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Sy Berger, who revitalized baseball cards after World War II by introducing Topps cards in 1951, died at 91 on this date in 2014. The first cards were packaged with taffy inside instead of bubble gum, a nearly disastrous marketing error because the taffy ended up tasting like the varnish on the cards. But the following year, Berger and Woody Gelman, Topps’ creative director, switched to gum and redesigned the cards to be larger and lavishly colored, and to include players’ team logos as well as season and lifetime statistics and signatures. “Becoming a familiar face in major league clubhouses, out-hustling the sales forces of his competitors,” writes Richard Goldstein in the New York Times, “Mr. Berger offered ballplayers annual payments of $125 to sign exclusive deals with Topps, and he appealed to their vanity by giving them dozens of cards printed with their likenesses. In 1956, Topps absorbed its chief competitor, the Bowman company, to seal its dominance of the baseball-card market.”
“Most of the early Topps cards were presumably thrown out by mothers cleaning their sons’ closets, and Mr. Berger dumped dozens of cases of unsold 1952 cards into the Atlantic Ocean. But Topps and latter-day competitors were selling millions of baseball cards annually by the time of the pricing boom of the late 1980s and early ’90s. And ballplayers were sharing in Topps’s success. In 1968, the players’ union reached an agreement with Topps to receive a percentage of its revenue, to be distributed among its members.” --Richard Goldstein
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.