Topps Baseball Cards

Early History

Morris Shorin created a tobacco distribution business in Brooklyn which began to struggle during the Great Depression. Morris had four sons: Joseph, Ira, Abram, and Philip. They decided to attempt to revive the dying company by starting Topps Chewing Gum in 1938.

The brothers sought to be at the “top” of selling pieces of gum that went for a penny. The name comes from a candy company that the family built from Chattanooga.

In the next several years, Topps Chewing Gum grew into other candies, including Ring Pops and Push Pops. They started to add to the candy by wrapping comics around the gum. The most famous of these comics started in 1953 from the Bazooka brand which had Bazooka Joe.

Topps moved into cards in general with the expansion in 1949 into the Magic Photo Cards. When these blank cards were moistened and exposed to light, images appeared. The images were from current sports heroes which included 19 baseball players.

The Magic Cards were included for free with the gum, and this expanded into other cards. Topps first star was Hopalong Cassidy, a fictional cowboy. As time has gone on, the cards have crossed sports and art into famous musicians (Elvis, the Beatles), movies (Star Wars), books, and other high profile cultural entities.

First Baseball Cards (1951)

Topps entered the baseball card industry in 1951 with the “Blue Backs” and “Red Backs.” There were 52 cards in each of the sets. The cards have a game built in them around a mini game of baseball. In addition to the game, there is a photo of the player on the front, and there is a short bio on the back.

Lesser known sets from 1951 are the “Connie Mack All-Stars” which had 11 Hall of Famers, and the “Major League All Stars” which also had 11 All Stars. The sets are unusually tall, measuring at 2 1/16” x 5 ¼”.

The cards possess the black and white shot on the front with a red background, and they are typically graded very low because they could be stood up as toys which always results in a great deal more wear and tear.

To put the numbers in perspective, PSA has graded 13,000 Red Backs, 6,000 Blue Backs, 606 of the “Connie Mack All-Stars”, and only 133 “Major League All-Stars.”

Sporting News Topps All-Star (1951-1989)

Speaking of the first All Star packs, the first Topps All-Star cards were from the 1951 set, but the more modern cards featuring the Sporting News brand came in 1958. What follows is a brief history of the All Star sets for Topps. What makes these cards significant is the added variety to baseball cards when Topps was essentially the sole brand. This would change in the 1980s.

In 1957 a local Cincinnati newspaper convinced its readers to stuff the ballot boxes for the All-Star game. The fans listened, and they forced five Reds players into the starting lineup for the National League All-Star team.

Commission Ford Frick was not happy. He soon decided that All-Stars would be chosen by players and managers. Fans would no longer have a say.

As a result of the change, Topps put out their first All-Star set in 1958. The design was notably different, particularly with the blue background and white stars for the National League, as well as the red background with white stars.

The cards were a hit because of the differences in design and selectivity of players, and they continued with the tradition through 1962. Cards changed from year to year, including the 1961 card in which players’ heads seem to burst through a newspaper. The cards were fun, dynamic, and exciting in a way that was new for baseball card trading.

There was a hiatus for the All Star cards by Topps from 1963-1967 for unknown reasons. The set was reopened from 1968-1970, but it was closed again as the fan vote resumed for the All-Star Game. They were brought back for 1974.

Some interesting designs were the 68’ cards that fit into a puzzle piece, the 69’ with the player’s head against an action shot, and the 70’ that brought the 61’ theme.

From 1975-1981, Topps dropped the separate Sporting News card in favor of putting an All-Star designation in the corner of each base card. The designation varied from a banner to a star with different colors and writings inside them.

1982-1989 brought back the individual All-Star cards. The designs again varied from year to year. We will stop here, as this brings Topps’ history in line with the era of several brands, styles, inserts, just tons of variety.

Topps brought back Bowman in 1989, so the variety of All-Star cards was no longer hugely significant.

Topps 1952

The major set came in 1952. The 1952 Topps has a much larger number of 407 cards, measures 2 ⅝” x 3 ¾”, and is one of the all time greatest sets. The #311 Mickey Mantle is one of the most treasured cards to this day.

Until 1974, the sets were released in several parts throughout the season. As the NFL season started up in the fall, the later few cards sold poorly, and they are scarcer today. The #311 Mickey Mantle started the last series in 1952, which adds to its value.

The cards competed with Bowman, and Topps leadership was pleased with how well they did. However, with summer ending, kids going back to school, and the 1953 Topps coming soon, there were boxes of cards left over as the year headed into early fall.

These priceless cards were considered dead inventory. Topps could not even sell off the cards at a penny a pack.

Topps considered it a lesson learned with a tax write off. Consequently, pallets and pallets of unsold Topps 1952’s were dumped into the ocean. In future seasons, Topps produced less, and if there were extras, they similarly destroyed them.

