I enjoy picking apart unexplained details of vintage sets to see where that journey leads. This article puts 1935’s Big League Gum baseball set, often shortened to “1935 Goudey,” under a microscope with similar aims. It looks at what’s in the set, obsesses over missing details, and considers how it fits into an important decade for baseball and our hobby.
1935 Goudey Big League Gum (Ruth at upper-left)
This set exists thanks to work by two seminal companies from Boston, Goudey Gum and National Chicle. The former ran parallel US and Canadian operations that reflected its founder’s Nova Scotia heritage. Chicle itself emerged from 1933’s trading cards explosion and lasted just long enough to give Goudey real competition. Much of what that era faced echoes in today’s hobby, including a gambling mindset among potential buyers and baseball’s push to raise fan interest during hard financial times.
Goudey Gum’s Hollywood beginnings
Our 1920s produced, for the most part, small trading cards sets with low print quality. “Bubblegum cards” didn’t exist yet because our Federal Trade Commission blocked marketing gimmicks like packing cards with candy as anti-competitive (and thus illegal). Many lawmakers believed that selling penny gum with unknown contents would start kids down the road to compulsive gambling and objected to its use, with success, on moral grounds.
Sports like baseball also shut down for several months at a time and those lengthy off-seasons made it challenging to sell product tie-ins on a consistent basis. That led Goudey to Hollywood as something more predictable. Their first set appears to be western movie postcards linked to the popular brand Oh Boy Gum.
1929 Oh Boy Gum movie cards (cataloged E282)
This made their first “sports card” a candid of western movie star Tom Mix working out with his friend (and boxing champ) Jack Dempsey. The text variation that lacks Goudey’s name implies they integrated an existing Mix/Dempsey card into this larger Oh Boy Gum set.
Goudey’s next set told “the story of chewing gum” and trumpeted their production process during 1930 sponsorship of a kid’s radio show, Big Brother’s Radio Rascals.
1930 Goudey “Story of Chewing Gum” (uncataloged)
I bet kids obtained Rainbow cards from local stores or by mail-in request to its home station, WEEI. Every Goudey marketing effort from this era pushed hard against the perception that penny gum meant “low quality.”
In January 1933, a majority decision in R.F. Keppel Brothers vs. FTC overturned the ban that applied to bubblegum cards as marketing gimmicks and freed companies to sell them. Goudey was ready for that change of fortune and launched Indian Gum in February, followed by the debut of Big League Gum cards around Opening Day.
DeLong’s 1933 Play Ball Gum set, not to be confused with Gum, Inc.’s 1939-41 sets, stopped at one series of 24 players. We might attribute its modern scarcity to one of baseball’s first agents, Christy Walsh, and the need to pay his clients or face legal trouble. See SABR’s Death and Taxes and Baseball Card Litigation series for several tales of legal wrangling over player images. (Jimmie Foxx’s 1941 case happened to go up against Harold DeLong’s next company, who produced the Double Play set.)
Sports promoter Christy Walsh (center) negotiated endorsements for Gehrig (left), Ruth (right), and several other MLB stars around this time. I suspect he turned 1933’s card boom into higher endorsement fees for each player in 1934, forcing companies to choose who they could afford.
New Yorker writer Louis Menand cited Lou’s new wife Eleanor as working with Walsh to create a pitchman persona for her husband. Goudey bet on Lou alone for 1934, linking this Big League Gum card set and their Knot Hole League customer loyalty club to his smiling mug. Walsh, always the promoter, even worked his own name onto each card with a “by arrangement with Christy Walsh” byline.
Sometime in 1933, a group of Goudey executives led by Alvin Livingstone left the company to start crosstown rival National Chicle. I think much of its creative talent followed them, based on how good their Art Deco Diamond Stars Gum (left) and die-cut Batter-Up Gum (right) sets looked in 1934.
Whether you blame competition or changing consumer tastes, later court filings show Goudey’s baseball card business suffered after 1933, dropping by 50% in 1934 and another 50% the year after, even as gum itself continued to sell well.
Goudey’s dropping card revenue and the exit of key staff to competitors reflects America’s wider business landscape for fans and collectors.
Depression impacts on Goudey and baseball
The mid-1930s proved a tough time for our pastime itself. America’s depression squeezed every entertainment dollar and attendance slacked to under 5,000 per game by 1933. Team owners threw new stuff at the wall each year to see what stuck and we can thank this era for, among other things…
1935 wrappers evoke Babe Ruth, now in his final season, and I suspect they added a date because 1934 Big League Gum’s entire first series reused images from 1933 and left a poor taste in buyer’s mouths. (“This time it’s different,” implied Goudey, before reusing many player pictures once again.)
1932 Sanella Margarine, one of many cards with this swinging pose
Goudey’s set of 36 cards and three loose ends
1935 Big League Gum put four players on each card and its selection bridged eras, from Babe Ruth to rookie phenom Cy Blanton, who led the NL in shutouts and garnered his own 2021 SABR card profile.
Collectors used the literal flip side to build six-card puzzles for individual stars like Mickey Cochrane…
…and twelve cards each for three team photos (Tigers, Indians, Senators).
Big League Gum’s 36 arrangements of four players each should equal 144, except they printed six twice (Bottomley, Brandt, Cochrane, Comorosky, Kamm, and Mancuso), for 138 different faces.
1935 Goudey Big League Gum’s two Mickey Cochrane fronts
Other hobby writers already addressed some of 1935’s puzzles and peccadilloes. I know of three more loose ends that might connect with a single thread.
First loose end: Player selection left out many big names. Even if you accept choosing between Ruth or Gehrig as your biggest star, where’s Yankees Ace Lefty Gomez? He appears on a Goudey 1935 photo premium, yet none of their Big League Gum cards.
1935 Goudey Big League Gum premium (R309-2)
Many big names went missing, like New York ace Carl Hubbell and St. Louis stars Joe Medwick, Ripper Collins, and Daffy Dean. Future HOFers Gabby Hartnett and Billy Herman led the Cubs to an NL pennant in 1935, so were also missed by Chicago fans.
At least one prominent 1935 rookie (Cy Blanton) appeared in Big League Gum, so I mocked up a card for three that didn’t, Phil Cavarretta, Rip Radcliff, and Lew Riggs. Frenchy Bordagaray gets in on the strength of his facial hair alone. Goudey’s many omissions loom large over such a small set. And speaking of things left out…
Second loose end: Goudey’s name and Big League Gum appear nowhere on the card itself. This represents a big change to their earlier, text-heavy sets. Compare 1934 bios (left) to 1935 puzzle pieces (right).
You might already know Goudey licensed portions of 1933 and 1934 Big League Gum sets to their Quebec partner, World Wide Gum, for Canadian printing and distribution. Each of those cards proclaimed its Montreal origins, just as American sets came from Boston. (I wrote more about these cross-border sets in 2019.)
1934 Big League Gum card backs, Canada (left) and USA (right)
So why leave out all this info for 1935 cards? I think the reason Goudey omitted it will sound outlandish, yet serves their goal of making money during a tough financial era. They wanted to hide the set’s country of origin and sell to fans on each side of our northern border without paying import costs.
1934-36 National Chicle Batter-Up Gum (blank back)
If this seems like a reach, remember that National Chicle published two sets in 1934 and one of them, Batter-Up Gum, also lacked attribution. Did Goudey follow their competition’s lead selling these cards in multiple countries?
American Prohibition, an era rife with border smuggling, ended in late 1933 and some no doubt continued moving other goods by land, boat, or air across our Great Lakes. MLB towns Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland all offer land or waterway routes to Canada, as do International League baseball cities Toronto and Buffalo. Obscuring a set’s origin would enable Goudey or National Chicle to print cards wherever proved cheapest and evade import costs at their eventual point of sale. (Canada’s higher dependence on exports could also be why this made sense.)
Big League Gum wrappers, 1934 Goudey (left) and
undated World Wide Gum (right)
While there are no World Wide Gum wrappers dated as 1935, this design echoes Goudey’s 1934 look without specifying a year, so could be from later. Did they wrap them around 1935 Big League Gum cards up north?
1936 Big League Gum (cataloged R322) also omits company name and country of origin, so perhaps Goudey succeeded in cutting costs and decided to keep their scheme running for another year.
To add more spice to our soup, recall that O-Pee-Chee released their debut Canadian baseball set in spring 1937, just as National Chicle declared bankruptcy.
1937 O-Pee-Chee baseball (cataloged V300)
These cards use die-cut folds along each player profile, making them close cousins to 1934-36 Batter-Up Gum. Perhaps OPC printed it first for National Chicle and then sold the set themselves when their American partner folded.
Believing that cross-border smuggling could be done differs from proving it happened. Each company would work to hide contemporary evidence of their trickiness, let alone leave a trail to follow 90 years later. These card and wrapper designs allow for intriguing monkey business, if Goudey and National Chicle wanted to reduce costs with clandestine assistance from Canadian partners.
Would you believe another mystery remains for 1935 Big League Gum?
Third loose end: These six cards, and these six alone, come with blue borders, while the remaining 30 feature red borders.
