Armour: The great Topps baseball card monopoly: Innovative subsets

From SABR member Mark Armour at The National Pastime Museum on April 21, 2016:

By the early 1960s the Topps baseball card monopoly had driven many bubblegum makers out of business. The days of kids buying gum and getting a free card were long gone—more likely the gum was never being chewed at all. This state of affairs was particularly troubling to Fleer, a Philadelphia-based company whose “Double Bubble” gum had kicked off the industry in 1928 and was its leader until overtaken by Topps’ “Bazooka” in the 1960s.

Topps maintained its stranglehold on the business by signing players when they were still in the low minors. They gave the prospects five dollars as a binder to lock in exclusive rights for five years. Topps renewed these binders regularly and paid players $125 per year if they were used on a card or if they appeared in the big leagues for 31 days. Topps actually provided the players with a catalog of items they could choose from in lieu of the cash, like a set of luggage or a television. Thus a monopoly was maintained—if a rival tried to enter the market, it would take five years to get all the players under contract.

Fleer made a few attempts to break in. They signed Ted Williams away from Topps in 1959 and put out an 80-card set devoted entirely to Williams’s life. In 1960 they produced a set of cards devoted to former stars, like Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, and did the same in 1961. None of these sets made a dent in Topps’ market or much helped Fleer at all. In January 1962, the Federal Trade Commission (prompted by Fleer) filed a complaint against Topps alleging that its hold on the baseball card and gum businesses were making it impossible for competitors to make inroads.

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Originally published: April 21, 2016. Last Updated: April 21, 2016.