Saturday, April 20, 2024

Tape Measure Job

I picked up an opened penny pack of circa 1950 Bazooka last month in large part due to the fact the bubble gum was still intact and not broken like one would expect after seventy five years in captivity. And yes, I know this is not normal behavior! So I thought a measured look at this prize was in order and am happy to report my findings.

The first packs of one cent Bazooka came out in the late summer/early fall of 1949 and included two series of comics: Spalding Sports Show and Historical Almanac.  These came in a foil wrapper that's pretty close to the one I am diving into here but has clear differences marking it as the ur-penny pack of Bazooka. Based upon the sheer amount of known subjects (over 120 at last count), Historical Almanac seems to have run for some time, whereas Willard Mullin's SSS was a licensing deal that looks to have concluded after its first run. My theory is that Historical Almanac was then printed along with a set of comics called either Sports Oddities and/or Know Your Sports, noting the former of those titles was bestowed by the American Card Catalog. Whatever you call it, these comics had the look of Spalding Sports Show to a degree but with no Willard Mullin art.  This came foil-wrapped like so in penny form:

I note that the white background behind "young America's favorite" was added after the debut run of Bazooka; if that motto is just printed on plain foil with no background it's from the first run 1949 packs, at least that's how I view it: This wrapper measures 2" x 2 13/16" if you're scoring at home.  Since there's no titles on the one cent version of the comics called Know Your Sports in nickel form, this may be a Sports Oddities example in terms of nomenclature but it's hard to tell as these are scarce little suckers overall and there could also be two very similar sets, or one with different styles:

That RBI mark has long since fallen BTW, and is currently held by Fernando Tatis who clocked two grand slams in one inning in 1999! Fred Merkle was the first to notch the feat in 1911, followed by Bob Johnson in 1937 before Tom McBride did it in 1945.  It was again reached in late 1950 and then several times thereafter until Tatis slugged his way to immortality.

The Bazooka proper came loosely protected (lengthwise it seems) in this little advert glassine strip, measuring 1 1/8" x 2 7/8":

The bubble gum resembled the Topps Gum of the era, which Bazooka was rapidly forcing out of the limelight:

7/8" x 1 3/8" on that gum tab folks, plus it's 3/16" high, but note it was a double stack, so 3/8" high as packed as these two long-fused pieces show:

None of the production marks or packaging rips known with Topps Gum and pretty much every small tattoo issue from the company through the 1970's can be seen, so it's pretty clear Bazooka had a discrete production line.

I really dig the pre-Bazooka Joe comics and little inserts Topps marketed as they tried to find their way with what was once the world's most famous bubble gum.  Hopefully more foil-wrapped items turn up every now and then for further examination!

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Chew 'Em If Ya Got 'Em

The origins of Topps directly relate back to the American Leaf Tobacco Company, founded by family patriarch Morris Shorin (Chigorinsky at the time) in 1908 after he branched out from rolling cigars as his livelihood. ALTC operated more or less through 1938 and in between Morris and four of his sons dabbled in real estate and gas stations before Topps launched.  Using the tobacco jobber (wholesale) distribution network ALTC had relied upon gave Topps a big advantage when they started selling their namesake gum as they didn't have to build one from the ground up.

I have searched high and low for ALTC ephemera, to no avail despite what would seem like a perfect fit using matchbooks to advertise the business.  I don't expect there to be any remnants of their real estate business out there, while a fair number of promotional items from their American Gas Stations chain (17 Brooklyn locations at its peak) were produced and can be found with some diligence. 

So it's not surprising that Topps produced Bubble Gum Cigarettes at one point in their long history.  The product was called Nickel Pak, as this scan from BFF o'the Archive Jeff Shepherd shows:

The typeface pegs this as early 60's effort, or thereabouts.  Topps loved to drop the "c" from "pack" as a distinctive mark-perhaps it allowed them trademark protections?  

Lonnie Cummins was able to provide a shot of the contents of one:

Those are actual graphics from the real coffin nail packs of the day kids-yikes! I see five different brands and suspect the use of real pack imagery was viewed as a good thing by the tobacco companies (and Topps!).

