Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on April 21, 2016 and is reprinted here by permission.
By the early 1960s the Topps baseball card monopoly had driven many bubblegum makers out of business. The days of kids buying gum and getting a free card were long gone—more likely the gum was never being chewed at all. This state of affairs was particularly troubling to Fleer, a Philadelphia-based company whose “Double Bubble” gum had kicked off the industry in 1928 and was its leader until overtaken by Topps’ “Bazooka” in the 1960s.
Topps maintained its stranglehold on the business by signing players when they were still in the low minors. They gave the prospects five dollars as a binder to lock in exclusive rights for five years. Topps renewed these binders regularly and paid players $125 per year if they were used on a card or if they appeared in the big leagues for 31 days. Topps actually provided the players with a catalog of items they could choose from in lieu of the cash, like a set of luggage or a television. Thus a monopoly was maintained—if a rival tried to enter the market, it would take five years to get all the players under contract.
Fleer made a few attempts to break in. They signed Ted Williams away from Topps in 1959 and put out an 80-card set devoted entirely to Williams’s life. In 1960 they produced a set of cards devoted to former stars, like Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, and did the same in 1961. None of these sets made a dent in Topps’ market or much helped Fleer at all. In January 1962, the Federal Trade Commission (prompted by Fleer) filed a complaint against Topps alleging that its hold on the baseball card and gum businesses were making it impossible for competitors to make inroads.
In 1963 Fleer threw caution to the wind and planned a set of active player cards, sold with a cookie. Since Topps’ exclusive was for gum or other confectionary products, the cookie was more like a sugarless biscuit, which kids hated. Topps went to court to force Fleer to stop selling anyway and won the case—Fleer put out just a single (very attractive) series of 67 cards.
The FTC case took three years to come to a resolution. Topps lost an early round, when an FTC hearing examiner ruled against them in 1964, but the full commission overruled this decision in 1965 and the Topps monopoly was essentially safe for another 15 years.
1958 (494 cards)
Sy Berger, the face of Topps sports cards for several decades, famously designed the 1952 cards at his kitchen table, and had a hand in the designs for many years thereafter. This fact always fascinated me because Topps completely changed their look so often, as if they assigned a new person to the task every year. In 1957 they put out one of the most aesthetically pleasing sets they ever made and then scrapped it all and went in an entirely different direction. Did they do this because they needed to change to keep kids interested, because they were dissatisfied with their color photography, because the cards were too expensive? I guess we’ll never know.
In 1958 Topps used a color photo of the player (mostly headshots) with the background replaced by a solid color – yellow, orange, blue, etc. Compared with 1957, the cards are dramatically bright and colorful, but the pictures could have been taken outside a gas station for all we know. If you examine a random 1958 card, and imagine the color background removed in favor of green grass, an outfield wall and some blue sky I have to believe you’d have a better looking card.
The great innovation on the 1958 cards was the SPORT Magazine All-Star cards, the last 21 cards in the set honoring one player per league at each position (with one card devoted to two managers). These included some of the game’s greatest players, including Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Ted Williams, each getting, in effect, a second card. The backs of these cards included a detailed breakdown of the player’s performance against each team the previous year, along with a new paragraph of text.
Topps used the All-Star subset from 1958 through 1962 before retiring it for a few years. The cards were popular then and now, as it gave you twice as many chances to get the game’s best players. If you wanted to make a lineup with your stack of San Francisco Giants cards, the Mays All-Star card could fill in if you did not have the base card. What’s not to like?
Table 1 – Appearances on All-Star Cards, 1958-62
The most welcome of the 1958 All-Stars was Stan Musial, appearing on his first ever Topps card. Despite their best efforts, Topps had never been able to get him to sign a contract. Musial would be part of the Topps series for the remainder of his great career.
1959 (576 cards)
For the third year in a row, Topps substantially increased their set size, making it fully 75 percent larger than 1956, the first year of their monopoly. Although there were more specialty cards, there were 508 base player cards, 31.8 players per team (a total they would never reach again). As there were and are just 25 players on a baseball team, Topps was really digging deep to fill out their set with rookie prospects and players who would not be in the Major Leagues that year or ever again.
