15 Highly Collectible Facts About Topps

slgckc via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
slgckc via Flickr // CC BY 2.0 / slgckc via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Founded as a gum manufacturer in 1938 by the Shorin family of Brooklyn to remedy their ailing tobacco interests, the Topps Company—named for their desire to be “tops” in sales—has become synonymous with sports collecting. From pioneering the modern baseball card to inciting controversy with the Garbage Pail Kids, the company has rarely seen a dull moment. Here’s everything you need to know about some of the most expensive cardboard around.

1. Early Topps cards wanted you to add water. 

After spending most of their first decade devoted to chewing gum—including their legendary Bazooka bubblegum—Topps decided to offer more incentive for customers to pass up competition like Dubble Bubble. In 1949, they began to package gum with trading cards dubbed Hocus Focus that appeared blank. When kids lightly moistened the surface with water and pressed it against the “blue magic paper," images of baseball greats like Jackie Robinson and actors like Clark Gable would appear. A single card and gum piece was priced at one penny; six pieces of gum and six cards cost a nickel.

2. The Topps gum was hard for a reason. 

While the highly elastic, block-shaped Bazooka bubblegum proved to be a delicious hit with consumers, the rigid sticks of gum inserted into early trading card packs proved largely unappealing to developing jaws. The reason? Owing to the manufacturing process, the sticks had to be hard enough to be mechanically injected into the card packs without breaking. In 1992, the company finally discontinued the insert after collectors complained it left a residue on their cards.

3. Topps made a board game. 

Before growing to dominate the baseball card scene, Topps was eager to try out different marketing efforts that could expand the brand beyond gum. In 1948, Topps commissioned a private mint to manufacture a series of metal coins featuring all the presidents up to Truman. The coins were not popular sellers, so Topps used their remaining stock to populate a board game titled Meet the Presidents. Released in 1953, the game consisted of trivia questions that players could use to accumulate the coins.

4. Topps invented the modern baseball card. 

Until Topps employee Sy Berger got his hands on them, baseball cards were little more than simple monochrome portraits that had been largely unchanged since their debut in the 19th century. Berger, a card designer, tweaked the template to include a color border, a faux autograph, team logos, and biographical and statistical information on the card back beginning in 1951 and 1952. In 2004, Topps honored Berger with his own card.

5. Unfortunately, the first Topps baseball card was a disaster.

Before Berger perfected the baseball card, the company’s first attempt was not a hit with fans. With smaller photos framed by different baseball plays, collectors could use them as playing cards to simulate a game. While innovative, kids weren’t interested; the taffy that replaced the gum—to avoid legal issues with a rival, Bowman, who claimed to have exclusivity in gum sets—absorbed the card varnish, leaving a disgusting aftertaste. After ironing out the wrinkles, Berger’s 1952 set was a hit. The company bought Bowman in 1956, and enjoyed decades of card domination.

6. Topps dumped priceless cards into the ocean. 

While Topps’s foray into baseball was a success, the company still had leftover stock from its 1952 series that immediately became outdated once the season was over. After printing a second run, Berger decided to scuttle more than two million cards by hiring garbage trucks to load the cards onto a barge and dump them into the Atlantic Ocean off New York Bay. Among the castoffs: Mickey Mantle’s 1952 "rookie" card (his actual rookie card was a Bowman from the year before). Owing to their scarcity, a Mantle in pristine condition can go for well over $1 million.

7. Mars Attacks! got Topps in big trouble.

Topps had long supplemented its sport card efforts with entertainment offerings, but a 1962 series about an alien invasion proved to be too ambitious for its time. Mars Attacks! was a hand-painted collection by artist Norman Saunders depicting Martians skewering human forces in a hostile Earth takeover. Owing to the violent content, a Connecticut district attorney phoned Topps cautioning them against distributing the material in his state. Fearing wider negative publicity, they stopped producing the cards. (A 50th anniversary set was issued in 2012.)

8. Topps once issued an x-rated Star Wars card. 

In the late 1970s, there was no hotter film license than Star Wars, and Topps was fortunate enough to secure the licensing for a trading card series before the film became a blockbuster. In an attempt to flesh out multiple releases, Topps employees combed through every available still image in the Lucasfilm archives. When they found a photo of C-3PO, no one appeared to notice that the droid appeared to sport robot genitalia--a likely result of a costume malfunction. An untold number of the cards made it into circulation. Once the mistake was discovered, Topps airbrushed the offending portion out.

9. Topps marketed some disgusting candy. 

Long before Topps’s Garbage Pail Kids sent parents into hysterics, the company had struck a nerve in the 1970s with Garbage Can-Dy, a plastic trash pail filled with Pez-type treats shaped like rotting fish and dirty socks. They also marketed Barfo, a repulsive dispenser with a human head and an accordion-shaped body that vomited out gelatinous goop.

10. Topps offered Helen Keller's autograph. 

Collectors have long been enticed into buying packs of cards with the promise of happening upon a “chase,” or limited-edition, card with an athlete’s autograph or game-used uniform swatch. In 2009, Topps expanded that notion to include historical figures, including the blind and deaf disabilities advocate Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, and Kurt Vonnegut.

11. Topps printed the world's largest baseball card. 

In a 2013 promotional stunt, Topps unveiled a 60-foot-by-90-foot card of Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder near the team’s spring training center in Lakeland, Florida.

12. Buzz Aldrin once sued Topps.

Topps thought it was honoring astronaut Buzz Aldrin when it included a photograph of his moon walk—Aldrin, however, was annoyed rather than flattered. A fierce protector of his likeness, he sued Topps in 2010 for using his image without permission. According to the Los Angeles Times, Topps countered that the First Amendment protected them from retaliation when including Aldrin in a series called "American Heritage: Heroes Edition." The court agreed in 2011, ruling that trading cards are “expressive works.” Aldrin dropped his appeal in exchange for not being sent a bill for the company’s legal fees.  

13. Topps also got into comics. 

The comic book explosion of the 1990s was not lost on Topps, who felt that the impressive distribution system they already had in place from their card business would give them an advantage over the competition. In 1992, they announced the debut of Topps Comics, a line featuring licensed adaptations (The X-Files, Friday the 13th) and concepts introduced by legendary artist Jack Kirby. The line folded in 1998.  

14. Topps sold cards that buyers didn't want to actually touch.

Eager to capitalize on the speculative market, in 2001 Topps offered consumers the option of purchasing cards via their website as “Initial Player Offerings,” or IPOs. Modeled after stocks, a buyer could choose to let Topps keep the card in storage so they could be traded or sold with other collectors at a later date. Barry Bonds “opened” at $9.50 and shot up to $28.90. While novel, the company ended the strategy in 2012.

15. Topps will print you a custom card. 

Part of the fun of becoming a professional athlete is getting your likeness emblazoned on a trading card. Unfortunately, that kind of talent is hard to come by. If you’re a weekend warrior, Topps is willing to fabricate a card with your photo, name, and statistics and print it on acid-free, laminated card stock. They’ll even accommodate mass quantities. If you order too many, remember: There’s always the Atlantic Ocean.