Innocence survived Sept. 11. Its walls shuddered and its windows rattled and its switchboard was silenced. But the day didn't mark the death of innocence, whose headquarters still stands, six blocks from ground zero, at 1 Whitehall Street, where the Topps Company continues to conjure up baseball cards, bubble gum and Bazooka Joe comics for a nation in need of summer.
Step inside. The hallways are redolent of rectangles of pink bubble gum, the kind still inserted in Topps's Heritage line of baseball cards. The gum is still pressed, to judge by its texture, from the same cardboard used in the manufacture of the cards.
"People's eyes roll back in their heads when they smell the gum," says Scott Silverstein, a company vice president, his office festooned with cards and candy. "Males of a certain generation are transported back to childhood"—and here the executive gets lost in his own Proustian reverie—"and carefree days."
In an age when athletes decline White House invitations, virtually every professional baseball player, from A ball to the bigs, still signs a ridiculously unremunerative contract to appear on a Topps baseball card. For decades the deal was $5 upon signing plus $250 when the card came out. (The latter fee is now $500.) "And many times," says Silverstein, "a player has said, 'Five dollars? Great! Just let me get my wallet out of the car.' We've had to tell them, 'No, you don't understand: We pay you!' "
If the Smithsonian is America's attic, then the Topps building is a nine-year-old's bedroom. Cubicle floors are littered with laundry: The game-worn uniforms of Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones and Curt Schilling will be cut into nickel-sized patches and inlaid into baseball cards. Topps's hockey honcho, Mark Sakowitz, holds a cross section of a game-used NHL puck—sliced as thin as deli salami—and says, "We're thinking of putting these into packs of hockey cards." Says an officemate, Clay Luraschi, "It's like working in Willy Wonka's factory."
"It is not unusual to be in a roomful of adults here who are blowing bubbles and sucking on [ Topps] Ring Pops," says Silverstein. "It's a combination of a board meeting and the movie Big."
The Topps Company was founded in Brooklyn in 1938 by the four Shorin brothers—Abram, Ira, Joe and Phil—whose first product was adult chewing gum. "During the war," says Topps CEO (and Joe's son) Arthur Shorin, a small man in a large cardigan, "our slogan was, Don't talk, chum, chew Topps gum. It was along the lines of Loose lips sink ships." When the war waned, sales of Topps gum did likewise. That's when the Shorins created Bazooka, whose eye-patched mascot—Bazooka Joe—may have been named for Arthur's father. The comics that come in every nickel piece of Bazooka remain, to this day, borscht belters. (Mort: "I'm thinking of taking driving lessons." Joe: "Well, I won't stand in your way!")
And the gum is still chewed by nearly every player in the big leagues. When Luis Gonzalez hocked up a gum wad that sold at auction for $10,000, that wad was Bazooka.
In 1951, to bolster candy sales, Topps began to insert baseball cards into its packs of taffy. The next year, cards were sold with gum. The modern-day baseball card—standardized in 1957 as a 2�-by-3�-inch rectangle of cardboard—was invented by a Topps employee named Sy Berger. (Card number 1 was Brooklyn's own Andy Pafko.) It was Berger who, around 1960, dumped thousands of unsold '52 Mickey Mantle cards (the most valuable Mantles) into the Atlantic Ocean.
The two worlds of Topps—baseball cards and Bazooka—realized a remarkable synthesis in 1976, when a Topps card featured Milwaukee Brewer Kurt Bevacqua winning the 1975 Joe Garagiola/ Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Championship, monitored (as memory serves) by a man measuring the bubble with a caliper.