Mark Armour is the director of SABR's Baseball Biography Project. He was the recipient of SABR's highest honor, the Bob Davids Award, in 2008 and the Henry Chadwick Award, honoring baseball's greatest researchers, in 2014. His most recent book, written with Dan Levitt, is In Pursit of Pennants—Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball (Nebraska, 2015). He has written or co-written several other books and many articles for publication. For more information, visit his website mark-armour.net.
Way back at the beginning of this series I boldly proclaimed that before I wrapped up I was going to crown the best card set of Topps’ monopoly years, and I have not yet done that. Before I do, I wanted to pass along a few points you should consider before you inevitably disagree with me.
Although Fleer had failed its legal challenges to Topps in the 1960s it continued to keep its hands in the baseball memorabilia game, selling team stickers or cards honoring past World Series with bubblegum in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1975 Fleer asked Topps permission to market stickers or stamps of current players. When Topps refused, Fleer filed suit against both Topps and the Players Association to try to break the monopoly.
Topps began naming an All-Star rookie team in 1959 and has been doing so ever since. For many of these years, they designated these honorees the following year by putting a trophy on their card. I always thought this was a great feature of the card set, partly because the trophies were always a bit of a surprise—in the days before ESPN and the Internet, we had no knowledge who Topps had named.
For Christmas in 1968, my Grandma Armour gave me a card locker that I could use to hold my baseball cards. There was a slot for each team, with the American League on the left and National League on the right, and the 20 teams sorted alphabetically within the leagues. The card locker contained two extra slots on each side for specialty cards (leaders, World Series cards, etc.) but the four new expansion teams immediately took these slots. Thus, I usually kept these speciality cards separately.
The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) was formed in 1954 but was nothing more than a house union for the next dozen years. The way it operated was something like this: A couple of times a year, a few player representatives met with some owner representatives and made a few requests, like “the shower heads in Cincinnati aren’t putting out enough pressure.” The owners would come back in a few months having resolved some of the issues. The players had a pension, which mainly came from the TV rights to the All-Star Game, and little else.
One fine day in the summer of 1979 my friend Lou and I were sitting in the grandstand behind first base at Fenway Park, when a plane flew overhead carrying an advertising banner. Nothing unusual about that, except that this plane was advertising Fenway Sportscards, giving an address on Commonwealth Avenue that we knew was right in Kenmore Square, less than a mile away. Lou and I had met early in our just-completed freshman year of college and had bonded over, among other things, our childhoods of collecting baseball cards.
In December 1965 the Cincinnati Reds traded Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles, a deal that had a large impact on the baseball scene over the next few years. The good people at Topps, who were putting together the photos for their 1966 baseball card set at the time, had a problem on their hands. One of Topps’ primary goals every year was to show each of their 400 to 600 subjects fully decked out in the uniform of his current team. Topps likely had a few dozen photos of Robinson in their files but obviously none of them wearing an Orioles uniform.
By the early 1960s the Topps baseball card monopoly had driven many bubblegum makers out of business. The days of kids buying gum and getting a free card were long gone—more likely the gum was never being chewed at all. This state of affairs was particularly troubling to Fleer, a Philadelphia-based company whose “Double Bubble” gum had kicked off the industry in 1928 and was its leader until overtaken by Topps’ “Bazooka” in the 1960s.
“Baseball reminds me of a guy with an ice pick in his inner ear. His equilibrium is shot. He walks like a punch-drunk pug. Any minute you expect him to fall on his face. And when baseball finally does fall, do not weep. Just throw some dirt over the body. Take the dirt from the pitcher’s mound. That’ll be appropriate. Pitching is the name of the guy who stuck the ice pick in baseball’s ear. Though the pitchers have had their accessories. Lots of them.” Arnold Hano, in the November 1968 issue of SPORT.