Topps

From Academic Kids

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.

Contents

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

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

Missing image
Micky_mantle.jpg
The famous 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, card #311

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, 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 particular.

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 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.

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. Kennedy.

References

  • Bowman Gum v. Topps Chewing Gum, 103 F.Supp. 944 (E.D.N.Y. 1952).
  • Haelan Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum, 202 F.2d 866 (2d Cir. 1953).
  • Haelan Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum, 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.

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