1935 Goudey Big League Gum blue border cards (uncut panel)
Advanced collectors might remember Goudey printed a second baseball-related set in 1935, tied to their Knot Hole League collector club you saw earlier. Candy stores who stocked Big League Gum boxes received a stack of these flip game cards featuring 1934’s World Series opponents (St. Louis & Detroit) with instructions to share them with buyers of Big League Gum. Fronts show game rules below a scoreboard and backs introduced the game situations also seen on black-and-white 1936 cards.
1935 Goudey Knot Hole League (front and back)
Despite its promised “series of 100,” this set stopped at #24, equal to one 4×6 print sheet of cards. Having two groups of 1935 cards with a shared border color recalls a situation two years earlier, as one series of Indian Gum used blue name banners about when Goudey’s Boston facility also produced the first sheet of their pirate-themed Sea Raider Gum.
Hobby legend says these series shared ink across two sheets. (See PSA’s set profile for details.) If Goudey printed this way again in 1935, then the existence of blue-bordered Knot Hole League could explain how six Big League Gum cards ended up the same way: it was more efficient to share colors across similar work.
If that scenario fails to convince you, how about printing cards with regional appeal? Master set collectors will know those six blue fronts come with three back puzzle variations, all of future Hall of Fame players from Great Lakes cities Chicago and Detroit. (As before, complete player puzzles require six fronts and I show uncut versions for image clarity.)
Puzzle 2, Chuck Klein, 1933 NL triple crown winner who joined the Cubs in 1934.
Puzzle 4, Mickey “Black Mike” Cochrane, traded to Detroit after 1933.
Puzzle 7, Al “Bucketfoot” Simmons, sold to the White Sox after 1932.
Perhaps Goudey produced blue Big League Gum cards with Chicago and Detroit in mind, knowing these three stars held extra appeal. Specific border color would make it easy to target their distribution.
A third scenario for these borders recalls that Goudey printed 30 different red border cards with four players each, 120 total, half the size of 1933 Big League Gum. An equal number of blue cards, another 120, would give us 240 players. If they intended to make an equal quantity of each, this implies a halt to production soon after changing ink colors.
That gives us three scenarios for 1935 Big League Gum blue borders, based on what we see today.
Efficient printing alongside Knot Hole League
Great Lakes “subset” of Chicago and Detroit star puzzles
Printing stopped before Goudey reached their planned 30 blue borders
That last option makes the most sense in retrospect. Goudey shortened sets from other years when cards stopped selling and 1935’s falling baseball revenue shows that happening.
This scuttling of additional series also answers our question about missing players, since a full complement of 30 blue border cards would add many more names to its checklist. Multiple scenarios might work together. For example, an attempt to promote stars in Chicago and Detroit could fail to meet Goudey sales expectations, so they stopped spending money on that year’s set.
Summary of what we covered
Just a few years after kids could start buying cards and gum together, these intriguing baseball sets omitted basic info about their origins during an era when people with flexible morals could profit from hiding that kind of information. One of them, 1935 Big League Gum, took the mystery further with a subset of blue borders in search of explanation. I proposed a handful of explanations, some worthy of being in a police report for smuggling to either side of America’s northern border.
Baseball sets from our past can seem prosaic now, as if printed in similar circumstances to today’s more predictable hobby. I think Goudey and National Chicle, like many Great Depression businesses, stood willing to try almost anything to stay afloat, even dodging government regulations when it helped them keep money coming in. Perhaps 1930s card creators were their company’s edgy marketers who ran hot and fizzled out fast. However things worked behind the scenes, they left intriguing puzzles to work out a century later.
In near lockstep with the explosion of legal online sports gambling sites, the card-collecting industry has seen a proliferation of card breakers—parties that buy unopened boxes of sports cards and open them live on social media streams. Hobbyists (a/k/a gamblers) pay for spots in the “break” that will entitle them to keep all the cards in the box or case from a particular team. The outfits publicize their breaks with fantastic claims, “No matter which breaking method you choose, you always have a chance at uncovering the next Holy Grail!”
In most breaks participants pick a team or several teams (typically priced commensurate with the potential values of the most expensive cards for each such team) or a random distribution of teams (usually for a less expensive entry fee that is the same for each participant). The card packs are opened live, and the cards are shown individually so that all viewers can see who gets what.
The main enticement for participants is the hope for a “hit,” a valuable—if not contrived—insert like a 1/1, rare parallel, or autographed card that far exceeds the entry fee. Card breakers profit by charging more for spots than the cost of the unopened box or case. If all of this sounds a bit like gambling, you are probably right.
“While surprise-based products can be sold, they are currently restricted on our platform. This means that sellers who wish to sell or promote such products must abide by our TikTok Shop Gambling, Gifting and Surprise-based Product Control Guidelines.”
Social media giant TikTok announced in early March 2023 that it will no longer allow card breakers to broadcast their videos on its platform because of concerns that the activity may constitute illegal gambling. TikTok’s terms and conditions regarding surprise-based products were updated to specifically include “Surprise Trading Card Packs” and now require any presenter (e.g., card breaker) to sell any baseball cards in “the manufacturer’s original packaging and content without any alterations. All sold product(s) must also be sealed.”
PayPal had previously cracked down on breakers through its gambling prohibition, even when the specific activity was lawful or not legally defined as gambling, including: “Games of chance and games of skill – Includes any activity with an entry fee and a prize, regardless of whether the outcome is determined by chance or skill.”
Although the actual factors vary by state, the elements of gambling typically require (1) consideration [the price charged for entering the break], (2) chance [that the box(es) opened may contain chase cards such as 1/1s, parallels, and autographed cards, or alternatively, that the cards that are worth less than the entry fee] and (3) a prize [the insert cards (“hits”) have significant value on the secondary market].
You may be familiar with the phrase “no purchase necessary” when entering a contest promoted by a reputable company. Offering participants an option to enter a contest for free eliminates the “consideration” requirement—required to deem a contest illegal—even if a particular entrant had paid to purchase a product for entry. Not surprisingly, card breakers rarely allow free entry.
There are dozens of highly regarded card breakers operating now, however, the industry is unregulated and susceptible to issues. In 2022, Backyard Breaks got into some hot water when they decided to keep a Trevor Lawrence “Gold Kaboom” card (they believed to be valued in excess of $15,000) found during a break, instead of sending it on to the person to whom it was originally promised.
Otherwise, a breaker who is adept at slight-of-hand can easily make sure valuable cards are not seen or distributed. In fact, there are articles available to help new breakers appear trustworthy. These recommendations include: keeping both hands on the screen, using multiple cameras, and showing that the box is empty.
Several baseball card manufacturers faced charges of illegal gambling in the 1990s when valuable insert cards first took the hobby by storm. [The card manufacturers ultimately won because a customer’s disappointment from not finding an insert card was not sufficient to establish damages under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.] It seems like it is just a matter of time before a disappointed break participant pursues a similar case against a breaker.
It remains to be seen whether other social media outlets like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch will follow TikTok’s lead due to the potential that card breaks constitute illegal gambling or if lawmakers will seek to impose any regulations on the booming card breaking business. As for now it is still the Wild West out there for gamblers—caveat emptor.
In 2023, there are dozens of baseball card sets at every price point. Any major star has thousands of cards available, with hundreds added annually. We can buy most cards we want in just a couple minutes, at a competitive price.
But 50 years ago, there weren’t nearly as many choices for collectors as there are today. There was the Topps set, sometimes a couple Topps inserts and test issues such as Super or Deckle Edge, and a few food issues such as Milk Duds and Kellogg’s. These sets weren’t made for the organized hobby, which was just as well because there really wasn’t much of an organized hobby in the 70’s.
What was the organized hobby in the early-70’s? There were a few thousand adult collectors nationwide. There were a few small card shows in and near major cities, along with a few hobby newspapers. They were invaluable in creating the knowledge base for the hobby. There were a handful of full-time mail-order dealers like Card Collectors Company and Larry Fritsch cards. They advertised through mainstream publications like The Sporting News, and produced their own catalogs that could number up to 100 pages. There were few storefront dealers, and no Internet. The first National Convention would wait until 1979.
TCMA emerged as the first card manufacturer that targeted the organized hobby. TCMA stood for “The Card Memorabilia Associates,” or the initials of the founders, Tom Collier and Mike Aronstein. The company was headquartered in Westchester County, north of New York City .
Their first sets included the SCFC “Sports Cards for Collectors” 1969 Yankees pictures (see Al Downing below) and an Old-Timers set. The latter set included pen drawings not only of Hall of Famers but forgotten players–that is, forgotten by all but SABR members.
1972 saw the first sets issued under TCMA’s name . They released several reprint sets of vintage issues such as 1887 Allen & Ginter and 1922 American Caramel. They also released the first few series of a set that would number over 500 cards featuring players from the 30’s. To cap it off, they produced a set of the Cedar Rapids Reds in the Class-A Midwest League, the first of hundreds of TCMA minor league team sets over the next 16 years.
Though TCMA would become best known for minor-league sets, their sets featuring vintage players deserve examination. They found a market among serious collectors of the time. Many 70’s collectors wrote away to players for autographs. There weren’t a lot of contemporary cards for stars of the 30’s and 40’s, and many collectors were hesitant to send off vintage cards for autographs for fear of losing them.
