Baseball Cards go “Exclusive” in 2010


Comic illustration by Rick Enright

I can still remember  back when I was oh so young, getting my weekly allowance then racing full bore on my bike with my friends in tow down to the local 7-11 to throw my  weeks earnings of two dollars on the store counter and ask for packs of those foil wrapped baseball cards. I am not sure even now why those cards seemed to instantly transform my little world into a state if euphoria and let my imagination run totally rampant while glancing at that Cincinnati Reds Ken Griffey  high color and foil card.

And after a quick evaluation of the cards in the deck, the losing players card from that bunch always ended up between a clothespin in the spokes of my bike for the trek home to produce a  mimic motorcycle sound that let the neighborhood know the “Baseball Gang” was roaring down the alleyways. Then when we finally hit my garage, we would all circle and argue for hours trading our new cards with ones in our back pockets and never agreeing totally on their worth or importance, but remembering their stats and their teams.

And even while we sat there boasting about our treasured bounty from the store, we made sure to chew that starchy piece of bubble gum until it could not longer handle a single bubble or our jaws ached from the constant state of chewing. But to us, the cards were as close as we could get to our sports heroes. For the smiling faces of the professional ballplayers looking back either posed at the plate or on the mound sent us into hours to recalling their heroic moments. It sent us into a realm of fantasy where we would duplicate or even top their previous years statistics if we got the chance on the field.

So it was sad moment for me when I read in August 2009 that Major League Baseball was ending their 30-year relationship with the Upper Deck Company LLC and signed an exclusive multi-year trading card pact with The Topps Company Inc. It always seemed like there had been more than a dozen companies springing up and then dissolving into thin air selling and marketing baseball cards to the masses. But on January 1, 2010, the Topps Company will have exclusive use of any of the MLB’s 30 team logos and trademarks.

And this is a huge blow to the small cottage industry that first thrust itself upon my generation with their multi-card sets and that historic piece of rectangular hard bubble gum. Upper Deck, which still has an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association, might have something to say about all of this before  the beginning of 2010. This season, Upper Deck produced over 16 different sets of cards just for 2009 alone. But will the streamlining of this iconic piece of cardboard be easy, or will it be pushed back into the darkness by the isolation of its true  player and game images only being available by one lone manufacturer?

Comic Illustration by Rick Enright

In 1991, the sale of these little cardboard masterpieces reached over $ 1.2 billion in sales. Which at that time, was a huge chunk of change for the industry. I know that about that time I was pumping in a huge amount of excess cash to get some of the collectible cards and “game-used” cards that were beginning to float around the country. Who would not want a small piece of  a Roger Maris bat, or even a small swatch of a Sandy Koufax jersey.

Most  of these cards consisted of a small patch of a  MLB sanctioned baseball, or a sliver of a players personal bat that was then dissected into a million pieces and sandwiched onto a card. And we were all eager to find those cards and put them into our collections at that time as an investment into our futures. Every season, the trading card companies made sure to advertise that there were “special cards” hidden within the hundreds and hundreds of decks for us to find. But after the trading card industry hit its top spot in 1991, it then began a slow decent towards the bottom.

By 2000, the industry was seeing only $400 million in sales annually and was seeking other avenues to promote and increase the sales of their products. Trading card companies used this down period to began its inversion into other sports besides baseball and football for their new revenues sources. And in 2008, the sale of these once wanted cards fell to an all time low in sales of just over $200 million, including the new card sources like NASCAR and NHL editions. 

My romance with these special cards started about 2001 when I got my first “Game-Used” card from a pack I purchased in a 5-pack set in a small hobby store in St. Petersburg,Florida. The card was a 2001 Ken Griffey Junior “Game-Used” jersey card from his first stint with the Seattle Mariners.

The card was issued by Upper Deck, and it was a piece of his home blue jersey sandwiched between two pieces of plastic. Along with the holograms on the item and the photo of him on both sides of the card, it became a cherished piece of my card collection. More for the way he played the game then for the piece of fabric inside the plastic.

But it should come as no surprise that MLB decided to side with Topps in the exclusive rights for the trading cards marketing. Because the head honcho at Topps now had a visual presence with MLB in the form of ex-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Most people might remember he was also at the helm after Disney purchased the then Anaheim Angels back in the 1980’s, and he was front and center on the podium to  thrust skyward the first World Series trophy won by the team in 2002.

I am not calling foul here in any way, but it just goes to show you that sometimes it really is “who you know” and not “what you know” that can get you that one  special meeting with MLB to even propose such an arrangement. Since Topps now has the exclusive rights to the teams logos and images, does this mean that the other companies will have to cease any contact with MLB players who might already be under contract for companies other than Topps? And can these companies, who have an exclusive signing contract with certain players block their signatures on cards in the future?

