Saturday, April 25, 2015

Spirit Of 76 Trombones?

1976 was a big year for the United States as its 200th birthday was celebrated in a yearlong expression of patriotism, red white and blue themed events, and bad mid-70's design.  For some reason Topps, which traced its paternal lineage back to the American Leaf Tobacco Company and American Gas Stations, elected to ignore all of this in designing their 1976 Annual Report.  Instead, they went with a theme that reminds me of Meredith Wilson's The Music Man:

As in 1975, the back cover was a copy of the front cover. The 1976 report continued a trend toward less photography and content and more straight up financial analysis. Once again the big news was on the international front as plans were announced for a new 50,000 square foot facility in Ireland, to serve as a center of manufacturing for their UK and European operations:

A nice start but compare this with the 400,000 square foot Duryea, Pennsylvania plant:

Topps also added a 33,000 square foot plant in Scranton, PA for candy manufacturing, a real "back to the future" move for them.

Another bit of financial news is intriguing:

These royalties were steadily increasing but seem like a bargain compared to today.  The report also notes that Bazooka was still their most profitable item.

Sy Berger finally got a little love as top level executives were also added to the annual pictures of the Board of Directors, which was still a Shorin family juggernaut:

Net sales increased yet again, by 11.2% to $55.748 million. Price increases in all product lines were helping tremendously. The quarterly dividend was also increased from 5 to 7 cents, a sure sign of growth.

I'm going to stop here in terms of acquiring their annul reports I think.  There seems to be less and less detail as the years pass from the 1972 IPO.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

International Intrigue

Our look at the mid 1970's Annual Reports of Topps Chewing Gum continues, today it's the 1975 edition, issued as Topps was celebrating 25 years of issuing baseball cards.  The cover is oh-so 70's:

The back cover was identical; not sure if it was to save costs but it seems possible.  

1974 saw Topps pay tribute yet again to an iconic baseball player.  This time it was the new (and still rightful IMHO) all-time home run king Hank Aaron getting the full Sy Berger treatment and a nice presentation of his Topps cards:

The board of directors is still an austere bunch, featuring some progression of the Shorin family. Manuel Yellen, who was on the Board from its 1972 inception, was the retired CEO of Lorillard Tobacco.  He started there in 1933 and would have been a longtime business associate of the Shorin family from the American Leaf Tobacco Company days.  His is not the father of  current Federal Reserve head honcho Janet Yellen though.

The big trend in fiscal year 1975 was more international expansion and conquest for Topps. Manufacturing operations had begun in Halle Germany as August Storck began making Bazooka under license.  Topps was so impressed with them that they used a nice shot of their plant in the annual report

Of further note was the kickoff of Nigerian operations ad the killing off of A&BC Chewing Gum in England.  I plan to take an in depth look at the Topps/A&BC relationship at some point but it's interesting that once the A&BC takeover occurred, Topps moved manufacturing to the US on a temporary basis.

In fact, the report mentions that "Throughout fiscal 1975, Topps finished products continued to be sold to distributors in international markets not served by licensees. Most of the merchandise was manufactured at the Topps Duryea plant, and we also purchased some products for these markets from our licensees."

This was only their third annual report but things were already becoming drier and more businesslike within. Net sales were $50.111 million, a 13.3% increase over the prior year. Other fiscal highlights concerned their ability to borrow money at the prime rate -- no doubt due to to the Shorin family's almost 70 year affiliation with Manufacturers Hanover Bank-- and a big increase in debt (that might be a lowlight). Part of their listed liabilities was an estimate for the cost of premium redemptions from various wholesalers & retailers via their longstanding "prize" certificate offers. In the fiscal year ending 1974 this amount was $630,000 while in FY ending 1975 it was $581,000. I've always wondered about the cost of this program and it is roughly 1% of net sales in the mid-70's.

Next post we'll time trip back to the U.S. Bicentennial.

Saturday, April 11, 2015


Last time out I teased about the impact Wacky Packages had on the sales figures for Topps during the initial rollout in 1973. The answers are at hand in the 1974 Topps Annual Report.

This report is probably the most widely known in the hobby due to some picture that have circulated over the years, which show production facilities and PR shots.  I'll spare most of the repetition but here is a great shot, certainly staged, of some confectionery products available in 1974:

Here's a different look at some of the products can you spot a favorite or two?

