which is Topps' first card of Mickey Mantle and remains the most valuable Topps card ever.

The combination of baseball cards and bubblegum was popular among young boys, and given the mediocre quality of the gum, the cards quickly became the primary attraction. In fact, the gum eventually became a hindrance because it tended to stain the cards, thus impairing their value to collectors who wanted to keep them in pristine condition. It was finally dropped from baseball card packs in 1992.

Competition for player contracts

During this period, baseball card manufacturers generally obtained the rights to depict players on merchandise by signing individual players to contracts for the purpose. Topps first became active in this process through an agent called Players Enterprises in July 1950, in preparation for its first 1951 set. The later acquisition of rights to additional players allowed Topps to release its second series.

This promptly brought Topps into furious competition with Bowman Gum, another company producing baseball cards. Bowman had become the primary maker of baseball cards and driven out several competitors by signing its players to exclusive contracts. The language of these contracts focused particularly on the rights to sell cards with chewing gum, which had already been established in the 1930s as a popular product to pair with baseball cards.

To avoid the language of Bowman's existing contracts, Topps sold its 1951 cards with caramel candy instead of gum. However, because Bowman had signed many players in 1950 to contracts for that year, plus a renewal option for one year, Topps included in its own contracts the rights to sell cards with gum starting in 1952 (as it ultimately did). Topps also tried to establish exclusive rights through its contracts by having players agree not to grant similar rights to others, or renew existing contracts except where specifically noted in the contract.

Bowman responded by adding chewing gum "or confections" to the exclusivity language of its 1951 contracts, and also sued Topps in U.S. federal court. The lawsuit alleged infringement on Bowman's trademarks, unfair competition, and contractual interference. The court rejected Bowman's attempt to claim a trademark on the word "baseball" in connection with the sale of gum, and disposed of the unfair competition claim because Topps had made no attempt to pass its cards off as being made by Bowman. The contract issue proved more difficult because it turned on the dates when a given player signed contracts with each company, and whether the player's contract with one company had an exception for his contract with the other.

As the contract situation was sorted out, several Topps sets during these years had a few "missing" cards, where the numbering of the set skips several numbers because they had been assigned to players whose cards could not legally be distributed. The competition, both for consumer attention and player contracts, continued until 1956, when Topps bought out Bowman. This left Topps as the dominant producer of baseball cards for a number of years.

Consolidation of a monopoly

The next company to challenge Topps was Fleer, another gum manufacturer. Fleer signed star Ted Williams to an exclusive contract in 1959 and sold a set of cards oriented around him. Williams retired the next year, so Fleer began adding around him other mostly retired players in a Baseball Greats series, which was sold with gum. Two of these sets were produced before Fleer finally tried a 67-card set of currently active players in 1963. However, Topps held onto the rights of most players and the set was not particularly successful.

Stymied, Fleer turned its efforts to supporting an administrative complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Topps was engaging in unfair competition through its aggregation of exclusive contracts. A hearing examiner ruled against Topps in 1965, but the Commission reversed this decision on appeal. The Commission concluded that because the contracts only covered the sale of cards with gum, competition was still possible by selling cards with other small, low-cost products. However, Fleer chose not to pursue such options and instead sold its remaining player contracts to Topps for $395,000 in 1966. The decision gave Topps an effective monopoly of the baseball card market.

That same year, however, Topps faced an attempt to undermine its position from the nascent players' union, the Major League Baseball Players Association. Struggling to raise funds, the MLBPA discovered that it could generate significant income by pooling the publicity rights of its members and offering companies a group license to use their images on various products. After initially putting players on Coca-Cola bottlecaps, the union concluded that the Topps contracts did not pay players adequately for their rights.

MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller then approached Joel Shorin, the president of Topps, about renegotiating these contracts. At this time, Topps had every major league player under contract, generally for five years plus renewal options, so Shorin declined. After continued discussions went nowhere, the union before the 1968 season asked its members to stop signing renewals on these contracts, and offered Fleer the exclusive rights to market cards of most players (with gum) starting in 1973. Although Fleer declined the proposal, by the end of the year Topps had agreed to double its payments to each player from $125 to $250, and also to begin paying players a percentage of Topps's overall sales.

