Think “Topps” and most people think baseball but the truth is, the trading card side of the business always been about pop culture. If it’s entertainment or sports and people talk about it or like to collect it, the company is interested. If it’ll sell and the licensing is right, it’s a candidate for the company’s cards, both physical and digital. Entertainment and sports are both fair game.
Over the last 55 years, it seems, nothing’s changed.
Over the weekend, I ran across some interesting old newspaper stories on cards and collecting. One of those was from the March 23 edition of the L.A. Times. The gist of the story was about Topps’ ongoing need to fend off legal challenges to what some saw as a bubble gum card monopoly. It was a constant battle for Topps, which had ready and willing competitors standing by as well as a very curious Federal Trade Commission.
Cards, you see, had become big business. According to the story, Topps raked in $3.7 million in sales of baseball cards alone in 1960 (the equivalent of over $31 million today). Combine other trading cards and its confectionary products and they were doing $14 million a year.
As collectors know, baseball was only one element of the company’s business. They had started football and hockey card lines in the 1950s. In 1956, they had even tried a set of cards for the hottest entertainer in the world. Elvis cards, though, “didn’t go over too well” according to Executive Vice-President Joel Shorin.
The Beatles were a different story.
The boys from Liverpool were a hurricane that hit U.S. shores in February of 1964 but Topps was already all over it. They paid the band $20,000 (about $165,000 today) for the rights to use pictures and make a bubble gum card set that was already hitting the market. Topps would crank out wax, cello and rack packs of Beatles cards. Sales, according to Shorin were “very exciting.”
Shorin said the company printed “well over 200 million” Beatles cards.
But while the Beatles were crooning “Can’t Buy Me Love,” to an audience of screaming teens, card collectors were singing “Can’t Buy Me Cards” and John, Paul, George and Ringo were the cause.
“Normally we issue baseball cards during spring training with deliveries by March 1,” Shorin told the newspaper. “But this year we started a Beatle card line and had to delay baseball.”
It wasn’t clear how long the delay was (if you’re of retirement age or older, maybe you remember?), but with tens of millions of people tuning in to the Fab Four’s Ed Sullivan show appearances–many of them potential customers– it’s understandable that Topps’ primary focus in early 1964 was Beatles, not baseball.
And in fact, as Topps tried to stave off the FTC, not as many packs were being purchased. Shorin told the Times the company’s baseball sales had dropped from $3.7 million in 1960 to $2.2 million in 1963. They had a bit of competition from Fleer, which pushed out a short-lived set of cards packed with a cookie in the spring of ’63 and Post Cereal was still cranking out cards on the back of its boxes as well. Kids who liked cards and weren’t obsessed with baseball also had non-sports sets from Leaf to consider by that time.
Topps’ expenses included payments to players. For years, they had been signing up any promising minor leaguers to a $5 per year contract. Once a player reached the majors, he received $125 a year, payable in cash or goods from a catalog.
The Beatles, it seems, fared much better.