SABR Nine: Sy Berger

Editor’s note: This article by Ryan Chamberlain was published in the July-August 2004 edition of the SABR Bulletin and is reprinted in its original form here. Longtime SABR member Sy Berger died at age 91 on December 14, 2014. For more from the SABR Bulletin archives, click here.  

By Ryan Chamberlain

Any way you slice it, Sy Berger is a legend. By most accounts, in 1951 the Bowman Company dominated the baseball card market. But in 1952, Topps took the industry by storm with a redesigned card that would literally change the face of popular culture for decades to come. Berger, with help from Woody Gelman, designed the 1952 Topps series which is considered by experts as the prototype of the modern day baseball card. But that’s only half the story. In order to produce the now classic cards that featured such greats as Mickey Mantle, Topps had to get signed contracts from every player whose card they produced. For decades, the man at Topps responsible for securing those contracts was also Berger. Through the golden age of baseball, he was a fixture in the New York clubhouses racing against the competition for exclusive contracts and making some lasting friendships along the way. At 81, Berger shows no sign of slowing down. Between dividing his time as an advisor to Topps, representing Willie Mays, playing with his grandchildren and an occasional round of golf among many other activities, Berger is as active as any 30 year-old. A member of SABR since 1978, we are delighted to provide a brief glimpse into the unique life of Sy Berger in this edition of the SABR Nine.

1. What do you think made your card design more appealing than Bowman?

Well, if you go back to the Bowman cards of 1948 and they were black and white…they were small…the pictures did not have any names on the front…they weren’t designed. They did not put in a large card until we started to because they had it [the card market] to themselves, and what the heck, they didn’t have to do anything fancy. We came out in 1952 with a card in color, beautiful color…and a card that was large. Our first cards were 2 5/8 by 3 3/4…much larger [than Bowman’s]…and for the first time we had a team logo. Also, we had the 1951 line statistics and their lifetime statistics. I mean, no one else did it. Ours was the card of the fan…we stormed on them, we knocked them out of the box. And you can even see, if you really look carefully, the considered rookie card of Mickey Mantle is our 1952 card. Bowman had a card of Mantle in 1951. The first Bowman card was card number 253. It’s a valuable card, but you speak to people, “What’s Mantle’s rookie card?” And of course you know the answer. You’ve got to understand, we were neophytes in this, in putting out cards, especially seasonal cards like sports cards. Which I want you to know, I wrote very single one of those 1952 cards. I wrote them and I recalculated the statistics because everything in one book says a guy’s 6 foot 2, in the next book it says he’s 5 foot 11. One says he weighs 300lbs, the other says 200lbs. You know, information wasn’t that ready in those days and I worked and I did everything…the whole series at home. Three hundred and seven cards.

2. Who was the most instrumental player in helping Topps get started in the baseball trading card business?

As far as the players go, I went in to the clubhouses for the very first time in 1951…none of them knew who I was…I was just a young fella and had a good smile and they say it was my charm. Willie Mays, of course had a great impact. I am still his oldest and best friend and I handle most of his business affairs now. Of course, he became a star by ’54 when he came out of the Army and was MVP. And I was always in the clubhouse…this is New York. So, I was known as “Willie’s friend.” [They would say] “Well, you know, if it’s good enough for Willie, it’s good enough for me.”

Jerry Coleman, who was a player representative for the Yankees, [and I] worked out a contract in which we finally had to bow a little to things. Those concessions we made to him ended up in the contracts other players were signing. So that had an impact. If you look around there’s Ted Kluszewski, he was with Cincinnati. He was my man. And Gil Hodges. And Eddie Yost, who as a player representative, with the Washington Senators [was] also one of the guys I befriended.

3. Was your strategy at first trying to get as many players as you could or to get key players and hope that others would join in?

My hope in those days was to go into a clubhouse and sign every guy in the clubhouse. I wanted to sign everybody. And, of course, there was opposition. Some guy would say, “Oh, no” because Bowman had gotten their rights. But I started signing players and the other people sort of moved away. Every time a team came to New York or Brooklyn I was there. I brought bubble gum into the clubhouses, and for the first time the guys were chewing bubble gum instead of tobacco. And I brought in picture cards [for the players]. You know Bowman never even gave the guys their picture cards! I brought in packages, a hundred of each guy’s card and gave it to them. Then I brought in the cards and put them around on the chairs and the tables. It was Topps. We had a presence. I was there, and Topps was there, we always brought our product into the clubhouse including Bazooka. And so as a result, I became very friendly with all of the players. I was always around.

4. Who are some of the notable sportswriters that worked with you and Topps over the years to produce and promote baseball cards?