You would think that both of these questions will be percolating in more than a few boardrooms around the country in response to the announcement of a single entity taking over the MLB’s marketing of the trading cards. I have heard whispers that Upper Deck might consider litigation or a simple injunction, but at this time nothing has been submitted to the courts.  And you can imagine that individual players will be reviewing their current contracts with the trading card companies and align themse
lves to be in compliance with the MLB new agreement.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig told in August that the deal is suppose to “restore baseball cards as the games premier collectible.” The multi-year deal will give Topps exclusive use of MLB,Jewel Events and club trademarks, logos, and other intellectual properties for use on baseball cards, stickers and other product categories featuring MLB players. Such a monopoly in properties surrounding baseball is a huge kudos for Topps.

It is funny how these little pieces of cardboard have produced and induced millions of people over the years to buy, sell and trade these cards both on avenues like E Bay or at your local Flea Markets. Just for giggles, I popped my hand into a box of older cards in my closet that I have not split up and alphabetized. So picked out a total of 10 cards to see which company dominated the cards in my box. 

Well, Topps did end up coming out on top with 4 cards in that pile,with Bowman having three cards.  Also within the pile were companies like Fleer, Score and Donruss90, which had the final 3 cards in the deck.  And you could see quickly which company had the money and power to get major MLB players to sign deals with them, even back in the 1990 season. The bottom three companies did not have a superstar or starter on any of the MLB roster at that time. Bowman did get the likes of the Phillies Dave Hollins and Athletic pitcher Mike Gallego in my small selection.

But even back 20 years ago, Topps got the premier players for their set of cards. In those 4 Topps cards were players like Oakland’s Shortstop Walt Weiss, Royal Second baseman Frank White, Tiger Shortstop Alan Trammel and Orioles starting pitcher Ben McDonald. But what was really wild during that brief time I put my hand back into that box was the nostalgia and the blast from the past seeing some of those names pop into my eyes again after so long. Some might go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but all of them held different memories to me both as players and as cards in my collection.

I remember almost coming to blows with my friend Steve Haas back in 5th grade over my Cincinnati Reds Cesar Geronimo card, or how I felt like I was a really shrewd dealer to trade three  non-marque players cards for a hologram 1989 Cleveland Indians card. Now all my trading cards are sectioned out by alphabetical order into small plastic containers, each with rubber banded players duplicate cards all together. To think of all the time and money I invested into these cards now seems so funny that someone like Cardinal Andy Van Slykes 1985 card could have graced the spokes of my motocross bike for weeks and I was not the wiser. 

Comic Illustration by Rick Enright

But as the baseball card market has gone into  the shallows, so has the Sports Card shops that used to number over 5,000 strong all over the country but has now dwindled down to under 500 shops specializing in these pieces of our baseball youth. But people have always told me that “all good things have to come to an end.”

Maybe that is true even with those little cards we used to buy for the glory and charm of trading with our friends for hours at a time. That some cards were valued so high by us back then to be placed in our school books as bookmarks to show our exclusive pride towards our baseball heroes.  And maybe, just maybe a few of us, like me…looked forward to that starchy piece of thin bubble gum when I opened the package…even today. 



I remember when I was very young, my family would go to the Outer Banks and we would always stop at this tiny store and buy Donoruss cards from the 1980s (and the occasional pack of up-to-date early 2000s packs) that had never sold–we’re talking Jamie Moyer Cubs cards, Greg Maddux Cubs cards, and of course, no Rockies, no Rays, no Diamondbacks, no Marlins…and my sister and I would anxiously collect Jim Thome cards every year and trade them to our cousin, a huge Indians fan, for Yankees, or the occasional Met to make our mother happy.
Those were the days…it’s really sad to think of everything as classified and narrowed down like this.
If you’re ever on Hatteras Island, see if you can find the store. They might still have stuff. Perhaps they’ve gone out of business, perhaps they’ve sold all the cards, and it could be a wild goose chase, but…it’d be nice to know a place like that is somewhere out there.

That was an awesome sotry.
That is why you need to keep writing right there.
You got so much to offer the MLB world.
I have never been to the Outer Banks, but I lived in Durham, and Charlotte, NC.
Hopefully it is not one of those 4,500 shope to cease its operations.
Hope that some day one of us can find out if it is still a “working” store, or will havde faded into the sand dunes of the Outer Banks for just your memories.
I personally hope it is still there!

Rays Renegade

Absolutely fantastic entry!!
A couple of years ago I collected Shawn Green cards, all autographed or with game used bat, pants, glove, or jersey. Then I collected Russelll Martin. I retired the hobby since it got too expensive.
Thanks for the history lesson.

