Saturday, February 24, 2024

In Competition For the First Time

Continuing our look at the Topps Annual reports received from Friend o'the Archive David Eskenazi we come to the pivotal year of 1981.  The specter of competition is imminent (their fiscal year ended just around the time the first wave of  Fleer and Donruss cards started flooding stores) and there are some severe economic headwinds affecting the company but, as we shall see, the results were a little better than the dire financials from fiscal year 1979-80.

The cover was even sparser than the one from 1980 but they slightly upgraded to a semi-glossy stock for it, although the interior pages were still uncoated.  This is all it showed:

It took some ten weeks after the end of the fiscal year for the report to be compiled, printed and distributed; these days the lag is closer to three or four weeks and it's all digital. This letter led things off and offered some semi-good news but dig those last two paragraphs:

The plant in Ireland was vexing Topps and we will revisit that in a minute. The news regarding the "baseball card litigation" continued on the next page and we all know how that turned out:

The history of litigation between Fleer and Topps was a lengthy one but Topps had bought out some 4,000 Fleer ballplayer contracts in 1966 after the sole count of a Federal Trade Commission complaint that went against them was overturned. In 1967, Marvin Miller, unimpressed with the grip of Topps on his constituency, tried to steer the player's union to Fleer but they were not (yet) interested and it's worth pointing out the terms were quite risky for them.  By 1975 their outlook had changed significantly and as seen above, they made it to market with a set in 1981, as did Donruss. The market, and hobby, would never be the same.

Here's some numbers to crunch on:

Sales and profit were actually down form the year before but Topps was quite effectively controlling costs, as earnings per share turned positive again, although the planned sale of their Irish plant did not occur.

Here's some more on the Fleer litigation; it would seesaw back and forth for years; Topps was never shy about getting lawyers involved in their business disputes:

Donruss really just piggybacked on Fleer but that's how the bubble gum crumbles!  We'll take a look at how the competition affected the Topps bottom line next time out.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Posterity For Austerity

Friend o'the Archive David Eskenazi, who has been sending me various care packages of Topps corporate goodies from time to time, recently sent another batch my way.  This time, the fully stuffed mailer was loaded up with Topps Annual and Board Reports, covering the fiscal years 1980 to 1983, a very tumultuous time for the company and the hobby at large. I've looked at the 1973-1976 Annual Reports previously, and since I have none from 1977 to 1979, let's look at 1980 today.  

For the fiscal year ending March 1, 1980 Topps laid a very giant egg!  You can tell things were off just by looking at the cover:

Yeah, that's not good.....let's let Arthur and Joel Shorin explain:

That's an excellent soft-soap job, I must say.  Lead with the bad news, then pile up some good news and sprinkle in some rosy projections!

As mentioned, I don't have annual reports (yet) covering fiscal years 1977-1979 but the 1980 Summary of Sales and Earnings recaps those years as part of its look back.  It's clear the prior years were all profitable, especially the one just prior:

Things were not looking good for the stock price as 1980 dragged on-dig that downward trend!  It looks like inflation took a big bite out of earnings:

I might have to rethink my previous snarky comments about Bubble Fudge! Reading on we see the  relationship between sales and operating expenses really affected things, which is no surprise. The Irish subsidiary mentioned below will loom larger as the Eighties progress but for now, all was hunky-dory across the pond:

I'll spare you most of the tables, but this one caught my eye as it mentions inventories presently on premises at the end of the fiscal year. Let's look at these figures:

Topps had a lot of raw materials on hand, given the amount of wax wrappers, cardboard and various confectionery ingredients required for manufacturing and production.  I assume these figures relate to the wholesale prices of Finished Products and Work-in-Process, which was usually a tad under 60% of retail. There was, of course gum in the wax and cello packs, and also on its own, plus football and hockey cards, non-sports cards and other things like Ring Pops, foreign sales, and on and on. With no breakdowns by product line available, pricing all over the place and a far-flung enterprise, it's a WAG on what that inventory number truly represents in terms of actual products but it looks like there was about $5.5 Million in retail sitting in various Topps warehouses on March 1, 1980 using my admittedly amateurish calculations.

