When Topps muscled its way past Bowman with its huge new designs in the early 1950s and put Bowman out of business, the company enjoyed a virtual monopoly for the next 25 years. The first 10 years of that deal with Major League Baseball allowed the company to profit handsomely with little regard for expenses beyond photography, printing, packaging and distribution. Royalties? Not even on the radar.
Miller, who died Tuesday at age 95, changed the landscape of how Major League Baseball players felt about trading cards.
Where they were once seen at a status symbol, cards now became an important source of revenue for the union and eventually helped players wean themselves away from the need for second jobs during the off-season. Salaries rose under Miller and so did royalties paid to players for the use of their image.
Before Miller, players were paid $5 for their first Topps contract. When they lasted a month in the big leagues, they received a $125 per year deal. Stay up for two and it was extended. A “bonus” is what Topps called it.
Players didn’t mind much because each year, Topps’ Sports Director Sy Berger came around to clubhouses and offered players the chance to pick something out of a catalog: a rifle, a TV, a set of luggage. The items were delivered to their door. Just another perk of being a pro ballplayer.
According to John Helyear’s book ‘Lords of the Realm’, Miller saw the arrangement as just another “blanket screwing of the players”. He thought they could do better if they were organized.
He was right.
Miller had already gotten a $120,000 check from Coca-Cola to use players’ images on the liners of bottle caps. Now, he set his sights on Topps.
In 1966 he met with the company and asked for a better deal. Topps refused and things went nowhere for nearly two years.
In the spring of 1968, Miller asked the players not to re-sign their baseball card contracts. Already having earned their trust, most obliged and Topps suddenly had no bargaining power.
On November 19, 1968, the players union signed a new team with Topps, spelled out in an eight-page contract that doubled the players’ yearly fee to $250 and gave the union 8% on card sales of up to $4 million and 10% on sales above $4 million. The first year of the deal, the union made $320,000 and those revenues would skyrocket over the next four decades.
Today, Topps has again become the sole producer of licensed cards but licensing revenue from the entire spectrum of cards and related collectibles is a huge part of the way baseball business is done.
Today’s players can thank Marvin Miller for that.