There were three stores nearby our house that carried them. Just up the road was the Galyan’s Trading Company, a grocery store that also sold boats, camping equipment and guns. Next door to them, also owned by the Galyan clan, was a Rexall Drug Store. They kept theirs in Aisle 5. The other location that sometimes carried them was the Hook’s Pharmacy.
The first year I remember seriously buying them was 1966. Baseball was different in the mid-1960s. The courts finally allowed the Milwaukee Braves to pack their belongings and move to Atlanta. Washington had a team in the American League named the Senators. The Athletics were still in Kansas City prior to a move to Oakland. Houston had a team in the National League. An expansion was still a couple of years away. But to a kid collecting baseball cards with bubble gum, none of that really mattered.
A nickel placed on the counter in 1966 could buy a red wax pack, containing five baseball cards and a stick of pink, dusty bubble gum. The gum was a thin stick of flat, rectangle-shaped sugar. Tasting somewhere between chewing cardboard and chewing chalk, the Topps company used the cards as an enticement to buy the gum. Little did they know it was actually the other way around. Cellophane packs with more cards could be purchased at many toy stores.
Baseball cards did not originate with the Topps company, but date back to the 1880s when they were a stabling ingredient in cigarette packs. Topps was founded in 1938, but has roots back to the American Leaf Tobacco company, which began in 1890. The business suffered difficulties during World War I and the Great Depression. The Topps Company was formed to salvage the family business.
At the time, chewing gum was a novelty item. Topps’ most successful venture was Bazooka Joe bubble gum, which was packaged with a small comic on the wrapper. In 1950, in an attempt to increase gum and candy sales, they included trading cards of Western legend Hopalong Cassidy. In 1951 they instead featured baseball cards. Because of the success, the following year Topps released an entire series of baseball cards.
Topps continued to include its chewing gum in the baseball card packs until 1991. Serious card collectors, though, said the gum stained the cards, making them worthless. The first year’s cards did not feature gum, but were accompanied by taffy. The taffy picked up the flavor of the ink and sealant from the cards. Gum was an obvious choice.
The 1966 set featured 598 cards. The seventh series from the set includes cards from number 523 up to card 598. These particular cards typically account for 60% to 70% of the set’s value. Many of these higher numbers did not receive much circulation until years later, contributing to their value. Even a set in fair to good condition today would capture $5,000 on the market.
The first card in this set featured Hall of Famer Willie Mays. The set ended with another future Hall of Famer, and another San Francisco Giant, Gaylord Perry. Los Angeles Dodger Sandy Koufax appeared on one side panel of the wax packs, advertising the rub-off decals that were part of the 1966 set.
My family went to the grocery store on most Saturdays, meaning there were two chances to see if there were any cards on the shelves. Five of my friends would gather on Monday afternoons to compare treasures and trade over-stocks. Was there a Mantle inside? Mays? Clemente? Rose?
Mine rarely contained the most popular players. I can still picture the two cards that seemed to appear in the majority of my purchases. Sporting a light blue banner that said “Twins” across the left upper corner, the baseball card for Jim Merritt explained that he was a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins.
Merritt showed flashes of talent, but never seemed to be able to climb over the hill to success. Traded even up for shortstop Leo Cardenas, Merritt eventually became a Cincinnati Red. Merritt finished the 1970 season at 20 wins and 12 losses. But he started the 1971 season with a terrible 0-8 record, and was demoted to the bullpen. After losing a couple more games, the lefty finished the season at 1-11.
With another blue banner that boasted “Reds” at the top and the blue stripe at the bottom listing the name and “position,” Don Heffner was the 1966 manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Heffner had played second base with the Yankees, Tigers, St. Louis Browns and the Philadelphia Athletics. The Reds were lodged in eighth place when they released Heffner just after the All-Star break.
Sadly, my overstock was not even desired “trade bait,” most found themselves clinging to the spokes of my sister’s bicycle wheel by a clothes pin. The Reds that year might have done better on bicycles.
Along with sports cards, Topps made headway into the entertainment industry, offering trading cards of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Star Wars and Pokémon. The Topps Company also owns Garbage Pail Kids and Walking Dead card franchises. Deals the company has made now sets its value at $1.3 billion.
From the Catbird Seat, congratulations to the Topps organization celebrating 70 years as an icon in the sports and entertainment trading card industry, providing fans a way to connect with their heroes. Just shy of 3 inches wide and just a tad over 3 inches tall, the collectible stands as a giant piece of Americana.