In terms of ownership, Pall Mall was/is a British American Tobacco Company brand, Winston is owned by R.J. Reynolds and Chesterfield belongs to Philip Morris (as does the namesake pack).  Kool is another British American produced brand but is owned by Imperial Tobacco-dig the penguin! So it was a group effort to market to the kiddies.

I'm finding conflicting information but Candy cigarettes were seemingly banned by the F.D.A. in the U.S. only as late as 2009 but oddly Bubble Gum cigarettes appear to still be OK to sell, so long as the packaging does not resemble the adult product. Weird.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

A Krinkle In Time

Topps did some interesting cross-marketing over the years, which was often quite innovative, such as when they contracted with the Barker Greeting Card Company of Cincinnati to affix their penny packs of Varsity, Hocus Focus (which today we call Magic Photo) and the like to Christmas and Birthday cards in the late 1940's. You could also look to the Doeskin Tissues tie-in with Wings and Rails & Sails or the Red Ball Jets packs that contained even more of the fabulously over-produced Wings cards. However, on occasion Topps allowed for some cross-marketing the other way, i.e. with an outside product getting inside a pack of Topps or Bazooka. One very early example of this was a circa 1951 tie-in with Post Cereal's Krinkles.

I'm reasonably sure this image, provided by BFF o'the Archive Jeff Shepherd, came inside a pack of Topps cards, as opposed to a nickel roll of bubble gum but don't quote me on that:

You may recognize St. Paul as a Topps premium fulfillment provider address from around 1965 to 1973 or so; it was a third party concern though, Topps had no ownership. It sure seems possible the same firm handled these little gadget-y premiums. 

That murky little illustration of the cereal box was pretty spot-on:

(Courtesy Mr, Breakfast)

Krinkles were soon to be called Sugar Rice Krinkles and would feature Krinkles the Clown as their somewhat terrifying mascot by 1955. Here, check it out:

They debuted however, likely in a test scenario, in 1949 or 1950. The Post's box above is from 1951 and the "candy kiss" was originally provided by a combination of sugar and honey-wheeeeeee!!

The premiums tying-in with Bazooka were space-age themed. These are the flying saucer ring components, which also did double duty as a Captain Video premium from Power House candy bars. Note one of the discs (the lighter one I'd wager) is likely the glow-in-the dark one, as advertised:

Each disc was a whopping two inches in diameter! 

The Viking rockets were little bit more colorful and came via the Jack Garvin Company in Providence:

That launching base was 1 1/8 inches in diameter and the white rocket glowed in the dark. This is confirmed by a separate premium offer sheet for these, perhaps from an old comic book or magazine:

All those premium images were nicked from Hake's Auctions by the way, man that rocket must have been about the size of a golf tee!

Saturday, March 30, 2024

The End Of Topps (Not-So-Slight Return)

Well, the inevitable happened the other day as Michael Eisner's Tornante Company and his partners, Madison Dearborn, sold off the last remaining bit of Topps Chewing Gum, or more properly these days, The Topps Company. It wasn't really the end of the company founded as a partnership by the Shorin Family in 1938, which to my mind occurred when Eisner's group and Madison Dearborn bought out, quite acrimoniously it seems, the remaining Shorin's (and a host of other stockholders) for $385.4 Million on March 6, 2007, bit it certainly put a final cap on the era of the founders.

That 2007 deal was nudged by an activist investor group called Pembridge Capital, which held seats on the Topps board. Despite some drama that included arch rival Upper Deck making a game attempt to swoop in, the original deal went through, ex-CEO Arthur Shorin sold his 2.7 Million shares at $9.75 a pop (for a pretty tasty haul of $22.425 Million), and Michael Eisner took over at Topps. Nice work if you can get it!

So today I thought I'd take a look at some key Topps business activity today both before and after things got Mickey-Moused.

Founded as a partnership between the four Shorin brothers (and probably their silent-partner father Morris), Topps began doing business in December of 1938 with a sole product called Topps Gum, which sold for a penny. They endured the shortages and privations of World War 2 by selling this one product and some ration and shortage induced low-sugar candy bars, then came up with all-time winner Bazooka bubble gum in the late summer of 1947, a vital catalyst for their growth. 

