Shocking. End of an era. A punch to the gut of a treasured memory. Demolition charges exploding a historic landmark. How could this happen?
Yes, it was quite a blow when it was announced that Topps had lost its license to produce major league baseball cards. Topps was notified this past week that their contracts for player images – set to expire in 2022, and team logos – set to expire in 2025 – would not be renewed. Odd that the dates for both were not synched up to expire – or be renewed – at the same time, but for 70 years, Topps was in good standing with MLB, so who knew there was a sniper laying in the weeds.
Andy Redman, Executive Chairman for Topps, issued a statement that indicated they were dealt a pink slip without warning.
“Not only were we unaware that Major League Baseball was negotiating with anybody other than Topps regarding our rights beyond 2025, but Topps was told on Thursday that a deal was completed, finalized, and exclusive with Fanatics.”
Fanatics? They are the merchandising arm of MLB, and what makes the whole deal at least slightly suspicious is that MLB has a vested financial interest in Fanatics, so that’s kinda like your right pocket making a deal with your left pocket to shift the dollars from one to the other. Keeps everything in house, neat, clean, and more profitable.
Losing their license forced Topps to end a proposed plan to go public, and will likely cause the company to shift its entire focus of products.
What the future will bring remains to be seen, but for millions of baseball fans who grew up learning about baseball through Topps baseball cards, rooting for baseball and its players while collecting Topps baseball cards, and subsequently falling in love with baseball – the sport where the past and the present always occurs simultaneously – a piece of that devotion was just “designated for assignment.”
Oh sure, Fanatics will do their best producing major league baseball cards, and sets, and tie them in with their t-shirts, and jerseys, and caps, and autographed items and other memorabilia, and they’ll be all slick and glossy, and they intend to get into NFTs, but it won’t be able to buy a history, inherit a heritage.
Or will it?
There is a thought amongst Wall Streeters that Fanatics might actually turn around and try to buy Topps and all of its holdings, a strategy it already enacted after they won the rights to produce MLB’s uniforms from Majestic. Shortly thereafter, they bought Majestic.
Fanatics has recently been valued at $18 billion. So they’ve got the dough to buy the whole show.
Topps is collectively owned by Tornante, an investment firm headed by former Disney exec Michael Eisner, and Madison Dearborn, a private equity firm. They bought Topps for $385 million back in 2007.
Boy, things sure have come a long way since you could buy a pack of baseball cards for a nickel!
Every baseball fan remembers their first pack of baseball cards. And if it was during the years when they included sticks of gum, you remember that smell, that sweet fragrance of pink dusty gum that was fun to chew while you ripped through that pack of cards to see if you got the players most desired.
Got it. Need it. Got it. Don’t need it. Wanna trade? Wanna flip ‘em? Scale ‘em?
There are generations who first learned what players even looked like on a Topps baseball card, going back to the days when there was just a Game of the Week on television, or the only televised games were the World Series.
And there are those who first learned the rudiments of math by studying the statistics on the back of a Topps baseball card.
Later generations learned commerce and value as they became valuable commodities.
Topps began in 1938 in Brooklyn as Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., a derivative of a tobacco distribution company. They inherited the name by buying a small candy company in Chattanooga, Tennessee, named Topps, and that served as their intention to be the “top” penny candy company during the heights of the Depression with sticks of gum.
In 1947, they introduced Bazooka gum, which in retrospect, seems like an odd designation for a kid-oriented product, named after a powerful weapon from WWII?
In 1949, they experimented with producing images of famous baseball players to accompany their gum, including Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, and Cy Young. The following year, they went cowboy, and included cards featuring Hopalong Cassidy.
It is ironic that the company included bonus pictures of celebrities or baseball players to help sell the gum, when it didn’t take long for the gum to be the bonus for buying the cards.
By 1951, they first included current players in a “deck” of 52 baseball cards. Each card indicated a possible baseball outcome – single, double, out, etc., so by “dealing” a handful of cards, you could “play” a baseball game, kind of a primitive version of Strat-O-Matic Baseball.
And then in 1952, the modern era of baseball cards was born with a 407-card set featuring colorful images of current players packaged with a stick of gum.
The set became legendary as it included in its later series a young Yankees player named Mickey Mantle.
Unlike today’s baseball cards, Topps first issued their set a hundred or so cards at a time over the course of a season, with the obvious intention of having kids come back time and time again to spend their nickels on more cards. And buy more gum!
Also unlike today’s card market, sales were not exactly spectacular in 1952, so Topps was “stuck” with thousands of returns later that summer – retailers were allowed to return unsold product for credit.
To solve their dilemma, and unburden their warehouse blocked with unsold returns, they took thousands of those later series cards – which included x number of Mantle cards – dragged them out on a barge and dumped them in the ocean!
And then that sophomore outfielder became one of the greatest and most popular players of all time, albeit with an unintended limited edition “rookie” card that now generates record numbers on the auction block. Just this past January a ’52 Mantle in prime condition sold for $5.2 million.
This is not the end of baseball cards. Fanatics will certainly have the big retailer market on target, and you’ll find cards wherever their other merch will be available.
But it appears to be the end of a lineage that began with that deck of cards in 1951. The full Topps “run” will soon be complete.