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.