Saturday, July 4, 2015

Boxed Out

I don't look at basketball cards here too often, mostly due to the vintage era Topps sets being pretty homogenous and with one notable exception (the 1968 test issue) easy to obtain. Every once in a while though something hoops-related comes down the pike that surprises me.

A recent auction, brought to my attention by Friend o'the Archive John Moran, contained a vending box of 1970 2nd series Basketball cards. But this was no ordinary vending box kids:

That zebra stripe pattern gives this away as a factory packed vending box. But it's not the ordinary flimsy blue rectangular box commonly used in this era by Topps, like this one from 1975: 

I have to say I've seen a lot of different styles of vending boxes over the years but never one using the wax pack box as the container.  Still, with the cards being oversized in 1970, it does make a fair bit of sense.

Here's how the box looks, top and bottom:

No posters here.....

For the record, Norm Saunders, who did tons of artwork for Topps, did the touch up work on the box art.

This method of vending distribution has me wondering how the "tall boy" issues in 1964-65 were packaged.  Does anyone out there have any examples of the Football and Hockey issues from those years that shows the vending boxes? 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Proofs Go Through The Roof

One of the holier-grail type Topps items are the 1971 Rookie All Star Proofs. Covered here and here about four years ago, Robert Edward Auctions recently auctioned two of them in the Spring of 2015. The two in question, Larry Bowa and Bernie Carbo went for $12K and $14.4K respectively (includes 20% juice on each), which are eye popping numbers and way up there for prices paid for common players in the Topps universe. With but a single example known of each, these are as rare as they come.

The detail on these two in the online catalog is a bit better than my last offering:

The auction description is quite illuminating:

Each of these proofs has been consigned from the collection of a very advanced old-time collector, and we believe that this offering is the first time even a single example from this set has ever been available at public auction. Each proof features a colorful standard-size card (2.5 x 3.5 inches) pasted onto a thick piece of artist's board measuring 9.5 x 6.5 inches. The card portion features the player's head inside of a colorful star, with his position and team at top and a Topps All-Star Rookie trophy and his name at the bottom. Because these proofs are actually camera-ready paste-ups produced to be used to make final-issue cards, the heads of the player are actually Kodachrome photographs pasted on the card area. The construction and original artwork component is very elaborate and perfect.

I'm still not sure if these are production proofs or mockups made for an internal pitch meeting as one of the subjects, Carl Morton, has a backing board with a penciled number on the upper right corner, which can be an indication of a presentation board. However, the presentation boars usually are black and have numbering on their backs.

So it's a bit of an unknown still, as is the purpose behind this set, which included all ten of the 1970 Topps Rookie All Star selections.  Banquet favors? Test Issue? Possible Insert?  We may never know!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Hit The Road Stack

I've sung the praises of the 1953-54 Topps World On Wheels set before so when I was browsing the Heritage Auctions website the other day I was pleasantly surprised by a small stack of original art from the set.  Twenty four subjects were saved from the bowels of Bush Terminal at some point, probably before the 1989 Topps Guernsey's auction of original Topps artwork as my attempts to match these 24 with the 148 offered in 1989 didn't seem to match up. It's a little hard to tell with the antique auto subjects though, which make up the majority of the Heritage offering but if there are truly no duplicated subjects, then 172 of the 180 subjects have surviving artwork that's been identified.

The Guernsey catalog has a brief summary of the artwork and indicates it was all original illustration.  It's all uniformly outstanding:

Like I said, there are a lot of antique autos, one of which (fourth down on left) looks like the background color block has been inserted.  It hasn't though, as the actual card shows:

I like the lonely little VW Bug below:

None of this artwork solves the mystery of the "high high numbers" in the set, running from nos. 171-180 and which are of a slightly different composition than the previously 170 cards. The distribution method of these last 10 cards is also a bit of a mystery, as is the fact they can be found with red or blue backs, when all 170 that came before were red.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Printers Link

One of the more esoteric things I like to look at sometimes is the actual production of Topps cards. Artwork was worked up by firms such as Solomon & Gelman in the 1940's and early 50's before Topps took this vital function in-house but the printing of the cards was always outsourced, at least in the vintage era. I've taken some quick peeks before but wanted to get all of the details I can into one post.

There were two main Topps printers early on: Lord Baltimore Press (alternatively Lord Baltimore Printing), with offices in New York and a printing plant in Baltimore; and Zabel Brothers Lithographers of Philadelphia, which functioned as Bowman's printer.  It's fairly clear to me that, after they acquired Bowman from Connelly Containers in early 1956 Topps, first used Zabel Brothers to print the 1956 U.S. Presidents set. Bowman's main card size at the time of the purchase was of the same height used by Topps but 1/8" lesser in width, which matches the dimensions of  U.S. Presidents in '56.

(Lord Baltimore Press logo from 1949 Topps Stop & Go wrapper)

The other Topps Giant Size issues from 1956 (Baseball, Football, Davy Crockett "A" Series, Round Up and Flags of the World) were manufactured  in the regular size used by Topps for such cards since 1952 and almost certainly were all the work of Lord Baltimore Press (LBP). Topps went to standard sized cards measuring 2 1/2" x 3 1/2" when Elvis Presley came out in late 1956 and never looked back, so any differences in size were rendered moot.

LBP was purchased by International Paper in 1958 and within about two years had been switched from high quality commercial lithography to producing shipping cartons and the like. I suspect Topps sporadically used Zabel Brothers in the 1957-60 period before switching over somewhat permanently but right now it's impossible to tell.  Complicating matters are three other printing firms that come up.

