Can Major League Baseball and Topps save baseball cards?

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Aug. 11 2009 4:33 PM

Can Topps Save Baseball Cards?

Major League Baseball just signed an exclusive deal with the legendary card maker. Bad idea.

Last week, Major League Baseball announced that it had struck a deal to make Topps the game's exclusive trading-card maker. This news was probably greeted with horror in Carlsbad, Calif., the home of Upper Deck. Topps' younger rival will maintain its licensing arrangement with the baseball players' union, meaning it will be free to print cards of Mark Buehrle wearing his deer-hunter's camouflage but not his White Sox uniform. For Upper Deck, the deal looks a lot like a death sentence, at least for its baseball division. But what does this new arrangement augur for MLB and Topps—will handing the entire field over to a single manufacturer turn around the ailing baseball card industry?

I wouldn't bet my mint condition Cal Ripken Jr. rookie card on it. The card business has been in a steep decline ever since the 1994 baseball strike. As children fled the hobby for Pokémon and video games, card makers have increasingly relied on adult collectors willing to shell out big bucks for flashy, premium cardboard. Baseball's solution to deal with this bloat has been to scale back on the number of producers. In 2005, MLB ended its arrangement with Donruss. (That same year, Philadelphia-based Fleer went under on its own.) The move to drop Upper Deck is just the league's latest attempt to make store shelves less cluttered and more inviting to kids.

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But the problem with the business isn't that there have been too many card producers. It's that there have been too many sets—and too many high-priced ones at that. The card makers, Topps included, have not acted judiciously with their production rights. In the long run, I fear that giving Topps a monopoly on baseball cards might hurt the hobby more than it helps.

I've spent much of the last two years writing a book about the history of baseball cards, and I now know more about the history of baseball-card monopolies than I'd like to admit. Topps has been here before. In the early 1950s, the scrappy Brooklyn firm waged a fierce battle with Bowman Gum for the hearts and minds of grade-schoolers. Über-nerds like me refer to this as the Card Wars era. Topps proved to be a wily and relentless competitor, going so far as to develop its own scouting system so that it could sign rising stars to exclusive deals. Jim Bouton, the former Yankees hurler and Ball Four author, told me that he and all his minor-league teammates had Topps contracts put under their noses as soon as they showed up to spring training. The players, Bouton said, "lined up like they were getting their flu shots." They all signed away their rights for the token $5, known then as "steak money."

Topps bowled over Bowman, buying out its opponent in 1956 for a relative pittance. The company racked up so many exclusive player contracts that other gum makers couldn't get into this newly lucrative business. Fleer was in a position similar to Upper Deck's unenviable one today—it had to work around Topps' airtight contracts, leading to some comically bad card sets. In 1959, the only player Fleer managed to sign was Ted Williams. The company rolled out an 80-card issue featuring nothing but Teddy Ballgame—"probably 79 more cards of Ted Williams than anyone wanted that year," as a former Fleer executive told me. (The dreary card titles included "Williams Slowed by Injury," "Ted Decides Retirement Is 'No Go,' " and "Ted Relaxes.") Fleer didn't fare much better with the baseball cards they packaged with low-sugar cookies  to circumvent Topps' exclusive right to stuff packs with gum or candy. One Topps salesman gleefully joked that the cookies tasted like dog biscuits.

The idea of a baseball-card monopoly may sound ridiculous, but it was no laughing matter to the federal government. In the early 1960s, the Federal Trade Commission carried out a long and costly investigation to determine whether Topps was violating antitrust laws. Lawyers for Topps and the government held forth on the "bubbleability" of gum and the "flippability" of cards, among other issues. Ultimately, Topps was cleared of wrongdoing, and the company dominated the field until a less-favorable court ruling in 1980 finally opened the door for Fleer, Donruss, and eventually Upper Deck.

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