Saturday, August 7, 2021

Highly Doubtful

So I was interviewed for a recent story in Sports Illustrated, along with about 40 other hobbyists I might add, for a story centered around the mystique of the 1952 Topps Mantle card.  This exercise also took the expected side trip to the story about Sy Berger and the infamous garbage scow that allegedly dumped some undefined amount of high numbers off New Jersey at some indefinite time in the middle of the last century.

I decided to gather and review what I know about the subject in the wake of the article's publication (it was in the June issue) and this effort turned up an interesting result.

Here's what I know or can reasonably guesstimate:

-The set was produced in late July/early August of 1952. Mantle signed his contract on July 14th and production probably took place around three or four weeks thereafter:

-The highs were on sale at some point in August, at least in the New York City area.

-They probably had one press run only, and given that by 1956 Sam Rosen (CCC forerunner) already had the highs at a 2.5x premium vs lower series cards, probably in a press run half the size, or even a little less, of the semi-high series, which was also printed in lesser quantities than the four series of cards preceding it.

-There were no one cent glassine packs of high numbers, nickels only. Cello's of the final series may have been sold but possibly not until the following year as a "rewrap" or the like. There's no indication one way or the other concerning vending boxes.

-Topps certainly shipped highs in to Venezuela, Canada and military PX's. Check out this article excerpt, from a  Bill Mastro penned article, from the January 17, 1986 Sports Collectors Digest, which is not, by the way, the only source for the Venezuelan market information:

-The highs were still being shipped to the U.S. West Coast in early 1953.

-Canada got a good supply of them, upstate New York seems to have as well.  Some may have been included in 1953 packs but I'm not 100% sure on that.

-Sy Berger was always happy to present the official Topps "view" to the outside world regarding their operations. This was usually a fanciful mix of some truth, total BS, Shorin family hubris and a lot of PR. No stain on Sy though-he was a loyal company man.

-Berger asserted in various interviews he dumped uncut sheets of 1952 Baseball from the infamous scow, or it was hundreds of cases (but never both). So which one was it?

-Topps probably did get imaginative with selling excess inventory but this applied to all the sets they sold. Some of it could have been 52 highs and some ideas on this front could even have been thought up by Sy, who did their promotions for a few years.

-Topps emptied out at least four or five locations in Brooklyn before moving production and warehousing to Duryea in early 1966: 60 Broadway (their first commercial location from 1938), 134 Broadway, 383 3rd Ave plus Bush Terminal where, at one point they had offices and production in one building and some sort of operation in another, plus anywhere else that's never been mentioned or found after the fact.  They moved down the street from 60 Broadway to 134 in the early 40's, bought another company in 1944 that got them the 3rd Ave location and they moved to Bush Terminal in mid-1946 but each time they retained their leases on the old buildings, seemingly until 1965 or so. He mentions this in the Baseball Card Flipping, Trading & Bubblegum book that we all know and love, which was published in 1973:

-"down here" means Bush Terminal and it appears he was interviewed sometime in early 1973 based upon other details in the book.  Tellingly, there is no mention of the high numbers being buried at sea.

-I doubt Topps had a full understanding of what was in these old buildings by the time 1965 rolled around.

-I've interviewed Richard Gelman several times during the past 18 months and he said Card Collectors Company hoarded the '52 Mantles for years and also quietly bought them up in the secondary market. He estimated CCC had 90% of the known extant Mantles at one point. Hold on to this thought.

-Mantle hype in the hobby wasn't really a thing until 1968 when it was clear he was about done and even then it was quite minimal compared to the standards that would be applied later. The card didn't really transact at a premium until he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 and even then its value ebbed and flowed into the early 80's.  

-There is no mention of this story in the hobby press prior to the early 70's, even by people like Bill Haber, who worked for Topps for years as their Sports Editor.  
I can find nothing at all in The Trader Speaks about the dumping of the 52 highs up until it stopped publishing (essentially 1983) and I have 300-400 other old hobby pubs prior to 1975 that don't say a thing either.  Other collectors with more substantial hobby publication collections find the same lack of a story. Keith Olbermann, as in the know as anyone in the NYC hobby scene back then, advises he never heard the barge story before 1979.

-In a 1967 issue of Ballcard Collector, Haber wrote a letter about CCC: "On their printed form they have a space for alternate choices, so I threw in '1952 Topps' and '#407" as I had done similarly for the past nine years. This was in November of 1965 and at the time I needed this one card to complete this much sought after set. Well, when the order arrived and I opened it up to see the beautiful picture of Eddie Mathews I couldn't believe my eyes!" I'm thinking CCC got more inventory when the Brooklyn  warehouses got cleared out for the Duryea move, which dovetails with Sy's recollections for the Baseball Card Flipping, Trading & Bubblegum book.

-In the Sept. 1970 Ballcard Collector Haber wrote, as a newly hired Topps employee:

Haber 1.jpg 
- The Chattanooga/Tennessee connection is interesting as Topps had acquired Bennett-Hubbard's candy and syrup making operation there during World War 2 and operated their Southern Division out of the Scenic City for a spell.

-A month later Haber wrote this: 

Haber 2.jpg

-The first mention I can find of the cards being barged out to sea for disposal is is in the April 22, 1975 issue of the Baltimore Sun, when a big and quite high profile Baseball Card Convention was in town, absolutely awash in advance publicity. Ted Patterson (also name checked by the Sun) had interviewed Berger on his radio show the night before and you will see where Sy told him about the 52 highs ("96 cards"-remember this number) being dumped at sea.  Without a doubt his is the earliest example of the garbage scow story I've seen.BALTIMORE SUN APRIL 25 1975 Sy Berger Profile With 52 High Number Dump.jpg

-Shortly thereafter this article popped up in Sport Fan:

-That's a 
Feature Headline if I ever saw one.  It was news to everybody in the hobby apparently.

-The SI piece also has a short interview with Mrs. Sy Berger, who stated: “The only other card history I know is about him dumping them in the ocean."

-Also on the Sy side of the ledger, Topps employees and consultants sometimes heard him mention the escapade in passing at Bush Terminal, even into the 1990's.

The scow story got legs after the Sun piece and Berger was the one who ran with it. In a New York Times piece dated 9/29/85, with Sy riffing about two million high numbers now-sheets and cases are not even mentioned as being dumped. That would equate to 40,000 or so Mantles:

The problems I have with this statement are that the card count is now specific while the configuration is suddenly not and the idea that Topps would use two garbage trucks to bring unsalable inventory to a barge when they already had a carting service to trash this kind of stuff is ludicrous. They would never have spent the extra money once the trucks were loaded up.

My current thought is that when Topps cleared out all their old spaces in late 1965 in anticipation of the February 1966 Duryea move, they sold what found inventory they could in Fun Packs and the like and/or to CCC. The 52's highs were found, and CCC bought a bunch, selling singles and small groups of the cards to folks like Haber and some select few "outsiders".  

It's possible the remainder were lumped in with all their other remaining stale products (like ten million (!) leftover 1957-58 Basketball cards (hat tip to Keith Olbermann for that detial) and for some reason dumped at sea with Sy riding along (but I don't really think so). My thought is CCC pulled all the Mantles at some point and had them stored at Woody's house or somewhere that wasn't their Franklin Square warehouse (big reveal coming, hold on). And don't forget those"96 cards" dumped per Sy in the Sun article.

But wait (here we go!)......three weeks before the Patterson-Berger interview in Baltimore, the Card Collectors Company warehouse on Long Island burned up wth a mess of uninsured inventory within:

The dots connected themselves at this point as I simply could not believe the barge story premiering three weeks after the CCC fire could be a coincindence. The only question is "why?"  Perhaps it was a way to explain the loss of supply to the hobby aftermarket. Maybe it was to pump up the value of the card to help Woody and CCC but the whole timing of it just amazes me.  And the end result of all this is still with us today.  Marshall Fogel has been offered $25 Million for his PSA 10 Mantle card (one of three in that grade) - and turned it down!

We are definitely not in Kansas (or the Atlantic Ocean) anymore.....


John Bateman said...

Interesting theory. My one question is was the article from the Baltimore Sun, picked up by the wire services. The world back then was not as it is today. What you heard in Baltimore stayed in Baltimore and the CCC was in New York.

I am not sure those eggs were laid for you to find 45 years later.

I heard the theory about a couple of NY Dealers manipulating the market on 52 Topps Mantle during the 1970s - sometime in the early 80s - I either saw it in the Sporting News, SI and Baseball Card Magazine but I can't remember where.

I do believe this theory is true - the Mantle was double printed so there would have been a lot more to hoard. The Mick was in beer commercials starting in the mid to late 70s which kept him in the lime light. The US Economy was really started to grow in the mid to late 70 (after a manipulation of the oil market in 1973/74). The manipulation of sales of the 52 Mantle in New York by a few dealers took on a life of its own like UFOs and Bigfoot.

And like you mention we have now a 25 million dollar (which price is part of another market manipulation - The Grading System)

toppcat said...

Don't forget CCC was essentially an extension of Topps and Sy and Woody often carpooled together.

John Bateman said...

I was wondering if the 1975 fire could be confirmED - It appears that it did happen - there is a thread from 2007 - and a few people seem to confirm it (receiving smoke damage cardS from CCC) - I guess it would give credence to this theory - a real fire happened at CCC - three weeks later the story about dumping 52s in the ocean appears

The Bird said...

I just read your latest article on Topps Archives regarding the 1952 Topps High Numbers. I would like to offer my experience in opening the 52 Topps H N wax packs. Bear with me and hope this doesn’t get too long.
During the summer of 1952 I was an 11 year old baseball fan. I grew up in Glen Burnie, MD, but made weekly visits to my grandmother’s house in south Baltimore. My Saturday routine there was to have my step grandfather take me to the candy/tobacco/somewhat minor grocery store down the corner. It was here that I routinely bought (he paid) baseball cards. Late that summer the Topps packs contained the cards beyond no. 310. I continued this pattern over the next several weeks. I believe I accumulated over 60 different cards plus several duplicates during that time, all high numbers.
I also purchased Topps cards at the only store selling them at that time in my home town(about 20 miles south of Baltimore). It was a Reads Drug Store. Never did get any high numbers there though.

You can add South Baltimore as to where the 1952 Topps “landed”. At least one little store had a couple of boxes. Can’t attest to any other stores in Baltimore having the high numbers, but seems likely if this store had them.

Yes, I had two Mantle’s from the packs I purchased, I still have one in EX condition, with some tape on it.
A revisit to card collecting in the 1980’s led me to complete and/or upgrade my 1951-1955 Bowman’s and 1952-1959 Topps sets. (Thank God my mother NEVER threw anything away.) Many stories here for a later time.

Keep the info flowing. Have enjoyed your site for several years.