NEW YORK CITY -- Clay Luraschi inserts his key into the lock and turns the doorknob to the room -- the room where the Topps baseball card company stores copies of its original card sets.
I anticipated a hermetically sealed vault that includes a retina scan, heat sensors and an 18-digit random-generating security code. Instead it's simply a large supply room with cheap shelving cluttered with boxes and binders of baseball cards, generally two for each set. There are no museum-quality plastics cases, no humidity controls, no armed security guards. Some card sets are even pasted into the binders. The cards are so casually preserved that I'm surprised the entire 1968 Topps set isn't clothespinned to the spokes of a Schwinn Sting-Ray.
|Page 2's Card Days|
• The unofficial history of baseball cards|
There are so many baseball cards spread around the room, it's a wonder my mother hasn't come in and thrown them all away.
Luraschi is giving me a tour of the Topps baseball card headquarters in Manhattan, which is a bit like being allowed inside the gates of Willy Wonka's factory. Only instead of Oompa-Loompas waddling around, there are teams of 20- and 30-something baseball fans and art designers studying computer screens of statistics amidst desks scattered with old cards. One editor is poring through minor league stats, searching for the next rising star. Another is looking through photos of Ted Williams for use in a new set of cards. A designer shows me how they use Adobe Photoshop to place new caps and uniforms onto players who changed teams over the winter -- and in Johnny Damon's case, they also give him a George Steinbrenner-approved shave and haircut with a single keystroke.
Is this a great place to work or what? Imagine getting paid to look at baseball cards all day. The only way it could be better is if their 401(k) packages included Albert Pujols rookie cards. The only drawback would be if the same people who make the gum also cook the food in the cafeteria.
"You tell someone you work for Topps, and that's all you'll talk about the rest of the night," Luraschi, the company's spokesman, says with a smile. "They always ask if we still put gum in the cards and if I can get them free cards."
Everyone acts that way when they visit Topps. Even the players. David Ortiz recently stopped by the office and walked away with bags of cards.
Who can blame Big Papi? The odds are stacked against a player reaching the major leagues. But in some ways it's even harder to get on a big league baseball card. While almost every top prospect gets a minor league card -- "That was the biggest moment in my career coming out of Double-A; I really thought I had made it," Gary Matthews Jr. says of his first minor league card -- not every major leaguer gets a card. A-Rod gets multiple cards every year; a middle reliever with a small-market team may not get a single one.
"Every spring training I'll go into a clubhouse and hear someone say, 'Dude, I haven't been on a card in, like, three years,'" Topps rep Adam Zucker says. "You'd be surprised how important it is to them. You get heat for it. You get cussed out. There's a guy, I won't say his name, but he was really getting on me. He was going, 'I've been in the big leagues for 12 years. I have a 3.65 career ERA. I have this many holds. And you're telling me I can't get on a stinking baseball card?'
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Al Williams (not sure of the year). There's a great cartoon on the back that shows Williams with a rifle and the caption: "Al is a freedom fighter in Nicaragua in the offseason."|
"And I just said, 'Dude, you're on the Pirates.'"
At least a Pirates pitcher could count on being pictured in the team photo. Not so if he were with the Royals. Every year Topps prints a team photo card for every club. Been doing it for decades. But this year, the Royals' team card is just a photo of the stadium in Kansas City. It seems that for some reason, a Topps photographer didn't shoot the team on photo day during spring training. So a Topps rep called the Royals to see if they could use their team photo instead. The only problem was, he says, Kansas City told him it didn't bother to take a team photo, either.
(Jason Varitek doesn't have a Topps baseball card, either, though that is his choice -- he declines to sign a contract with Topps. Zucker says he isn't sure why, but that it stems from Varitek's card in the 1992 Team USA set.)
Being on a card might be priceless, but it doesn't bring a big paycheck. The licensing contract specifies that each player gets $500 for the use of his likeness on a baseball card. That's it. That barely covers a player's tip money for strippers. "There's no room for negotiations," Zucker says. "It doesn't matter who you are. Everyone gets the same."
Actually, as is usually the case, everyone is the same but Barry Bonds. Because he opted out of the union licensing contract, he was free to cut his own deal with Topps (which he did).
The sticks of gum inserted into old packs of baseball cards were as chewable as a ping pong paddle, but they somehow produced a speculative bubble larger than the Astrodome. And then it burst. Card shops that sprang up like Starbucks shops in a later era closed like steel mills a few years thereafter when the market became glutted. Companies produced so many cards and so many brands of cards that even the most knowledgeable collectors struggled to keep them straight. At one point there were as many as 90 brands on the shelves. Which was a big problem, because who really wanted eight different Joe Randa cards?
The casual fans, particularly kids, were so overwhelmed that many simply stopped collecting cards, which (naturally) crippled the industry. Annual sales dropped from around $1.2 billion at the peak of the craze to perhaps a quarter of that.
"My dad was a designer for Upper Deck, and I had hundreds of Ken Griffey Jr. cards. Hundreds," Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells said during an All-Star Game interview. "I could have paid for college with them. But not now."
This might be a good time to point out that the Topps headquarters is right down the street from the New York Stock Exchange.
The market correction could happen this year, primarily because the competition has been reduced to just two companies, Topps and Upper Deck. Fleer went bankrupt last year, and Major League Baseball didn't renew its licensing agreement with Donruss in an attempt to further reduce the amount of product.
"We're getting back to making cards for kids," Topps vice president Warren Friss says. "We've got to build back our base and it's not going to come from adult collectors -- it's going to come by building back the kids."
Which is not to say there isn't a dazzling array of cards to buy. Topps has a set featuring authentic autographs and bits of game-used bats and jerseys that sells for $75 a pack. If that sounds steep, consider that the company is working on a set of premium cards that will sell for -- better remove the gum from your mouth for this -- $250 a pack. That's right, $250 a pack. Well, "pack" is a poor description. The cards come in a cherrywood box (though for $250 they should come with their own numbered Swiss bank account). There will be only 10 copies of each card in the set, and they will include an authentic autograph, even from dead players such as Ted Williams by taking a signature off something else and skillfully transferring it to the card.
(Using this same process, Topps also put out a historic world figure set that included autographed cards of Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller. Sure, that sounds impressive, but I just know that if I bought a pack of world figure cards I'd never get Churchill or FDR. Instead, I would wind up with a couple dozen Warren G. Hardings.)
Friss estimates that sales are up 20 percent to 25 percent for Topps this year. At least that's what I think he says. I'm only half-listening because I've noticed an uncut sheet of 1968 baseball cards he has framed along his office wall. I can't help but notice that down near the lower left-hand corner of the sheet is a Nolan Ryan rookie card. Beyond mint condition.
"I never noticed this before," Friss says, "but do you see how this sheet also has Jim Fregosi's card? Ryan and Fregosi on the same sheet, the two guys who got traded for each other. That's pretty cool."
Yes, it is. Friss, Luraschi and I just stare at the sheet, noting each player ("Look, there's Joe Morgan as an Astro"), discussing their careers (Ryan is paired with Jerry Koosman, giving their rookie card a combined 546 career victories) and growing smiles so wide, it's as if our mothers just bought us a case of wax packs and Popsicles from the grocery store.