As Sy Berger strolls through a major league locker room, he's as convivial and easygoing as a social director in a retirement village. He's downright courtly to the pitchers, friendly toward the catchers, outgoing with centerfielders, a favorite uncle to all. He acts as if he could carry on a conversation with a bat rack.
And there's good reason why Berger should feel as relaxed and as welcome in locker rooms as in his own living room. He's the advance man for Topps Chewing Gum, purveyors of more than half a billion baseball cards a year. This season, though, Berger's amiability is tinged with nervousness. For the first time in 25 years Topps has competition at the corner confectionery. And in the world of bubble-gum trading cards, that can be a sticky situation.
When Berger started recruiting players in the early '50s, Topps was a hot young prospect competing for a spot against veteran Bowman Gum. But Topps benched Bowman for good in less than five seasons, leaving Berger pretty much alone in conferring pasteboard immortality. For the ensuing 25 years virtually all Berger had to do was read the rosters each spring and sign the players' royalty checks. This year, however, Fleer, a company on the comeback, and Donruss, a brash rookie out of General Mills, are horning in on the action. "The irony is that Fleer and Donruss are putting out cards on my efforts," says Berger, the self-anointed father of the modern baseball card. "They're trying to do us in."
"There's a market out there, and we aim to participate," counters Fleer President Donald D. Peck, whose company won a lengthy court battle last year to burst Topps' monopolistic bubble. And it's a monopoly worth busting into. Though marketing analysts at Topps say that baseball cards contend with candy and comic books for kids' discretionary pennies, apparently today's children have enough pennies at their discretion to make the cards a $10 million a year industry.
Baseball cards were first distributed in the late 19th century, after Joe Blong but before Snitz Applegate. In the beginning they came with cigarettes—Old Judge, Sweet Caporal, Turkey Red—and of the early cards the 1910 Honus Wagner is the most prized. The slightly presumptuous American Tobacco Co. brought it out without getting the Flying Dutchman's permission, and Wagner, who didn't smoke, sued. The company pulled the cards, which made them scarce, enhancing their value for collectors. Now a Wagner can command $25,000, and one collector recently turned down $50,000 for his. Over the years, in addition to gum, the cards have helped sell Post Toasties, Num Num Potato Chips and Red Heart Dog Food. (There's no record of a dog ever paying $25,000 for a baseball card, proving once again that dogs are smarter than people.)
When Topps, a Brooklyn confectioner that has been in business since 1939, decided to compete with Bowman in 1951, Berger slid in with his spikes up. He camped out in clubhouses, enticed players to sign exclusively with Topps and even designed the 1952 set of cards.
By 1956 Bowman had gone the way of nickel bags of ball-park peanuts. Fleer, a Philadelphia-based confectionery company, came up for a cup of coffee in 1959, but it didn't stay around long. "One problem," says Peck, "was that nearly every player had signed an exclusive agreement with Topps that covered not only cards sold with gum but also cards sold with candy and cards sold by themselves."
Fleer challenged in 1959 with a minuscule 66-card set—Topps had 572 different ones that year—that it marketed in card-cookie packs. Not very good cookies, either. To avoid infringing on Topps' contracts, the sugar content of the cookies had to remain well below that which constituted candy. The result was cookies that tasted like dog biscuits. "It was really a half-baked idea," Peck says. "Kids expect gum with cards. It has a certain sex appeal."
Meanwhile, Berger's team of backslappers had thwacked its way through the bush leagues, signing just about everyone on the off chance they'd make it to the majors. Because Topps had exclusive long-term contracts with staggered expiration dates, it would be years before Fleer could sign even a small percentage of major leaguers. "We never did anything overt to keep out the competition," says Berger. "We just signed the players before they did."
Fleer soon got out of the baseball-card business, but in 1975 it filed a $13.6 million suit charging Topps with having a monopoly. Last July a federal judge found for Fleer, but awarded the company treble damages totaling only $3—about the going rate for a 1952 mint-condition Topps Myron Ginsburg card. Neither side was satisfied by the ruling. They're both appealing, but at least Fleer had opened the way for competition in baseball cards.
Now all three card-makers—Topps, Fleer and Donruss—are looking for an edge. While a pack of cards retails for 30¬¨¬®¬¨¢ regardless of its manufacturer, Topps offers 15 cards out of a set of 726 to a pack; Fleer gives 17 cards from its set of 660; and Donruss 18 from a set of 605. Fleer shipped its cards just before the Super Bowl, a full month before the traditional mid-February baseball-card release date. "We forced Topps' hand," Peck says. Apparently not, since Topps stuck with the February date, as did Donruss.
