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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.

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 

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.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Results of Year Four of The Great Bubble Gum Card War: 1954


by +Dean Hanley
By 1954, baseball card collecting continued to achieve new heights. A new magazine, Sports Illustrated, debuted in August of 1954. The first issue of SI featured an article about the Bubble Gum War between Topps and Bowman.

 The SI article details how the hobby of collecting cards had become the obsession of American boys. The first two issues of SI also featured Topps baseball cards. The cards were getting better each year and most kids were collecting the cards of both manufacturers, but as more players began to sign exclusive contracts the number of players appearing in both sets was steadily decreasing each year.

 Some historical perspective 

While the kids of the day were enjoying the selection of the beautiful new baseball cards available, Topps and Bowman were locked in a competitive death struggle. Topps and Bowman cards sat side-by-side on every local candy counter across America, each desperately trying to grab the attention of the boys that would appear every day after school with coins in hand.

Production costs were high for both Bowman and Topps because of the competitive environment. Since the Baseball Gum Card War had begun, Bowman was forced to make their cards bigger and better. The nickel packs now contained seven cards instead of five. Both companies were under pressure to sign the best players to contracts, then to out-design, produce, innovate and market the other in order to survive.

It had become clear to both companies that the gum card market would be much more profitable with only one company making cards. Unlike many industries, a monopoly was possible because the most important ingredient to the cards, the images of the professional athletes, could be signed to exclusive contracts that courts would uphold.

If a monopoly could be re-established by either company, kids would only have one type of baseball and football card to buy and that company would get all the sales. The winning company could steadily reduce design, production and marketing costs and increase the price of the product.

 Bowman bounces back from 1953

It had been three years since Topps had launched its surprise attack on the Philadelphia-based Bowman Gum Company, shaking up the entire card collecting hobby with its groundbreaking 1952 Topps baseball card set. It was the 1952 Topps Baseball card set that catapulted Topps into a lead over Bowman in the baseball card market, one that they would never relinquish. By 1954, Topps baseball card related gum sales had surpassed the one million dollar mark.

The good news for Bowman was that their revenues from baseball cards rebounded in 1954 to $602,000, which was exactly double the sales of 1953, but far less than their 1951 sales revenues, back in the days before Topps was a serious competitor. Bowman had also reduced production costs in 1954 by issuing a more cost effective set of cards.

As noted earlier, Bowman was also doing a better job of signing the star players of the day to exclusive contracts than Topps, but Bowman was still finishing second in sales. Second place is not a good position to finish, especially when it is a two team race.

Bowman as a company was still strong, but was definitely feeling the competitive pressure around it in the market. Sales of all Bowman products had declined from over $3 million in 1951 to just less than $2.5 million in 1954.

When Haelan Labs bought the Bowman Gum Co. in 1952, they ended up getting much more than they initially bargained for. In 1951, Bowman Gum was the leading bubble gum producer in a growing, profitable market niche, including the sports cards business that was well-protected by exclusive contracts. This was the company Haelan thought that they were buying, but when Topps issued its 1952 set, everything had changed. Bowman was now losing money and was locked in the fight of its life, with an aggressive and innovative competitor. Worse yet, baseball cards and bubble gum were an area market in which Haelan executives had little experience.

Warren Bowman had succeeded at one of the hardest decisions that any entrepreneur has to make. He had cashed out of the business that he built at just the right time.



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.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

1954 Bowman: A star-packed variation



by +Dean Hanley
The 1954 Bowman baseball card set has 224 total cards that are printed in two series: #1-128 and #129-224. Both series were printed in roughly the same numbers. Bowman employed some creativity in its numbering of the set. There is a sixteen card rotation, meaning that one team, in this case, the Yankees, would have card numbers 1, 17, 33, 49, etc, while the second team, the Red Sox, would have 2, 18, 34, 50, etc. This team rotation arrangement is not seen in any other vintage set.

Variations Galore

While nearly every baseball card set has a few variations, due to misprints and small errors the 1954 Bowman issue easily sets the record for post-war vintage sets. As for the printing mistakes in the 1954 Bowman baseball card set, a surprising 40 out of 224 total cards have some sort of variation.

The most prominent and valuable variation is the #66 Ted Williams card. Williams had been flying jets in Korea and returned to baseball for the 1954 season. Once home, Williams signed an exclusive contract with Topps. The Bowman Company, which had rushed to get its set out before Topps, had to withdraw the Williams card and replace it with Jimmy Piersall, who was already featured on card #210. Due to the extreme rarity and high cost of the #66 Williams card, the standard 1954 Bowman set is considered complete without the Williams card, when it contains both the #66 and #210 Jimmy Piersall cards.

Bowman’s hurry to get its set released before Topps resulted in many other variations in addition to the Williams/Piersall variation on card #66. Variation cards have differences in statistics, birthplaces, trades and even answers to the quiz questions on the back.