Introducing baseball cards of a sort in 1951 in the bizarre set dubbed Baseball Candy, which despite getting Topps royally sued and cease-and-desisted, led them to double down and come out with the now classic 1952 Baseball set, which helped build their profits and signaled the start of an as-yet uninterrupted-run of annual issues covering the game of sphere and ash. This led to a very litigious four-year period before Topps ended up purchasing their biggest rival, Bowman, in February 1956 when the parent company of that venerable Philadelphia firm (Connelly Containers) elected to pursue other, and quite lucrative, business opportunities.

Topps weathered challenges thereafter from Fleer, the Federal Trade Commission, the Major League Baseball Players Association and other, smaller antagonists before floating an IPO of 435,000 shares of common stock in March of 1972, which saw the company listed on the American Stock Exchange, initially valued at $17.50 per share, or $7,612,500. There were also apparently a gaggle of preferred voting shares that I'm still trying, somewhat listlessly, to untangle that allowed the Shorin's and their various in-laws and allies to essentially retain full control of the company. (UPDATE 4/12/24: I just found an article indicating only 25% of the company was being listed, so the valuation was $30,450,000).

I think this specimen shows how the issued stock certificates looked in 1972 as dot-matrix computer printing and boxed CUSIP numbers were in use by then but this version is from 1978 so I can't be sure:

The AMEX ticker symbol was TOPPSG. 

In 1975 Fleer sued them in an action that led to the 1981 expansion of the baseball card market and ultimately rocket-fueled the growth of of the hobby. In 1983 the Topps board agreed to a leveraged buyout by an investor group headed by Forstmann Little. This deal closed in early 1984 and 3.6 Million shares of Topps common stock were gobbled up at $26.25 per share, valuing the now-private company at roughly $94.5 Million.

In May 1987 a NASDAQ IPO saw Topps issue 1.7 Million shares (described as 31% of "itself" amusingly enough) and be rebranded as The Topps Company, Inc. The $13 stock price meant a total valuation of around $71.29 Million, which seems like a bit of a devaluation (hard to tell with this stuff, there's so many loopholes and ins-and-outs). I ended up with a share of same in 1994 thanks to an old buddy named Dale Beaumont:

This bubbled along, despite the inevitable ups-and-downs of the stock market, quite nicely overall until Mr. Eisner and Madison Dearborn came along with their $385.4 Million in 2007 and took the company private once again, with the Shorin's and friends no longer directly involved once the deal closed, although some family and insiders fulfilled (very brief) consulting roles with the new ownership group. 

Eisner though, kept the company fairly intact in spirit and fact after the purchase and then tried to sell the whole magilla for $1.3 Billion in 2021 after his plans for expansion ran up against Madison Dearborn's preference to control costs and merely ride profits forward. That deal - which seemingly turned into a disaster when Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association decided to let their licensing with Topps expire eleven days before the close of the deal and instead go with Fanatics -  would have seen a hedge fund called Mudrick Capital take control.  Mudrick planned to merge with Topps, while Eisner planned to roll his 46 Million shares (worth $800 Million plus kids!) into the new company, which was intended to operate as a SPAC, while Madison Dearborn cashed out entirely. The stock symbol would have been: TOPP

There was a lot of boo-hooing in the press about how he got snookered and was no longer a force in the business world (and in fairness, no one at Topps seemed to catch on that MLB/MLBPA and Fanatics were in their own talks) but in the end Eisner seems like he ended up doing OK. Fanatics bought the Topps brand, assets and licenses in either very late December 2021 or very early January 2022 for $500 Million or so (the exact figure seems to be slightly less than that round number) while Eisner and Madison Dearborn held onto Bazooka Candy Brands and a gift card services unit called TDS, which stood for Topps Digital Services.  

You know those giant racks of gift cards you see at the supermarket?  TDS provide the processing backbone for them! Topps seems to have acquired that firm, originally called GMG Lifestyle Entertainment, then based in Minneapolis, sometime during the reign of Eisner (and possibly as early as 2007) but specifics are a little hard to find due to this all being in the realm of private equity. I suspect the original GMG involvement was to help Topps manage all of their redemption and loyalty programs.

Bazooka Candy Brands, despite the fading market share of its namesake bubble gum, still manufactures, among a myriad of other confections, Ring Pops, which sell gloriously year-after-sticky-fingered-year. That remnant of the business was sold to Apax Partners for a reported $700 Million in October 2023. Then early 2024 saw the sale of TDS to Ziff-Davis for a rumored $170 Million, formally ending the Eisner era at Topps.

If you are tallying all that at home, it adds up to around $1.37 Billion, essentially what the 2021 sale to Mudrick Capital was to gross. I dunno, this Eisner guy is pretty good at business after all!

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Don't Cello Me Short

Friend o'the Archive David Danberg posed a question to me recently about which specific packs could be found in which specific boxes of 1969 Topps Baseball cards. It's an interesting question because this is the year Topps sold both five and ten cent packs of cards; the former in traditional wax livery, the latter in a printed cello that was offered in seemingly in some kind of fairly widespread and lengthy test (at least as far as their test issues go).

To refresh our collective memories, these were those, wax first:

You can see this nickel pack which I believe is from the first series, was produced in Brooklyn.  This would change with the fifth series as the origin switched to Duryea. 

But Topps also issued 10 cent printed cello's, which are extremely hard to find today, all through the baseball season:

Note the see-through quality of the front, especially within the white circle, where you can see the gum, and on the back, where a clear, little window shows off the bottom card which shows above and below as well. The yellow panel used on the wax pack to describe the Magic Magnet Set is white and semi-transparent here, then the art for it is rotated ninety degrees for some reason.  As I said, they are tough packs to find and wrappers are even tougher as these tended to self-destruct upon opening.  And just like the wax packs, these were also released series-by-series; this pack too is from the first.  All printed cello's, no matter which series they held, show they were produced in Duryea.  It's an interesting divide and it makes me think a lot of the testing of this pack (and new ten cent price point, albeit still at a penny per card) could have mostly occurred around the Topps complex there. 

Topps being Topps though, they still issued a traditional clear (and gumless) cello pack in 1969. Here's some more first series action:

There were at least three other distribution methods used as well, two of which I will get to shortly (there was also the self-explanatory vending release). 1969 was an immensely interesting year for Topps, as they had major league expansion to navigate, with the MLBPA's boycott of Topps photographers ending as well. There were also two miniaturized sets which used the card design, one standalone and one an insert, plus Supers, Stamps and Deckle Photos available at various points to tempt the tykes. Topps was flooding the market after making nice with the MLBPA, whew!

Right, so Mr, Danberg's question was related to the cello "wax" packs.  One of the great things about Topps (and also quite frustrating at times) was their use of Commodity Codes for their products. This provided a way for them to track all the costs and profits associated with a particular project (usually a specific set, allowing that was not always the case) through its sales cycle, although some inside knowledge to navigate the system over several years sometimes (more on this below) was surely required. Friend o'the Archive Lonnie Cummins has been researching these codes for years and is still trying to decipher the part of the string that comes after the stock number.

The five cent wax packs had a first series commodity code of: 0-401, where the three digit stock number is 401. This ties to the five cent box's stock number of 1-401, so they are a match, of course:

Isn't that a great looking box?

The ten cent printed cello's code starts off as 0-301 but there's two possible boxes as this guy also was produced:

It starts off with a 1-401 commodity code and while the clear cello's have no printed code, they tie in at 401 due to the lack of gum.

The last digit of the code is a 7 (for 1967), meaning Topps had been using this box for the two years prior to selling clear cello Baseball packs. This is one of the anomalies with the codes and I'm not sure if Topps just wrote the entire production of these boxes off to a specific 1967 budget or if they somehow amortized the cost. One thing is for sure, leftovers never got tossed, just re-used.