As a byproduct of this history, Topps continues to use individual player contracts as the basis for its baseball card sets today. This contrasts with other manufacturers, who all obtain group licenses from the MLBPA. The difference has occasionally affected whether specific players are included in particular sets. Players who decline to sign individual contracts will not have Topps cards even when the group licensing system allows other manufacturers to produce cards of the player, as happened with Alex Rodriguez early in his career. On the other hand, if a player opts out of group licensing, as Barry Bonds did in 2004, then manufacturers who depend on the MLBPA system will have no way of including him. Topps, however, can negotiate individually and was belatedly able to create a 2004 card of Bonds. In addition, Topps is the only manufacturer able to produce cards of players who worked as replacement players during the 1994-95 baseball strike, since they are barred from union membership and participation in the group licensing program.

Use of statistics

One of the features that contributed significantly to Topps' success beginning with the 1952 set was providing player statistics. At the time, complete and reliable baseball statistics for all players were not widely available, so Topps actually compiled the information itself from published box scores. While baseball cards themselves had been around for years, including statistics was a relative novelty that fascinated many collectors. Those who played with baseball cards could study the numbers and use them as the basis for comparing players, trading cards with friends, or playing imaginary baseball games. It also had some pedagogical benefit by encouraging youngsters to take an interest in the underlying math.

The cards originally had one line for statistics from the most recent year (i.e. the 1951 season for cards in the 1952 set) and another with the player's lifetime totals. Bowman promptly imitated this by putting statistics on its own cards where it had previously only had biographical information. For the first time in 1957, Topps put full year-by-year statistics for the player's entire career on the back of the card. Some later sets would again have only the last season and career totals, but the change was made permanent in 1962 (except for 1971, when Topps for one year sacrificed the full statistics in order to put a player photo on the back of the card as well).

Card artwork and photography

Although the 1971 set was an aborted experiment in terms of putting photos on card backs, that year was also a landmark in terms of baseball card photography, as Topps for the first time included cards showing color photographs from actual games. The cards themselves had been in color from the beginning, though for the first few years this was done by using artist's portraits of players rather than actual photographs.

After starting out with simple portraits, in 1954 Topps put two pictures on the front of the card, one showing the player's head and the other showing an artist's rendition of the player in action during a game. A similar format was used on card fronts for the next two years, and in fact the head shots of individual players were often reused each year.

From 1957 on, virtually all cards were posed photographs, either as a head shot or together with a typical piece of equipment like a bat or glove. If using such a prop, the player might pose in a position as if he were in the act of batting, pitching, or fielding. In the absence of real action photography, Topps still occasionally used artwork to depict action on a handful of cards. Starting in 1967 a few cards showed true game action, primarily highlights from the World Series, but the photographs were in black-and-white until 1971. Since that time, Topps has mixed game photography with posed shots in its sets.

When used for the cards of individual players, some of the early action photography had awkward results. The photos were sometimes out of focus or included several players, making it difficult to pick out the player who was supposed to be featured on the card. In a few cases, a misidentification meant that the player didn't even appear in the picture. These problems diminished as Topps' selection of photographs gradually improved.

The monopoly and its end

A semblance of competition returned to the baseball card market in the 1970s when Kellogg's began producing "3-D" cards and inserting them in boxes of breakfast cereal (originally Corn Flakes, later Raisin Bran and other brands). The Kellogg's sets contained fewer cards than Topps sets, and the cards served as an incentive to buy the cereal rather than being the intended focus of the purchase, as tended to be the case for cards distributed with smaller items like candy or gum. Topps appears not to have considered the Kellogg's cards a threat and took no action to stop them.