The first of these, Stecher-Traung Lithographers of Rochester, New York may have been involved with the production of the 1962 Baseball green tints series and few other sets. Stecher-Traung also had a facility in Hartford, Connecticut and until about two months ago I never would have associated that state with the printing of Topps cards.  However it turns out another printer in the Nutmeg State, namely Chromographic Press, Inc. of Hamden produced some cards from roughly 1966-71 and was owned by Topps director P. Peter Shorin.  The plant may have been in New Haven but that's not clear to me right now. The Shorin connection is interesting as Topps co-founder Philip Shorin held at least two patents relating to printing technology.

Then there is the mysterious case of A. Hoen & Company of Baltimore, also commercial lithographers.  An obituary for Thomas Townsend Hoen, known as "Townie" and noted to be the last President of A. Hoen & Company appears in the May 25, 2011 issue of the Baltimore Sun and mentions the firm printed cards for Topps. A. Hoen certainly did high quality work as they printed maps for National Geographic. Chromographic Press went into bankruptcy around 1971, likely a planned one as Topps consolidated expenses in advance of their 1972 IPO.

Zabel Brothers was shut down in 1982 after being sold to American Bag & Paper, also known as American Packaging (around 1980) while A. Hoen printed its last in 1981.  Stecher-Traung looks like it managed to hang on until about 1985 after it merged with Schmidt Lithographic of San Francisco (printer of the glorious Obak tobacco cards from 1009-11) and an offshoot or two may still be around today. What Topps did post-Zabel I am not 100% clear on. Len Brown mentioned Topps printed their own cards in-house at some point in Duryea while I recall some hobby press articles about high quality printers used by them in the 1990's when the technology really leapfrogged mid-decade.

Large scale commercial lithography of course was done in eventually by more modernized methods of reproduction and printing but despite it being a business, it was also an art form. Just look at the detail in the advertisement above.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Boom Goes Bust

In my recent series of posts concerning the finances of Topps Chewing Gum from the late 60's into the mid 70's and in my earlier work putting together my book, it was pretty clear they had experienced phenomenal sales growth for the better part of two decades. However, the youngest baby boomers had basically turned into teenagers by the time 1977 rolled around, which means the tidal wave of adolescents buying their products had pretty much washed ashore. Like many other companies, Topps got caught up in this, as an article from the August 22, 1977 issue of Sports Collectors News reveals:

You will note "Tops"sales had decreased just a hair from fiscal 1976 but the other big story was a seven week strike at the Duryea plant by one of their unions.  I didn't scan it but a prior issue of SCN had detailed that the strike affected shipments to their jobbers, leading to a delay in both Basketball and Hockey for the 1976-77 selling season. As it turns out, there were two unions that did the shipping, one for jobbers and one for retailer accounts like Woolworth's and 7-11.

A lot of capital investments wore on the bottom line as well but the top line was starting to shrink. I also find it amusing they were marketing a gum called Scents.

One way to combat this problem was raising prices and that's exactly what happened:

I have to say I'm impressed by the cases of 1972 Topps Baseball in the picture!  I assume that came from Larry Fristch, who was tight with SCN's publisher Mike Bondarenko. Oh, for a time machine...

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Century Mark

A very interesting lot of 1965 Topps Baseball Hot Iron Transfers sold in the recently concluded Huggins & Scott auction that ended on April 10th. There were 100 examples of 24 subjects, or 2,400 transfers offered. The centering makes it seem like they were cut on a good day at the Topps plant:

 I mean, those are fresh!

I'm not sure what the back story is on the find but clearly these are from a full series print run; there are 72 transfers in a full set so in a perfect world they would have been issued over three series.

The 1965 Embossed Baseball inserts also were found in packs this year. That was also a series of 72 and that issue took presumably three full series to distribute as well. Remember these?


Both sets would have been pretty simple to crank out but why did Topps feel the need in 1965 to keep enticing the kiddies? There just doesn't seem to have been a viable competing set.  The only thing I can surmise is that they were worried about the Federal Trade Commission decision on the series of complaints filed by Fleer would open the door for the latter to start selling MLB cards. 

The FTC did indeed rule against Topps on some, but not all of the complaints.  Topps was found to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, just like the American Tobacco Company was back in 1911. Part of the decision ordered Topps to stop entering into contracts of more than two years length after November 1, 1964.  So I wonder if they were just trying to get as much out of the 1965 Baseball sales as possible.  It would ultimately be moot though, since the FTC decision was  overturned on appeal.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

What A Difference A Year Makes

Following up on my recent string of posts covering the 1973-76 Topps Annual Reports, I've found a few contemporary news articles from Sports Collectors News reacting to Topps' financials. SCN was a hobby newspaper put out by Mike Bondarenko from 1968-78 that, by 1974, was professionally typeset and printed bi-weekly with extensive coverage of the then-current hobby scene. It didn't have the advertising oomph of The Trader Speaks but it made up for it in articles and editorials. Here are a few tidbits about the mighty Topps Chewing Gum.

This first one is from the August 2, 1974 issue and the author (somewhat) bemoans the goings-on at Corporate HQ:


The fact that Topps was sold in 200,000 different stores is hugely impressive but if you do the math they netted only $220 per store in sales and a measly $10 in net profits! Still, things were looking mighty good thanks to Wacky Packages.

By the time 1975 had kicked into gear, things weren't looking so rosy as this May 23, 1975 article reveals:

International sales were definitely on the minds of the top Topps brass as the business landscape had changed dramatically for all but a handful of companies by 1975 thanks to the damage the Arab Oil Embargo did to the US and other select economies around the globe. The effect can be seen in the profits, which were down substantially while net sales had increased by almost $6 Million from the year prior.

Bondarenko started SCN when he was 16 (!) and I have to say by the time the mid 70's rolled around it was, the most professional looking hobby publication out there prior to the debut of Baseball Cards Magazine in 1981. Not bad for a twenty-something!