Fast forward sixty years, and an empty box of Topps 1952 sold for fifty thousand dollars. As a side note, that case has its own history. Hidden in an attic for decades, the case held dozens of Mantle’s, Jackie Robinson’s, and Eddie Matthews’. Many of the PSA 9’s and 10’s come from this box. The three PSA 10 Mickey Mantle’s known, which are all worth over a million in private collections, came from this box.

Sy Berger designed the cards at the kitchen table in his apartment in Brooklyn with cardboard, pencils, and rulers. The 1952 Topps were defining for the hobby with the picture, team logo, and maybe a fake autograph on the front. Then, some information like a brief biography or some stats were found on the back.

During this time, the combination of gum and baseball cards made Topps competitive with young kids. However, the gum was not good, and the cards became the focus. The gum was found later to stain the cards, and Topps removed the gum in 1992. The Heritage series included gum in 2001.

Numbering System

1952 began an annual tradition of deciding how to number each baseball player in the set. It is an important part of the history of Topps baseball cards.

In addition to the #1 spot, Topps has traditionally put major stars ending in 50 or 00 (50, 100, 150, 200, etc.), while smaller stars land on cards ending in 5.

The now annual tradition is debating, shouting, and calling for your favorite player to be the first card in the base set of Topps baseball. There is also the concern for the other major numbers. Fans celebrate as their favorite receives “150,” and they bewail another who is relegated to a “45.”

The leaders of these sets have led in statistical categories, won the Most Valuable Player Award of each league, have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and of course, have won the World Series. From Ted Williams to Mike Trout, the best in the game have been featured at the number one slot.

There have been some controversial picks. Most recently, John Lackey in 2007 is still considered an iffy choice. Although Dusty Rhodes hit .341 in 1954, Topps’ choice for him at the first slot in 1955 is questioned due to a lackluster career overall.

Thus, the choice of the number one has historical value. It raises the value of a card or set, and the decisions by Topps is still debated. Furthermore, the choice for number one has had different features, patterns, and oddities.

Some different features include the teams who won the World Series in 1967 and 1970-1972. AL President William Harridge was #1 in 1956, and Commissioner Ford Frick was in the top spot in 1959.

Many top players had multiple firsts, which includes Nolan Ryan with four, Ted Williams with 3, Hank Aaron and Alex Rodriguez each have five. Multiple appearances at #1 marks a player in a special way of significance.

Bowman vs. Topps

The earliest rivalry in the baseball card industry was between Bowman and Topps. Bowman had the upper hand when Topps entered in 1951.

The 1951 Topps set was sold with caramel candy as an effort to subvert the Bowman contracts centered around gum. Players operated under individual contracts with mostly Bowman.

As early as 1951 Topps campaigned hard to sign players in exclusive deals for the 1952 season to sell cards with gum. Bowman responded with a lawsuit citing unfair competition, contractual interference, and trademark infringement.

Topps was aiming dead center at Bowman with the 1952 set, which was larger and had more cards than any set since the tobacco companies before WWI. As a result of the lawsuit, there were a few missing players on the Topps sets from 1952 to 1956.

Each year from 1952 to 1956, Topps took business away from Bowman. Topps bought out Bowman in 1956 which ended the legal debate, and Topps would essentially have a monopoly until the end of an antitrust suit in 1981.

Topps faced two major challengers during this time: Fleer and MLBPA.

1956-1981: Challenges to the Monopoly

Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) was founded in 1966. MLBPA began to theorize about group licensing. Their first experiment was with players’ images on bottle caps of Coca-Cola. From this negotiating, MLBPA decided that Topps was not paying enough for the rights to print and distribute the players’ cards.

Topps was approached for a renegotiation of contracts. As the company had every player on five year deals with options for renewal, Topps declined. MLBPA asked its players to stop renewing in 1968 after negotiation failed.

Then, MLBPA made an offer to Fleer for exclusive rights for MLB cards. Fleer declined. Topps then agreed to double its payments.

The only competition that remained on the market from a corporation was Fleer. Fleer made moves like signing Ted Williams in his twilight, releasing a small 67 card set in 1963, and creating a series called Baseball Greats of retired players. To the dismay of Fleer, Topps remained dominant.

Thus, Fleer filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission. Fleer called Topps a monopoly. After a judgement and a reversal, a conclusive ruling: other companies could sell cards without gum. Fleer decided to drop out, and they sold their contracts to Topps for $395,500.

A minor challenge came from Kellogg’s, the breakfast company. Kellogg’s inserted 3-D cards into boxes of breakfast cereal in the mid 1970s. Brands like Corn Flakes and Raisin held entire sets though they had fewer cards. However, Topps did not consider this a threat because the baseball cards functioned as a bonus to the cereal, instead of the other way around with Topps’ gum.

Topps maintained their dominance for the two and a half decades until Donruss filed an antitrust lawsuit in 1975. Donruss started making sets with gum. Though Topps won the suit and the case was resolved in 1981 with Topps exclusive right to sell with gum, Fleer and Donruss entered the market with other items like stickers and puzzle pieces.

