Tuesday, October 28, 2008

1949-A Magical Year

Topps embarked on a two pronged marketing approach in 1949: selling penny pieces of gum, known in the confectionery trade as "changemakers", with small inserts and also issuing larger cards in standalone packs. The changemakers are what I'll be looking at today, particularly the Magic Photos, since they contained the first ever Topps baseball cards.

All of these penny piece inserts were, as you might imagine, quite small, only 7/8" x 1 7/16". This is my curiously attired Connie Mack, off centered though he may be:

Topps had a working relationship with Connie Mack, who was writing his memoirs at the time. They would, in 1951, issue a set of cards featuring the Tall Tactician's all-time all-stars but that is a story for anon. The cards could be found in Hocus Focus Gum (not to be confused with the 1955/56 Hocus Focus sets, which are confusing enough all on their own but do say "Hocus Focus" on their backs to aid in identification).

Nothing else from here on down is mine, by the way; I am in full vulture mode today. Most of it likely belongs to Jeff Shepherd, although not this scan, whose origin is lost to me:

The photos were "Magic" and required some 'hocus pocus" because you wet the card, which presented a blank front when taken from the pack and then pressed it to the inside of the wrapper (how sanitary!) which was chemically treated to develop the photo. If you were flush enough to have a nickel, you could have purchased a pack with 6 attached cards and a piece of orange developing paper! If I had a scan, I would post it but alas, I do not. I do know, however, that the nickel pack advertised "Bubble Gum In Color" which may have been enough to deceive some young-un's into thinking the cards were in color. Predictably, it was the gum that had that distinction!

Each series of 126 Magic Photos had overly complicated numbering. The "K" series featured baseball players, and a number of different topics were included in this true General Interest set. An album was issued for each series (the cover did not change) that shows how diverse the subjects were.

Here are views of the inside front cover and an interior page, with apologies for the fuzziness. I stole 'em from Ebay, that's how they were when I found them:

Magic Photos were issued in two 126 card series. The first of these may have hit the shelves before Christmas in 1948 (there are photos from the World Series of that year in the set) based upon this sell sheet:

The second series came out in early 1949 as this was from a confectionery trade ad dated January 18, 1949. Notice the Topps reference is gone, replaced by one for Bubbles Inc. (a "Second Label" for Topps, used occassionally into the 1960's for various reasons). Perhapes because the first series was likely reissued when the second came out, Topps didn't want to seem like they were double dipping.

Why 126 cards? Well, that was the size of the uncut sheet:

As they were prone to doing, Topps also sold cards via ads in comic books of the day:

Other tiny Topps sets were available in 1949; you could stroll into your local candy store and hand the shopkeeper a nickel for a few one cent items and then take your change as a piece of gum. That gum would often be found in a circular container on the counter in packs like these:

There was a fruit variety as well, in a similar wrapper and there may have been a few others. Flags of All Nations/Soldiers of All Nations were inserted into these penny pieces and the use of the generic Topps gum wrapper for this set may indicate it was among the first issued by Topps. These cards were two-sided, meaning one side depicted a flag of some nation and the other a soldier, usually in full dress. The cards were also distributed in their own wrapper, advertised as "Parade". Scans are scarce at present, this is really just to provide deep background. Flags/Soldiers is alleged to be a 100 card set; I believe only 94 are known today, which shows how many of these little cards were thrown out over the years. Later years saw larger reissues (and new issues) of the Flags.

Another small set from 1949 is License Plates, which also featured the first Topps scratch off's on the reverse, which featured an automobile quiz. You had to scratch off the coating to name the car shown. The cards were sold in a penny pack titled "Stop & Go". License Plates were also reissued over the years.

Finally, we have X-Ray Round Up, marketed with Pixie Gum. Here is a trade ad that nicely sums the set up:

You had a nice picture album for the 200 X-Ray cards, magic x-ray paper and bubble gum-nice! Topps also placed ads in comic books to sell these direct to the card buying public. 100 of these cards were made into stamps at some point, possibly by Topps.

Topps started small and strange with their first card and novelty issues in 1949. In addition to the four small card sets shown above, you had Flip-o-Vision and Funny Foldees interactive cards, a series of larger interiors known as It Happened to a President issued on, according to Chris Benjamin, tissue-like paper affixed to the reverse of a Golden Coin Wrapper, which also came with a plastic President Coin (A "Golden Coin"). Another plastic coin set, entitled World Coins, aka Play Money of the World was sold in gum packs and also larger 12 lollipop Pay Money Pops boxes. There was even a Santa themed Christmas goodie bag!

