For a little piece of cardboard, baseball cards sure have a knack for mimicking the professional baseball industry itself.
There are, for example, many points of entry into collecting baseball cards. I can’t recall how I inherited my first set; they were already in the house when my young brain came online. My first memories of those 1986 Topps cards, with the team name in big block letters against a black background, predate the first baseball game I ever played or attended. Cecil Fielder is forever a promising skinny Blue Jays rookie taking batting practice. That 2½-by-3½ inch rectangle is the first thing my brain ever conjured when I closed my eyes and thought “baseball.”
These formative memories translate directly from one generation to the next, with a history long enough to bond grandparents to grandchildren. Traditions change, but opening a fresh pack of baseball cards has remained remarkably consistent. If you’re like me, it might have been your first point of entry to baseball itself.
That’s why the recent news of Topps’ impending decline in the baseball card market came as such a shock. The memorabilia company Fanatics will reportedly hold an exclusive contract with MLB and the MLB Players’ Association to produce baseball cards after Topps’ deal expires in 2022.
Topps has been producing baseball cards continuously since 1951. It’s a small but important piece of scaffolding in the structure of baseball history.
“I think there are for me, a surprising number of people for whom it has to be Topps,” said Nick Vossbrink, a collector who co-chairs the Society for American Baseball Research’s baseball card committee with Jason Schwartz. “I wasn’t expecting that when that happened.
“I can understand it emotionally. It would be like if Disney disappeared. It’s a brand, but it’s more than that too. If Amazon took over Disneyland … it would be different emotionally. There’s a certain amount of that with Topps.”
“There are collectors my age who buy the factory set every year because they have every Topps set since, let’s say, 1966 on their shelves. They keep their streak alive.”
Schwartz began collecting in 1978, when the sight of Steve Garvey was the dream every time he opened a new Topps pack. Vossbrink started collecting a few years later, in 1987. Those years are useful to this story.
Many of the brands that were popular by 1987 – Donruss, Fleer, Upper Deck, Score – were not producing baseball cards in 1978. That’s because on Aug. 15, 1980 U.S. District Judge Clarence C. Newcomer ended a lawsuit brought nine years earlier by Fleer, ruling that Topps could no longer monopolize the baseball card industry.
So it was that the so-called “junk wax” era of card collecting began. Rival brands flooded the market with unique designs and cards. The cards themselves had little value, since so few of them were actually scarce, but collecting proliferated as a hobby like never before.
This golden age of collecting fizzled in the 1990s. Here again, art imitated life: the 1994 strike eroded baseball’s popularity among card collectors. Suddenly the core product was unpopular, and the marketplace was crowded. Vossbrink stopped collecting after the 1994 strike himself.
“We grew up with choice,” he said. “It got to be too much choice. Three to five sets, OK. Twelve or 20 (sets) by 1994 was too much.”
Several of the upstart brands fell off the map amid a series of mergers and acquisitions. Flash forward to 2009. Topps inked an agreement with MLB that allowed it to produce the only baseball cards featuring the logos of major league teams. So it is today.
At the time the deal was struck, Topps’ stated focus was to create a product that appealed to kids – a direct rebuke to the lucrative collecting industry that changed cards from a hobby for children into an investment vehicle for adults. The change back never happened, Vossbrink said.
“The stuff for kids is not for kids, which is disappointing for me as a parent,” he said. “They never came down in price. They still expect you to spend $5 or $10 per pack. You also can’t buy them online, which also makes it hard for kids.”
Therein lies the irony of the reaction to the Topps-Fanatics handoff.
“Before the transaction, if you were to survey collectors and ask how Topps is doing, you’d get a long list of complaints,” Schwartz said. “Everything’s a cash grab, you can no longer collect your favorite player, they’re impossible to find in stores. There’s so much that people complain about today. We can at least imagine under new ownership and control, so many of those problems are solved. Equally, we could say, they’re bad now and they could get worse.”
Added Vossbrink: “If Fanatics did something where you could find (their cards) at any store like you could in the ’80s, and buy a pack of cards for 2 bucks – maybe there’s a coupon code, get your T-shirt from your favorite team and get 5 percent off your pack of cards – I’d have no problems.”
Fans of Topps, it seems, are a lot like fans of any MLB team. They love their team. They also love to complain.
Now their team is gone – sort of. Topps can still make baseball cards without an MLB license. People still buy Donruss cards, after all.“They’re not bad,” Vossbrink said. “They just look basically the same every year – this one looks a little like 1987, this looks a little like 1990. They don’t have logos. Their checklist is maybe six guys per team. Some people collect it because it’s more affordable.”
I reached out to a Fanatics executive for comment, hoping to deliver my valuable market research. The message was not returned; the deal hasn’t been publicly announced.
To an extent, Fanatics doesn’t have to listen to me or any avid collectors. Like Topps, they will soon be the only game in town. By monopolizing the baseball card market, whichever brand holds the exclusive license with MLB and the MLBPA is assured of being the only game in town. They can toy with or preserve the card-collecting tradition however they see fit.
“I’ve called Topps ‘the card of record’ for a couple years now, in that it’s been the set that marks and signifies each season,” Vossbrink said. “It stands in for a record of who was who, who was important, what baseball valued at the time. While it’s sort of silly to have anything tied up in one specific brand, there is something to it in that we all sort of assumed it would continue on forever, even though that was never going to be the case.”