The cardboard of spring

Baseball cards once provided a beloved adjunct to the National Pastime, one that really formed a brick in that ivy-covered wall we call the Zeitgeist. In those bygone days, the young and young at heart emptied the piggy bank in anticipation of the arrival of their cardboard heroes at local stores.

Once vivid with primary colors and fantastic facial hair, and retailing for a quarter per pack, Topps baseball cards now mostly cater to adult speculators and the heirs to oil fortunes and sell for many dollars per pack. True, these days you can find a Jayson Werth card that sings Buddy Bell’s 1946 classic “Shaving Cream,” and that wasn’t happening in 1974. But, alas, baseball cards no longer link together a generation of Americans, no longer allow us to sit with a stranger at a bar or (shudder) wedding reception and laughingly pass the time with questions like, “Do you remember that card where Glenn Hubbard was wearing a python?

burkIn his UIP book Marvin Miller: Baseball Revolutionary, Robert F. Burk tells how Miller, the still-new Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, gave downtrodden players not only a chance to receive more than peanuts on payday, but helped them exploit marketing bonanzas that added real bank to their take.

That money meant something to players doomed to labor under the Reserve Clause. With Miller representing the players, Topps soon found itself facing a new business model:

Now Miller urged his rank-and-file, including those with expiring individual Topps contracts, to implement a union-wide boycott. For those with longstanding relationships with the card company it meant the potential loss of up to $600 over the next five years. But if the players were willing to show to Joel Shorin the “muscle” behind their position, they could garner much more. Trusting in their leader, en masse they rejected signing new deals.

The union’s boycott was not its only means of putting the squeeze on Topps. Ever since the successful bottle-cap deal with Coke, Miller had pursued similar opportunities. Exploiting a loophole within Topps’ monopolistic contracts, Miller struck competing deals with “non-confectionary” companies, including one with Kellogg’s for 3-D player likenesses and a Milk Duds agreement to display player pictures on candy boxes. Administering this spate of new group agreements, handling individual player complaints against abuse by the licensing companies, and combating pirated merchandise, however, proved too time-consuming for Miller to balance with his many other duties. Accordingly, he contracted out the handling of similar future deals to a professional marketing agency, the Weston Merchandising Corporation.

It was now time to turn the screws tighter on Topps to force a more-generous licensing pact. The pressure from the union’s boycott of individual contracts took all season to bear fruit, but the company finally caved. Serious bargaining commenced in September, and after one last delay triggered by the heart-attack death of Joel Shorin’s attorney, the deal was done. Beginning in 1969, each Association member would receive a yearly check of $250, plus an 8% royalty on Topps’ cumulative card-sale revenue up to $4 million and 10% for its returns above that figure. In the first year alone the new pact generated the union $320,000—over $500 per member—compared to the $100 per player from the earlier Coca-Cola deal. Even more significant for the rank-and-files’ future prospects, the contract included provisions that gave players the right to grant other companies use of their likenesses within specified size parameters. By the late 1980’s, the union’s share of the combined earnings of five different card companies would reach an astounding $50 million.