Funny Foldees proof:

Bazooka wrapper interiors featuring the Spalding Sports Show comics, the first appearance of "Bazooka, the Atom Boy" (which I believe is the first artwork created especially for Bazooka gum), Famous Events, the non-Bazooka Tattoo Transfers (the first Bubbles Inc. "second brand" and a worthy candidate for a lengthy post someday) also saw the light of day.

But wait-there's more! Bazooka nickel gum also had trays featured some combination of World Famous Stamps, The Story of the Atom Bomb (!) and Famous American Heroes, although these three linked, somewhat crude "extras" may have been issued for a few years after as well.

World Famous Stamps tray:

Whew! 1949 was indeed a magical year for Topps. More stories will be told about this year....

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Babe in Toyland

In 1967 Topps issued an interactive card set entitled "Who Am I?" which featured 44 cards of famous people with their faces obscured by a coating that had to be scratched off. The backs of the cards had clues you had to guess at before you defaced the card to see if you knew the answer. Topps was perfecting their scratch off coating technology in the mid-60's and Who Am I? was one of the first sets to use the silvery film we know well today from lottery scratch offs and the like.

Topps did a test of the coatings on some baseball cards first:

The finished Ruth was based upon the drawing used in a set from 1952/53 called Look 'n See, also interactive as you would place red cello paper of the back of the card to reveal a quiz answer. These cards were smaller than standard sized at 2 1/16" x 2 15/16". Look 'n See is a landmark non sports set of 135 subjects and Ruth is the only baseball player within it:

A number of subjects repeat from Look 'n See to Who Am I?; I do not have any other than the Ruth's to compare and can't attest if some additional drawings from the older set were reissued in 1967. I suspect many were though. The Ruth was cleaned up a bit but you will see they are they are from the same drawing a little bit further down the page.

Now, there were actually two Who Am I? releases, the 1967 regular issue and then a partial reissue later in the year in Fun Packs, those Hallowe'en to Christmas bags of cards and sweets sold in variety stores. Of the four baseball players in the original set, three (Koufax, Mays and Mantle) did not reappear in the Fun Packs. Here is the Babe unbound, followed by his coated version (all but the cigar chomper are mine, that one is from Ebay):

The backs looked like this (the coated version had scratch off instructions in the "period" at the base of the question mark):

Over the years, Topps has produced a long list of Babe Ruth cards consisting of drawings or paintings. These will be discussed sometime down the road along with the rest of the Ruthian cards made by Topps over the years. My count is as follows:

1952-53 Look 'n See #15 (Painting)
1953-54 Scoop #41 (Painting)
1963 Valentine Foldees Wheel Design #6 Portrait(Drawing)
1963 Valentine Foldees #34 Wheel Design Batting (Drawing)
1966 Comic Book Foldees #12 (Small Version)Babe Ruth the Slugger(Drawing)
1966 Comic Book Foldees #12 (Large Version)Babe Ruth the Slugger(Drawing)
1967 Who Am I? #12 With Disguise (Painting)
1967 Who Am I? #12 No Disguise (Painting) Fun Pack version
1969 Pak o' Fun Foldees (Drawing)
1970 Valentine Foldees Banana Design #6 Portrait(Drawing)
1970 Valentine Foldees Banana Design #34 Batting (Drawing)
1971 21 Tattoos (Inferred from Canadian issue) (Drawing)

In addition, there are four Non Sport sets the Babe appears in as well:

'49 Magic Photos
'55/56 Hocus Focus (Large from "Series of 18" with at least 1 perforated edge)
'63 Famous American Stamps
'64/65 Push-Pull

He also makes a number of appearances on regular issue Topps baseball cards, with one or more pasteboards in 1961, 1962, 1963, 1973 and 1976 plus he shows up in the 1963 Bazooka All Time Great box inserts. He appears in numerous Fleer issues as well over the years.

Considering every Topps card of him was issued after he died, including those in regular series of baseball cards, the iconic status of the Bambino is indeed impressive!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Orange You Glad To See Me?

After two major insert sets were unleashed in '61 and '62, Topps didn't produce a baseball stamp series in 1963, but they did produce stamps featuring 80 well-known Americans. The commonly accepted date of issue on these is 1963 but the year before is also possible.

