The following article takes you through the history of the New York based company that became synonymous with sports trading cards and its journey to becoming the world's leading manufacturer and marketer of baseball cards.
Although the company itself was founded in 1938, its roots can be traced back to a much earlier firm by the name of 'American Leaf Tobacco' founded by Brooklyn entrepreneur Morris Shorin. After the First World War and the great depression, the firm experienced a significant decline in its business due to restrictions on supplies. So Shorin's four sons Abram, Ira, Philip and Joseph took advantage of the company's existing distribution channels and decided to revive the business by focusing on a new product altogether; chewing gum.
The company was relaunched under the name 'Topps', a name that signified their desire to be the prime players in the industry. Chewing gum was still a relative novelty item at the time; Topps' most successful early product was Bazooka Bubblegum which was packaged with a small comic on the wrapper.
In 1950, the company decided to increase its gum sales by packaging them together with trading cards featuring a western character 'Hopalong Cassidy', one of TV's biggest sensations at the time. However, once Topps' introduced their next product, baseball trading cards, they immediately became the company's primary emphasis.
Topps produced its first ever baseball cards in 1951; two different sets of 52 cards known today as 'Red Backs' and 'Blue Backs', which were blank one side (and colored red or blue), with a portrait of the player on the other side. They could be used to play a game that would simulate the events of an actual baseball game.
In the autumn of 1951, Sy Berger designed the legendary 1952 Topps' baseball card set, and is therefore referred to as the 'father of the modern baseball card'. The cards' revolutionary yet basic design (which is still in use today) included each player's name, photo (although colored photos weren't regularly used till 1957), autograph, team name and logo on the front; and age, birth date, performance statistics and a brief biography on the back.
The 1952 Topps' baseball cards set had 407 cards, making it the largest single-year issue at the time, and they were physically larger than traditional collectors' cards. The set featured the first cards of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, as well as rookie cards of Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews and Hoyt Wilhelm; the latter was the most sought after at the time.
Topps' 1952 final series card-set became fabled for its scarcity; rumors that the cards were widely distributed in Canada and that most of them ended up in the bottom of the ocean started circulating, which earned the company elite status. Their success attracted fierce competition from Bowman baseball cards during the period 1953-1957, as the two competed on production costs for a greater market share and tried to get exclusive contracts from top players; losing and gaining renowned names such as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle. However, the competition came to a halt upon the acquisition of Bowman by Topps' by the end of the 1955 season, making them the dominant manufacturer of baseball card sets for the next couple of decades.
In addition, Topps was also known for its 'test issues'; experimental cards including die-cuts, 3D cards, stamps, pins, posters, coins, tattoos and more. These were created only once to test the market and are akin to popular limited edition collectors merchandise today. Furthermore, Topps also produced cards for famous companies such as Hostess and Kellogg.
From 1952-1981, Topps issued baseball card sets in packs of gum, including some of the most important cards of the era's famous players. Topps' 1952 issue is still regarded by many as one of the greatest sets of all time; the cards are highly sought after by collectors to this day. The #311 Mickey Mantle card is one of the most expensive cards in the post-war era, valued at around $12,000-$18,000.
Topps' virtual monopoly came to an end in 1980 when a court allowed other companies to join the fun, although restricting them from packaging cards with gum. From that point on, more and more companies joined the industry, which led Topps to expand operations into the UK as well as online. Today, Topps' manufactures its own range of branded baseball card sets that fill up the shelves of most card stores in the country.
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