One example is the #12 Roy McMillan card. The first card that Bowman released for McMillan has the following stat line: 551 season ABs, 1290 lifetime ABs. The correct stat line should read 557 season ABs, 1290 lifetime ABs. Although this seems like a minute difference to the casual observer, Bowman had to correct similar mistakes 40 different times throughout the set.

Lots of established stars, but few star rookies


With Don Larsen being the only well-known rookie card in the set, Bowman clearly lost the annual battle of “set with the best rookie cards” to Topps. Although rookie cards are much more valued by today’s collectors, the 1954 Topps set featured Hall-of-Famers: Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, and Tommy Lasorda. It should be noted, that Lasorda made his name as a manager and added little star power to the Topps set in 1954.

Despite its lack of rookies, Bowman did a superior job of getting commitments of the baseball’s best players to appear on their cards. There were eleven Hall of Fame players that were exclusively in the Bowman set in 1954: Roy Campanella, Bob Feller, Nellie Fox, George Kell, Ralph Kiner, Bob Lemon, Mickey Mantle, Pee Wee Reese, Robin Roberts, Red Schoendiest and Enos Slaughter. Comparatively, the 1954 Topps set only had 3 veteran players signed to exclusive contracts (not counting the rookies) that were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame: Ted Williams, Warren Spahn, and Jackie Robinson.

The loss of Ted Williams in 1954 was a shock to Bowman, despite clearly getting a larger number of the games’ stars to sign exclusive contracts. Some other stars that went exclusively with Bowman in 1954 were: Bobby Avila, Gus Bell, Lew Burdette, Sal Maglie, Smokey Burgess, Billy Cox, Al Dark, Del Ennis, Carl Erskine, Dee Fondy, Carl Furillo, Whitey Lockman, Gil McDonald, Jimmy Piersall, Minnie Minoso, Eddie Yost, Jerry Coleman and Billy Pierce.

One big star was still missing from both the 1954 Topps and Bowman sets. In a declaration reminiscent of Honus Wagner, Stan Musial did not want his picture on a card. He continued to hold out for another four years before finally appearing in the 1958 Topps set.

Completely New Card Design 

The Bowman Gum Co. was still reeling from the loss of market share that they suffered in 1952 and again in 1953. In both 1953 and 1954, Topps took the previous year’s card design and added features to make it even better. Unfortunately, Bowman did not have that luxury in 1954, as the color photography used in 1953 proved to be way too expensive to expand upon.

The 1954 Bowman baseball cards demonstrated a clear attempt to scale back the production costs that derailed the 1953 Bowman in mid-issue. For this set, Bowman again used the painted portrait for the player’s image except chose to put it on the larger-sized card. Bowman tried to emulate the “pure color” concept that they employed on the 1953 Bowman cards, but without the beautiful color photography the technique fell short. As a result, the 1954 Bowman baseball card design was very plain when compared to the exciting design of the Topps issue. The 1954 Bowman card also has a colored box at the bottom of the card that contained a facsimile of the player’s autograph.

The main problem with the portraits on the 1954 Bowman cards is that they make poor use of the entire canvas of the card. The pictures of the player’s faces seem too small and do not pop off the card, especially compared to the 1955 Topps cards. The smaller sized portrait leaves too much “dead” space on the card. Also, whereas the backgrounds on the 1953 Bowman baseball cards catch the viewer’s eye and add to the charm and beauty of the set. The blurry, painted backgrounds on the 1954 Bowman cards have the opposite effect. They completely fail to catch one’s eye or interest. By simply increasing the size of the player’s portrait, the Bowman cards would have been much more appealing.

The back of the 1954 Bowman baseball cards are even more disappointing than the card fronts. The only new features added to the cards were trivia questions, but most of the questions and answers are not interesting enough to bother reading. Although the card backs contain player information and statistics, they fall far short of the exciting card backs of the 1954 Topps set. The grey cardboard that the 1954 Bowman cards were printed on (probably another effort to cut production costs), made the very plain card backs look even darker and less attractive.

Summary

The 1954 Bowman baseball card set was issued at the pinnacle of the Bubble Gum War and was a good representation of the strategies employed by both combatants. Bowman dedicated more effort (and money) to securing the images of the marquee players of the day to place on their cards, while Topps did a better job of signing the young exciting rookies to exclusive contracts. Players such as: Aaron, Banks, Kaline and Kuehn. Topps also focused on designing and producing a more attractive baseball card that had far less printing errors.

Bowman was clearly winning the battle to get the most stars of the game onto their cards, but it is a shame that Bowman did not design a better product on which to display the images of these marquee players. This missed opportunity resulted in yet another second place finish; in both popularity and sales for the Bowman Baseball Card Set in 1954. The clock was ticking for Bowman, both in time and in money, and they were beginning to run both short.










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.