I see some old line products, specifically Bozo gumballs and Block Busters bubble gum. Bozo was originally a bulk gumball product sold to wholesalers (jobbers).  I am not 100% certain but a reasonably sure it was phased out in the U.S. in the 1950's and moved to Canadian production and distribution, possibly over trademark concerns due to infringements of the Bozo the Clown "brand". It came back packaged in a clear cello sleeve and I certainly remember getting some in my prime trick or treating years in the early 70's. I also remember it being quite tasty!

Block Busters was a Chiclets style gum introduced in the early 1950's, probably since production of the flagship Topps Gum tab had been shifted to an "ammoniated" gum dubbed Clor-Aid, which was similar in form to Clorets (and Chiclets). The results of extensive litigation over Clor-Aid went against Topps and they likely phased out Block Busters as a result, although not before the last remnants of its production were used as the gum for the 1956 Baseball Buttons. It was reintroduced at the end of 1973 but apparently did not catch on.

I mentioned the impact of Wacky Packages on sales in 1973.  Here is a very handy table showing five years worth of financials and the biggest year-to-year change in net sales is from 1973 to 1974:

There might be some clues in there about why Topps went public.  Look at the net income for 1970 and 1971,  1970's net is quite low compared to net sales and even that was a huge increase from 1969. They reduced debt and increased working capital over this span as well, with the latter really jumping after the IPO in 1972.

Here are some other highlights from the report:
  • "In March of 1974 2 cent Bazooka was introduced into 40% of the United States and 1 cent Bazooka was withdrawn. It is anticipated that 2 cent Bazooka will be expanded into the remainder of the country during this year."
  • "During 1973 a major marketing innovation was tested on Baseball Cards. This involved marketing a single series consisting of all 660 players at the beginning of the season instead of the six traditional series of 132 subjects released sequentially over a four month period. The test was extremely successful..."
  • "..."the company successfully tested 15 cent Sports Cards in place of 10 cent cards during the latter part of 1973 and is currently marketing 15 cent baseball in approximately 10% of the United States.  If this effort continues to show positive results, the Company is prepared to move in this direction with its Football cards in the fall of 1974 on a national basis with television support."
  • "Promotional Card sales have been particularly successful this year with the introduction of Wacky Packages in March, 1973."
  • "Topps new product development area is not only innovative, but also highly skilled in market research and market testing conducted prior to introducing a new product into the line."
  • "Through its own sales force, Topps sells its products to approximately 5,000 jobbers, wholesale grocers and direct-buying chains."
  • "Topps estimates that its products are sold in over 200,000 small and large retail candy and food stores (7-11 type), variety stores (dime stores) and drug outlets."

It wasn't all boring financial talk though.  In October of 1973 (actually I believe it was Sept. 25th) Sy Berger presented Willie Mays with a special framed edition of all his regular issue Topps cards during Willie Mays night at Shea Stadium:

Let's not forget the Board of Directors, who should definitely get a hand:

Not everyone was happy though, as this article from the August 2, 1974 issue of Sports Collectors News shows:

Sorry Ron but you may have been a little naive when you bought the stock.....

Saturday, April 4, 2015

On Report

Over the past year I've managed to reel in the first four Annual Reports issued by Topps after their 1972 IPO.  I'm not sure how deeply I'll dig into the numbers but the IPO looked extremely limited and was primarily distributed among the existing executives of the company (mostly Shorin family and their relatives), with only a small fraction being offered to the general investing public. This iteration of Topps as a public company would last about twelve years, when the firm would be sold in a leveraged buyout for a little under $100 million, which is a whole lotta bubblegum!

1972 was a year of change at Topps in many ways.  They stopped putting inserts in their annual baseball set and were making the decision to stop issuing sports cards in series. The last of the baby boomers were turning eight in 1972 so the company was probably a little past its peak in terms of consumers but still riding the wave of unprecedented growth in the post war era. So you can imagine the mood was positively giddy in the report.

The cover was understated but adorned with four eventual hall-of-famers:

That unfortunate stain on the image of the cards came from this buck slip being attached:

There are some nice shots of the Duryea plant in the report; reading the fine print indicates Topps signed a 20 year lease in 1966 and got a sweetheart deal.

The gentleman at left in the lower right corner picture is Bill Shea, of Continental League and Shea Stadium fame. And look at all that bubble gum! It's hard to believe the current owners of Topps have let Bazooka languish as a brand.  Did you know one of the ingredients in Bazooka is peppermint? That's not in the report but it's a little known fact. I normally hate peppermint but must say I am a big fan of Bazooka, so it's a minor flavoring agent.