1981-2009: The Rise and Fall of Competition

The increase of competition from companies such as Donruss, Upper Deck, Score, and Fleer brought several changes to Topps.

The first was the competition for the rookie between brands. Companies began competing for the “first” rookie of players, and they would release the rookie cards early on in their minor league careers. These prospect cards were confusing for collectors but good for the card companies.

Topps contribution to this was producing cards with the amateur Olympic team players. An important example is the Mark McGwire rookie as an Olympic athlete from 1985.

Another move by Topps was to release a variety of brands. This included the renewal of the Bowman brand which focused on young players.

A watershed moment of this era was the inclusion of Upper Deck into the field. Upper Deck changed the game by introducing high end cards with better stock, more intricate designs, and inserts.

Topps responded with Stadium Club in 1991 for their own high end brand. In an era where packs could for under a dollar, Stadium Club sold for $4, and they could even go up to $8 per pack. There were 12 cards per pack. These prices were unheard of.

It was an interesting time in baseball card history. Cards from this time are largely worthless today because so many cards of so many brands were produced. Customers, particularly kids, were unsure as to which brand to buy. A market bubble developed. The market bubble burst.

Throughout it all, Topps stayed consistent in baseball cards.

The competitors began to drop. Pinnacle Brands (aka Score) fell in 1998. Pacific (founded in 1994) folded in 2001. Fleer was bought out by Upper Deck following bankruptcy in 2005. Donruss failed to produce cards in 1999 and 2000, losing the MLB license altogether in 2006 due to the MLBPA.

Finally, Upper Deck soon exited in 2009. Topps, once again, became the sole distributor of MLB cards.

Foreign Endeavors

Throughout most of its baseball card history, Topps has sold different sets abroad specifically targeted towards specific foreign country. The cards are fun for their differences, rarity, and individual take.

For example, there were Topps sets issued to Venezuela from 1959-1971 through the local printer Benco. The major differences were the inclusion of winter league players, the much lower grade card stock quality with grey and cream backs, and the lack of any gloss on the front.

O-Pee-Chee produced a legal set of Topps in Canada from 1965-1992, and the major difference was the inclusion of the French language due to Canadian laws. Lastly, Topps attempted a set in the UK, and these had the definitions of different baseball terms on the back.

Although it may go without saying, these attempts to open new markets for individual countries were a general failure. However, many of these cards are still traded today, Topps sets issued in the United States are collected worldwide, and Topps Bunt, soon to be discussed, has provided international appeal over the internet.

Technology and Today

The internet afforded new avenues in the world of baseball cards. The first venture by Topps was eTopps. It was created at the end of 2000 in partnership with eBay. These cards were sold solely online, and the number of cards produced depended on offers at an Initial Player Offering.

Topps maintains the cards in a climate controlled warehouse unless delivery is specifically requested by the owner. eTopps can be traded, sold, or bought online while they remain in the warehouse in Delaware.

In 2012 Topps ceased the sale of new eTopps cards. However, they continue to be traded, sold, and shipped today. Overall, nearly 4 million cards were involved in eTopps.

A side note was the purchase of This website functioned as a stock market trading setup for baseball cards. The venture lasted from 2001-2006, and it ended with the dumping of the site. Topps reportedly lost $3.7 million.

The major modern move was the introduction of Topps Bunt. It was introduced in 2012, following the cessation of eTopps. Topps Bunt is card collecting through purely digital means. Cards are held on an account online.

After starting as a small website, Topps Bunt spread in numbers to apps from which the concept took off. Though this article is devoted to Topps baseball, the success of the app spread to Topps Huddle (NFL), Topps Kick (Soccer), Topps Skate (NHL), the Marvel Universe, and the Star Wars franchise. The strong expansion into other sports and areas suggests that digital collecting is a strong venture.

For more than a few years now, Topps Bunt has been praised as the vanguard that revolutionized card trading and collecting.

Cards on Topps Bunt take advantage of the digital medium. For example, the cards can offer dynamic features. The coloring and design can be more complex without the cost from printing. Also, the backs of the cards can update in real time.

A massive success has been the longevity of Topps Bunt. Thousands of apps rise and fall within weeks, and Topps Bunt has survived for 7 years. Topps keeps their customers entertained with all sorts of competitions, lotteries, and spins on cards.

As for those who say digital card trading is illegitimate, Vaccaro, Director of Digital Content from Topps, retorts, “It is a picture on your phone. But books are read on phones. Movies are viewed on phones. Bank accounts are accessed on phones. Music is listened to through apps. The world is connected and functions through mobile devices, so to extend our deeply historic and physical brand into the digital world is where we need to be as a company.”

Topps, by all accounts, is carrying the hobby into a new age.

Topps, by all accounts, have carried the hobby through the post WWII and modern era as well. They are the most important brand in the history of baseball cards. Topps is so important for the history of baseball cards that the brand is synonymous with the history of the cards.