The actual name of the product was Stamp Gum, but Famous Americans stuck in the minds of hobbyists (although they are sometimes referred to as Great Americans). Instead of the pink Bazooka America was accustomed to seeing, the gum was orange, likely dooming the stamps to oblivion as they are tough to find today. The stamps measure 1 3/8" x 2 9/16" and Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth are the sole baseball players depicted; some other sports figures are also included but this is considered a non-sports set.

Here is a shot of the Ruth (not mine)-note the horizontal crease where the stamp was folded to fit the pack. You can also see where it would detach from the "waste" area below. It seems like they could have been packaged without the fold if the waste area had been trimmed so it was likely there due to make insertion into the gum wrapper easier. Note the lack of Topps identification anywhere on the stamp, which makes me wonder if they were produced for another, aborted, project and then recycled for sale with Stamp Gum.

I do not have a corresponding Gehrig to post.

Prices on the ball players can border on the ridiculous, which is standard when boys of summer are part of otherwise non-sports Topps offerings that disappeared without a trace. It appears no album was issued with the set, which is odd but maybe the '61 and '62 baseball stamp albums did not sell well so Topps gave up on the idea. Here is a trade ad which shows a cascade of oranges down the front of the box.

Proofs have been found and some of the artwork used to create the stamps was auctioned on Ebay in 2007 I believe. If you ever see these, they are worth buying immediately due to their difficulty.

Friday, October 17, 2008

1954 Where Are You?

If there is one book that really propelled me into studying the myriad issues of Topps Chewing Gum, the 3rd edition of the Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide (Beckett 3) is it.

To be fair, everyone calls these "Beckett" books but Denny Eckes was the man behind the card research and Dr. Jim was the numbers guy; Beckett just had a better PR machine! As an aside, I received a very informative e-mail from Mr. Eckes' daughter after he had passed away, which led me to the conclusion he was an extremely nice and gentle man with an unabiding love of the hobby.

Within its pages were some great shots of rare cards in full color and, more intriguingly to my oddly focused nineteen year old mind, an article on old Topps uncut sheet quadrants from 1952 and a 100 card '54 sheet. The '52 sheet (high numbers, no less) captured my attention to be sure, but the writeup on the '54 sheet did not take hold for a while. Then one day, after sussing out a '67 high number sheet from a hobby article (remember, "oddly focused") I decided to work up the '54 sheet array from the photo in Beckett 3. What I found was that the numbering ran from #126-150 and #176-250. This left me somewhat nonplussed.

(from www.baseballtoddsdugout.com )

This is Sy Berger's favorite set by the way.

Now, did they issue packs with cards from only one 100 card half-sheet or were they mixed together? Mark Murphy's Unopened Pack, Wrapper & Display Box Guide details a fifteen card '54 cello pack with cards in the "4th" series, which could mean it spanned both sheets (see below). Unless a lot of '54 nickel or cello packs are opened someday (unlikely as so very few exist) we may never know.

The penny packs would not reveal the answer but their wrapper looks nice!

This is how the hobby papers and guides viewed the 1954 Topps series years ago, note the span of series 4:















Current thinking is that 1-50, 51-75 and 76-250 are three distinct series, with the middle being almost twice as valuable as the other two. I am not so sure about that. I think there were only two series: 1-50 and then all the rest came out in one big whoosh, possibly staggered geographically but maybe just box to box.

What is pretty cool though, is that some of the glass printing plates from the sheet shown in Beckett 3 still exist and were auctioned a little while back. These were described as from Lord Baltimore Printing, in Baltimore, MD. Half of the sheet is represented. Note how every other row is flipped due to full color bleed top borders:

Some detail of the glass plate:

Not quite sure what this was, maybe copies of the cards on the glass plate?

For those who are interested by such arcana, Topps baseball cards from 1952-54 were printed on 100 card half-sheets, in 1955 they were most likely printed on either 100 or 110 card half-sheets (possibly the first series was on 100 then the size changed to 110 for later series) before converting to the standard 132 card half-sheet in 1957 for the new, smaller (yet "standard") sized cards. 132 card half-sheets were used during the entire post '56 Topps vintage era for their annual sets, in arrays of twelve rows with eleven cards per row.

Now if I could just find that other '54 half sheet.........

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Excelsior You Fathead!

I thought it would be appropriate on the 9th anniversary of Jean Shepherd's death, to show a very strange Topps item he likely inspired. Shep was a radio personality in Cincinnati and Philadelphia before hitting the Big Apple in the mid 1950's on WOR AM and FM and was later known for his books and the now de rigueur A Christmas Story. He became a media sensation in New York and is fondly remembered today by many Gothamites.