If half of that was trading cards, then it's $2.75 Million in retail, or roughly $1.65 Million wholesale, or a whole lot of cases!

Signing off on this mess, we see some old familiar names and some new ones, changing, as BOD's do, as the years pass:

I'll get into the 1981 report next time out-things really start to get interesting in that one.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Letters To Sy Over

I've recently been resuscitating a CD-R that was sent to me some time ago with thousands of scans covering Topps Vault items sold by them from 2007 to mid-2013 on eBay. Some of the files are corrupted at this point but I've managed to save about 70 percent of them. However, I cannot trace who sent me this wonderful time capsule so please ping me if it was you!

Some of the most esoteric items on the disc were letters sent to Sy Berger from 1993-95 thanking him for the $500 payments that secured each player's signed release for the Topps Archives (yessir) Official Reprint sets from 1994 and 1995, reprinting the originals from 40 years prior in each case.  There's nothing earth-shattering here but the letters are all handwritten and highlight some long-lasting friendships that Sy had formed over the many decades he was the Sports Director at Topps.

Here's one from Andy Pafko dated March 28, 1994, referencing the 1994 Official Reprint of the 1954 Baseball set:

Pafko would receive another $500 a year later for the 1955 Official Reprint set:

Don Mueller, who was nicknamed Mandrake the Magician for his uncanny ability to slap balls through the infield, sent this note on some really neat "Almost Original 16" stationery, which he must have saved from his playing days (did all ballplayers of a certain vintage get pads of these?).  The inclusion of the logos for the Orioles (the relocated Browns from 1954) and old Athletics elephant (the style shown here debuted for the 1954 season during their last year in Philadelphia) logos may point to 1954 for the stationery, kind of ties things together nicely!.

Ned Garver had some really sweet professionally designed stationery too:

Garver was handing over his check to a group founded by ex-Brown Chuck Stevens, who was the Secretary of the Association of Professional Ball Players of America (APBPA) from 1960 until 1998. APBPA offered financial and other assistance to down-on-their-luck ex-ballplayers. Stevens lived a long life and was the oldest living ex-major league player until his death on May 28, 2018.

Gene Woodling wrote Sy in 1995 and intimates there were some freebie boxes going to the players:

We'll end this fun look at old stationery with Phil Cavarretta, writing on his wife's:

These half-dozen notes really showed the human side of these five ex-players and how people from one rare profession really form bonds like those from any other profession.

And if you are doing the math, and assuming everybody got the same amount, then Topps had to pay out $124,500 for rights to the original subjects for the 1954 reprint (for 249 subjects as neither Ted Williams card was included thanks to his exclusive deal with Upper Deck at the time, and assuming the O'Brien's received $500 per O'Brien) and $103,000 for the original 1955 subjects rights.  1954 also saw  eight additional (and quite) crummy fantasy "rookie cards" Topps added to the mix for no good reason at all, so you can tack on $4K for those.

The Williams cards from 1954 could eventually be found in reprint form from both Upper Deck and Topps. Upper Deck, through some creative licensing arrangements, in their strangely titled but wonderfully executed three-card 1994 Upper Deck All-Time Heroes - 1994 Topps Archives 1954 set gave the world both reprinted Williams cards plus a fab ersatz Mantle.  I never copped a Mick, so forgive the scans here:

However I do have Williams reprints, but only one is from Upper Deck.  The other is from the 2001 Topps Archives set (nice ring to that!).  Let's go in reverse order, Upper Deck first for #250 and embiggened to show details:

Here's some mixed-up indicia for ya: 

Note the obverse follows the Topps reprint set as it carries a top border.  The 2001 Archives Ted Williams "Through the Years" cards on the other hand, did give us the original full-bleed top borders:

Looks a lot better, right?  However, Topps didn't use glossy white stock for the reverse and the result was decidedly murky:

So my 1954 Topps reprint set is a real Franken-set!  

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Get Your Scorecards Here!