There was a distinct focus on international sales; I had no idea Topps had spread to 55 countries by this time:

Overall, things look pretty robust-and Wacky Packages had only just started coming out-they would be a major cash cow for a few years.

Here is a peek at the inner sanctum:

A conservative showing of haberdashery, given the times. A classic suit never goes out of style, that's for sure.

And here's a peek at the Duryea plant, which closed around 1996.  I'm not too hip on the later fortunes and foibles of the company but I believe they outsource everything these days. I wonder where that Topps signage ended up? 

I'll be taking a look at some more in the annual reports over my next few posts.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Space Patrol

Of late I have been looking into various third party printers and manufacturers used by Topps over the years. In addition to their two main printers for mainstream sets (Lord Baltimore Press from the late 40's through the early 60's and Zabel Brothers from the early 60's through the 90's) they used at least one "overflow" printer, especially in the 1960's as the baby boomers were buying cards faster than Topps could make them. The evidence points to Stecher-Traung Lithograph Corporation (later Stecher-Traung Schmidt Corporation) of Rochester, New York as the overflow printer and they seemingly also printed cards for Topps in a Connecticut branch as well.

Here's an interesting hobby side note-Schmidt was the printer of the 1909-11 Obak baseball cards, which are some of the most beautiful cards ever made, and certainly printed a host of other sets before and between World Wars 1 and 2. Stecher-Traung was known more for their seed packets and fruit crate labels, which were also works of art. One of the places we frequent on vacation in Vero Beach has a large display of their labels in the lobby.  Here is a good example of one:


The Osborne Register Company did some "minting" for Topps from about 1948-52, especially the earliest versions of the Golden Coin issue.

Topps had a Japanese manufacturer for certain novelty items in the 1960's and early 70's but some U.S. Customs issues may have curtailed that relationship. That is definitely a work in progress on my end,  However, I have seen many references to a Canadian Manufacturer Topps used to make its 1964 and 1971 Baseball Coins, a firm called Space Magic Ltd. of Don Mills, Toronto, Ontario. This would be fairly close to where O-Pee-Chee was headquartered in London and it would make sense that Topp's Canadian partner would have been able to source a manufacturer for them.

Pretty much any baseball collectors knows about these colorful coins, which are printed on light aluminum, have rolled edges and came inserted in packs of Baseball.  Here's the 64's:

The 1964 coins were printed on large 255 coin sheets, as this Leland's auction from February 7, 1992 shows:

You will note there is no reference to Space Magic, so it's a bit of a leap of faith that they were manufactured by them,  However, I think it's correct once you look at this next item.  For instance, this largely uncatalogued set of 20 Batman coins from 1966 bears the Space Magic Ltd. name:

There was no second series incidentally. That blueish color looks like a dead match to me.  The coins are pretty pedestrian and used the very mundane comics artwork of the time to cash in on the TV series but the shields used to house the coins are spectacular:

Holy crap Batman!

The 1971 Baseball Coins were probably issued in three groups, each having 51 coins.  51 is interesting because it divides evenly into 255, so five complete series could be run on a full sheet. Here is one of the 51 coin series sheets in proof form

There are a number of other aluminum coin sets out there, most from the 1960's.  The 1962-63 Salada Football Coins, the 1963 version of Salada's Baseball Coins, 1962-63 Shirriff  Hockey Coins (Shirriff was owned by Salada), 1965 Old London Baseball Coins, and probably a few others I am missing.  I suspect Space Magic Ltd. made them all, even though not every one divides neatly into a 255 coin production sheet.

I have not found too much on Space Magic Ltd. so maybe one of our Canadian readers can provide some insights.  I will keep looking though.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Catchup Mashup

I haven't done a catch up post in quite some time, so if you missed short updates on prior posts, this is your day! I'll proceed chronologically...

1949 Topps Play Coins of the World

Friend o'the Archive Bill Christensen has passed along some color variations via scan:

Yellow, blue and green all seem to have lighter toned variants.  Whether this was planned or the result of die running low at the end of a "minting" is hard to day but I lean toward the latter.  I particualarly like the light blue.  Anyone else out there have some color variations they can share?

1962 Topps Hockey

I've shown this before but given recent revelations about the 1962 era aluminum plates, here is one of the color process plates in aluminum for the 1962 Football set, compared to the regular issue card:

The 1962 aluminum hockey proofs have a little bit more of an intriguing story now, thanks to Friend o'the Archive Keith Olbermann, I'll let him explain regarding these:

...[they] include the answer to one of the great riddles of Topps editorial choices. That set has 66 cards of just three NHL teams. There's a coach and at least one goalie depicted for the Bruins and the Black Hawks, but the Rangers have a card of one goalie, no coach -- and a trainer.

