By Glen Sparks
If you ever collected some change, headed to the store, bought a pack of baseball cards and unwrapped the wax paper with gleeful anticipation, then it may be time to pause for just a minute.
Seymour Perry “Sy” Berger, inventor of the modern baseball card, died Sunday at the age of 91. Berger, along with co-worker Woodrow “Woody” Gelman designed the first Topps baseball card in the fall of 1951. Topps released its opening run of cards a few months later. That basic design—one with the player’s photo on the front and with his height, weight, stats and other trivia on the back—is still used by Topps today.
Gelman, also the co-creator of Bazooka Joe, died in 1978. Berger worked for the Topps Co. for more than 50 years. Born July 12, 1923, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and later graduated with an accounting degree from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. At Bucknell, Berger befriended the son of a Topps executive.
Founded in 1938, Topps’ roots go back to the American Leaf Tobacco Co., a business that Morris Shorin started in 1890. When American Leaf was cut off from its Turkish tobacco supply during World War I, and later during the Great Depression, Shorin’s four sons opted instead to sell chewing gum. The company also changed its name, hoping to be “tops” in the industry.
The Shorin brothers needed a gimmick. They found a great one in 1950. Inside every gum package, they put a trading card featuring William Boyd, star of Hopalong Cassidy. Later, Topps added more movie and early T.V. stars. Finally, the company decided that bubble gum and baseball cards might go together.
Berger and Gelman made their cards bigger than earlier baseball cards. They also added stat lines and a facsimile autograph. The kids couldn’t get enough. Topps had ordered an initial run of 310 different cards. Sales went so well that the company added another series of 97. It was the largest set of baseball cards anyone had put out in decades.
Topps sold its cards stacked neatly on top of one another, wrapped in wax paper and always with a stick of pink gum, tougher than leather. Later, the company also packaged cards in something called “rack packs,” basically three packed wrapped together, each in clear package. The advantage? You knew at least six of the cards and could rummage through the assortment, looking for the best combo.
Topps tipped you off on who the good players were, even if you didn’t know much about baseball. If the number on the back ended in a “5” or a “0,”that was a guy who could play. If the number ended in a “00,” well, that was a superstar. So, sure, you selected a pack, put your change onto the counter, and you hoped to get one of the best players from your favorite team. But, if you got No. 300, that was pretty good, too.
Kids from an earlier era flipped their cards or put them into their bicycle spokes. Later, collecting became more serious and no kid would ever dream of doing anything to damage that 2 ½ by 3 ½ inch piece of cardboard. (The card-collecting hobby got serious, and maybe a little less fun, in the late 1980s. Instead of having one official Tony Gywnn Topps card, you had like 147. It became annoying.)
Collectors, from grandsons to grandpas, couldn’t get enough rookie cards for a while. They hoarded every first-year Alex Rodriguez or Don Mattingly they could find. The prices went up and up. Really, the baseball card industry went nuts for a time. Buy low and sell high, high, high. That was the plan. Guys who had old, mint sets from the 1950s cashed in. Then, it crashed. A Ken Reitz baseball card, mint or not, was worth only so much.
Some cards still sell for astronomical numbers. Most are pre-Topps cards. The T206 Honus Wagner card, issued by the American Tobacco Company from 1909 to 1911, is the Mona Lisa of painted cardboard. Fewer than 60 of the cards exist. A near-mint version sold for 2.8 million in 2007. The School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore sold a T206 in poor condition for $262,000 in 2010.
The top Topps card is the 1952 Mickey Mantle. In mint condition, it sells for more than $10,000. During the Mantle era, the Mick’s card usually fetches the most money in that year’s set.
Sy Berger lived to see baseball card collecting become a popular pastime for the young and old, much like the game of baseball itself. The hobby is different today, less innocent, just like a lot of things. But the eager collector still hopes to unwrap a pack of cards and find a picture of his favorite player. Only a piece of cardboard? Sure, but even a piece of cardboard can put a gleam in your eye.