The photos on the face side of the competitors' cards vary only slightly. Topps' shots were snapped by its four photographers during last year's exhibition and regular seasons. Those on Fleer and Donruss cards were largely culled from the private stocks of free-lancers.
The biggest differences in the cards are found on their flip side. Fleer cards are backed with dry-as-dust stats. Donruss uses fewer numbers; instead, it offers career highlights that tend to read like medical case histories. You get to know an awful lot about Dave Edwards' appendix, Tom Hausman's ulcers and Joe Charboneau's groin. And Donruss cards have a lot of the sort of errors one might expect of a rookie. To cite several examples, the picture identified as Vern Ruhle is actually of Bob Forsch; Johnny Ellis' name appears under Danny Walton's photo; and Bobby Bonds, who isn't even in the major leagues anymore, is credited with 936 career home runs, which no doubt comes as news to Henry Aaron.
Topps mixes the numbers on the back of its cards with cartoons, as it has done for the past 20 years. Its most memorable card this year shows Angel Catcher Bob Davis looking like a man possessed and informs us that he "lists snake hunting among his favorite pastimes."
Inside information like this is why Jack Renner, 9, of Norwalk, Conn. prefers Topps. "You get to know the player's fantasies," he says. "It's a lot better hobby than watching TV." And more fun than chewing the gum. Renner considers the rosy slabs to be too brittle, so he mostly throws them up in the air to watch them shatter on the pavement. "Topps gum isn't really bad and Donruss gum's O.K., I guess," he says, "but Fleer's is the awfullest stuff anybody ever tasted." Renner knows what he's talking about; Peck admits, "It's Fleer's lowest-quality gum."
While Donruss gum may be chewable, its cards are the least flippable. "They're too flimsy," claims Leo Lunser, 32, the undisputed card-pitching champion of Sanford, Maine. "You can't get the good flip."
Another thing that bothers Lunser is the photography on the Donruss cards. It's indistinct, he says. Indeed, the Jim Kern card is the worst of a collection that is rife with washed-out and bleary photos. "Donruss cards look too posed," Lunser says. "I can visualize the photographer saying, 'O.K., lift the bat a little now. Now, tilt your head....' "
Jack Wallin, of course, would disagree. He's the rookie photographer who took most of the Donruss set. He thinks his shots are the most artistic. "I'd stack my 300 best against anybody else's best 300," he says flatly.
Fleer contract photographer Steve Babineau thinks art has very little to do with it. "If you have three Richie Hebners, two will be fundamentally the same," he says. "What can ballplayers do except stand around holding a bat? Kids just want the athlete's face anyway."
Every spring the bubble-gum card photographers shuttle from training camp to training camp like traveling salesmen hitting small-town dry-goods stores. At 74, George Heyer has been covering the territory for Topps for nearly a quarter of a century. He has been around so long it's rumored he carries the negative of an Abner Doubleday card in his camera bag. Heyer was responsible for the famed 1964 Don Mossi ugly card, on which the ears of the former Tiger pitcher appear to droop down to his knees.
"Look this way," Heyer tells a young Reds hopeful. "Push your cap back. Drop your head. I want to see your number." Flashbulbs pop like supercharged fireflies. The rookie winces.
Heyer pauses to load his camera. He sighs, squints at his roster, takes off his glasses and cleans them on his shirttail. He is unperturbed by the player tapping his shoulder.
"Can I get one without my helmet?" asks Sam Mejias. "I've been on cards for four years now, but always in a helmet."
Heyer nods. "If they're sad, I tell them to cheer up a little," he says. "I don't really care, though. I can't wait around for them to cheer up. To be perfectly honest, I never look at baseball except when I'm sent down here."
Some players don't care if Heyer ever comes around. "I used to be embarrassed to go out and pose," recalls Al Kaline. "They always got me before games on the road, and the fans would be yelling, 'Hey, Kaline, you bum.' I'd ask the photographer to use the card from the year before. Hell, I was on 21 of them."
There may be 10,000 mug shots of Kaline in Chicago's Sport Collector's Store, which houses about 18 million baseball cards. Among 1981 cards the Collector's Store is selling slightly more Topps cards than Fleer or Donruss. In fact, Topps is selling just as many cards as it was before the card wars began. Jack Renner, for example, is one card-carrying kid who's sticking with Topps—but, then, that's the only brand they sell down the block at Mike's Deli.