Topps itself was founded in 1938, but the company can trace its roots back to an earlier firm, American Leaf Tobacco. Founded in 1890 by Morris Shorin, the American Leaf Tobacco Co. imported tobacco to the United States and sold it to other tobacco companies. (American Leaf Tobacco should not be confused with the American Tobacco Company, which monopolized U.S.-grown tobacco during this period.)
American Leaf Tobacco encountered difficulties during World War I, as it was cut off from Turkish supplies of tobacco, and later as a result of the Great Depression. Shorin's sons, Abram, Ira, Philip, and Joseph, decided to focus on a new product but take advantage of the company's existing distribution channels. To do this, they relaunched the company as Topps, with the name meant to indicate that it would be "tops" in its field. The chosen field was the manufacture of chewing gum, selected after going into the produce business was considered and rejected.
At the time, chewing gum was still a relative novelty sold in individual pieces. Topps’ most successful early product was Bazooka bubblegum, which was packaged with a small comic on the wrapper. Starting in 1950, the company decided to try increasing gum sales by packaging them together with trading cards featuring Western character Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd); at the time Boyd, as one of the biggest stars of early television, was featured in newspaper articles and on magazine covers, along with a significant amount of "Hoppy" merchandising. When Topps next introduced baseball cards as a product, the cards immediately became its primary emphasis.
The "father of the modern baseball card" was Sy Berger. In the autumn of 1951, Berger, then a 28-year-old veteran of World War II, designed the 1952 Topps baseball card set with Woody Gelman on the kitchen table of his apartment on Alabama Avenue in Brooklyn. The card design included a player's name, photo, facsimile autograph, team name and logo on the front; and the player's height, weight, bats, throws, birthplace, birthday, stats and a short biography on the back. The basic design is still in use today. Berger would work for Topps for 50 years (1947–97) and serve as a consultant for another five, becoming a well-known figure on the baseball scene, and the face of Topps to major league baseball players, whom he signed up annually and paid in merchandise, like refrigerators and carpeting.
The Shorins, in recognition of his negotiation abilities, sent Sy to London in 1964 to negotiate the rights for Topps to produce Beatles trading cards. Arriving without an appointment, Sy succeeded by speaking in Yiddish to Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager.
Berger hired a garbage boat to remove leftover boxes of 1952 baseball cards stored in their warehouse, and rode with them as a tugboat pulled them off the New Jersey shore. The cards were then dumped into the Atlantic Ocean. The cards included Mickey Mantle's first Topps card, the most valuable card of the modern era. No one at the time, of course, knew the collector's value the cards would one day attain. Currently, a pack of 1952 Topps baseball cards is worth at least $5,000.
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