Enter TCMA—their sets had a clean design conducive to an autograph, and if they weren’t returned with an autograph at least it wasn’t a 1933 DeLong that was lost to the U.S. Mail or to a former player ambivalent to autograph requests. Many of these sets were designed to feature players who signed through the mail, in fact some dealers sent a list of player addresses along with the cards. This explains why many early TCMA cards offered on Ebay are autographed.
TCMA also offered sets that allowed collectors of modest means to own cards of 19th century players, along with 20th century players who didn’t appear on a lot of cards. One great examples are the 1936–39 Yankees Dynasty set, including not only greats like Gehrig and Lazzeri but journeymen like Paul Schreiber, who appeared in 12 major league games over two generations. What a great find for someone like me who has to have all the players, not just the legends! Others include the 1975 1951 New York Giants set and the 1972 The Yawkey Red Sox set. One of the largest early TCMA sets was the “All Time Greats” postcard issue. The set consists of several 24-card series of attractive black and white postcards. It covered virtually everyone in the Hall-of-Fame including executives like Lee MacPhail, Judge Landis and Will Harridge.
In 1975 TCMA expanded their offerings. To promote their retro and minor league sets, they produced their first catalog called “Collector’s Quarterly.” Through this catalog, they marketed their first sets of current major leaguers. Those came out under the SSPC (Sports Stars Publishing Company) label. There was a 1975 set for the Mets and Yankees, and then a 660-card set in 1976.
SSPC’s 1976 set was an attempt to challenge the Topps monopoly. They were sold only as a set and only to the hobby. The fronts had no team name or player name—a “pure card” design perfect for autographs. Topps cards had facsimile autographs many years and nothing is more awkward than an authentic autograph written over a fake one.
Topps took notice and went to court to stop the further release of these sets. TCMA was allowed to sell through their stock, which took several years.
SSPC would be heard from after 1976 though. In 1978, team sets were produced as pages in their magazines for several teams. A set of vintage players even appeared in the 1979 and 1982 Yankees yearbooks.
By the late-70’s, TCMA was becoming better known for minor league sets. TCMA representatives went to minor league general managers with a proposition- TCMA would take pictures of their team, and provide the team sets for sale in their memorabilia stands for free, in exchange for the right to sell team sets in their Collectors Quarterly catalog for $3–3.50 each team. TCMA photographers not only covered players, but sometimes managers, coaches, team executives, trainers, even bat boys and mascots!
By 1979 dozens of teams had TCMA sets, a number that expanded through the 80’s. By the time TCMA stopped production in the late-80’s, virtually every minor league squad had at least one annual team set, some had as many as three.
TCMA didn’t leave the vintage market. In 1978 and 1979, they produced attractive full color sets of players of the 60’s (in 1978) and the 50’s (in 1979). These sets were from 275–300 cards and featured both legends along with players who had never appeared on a card before. They followed up with a second series of 1960’s in 1981. All three sets are collectible today and not expensive.
TCMA also collaborated with large dealer Renata Galasso on several sets. They co-produced the annual 45-card retro sets included as a bonus with every purchase of current year Topps sets from 1977-84. These attractive sets are known as “Galasso Glossy Greats.”
Collectors were discouraged from pursuing TCMA’s sets by the hobby papers of the time. TCMA sets were considered “illegitimate” and “collector’s issues.” They weren’t considered fully collectible because they weren’t released in packs at candy stores, nor as a premium for another product. Most TCMA cards weren’t licensed by Major League Baseball nor the Players Association, or even the players itself. Nevertheless, TCMA thrived in a time where former players hadn’t monetized their career like today.
In the late-1980’s TCMA saw a formidable competitor for its minor-league throne, the Pottstown, Pennsylvania based Pro Cards. TCMA continued to release retro cards, but at a slower pace. At the same time Mike Aronstein, the head of TCMA, was acquiring a huge database of player photos and built a successful business providing 8×10 glossy pictures and other player items such as keychains. The TCMA label morphed into PhotoFile, which still markets licensed items for all major sports.
Aronstein and TCMA were before their time. TCMA cards aren’t always easy to find but are generally affordable considering their age and print run. Their sets are an important part of the history of the hobby. They deserve a look from every vintage collector and every baseball historian.
It seems like an impossible job—condense the history of baseball in the 19th Century to a set of one hundred cards. After all, it took Harold and Dorothy Seymour three hundred pages to cover the same ground in their collaborative volume Baseball: The Early Years. But that was the task undertaken by a small band of researchers in a set titled “The Origins of Baseball 1744—1899.”
Presided over by Jonathan Mork, the team included David Martin for artwork and Mer-Mer Chen for graphic design and photo restoration. Jonathan’s brother Jeremy authored the stories on the back of the cards. Issued by the American Archives Publishing Co. in 1994, the boxed collection logically balances most of its imagery between player and executive portraits, team photographs, playing fields and notable events. The year 1744 in the title refers to the date of an English woodcut of a game of Rounders included as card 3 in the set, below.
More than twenty-five years after printing, the cards need gentle handling. The black finish of the borders easily flakes.
Images were carefully selected from photographs and other illustrations maintained by the Hall of Fame’s National Baseball Library. The full-length studio photographs are especially striking in the card format. Clockwise from upper left: Jack Chesbro (card 92); Tony Mullane (card 66); Sam Thompson (card 93); and Paul Hines (card 37).
Noted personalities of the game include pioneering sportswriter Henry Chadwick (card 11), the grand old man of the game Connie Mack (card 84), and umpire Tom Connolly (card 72). The surprise is the 17th President of the United States, Andrew Johnson (card 14). Said to be a fan of the game, Johnson is honored for allowing government clerks and staffers to clock out early when the Washington Nationals were scheduled to play an important game.
Team cards are an important part of the set. The collection naturally includes the founding Knickerbockers (card 5) and the undefeated 1869 Red Stockings (card 19).
The three powerful early Brooklyn teams are also pictured: the Atlantics (card 16), the Eckfords (card 9), and the Excelsiors (card 12). The Atlantics virtually monopolized the early championships of the sport. The Eckfords notched a pair of flags themselves. The third and deciding game of the 1860 championship match between the Atlantics and the Excelsiors produced one of the game’s first great controversies. With his team leading 8-6 in the sixth inning, Excelsior captain Joe Leggett pulled his club off the field when gamblers and Atlantic partisans in the crowd shouted one too many insults against his players. The two great teams never faced each other again. Leggett may have been incorruptible on the diamond; off was a different matter. Over the years, his hands found themselves in a number of tills to feed a gambling habit he could not afford. He disappeared in 1877 with $1,000 missing in liquor license fees from the Brooklyn Police Department Excise Bureau.
Teams of the 1880s are well-represented in the set. The Boston Beaneaters (card 98) were the most successful National League team of the 1890s, winning flags in 1891, 1892, 1893, 1897 and 1898. The City of Chicago lent its broad shoulders to the development of baseball behind the likes of National League founder William Hulbert, star pitcher and later sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding, and five-time pennant winner Cap Anson. The 1886 team is pictured on card 45. The 1887 National League Detroit Wolverines (card 51) played a 15-game championship series that year against the American Association St. Louis Browns. Eight of the games were played on neutral grounds. Detroit claimed the flag in Game 11, played in the afternoon in Baltimore after a morning tilt in Washington.
The set doesn’t sugarcoat the game.
Above: Jesse “The Crab” Burkett of the Cleveland Spiders (card 88) earns a spot in the set for his role in a post-game melee in Louisville that saw the entire Cleveland team hauled off to jail. Edwin Bligh (card 31) scandalized the game when he was accused of fathering a child with a 17-year-old girl.
Below: Hard drinking plagued the early years of the sport. A detective once trailed Mike “King” Kelly (card 48) into the early morning hours, reporting the Chicago catcher enjoying a glass of lemonade at 3 a.m. at a local watering hole. Kelly denied the allegation. “The detective is a complete liar. I never drink lemonade at that hour. It was pure whiskey.”
Ed Delahanty’s attraction to the spirits had a grim ending (card 74). The only player to win batting titles in both the American and National Leagues, the outfielder was thrown off a train in 1903 near Niagara Falls by a conductor for being drunk and disorderly. He fell off a bridge into the Niagara River and was swept to his death.
Several cards highlight the playing fields of the day. A diagram of a New England version of the game is shown on card 10:
The decades of the 1850s and the 1860s are summarized on individual cards.
Top: Elysian Fields, the ancestral homeland of the game, is shown card 7. A game between the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Philadelphia Athletics is shown on card 18. Gamblers congregate in the lower left. Seated umpires and the official scorers at their table take up station between home and first base.
Abraham Lincoln is featured on card 13 of the set. Commentary on the back of the card includes an early debunking of the theory that returning Civil War soldiers spread the game to the American South. As the back of the Lincoln card states, an especially robust strain of the game emerged in New Orleans before the Civil War. It sure did.
At least half a dozen baseball clubs were playing regularly by 1859. The Magnolia and Southern clubs squared off in one series; the Empire and the presiding elder Louisiana Base Ball Club played one match series against each other. The Louisiana club didn’t appear to take things as seriously as their younger counterparts. In one game, the patriarchs were forced to start with just eight players present, and in another with just seven. Other nines played side against side. The Orleans Club was active on and off the field of play, leading a political parade on horseback in red velvet caps on one occasion and giving a Mardi Gras masquerade ball on another.
The Magnolia and Southern clubs seemed especially well-suited to each other. After one game, the teams exchanged badges and then marched together to the United States Hotel for a round or two of drinks.
The clubs had trouble finding spaces for their games. The Third District, where many of the teams were located, had only three open fields. One behind Claiborne Circle was the province by seniority of the Black Racket clubs. White Racket clubs claimed the grounds near the Old Paper Mill behind the Pontchartrain Railroad by the same rights of prior occupancy. An open square on Claiborne Street was guarded by neighborhood youths known as the Squatters. When a Les Quatre club tried to use the field one day, the Squatters drew knives and pistols and ran them off.
The New Orleans Crescent described Racket as “the game of all games for the spectator,” a spirited Creole affair of base and ball with a high reputation for entertainment value, played with a short one-handed bat—the racket.
A box for a game between Les Quatre clubs shows a scored and umpired game of runs played in innings with 12 men to a side. By the following spring, the teams were described as baseball clubs.
City newspapers approved of all the play. The Sunday Delta observed:
Lately a furore has been started among us, which, if it only goes on progressing in the same spirit it has commenced, will make cricket and other games of ball as common in this section as they are in England. Whether it continues long or not, it will exercise a good influence as long as it lasts, and we see no reason for its abatement, as the better these games are generally understood, the more popular do they become.
The New Orleans Crescent apologized for not being to attend all the games. “There are now so many Base Ball and Cricket and Racket Clubs, and they play so frequently, appearing in the field nearly every day, up town, down town, and over the river, that we cannot keep the run of them.”
Up and down the great rivers of the United States the game still thrives, from town to town as the Crescent saw so long ago. One hundred cards cannot tell the whole story of the 19th Century game, but each card provides a path to a different chapter in the story. It’s a fine set, worthy of time and study. Listed for $25 or so on eBay, it’s a steal.
Images in this article have been brightened from original scans for presentation purposes. Master heckler William Gleason on card 36 is pictured before (top) and after modification (bottom).
Author’s Note: This is the fourth, and final, installment in a multi-part series that explores the legal backstories that have shaped (and continue to shape) the baseball card industry.
Worth a Gamble?
In 1996, a group of plaintiffs filed lawsuits against card manufacturers in federal courts across the country claiming that including insert cards in their wax packs constituted illegal gambling activity under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”) and that they were entitled to damages for not having received one of the rare autographed cards in the packs purchased. “RICO, in pertinent part, defines ‘racketeering activity,’ as ‘any act or threat involving … gambling. which is chargeable under state law and punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.’ 18 U.S.C. § 1961(1)(A).” Plaintiffs claimed all elements of gambling were met, which required (1) consideration [price of the pack], (2) chance [chase cards were inserted randomly] and (3) a prize [chase cards had significant value on the secondary market].
The first of these cases to be decided was the lawsuit filed against Pinnacle Brands in Texas. On April 2, 1997, the court dismissed the case because the purchasers of the packs of cards “got exactly what they paid for,” namely “six to twenty cards in a pack with a chance that one of the cards may be of Ken Griffey Jr.” Accordingly, the plaintiffs “had not suffered any injury to their business or property.” Without a tangible financial loss, plaintiffs had no standing to pursue a RICO action. This decision was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Appellate Court on April 22, 1998.
While the Pinnacle case was ongoing, a RICO action was pending in California against Upper Deck. That court, however found that because plaintiffs alleged that “a portion of the purchase price” was paid as consideration for the chance of winning a chase card, they had adequately alleged a cause of action under civil RICO. Upper Deck’s motion to dismiss the case was denied.
The court held that the value of the chase cards were “readily ascertainable in Beckett’s monthly trading card magazine.” Further, “when someone enters a hobby shop or trading card shop and purchases a package of Upper Deck cards, that person can immediately sell any chase cards he receives to the shop owner for the value quoted in the price guides.” (Though the assumption a shop owner would pay full price for a card is a leap of logic.) This potential arrangement made the chase cards “almost as good as cash,” tantamount to a winning scratch-off lottery ticket.
The court also made an astute observation that seemingly persists to this day—pack buyers “do not care whose face is on the card; they only care about its value in the secondary market.” In the footnotes, however, the court warned that if the odds on the packages were set correctly, there would be no net gambling losses, though the record did not divulge whether the odds stated correctly reflected the value of the chase cards on the secondary market.
Eight of these similar baseball card-RICO cases were eventually consolidated in California where the court was asked to decide whether the random inclusion of limited-edition cards in packages of otherwise randomly assorted cards constituted unlawful gambling in violation of RICO. The district court ultimately dismissed all of the lawsuits trading card purchasers “were not injured in their business or property” as required by the RICO statute. The district court’s opinion was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit on August 20, 2002, which held that “disappointment upon not finding an insert card” was not an injury to property and did not give the plaintiffs standing to sue for civil damages under RICO. Likewise, the plaintiffs could not recover for having developed a “habit” of buying cards to find the chase cards.
Upper Deck and Ken Griffey Jr. take on Topps
Although the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) had negotiated a licensing agreement with Upper Deck for use of players’ names and likenesses, that agreement did not control game-used items obtained directly from the player. Several stars including Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, and Alex Rodriguez executed “highlight agreements” with Upper Deck that purported to give Upper Deck the exclusive right to sell cards that incorporated game-used equipment and memorabilia.
When Upper Deck learned that Topps was advertising certain cards in its 2001 Topps Gold Label issue would include tiny sections of game-used jerseys and bats, Upper Deck and Ken Griffey Jr., individually, sued to stop Topps from releasing cards of those players with whom they had contracted. They alleged that Topps did not have a license or permission from the players or the MLBPA to produce cards containing game-used equipment.
Topps countered that it had a licensing agreement with Ken Griffey Jr. that was valid through 2003 and dated originally to 1987, “before Upper Deck even existed.” This agreement gave Topps the non-exclusive right to use Griffey’s name and likeness, “the very right that Upper Deck purports to have obtained exclusively through a later agreement.” Topps argued that it legally obtained the Griffey jersey on the secondary market “at a relatively modest cost and at no injury to Griffey.” Topps even mentioned that Upper Deck had already litigated and lost the same issue when they tried to stop Score Board, Inc. from selling autographed Mickey Mantle memorabilia (as covered in Part III).
Upper Deck’s motion for temporary restraining order was denied on March 6, 2001. The case was dismissed voluntarily without prejudice on June 12, which gave Upper Deck the right to refile if they had so chosen. Regardless, Topps issued its special edition 2001 Gold Label award winner cards, including cards honoring Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1997 MVP season that incorporated bat and jersey relics.
Squeeze Play: Topps and Upper Deck Survive
Production of distinct baseball card products peaked in 2003 as card companies inundated the market with 91 separate major issues packaged under brand names including Bazooka, Bowman, Donruss, Finest, Flair, Fleer, Leaf, Playoff, SP, Stadium Club, Topps, Ultra, and Upper Deck. Another 87 major issues followed in 2004 and 90 in 2005. (You may recall that the MLBPA had admitted to a “glut” in the trading card market a decade earlier in the Cardtoons litigation.)
On July 21, 2005 the MLBPA made a major announcement—it was scaling back its baseball card licenses to just two manufacturers: Topps and Upper Deck. The MLBPA’s Director of Trading Cards and Collectibles, Evan Kaplan, explained “the presence of fewer products in the marketplace will reduce consumer confusion and clutter on retail shelves” with a goal to have no more than 40 MLBPA-endorsed baseball products. The MLBPA also mandated that a rookie card logo would be required to appear on cards of players who had made their MLB debuts and that “rookie cards will no longer be issued before they reach the Majors.”
Venerable manufacturer Fleer had closed its doors in May 2005, unable to service $30 million in debt. Fleer filed an assignment for the benefit of creditors action in Burlington County, New Jersey (a state court process akin to a federal Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing) and was appointed a lawyer to manage the repayment of its debts. As part of the liquidation, Upper Deck purchased Fleer’s intellectual property and diecast toy car business for $6.1 million in July—a fraction of the $25 million Upper Deck had reportedly offered Fleer just a year prior. On September 9, an auction was held in which Fleer’s remaining office furniture, equipment, sports cards, and a memorabilia stockpile was sold off.
Major issues in 2006 plummeted to just 38 sets, all manufactured by Topps and Upper Deck. Still viable, Donruss was left out in the cold, but this was not the last time we would hear from the company.
Cool Papa Bell and the Cards that Shouldn’t Have Been
Connie Brooks was James “Cool Papa” Bell’s daughter and executrix of his estate following his death on March 7, 1991. Brooks granted licenses to Upper Deck to issue Bell cards in 1994 and 2001, along with other licenses for clothing, throw blankets, and Wheaties boxes in 1996.
In late 2004 Topps called Brooks to negotiate a license to issue Bell cards in 2005. At the time of this call Brooks did not know—and the Topps representative did not mention—that Topps had already issued seven different Cool Papa Bell cards in 2001 and 2004. Following the call, Topps sent Brooks a licensing proposal dated December 17, 2004 that offered $5000 in exchange for the right to use Bell’s name and image for 2005. The cover letter sent with the blank agreement stated that Brooks had agreed to the arrangement during the call, though she denied having done so. Brooks did not sign or return the proposal.
Not long thereafter Brooks learned that Topps, in 2004, had already produceda Cool Papa Bell card without her knowledge or permission. She contacted Topps and was provided a copy of the 2004 eTopps card and 2004 “Tribute Hall of Fame” card featuring Bell, along with a promise the company was “still looking for other cards Topps may have published depicting Bell.”
Later in 2005 Brooks learned that Topps had also issued Bell cards in 2001. She took exception to the narrative on the back of the 2001 card, which stated, “Cool Papa, who once stole more than 175 bases in a 200-game season, earned his nickname after falling asleep right before a game.” Brooks asserted the description was false and derogatory. William (Bobby) Robinson’s daughter Patricia Hawkins wrote to Judge Cote imploring that Bell “was a credit to his family, his race, his teammates and history as set by examples of his life and lifestyle, both impeccable.” Brooks added that Bell “never indulged in alcohol, smoked cigarettes, or used drugs. He was not a clown, drunkard, or nodding buffoon.” Without any pension provided by the Negro League, Bell worked 22 years as a custodian and night watchman at the St. Louis City Hall until his retirement.
Brooks complained that “Topps’ false statement [regarding the origin of the ‘Cool Papa’ nickname] will be read by many children and may be their only glimpse into the world of Negro League baseball and my father’s career.” Topps responded with an offer of $35,000 in exchange for Brooks executing a settlement agreement and release of liability. She refused and demanded a listing of all Bell cards Topps had produced.
By letter dated January 31, 2006, Topps provided Brooks with a list of “all cards of Cool Papa Bell produced by Topps from 2001-2005.” Brooks responded by filing a lawsuit against Topps on March 27, 2006 claiming Topps had used Bell’s “name, likeness, signature, intellectual property rights, and publicity rights” without authorization and had published defamatory information about Bell. Brooks asserted formally that Bell earned the nickname “Cool” for remaining calm under pressure and his manager Bill Gatewood added “Papa” to the end.
Topps countered that Bell’s right of publicity died with him and the company was free to use his image on baseball cards without needing permission from Brooks. Alternatively, Topps claimed it had been granted permission by Major League Baseball to use Bell’s likeness on the cards it issued (though Topps never produced any evidence to support this doubtful contention). Further, Topps responded that it had taken the information regarding the source of Bell’s nickname from the book Players of Cooperstown: Baseball’s Hall of Fame, published in 1997.
On December 21, 2007 Judge Denise Cote issued her decision granting Topps’ motion for summary judgment. Unfortunately, Brooks had not filed the right of publicity case within the one-year statute of limitations afforded by the underlying state law. The court found that the most recent Bell card was published on November 1, 2004 and refused consider Brooks’ argument that the card really had not been truly “published” on that date because it was distributed in sealed packages. Moreover, Topps had not made affirmative misrepresentations regarding the prior publication of Bell cards to Brooks within the year that those most recent cards were marketed. Brooks’ claims of false endorsement, false advertising and unfair competition also failed; Judge Cote found in Topps’ favor. In other words, Topps was free to have issued over 87,000 individual cards depicting Cool Papa Bell without permission.
Brooks filed an appeal, which was dismissed on November 3, 2008, presumably because the parties had reached a voluntary settlement.
Major League Baseball v. Donruss
Major League Baseball (MLB) reported revenues from baseball card licensing in excess of $75 million for the decade preceding 2009. However, a shift in demand had decreased the total market for all trading cards from approximately $1 billion at its height to $200 million. Further, the baseball card segment within the trading card market (including non-sport cards) had decreased from 75%-80% in the mid-1980s to just 15%-20%. In light of the prevailing market conditions in the mid-2000s, MLB had chosen to pare down its list of companies licensed to manufacture baseball cards to help stem further diminution of trading card licensing value.
When its licensing agreement with Donruss expired on December 31, 2005, MLB chose not to renew. That expired license agreement provided explicitly that Donruss would not use any MLB trademarks “in any capacity” without prior written consent, to include “primary colors of the MLB clubs in combination with baseball indicia or the MLB Clubs’ geographic designation.” Donruss eased its way back into the baseball card market in 2007 with its Elite Extra Edition set of 143 cards, which showed draft picks in their college uniforms or business suits and referenced the drafting team only by city name and an “AL” or “NL” league designation.
The Donruss Threads issue in 2008, however, caught MLB’s eye because the set included “numerous cards depicting former Major League Baseball players in the MLB Uniform Trade Dress and featuring various other MLB Marks.” MLB acknowledged that Donruss attempted to obscure or alter team logos, but the uniforms remained readily identifiable. (MLB also objected to the use of Minor League Baseball trademarks in the set pursuant to an agency agreement by which the names and likenesses of MiLB ballplayers were controlled by the respective parent MLB club.)
The matter was settled for a confidential dollar amount. A consent judgment was entered on August 14, 2009 in which Donruss was permanently enjoined from using any MLB marks and went as far as to prohibit Donruss from using an image featuring “a component of a Major League Baseball uniform that is airbrushed, intentionally blocks or covers, or otherwise alters, any of the MLB marks.” All offending product that had not been previously sold was to be destroyed. Finally, Donruss was precluded from opposing, cancelling, or interfering with the use or registration of MLB trademarks.
Panini bought Donruss in March 2009 and the newly christened “Panini America” issued Donruss Elite Extra Edition sets in 2009 and 2010 featuring draftees in their college uniforms and listing their drafting club only by city name. The 2011 Donruss Elite Extra Edition was a 25-card set that featured current MLB players, but Donruss cleverly had each player pose in generic pants and a plain t-shirt (and probably with a company lawyer in attendance).
Exclusive Details: MLB Cuts Ties with Upper Deck
In August 2009, Major League Baseball Properties (MLB) announced that it had awarded Topps a multiyear deal effective January 1, 2010 to become its exclusive trading card partner, with the hope that by dropping Upper Deck, Topps could “invigorate card collecting, especially with young fans.” Former Walt Disney Company CEO, Michael Eisner, who had acquired Topps in 2007, declared “it’s been difficult to promote cards as unique and original.”
In the wake of the news, Upper Deck voiced its intention to continue manufacturing cards and that they were going to analyze whether they could really be banned from depicting MLB logos and jerseys as MLB claimed. Perhaps not surprisingly, Upper Deck continued to market cards, often showing MLB logos and would have to engage in a separate fight with Topps of the alleged appropriation of trademarked Topps card designs from the 1960s and 1970s.
The major card set offerings in 2010 (21) would be the leanest since 1991 (25).
Topps v. Upper Deck
Canadian bubblegum manufacturer O-Pee-Chee (whose mark was based on a robin named “Opechee” in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha”) had a licensing agreement with Topps from the late 1950s through 1992 under which O-Pee-Chee produced trading cards using O-Pee-Chee trademarks for sale in Canada. During this time, Topps and O-Pee-Chee produced nearly identical baseball card sets but for card stock differences, branding, occasional photo variations, and the O-Pee-Chee versions including bilingual wording on baseball cards (required as of 1970 after the Canadian Parliament enacted the Official Languages Act in 1969, which gave English and French official status).
Throughout their longstanding relationship, however, none of Topps’ card design copyrights were transferred to O-Pee-Chee—theirs was strictly a licensing arrangement. In 1992, O-Pee-Chee severed ties with Topps and independently issued sets of baseball cards in 1993 and 1994 featuring original card designs.
In 2001, Upper Deck issued its first “Vintage” set comprised of cards—both front and back—that strongly resembled the 1963 Topps set. Similar Upper Deck Vintage sets followed in 2002 and 2003, each of which strongly resembled the 1971 and 1965 Topps sets, respectively. [Presumably Topps was not flattered by the imitation, but the author has not uncovered any litigation pertaining to Upper Deck’s production of these cards.] The final Vintage offering in 2004 sort of resembled 1954 Red Heart card fronts but featured completely different backs.
In 2007, Upper Deck announced it had acquired rights to relaunch the O-Pee-Chee brand name. Upper Deck produced hockey sets under the O-Pee-Chee banner immediately and in 2009 announced it would issue a 600-card baseball set under the O-Pee-Chee name. Available insert cards included separate series that resembled Topps’ 1975 baseball issue and Topps’ 1979-1980 hockey issue.
Upper Deck’s early promotional materials for the 2009 baseball set included mockup cards for Ichiro and Albert Pujols that were dead ringers for the 1971 Topps set design, with an additional insert set that resembled the 1977 Topps baseball card fronts. Ultimately, however, the 2009 Upper Deck O-Pee-Chee issue utilized a unique card design that did not appear to resemble any prior Topps products.
Topps took issue with the perceived design misappropriation and sued Upper Deck in federal court claiming that Upper Deck had not acquired any Topps’ copyrights when it made the deal with O-Pee-Chee. Topps also objected to Upper Deck’s use of autographed Topps cards having been incorporated into SP Legendary Cuts insert cards. Topps sought damages and an injunction to prevent Upper Deck from selling the cards that allegedly infringed on their copyrights.
Ultimately, Upper Deck’s attempted end around to use Topps designs by acquiring O-Pee-Chee rights was unsuccessful. Upper Deck settled for an undisclosed amount at a mediation held on November 2, 2009. No further O-Pee-Chee baseball sets were issued after 2009.
Upper Deck Thumbs its Nose at Major League Baseball
Despite its licensing agreement with MLB having expired on October 31, 2009, Upper Deck issued its 2009 Signature Stars and 2009 Ultimate Collection sets in January 2010. Upper Deck was also about to issue its full-blown 2010 flagship baseball card set (“Series I”) totaling 600 cards and complimented by a multitude of separate insert sets. The cards in each one of these sets, however, included photographs depicting MLB logos and marks that Upper Deck was no longer authorized to use.
While the cards were licensed by the MLBPA, Major League Baseball sued Upper Deck in February 2010 to stop the sale of the cards and prevent the distribution of additional planned issues including a planned second series for the 2010 flagship set (cards 601-650). In its complaint, MLB alleged Upper Deck displayed “a pattern of utter disrespect for the contractual and intellectual property rights of those from whom it licenses valuable trademarks.” MLB otherwise claimed Upper Deck had defaulted on payments totaling over $2.4 million across a number of licensing agreements.
The parties reached a settlement in which Upper Deck agreed to pay $3,065,824.92 to Major League Baseball and on March 17, 2010, entered a consent judgment in which Upper Deck acknowledged it had used MLB’s marks without permission in its 2009 Ultimate Collection, 2009 Signature Stars, and 2010 Series I issues. Upper Deck was permitted to sell any remaining cards that had been manufactured on or before February 1, 2010.
As part of the agreement, Upper Deck was permanently enjoined from using MLB’s marks: “in whole or in part of current or former players, coaches or managers wearing any item resembling a Major League Baseball uniform,” including “jerseys, pants, jackets, caps, helmets, and catchers’ equipment.” The judgment also prohibited Upper Deck from using an image featuring “a component of a Major League Baseball uniform that is airbrushed, intentionally blocks or covers, or otherwise alters, any of the MLB marks.”
On February 29, 2012, Major League Baseball had to file a subsequent lawsuit against Upper Deck in an effort to collect the remaining $265,000, plus interest, that Upper Deck had failed to pay under the settlement agreement reached in 2010.
How to Catch a Buzz
Topps issued an “American Heritage: American Heroes Edition” set in 2009 that featured cards of famous athletes, politicians, scientists, and other historic figures and events on cards using designs from Topps’ past. Several of these cards honored NASA space missions and depicted patches, rockets, and the Space Shuttle.
After being unable to negotiate a licensing fee with Topps, Dr. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin took exception to several cards in the set Topps issued anyways that featured his name and likeness. He was also upset the product box used the famous “Visor Shot” photo of Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 moon landing—along with Mickey Mantle and Abraham Lincoln. (Aldrin objected even though his face is not visible, and he can be identified only if one were to focus in on his name badge.) The card for the Gemini XII mission, in particular, included this historical description on the reverse:
“Astronauts had operated outside the spacecraft before, but astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s smooth, multi-tasking 140-minute space walk outside of Gemini XII was what finally confirmed NASA’s highest hopes for extravehicular astronaut activity. Gemini XII’s flawless, computer-guided re-entry marked the end of Project Gemini; America was ready to shoot for the moon.”
On December 27, 2010, Aldrin filed a lawsuit against Topps in California claiming his name, image, and likeness were used improperly. Topps countered that it was permitted to use the photos and descriptions of Aldrin and his historic accomplishments because they were matters of free speech and an issue of public interest. Ultimately, the court found that Topps had a First Amendment right to use Aldrin’s name and likeness without need for permission or payment. The cards simply used “Aldrin’s name in the course of conveying information about his historically significant achievements” and were not advertisements for some other, unrelated product. Further, the photo used on the box was deemed a “mere adjunct” to the cards themselves and was also protected.
A Case of Mistaken Identity?
Fausto Carmona went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA for the 2007 Cleveland Indians, a season in which he finished fourth in Cy Young Award voting and garnered MVP votes. Carmona was an All-Star in 2010, and the Indians’ Opening Day starter in 2011. On January 19, 2012, Carmona was arrested in his native Dominican Republic for allegedly using a false identity. It was revealed that Carmona’s real name was Roberto Hernandez Heredia, and he was 31, three years older than he had claimed.
Ohio educator Aaron Cookson had invested heavily in his Fausto Carmona personal collection consisting of “323 rookie cards of Carmona/Hernandez, mostly autographed cards with a lot of high-end and high-grade examples.” Cookson estimated he had spent in excess of $5,000 for the cards and he felt betrayed by the false identity revelation.
On August 1, 2012 Cookson filed a small claims lawsuit against Roberto Hernandez in Franklin County (Ohio) Municipal Court seeking $3000 in damages (the statutory maximum). Cookson protested, “as you know, the age of an athlete plays an important factor in his/her on-field performance and how collectable investors/collectors view their cards or memorabilia. I spent a lot of time and money collecting and investing in a guy that I thought was three years younger than he really was. I believe I was defrauded.”
According to Cookson, who remains an avid card collector, the parties reached a confidential settlement subject to a non-disclosure agreement and the case was dismissed. Pitching under his actual name, Hernandez was ineffective in three starts for Cleveland in 2012 and was released after the season. He bounced around for another four more years but was never able to recapture the magic of his 2007 campaign.
The Mastro Auctions Scandal
As of February 2009, Mastro Auctions had reportedly auctioned off more than 100,000 lots and sold in excess of $300 million worth of collectibles, including high-end baseball cards and memorabilia. Principle, Bill Mastro, was indicted in 2012 on federal mail fraud charges for his role in artificially inflating auction lot prices through shill bidding practices (i.e., bogus bids used to create illusion of demand and boost final auction prices) and for his role in altered sports memorabilia items.
On October 10, 2013, Mastro entered a guilty plea in which he admitted to the shill bidding scheme and specifically to having personally trimmed a T-206 Honus Wagner before selling the card in 1987. He failed to disclose his alteration of the card during his involvement with an auction of the card in 1991 by Sotheby’s (when the card was famously purchased by Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall for $451,000), when the card was submitted to PSA for grading in 1992 (famously the first card ever submitted to PSA for grading), and at a subsequent online Robert Edwards auction in 2000 for $1.1 million plus commission (famously the most ever paid for a single baseball card at the time). Mastro also admitted to having known that laboratory test results on the “1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings Trophy Ball” sold by Mastro for $62,000 revealed that it contained paint manufactured after World War II.
Based on his guilty plea to the felony charges, Mastro was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison and assessed a fine of $250,000.
When famed collector and New York Yankees minority owner Barry Halper announced he would be auctioning off his sizeable collection in 1999, it caused quite a stir. The collection was so renowned the catalog became a collectible in its own right and auction house Sotheby’s produced a set of baseball cards to commemorate and promote some of the most important pieces up for auction. The Halper Collection auction was wildly successful and reportedly accounted for $21.8 million in sales.
The 16-card set produced by Sotheby’s featured photos on the front of famous events combined with select items up for sale. The set contained several Babe Ruth cards, a Pete Rose card with the Expos jersey worn when he smacked his 4000th hit (signed of course), a Black Sox card, Jackie Robinson card, and a Lou Gehrig card promoting the auction of his “final glove,” among others. The back side of each card bore an uncanny resemblance the 1953 Topps issue, complete with a cartoon.
A Willie Mays card featured a photo of “The Catch” on the front and a 1950s Willie Mays Giants travel bag and signed hat up for auction. The reverse side offered auction estimates for a 1951 Willie Mays New York Giants signed rookie road jersey ($25,000-$35,000), travel bag ($1000-$1500), and signed hat ($100-$200).
Pennsylvania collector Michael Jacobs was the high bidder on two items at the September 1999 sale, having paid $63,000 for the rookie Mays jersey and $8625 for the bag. In July 2012, Jacobs had the jersey appraised by Leland’s of New York for insurance purposes. It appraised for $400,000.
About June 2013, Leland’s brokered a deal to buy the jersey from Jacobs for $675,000 in order to sell it immediately to a third-party buyer. Unfortunately, a subsequent examination deemed the jersey inauthentic—apparently, the name and number had been added sometime after the fact to a standard 1951 New York Giants jersey. Also, it was discovered that the stenciling on the travel bag was inconsistent with the style used at the time.
Jacobs sued the Halper estate, Sotheby’s, and Grey Flannel Collectibles, Inc., the company that had authenticated the jerseys according to the auction catalogue, which stated “Grey Flannel Collectibles, Inc. is honored to have had the opportunity to evaluate and authenticate this wonderful collection of uniforms and jerseys belonging to Barry Halper.” Grey Flannel undertook a basic authentication (e.g., comparing the jerseys to photos or genuine exemplars) and removed approximately 100 jerseys from the auction it could not confirm as authentic.
