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:
-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:
-A month later Haber wrote this:
-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.
-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.
-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: