In Memoriam: Sy Berger, 91, created the modern baseball trading card

From Richard Goldstein at the New York Times on December 14, 2014, on longtime SABR member Sy Berger:

Sy Berger, who transformed a boys’ hobby into a high-stakes pop culture niche as the father of the modern-day baseball trading card, died on Sunday at his home in Rockville Centre, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 91.

His death was announced by his family.

Baseball cards date to the 19th century, but for Mr. Berger, the decade after World War II was the perfect time to revitalize them. The Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants dominated baseball, providing a fertile marketing climate aimed at youngsters in the New York metropolitan area who had been born in the immediate postwar years. And throughout America, the arrival of television made it possible for youngsters to watch their baseball heroes in action.

In the 1950s, Mr. Berger turned the Brooklyn-based Topps company into a name synonymous with those pieces of cardboard that children could flip (calling out front or back), pitch (nearest to a wall wins), trade or simply admire and store in a shoe box.

Mr. Berger introduced Topps cards in 1951. They came with taffy, rather than chewing gum, since a competitor seemed to have exclusive rights to market baseball cards with gum. But the taffy wound up picking up the flavor of varnish on the cards.

“You wouldn’t dare put that taffy near your mouth,” Mr. Berger said, adding, “that ’51 series was really a disaster.”

A year later, after switching to gum, he conceived the prototype for the modern baseball card, supplanting the unimaginative, smallish and often black-and-white offerings of the existing card companies.

“We came out in 1952 with a card in color, beautiful color, and a card that was large,” Mr. Berger told the Society for American Baseball Research in 2004. “For the first time, we had a team logo. We had the 1951 line statistics and their lifetime statistics. No one else did it.”

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Originally published: December 14, 2014. Last Updated: December 14, 2014.