The auction catalogue also included a five-year authenticity guarantee that would serve to rescind the purchase of an inauthentic item and refund of the purchase price. Jacobs was well beyond the five-year timeframe when he learned of the issue but argued that defendants could not hide behind the guarantee when they fraudulently misrepresented that Grey Flannel had authenticated the jersey.
Ultimately, the court found that Jacobs could not show “Sotheby’s displayed an extreme departure from the standards of ordinary care applicable to auction houses in selecting and relying upon third-party authenticators for sports memorabilia.” The case was dismissed on July 26, 2016, a true example of “may the buyer beware.”
The Jacobs lawsuit was just another in a long line of cases in which the parties sparred over what appeared on a baseball card—and somewhat fittingly, a card (back) that resembled one of those early 1950s Topps issues where this all began.
Fanatics bought Topps for about $500 million in early 2022. As of 2026, Fanatics will have the exclusive right to design, manufacture, and distribute baseball cards per licensing agreements with both the MLBPA and MLB. Will this put an end to baseball card-related litigation? Not likely.
In October 2022, a Michigan man was sentenced to 30 months in prison for selling packs of vintage baseball cards that were opened, had the valuable cards removed, and resealed to look like unopened packs. Bryan Kennert had reportedly engaged in schemes to sell counterfeit sports cards and searched packs for at least 30 years. In fact, federal agents found bogus sports cards at his home that would have been worth $7.3 million if authentic.
Elsewhere, lawsuits roll on dealing with Topps redemption cards, Upper Deck logos on counterfeit cards, and a man in New York who has sued his mother to seek the return of valuable baseball cards she has refused to return to him.
More things change, the more they stay the same.
A sincere thank you to anyone who has enjoyed this series in light of its length and often tedious legal discussions. There are dozens of other cases that could have been included and may be given separate treatment down the road. If you know of a particular baseball card-related matter you think would make for an interesting article, please let me know.
Also, a hearty thank you is necessary for Jason Schwartz for his generous time with review and in making suggested edits along the way.
www.tcdb.com “Major Issues” comes straight from the Trading Card Database website. The author was unable to find a defined methodology for what constituted a “Major Issue,” but it seems like the sets listed were typically sold nationally (U.S. and/or Canada) in individual packs.
Price v. Pinnacle Brands, Inc., 96CV2150 (N.D. Tex. 1997).
Schwartz v. The Upper Deck Co., 956 F.Supp. 1552 (S.D. Cal. 1997).
Dumas v. Major League Baseball Properties, Inc., 104 F.Supp.2d 1220 (S.D. Cal. 2000).
Dumas v. Fleer/Skybox International, LP, 99CV1793-B (AJB) (S.D. Cal. 6/21/2000) (S.D. Cal. 2000). Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Price, 105 F.Supp.2d 46 (E.D. N.Y. 2000).
The Upper Deck Company and Ken Griffey Jr. v. The Topps Company, Inc., 01CV00329 (S.D. Cal. 2001). The reason why Upper Deck gave up on the case is not clear but if a settlement had been reached, the dismissal would have been with prejudice.
Chaset v. Fleer/Skybox Intern., LP, 300 F.3d 1083 (9th Cir. 2002). Eight similar cases were consolidated against the ever-expanding list of defendants to include not only trading card manufacturers but the Major League Baseball Players Association, Major League Baseball Properties, Inc., NBA Properties, Inc., NFL Properties, Inc., National Football League Players Association, National Hockey League Enterprises, NHL Players Association, Walt Disney Company, Nintendo of America, Inc., Wizards of the Coast, Inc., and others. Judgments were entered dismissing the RICO claims without leave to amend and dismissing the supplemental state law claims without prejudice pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c).
The Upper Deck Co., LLC v. Federal Ins. Co., 358 F.3d 608 (9th Cir. 2004). Upper Deck submitted the RICO claims to its insurance carrier, Federal Insurance Company, claiming that the alleged acts were covered under its policy. Federal refused to cover the claims on the grounds that there was “no accident or occurrence” as required under the policy. Despite having prevailed in the RICO cases, Upper Deck filed suit against its insurance company seeking to recoup the money it spent defending the case. The court found in favor of the insurance company, agreeing with the Federal there was no “occurrence” to have triggered the policy and, accordingly, there was no duty on the part of Federal to pay for Upper Deck’s attorneys.
Miller v. Collectors Universe, Inc., 65 Cal.Rptr.3d 351, 154 Cal.App.4th 1047 (Cal. App. 2007).
Brooks ex rel. Estate of Bell v. The Topps Co., Inc., 2007 WL 4547585 (S.D. N.Y. 2007).
Card / Release Date / Total Number of Cards in Series / Total Number of Bell Cards in Series
(1.) 2001 Topps Series II Baseball (base card) / April 16, 2001 / 51,800,000 / 34,800
(3.) 2001 Topps Chrome (refractor parallel card) / May 21, 2001 / Same series as (2) above / 5000
(4.) 2004 Topps Tribute Hall of Fame (base card) / November 1, 2004 / 217,000 / 2170
(5.) 2004 Topps Tribute Hall of Fame (gold parallel card) / November 1, 2004 / Same series as (4) above / 74
(6.) 2004 Topps Tribute Hall of Fame (Cooperstown Cut Signature Card) (“2004 Signature Card”) / November 1, 2004 / Same series as (4) above / 1
(7.) 2004 eTopps Classic (base card) / August 2, 2004 to August 9, 2004 / N/A / 938
Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Donruss Playoff, L.P. and Donruss, LLC, 09CV00593 (S.D. N.Y. 2009).
The Topps Company, Inc. v. The Upper Deck Company, Inc., 09CV3780 (S.D. N.Y. 2009). The first O-Pee-Chee baseball card set was produced in 1965.
Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. The Upper Deck Company, LLC, 10CV00732 (S.D. N.Y. 2010).
Aldrin v. Topps Co., CV1009939 (C.D. Cal. 2011). After the ruling in their favor, Topps filed a motion to recover attorneys’ fees. Aldrin filed an appeal. The motion for attorney’s fees was denied and on May 2, 2012, the appeal was voluntarily dismissed, presumably because the parties were able to reach some type of confidential agreement.
Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. The Upper Deck Company, LLC, 12CV01512 (S.D. N.Y. 2012).
Cookson v. Hernandez, Franklin County (Ohio) Municipal Court, Case No. 2012 CVI 029028.
United States of America v. William Mastro, 12CR00567 (2012). The Mastro-trimmed T-206 Wagner was the first card ever submitted to PSA and received an 8/10 grade, but would not have been eligible for a number grade if the alteration had been disclosed or independently discovered by PSA.
Jacobs v. Halper, 14CV06515 (E.D. Pa. 2014); 116 F. Supp. 3d 469 (E.D. Pa. 2015). Note: The checklist for the “1999 Sotheby’s Barry Halper Collection of Baseball Memorabilia” set found on www.tcdb.com is inaccurate. Here is the actual checklist: 1. Sotheby’s header card, 2. The Babe’s Last Bat, 3. Lou Gehrig Day, 4. Joe D’s Rookie Year, 5. The Black Sox Series, 6. The M&M Boys, 7. Willie’s Catch, 8. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World, 9. King of Competition (Ty Cobb), 10. Pine Tar Rhubarb, 11. A Whole New Ballgame (Internet Auction), 12. Pete Rose’s 4000th Hit, 13. Babe Ruth Shows Kids How It’s Done, 14. Babe Ruth, Newspaperman, 15. The Barnstormers (Bob Feller and Satchel Paige), and 16. Jackie’s Promise.
Upper Deck v. Miguel Flores, 21CV01182 (S.D. Cal. 2021).
Wheeler v. The Topps Company, 22CV02264 (S.D. N.Y. 2022).
Alan Walker, “Hey! Wow! Lookithat! Look at all that bubble gum!,” Calgary Herald, May 8, 1971: 77, 79, 81.
Daryl Slade, “Company is bringing back rookies,” Calgary Herald, September 13, 1992: 57.
Rod Hirsch, “Wagner card is heavy hitter for collectors,” The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), June 29, 2000: 91.
“Wagner card sells for $1.265M,” The Daily Times (Salisbury, Maryland), July 19, 2000: 21.
Bill Wagner, “Topps, Upper Deck still in baseball as competitors axed,” Record Searchlight (Redding, California), July 24, 2005: 21.
Erik Schwartz, “Outta here: Bidders get Fleer assets,” Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey), September 10, 2005: 9.
“’Cool Papa’ was no buffoon, sez lawsuit,” Daily News (New York, New York), November 23, 2007: 8.
There’s been a lot of baseball parks in Chicago. Before there was Wrigley, there was Comiskey. Before Comiskey, there was the West Side Grounds, and before that, Brotherhood Park, and Southside Park, and Lakefront Park, and others, all the way back to Dexter Park.