The Topps monopoly on baseball cards was finally broken by a lawsuit that let Fleer and another company, Donruss, enter the market in 1981. Fleer and Donruss began making large, widely distributed sets to compete directly with Topps, although they still avoided packaging their cards with gum. Other manufacturers later followed, but Topps remains one of the leading brands in the baseball card hobby. In response to the competition, Topps began regularly issuing additional "Traded" sets featuring players who had changed teams since the main set was issued, following up on an idea it had experimented with a few years earlier.

Topps in the modern baseball card industry

Beginning in 1989 with the entry of Upper Deck into the market, card companies began to develop higher-end cards using improved technology. This led several manufacturers to diversify their product lines into different sets, each catering to a different niche of the market. As part of its strategy in creating multiple sets, Topps resurrected its former competitor Bowman as a subsidiary brand.

Topps launched a new concept in trading cards, called etopps, in 2000. While most trading cards are sold in packs in retail stores, etopps cards are sold exclusively online through individual IPOs. Unless the buyer of a card requests otherwise, Topps holds the cards in their climate-controlled warehouse. Card owners have the option of trading cards they own on the eBay trading floor or having the cards shipped to them so they can have physical possession.

Football cards

In addition to baseball, Topps also produced cards for American football in 1951, which are known as the Magic set. For football cards Bowman dominated the field, and Topps did not try again until 1955, when it released an All-American set with a mix of active players and retired stars. After buying out Bowman, Topps took over the market the following year.

Since then, Topps has sold football cards every season. However, the emergence of the American Football League in 1960 to compete with the established National Football League also allowed Topps's competitors, beginning with Fleer, to make inroads. Fleer produced a set for the AFL in 1960, then featured both leagues for one year before focusing on the AFL again. Philadelphia Gum then secured the NFL rights for 1964, forcing Topps to go for the AFL and leaving Fleer with no product in either baseball or football.

Although more competitive for a time, the football card market was never as lucrative, so the other companies did not fight as hard over it. After the AFL-NFL Merger was agreed to, Topps became the only major football card manufacturer beginning in 1968. In spite of the lack of competition, or perhaps to preempt it, Topps also created two sets of cards for the short-lived United States Football League in the 1980s. The situation continued until growth in the sports card market generally prompted two new companies, Pro Set and Score, to start making football cards in 1989.

Trading cards for other sports

Topps also makes cards for other major American professional sports. The company first sold cards for basketball in 1957, but stopped after one season. It started again in 1969 and continued until 1982, then abandoned the market for another decade. Topps finally returned to basketball cards in 1992, several years after its competitors.

For other sports, Topps began producing hockey cards in 1954, and in 1996 the company added Major League Soccer.

Non sports products

As its sports products relied more on photography, Topps redirected its artistic efforts to themes inspired by popular culture. For example, the Space Race prompted a set of "Space Cards" in 1958. Topps has continued to create collectible cards and stickers on a variety of subjects, often centered around movies, TV shows, musicians, and other entertainment phenomena.

One theme Topps has specialized in for its non-sports products is mixing humor and horror, starting with its Funny Monsters cards in 1959. Memorable efforts in this area include the 1962 Mars Attacks! cards, the 1973 Wacky Packages, a parody of household items in general, as well as a series of stickers called Garbage Pail Kids, a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.

Also, Topps has become well known for issuing trading card series on popular television programs, such as The Waltons, The Mod Squad, Emergency!, Welcome Back Kotter, Mork and Mindy and many, many others. Topps also has released card sets for movies series, including Star Wars and Star Trek. And Topps has covered everything else from The Beatles to the life story of John F. Kennedy.

References

  • Bowman Gum, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 103 F.Supp. 944 (E.D.N.Y. 1952).
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 501 F.Supp. 485 (E.D. Pa. 1980).
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 658 F.2d 139 (3d Cir. 1981).
  • Haelan Laboratories, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 202 F.2d 866 (2d Cir. 1953).
  • Haelan Laboratories, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum Co., 112 F.Supp. 904 (E.D.N.Y. 1953).
  • Schwarz, Alan (2004). The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-32222-4.
  • Slocum, Frank & Red Foley (1990). Topps Baseball Cards: The complete picture collection, a 40 year history. New York: Warner Books.

External links