That sounds great.
I know a lot of people bought them for possible future value, but I have not seen any card hit the prices people predicted, or wanted them to hit back when I was a little chitling.
Guess they will just have to stay hidden a bit longer, and hope that something special happens to them……..someday.

Rays Renegade

One of my earliest and best memories as a kid was going to the corner store and buying a pack of cards – for both the cards AND the gum! It was so exciting to unwrap the package and see which players I got. (I can still remember screaming at the top of my lungs when a Mickey Mantle card turned up.) Baseball cards are a wonderful part of being a fan, and I hope the tradition is never lost, despite the wheeling and dealing that goes on now.

I am just a guy who hates when the MLB takes to making something their “exclusive” partner for the league. I can understand the Pepsi and Budweiser selections, but some of the other choice have me scratching my head at times.
I think I smell a sarcastic blog about to be developed in my little sneaky mind…………just maybe.
Cards were a great thing for us as kids because they were inexpensive and also players loved to sign them.
I remember during the last homestand Ben Zobrist came out and handed out about 100 pre-signed baseball cards to kids, that that left a great lasting impression for 2009.

Rays Renegade

wow!…does that bring back memories…in England it was football (soccer) cards, with that card like bubble gum and yes we did the same things, card spokes of bike etc… great post and thanks for bringing back those great memories…
Outside the Phillies Looking In

Upper Deck has always made far superior stylized card. Beautifully designed actually, but a bit more expensive. I’m a big fan of their cards, so that news is troubling to me and your article is the first I’ve heard of it. Topps has always been a more classic style. I didn’t know that by not buying them, I was throwing Upper Deck under. I’ve also applied for jobs with both companies.

This year Topps came out with a ‘throwback’ Heritage Series of cards designed with a retro flavour. They also included the starchy gum! believe it or not. But the gum wasn’t quiete the same, as it was packaged within the card. Slowly, Topps is doing a lot of things with contests, autographs, the internet to revolutionize the industry. I guess that is why they are winning.

What really gets me is the Wal-Mart beside my house only sells Hockey and Nascar like you say. Partly because I live in Hockeyland, and mostly because of the turn in the industry. I know of only two card shop that still exist in my area. Other than that, I buy these cards online, or at the Jays Shop at the Rogers Centre.

I don’t know if this Topps merger with MLB does a whole lot. But I, like you, would ‘LOVE IT’ if baseball cards made a comeback! I’m still buying when I get a couple extra bucks. Great write up, as always.

I knew other countries had something like that, but I was not sure.
Thanks for the information about what kinds of cards they collect in England.
I did not make the memories, but I do not mind being the cook that stirs them up again.

Rays Renegade

Homer, had an article about it back in August, 2009.
That is when I first heard about it, but wanted to wait until after the season to do some more sniffing and see what might be going on under the surface.
With the gum, unfortunately with the fake chemicals and the additives now, it might never taste the same ever.
But it is a cool notion that they included it again.
the bad part of all of this is that Topps now will get the bulk of the great photos, team images and events that happen during the season.
Hopefully something will happen to bring this hobby back into the limelight again.

Rays Renegade

What a wonderfu post! I love the cartoons! Maybe I’ll use the first one when someone calls me “I am spending time with my boys!” Ahh..but with me, they’ll know what boys I am talking about.
I don’t do much of card collections since I never did anything like that back in Honduras, but I do have them for certain players I like.

Just getting the cards of the players you love is showing some sort of fondness for this wild hobby.
So I am seeing even people from outside of the US have embraced our little child-like game of collecting the cards;
Glad you have been able to get the Dodger cards you have wanted, and hope that you can get them signed so they become more of a memory piece for you.

Rays Renegade

I remember as a kid when Topps was pretty much the only card around. I can still remember the smell of the gum, and the cards retained that smell because it wasn’t wrapped in its own plastic, because no one cared back then if it left marks on the cards (card collecting hadn’t become Big Business yet). Never really cared for the glossy Upper Deck-type cards, they smear too easily when signed with Sharpie. In fact, I still have all my old cards in a few boxes, now co-mingling with my husband’s old cards. Apparently neither of us ever threw stuff out as kids! :-)
Wonder if they still have any gum smell? Maybe I’ll have to go sniff a few and see!
Rants, Raves, and Random Thoughts

I forgot about the gum stains.
I actually rub the cards for a few seconds with a regular pencil eraser, not hard, and I take a bit of the finish off the card to retain the signature.
Then I used to use a slight spray of hair sparay on bot the cards and baseball to seal the signature to the cards/balls.
But that is just my little way of securing them, there has to be better ways.

Rays Renegade

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