I found an interesting item in the wilds of eBay recently, namely a tearsheet of a column Topps Creative Director Woody Gelman penned for a fledgling magazine called Baseball Monthly. As can be plainly seen, it was titled "the Hobbyist" and the idea was to have Woody show off some examples from his extensive collection of ephemera in future issues:

Some easy detective work revealed the magazine debuted in March of 1962 and lasted a whopping four issues.  It was published by Major League Baseball Promotions Corp., which was the licensing arm of the then-20 major league teams. Woody is described as the Publisher of the American Card Catalog, which is technically correct, although it was as a co-publisher and I doubt those in the hobby back then thought of anyone but Jefferson Burdick in that role.

Here's the then-current 1960 ACC's copyright page:

Gelman would have had prior experience with producing publications (and indeed was ACC co-publisher in 1953 and when that edition was reprinted in 1956) and with Jefferson Burdick in New York mounting his collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was in close proximity. It's certainly possible Woody did a lot of the heavy lifting with the 1960 edition.

Woody did publish a book titled the Baseball Card Checklist and sold it through both his Card Collectors Company and early newsletter The Card Collector. Too bad the column's intro blurb gets the title of this very early guide wrong!

The column is innocuous to a fault, although Woody's certainly pushing the main Topps card line in his commentary.  I find it intriguing he mentions old baseball programs as his Card Collectors Company sold very old ones off in their catalogs for a song. This was the scorecard pricing in the March 1962 CCC catalog, the very same month his column first appeared:

A couple of years later he was blowing old football programs out at three for a dollar, but I digress. Woody was well-attuned to cross promotion using the old soft-sell!

I'd love to find the other three columns he penned for this magazine.  They managed April, May and June issues before biting the dust.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

The Gang's (Almost) All Here

BFF o'the Archive Jeff Shepherd has sent along scans of a couple of exceptional Bazooka Joe and the Gang original art pieces for everybody's viewing pleasure.  First up is Officer Bill, from an original character study on Bristol board, laid down by Wesley Morse:

Wait, what?!  There's no character named Officer Bill in the Bazooka Joe comics.  There is however, Sarge, the gruff but friendly cop on the beat (often seen directing traffic by the school) in whatever burg the gang called home:

That was actually a Bazooka comic, as eight of the characters rated a solo look in the first series of  one-cent tabs of the bubble gum in 1954. 

I ran the art by Mark Newgarden, who is wise in such matters, and he indicated he has a handful of these studies in his archives: Wilbur, Toughy, Tex, Walkie Talkie (more on those in a minute) and of course, the eye-patched hero himself, good ol' Bazooka Joe:

That one is just about identical to the finished version of Joe, seen here in a scan, again courtesy of Shep:

As a capper, there also exists a piece of art that Mr. Newgarden advises hung in a Topps conference room for years and it is a beauty, although the whereabouts of the original are unknown at present (but it's still believed to exist):

Seemingly a black-and-white stat (i.e. a photostat, a kind of early copying system that used a camera) with color added after reproduction, it depicts several characters that didn't last too long or ended up with new names. Let's go from left to right:

Bazooka Joe of course, comes first then we see his girlfriend Janet, Joe's kid brother Pesty, then sister L'il Pat, Toughy (formerly Butch, then later Tuffy), Wilbur, Mort, Tex (who seems redundant thanks to Pesty's presence), Bazooka Joe's Mom and Pop, Hungry Herman, Joe's dog Walkie Talkie and finally, Sarge.

Several recurring characters are not shown, even though they appeared with some consistency.  There were, for example, at least two teachers who were semi-regulars, one a young blonde woman and the other a white-haired, stouter Mrs. Grundy type. Various parents, relatives, townsfolk and even passing hobos made appearances in the strip.  