That leaves us with the ten cent box, which should follow the 301 stock number found on the printed cello wrappers:

(Courtesy John Moran)

David checked his collection for this box's stock number and it is, no surprise, 1-301.  Game, set, match.  Also, this six-pack of sorts was marketed in 1969, continuing a configuration that debuted in 1967:

The back is quite busy and the commodity code is small and hard to see but it reads 1-401-30-01-8, so we have a cardboard tray that was also used for the 1968 marketing:

There were also rak-paks:

OK, now it gets a little weird.  While Topps used to sell rak paks that contained three overwrapped cello packs and only changed that procedure in 1968, when the cards were bagged loose in each "cell" of the rak. The rak header card seen above, with a code of 1-081-93-03-7 debuted in 1968, while they were debuting cello pack-free raks!  In 1967 it looked like this:

While the code on that also ended with a 7, although the stock number was different.  Se we'll call the "New Trading Cards" pack the "new" header  and the one with the batter the "old"one. The 1967 Football raks used the "new" header" so they didn't carryover from Baseball that year. And the codes had only debuted in 1966 in general, as did the famous curved-t Topps logo. 

So what gives? Durned if I know.  All I can tell you is after 1967, I consider this the best-looking regular-issue Topps set of the decade, which I realize may not reflect the hobby's opinion at large. Beyond that, in order: 1965, 1960, 1963, 1966, 1962, 1961, 1968 and 1964. Your experience may vary!

P.S.-WTH, let's do the Fifties and Seventies as well, ranked best to worst by yours truly:

1957, 1952, 1954, 1953, 1955, 1959, 1956, 1958.

1971, 1972, 1970 (best reverse ever BTW), 1975, 1973, 1979, 1974,  three way tie for last.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

We Pass The Savings On To You

Friend o'the Archive Mike Savage recently sent along some significant lists of specials from Woody Gelman's Card Collectors Company, issued but a mere fifty years (!) ago. There is some excellent information contained in these flyers about a brace of test issues which feature some of the toughest items Topps ever put out and show how CCC was used as as one of their conduits for unsalable overstock.

Today let's take a look at Specials of the Month list #4, which came riding along with a more traditional CCC catalog in this handily postmarked envelope:

I don't have a copy to show from my collection but that would have been Catalog #26 in there, dated January 15, 1974.  The list of specials is a wonder to behold:

In order, from the top we get a series of older insert and oddball sets being bled off, plus some excess from Woody's personal stock of tobacco cards.  The 1951 Red Backs were still being stocked, almost a quarter-century after their issue (and 1952 reissue)-impressive!  The tobacco cards were from the T205 and T206 sets and would have been alien to most of the CCC audience.  The 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set was not, as we have learned in the sixty-five years since it's issue, "very scarce" and in fact is quite common.  Even the elusive card #68, which was pulled over a rights issue with Topps involving the use of Bucky Harris's image, has been graded in abundance over at PSA, with 1,140 slabbed and counting.

1969 Super Baseball was a set that was held in some abundance by CCC and hopefully this list got people ordering it because about fifteen months later, their warehouse would be substantially consumed in a fire, with the set's population being disproportionately wrecked. Those sets purchased from CCC after the fire would often come with singed edges!  The 1968 and 1969 inserts were pure overstock and while it's not at all clear if the 1968 Baseball Game being offered was the boxed version, the "Batter Up" language suggests it could be. The 1964 Giant Baseball cards were massively overproduced as Topps issued them after the 1964 All-Star game to middling consumer interest.  Those 1970 Super Football cards, while not as common as the '64 Giants, seem like they suffered from a lack of interest as well.

This is all preamble though, as we get to the meat of the specials.

1973 Baseball Team Checklists? Those were the blue bordered ones that almost no one seems to recall getting in packs that year. Now, were they sourced loose or from the extremely scarce perforated mail-in premium sheet?

