Memories & Dreams: Sy Berger

By Marty Appel

This is a bubble gum card story that begins at the kitchen table. Like many tales of “off the field” baseball, it’s a sweet story.

Sy Berger, a Bucknell University graduate and a World War II veteran, was a young hire at the Topps Gum Company. He made his presence felt from the start, for he was an unusually bright fellow who could work a spreadsheet long before people knew what a spreadsheet was. He was a business whiz kid around the time the Phillies were baseball’s Whiz Kids, winning the 1950 pennant. That was Sy. A man of great intellect and great charm.

The Shorin brothers, who owned Topps and who worked out of a harborside warehouse/factory on 36th Street in Brooklyn, sized the young man up and saw the promise in him. At the same time, Berger saw in Joseph E. Shorin, the president, “the smartest man I ever met.” It was a perfect match to grow the business.

The company went back to 1938, with its principal product being Topps Gum. “Don’t Talk Chum, Chew Topps Gum” was a World War II expression, telling people not to accidentally release secret wartime information. Despite sugar rationing, the company stayed in business during the war, and then afterwards, sought to expand their base and introduced Bazooka Bubble Gum, named after an odd musical instrument of the day (not after a bazooka gun).

The company also experimented with including little trading cards in packages of gum, beginning with Frank Buck “Bring ‘em Back Alive” cards, and by 1950, Hopalong Cassidy cards, after the radio and TV show. Modest success, if any.

Meanwhile, Bowman Gum had begun packaging small cards of black and white photos of baseball players in their product as early as 1948. The cards had no design quality and didn’t especially catch on. The Shorin Brothers considered baseball an opportunity and appointed their whiz kid the task of taking on the product.

“We wanted the cards to help sell more gum,” says Berger, now retired at 86, and living in Long Island. “That was the whole idea. We didn’t think the cards would take off like they did. We even put ‘Year” and “Life” for the stats because we thought we might be selling the same set for several years and didn’t want to put ‘1951.’”

Baseball cards had been around since the 19th century, although except for an occasional set that came and went, the first half of the 20th century had not produced any products that caught on with enough market strength to have a long life. Berger and Topps would change that.

In 1951, Sy began to work the clubhouses at Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. He got friendly with the players, especially a Giants rookie named Willie Mays. He would bring Bazooka Gum for the players (and helped ween some of them off chewing tobacco). He talked to them about producing a more handsome card product than the one they were seeing from Bowman. He began to sign them up – $125 for an exclusive contract, $75 for non-exclusive. Sy was there, working the clubhouses, and Bowman had no one who could get into the clubhouses. His personality was winning them over.

“We created a contract largely with the help of Jerry Coleman of the Yankees,” he says. “Eventually, we paid them in merchandise, which they liked because they would be gifts for their wives, for their homes.”

The next step was designing the cards. And that was where Sy would use his love of baseball to create, for 1952, the “modern baseball card.” He sat at his kitchen table and designed (with the help of Woody Gelman), the 407 cards that made up the ’52 Topps set. The front would have color images of the players, names, team logos, positions. The back would have height, weight, bats, throws, hometown, a sentence or two about the player’s accomplishments or hobbies, and stats – games, at bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIS, average (in the case of hitters). For many fans, even today, those are the ones that matter, even with so many more measurements of a player’s performance available. Those are the ones they grew up with, courtesy of Topps.

Sy was creating a product that would let the fans “see” the players up close, in color, with backgrounds of the ballparks, and the stats and bio information otherwise unavailable

“There were some reference books, but they were inconsistent on personal matters. We like to think we standardized it.”

Topps baseball cards took off. The ’52 Mickey Mantle card came to be considered his “rookie card” despite Bowman having put out a ’51. Maybe that is all you need to know about the Topps-Bowman battle. Eventually, Topps bought out Bowman and had the market all to itself from the fifties until the late ‘80s.

“Some thought we were a monopoly, and there were lawsuits,” says Sy. “In the judges final decision, we were not a monopoly. We were simply the only company that could package cards with gum – or without gum. It turned out, others could have competed all along (according to the judge), if they had included a puzzle piece or a cookie or a decal. And that’s what came to be.”

Eight years after the release of the ’52 set, during a spring cleanup at Topps, Sy guided a garbage scow into the East River and dumped stacks of uncut sheets of the not-yet-valuable set into the water. There went the coveted Mantle rookie cards to the depths of the river, all part of Sy Berger’s – and card collecting – legend.

Sy’s friendship with the players was among the most loyal the sport provided. He became not only a popular figure in the clubhouses, always renewing contracts, providing cards, and always keeping the clubbies supplied with Bazooka. It was a case of one man’s honesty and personality maintaining loyalties over decades. Mays liked so much that Sy remains Willie’s advisor to this day, and accompanies him to Cooperstown on Induction Weekend.

Sy’s business prowess wasn’t limited to baseball. He made deals with the NFL on a handshake and went to London to make a deal for Beatles cards with their manager, Brian Epstein. He spent two days at Neverland Ranch with Michael Jackson, selecting photos for a set of cards, with Jackson pointing to photos on the wall to make his choices. He made deals with the NHL, and the NBA. All the while, he never retreated from the hard work of renewing contracts, establishing new friendships, and overseeing the business of making Topps baseball cards a success. He was named “King of Baseball” at the Winter Meetings of 1982, the first person not on the payroll of “Organized Baseball” to receive the annual award.

For this, the hobby world appropriately considers him the “Father of the Modern Day Baseball Card,” something that gives him great pride and satisfaction.

“We only wanted to sell more gum,” he says. “We didn’t know that this would become such a part of America’s popular culture. But today, when you think of a player, especially from the ‘50s, ‘60s, or ‘70s, you picture his card. It was the most ‘up close and personal’ you could get before television really showed you the color of his eyes.”