In New York – Dick Young. He never failed to mention in his Friday notes column Topps or Sy Berger. Then Jack Lang. Dick Young was Daily News, Jack Lang was with the Newhouse papers. Norman Miller did the backs of a number of our sports cards after the initial year. And, oh yes, Arthur and Milt Richman. They supported me. I became part of the team. I was not a stranger. And as we go across the country, Jerry Holtzman. Very close. And also radio broadcasters…I knew everybody…fellows like the public relations director at the time for the Cincinnati Reds, Dave Grote who became the PR director of the National League and Warren Giles who became league president. And out on the coast, Mel Durslag, he was in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Harry Jupiter graduated from the same high school in New York as I did. But I found him in San Francisco.

5. What was something about Topps baseball cards or a particular Topps series that very few people would know about?

Everybody wondered how all of a sudden we had gotten Ted Williams in our 1954 series. We were in a legal battle with Bowman back-and-forth, and Bowman thought they had an option to get his picture in 1954. At any rate, Ted Williams was the man. I wanted to get him, to sign him. Fred Corcoran was Ted Williams’ agent, and I told him I had a program I wanted to talk to him about that included Ted. I spoke to him and told him how I would feature Ted and we would do Williams honor. And he got up and he says, “Kid, I like you. You got Teddy.” And we made a five-year deal. It was exclusive…he could only be on Topps picture cards for the next five years….’54 through ’58. And it was only $400 a year. Don’t forget that then we paid for exclusive contracts. Bowman was paying $100, were paying $125 for exclusive, $75 for non-exclusive. And Williams was probably getting $100 from them. This is going back to the old days. Then in ’54 Bowman thought they had an option but they didn’t and they printed his card, but they could not include it. [Once Bowman printed the card], we threatened to sue them because we had a contract. Of course some of them got out, but they had to go and hand pick the cards out. We used Williams through ’58 but gave him up in ’59 because Fleer offered him $5,000 to do a series [of just Williams].

6. Do you think the game is the same as it was in the 1950’s?

I know records are made to be broken, but there are so many different conditions as the years go on. They [records] should be specified by decades. Ten-year, even five-year. The player today is a guy who’s got wealth, particularly the stars. Well , the players in the early days, through the ‘50’s and the ‘60’s and even into the ‘70’s, for crying out loud, they had to go get a job to feed their family during the off-season. And how many Babe Ruths [star players] did you have? The money was tough. And also, today’s player keeps himself in shape. He virtually has to keep himself in shape all year. Then you go look into even the way the mind works. Nobody was walking Babe Ruth with the bases loaded. And nobody was walking Willie Mays with the bases loaded. Barry Bonds is a great hitter, but there’s a Sosa, there’s a Griffey, there’s so many of these guys who can hit. [Today’s players] have better equipment. Everybody’s bat used to be the same…Ash. Now you’ve got harder wood, you’ve got a tighter ball and you’ve got pitchers with more deliveries. How can you compare one to the next?

7. As Willie Mays’ friend, how do you think his accomplishments stand against Barry Bonds?

I have a very good relationship with Barry Bonds. I was dear friends with his father who he loved dearly. And Barry is very close to Willie Mays. Willie Mays is truly his godfather – it’s no game. He thinks a lot about Willie and I’ve heard Willie talk to him, “You shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that.” And Willie is for him breaking the record. Willie wishes every time he gets up that Barry hits a home run. My personal feeling is that if Willie hadn’t played in Candlestick Park he would have hit 800 home runs. Willie from ’58 or ’59 on had to swing in that park in the way it was originally built. They tried to fix it up a little, maybe a little. The wind blew in from left field. Just blew in. And I tell you I sat in a box at 3rd base for the whole game and papers were flying into my face. And here Willie is supposed to hit home runs to left field? So he had to learn to hit the ball to center field and right field, which was maybe 30, 40 feet longer. Still had a wind pushing it. My feeling about baseball and what I’ve seen, I have never seen a player as good as Willie Mays.

8. What do you think changed the dynamic of the trading card industry from kid-focused to collector-focused?

Value appreciation. Mama used to give you a nickel and say, “Now don’t buy those stupid baseball cards.” And now she’s saying, “And remember, don’t forget to buy the baseball cards so you can go to college!” Value appreciation. Now it’s strictly for collectors. And it’s too bad because our baseball cards, I felt, were an encyclopedia for a kid. With our sports cards, we tried our best and I think we accomplished making them as accurate as humanly possible. Give the kid as much information as possible…In fact, I used to say, “We made baseball cards. Today, we make works of art.” What more can we do?

9. So what do you think is the future for baseball cards?

I think everything is cyclical. And the time is going to come when suddenly baseball cards will be the big thing with kids again. Look at how people dress. They change…then suddenly you see, “Hey, we did that ten years ago.” When they run out of new ideas, they go back to the old.

Originally published: June 6, 2004. Last Updated: June 6, 2004.