History of Topps Baseball Cards

From a candy company to perhaps the best alternative to the stock market, Topps has been the headliner of the baseball card world for a while, beating out competitors and creating a new demand for cards. Here's how Topps created the card company that exists today.

 

The Foundation


Topps started out back in 1890 as American Leaf Tobacco by Morris Shorin. Shorin's company imported tobacco to the United States and sold it to other tobacco companies. It was a relatively successful company, until the plight of World War One shocked the planet. Shorin's company was cut off of it's supply from Turkey, sending the company into despair. His four sons, Abram, Ira, Philip, and Joseph picked up the scraps of the company by using the existing channels of distribution to start a candy company. They changed the name to "Topps", because they wanted to be the tops in their field, and introduced the penny gum Bazooka Bubblegum.


Looking to increase their sales, the Shorin son's packaged their gum with trading cards

starting in 1949. This was a set of 252 called Magic Photos. The cards were very small, measuring 7/8" by 1-7/16" and appeared to be blank. Once exposed to the sun, the cards would appear in a sepia tone. Only 19 cards in the set were of baseball players, but they were heavy hitters. Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, and Christy Mathewson headlined the set.

Moving to 1950, Topps used their Bazooka gum for promotions for the TV show "Hopalong Cassdy" which was one of the most successful shows at the time. This paved the way for other pop culture sets like Pokemon and Garbage Pail Kids.


 

Batter Up


Starting in the autumn of 1951, World War Two veteran Sy Berger, drafted the design for the 1952 set. That design is still a staple today. It features the players name, photo, team, logo, and facsimile autograph on the front. On the back of the card, it spells out the players height, weight, bats, throws, birthplace, birthday and a short biography. These cards were printed on thin cardboard and hand cut, making perfect cards extremely rare to find. The set contained 407 cards and were released in six series and released based off of the location where they were. For example, the New York are received packs with players such as Duke Snyder, Phil Rizzuto, and the highly sought-after Mickey Mantle. What makes these cards more valuable, other than this set being the inception of the Topps cards, supposedly tons of these boxes of cards were loaded up onto a barge and dumped in the Atlantic Ocean. This was due to the lack of sales and quality compared to it's competitor Bowman at the time. The Shorin son's couldn't give away the cards, and they were taking up valuable space in their warehouse. They loaded up the barge and had a tugboat go out to sea to dump the remainder of the set into the ocean.




 

Bowman "Blony"


As mentioned before, Topps wasn't the first in the baseball card scene. The biggest player at the inception of Topps' baseball card set was Bowman. Much like Topps, Bowman too was a bubblegum company. Founded in 1927 under the name Gum Incorporated, Jacob Bowman had a hold on the industry. By 1937, Gum Inc's "Blony" brand of gum had a 60% share on the market. This was thanks to their gum being the biggest you could buy for a penny. In 1938, Bowman released it's first trading cards which were named the "Horrors of War". This 288 card set depicted pictures of numerous instances from wars across the globe. In 1939, Bowman hopped into the baseball world by releasing his "Play Ball" set which lasted until 1941. It stopped production because of the paper rations for World War Two. In 1948, after World War Two, Bowman came back and released it's first set under the Bowman name. This set was wildly popular, only containing 48 cards.

Scooting forward to 1952, Topps entered the ring of baseball cards. Bowman actually had the rights to produce these cards. They had signed contracts with players and in return, Bowman could use their pictures on their cards. Topps didn't have access to this, but pushed along anyways. Given that Bowman didn't have the rights to every player, this set off a mad dash to sign professional players to contracts. By 1956, Bowman was tapped for cash. Between the players contracts and the rise in costs to produce, Bowman stepped down and was bought out by Topps. Topps decided to shelf the product until 1989.


 

Rookie Cards


In 1960, Topps rolled out their All Star Rookie team as a part of their 572 card set. This already colorful set added even more pigments to stare at. The pinnacle of this set was the Carl Yastrzemski card which depicted the Hall of Famer as a second basemen, even though he never played there. These rookie stars were supposedly picked by the "Youth of America" but it turns out that it was the local retail stores that selected who were on the cards.


1974 was the first year of the Topps Traded set. This set depicted players who were either traded or called up to the majors. There were only 44 cards in the set, but it did include players such as Ron Santo and Juan Marichal. Perhaps one of the most popular "Traded" cards is the 1982 Cal Ripken Jr card.

 

Digital World


Topps dominated the baseball card market, fending off competition like Fleer, Leaf, and Upper Deck throughout the years. The Internet was becoming a part of everyone's life, so Topps saw the opportunity for more sales. Along with eBay making a push for buying and selling baseball cards, Topps created eTopps. eTopps was a website that people could buy and sell cards digitally. Each week, a limited number of cards were offered for sale. If you purchased them, it would show up in your inventory, where you could trade with other people. Card values were tabulated based off of eBay sales. If you ever wanted the card, Topps would ship it out of their Delaware location for a small shipping fee. eTopps stopped offering new cards in 2012, but the site did remain active. I hopped onto the site, and it is a flashback to the early 2000's. It seems that it isn't maintained at all, but there are still cards being traded. One of the more popular cards from eTopps is a 2006 Mickey Mantle reprint, pictured here


After the closure of eTopps, the company hopped over to the App Store with Topps Bunt. Topps Bunt was simular to eTopps in that it was a digital place to buy and sell cards. The only difference is that these were digital only, so you could only own these on your phone or mobile devices. You still collect players and trade with them, but you are also able to compete by using real time statistics to go against other players.


 

New Year, New Exclusive Sets


Topps continues to diversify how people buy cards as well as what they are buying. For example, Topps Now appeared in 2016. Topps Now is an online only card that you can buy for a set period of time that commemorates a special event for a player or team. For example, check out the card for Chris Sale yesterday commemorating his first start since 2019:



After this set, Topps released a "Living Set". This set, established in 2018, takes notable artists who paint beautiful pictures of players, to be released for a limited time, much like the Topps Now cards. The set guarantees to not repeat players (unless traded). It started with Aaron Judge, and is currently at #440, Ryan Mountcastle.



Topps Project 70 is new this year, as artists from around the world take widely known Topps cards and put their own twist into them. 2021 marks the 70th year of Topps making baseball cards, which is the foundation of this set. The most famous card, a Mike Trout designed by Alex Pardee, had a print run of 25,182. Pardee used his influence of the early 90's and his love of horror movies, to create this mind bending mashup that would get anyone's attention. Here's a side by side of Bert Blyleven's 1990 card next to Pardee's Trout card.


Not all cards are as spooky as Pardee's but his garnered the most attention. As a matter of fact, the Tatis Jr and Acuña version of this card are second and third most all time for Project 70 so far. Here are a couple of my favorites:



 






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