The late Sy Berger, who reinvented the baseball card for the baby boom generation and transformed it into a staple of baby boom culture, has been elected to the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals.
The Reliquary, a Southern California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering an appreciation of American art and culture through the context of baseball history, says Berger topped balloting for its Shrine, the organization’s equivalent to the Baseball Hall of Fame.The Reliquary often takes a light-hearted approach to its work and its ceremony but also recognizes the larger impact of various individuals associated with baseball.
Rather than honor the best or most impactful players, managers or executives, the Reliquary’s Board of Directors often elects those who have generated attention or had a strong presence in one way or another. Also elected Tuesday were former Pacific Coast League slugging star Steve Bilko and former Dodger Glenn Burke, the first player to publicly acknowledge being gay. The three will be formally inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals in a public ceremony on Sunday, July 19, at the Donald R. Wright Auditorium in the Pasadena Central Library, Pasadena, California.
Of the 50 eligible candidates on the 2015 ballot, Berger received the highest voting percentage, being named on 33% of the ballots returned. It was the fifth year he appeared on the Reliquary’s Shrine ballot. Berger (1923-2014) was instrumental in turning an insignificant childhood diversion into an important, and highly profitable, facet of American culture.
Born in the Bronx, just blocks from Yankee Stadium, Berger joined the Brooklyn-based Topps Chewing Gum Company as an assistant sales manager in 1947 and headed its sports department for half a century. During his tenure, he designed and oversaw the production of some of the most innovative and revered baseball cards of all-time. He is often called the “Father of the Modern Day Baseball Card” for his work on the 1952 Topps baseball set, which he designed (with help from Woody Gelman) on his kitchen table and which for the first time incorporated team logos along with facsimile signatures, statistics, and personal information on the players. This same format continues to the present day.
That first series was issued with an initial run of 310 cards, followed later in the year by a supplementary series that ran the final card count to 407. This set included one of the most sought-after baseball cards of the era, Mickey Mantle’s first Topps card (#311), many of which were dumped into the Atlantic Ocean when leftover boxes were removed from the warehouse.
Berger signed the players to contracts, arranged for photographs, and wrote copy for all the cards. He soon became the face of the Topps Company to ballplayers.
In short time, Topps bubble gum production ceded pride of place to baseball card manufacturing as the juvenile mania for baseball cards grew. Berger would remain with Topps as an employee for 50 years (1947-1997), and would serve as vice-president, and then consultant and board member. He was still working as the company’s principle liaison between the players, teams, and leagues until his retirement in 2003.
The three electees will join 48 other baseball luminaries who have been inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals since elections began in 1999, including, Jim Abbott, Dick Allen, Roger Angell, Emmett Ashford, Moe Berg, Yogi Berra, Ila Borders, Jim Bouton, Jim Brosnan, Bill Buckner, Roberto Clemente, Steve Dalkowski, Dizzy Dean, Rod Dedeaux, Jim Eisenreich, Dock Ellis, Eddie Feigner, Mark Fidrych, Curt Flood, Ted Giannoulas, Josh Gibson, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Pete Gray, William “Dummy” Hoy, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Bill James, Dr. Frank Jobe, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Roger Maris, Marvin Miller, Minnie Minoso, Manny Mota, Lefty O’Doul, Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, Jimmy Piersall, Pam Postema, Jackie Robinson, Rachel Robinson, Lester Rodney, Pete Rose, Casey Stengel, Luis Tiant, Fernando Valenzuela, Bill Veeck, Jr., Maury Wills, Kenichi Zenimura, and Don Zimmer.