All these characters were around for years, even after Morse died in 1963, as Topps had a stash of comics in reserve they issued for almost two more decades, although by the mid-Seventies they began salting in more promo and prize comics before an early-Eighties redesign brought in new artists and some new characters as well (Metal Dude anybody?). But for literally hundreds, if not thousands, of adventures spanning a quarter-century, the original Bazooka Joe and his Gang were a familiar group to millions of penny-wielding kids.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Treading The (Card)boards

The various and myriad test issues spit out by Topps have always ignited collectors' passions and, as the years pass, done a number on many a bank account, mine included. What we tend to think of as a test issue really began in 1965-66 and seems to coincide with the move of production from Brooklyn to Duryea. Yes, there were tests before this (and probably far more than anyone will ever know) but the method of distribution seems to have been refined by the mid-Sixties into what amounts to a standardized countertop display featuring a blank, white box, with white wax packs within.  These came with a large, colorful sticker affixed to the front that identified the set and often used the planned graphics for the full retail release.  A smaller ingredients sticker was affixed to the reverse. Not all sets were tested this way but for anything that was a standard sized card, it was pretty much the norm, although some regional tests seem to have had more "finished" packaging (and wider distribution).

Test packs are seen sporadically and remain highly (and rightly) prized.  Test wrappers are found with a little more regularity but an actual test box is a rare bird and, given the lack of any identifying markings in most cases, not something that would suggest to anyone it was worth keeping.  Here then, is one for the 1975 Shock Theater test:

It's just a mashed potato sandwich, with mayo on white, especially when all closed up:

The test pack has fabulous graphics, which were used for the retail release (which was NOT in the U.S):

Here is the ingredients sticker, purple in this case:

Friend o'the Archive Lonnie Cummins has done some magnificent work on this set and I'll link to a Vintage Non-Sports Forum post where he gets into all sorts of detail on it. Not to steal his thunder but his discovery that purple ingredients stickers were used for seven card test packs, and black ingredients stickers for three card test packs, is illuminating.  I'm not positive but that seems to suggest a testing of two different price points. Rising prices were becoming a major concern following the 1973 oil crisis not just for Topps but pretty much everybody on the planet. I'm not sure where the pricing was displayed but at a guess it was just a sticker to be stuck to the box. The purple/black ingredients stickers require further research but Topps seems to have settled in on some kind of bright line with the colors used for these around this time.

The set was retail-released in 1976 in the U.K. as Shock Theatre, with most of the production handled in America, then shipped overseas, as Topps fully devoured A&BC and rebranded in 1975. Production was being set up at the time in Ireland for the U.K and Continent but it was a while before the plant got rolling and it seems the old A&BC facilities and local lithographers were no longer up to snuff, requiring imports of various card sets.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Mark Of Zorro

Wow, it's been close to a year since I visited the 1960 Venezuelan Baseball Tattoo issue.  When last remarked upon here, the set was holding fast at nineteen confirmed subjects.  Well late last year Friend o'the Archive and intrepid collector of these rare and delicate items, Rick Lyons, sent along a miscut image of Luis Arroyo, which holds a distinct clue to a twentieth subject.  Take a look at this Luis Arroyo tattoo:

That little sliver of a letter off to the left is a Z, which immediately brings to mind Zoilo Versalles, the eventual 1965 American League MVP. Like several other players in the set, Versalles was Cuban-born and, if confirmed, would continue the perplexing string of non-Venezuelan born players in the set. It's a pretty good bet that's him though.

Nicknamed "Zorro," Versalles does not appear in the 1960 Baseball Tattoo U.S. set.  He debuted for Washington in 1959, after a brief, U.S.-based minor league career, which had followed a pair of top-flight amateur seasons as a teenager in Havana and some extremely brief pro appearances in the Cuban Winter League. He didn't earn a regular berth with the club (now the Minnesota Twins) until the 1961 American League expansion and, save for 1965, had a fairly pedestrian career in the big leagues. He did, however, have a monster season in the CWL in 1960, the last season for that league before it was shut down by the Castro government.

Let's add him to our running list of subjects as a hypothetical:

Bob Allison
Ruben Amaro (Venezuelan only)
Luis Arroyo (Venezuelan only)
Bob Clemente (Venezuelan only)
Rocky Colavito
Don Drysdale
Nellie Fox
Tony Gonzales (Venezuelan only)
Dick Groat
Harmon Killebrew
Frank Lary
Juan Marichal  (Venezuelan only)
Ed Mathews
Stan Musial
Juan Pizzaro (Venezuelan only)
Vic Power (Venezuelan only)
Pedro Ramos (Venezuelan only)
Zoilo Versalles (Venezuelan only) inferred not yet confirmed
Gene Woodling
Early Wynn

A little bit after Rick sent along that scan, Lonnie Cummins, who is doing some heavy-lifting with his Topps research, figured out that the tattoos done in this style, namely the North American penny wraps with an interior image printed in vegetable dye, were designed and produced in iterations divisible by 8, which points to possible minimum tattoo total of 24, leaving our current surmised total of 20 a little short still. That denominator has been suggested for a while now but Lonnie's pretty much nailed it down with some recent findings about how the 1960 Baseball and Superman Tattoos were printed in the U.S. of  A.

