The Topps Company, which is one of the world’s largest producers of collectible sports cards has not always been a sports card company. If we look far into the past, we find that Topps actually started business as American Leaf Tobacco in the late 1800’s. As World War I broke out, followed by the Great Depression, tobacco supplies were getting harder to find, making their business model more and more difficult to remain profitable. Since the company already had distribution channels setup with stores throughout the United States, they decided to utilize those channels to distribute chewing gum, which was a new invention at the time. The business was renamed Topps and the company moved forward into new niches.
We can all remember the bazooka bubblegum that was sold in our local convenience store that came wrapped with a comic, and this was one of Topps first chewing gum products produced by this new company. To expand their chewing gum business, Topps started to sell their gum along with trading cards, but not the same trading cards that we would think. Topps did not initially start producing sports cards, but rather a card depicting a western television actor, Hopalong Cassidy. It was not until the early 1950’s that sports card as we are familiar with were produced by Topps.
The sport of choice for these first set of sports cards made by Topps was baseball and the basic design of these cards was the same as we know today. Card were designed with a picture and signature on the front, and player statistics on the back. Throughout the years, they have had different types of pictures, from action pictures, depicting players on the field, to posed portraits which were taken specifically for the purpose of baseball cards and even painted or sketched pictures. Much different than the large royalties that are paid to professional sports players, Topps started out by paying the players royalties in the form of household goods such as refrigerators and other large household items which were considered a luxury in that day. In those early days, Topps was not the only company selling baseball cards along with chewing gum, and they did have some very stiff competition with companies like Fleer and Bowman selling a similar product.
For many years it was said that the success of Topps caused them to have a monopoly, especially in the baseball card market, even though they have moved on to making football, basketball and hockey cards. They had sought to have exclusive contracts with player which did not allow other companies to operate in the same niche market as they were operating in. This monopoly was broken up in the early 1980’s when a lawsuit by Fleer paved the way for other companies to produce similar products. Of course rookie cards were one of the major issues among competitors as the various sports card companies often raced to become the first to produce a rookie card for a player that showed potential.
Today, Topps is owned by Tornante Company and Madison Dearborn Partners, which is affiliated with Michael Eisner, the former CEO of Disney. Over the years, Topps has been a leader in the sports card industry, setting the standard for quality and design which is still in use today.