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Woody Gelman and the Baseball Card
by Dan Bloom
I WAS RECENTLY READING an obituary of Seymour “Sy” Berger in Time magazine, written by a Jewish kid from Vermont who grew up to become a baseball card star-gazer, Josh Wilker. Wilker wrote a popular and well-received book in 2010 titled Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards, which Ted Anthony of the Associated Pess wire service said “summons time and place and nostalgia in a rush of feeling and memory.” Anthony went on to praise the book this way: “In Wilker’s hands, a pack of baseball cards becomes a Gen-X tarot deck, as if arranging them just so can unlock life’s secrets.”
So after reading Wilker’s brief Time magazine “appreciation” of the long life of Sy Berger, “the father of the modern baseball card,” as dozens of obits across the media world attested, I asked Wilker by email if we could also say that Woody Gelman, who also worked at the Topps Chewing Gum firm in Brooklyn in the 1950s could be credited also as the co-creator of the modern color baseball card, since it was Gelman who actually designed the cards.
Gelman was editor and art director for 25 years at Topps, for which he was also co-creator of Bazooka Joe and the Mars Attacks card collection.
Yet none of the Sy Berger obits — and there were over fifty of them, even a long Richard Goldstein piece in the New York Times — mentioned Gelman as the co-creator and therefore co-father of the iconic modern baseball card. But in fact, the prototype for the first Topps cards was designed at a shaky kitchen table in Brooklyn, with Berger and Gelman working together as a creative team. So why did all the obits leave Gelman out of the picture?
The short answer is that Gelman died in 1978 and is not around now to tell his side of the story. The long answer follows:
I asked a former Topps part-time employee about this cold shoulder to Woody Gelman. “Newspapers always mix fiction with non,” the former scrappy show-runner told me by email. “Indeed, Woody was involved, as were others. Sy Berger was a fine Topps employee, they loved him there, he was part of a team that built some American lore that might stand the test of time.”
So I asked Josh Wilker, now in Chicago. The baseball card meyvn replied: “I don’t really know how to size up Sy in terms of Jewish sports history, but if he ever got his own baseball card, the back would have to show him as the all-time leader in fun. He made my childhood a lot more fun, that’s for sure.”
But historians, please note, Wilker added: “I agree with you that Woody Gelman should be known as the co-creator of the modern baseball card. In the excellent baseball card history titled Mint Condition, Dave Jamieson does a great job of celebrating Gelman’s contributions.”
There you have it, baseball cardies: Woody Gelman was the co-creator of the modern card, and should also be known as “the father of the modern baseball card” along with Sy Berger. It was a team that created the card, not one person. Just like baseball is all about team spirit and team sportsmanship.
A friend of mine who knows a thing or two about the history of the Topps empire, and who I know through my Yiddish-language research circles, told me this anecdote about how the cards were first marketed:
The Topps people would pay ballplayers who got into the minors five bucks to sign a Topps card contract. Of 1,500 or so players they signed each year, only about thirty would make it to the big leagues, but I guess they thought in those days that signing with Topps was a huge step for ballkind. More times than one might think, a player would say to one of the Topps sales people (Sy Berger being one of them, of course, and he was tops, no pun intended), ‘Hey I really wanna sign but my wallet’s in the clubhouse. Can you wait until after practice is over?’
“The Topps people would have to say, ‘No kid, you don’t give Topps the five dollars, we pay it to you,” my storyteller friend added as the punchline.
After hearing all these Sy Berger and Wood Gelman stories, I had a midnight brainstorm in my Aaron Sorkinesque writers room in Taiwan: I envisioned a Hollywood movie about jocular and colorful Jewish men who love baseball, love baseball cards, love salesmanship and marketing, and most of all, love life, all of it — the good, the bad, and the fug ugly. Jewish guys from Brooklyn whose every day humor
and joi de vivre went all the way to the top, excuse the pun again.
And yes, what got me to thinking “movie!” was that I was one of those those pre-teen kids in the 1950s who bought nickel packs of Topps baseball cards at the corner drugstore where my Aunt Nelly worked with those sweet pink sheets of bubble gum inside. And like most American kids, I became pretty good at flipping and trading the cards, with neighborhood friends and my older brother Art.
So this is my idea for a movie I want to call “Carboard Memories.” It’s about the Topps baseball trading card company in its heyday in the 1950s, and since it’s a Hollywood studio film, there’s a sweet love story wrapped around it, with a colorful crew of baseball stats wonks and card designers and salesmen who go out to games and visit clubhouses and get top players to agree to have their photos taken and appear on Topps cards.
It’s a movie about the American past-time baseball, America’s love affair with stats and celebrity ball players — Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams — and about, well, Americana.
Most of all, the movie that I already have screened in my mind’s eye is about the people behind the company that brought ”cardboard memories” to millions of devoted teenage boys in a time before iPads and smart phones and Netflix.
Now all I need to do is find a good Hollywood producer. Yes, “Cardboard Memories” could hit a home run.
Dan Bloom lives in Chiayi City, Taiwan and is a regular correspondent for the San Diego Jewish World, from which this essay is adapted with his permission.