With that, it seems at least four more subjects could and should be found, although given the scarcity of these, it's a bit of a tall order to think they will show up any time soon. Still, this is a set where the checklist was at one subject not all that long ago, then two more were found, before the revelations of the past couple of years came to light. Maybe one or two of those will actually be a Venezuelan player; certainly Luis Aparicio comes to mind as a likely subject from the country. 

However, it appears there needs to be a 1960 intersection with the major leagues to qualify as a subject (which makes sense with the art being provided by Topps) and the only other Venezuelan players to meet that criteria are Ramon (Ray) Monzant and Elio Chacon. Monzant appeared in a single game for the Giants in the latter stages of the 1960 season (after missing the 1959 season due to injury) and then disappeared from MLB (and organized ball) forever.  Chacon seems a far better possibility as he debuted in '60 and appeared in 49 games for the Reds, which was after four seasons with Havana. Are Aparicio and Chacon out there along with two other subjects?  

Saturday, January 6, 2024

A May-September Marriage

Happy New Year folks!  Today I want to dip into the recent past, December 9th, 2023 to be exact, wherein I examined some of the subtleties of a 1959 Topps Baseball 3rd series proof sheet. Friend o'the Archive Keith Olbermann recently posted some images of a 7th series proof sheet on Net54 Baseball and was kind enough to send me some higher-res scans. I don't want to usurp the discussion on Net54 but do want to look at some of the production details, just like last time.

Here is the front side, with all 66 cards showing, including the Bob Gibson rookie and Roy Campanella's Symbol of Courage tribute card among its very colorful array:

As with the 3rd series, there is production detail on the sheet itself:

The reference number for the third series sheet was G-803 and we're all the way up to G-1174 here.

While it seems like the high numbers were issued just in August and September most years, their preparation clearly was undertaken in May, at least in 1959. Since the 3rd series was being prepped in March, it seems like a new series was being created every three weeks or so.  With May seeing work this advanced on the high numbers, even allowing for final printing in say, June, there seems to be a bit of a lag built in. This surprised me as it may indicate sheets were stored onsite at Topps Warehouse/HQ in Brooklyn (or in another nearby warehouse of theirs) or even packed and held for a spell.  There's a reason that gum tasted so stale even in a newly issued series!

Intriguingly, this sheet has the backs as well:

That looks really cool, I must say.

Topps made an attempt in '59 to track some trades and options by adding a short statement to the text on the reverse.  The earliest these appear is in the 4th series, referencing transactions from March. They disappear from the 5th and 6th series then reappear in the seventh series of high numbers. There's some subtleties to these, which I plan to examine quite soon but today I just want to look at card #541, which features Gary Thurman.

Thurman's regular issue card has his May option described like so:

With the proof version looking like this:

Clearly a work in progress.  The typeface, font size, color and the use of quotes all differ from the issued version. Topps wisely abandoned such updates the following season. The proof stock is not nearly as white as the regular issue's, which is a little odd.

Spoiler alert-Thurman did NOT regain his 1956 form (and he seems to have actually had a better year in 1957 if measured by WAR). His failure to replicate things may have been because, despite the birth date used by Topps, he was actually born in 1917 and in 1958 turned 41 midseason!

Little details like this fascinate me and also lay bare the amount of work that went into issuing a set of Baseball cards.  Work on their flagship set would begin annually after the end of the World Series and then the set would roar to life as Spring Training and the regular season got underway. It was an entirely mechanical process with many, many time-consuming steps along the way. And until the 1973 oil crisis or thereabouts, it worked out to a mere penny a card for the consumer!