In the world of baseball-card publishers, Topps reigns supreme. Although it didn't begin full-fledged baseball-card production until 1951, Topps quickly mastered the art and ascended to the top of the market, fulfilling the boast of its name.
The Topps Chewing Gum Co. was founded by the Shorin brothers in Brooklyn in 1938, but the original incarnation of the company dates to 1890, when the brothers’ father started American Leaf Tobacco. Cards entered the picture shortly after World War II, when Topps began packaging picture cards with its one-cent pieces of gum. In 1948, it released a 252-card set of “Magic Photos” with its chewable product. That set included 19 baseball players. Those cards are considered by some to be the first Topps baseball cards, but they weren’t your usual baseball cards. In fact, they were blank—the magic photo only appeared after the card was put under a light.
Topps’ first full baseball card sets were produced in 1951. The company made team sets, a major-league All-Star set, a “Connie Mack All-Stars set,” a blue backs set, and a red backs set. The red backs set had 52 cards, the biggest of all of the ’51 sets, and was the most memorable of an otherwise-hodgepodge collection. While Topps may have swung and missed in 1951, it hit it out of the park a year later, in 1952.
That was the year Topps released its first full baseball card set, still considered the most collectible set ever printed. Hall of Famers such as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Eddie Mathews, and Jackie Robinson had some of their best cards in that set.
The man credited with designing the 1952s, and thus escalating Topps to the top of the market, is Sy Berger. He standardized the information on each card to include the player’s name, height, weight, birthplace, birthday, photo, facsimile signature, stats, bats, throws, a short bio, and the team name and logo. Berger became the liaison between Topps and Major League Baseball players—it was his duty to sign them to contacts, a job he was quite adept at. Berger worked for Topps until 1997, and served as a consultant until 2002.
Berger was so successful in signing players to card contracts that by 1955, Topps’ competition had ceased to exist. Bowman had been the market leader prior to Topps, but by 1955 it caved to the growing giant and allowed Topps to buy it out.
Although Topps was very successful at signing baseball players to contracts, it did have one famous fail. In 1958, a Topps scout decided not to sign one minor league ballplayer t...
In 1959, the Fleer Corporation was able to sign an exclusive contact with Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams, which was a minor coup for that company, but neither the Wills nor Williams misses prevented Topps from dominating the market.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Topps faced little-to-no competition in the baseball-card market. Its biggest adversary may have been the Federal Trade Commission, which, in 1962, looked into whether Topps’ monopoly of the baseball-card industry violated antitrust laws. After a lot of long, drawn-out testimony, it was determined that Topps was in compliance with the law.
Unfortunately for Topps, this was not the last time it faced monopolization charges. In 1980, Fleer filed a lawsuit accusing Topps of restraint of trade. This time Topps was found to be in violation of antitrust laws—it could not have exclusive-rights contracts with players. This ruling allowed competitors Fleer and Donruss to enter the market in 1981, though they were not allowed to issue baseball cards with gum or alone (Fleer issued cards with logo stickers while Donruss released cards with puzzle pieces).
By 1987, Topps’ decided market advantage was a thing of the past. It gave in and became the last card company to sign a contract with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) to obtain player contracts. In the past, Topps had signed players individually, but the MLBPA began advising players not to sign with Topps, so the company caved and joined up.
The list of highly collectible Topps baseball sets is vast, but a few of the more popular ones include 1955, which featured rookie cards for Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax, 1957, and 1968, which had rookie cards for Johnny Bench and Nolan Ryan. Although it is most famous for its baseball cards, Topps has also made football, basketball, and hockey cards.