The trainer card, Frank Paice, always bothered me. A trainer? Instead of a coach? Well sure enough, on the aluminum and paper proofs, the explanation is presented. Paice had nothing to do with the absence of a coach card. His photo is identified as "MARCEL PAILLE - GOALIE." An understandable photo ID mistake, apparently discovered too late to do anything more about than make the card into one of Paice!"

Here is Paice the Trainer:

The 1962 backs must have been pasted up first then, I'm not sure how many guys have been called a stickboy on a hockey card but it must be in the low single digits:

1962 Topps Hockey Bucks

I find the early Topps Hockey issues fascinating as there were so many little twists and turns, a boatload of inserts and packaging oddities, all for some very short sets.  Recently an uncut strip of twelve 1962 Hockey Bucks was rung up on eBay:

If you want to know why there are so many miscut vintage Topps inserts, this is a good indicator. When I was editing the above shot, I realized the top edge was perfectly aligned horizontally.  You can see the right-tilting curl very easily in this scan.

1967 Topps Blockheads/1988 Topps Pee Wee's Playhouse

I recently linked some of the activity cards in Pee Wee's Playhouse to some earlier Topps issues and while I didn't include this in the post, I think there is a basis for comparison.  Here is one of the most gorgeous artworks from the Blockheads issue, which I have also shown before:

First of all, the idea that such an intricate painting was used to create very short run Hallowe'en issue in 1967 is mind-boggling! Really, look at this thing, it's insane! Now here is a clear derivation, although in rough form, from Pee Wee's Playhouse.  Not an exact copy but I suspect the Pee Wee's Playhouse artists were looking at some older Topps archival material, possibly unearthed as the iconic 1989 Guernsey's auction of Topps production material around the same time:

Blockheads, by the way, featured artwork from Wally Wood and Basil Wolverton of EC Comics and Mad Magazine fame, with Norm Saunders doing the finished paintings. Crazy!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Metal Shop

Running off a sheet of cards at the printers would seem like a pretty mundane task these days. That's not the case of course but like anything else it seems like it happens almost effortlessly these days. It isn't and never really has been all that easy and there are a lot of processes involved before the final product spins out of the press.

One part of one method, namely offset lithography printing,  involves the use of thin aluminum plates, which have the images being used to make the cards (or anything else really) etched on to them.  If I have this right (and this is a very simplified explanation), the plates are dampened with a water based solution then inked in the press. The ink ends up adhering only to the "dry" areas to be printed, as the solution prevents ink from adhering where it is applied.  The inked portion is transferred, or offset, to a rubber roller, making a reversed image before being rolled over the press sheet.  This is done for each color pass.

The plates cannot be "wiped" once used, they have to be melted down and remanufactured.  As you can imagine, a lot of aluminum has to be destroyed for any type of meaningful recycling to occur, ergo when it comes to Topps, there are few aluminum plates floating around.  That is, unless you are talking about 1962.

 Take this 1962 Kansas City team cards (#384):

In order to print it, you needed this first:

Compare that to this 1962 Football plate, which has corroded to a degree:

When you look at the card this plate produced you can see that the Baseball plate has an additional element, namely the team name is visible in the black oval. Therefore, it must have been used to produce a different color than the one for Chandler. The inset photo is missing as well; that would have been added during a different color run.

A large find of 1962 aluminum sheets was noted in an SCD ad in  the January 31, 1986 issue where Mid-Atlantic Coin Exchange was selling 1962 Baseball Green Tint plates (second series). They also had a number of 1962 Hockey plates as well.  All of these had been cut from the original, larger aluminum sheets used to make the cards. However, at least two partial sheets have survived from the Hockey run:

You can get a good idea of how vivid these were in the unfaded areas (which look like they had something like a paint can on top of them for years. 

Plates even exist for promotional material, like this one for the 1962 Baseball Bucks set:

I'm not certain how these all came to survive.  It's not like today where Topps sells or uses as inserts the plates that produce the cards. Given that the green tint plates were in the '62 mix, it seems plausible Topps required the plates be returned to them as that run was not produced in Philadelphia. Or did Topps also sub out work on the Football and Hockey sets that year? No matter where they were printed, it's clear these sheets never got melted down.