Next up, the 1973 Baseball Candy lids.  I find it hard to believe but I've never really posted about these, or the actual lids at least. While surviving quantities are pretty high for a true test issue (I suspect regional tests vs. the old, semi-mythical Brooklyn candy store tests for these), they are somewhat tough, especially in nice shape. The little lift-up tab is usually found creased and bent and then the images are often horribly off-center.  This one's not so bad actually:

Moving along, here you could have purchased the eight-card '53 Reprint "set" that Topps mysteriously produced in 1972, allegedly for a banquet or gathering of some sort. It's a bizarre set, with misidentifications and a bewildering assortment of players.  Here's a proof sheet of the eight subjects from this difficult issue:

The 1973 "Baseball Cloth Sticker Sets" are the cloth versions of the 1973/74 Action Emblems, an abortive Topps attempt to circumvent the licensing of team logos from MLBPC. These are not well-known and I'm not sure if PSA even grades them. They seem to suffer from the adhesive being somewhat melty and gooey if not stored properly over the years:

Toward the bottom we have two inexorably linked sets (due to a common player selection) from 1973, the uber-difficult Baseball Comics and Baseball Pin-Ups.  I think they are also linked in a way to the Action Emblems in that they feature no logos. Either way, they are a really superb looking set:

I'm not sure why but the Pin-Ups are a little more available and survive at almost exactly a 2:1 ratio compared to the Comics, but make no mistake they are also extremely hard to find:

Concluding today's look back in wonder, we have the 1972 Cloth Baseball Stickers.  I think the reference to 55 being in the set is a typo, no one has seen more than the 33 known subjects in full, all neatly doubled in full array on this uncut sheet that displays portions of both slits. Some very tantalizing slivers can be seen too but I can't say undamaged stickers exist for these edge riders:

These are roughly as prevalent as the 1973 Baseball Pin-Ups, although it's worth noting those truncated stickers at the top of the sheet do turn up in their slightly decapitated form, as do all the others to a lessening degree.  This seems to have been a materials test, which was continued in 1976 before Topps finally got the formula down for 1977.

Topps had a couple of other dealers who helped send this stuff out into the world, like Bill Haber, who was a Topps employee just like Gelman but preferred selling things directly at New York City area collectible shows, which were not exactly in abundance at the time.  You really needed some expert timing to take advantage and realistically, it wasn't the average ten-year-old buying up all the test issues.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

All You Need Is Cash

Well, here's the last of the Topps Annual Reports that were dispatched to me last year by Friend o'the Archive David Eskenazi, covering 1983 (with a very interesting addendum).

1983 looked a lot like 1982, report-wise.  The cover is minimalist, yet effective:

The Nature of Business Statement expanded by a paragraph from 1982:

I'm not sure why these had to be so specific as the annual reports usually had enough detail to get the point of the various business ventures across.  To wit, here is page one of the Shareholders letter, bearing a lot of good news:

Thanks to BFF o'the Archive Jeff Shepherd, we can see what the Sweet 'N Low sell sheet looked like:

I'm not sure the product sold all that well as there seems to be a lack of surviving examples.
Otherwise, things were steadily moving onward and upward:

A number of accounting method changes litter the rest of the 1983 report, which is chock-a-block with tables.  I'm not sure if those changes had anything to do with this...

...but check these figures out. You can see why the Board of Directors was in favor of the merger (with itself!), as it was gonna make most of 'em all a lot richer:

Driving all of this seems to be a surge in the common stock price, which really took off after a two-for-one split in April of 1983:

Here's some quick math on the shares going to the BOD, using a pricing of 25 dollars per share.  Arthur T. Shorin's 850,000 shares would be worth a cool $21,250,000 once the deal closed. How about Sy Berger?  His 250,000 shares would bring $6,250,000 and he wasn't even on the Board! And this is in 1984 dollars. Multiply it out to 2024 and it's almost three times as much. Whew! You can see why this notice ran almost 80 pages as there was a lot of verbiage about how wonderful the merger would be for all shareholders. You can also see how valuable Sy Berger was to Topps.

Coming back to earth, we get a nice snapshot of the various Topps properties held at the time of the Special Meeting:

Proxy Statement Note 3 mentions it cost Topps $414,000 a year to lease the Duryea Plant but that title would pass to Topps once the lease expired in 1986, assuming the remaining payments were made. In other words, Lease-to-Buy.

The 1980's were a heady time for Topps, although the bubble would eventually burst (sorry, had to do it.)