Shep had a huge following and was known for some off the wall stuff, including the nose flute serenade he used to play along with when commercial jingles ran. Topps, in one of their stranger moments, marketed a nose flute sometime after 1965 (the header card has a Duryea, PA address for Topps which would make it 1965 at the earliest.) I'm pretty sure Shep didn't actually have an instrument though, he literally used his nose!

This is among the oddest Topps products out there:

I knew about Shep through reading his books, which my parents had when I was growing up and I remember seeing his old PBS show a couple of times back in the day; I only got into his radio stuff a few years ago. You can find many old Shepherd radio programs on Ebay and I highly recommend them along with his books. You can find out about all things Shep here, and also listen to some shows if interested.

A Fathead is an affectionate term for a Shep fan! The title of today's post is taken from Gene Bergmann's excellent Shepherd biography.

(12:30 PM Update-A brass figlagee with bronze oak leaf cluster is awarded to Gene Bergmann, author of said tome, for alerting me to the fact Shep likely DID use an instrument when playing the nose flute. Ya learn something new everyday!) Seltzer Bottle!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Between The Buttons

I have had, for the longest time, a scan in GIF format, of a 60 "button" uncut proof sheet (missing 4) of the 1956 Topps Pin Set.

I believe this was from a Topps Vault auction, as was the detail below:

The GIF was always hard to read but I finally deciphered the uncut sheet and found out something surprising; my assumption that three of the missing proofs were the short printed Diering, Lopez and Stobbs pins was wrong. All three of those actually reside in the bottom row. I created a schematic of the sheet to make things easier. Leftmost five columns first, then rightmost five.





I have to wonder if the three short printed pins were damaged in the production process, maybe they were at the points the sheet was "grabbed" during cutting and printing. The fact they are all in the bottom row is pretty interesting.

The four missing pins are: Hofman, Kluszewski, Skowron and Williams.

Here is a closeup of a proofed Zernial from a different sheet:

Here is the only thing on this page that is mine, from my subset of Dodgers, which shows how they look as issued:

Such a great set-too bad only 60 of the 90 planned pins were issued. The pack graphics feature Ted Williams; sadly I had a great scan of a pack that was lost when my hard drive crashed last year. I'll post it here if I find it again.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Baseball In Three Dimensions

Maybe it's because the regular 1968 baseball set was so drab or because some of them were still circulating in my neighborhood a year later (the first year I bought Topps cards) but for some reason the inserts and test issues from '68 have always grabbed my attention. From Discs to Action All Star Stickers to Game Cards to Plaks, it's my favorite year of Topps oddness. And there is no set I like better than the 1968 3-D cards.

Now the fact that I like them does not mean I have a stellar collection of them. I only have one, purchased in 2004 for a price I still can't believe, in an Ebay auction that everyone else apparently forgot to bid in. I thought at the time the Maloney was common (one version of it is) and that I had bought a kid-damaged card but as we shall see, it ain't necessarily so. Here is my Maloney (No Dugout background)-note the cloudy area by his throwing hand and the two vertical slash marks, or notches, on the lower left (likely "pull" marks from the production process), both of which we will revisit in a minute:

Every other scan is this article is not mine and I must confess I do not know the source for most as I have been tracking this set for a very long time and have hijacked many images along the way. Now, for some history first.

The '68 3D's are lenticular cards, which means they have an image that changes or moves depending upon the viewing angle. They use linier technology (linier is not a typo, it essentially means "wrinkled") to give the illusion of movement by printing a meld of finely interlaced images on the underside of a clear, ribbed plastic coating, and affixed to a backing image. The process was perfected by Vari-Vue Corporation in the 1940's and there are hundreds of examples of lenticular items available from their roughly twenty year heyday. The 1968 Topps 3D cards use a stereoscopic verson of this technology.

The available information is confusing but it seems Vari-Vue technology was at some point in the mid 60's licensed to Cowles Communications (Look Magazine) which somehow came up with a similar technology called Visual Panographics (also made into the name of a Cowles subsidiary) which seems to be more adaptable to wide field images. I bring all this up for a reason.

If you look closely at Maloney, alongside the leftmost "gash" you will see the word Xograph:

As it turns out, this is a trade name for a lithographed lenticular print made by Visual Panagraphics that identifies who produced the 3D cards for Topps. Xograph can also be identified as the producer of early Kellogg's cards. At some point in the mid 70's the Xograph notation on Kellogg's cards changed to Visual Panographics, in case you were wondering, and the company was later known as Optigraphics, which I believe produced Sportflics cards in the mid 80's.

