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Farewell to the Father of Baseball Cards

Sad news out of Long Island: Sy Berger, the father of modern baseball cards, died today at 91 [1].

Berger didn’t invent baseball cards — they date back to 19th-century “trade cards” and were first popularized by cigarette companies. But Berger made them the empire they became. In 1947 he started working as a marketer at Brooklyn-based Topps, which had been co-founded by the father of one of his fraternity brothers. Berger’s first assignment was marketing pop-culture cards for the likes of Davy Crockett, but in 1951 he looked to steal an infant market from rival Bowman with a series of baseball cards.

Sy Berger's 2004 card [2]The ’51 cards were a dress rehearsal for what would follow — they were designed to be used playing a mock baseball game, making them more like a forerunner of Magic The Gathering than what we think of as baseball cards, and they came with taffy, which proved excellent at picking up the flavor of the varnish on the cards. (And you thought those square pieces of bubble gum were bad.) But the next year Topps introduced bigger, much better cards — full-color cards with stats on the back, including the now-iconic ’52 Mantle [3]. Nothing would ever be the same — for generations, Topps cards were as much a part of boyhood as toy soldiers and bikes and other kid pastimes. (Berger was a sharp businessman, too — a showdown over photo fees for players was one of the union’s first attempts at finding its footing. The union’s insistence on better terms was a dry run for its ultimately successful attempt to force economic change on a sport that was still run like a medieval barony.)

I discovered the world Berger created in 1976, when I was seven. I’d grown up in a Mets household, but it wasn’t my mother leaping up and down and cheering for Rusty Staub that made me a fan forevermore. (Though that was a good start.) It was really Topps baseball cards, which in the summer of 1976 suddenly and irrevocably replaced dinosaurs as my principal boyhood obsession. For me, each of those Topps cards was a little window into baseball history — you could trace careers through the stats and the bulleted highlights on the back, and piece together an education about the sport from the little cartoon facts chosen by Topps writers.

Here’s what I learned from Topps’ twenty-six 1976 Met cards (plus one team card, a four-panel rookie and a record-breaker) — cards that came, oddly, on yellow and blue cards that would have been more suited for a collector of all things related to the University of Michigan:

And that was just one team’s cards. I spent hours with my ’76 cards, piecing together the beginnings of a baseball education and the foundation of a lifelong love of the sport. How long did I spend? Well, a couple of weeks ago, on an insomniac whim, I Google-searched for photos of ’76 team sets and was able to identify at a glance which cards I’d never found during that summer 38 years ago.

From there, I submerged myself in the Baseball Encyclopedia, reading accounts of baseball history and scouring lists of league leaders and just browsing through the statistics of players, stopping to review careers that seemed particularly long or tragically short or otherwise noteworthy. (And how amazing was it that Hank Aaron somehow came first?) I haunted the library, checking out and devouring every baseball book I could find. (Like Greg, one of my favorites was Tug McGraw’s mildly deranged autobiography Screwball [5].) But my education began with Topps baseball cards, with seeing that Jesus Alou had played for a long time, and wondering what it was like to play for Marion or Visalia or the mysterious Pomp. Bch, and noting that players were drafted.

I stopped collecting baseball cards for a while after the strike, started up again as an adult in strange circumstances [6], and now collect what I want to collect — which invariably includes both regular Topps series and the update set. I own every Topps Mets card, and every Topps card of everybody who ever played for the Mets (with a few reprints in the mix), and have a trio of binders called The Holy Books [7] that include cards for every Met in team history, in order of their arrival. But that’s not all. I’ve made cards for cup-of-coffee guys who never got a card even as a minor leaguer, and bought unused photos of players from Topps’s Vault eBay auctions. There’s something faintly magical about seeing a photo from the mid-1960s of an obscure Met and imagining it as a ’66 or ’67 Topps card — the photos have a certain saturated glow that identify them instantly and obviously as the work of a Topps photographer, in the same way that art historians can immediately spot, say, a Titian or a Veronese.

And Topps cards remain a happy part of my life. In the offseason, I like to scratch my Mets itch by browsing through The Holy Books, getting reacquainted with the immortals and the forgotten alike. I just did some THB upgrading via eBay, getting an Al Luplow in which he’s actually wearing a Mets uniform and eliminating a Gil Hodges with writing on the front. And I continue to make my own cards for the Lost Mets — somehow, creating a ’72 Rusty Staub or a ’75 Rich Puig feels like you’ve found something that always existed and had been merely lost.

I owe all that passion and knowledge and craziness, ultimately, to Sy Berger. He gave me my first baseball education, followed by literally decades of joy.