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Monday, October 15, 2012

Results of Year Five of The Great Bubble Gum Card War: 1955

by +Dean Hanley
All wars have to end, if for no other reason, because the combatants cannot continue to fight on forever. This was also the case for the great Bubble Gum Card War. The end of the Great Bubble Gum War came quickly and surprised most collectors of the day.

When I first wrote about the 1955 Topps All-American set in Sports Collectors Digest, I accepted the popular conclusion that was adopted by most previous baseball card historians. That since Topps sold more cards, Bowman eventually went out of business and that the All-American Football card set was “the final nail in the coffin for the Bowman Gum Co.” Although, there is truth to that statement, further research indicates that there was more to the story of Bowman’s demise that had not been previously known to most hobbyists.

 Enter Connelly Containers

In the winter of 1955, Haelan Laboratories was acquired by Connelly Containers, Inc. as the result of a merger. The problem for Connelly Containers was that the damage portion of litigation of the Haelan Laboratories VS Topps Chewing Gum court case had yet to be resolved. Given that Connelly had no interest in baseball cards or bubble gum, especially given Bowman’s declining market position and sales, Connelly Containers quickly sought to divest themselves of the highly competitive, low-profit Bowman product line and all of the legal issues and costs associated with it. Connelly was more concerned with exiting a lawsuit without any strings attached and a business line that they did not want, than getting the highest possible price for Bowman’s assets.

On January 20, 1956, almost three years after the court’s decision, Connelly agreed to settle the lawsuit with Topps. In exchange for a measly $200,000, Connelly assigned all assets of Bowman, including the baseball and football player contracts to Topps.

Topps had little interest in Bowman's manufacturing facilities or even Bowman's Blony Bubble Gum brand name. The most valuable Bowman asset was their player contracts. Gaining access to Bowman's player contracts would now allow Topps to issue a complete set of baseball cards, as well as a football card set that featured the current NFL players in 1956. The Great Bubble Gum Card War was over and Topps had achieved a total victory.

Potential competitors are shut out

The courts decided that the contracts the players signed with both Topps and Bowman, were in fact “iron-clad,” thus ensuring Topps had the rights to the player's image on every sports card. Whether or not the cards were packaged alone or with chewing gum, candy or any other type of confection, all of the image rights now belonged to Topps. This made it increasingly difficult for a competitor to enter into the baseball card market because they were forced to sell their cards with some other type of product. The product could not be gum or candy.

The Gum Card War greatly increased both production and legal costs for both companies. The four-year old Gum Card War had also taken a financial toll on Topps as well as Bowman. By 1955, Topps was at its weakest and Bowman had more players under contract than Topps, giving them a strong tactical position. It would have been possible for any of the gum manufacturers, such as Leaf, Fleer or Donruss to buy out Bowman and continue the war, but they were never given the opportunity. These other bubble gum manufacturers would have to wait 25 years to get another chance to issue baseball cards with their gum.

Leaf immediately approached Topps about some sort of collaborative agreement for Leaf to again issue baseball cards with their bubble gum. Topps had no intention in relinquishing their hard won spoils of the Bubble Gum Card War and totally refused to cooperate with their competitor. Topps made it clear to Leaf, and any other potential competitor, that they would quickly sue on the same exact grounds that Haelan had used against Topps a few years before. The threat worked, as none of the gum companies issued a set of baseball cards.

When Leaf finally did produce a baseball card set in 1960, it was packaged with marbles, or with a cookie, instead of gum. Due to the restrictions of the player contracts the Fleer cookies contained so little sugar that they were considered inedible by many of the kids at the time. One collector of the day claimed that even his dog would not eat the cookies.

Aftermath

Now with the ability to issue a complete set of cards and the lack of a strong competitor, Topps baseball cards became even more sought-after than before. Topps sales soon doubled and by the end of the decade, seven of the remaining bubble gum manufacturers were out of business.

The end of the Bubble Gum Baseball Card War greatly slowed down the evolution of the baseball card itself. With a virtual monopoly in the bubble gum sports card market, Topps could now focus on controlling costs and increasing profits.

1957 Topps Print Sheet
When the war ended, the 1956 Topps cards had already been designed. Without a competitor, Topps was able to reduce the number of cards that came in their nickel packs from seven to six. The next year, in 1957, Topps reduced the size of their cards so that more cards could fit onto a printing sheet, thereby enabling Topps to print more cards at the same cost.

Only modest creative innovations in design were seen in the sports card hobby until 1981, when a new court ruling broke the Topps' monopoly and allowed competitors to enter the market and introduce a new crop of innovative products.



This article is taken from Dean’s  book “The Gum Card War and the Great Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets of 1948-1955”, which is now available for sale at Amazon.com.

Dean Hanley is an authority on vintage sports cards and has written numerous articles on the topic. Mr. Hanley is the founder DeansCards.com, and with well-over one million vintage cards in inventory, DeansCards.com is the largest seller of vintage cards on the web. Dean has also published “Before there was Bubble Gum: Our Favorite Pre-World War I Baseball Cards”, which is also available in eBook form at Amazon.com and has just released a T207 reprint set. For more information, please visit www.DeansCards.com 

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