Memories & Dreams: Card backs

By Marty Appel

Not every player in the ‘50s and ‘60s spent their off-season hunting and fishing.

Of course if one read the backs of baseball cards, it may have seemed that way.

But in truth, there was a wealth of material to be found on the backs, a creative challenge for card companies and a treasure trove for baseball fans.

Once the idea of reviving the baseball card industry in the late ‘40s was made, decisions needed to be made about the “card backs.”  What goes there?

Bowman made Blony bubble gum and Topps made Bazooka, (a successor to their non-bubble Topps gum), which was quickly becoming the more popular.  It would have been tempting to just put an ad for the gum on the card backs, just as the early tobacco cards featured little more than ads for cigarettes. “Sweet Carporal Cigarettes: The Standard for Years,” for example, was what one might find on the back of early 20th century cards.  

Sy Berger, the World War II veteran and Bucknell grad charged with the baseball card project for Topps, was working with a blank canvas when he began making decisions of what went onto both the fronts and backs.  Assisting him was the company’s art director Woodie Gelman. Much of the work would take place after hours at Sy’s kitchen table on Alabama Avenue in Brooklyn.

“Sy would sometimes work until 2 or 3 in the morning,” recalls his widow, Gloria.  “He’d come home from work, eat dinner, spend time with our children, untie his tie, put his slippers on, and sit at the table and go to work, gathering the facts for each player.”

The backs of Bowman cards repeated the player’s name position and team, and then added place and date of birth, height and weight, whether he batted or threw left handed or right and the card number.  Then there were eight to fifteen lines of editorial, such as on the back of Jackie Robinson’s 1949 card, which said, “When Brooklyn signed him to Montreal Royal contract, he became first Negro to enter ranks of pro ball.”  Cards manufactured by rival Leaf had a little bio information. Earlier, Goudy Gum (makers of Indian Gum) back in the ‘30s had cards featuring “Lou Gehrig Says” sayings on the backs, with advice about clean living and being a better ballplayer, courtesy of Lou’s agent Christy Walsh.  

There were no statistics, other than might have been found in the editorial.  In Jackie Robinson’s case, there followed an ad for an adjustable, official baseball ring, which one could receive for 15 cents and 3 baseball wrappers.  The word “official” was of course, widely used and never defined. There is no record of how many of those official rings are still being worn.

Berger, an accountant by training, liked numbers and wanted stats.  By the time Topps’ 1952 set was ready for sale, he had created what would long remain the prototype of what was expected on card backs.  Card number, full name, (the nickname was on the front), place of birth, date of birth, current hometown, height, weight, throws and bats.

The statistics in that first year of 1952 shows “Past Year” and “Lifetime,” and Sy was careful to not specifically say “1951” for past year, since he thought the product might not have an annual release, and might sit on store shelves for more than a year.  He didn’t want the to appear outdated.

The stats included games, at bats, runs, hits, home runs, RBIs and batting average, along with putouts, assists, errors and fielding average.  Over time, doubles, triples and stolen bases would appear, and fielding stats would fade away.

For pitchers, there was games, innings pitched, wins, losses, percentage, hits, runs, strikeouts, walks, earned runs and ERA.

“Sy was such a perfectionist that he would check and cross check reference books so that what he submitted was accurate,” adds Gloria Berger.

Sy’s reference books were The Sporting News books – the Register, Guide, Dope Book and record book, called “One for the Book,” plus the American League Red Book, the National League Green Book, Who’s Who in Baseball, the Little Red Book of Baseball (the Elias Sports Bureau record book), and a variety of periodicals featuring stats and player stories.

For many fans, as well as scouts, coaches and front office officials – those were the key measurements for generations.  “What are his card stats?”