Before you can print up a premium card set (and that's what these were intended to be) you first need to create a proof version. Only one of these is known and it looks like an upside down '67 Topps card in a way:

The Robinson is said to measure 2 1/4" x 3 1/4" which is slightly shorter than the issued version, which had 1/4" of height on ol' Brooks.

In a masterful article written for Sports Collectors Digest (March 23, 2007 - unfortunately not online) and followup on January 8, 2008, Keith Olbermann revealed a lot of previously unknown information about the 3D's, including the existence of a card showing a soccer player (from Napoli) described as similar to the Robinson but showing the name "Cane" in the upper left corner. This (I speculate) was likely a sales tool, created by Xograph/Visual Panographics to show lenticular technology to Topps executives and the image was probably taken from the Look magazine archives.

A number of proofs have shown up over the years. Here we see two uncut panels of nine cards each, including some mingled unissued players strangely missing any identifying information :

The three unissued players are Rick Monday and John O'Donoghue on the top panel and Tommy Davis with a different O'Donoghue on the bottom one. These are shown here with their rounded corners, indicating they almost made the final cut or perhaps were to have a back identifier (a common Topps trick at the time) instead of cluttering up the front:

Square cornered proofs also exist, regrettably I do not have any scans of them except this Clemente:

I am not sure if all square proofs are handcut like "Bob" is.

Before we proceed any further, here is the checklist of the twelve issued players:

Clemente, Bob
Davis, Willie
Fairly, Ron
Flood, Curt
Maloney, Jim
Perez, Tony
Powell, Boog
Robinson, Bill
Staub, Rusty
Stottlemyre, Mel
Swoboda, Ron

There is much, much more to it though. Early production pieces, almost certainly proofs, exist with a rubber stamp on back in either red or black ink:

Frontal variations also exist of almost half of the issued cards (excepting Clemente, Lonborg, Bill Robinson, Stottlemyre and Swoboda).

Fairly can be found with his hat either touching or not touching his last name above; Flood has a bald fan either in or removed from the background; Maloney features box seats or not (No Dugout which always seems to feature the two notches) and you can see on the above proof sheets both versions are present; Powell is either braining a fan or missing him with his bat, Willie Davis has or is missing the Xograph name and black around the team name circle and Staub has a clear or blurry background. All but Willie Davis seemingly come with each variety of backs (blank, red stamp, black stamp).

While the Olbermann article is missing the Perez cards in the checklist for some reason, it lists 53 different possible variations/combinations. (not counting the Brooks Robinson prototype). As his followup article on frontal variations does not include a mention of Perez but mentions the three different backs, I'm assuming there are at least four, if not six versions possible of Tony (there is a known variation with another player in background on either his left or right, then the blank back, red stamp, black stamp varieties, thereby bringing a master set to 57 or 59 cards depending on the Perez combinations, 60 if you count Brooks Robinson. That's a lot for a set with a mere dozen issued cards!

There are also some apparent short prints. Powell is widely recognized as the toughest, allegedly due to production problems, Staub is thought to be difficult, as are Flood and Stottlemyre and possibly the Maloney "No Dugout" variation, potentially pulled by Topps due to the notching. Recent sales figures indicate Perez may be scarcer than some others as well.

The cards came two to a pack (test version only it seems) with an insert:

As for the insert, a Rob Lifson ad from January 31, 1986 lists for sale (along with a wrapper) an "unpunched stand up insert which came in each pack". I call this an easel but have never seen one and that Lifson ad is the only extant reference I can find. These cards were meant to be proudly displayed by their owners! UPDATE 11/1/08: The Easel has been located, see end of post.

There also allegedly exists a salesman's ring with a rounded picture of Sam McDowell (or more likely O'Donoghue) but I have no idea if that is real or not.

It appears the cards were only sold near Topps headquarters in Brooklyn. While a proof box exists, it is far from certain the packs were sold in it as the possibility is there that the cards were "sold off" instead of tested due to high production costs and quality control issues.

The box shows a five cent price but I have always labored under the impression a pack cost a dime.

I hate discussing prices but before you get any crazy ideas, most of these cards routinely sell for four figures, with Clemente easily in five figure range. If you want an example or two, shoot for the Bill Robinson, Maloney with dugout or Jim Lonborg in mid grade for high three figures. They are out there but a lot of collectors go after them, keeping prices sky high.

UPDATE 11/1/08-Rob Lifson was kind enough to send a scan of the easel: