When Sy Berger died at his Long Island, New York, home in December 2014 at age 91, the story ran everywhere—from the front page of the New York Times to NBC Nightly News, and even “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live.
Surely, a lot of people were scratching their heads over this one. “Who in the world was Sy Berger?” they must have thought, feeling the next step would surely be a monument of equal size next to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington.
The answer, of course, was that he was the man who sat at his kitchen table in the Brooklyn in 1952 and designed what has come to be known as the first modern baseball trading cards.
The fronts would have color photos of the players, a team logo, name, signature, and position. The back would have his “vitals”—birthdate, birthplace, height, weight, bats, throws. There would be his yearly statistics in a precise order—G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI AVG—and, of course, a little cartoon explaining his offseason hobbies, which it seemed were “hunting and fishing” for almost everyone.
There had always been baseball cards, back to the days when they were packaged with tobacco products—but never would they catch on like this.
And that is why Sy Berger’s product—whether one knew his name or not—became an important part of American culture for the baby boomer generation. It was a connection between young fans and the National Pastime, a look in full color (!) at what the players looked like up close, long before 80–1 ratio camera lenses took you up close and personal into the color of Max Scherzer’s eyes.
Sy’s company was Topps. It had been a gum company since the 1930s, founded by the Shorin family, and Topps gum was the product. A rival company, Bowman, had produced some baseball cards after the war, but they were not very imaginative and didn’t catch the public’s fancy like the Topps cards would.
Topps began to experiment with cards as inserts in packages of gum—to sell more gum. Frank Buck’s “Bring ’em Back Alive” cards and Hopalong Cassidy cards were produced.
A year after returning from service in the Army Air Forces during World War II and marrying fiancé Gloria Karpf (his wife of 69 years), Sy Berger joined Topps, the company founded by the father of one of his college friends.
Courtesy of Maxine Berger-Bienstock
Sy, who had studied accounting at Bucknell before going off to war, was hired by Topps and was considered a bright young man with creative ideas—for an accountant.
“Find a way for us to sell more gum,” said the Shorins, who had recently introduced Bazooka bubble gum, named for a goofy musical instrument, not a military weapon.
Sy’s first try didn’t go so well. A 1951 set of cards was created as small game cards, and the accompanying piece of taffy was a disaster.
But he got it right in 1952. He created a product that fit beautifully in a child’s hand. Left to their own imaginations, the kids came up with all forms of use for the cards—trading them, compiling full sets, flipping them, or scaling them against walls to win more cards, and the old fastening-to-bicycle-spokes trick to produce a motorized sound.
The cards were numbered. Number 1 in the ’52 set happened to be outfielder Andy Pafko of Brooklyn. Decades later, when the cards took on cash value in a booming collector’s market, a mint condition Pafko went for an unusually high price, given his medium level of stardom.
Many kids sorted their cards in number order and wrapped them in rubber bands, so card No. 1 was invariably damaged. A mint condition Pafko truly was rare.
This 1951 photograph of Mickey Mantle was used to create Mantle’s famous 1952 Topps rookie card.
Credit: The Topps Company, Inc.
Although Topps always denied that there were fewer Mantles and Mays and Williams and Musials than other cards, it would have been good business to make them scarcer. And above all, Sy was a good businessman. In any event, the scarcity increased about eight years later when, during a routine spring cleanup, Sy personally supervised the dumping of “many” uncut sheets of ’52 product into an inlet called Upper Bay off the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, where Topps offices were located. On those sheets were the rookie cards of Mantle and Eddie Mathews. The story one day would become legend.
The gum in the packs—not really Bazooka, but flat bubble gum—was part of the intoxication that kids loved about the product. The smell! It lingered on the card it was touching forever, or so it seemed. The gum, however, caused a mild indentation on the touching card, and when “mint condition” became desirable in the ’80s, out went the gum to satisfy collectors.
Ah, the collectors. One day in the late ’70s, when card shows were beginning to crop up on weekends across America, someone sold a Mantle rookie for $1,500. An Associated Press writer, attending the show, put out a story, and like the California Gold Rush, everyone was hunting down their childhood collection in search of the cards that would finance their children’s college education. The race was on. Not everyone’s mother had thrown out his cards.
For Sy, and for Topps, this was notable, but the company did not profit from the sale of old cards. The craze, however, decided that people would still buy new cards, which would be perceived as “someday” having big value. You could now buy a pack for $1.25, perhaps get a Jose Canseco or a Don Mattingly rookie card, and relax when it came to financing college in 18 years.
Other companies were now in the game, with multiple brands arriving weekly from each. In the early ’90s, you could get several hundred variations of a Ken Griffey Jr. card, and good luck identifying which was the true “rookie card,”—the ones thought to have the greatest value.
All this while, Sy continued his work at Topps. He personally went camp to camp, ballpark to ballpark, signing the players. He formed friendships with the players—none greater than Willie Mays. (His favorite card, though, was for Chicago White Sox pitcher Bob Keegan. They went to Bucknell together.) Topps provided a gift catalog for the players, and while the thought of players getting toaster ovens is somewhat laughable today—they were welcome gifts back in the ’50s and ’60s and made Sy a friend of the families, with the wives doing most of the choosing. Sy’s winning smile and personality was a big factor in Topps popularity with players. And if a player needed something else besides his gift, Sy knew how to “get him a good deal.”
Sy Berger presents good friend Willie Mays with a framed collection of his Topps baseball cards during “Willie Mays Night” at Shea Stadium in 1973.
Credit: The Topps Company, Inc.
Sy flew to London in 1964 and signed up the Beatles for Topps cards. He greeted their manager, Brian Epstein, in Yiddish, and sealed the deal.
Eventually the gift catalog was replaced by licensing deals with Major League Baseball and the Players Association, leading to large cash payments. But Sy was still a welcome friend in baseball clubhouses. And when it came time to make an NFL deal, Sy did it on a handshake with NFL Commissioner Bert Bell.
Today “the hobby” focuses on adults more than on children, and those adults have been collectors since childhood. The peak years of earning for the card companies, the early ’90s, were killed off by the baseball strike of 1994–95 and by overproduction, but there is still enough there to make it a business. Sy retired from the Topps Board of Directors and a consulting position in 2002, but he was always the go-to guy by hobby historians for interviews about the product.
Generations of baseball fans first fell in love with baseball through the cards. It is a major part of American culture. Maybe the idea of a monument in Washington isn’t so far-fetched after all.