Saturday, June 18, 2022

Foiled Again, or, Two Wrights Don't Right A Wrong

Topps was starting to experiment a bit with production methods and materials in the years leading up to their February 1966 plant and warehouse move from Brooklyn to Duryea, Pennsylvania.  For reasons that may or may not be linked, after this occured some really innovative products and almost-products being worked upon by Woody Gelman's New Product Development department for a period of six or seven years, right up until the company started reigning in costs to prepare for their IPO.  NPD were still getting their bearings though in 1965 when they popped out not one but two sets featuring foil embossing.

The most well-known of these embossed sets are the 72 inserts that came with the 1965 Baseball cards,  which I've touched upon these briefly in the past and won't dwell on here.  That set is heavily documented and I'll probably end up dissecting it more fully down the road in a sports inserts series I'm contemplating anyway.  Those cards were essentially credit card sized while today's subject, Presidents and Famous Americans, were produced as "tall boys" that measured 2 1/2" x 4 11/16".  Topps was enamored with using these larger cards in many of their mainstream 1964-65 issues, for reasons I cannot quite determine. 

The 44 subjects in the set include 35 U.S. Presidents and 9 Famous Americans. The run of Chief Executives includes Lyndon Johnson and with Grover Cleveland's two terms only requiring a single card, the first 35 cards in the set are presented in a straightforward chronological manner, with a short paragraph of description and the some indicia. The cards, which were blank backed, spread the subjects amid five colors, with black reserved for Presidents who had been assassinated, as shown here:


Presidents who did not die at the hands of others were issued with red, white or blue backgrounds and the Famous Americans were all done in green. There is no variation among colors and subjects, if Woodrow Wilson was blue, he stayed blue.

The wrapper, to my eye,  is one of the better ones produced by Topps in the 60's and the tall boy format let them go horizontal, unleashing Mount Rushmore to great effect:


The red, white & blue theme was also one dear to the Shorin family, the owners of Topps, going back to 1908 and Morris Shorin's American Leaf Tobacco Company, although no examples of any ephemera exist to show this, only family recollections. This patriotic livery is still on display today with Bazooka.

I'll not bother with a checklist for all 44 cards but will detail the 9 Famous Americans that close out the set:

36. Benjamin Franklin

37. Charles Lindbergh

38. Alexander Graham Bell

39. Alexander Hamilton

40. Albert Einstein

41. Henry Ford

42. Orville Wright

43. Douglas MacArthur

44. Frank Lloyd Wright

While one of the Wright brothers apparently got short shrift, the inclusion of another similarly surnamed fellow, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was unexpected:

(Courtesy The Wright Library)

Most of the others are no-brainers though and it's worth noting Albert Einstein was a frequently depicted Topps subject, going back to 1952's Look 'N' See set.  

As you can imagine, the combination of the tall boy sizing and foil embossing is not one that allowed higher grade examples to survive in any kind of quantity.  The set also seems to have been pretty limited in release and it's not the easiest thing to find these days. Demand is low and let's face it, the portraits look, well, kinda boring.  It's an odd duck of a set, albeit one that pulled together a few overarching themes at Topps in 1965.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Opening Day

I stumbled across something that was both interesting and infuriating a couple of weeks ago concerning a 1952 Topps Baseball pack opening. Yes, certainly an interesting thing to do but it's infuriating to me that it survived 70 years and then got dismantled. Here's a link to the whole video but you will need to watch it on Cardporn's Facebook feed (sorry).

However, there's a silver lining, or at least a white one.  I've known for some time that many of the early penny and nickel packs sold by Topps came with a glassine insert that I thought helped protect the cards from the gum.  However, it seems, after watching the video, it's possible the insert was fashioned in order to allow the gum to be inserted into the pack to allow for a neat final sealing job vs. being a purely protective measure.  

Here, check out these two frame grabs to see what I mean.  This is the arrangement after the pack was opened; you can see how the white insert is partially, but neatly, folded around the five cards within:

Then on the flipside, you can see how the insert is still only providing partial cover.


Now, it's possible the gum rotated sometime during its 70 year nap and was meant to be inserted horizontally and just lightly adhere to the glassine, but it sure seems like the inner wrap was needed to help stabilize the gum and cards for outside wrapping.

Topps would often have in-house advertising or premium offers on the inserts and I'm not sure why they didn't in 1952, at least for the Baseball set (this was a first series pack, with first run black backed cards within) but this video, which essentially documented the destruction of a $80,000 pack in what I have to assume was a quest for a really nice #1 Andy Pafko, at least has given us some good information.

