Tuesday, October 23, 2012

So why did Topps win the Baseball Bubble Gum Card War?

by +Dean Hanley
In 1950, Bowman Gum Company was the only bubble gum manufacturer that issued a set of baseball cards. By the time Topps produced their first set of bubble gum baseball cards in 1952, Bowman had every conceivable advantage. Bowman had four years of experience of designing, producing and manufacturing sports cards. Bowman had the majority of the players under contract and was also the most profitable gum company. Bowman seemingly had the finances to outlast any competitor in a war for market share – both at the candy counter and in the courts. If someone who was familiar with the situation had been giving gambling odds on who would win a Baseball Bubble Gum Card War in the fall of 1951, Topps would have been considered an under-dog at best and a long-shot by most, especially after their feeble attempt to market cards in 1951.

 So why did Topps win the Gum Card War and not Bowman? The short answer is that Topps sold more baseball cards and the companies that owned Bowman gave up. But, why did this happen?

After researching all the available material that I could find for this book, I came to the realization that the answer to this question was still not totally apparent to me. Generally, when one company wins a battle for a market niche, there are multiple factors playing into their victory. Possibilities range from better financing, management, marketing and sales, better distribution, manufacturing procedures or even a combination of several of these factors.

 In order to better understand these numerous factors, I decided to speak to Sy Berger personally to get the answer. When I reached him by phone, I was prepared to discuss each of these areas in great complexity and detail with Mr. Berger; however, Berger’s response was much simpler than I was prepared to hear. Berger quickly answered the question by saying, "Because they (the Topps cards) are so beautiful. They are just beautiful!"

The simplicity of Mr. Berger’s answer shocked me into silence. After a few seconds, I replied, “Yes sir, they certainly are.” Sometimes the answer can be just that simple.

The greatest advantage that Topps possessed and Haelan Labs did not was Sy Berger. Each year from 1952 to 1955, Topps managed to produce a better and more attractive set. The kids responded by sliding their coins across the candy counters of America. Producing Topps baseball cards was Sy Berger’s passion in life. He was involved in every aspect of the product, from the design, production, manufacturing and even securing the player’s signatures on contracts.

Although George Moll and his agency continued to design the Bowman cards until the company was sold to Topps, the Bowman baseball cards lacked the creativity that Moll had displayed in the Horrors of War set. Most card collectors prefer the design of the Topps cards to those produced by Bowman.

 This is what caused the downfall of the Bowman Baseball Card Empire and goes to show how much of a difference that one person can make on history. Warren Bowman made this type of impact in 1938, with his Horrors of War set and Sy Berger did it again in the 1950s. This is why hobbyists refer to Seymour “Sy” Berger as the “Father of the Modern Baseball Card”.

Topps begins a new era 

As the years went on, Topps never forgot how quickly a market leader can fall from power. Topps saw first-hand how the Bowman Gum Co. lost its dominant position in the market. It all began with the appearance of the 1952 Topps baseball set. One superior issue of baseball cards was all it took to make a major impact in the market and Topps never forgot this valuable lesson.

Unfortunately for collectors, during the 25 year reign of Topps, the company invested far more effort on streamlining costs and protecting its monopoly than developing innovations for the cards. This is one reason why the 1952 Topps Baseball Card set has remained a hobby standard for so many years.

Cost cutting and profit optimization is the typical strategy of monopolies in any market. Real innovation in the card collecting hobby did not reemerge until other companies were allowed to issue sets of cards. This put more power in the hands of collectors, who were once again allowed to vote for the best product with their dollars in the 1980s. The end result was an exciting reset to the hobby and the beginning of a card collecting boom.

Most collectors feel that the hobby has had way too many sets issued in the last couple decades. However, it is doubtful that the exclusive license recently granted to Topps in the baseball card market will increase the quality or creativity of the products that they produce in the near future or bring kids back into the hobby. Innovation is most often the child of competition, not monopolies. Using history as an indicator, I predict if we ever have another sports card collecting boom, it will take another pioneer like Sy Berger to come along with a great idea, and the passion and drive to implement it.

A loyal following and an American Tradition

As Topps continued to increase the number of cards in their sets, collectors could once again possess a set of cards that contained all of the major league players and this is what mattered most to the collectors. In reality, there was only room in the hobby for one company. The hobby of collecting baseball cards would have never been as popular, if the collectors could not get cards of every player in the league. The kids were hooked and a firmly established American tradition was born. The results were dramatic. Baseball card related sales rose from $950,000 in 1955, the last year of the Bubble Gum Card War, to $3.8 million in 1959.

A survey of 339 boys from the early 1960’s showed that 89% of the boys who were surveyed collected baseball cards. Can you imagine getting that percentage of the population to agree on anything else? To put this huge percentage into perspective, only 60% of today’s kids (ages 10 to 14) own cell phones.

Topps marketed their cards to the boys and they responded. We played with them for hours on end. Baseball card trading sessions were one of our main sources of entertainment. I learned to read by studying the player’s profiles on the back of the cards. I expanded my vocabulary with words like, "Most Valuable Player”, “bullpen” and “southpaw". By the age of six, I also knew who played each position for every team and that player's uniform number.

Baseball cards also taught me geography. By age seven, I learned which state each team's city was located. I knew that there were countries to the south, such as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, where the people spoke Spanish. I was too young to know exactly where these places were (until my mom helped me find them on a map), yet I knew that these countries seemed to produce all of the great shortstops!

By the next year, my trusty Topps cards began teaching me math. I began calculating batting averages and ERAs (by using long division) for the players in my Ethan Allen All-Star Baseball Game. I sometimes wonder how many of today's kids can calculate an ERA. There were no calculators, so learning long division was a must if you wanted to play the game properly. These statistics played an integral part in knowing who was leading my fictional league in batting and pitching. And so went my education...

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

 If you are looking to sell your cards we would be happy to hear from you. Please fill out our sell your collection form here and we will be in touch.

1 comment:

  1. Dean,

    Thanks for that trip down Memory Lane. Like you, I remember spending hours poring over my cards (back in the 1960s) learning who every player was on every team, and all manner of useless trivia.

    I also lament the card companies' decision to cut out the backups, in favor of multiple cards for "stars", players who retired decades ago, and nonsensical cards of non-baseball topics.