By Barry Janoff
March 10, 2016: In 1951, Bob Feller led the American League with 22 wins, Stan Musial topped the Major Leagues with a .355 BA, Ralph Kiner led the Majors with 42 homers and the New York Yankees, managed by Casey Stengel and led by Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra, defeated the New York Giants, managed by Leo Durocher, in the World Series.
It also was the year of one of baseball's most famous home runs, the "Shot Heard 'Round The World," hit by the Giants' Bobby Thompson in the ninth inning of Game 3 in a best-of-three playoff to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers and give the Giants the NL pennant.
That year, these and other players found themselves included in the first baseball card set issued by Topps, known as the Blue Backs and Red Backs.
According to Topps, the set was a precursor to the ones we know today, with 52 cards in separate sets, or decks, which were designed to let kids play a game of card-baseball.
Along with a photo and bio of a player, each 2” x 2 5/8” card had an at-bat result, such as “single,” “double,” and “fly out." These Topps sets also came with an edible treat, not bubblegum, but taffy.
The modern era of Topps baseball cards began in 1952, when the company issued a set of 400-plus cards, measuring 2 5/8” x 3 3/4”. The cards were designed by legendary Topps salesman-turned-executive Sy Berger at his kitchen table in Brooklyn, according to the company, complete with team logos and faux player autographs on the front and bios and stats on the back.
This year, to support its 65th anniversary with MLB, Topps is issuing sets with special inserts, including one honoring Berger with a reproduced card from every year since 1952.
Topps will support its Baseball Series with multi-platform marketing, including Internet, social media and POP. Buster Posey, who signed with the company last year as spokesperson, will continue in that role on TV, in print, Internet, social media and other activations.
For its Baseball Series 1, Topps conducted a voting by fans to select from among 30 players, one from each MLB team. who would receive the honor of appearing on card No. 1, a distinction that traces back to that 1951 set when Yogi Berra was card No. 1 in the Red Backs set and Eddie Yost (Washington Senators) was No. 1 in the Blue Backs set.
The fans went for Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, who was selected from among a Final Five that also included Kris Bryant (Chicago Cubs), Josh Donaldson (Toronto Blue Jays), Bryce Harper (Washington Nationals) and Posey (San Francisco Giants).
Harper was selected by Topps to appear on boxes and packages for Baseball Series 1.
Topps also had a hit with a Star Wars release to tie in with The Force Awakens. And the company made news with a special release, Garbage Pail Kids: American as Apple Pie In Your Face, which includes Donald Dump, Hounded Hillary, Brainy Ben, Joyless Jeb and Berserk Bernie.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with David Leiner, vp/GM sports & entertainment for New York-based Topps, about its history with baseball, marketing during the 65th anniversary season and the current and future outlook for cards and collecting via traditional, digital and social methods.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What motivated Topps to have fans vote for card No. 1?
David Leiner: As part of out activations for our 65th anniversary of baseball releases, having fans vote for the No. 1 card was a great way to engage with people and have them interact with Topps on a personal level. People were excited to have a say in which player would be on the No. 1 card, which is an honor, and to play a role in our product release. The first card in the Topps baseball set has historically been given to top players or has been meaningful. This time around, we wanted our great collectors to be part of the 65th Topps Baseball set, and they made their mark by picking one of the best players in baseball today.
NYSJ: What reaction did you get from Trout himself?
DL: Mike loves the cards. Whenever we meet with him, whether he's signing cards or down in Spring Training, he wants to see his latest cards. He sends his parents his cards, and he loves giving them out to fans. We make jumbo cards for his charity events. When we alerted Mike that he was voted to be on the No. 1 card, he was extremely excited. He said he was honored. And he loved the card we picked for him (which was shot on Sept. 26, 2015, when Trout scaled the outfield wall in Angels Stadium, extended his body over it and robbed the Seattle Mariners’ Jesus Montero of a three-run homer).
NYSJ: Do you feel that players in general are fans of baseball cards?
DL: We interact with a lot of players and they seem genuinely interested in the baseball sets and their cards. A lot of them want to see their cards when they come out. The five finalists in the voting for the No. 1 card are all great players and I think they all are aware of how kids and fans feel about baseball cards and their place in baseball history.
NYSJ: What are you looking at regarding marketing support for the 65th anniversary?
DL: We have printed a lot of jumbo cards of Mike's No. 1 card and he will give them out at events. Buster Posey will still be in marketing as he was last season. We love working with him and he's done a fantastic job. So you will see him throughout the season in during product launches. We will have a lot of events throughout the year. We will have a presence at MLB jewel events such as Opening Day events and in the FanFest during All-Star Game week (this July in San Diego). We are planning promotions that will be weaved throughout our Topps trading cards products. It will not only be in-product but in-stadium and other places.
NYSJ: Was there a particular reason why Bryce Harper is on boxes and packs for Series 1?
DL: We feel that being on the packaging for Series 1 is an honor. That's something that we discuss a lot internally at Topps. Bryce had a monster year last season. His play excited fans and he's really fun to watch. And he has quite the personality. So we wanted to honor him by putting him on the box and packs.
NYSJ: What are some interesting insert sets this season?
DL: Two that people are talking about are 'First Pitch,' with celebrities who threw out ceremonial first pitches last season; and the Sy Berger insert, which honors the 'Father of Modern Day Baseball Cards.' We love telling the broader story of baseball. The first pitch is an honor at the start of a baseball game, so we wanted to put some people on cards who threw out those pitches in 2015. People can now have a baseball card with (soccer star) Abby Wambach, (golfer) Jordan Spieth, (New York Knicks rookie) Kristaps Porzingis. Sy (who passed away in December 2014, worked at Topps for more than 50 years) was very influential at Topps and in the industry, so we wanted to remember him with 'Berger's Best,' which is a reprint of a card each season since 1952.
NYSJ: Looking beyond MLB and sports, Topps has an alliance with Star Wars since 1977. Did the company see a bump in sales and awareness due to The Force Awakens movie?
DL: Definitely. We've been a partner with Lucas Films, and now Disney, since the original trilogy came out. We are the exclusive trading card partner. So we saw a tremendous amount of excitement for our product not only when the movie came out, but before and since. We has some terrific releases when the movie came out in December, and those products are still being sold in stores. We have more product coming this year, more high-end collectibles and other consumer price-points. We also will have product for Star Wars: Rogue One (tied to the movie's scheduled release in December) later this year.
NYSJ: And you also have jumped into the presidential race with the Garbage Pail Kids parody.
DL: (Laughs.) That's something that's really fun. We talked about that internally, looking at the unique cast of characters this year. So we leveraged our GPK brand, which people have enjoyed for more than 30 years. It's fun and relevant. We're going to try to do more with it as the campaigns progress.
NYSJ: Where do you see the card trading and sports collectible industry in 2016 and beyond?
DL: We have seen growth and we will continue to see that. There are more dads coming back into collecting with their kids. We are actively trying to engage the younger consumers both with physical and digital product such as BUNT. The digital business is continuing to grow and compliment the physical business, and vice versa. So we are very excited about what Topps is doing and where the industry itself is heading.
Trout Joins Mays, Aaron, Jeter In Leadoff Spot For Topps