I've seen videos like this before but this is the best view I've seen of such proceedings, disturbing as they may be.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Barnstorming

I'm sure some regular readers of this blog recall the old Baseball Hobby News, which competed against The Trader SpeaksSports Collectors Digest and a couple other of the more "major" pubs back in the heady hobby days of the late 1970's and into the 1990's.  I subscribed from around 1982 to 1990 and BHN probably peaked around 1986 in terms of content and influence. Published by Frank and Vivian Barning, a married couple who were active card dealers, BHN was probably the best in terms of "pure" hobby content among the major hobby periodicals of the time.

When this July 1986 issue came out, Beckett was just getting his footing in the pricing rag trade (where your faithful blogger also trafficked at Current Card Prices in its two earliest years), Baseball Card News was in year three of existence and The Trader Speaks was a distant memory that remained adrift then lost for good after its mailing list was bought by Sports Collectors Digest in 1984 and a relaunch (as a monthly SCD special insert) failed to generate any traction for the brand.  There were others at the fringes and also the formidable Baseball Cards magazine, slickly produced and sold at newsstands across the country.  Tuff Stuff  was another slicker looking mag that debuted in 1984;  Baseball Hobby News persisted amid this competition for a quarter-century (1979-93):

Frank Barning passed away last month after a long illness.  I never met him, not even at a show, but he always seemed like an old friend, his smiling face atop his regular "Barnstorming" column (which later became a less hobby-centric blog) saying hello every month:

(courtesy David Kathman)

He also made it onto a Topps Stadium of Stars card, shot at at the 1992 Atlanta National, each subject (66 hobby-centric folks) getting a 500 count "vending box"  of their own cards, which used the 1992 retail Topps design:


I've heard Frank never liked this image but trust me, it's better than many others in the set!  

Here's the back:

It's a little fuzzy, sorry.  I'll be looking a the set, and a companion issue, hopefully with less fuzz, shortly but wanted to pay tribute to a hobby lifer.  RIP.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Wouldn't It Be Nice

Some more white wax test packs and wrappers today kids!  I'm really just scratching the surface but dig the look of these.

Captain Nice debuted and was cancelled by NBC, all in 1967.  Created by Buck Henry (Get Smart), the show, which always struck me as having a certain Don Martin-esque inspiration, never gained traction with viewers despite a pretty good cast (William Daniels, Amy Prentiss, Alice Ghostley).  A mid-season replacement show, fifteen episodes came and went in the span of four months, in a time slot that competed with The Lucy Show.  Topps tested a 30 card set based upon the show and it seems possible they just pulled the plug when it was clear it would not be renewed.  It's a tough test issue as such things go; I can't even find an unopened pack scan, just a wrapper:


Note how translucent the wrapper is, especially when you look at the left panel where the ingredients label is affixed. I suspect Topps could have burned off excess stock of these cards in 1967's Hallowe'en Fun Packs given the relative lack of wrappers out there.  Black and white images probably didn't help matters:


There was a little comic strip on the reverse that's far more colorful than the obverse's subject matter:


Speaking comic strip reverses, Topps tested a set of 55 cards in 1968 based upon the Irwin Allen TV series Land of the Giants.  I've covered these before but today's theme begs a repeat of sorts:


As noted above, the white test wrappers were fairly translucent, nicely evidenced here on the reverse of the pack (which is missing the ingredients label, a fairly common occurrence on surviving test pack examples of any flavor):


The cards were just as ridiculous as the show, where the premise was seven passengers on a commuter spaceship called the "Spindrift" went awry and crashed in a land of, well, giants with a decided mean streak:


The show was designed with all sorts of size-related gimmicks taking center stage. The first 44 cards had a comic strip on the reverse, just like Captain Nice:


All the online and print set checklists I can find indicate the next ten cards had a puzzle back and the final card had a checklist, possibly just of the comic strip backs but I've never seen any of those that I can recall; it's another really-hard-to-find test issue for sure. PSA pop reports don't indicate the last 11 cards are more difficult but it's kinda weird as the highest count of any card in the set over there is 10.  I wonder why LOTG got a 55 card tryout vs. only 30 for Captain Nice?  Perhaps there were licensing issues for certain actors in the latter?

The show and set were not a big hit here - it did better than Captain Nice though, lasting two full seasons from 1968-70 -  but A&BC released the series in the UK as a regular issue. The US test cards are scarce and have indicia with a USA printing notation.  The UK indicia references A&BC and are slightly smaller in size.