The front of the player cards featured a circular color photo laid on top of a bright colored background, sort of a compromise between the 1957 and 1958 fronts. I have heard from people who rate the 1959 set as their all-time favorite design, citing the bright colors. When I look at the beautiful Mickey Mantle photo, which uses less than half of the front of the card, it just seems it would be nicer without the surrounding bright red. But the cards’ backs are pretty much perfect.
Topps again had team cards and All-Star cards and added a new subset—“Baseball Thrills”—showing recent famous moments in the game: Willie Mays’s catch in the 1954 World Series, Henry Aaron’s 1957 pennant-winning home run, and eight others. Topps smartly highlighted top players—Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Duke Snider, and Stan Musial are also featured—making this a very attractive and popular subset. The backs were filled with a lengthy story about the highlighted event. Topps went back to this well several times over the years, featuring previous MVPs (1961) and highlights of the previous season (1975–1980). The popularity of these cards depended on the depicted player. In 1959 the subset was dominated by all-time greats.
Topps had first introduced the multiplayer card in 1957, with two beautiful examples: Mantle with Yogi Berra on one, and a second with Dodgers stars Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider. This became a well-loved feature of Topps sets for the next decade, peaking with 17 such cards in 1959. This gave Topps yet another chance to feature Mantle, Mays, Aaron, and the other top stars with one of their teammates or opponents. Often times the cards without star players were even more interesting, as fans of Roy Face might attest.
Table 1 – Appearances on Multi-Position Cards, 1957-69
1960 (572 cards)
Once again Topps dramatically shifted gears, returning to a horizontal image for the first time since 1956 and the last time ever (other than a handful of cards in some seasons). Years later, in 1971 in particular, I was not a fan of the horizontal cards that were used in an otherwise vertical set. I’d be riffing through the cards looking at all the photos, and suddenly I’d have to reorient my hand to properly see Thurman Munson? Really, Topps? If I had experienced the 1960 cards (or the 1955 and 1956 cards) as a kid, perhaps I’d feel differently, of course.
The other oddity with the cards was the second photo. As you can see, the cards have a nice full-color headshot that dominates the card, and a second smaller blurry black-and-white photo that seems somewhat unnecessary, at least to me. The cards again reverted to the single year of stats on an otherwise readable and fun back. Topps also included all of the big league managers for the first time and also had a separate card for each team’s coaches.
More important was the introduction of World Series cards, which would be a Topps staple for the next 17 years (excepting 1966). Topps used a card for each game, with a brief description and a box score on the back. These were always a nice feature in the Topps sets late in the decade when I first encountered them. They were generally action shots, at a time when Topps did not use action with its base cards.
1961 Topps (587 cards)
After a few years of experimentation, Topps returned to a much more basic format in 1961, highlighted by a color photo that (like 1957) took up nearly the entire front of the card. The player cards were 46 percent headshots, with the rest showing the player in some sort of pose with a bat or glove, which would soon dominate the Topps annual series. Two American League expansion teams and a franchise move caused Topps to have to show a lot of players without hats (more on this in a later article), leading to a large group of unattractive Angels, Twins, and Senators.
On the back of the card, Topps opted for the yearly statistical lines again and still had room for two or three cartoons about the player. The backs are a bit harder to read than previous years because they used a darker card stock, with the black on green statistical section causing a bit of squinting even for children.
Topps again employed their popular All-Star cards, putting them as the last 22 cards in the final series and therefore quite expensive to collect today. They also had a 16-card subset devoted to recent MVP winners in the sixth series, giving many of the best players in the game (Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Banks) a third card to themselves for 1961, surely delighting the boys of the time (at least if they stayed collecting to the end of the summer).
Thank you to The Topps Company for granting me permission to use images of their cards in this series.
Next week: One of the bigger challenges for Topps was coming up with acceptable photos of players who were traded in the offseason. Some of their choices in this regard were (to be kind) entertaining.