John Tassoni Jr. is a busy guy. He likes it that way.
He produces two trade newspapers and hosts a pair of talk shows. He’s a hockey official who also drove a Zamboni for 10 years. From 2001 to 2012, Tassoni was a Rhode Island state senator, serving on committees that tackled health care, housing and municipal government. He currently runs his own public relations firm in his native city of Smithfield and is heavily involved in labor issues, having served as a union president and mediator.
He is the publisher of The Smithfield Times, and last month he was appointed director of operations for the Substance Use and Mental Health Leadership Council of Rhode Island.
“I’m like an underdog guy,” Tassoni said from his office in Smithfield. “I like to save lives.”
That road to politics, labor and community activism was paved nearly 30 years ago, when Tassoni was a pressman for a company that printed millions of cards for Topps.
Topps contracted with Quebecor Inc. to print its sports and non-sports cards, continuing the agreement it had with Federated Lithographers-Printers. Federated was bought out by Montreal-based Quebecor in November 1989.
Tassoni worked from 1989 to 1998 at the Providence plant, first as a “floor guy” and then as a second pressman toiling on the third shift (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.).
“The presses were humongous,” Tassoni recalled.
So was the workload. The trading card business was booming and Topps cards were printed on seven presses around the clock.
“They printed sports cards. Sports and sports and more sports, then specialty cards like Desert Storm, comic cards, even those tiny Cracker Jack cards,” Tassoni said. “Trucks came in and out every day. Millions of cards were produced.”
When Tassoni first started at the company, the presses were fitted for cardboard. Then, Topps changed its paper stock from recycled cardboard to high gloss in the early 1990s to compete with Upper Deck, which hit the sports card market with a splash in 1989 with slick-looking cards on higher-quality card stock.
“The film was sent to us,” Tassoni said. “All we had to do was strip it in.”
That forced Quebecor to buy additional presses to keep up with the demand. Once the sheets were printed, cutting and packaging was done at the Topps plant in Pennsylvania.
Since baseball cards were viewed as valuable commodities by collectors – especially the uncut sheets Quebecor was producing in massive quantities — Tassoni said the printing operation had to remain a secret. Very few people in Providence outside of the company knew that Quebecor was printing the cards.
“There was high security,” he said. “We had to sign confidentiality agreements.”
That didn’t stop some employees from trying to sneak some product home.
“We had one kid who decided he’d take some sheets after every shift and roll them up and throw it in the Dumpster,” Tassoni said. “A friend would then pull up in a truck and take them away.
“They turned up at a yard sale,” Tassoni added. “The police set up a sting operation and caught him. He was selling them for $10 for a half sheet.”
Topps did give the printing employees an annual perk, with officials visiting annually to offer complete sets of cards at reduced rates.
During the 1990s. Quebecor went all in on the card production, giving employees the chance to work double- and triple-overtime shifts.
“We worked holidays. We put out a lot of product, good product,” Tassoni said. “We (workers) were making six figures.”
Topps was a demanding customer, too.
“Topps was very quality-oriented,” Tassoni said. “We all had to go to Pennsylvania to look at their plans – it was three days of quality control.
“It was fascinating.”
And then, Topps ended the contractual agreement, a move that eventually led to Quebecor closing its Providence plant in November 1998. By then, Tassoni was president of Providence Local 239-M of the Graphic Communications International Union. He had helped the 73 union workers at Quebecor to get streamlined schedules, for example.
“You’d go to the board every Thursday to check your shifts, and you wouldn’t know if you’d be working first or third shift,” he said. “You couldn’t plan your life.
“Divorce rates were high. We negotiated permanent shifts. We saved a lot of marriages.”
It was too late to salvage Tassoni’s first marriage, though.
“Oh yeah, (the scheduling) ruined mine,” said Tassoni, who remarried in 2001.
When the plant closed after a century of operation, it was “the most difficult time of my life,” Tassoni said, as 144 employees lost their jobs.
“I spent many nights in my backyard talking to my dogs,” he said. “It was an awful, awful time.”
Tassoni’s experience contacting politicians advocating better working conditions gave him the idea of running for office. In 2000 he ran for the Rhode Island state senate as a Democrat and unseated Republican incumbent Michael J. Flynn by 144 votes in a race that required a recount to certify Tassoni’s victory.
He spent the next 12 years in the Senate, sponsoring legislation that included a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” which allowed homeless people the right to seek and keep a job even if they didn’t have permanent housing; a bill that created stiffer penalties for cyberbullies; and a bill that set new guidelines and established penalties for people who failed to provide access to food, water and veterinary care for pets.
He also advocated fair labor practices, affordable health care and substance abuse treatment. His show, “Recovery Radio,” was the first radio program in Rhode Island to offer information for people suffering from alcohol and drug addictions.
“I had my ear to the ground,” he said.
A native of the Ocean State, Tassoni grew up loving sports, especially baseball and hockey. He was a catcher and a goalie. Hockey was his first love, so while he collected baseball cards, he also had a stash of Topps hockey cards.
“I was a rink rat,” Tassoni said.
His card collecting habits mirrored the times, when kids were not worried about the value of cards.
“Like a lot of other kids, I’d put my Mickey Mantles in my bicycle spokes,” Tassoni said. “Who knew?”
Tassoni rooted for the Red Sox and the Bruins. His favorite hockey player was a goalie, Bruins’ netminder Gerry Cheevers. Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Wayne Cashman also were favorites.
“My wife’s sister used to date Tony Esposito,” he said with a laugh.
It makes sense. Tony Esposito was also a goalie.
Tassoni’s father, John Sr., was a Yankees fan.
“Most Italians in Rhode Island were Yankees fans, especially because of Joe DiMaggio,” Tassoni said of his father, a self-employed carpenter who died in 2017. “We always had a rivalry, me and my dad.”
Tassoni kept his card collection until last Christmas, when he gave them to his four-year old grandson.
“They’re in a safe place for now,” he said, not wanting his grandson to mangle valuable cards like he did as a child.
Tassoni has framed proof sheets of 132 uncut cards — baseball and hockey — on his wall, a reminder of the days when he was a pressman.
“I’m hoping we can have a 20-year reunion with the guys,” he said.
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