A year later, 1969 brought Baseball Mini Stickers, 25 in number with four stickers per card yielding 100 subjects.  These are hotly pursued by collectors today and while there are about five times as many overall compared to Land of the Giants, they are tough:


The random selection of stickers, which replicated the regular issue cards, could be bizarre:


More often than not, these are referred to as 4 on 1 Stickers and I've covered these extensively here. I think they look great but it seems they didn't test well.  Go figure...

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Getting Testy

Going to lay some eye candy on you today kids, in the form of some Topps test packs.

Topps was infamous for running very brief tests of products in at least four ways: lab testing with kids and the product in a controlled setting, handing out test items at local schools, giving distributors and salesmen a few samples to see the enthusiasm level among their buyers, and throwing a box or two of boxes on select retail store counters and gauging the public's response. The latter method is by far the most well known today and many test products, especially those from the 1966-74 period are rare and expensive (especially if sports related) these days. Before 1966, well it's not easy to to tell how tests were conducted at the retail level.

The retail test packaging that is known today mostly was created using plain white wax wrappers, with a product sticker on the front sans price and, if the product was being tested with a confectionery item within, a small ingredients label on the back that also served to "seal" the pack.  These, it is said, often resided in a generic white box and that's presumably where the pack price was displayed as these were never marked as to cost. Around 1974 this started being supplanted by different mediums and Topps also started doing more specific tests, such as using two price points. Almost all Topps products, except their recurring annual sports issues were tested in one or more forms and almost always at the retail level. Many products failed their tests and never made it to a full blown release.  Others were designed for a regional sales campaign, or promoted from test status for such a purpose, and are often found in greater numbers than those that were just tested at retail.

Test packaging is not always extant for certain issues and of course some sets are legendary rarities.  One such set is the 1966 Baseball Punchboards where the wrapper is not even known, just a bare description of it, from Rob Lifson:


Topps designed and proofed a retail box for the set:


Great cards, almost impossible to find!


It's possible the full checklist for this set is not complete.  In 2009 14 two card panels out of what I speculated were a set of 18 were known.  I don't believe the count has changed since then.  These are among the hardest-to-find tests Topps ever created and some of the Hall of Famers can go for staggering sums.

1966 (that date may not be firm, I suspect it's a little later) also brought a tough Non-Sports test, Fold-A-Roos.  This pack illustrates how typical stickers on both front and back look:



That front may not match up with this back and at least a couple of packs are known to have survived:


It's a tough set and not may people know about it. Being metamorphic makes it very unlikely many of these are still around:



Examples of a regional test or limited issue are well-known to baseball collectors.  These two 1967 sticker sets appear to have been a test AND a regional issue. You can actually find these in the wild:


If there's a test wrapper with sticker, it may replicate the above two pack fronts. Also on display the retail box which is not plain white:


The Pirates box is known in proof form:


That product code on the reverse eliminates this as a test box proof.  The stickers look great BTW, with 33 per team, so 66 across both sets:



Topps thought about a similar pin issue as well that featured just San Francisco Giants but it never launched in any form except as a proof.

Here's one more for today, from perhaps the most popular of all the test issues, 1968's 3-D Baseball:


Sorry but I can't find an ingredients sticker, maybe someone will send me one and I'll pop it in here.

Back with more tests next week!

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Write Stuff

Some serious odds 'n' sods examination today buckaroos as we take a look at various ballpoint pens issued, or not, by Topps.

Leading off, here's an Ron Oser ad for some Topps ballpoint pens from the July 1, 1994 issue of Sports Collectors Digest.  There were only two subjects indicated, with three of each available:



Another ad from the September 30, 1994 issue of SCD offers what would be the same pens, one each of Mays and Killebrew:


Did Brian Morris win that Oser auction?! I have never seen one of these in the wild but I did find a recent sale of a Killebrew pen on eBay that I think is the same as the ones from these ads:



I can't find Topps indicia but at a guess they were a mockup and I assume they are legit as Brian Morris was a well-known dealer out of New Jersey back in the day but until I can see something definitively tying them to Topps, I reserve the right to be cautious!

The only vintage Topps pens I am aware of are promotional in nature and don't have specific players adorning them:


Based upon the Topps logos, I'd estimate those as early to mid-60's. A later version (80's I'd say) exists as well and I'm sure more were produced over the years.  It's a no-brainer to hand these out with order slips, at least when such things existed.  Today what do you hand out, a thumb drive or mouse pad?