In some years the stats would cover the previous season and lifetime; in other years (often alternatively), they would be show the year-by-year columns.  When computers made it easy to “shrink” the font size, Topps got national media attention with Nolan Ryan’s 1994 card, his last, which showed 27 seasons of statistics – a record.   The card was #34 in the Topps set, Nolan’s uniform number. Sy had a formula for numbering the cards, with the “stars” usually getting numbers that ended in zero. Number 540 may not seem special at first glance, but to Sy, it made the player better than whoever had 541.  And after Mickey Mantle died in 1995, Topps “retired” the number 7 (his uniform number) for a number of years as a tribute to all that Mantle meant to the trading card industry.

As much as Sy loved his statistics, Gelman, the art director, loved little cartoons.  After all, Bazooka bubble gum was largely popular because of its Bazooka Joe comics. So the Topps cards evolved into a showcase for cartoon art, often with three panels replacing editorial copy.  It made the product more fun in the hands of young fans. This is how fans could learn how Ted Williams risked his .400 average on the last day of 1941, or how Mike Jorgenson was born on the day Babe Ruth died.  

As for “hunting and fishing,” Sy gleamed that information (as well as the player autographs) from The Baseball Register, which in turn got its information directly from player questionnaires distributed through their local team correspondents.  

But Sy had an additional source of information – the players themselves.  He bore the happy responsibility of visiting clubhouses in spring training and throughout the season to get players to sign contract renewals with Topps.  Friendships were formed. If a player needed some new linoleum for their home, they called Sy. A new TV? Call Sy. A new toaster oven? Sy. The players were paid through a gift catalog in those early years, and they loved being able to surprise their wives with the gifts.

Sy’s friendships were genuine, not based on the gifts which might show up in the mail.  He was an engaging guy, perfect for working the clubhouses. His best friend, out of the thousands he dealt with, was no less than Willie Mays.  They loved each other like brothers. Sy called Willie “Buck.” When Sy died in 2014 at 91, Mays said, “He helped me from my first days in the majors.  I never could have made it without him. We worked together, we laughed together, we grew up together.”

As a tribute to Sy in retirement, Topps later put its toe in the water with advanced metrics by providing “Cyberstats” on the backs of cards in the mid ‘90s.  Get it? SyBer stats.

Once card values began to soar after the popularity of weekend card shows, other manufacturers jumped in, and each manufacturer created different brands.  The proliferation was rapid and left collectors breathless. When Mantle retired in 1969, there were basically 18 Mantle cards from Topps, plus one from Bowman, and a few bonus cards.

When Ken Griffey Jr., retired in 2010, he had over 8,000 different variations produced by multiple manufacturers with multiple brands and subsets.  It became a challenge, to say the least, to show creativity on the backs.

Grey backs gave way to white backs, a glossy “UV coating” was added, and a small company called Score became the first to use full color on both front and back.  The rise of all these varieties coincided with the arrival of computers to help produce stats and to efficiently develop spread sheets to carry them. Slugging percentage and on-base percentage were always there, waiting to be used, but now advanced stats came along – and fantasy players demanded them.

Topps reintroduced the Bowman brand I 1989 and made it the place to find what players did against each rival team the year before.

A really daunting task befell Upper Deck, when they decided to produce a 6,742 card set featuring every Yankee home game from 1923-2008 to honor Yankee Stadium, as it was being torn down.  A weary team of staffers worked long overtime hours to write the card backs – a description of every game.

At Topps, “our sports team of seven only grew to ten, even as we did football, basketball, hockey and baseball,” says Fred Girello, a veteran of those days, noting that Topps, Topps Finest, Stadium Club, and Bowman all needed to be different.  “Sy was no longer doing the cards, and we brought in free lancers to help with the writing. We had only one computer until 1992. The copy was done by hand and typeset. It went to the accounting department to tabulate the columns, then to the art department, then back to us.  The late Bill Haber, a god-like figure among baseball stat people, was our chief baseball guy. The demands for creativity and brand differential were overwhelming. But we did it.”

There was indeed, a remarkable amount of information to be found on those 3 ½ x 2 ½ cardboards.  

Even the occasional chance to get an official ring.