History of the

Topps Baseball

Card Company


Topps 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.

History of Topps Baseball Cards

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

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

This promptly brought Topps into furious competition with Bowman,
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 with an effective monopoly of the baseball card market that
went largely unchallenged for a number of years. In the early
1990s, Topps started releasing sets under the Bowman name. More
recently, it has become a "rookies only" card set for baseball in

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 developed after the
unionization of players by the MLBPA and obtain group licenses
from the union. 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

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).

Baseball 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

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.

End of the monopoly The Topps monopoly on baseball cards
was finally broken by a lawsuit that let two more companies,
Fleer and Donruss, enter the market in 1981. Other manufacturers
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.

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.

Trading Cards for other sports Topps also releases card
sets of varying lengths for other major American professional
sports, including basketball (NBA- 1957), football (NFL- 1950),
hockey (National Hockey League- 1954), soccer (Major League
Soccer- 1996).

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.

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