If you like non-vintage, there were some Wacky Packages writing instruments produced quite a bit later (2006):





Saturday, May 7, 2022

GAAP Year

I've been going over some previously trod ground with a keener eye of late when it comes to Bowman and its various corporate reshufflings from 1951-56, much of it involving John Connelly, who assumed control then sold the company in fairly short order. One thing that I noticed doing this was the low figure offered by Bowman for its 1953 baseball card sales, which are described in some of their legal proceedings against Topps.  Bowman's overall sales and those of their "baseball gum" look like they would have peaked in 1951 at $3,050,000 and $973,000 respectively (no prior figures are available but it makes sense given the large size of the 1951 set vs. 1950).  There were probably some vending and cello sales as well but I doubt they approached even 5% of the baseball card sales figures overall.

In 1952, no doubt affected by the new Giant Size Baseball cards issued by Topps, sales trended down a little at $2,750,000 overall and $731,000 in respect of baseball gum.  The decline in overall sales was $300,000 which seems almost entirely driven by their baseball cards dropping off by $242,000.  Then in 1953 the bottom blew out with a thud.  $2,140,000 in overall sales reflected only $301,000 worth of baseball product. The $610,000 drop in sales year over year is massive, almost 25%!  Baseball gum was down $430,000 all on its own, so 70% of the loss in 1953 was related to that specific category. 

It seems odd and the Bowman color cards were gorgeous of course, so why didn't they sell?

Well, I'm not sure they were marketed as they should have been. As it turned out, Bowman's parent company, Haelan Laboratories, mentioned in their annual report, which slightly refined some of the numbers from their lawsuit, that they lost $116,440 in 1952 due to "necessary and realistic adjustments preparatory to our entrance into newer and more profitable fields... inventory write-downs were substantial." The profit in 1952, despite better sales all around, was only $22,000, so there were two consecutive years of considerable "meh" going on for sure. 

Cash flow woes may certainly have played a part in all of this since a write down occurs when your inventory drops below its book value.  It seems to me then (and I am very much not a person who understands Generally Accepted Accounting Principles that well) that they couldn't sell their 1953 cards and the problem had a knock on effect throughout all their lines and businesses in 1953.  Some of that may have been due to almost 30 percent of their baseball product being issued in black and white. I don't have the actual report, only a small excerpt, but assuming the write down represents what they could have sold at wholesale (58 to 60% of the retail price if they operated like Topps) and using the overall write down of $116,440, that projects to around $80,000 or so of unsold baseball gum inventory. And I'd say that's the minimum possible loss given the sales drop off for the baseball cards..

So that's something like 125,000 boxes of cards (over 5,000 cases, assuming five cent packs) that never sold and was probably the best case scenario. But it doesn't explain the enormity of their overall loss - remember the provided figures were representative of sales, not profits - or the loss on baseball gum in '53 and it's strange for sure. It may also explain how John Connelly (see last week's post) managed to get on the Haelan Laboratories board as it seems his business success was at least partially linked to theirs, especially in light of his plant burning down in January 1953. Maybe Bowman could not source enough shipping cartons, even as Connelly got his plant back up to speed?

What I'm not seeing in any of these numbers how this inventory boondoggle is related to the oft-repeated story that production expenses manufacturing the color cards drove Bowman's demise, unless those losses extended to royalty payments. But there were certainly other issues going on that went well beyond their trading card lines. In fact, I think it bolsters my theory that they dropped the color cards in order to avoid paying royalties to Joe DiMaggio, their spokesman for the color set, shown on this five cent wrapper over at Wax Pack Gods:


Joltin' Joe was on the color display box too and there were also ads featuring him:


Compare these to the Black & White set's livery on this one cent pack:



The wrapper is more colorful than both the color version's wrapper and also the cards within! As is the box:


If Joe. D was promised royalties based upon sales and Bowman was having financial problems, it sure makes sense to they would have made the switch. It also suggests that John Connelly was able to impose some degree of influence as he was a master belt-tightener in times of turmoil but I need to dig into that a bit more to be sure. I have to think the young purchasers of Play Ball, a brand last used by predecessor company Gum Inc. in 1942, did not in the least like getting black and white cards after Bowman took their Kodachrome away.

Bowman sales did bounce back quite a bit in 1954, overall they were at $2,480,000 that year and baseball gum amounted to $602,000 of that.  I can't find sales figures for baseball gum in 1955, presumably due to the Topps buyout rendering the need for them to be provided to the court moot, but a short blurb in a contemporary financial publication indicates overall Haelan Laboratories sales were was about the same as in 1954. Haelan seems like they were rebounding quite nicely from their 1953 nadir, certainly they were not reeling in the face of competition from Topps but John Connelly was already making plans to sell Bowman off as 1955 ended and bubble gum cards were not his area of expertise and interest. He needed cash to relaize his ambitions and selling Bowman to Topps certainly gave him a lot of that.