Eighty-three thousand dollars(!) for an Andy Pafko baseball card. A piece of cardboard that was child's play. Pitch them: closest to the wall wins. Flip them heads or tails; call it odds or evens. Stick them in the spokes of your bike with a clothespin and hear the whir as you ride along.
You wouldn't put Topps 1952, card No. 1 in your spokes now, would you?
How can this be? "I can't see it," said Sy Berger, the man who put players and cards together for Topps for a half-century. "I think it's inane. I think it's obscene." This is his lament. Mine, too.
It's no money in the bank for Topps or Berger. He doesn't even collect baseball cards. Well, he did a little when he was growing up in the Bronx in the 1930s, but not professionally. "People don't understand," he said. "We put out the best product we can. We sell it to people who sell it. It's the secondary market."
Some of us grew up with one card wrapped with a piece of pink bubble gum for a penny. For a nickel you got six cards and a piece of gum. It was Bazooka gum. You will never forget the aroma -- or get the gum off your sneakers. It was all innocent. You collected cards because that's what the guys did. Maybe you tried to get a whole set of the New York Giants or Brooklyn Dodgers or St. Louis Browns.
"You collected the beautiful pictures of great athletes you admired," Berger said. You traded the doubles or put the really good players aside and flipped the extras. He tells of collecting Big League Gum cards in the '30s. He had a complete set except for Jess Petty. Never heard of him? "He wasn't in the majors; he was in a Minneapolis Millers uniform," Berger said. He finally found a guy way over in the East Bronx who had the Petty. "And he wouldn't trade it; he wouldn't sell it," Berger said. "He would only flip. I won his whole collection."
Berger was a Braves fan because his father had come to this country in Boston, but more because Wally Berger played outfield for them Sy told the kids Wally was his uncle. Until they called him on it. The Braves came to town, Sy hung out at the players' entrance to the Polo Grounds and told his story to Wally. You could do that then. He told Sy to come back with three friends. He put them in the box next to the visiting dugout. At batting practice he took Sy to the dugout and the other kids wanted to go along. "Sorry," Wally said, "only my nephew Seymour."
Sy Berger was vice president of sports and licensing for Topps until recently semi-retiring to adviser status at 74. He still goes to the big events. When he started, shortly after the Air Force in 1947, the product was Changemakers. Cigarettes were 17 cents a pack and the idea was that you'd take three pieces of Changemaker gum instead of the pennies from your change.
Baseball cards came in 1951. It had been done before, but Topps really defined the category, made baseball cards a staple just by continuing to make a good product for longer than four years. Kids couldn't wait for the new cards to come out shortly before spring training. The ballplayers couldn't wait for the $50 checks -- $125 for exclusive rights. The 1952 set redefined the art with statistics on the back and color and signatures on front, numbered 1 to 310.
Late in the season, Berger suggested they print 311 through 407. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays weren't in the 1951 set and weren't included in the first 310. "It was a dud," Berger said.
People always suspect a deliberate shortage of the best cards. "If we print 10,000 sheets, there's 10,000 Mickey Mantles," Berger said. Around 1960 the Brooklyn warehouse was cluttered and Berger went out on the garbage scow that dumped two truckfuls of the 1952 duds in the ocean. The few Mantles that were sold became rare, but there wasn't much of a market then. In the 1980s there was. "I watched my eldest grandchildren collect, but it was different from my reason," Berger said. "To me it was such a wonderful joy. It was a plaything -- no great value. Even when I was putting out cards in the '50s."
In 1990, Forbes magazine identified baseball cards as the best investment of the '80s. Mickey Mantle of 1952 sold for $49,000. Why a piece of paper with a ballplayer's picture became valuable is for anthropologists. I think that people who lamented the departure of the Dodgers and Giants had grown to middle-age nostalgia and now had money in their pockets. "Too provincial," Berger said. "It was all over the country."
But why? There isn't even gum in the pack any more. "People collect all kinds of crap," Berger explained.
His library at home in Rockville Centre has one bookcase of sports books and one case of literature. He had to look in a book for collectors' prices. He keeps some things. One day he glanced into the trash at the plant and saw a blue box tied with string. "People don't throw out trash wrapped with string," he thought. The 1953 cards were made from oil paintings, and there they were -- discarded by the art department. He had Mantle, Mays and Jackie Robinson framed for one office; Bob Feller, Whitey Ford and Roy Campanella for another. Later the six were auctioned for $338,000.
"I kept 100 for myself and gave away another hundred -- until I found guys were selling them."
The parallel comes from the time a teen presented 10 index cards for Willie Mays to autograph. Berger asked, "What do you need 10 for? Are you selling them?" Yes, the kid said. He was getting a dollar. "Then give Mr. Mays 50 cents each," Berger said.
"What for?" the kid asked.
Autographs and baseball cards, those innocent keepsakes, are now the bourse: Invest $1.25 for 10 cards and maybe there's growth potential of $5. Football and basketball are only a fraction of the market. Berger thinks it's baseball's nature that creates the market. "It isn't determined by the clock," he said. It's determined by the last chance."
Actually, the collectors' market may be hot; the mass market is off. Kids aren't buying. "They have too much else to do," Berger said. "The only time they play is organized play. I don't see kids playing catch. They don't know how to flip cards."
His own favorite ballplayer of all time remains Bob Keegan. Save for a no-hitter, he had an unremarkable career pitching for the Chicago White Sox from '53 to '58. "We met on our first day at Bucknell," Berger explained. He has a 1982 reprint of Keegan's card. People keep things for their own reasons.
But $83,000 for Andy Pafko? The image I have is of Pafko in left field in the Polo Grounds when Bobby Thomson's home run went over his head. "Usually the value is contingent on stardom," Berger said. "Pafko was a good player, not a superstar.
"I don't see it."