Located just south of the Chicago Stockyards between 43rd and 47th and Halsted Streets, Dexter Park was the Windy City’s foremost ball ground in the mid-1860s. It hosted the 1867 tournament that saw Rockford’s Forest City Base Ball Club shock the previously undefeated Washington Nationals, 29 to 23, on July 25. The Nationals avenged the loss two days later by hammering the Chicago Excelsiors 49 to 7, and then giving the same treatment to the home-ground Chicago Atlantics after another two-day break, 78 to 17.
With the amateur game giving way to the professional version, the Chicago White Stockings claimed the park in time for the 1870 season. Twenty-thousand fans are said to have witnessed the home team defeat the visiting Cincinnati Red Stockings in mid-October, 16 to 13.
But before there was Dexter Park, there was Dexter himself. Described as “high-spirited, nervous, wide-awake and intelligent,” Dexter was America’s most famous horse during his short career. Racing from 1863 until he pulled up lame in 1867, years before he would’ve reached his prime, Dexter ran 55 times and won 50. He was Inducted as an Immortal to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1956.
Dexter beat all of the other famous flyers of the time—Stonewall Jackson, George M. Patchen, Jr., General Butler, Commodore Vanderbilt, Toronto Chief, Lady Thorne and others. Along the way, the equine powerhouse set speed records for the day in mile heats, best three-out-of-five heats, two miles, three miles, in harness, saddle and wagon.
In 1866, Dexter was stabled in Chicago and owned by George Trussell, a notorious Windy City gambler. One of Dexter’s most-anticipated races was scheduled to be held at the Chicago Driving Park Association grounds on September 4. Trussell expected a big day. But torrential rain soaked the Windy City that morning and a three-way $5,000 match against Patchen and General Butler was postponed. It still turned out to be a big day for Trussell, when Mollie Cosgriff shot him dead.
Trussell spent the last afternoon of his life at the Driving Park, drinking and gambling with friends despite the race postponement. The party moved downtown in the evening with a tour of bars. It was said that Trussell had a strong attraction to the spirits of the time, and so it wasn’t a surprise when he drifted into Seneca Wright’s tavern on Randolph for a nightcap and a song toward the 11 o’clock hour.
What was a surprise, was when Mollie Cosgriff showed up at the saloon, wanting a word or two with George. She looked, according to one newspaper, as if she had just come from a dancing party, wearing a striking white moire dress to the occasion, a shawl draped over her shoulders, drunk, and carrying a revolver in a pocket.
Mollie was no stranger to the tavern side of life. She ran a well-known house of ill-repute on Fourth Avenue.
George and Mollie were no strangers to each other. Mollie had fallen into the demi-monde in Chicago after moving to the city from her home in Ohio. Her attractive figure and alluring beauty naturally gained the temporary attention if not the permanent affection of Chicago’s fast young men, of whom George was no exception. An affair evolved, and a son by Mollie’s calculation, and the couple drifted apart, but Mollie never lost her devotion to the man.
The lingering feelings were not reciprocal. George didn’t feel much like talking with Mollie that night, and he tried to usher her out the front door of Wright’s place. There was some pushing and shoving at the entrance. Seneca stepped from behind the bar, separated the two quarrelers, and then went back to his duties. The former lovers continued to scuffle. One witness said that George struck Mollie. Others said he didn’t. Mollie pulled her gun and shot him in the side.
George careened back toward the center of the saloon. Mollie followed, and fired again, the bullet striking him in the back. George stumbled toward a side door. Mollie shot him a third time. He staggered out the door, into the entrance of Price’s livery stable, and collapsed.
As if just coming out of a trance, Mollie raced out of the saloon and fell on his body, shrieking frantically, “O my George! My George! He is dead.”
A notorious gambler and owner of a famous horse, killed in his prime. A jilted lover, a keeper of a lewd house, a drunken murderess. Newspapers across the Northeast quarter of the country followed the story with salacious glee. It was a sensation, pure and simple, and it seemed like it would be a tough act to follow. But Chicago was a tough town, and racing soon resumed.
“There is great excitement in sporting circles,” the Chicago Tribune declared on Friday morning, September 21, 1866, “about the great race…between General Butler and Cooley, for a purse of five thousand dollars a side, and set for tomorrow on the track of the Chicago Driving Park Association.”
General Butler was a popular harness horse whose career overlapped the Civil War. His likeness circulated on Currier & Ives and other lithographs.
Cooley was a black gelding and a favorite on Chicago race tracks. Locally owned, the fast trotter was described as “a big little horse” with “an eye full of intelligence and kindness.”
Heavy betting underscored the excitement for the sulky race between the horses. “The knowing ones seem to be about equally divided in opinion as far as odds are concerned,” the Tribune computed, “though the majority seem to think the General stands the best chance.”
The match between the horses was also a match between the drivers of the sulkies they pulled. Manager Bill Riley drove Cooley. Two men would steer General Butler that afternoon—jockey Samuel Crooks for the first two races, and quarter-owner William McKeever the remainder of the way.
McKeever was a cool customer, and a good enough athlete to have played for two of New York City’s premier baseball clubs. He began as an infielder with the Gotham club in 1859 before taking on pitching duties for the rough and tumble Mutual club in 1863.
In 1861, McKeever pitched for New York against Brooklyn and the great Jim Creighton in the famous New York Clipper Silver Ball Match. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called McKeever “the most effective medium-paced pitcher in the country.” Creighton outpitched McKeever that day in Hoboken, but Creighton isn’t called great without a reason.
Now nearing 30, McKeever had traded away the mound work for the less taxing pursuits of harness racing and gambling. A half-hour delay after the scheduled start of the Driving Park match drew the disapproval of the crowd of thousands in attendance. Odds favored Cooley 25 to 10 when the match finally began at 3:30 p.m.
General Butler pulled ahead in the first heat, building a five-length lead at the half-mile post but the horses were equal at the final turn. A late surge by Cooley earned the win by a neck.
Cooley won the second heat by 15 lengths. Bettors on General Butler, suspicious of the slow times turned in by Crooks and on the verge of seeing their wagers wiped out, begged McKeever to make a switch. As the odds climbed to 100 to 25 on Cooley, McKeever took the lines for the third heat. The move paid off with a win by 20 lengths for General Butler and the odds reversed themselves.
Trouble began in the fourth heat. A half-an-hour was lost in fits and starts and ill-words between the drivers. With darkness rapidly falling, the heat finally reached its start. Two hundred yards into the race, McKeever suddenly swerved in front of Riley’s buggy, scraping Cooley’s nose. General Butler won the race by a half-length. Many in the crowd argued that the foul should have resulted in a dead heat, or the award of the race to Cooley. Disarray prevailed when the track judges stuck with the win for General Butler.
By the time order was resolved, night had fully fallen and only moonlight illuminated the racing grounds for the fifth and final match. More argument ensued, with half the crowd for the race to be called off due to darkness, and the other half demanding it continue. A start was made despite the conditions. General Butler broke in front along the rail as the horses disappeared in the darkness.
In due course, Cooley returned to view, heading down the home stretch toward the winning line. General Butler careened behind, without a driver. A search quickly located McKeever, bloody and unconscious, face down in the cinders on the back stretch. He was quickly carried to the home of J. R. Gore, a physician who lived nearby on Michigan Avenue.
Examination revealed extensive fractures to McKeever’s skull, with particular injury to the left temple, as if McKeever had been struck in the head by a hard object. Gore extracted three broken pieces of the cranium. Hopes were raised that the procedure would relieve pressure on the brain and allow McKeever to regain consciousness. It soon became apparent that the patient could not recover from the injury.
With foul play evident, police launched an investigation. After taking Riley into custody, suspicion fell on Peter and Tom Hickey, brothers who owned a tavern near the race track. Police arrived at the saloon at two a.m. Sunday morning and arrested the two after a desperate fight that left the officers and suspects bitten, battered, billy-clubbed and pistol-whipped.
McKeever died Sunday afternoon without ever coming out of his coma. His body was returned to his brother’s care in New York and internment at Greenwood Cemetery, final resting place of so many of the game’s pioneers. Remembering their former pitcher, the entire Mutual Base Ball Club attended McKeever’s funeral.
Back in Illinois, the Cook County Coroner opened an inquest on McKeever’s death. Chicago’s sporting crowd packed the Central Police Station to view the proceedings. A string of witnesses testified. Two said they saw Peter Hickey on the track between the fourth and fifth heat. There were other figures in the shadows. Tom Hickey denied any knowledge of the events surrounding McKeever’s death. Bill Riley testified he didn’t have anything to do with it, either. He closed with one admission. “I did say, ‘If I could win the race, I would.’”
The coroner’s jury returned its verdict on October without charges, finding only that a plot existed among unnamed friends of Cooley to prevent General Butler from winning the match, and that the result of this plot caused McKeever’s death. A later history of the Chicago Police Department named Tom Hickey as the killer.
Mollie Cosgriff went on trial that same month for the Trussell killing. The charge was manslaughter, for which a sentence of up to life could be applied. There was no argument that Cosgriff killed Trussell. The only argument was whether she was justified in pulling the trigger, in fear for her own life when Trussell tried to push her out of Seneca Wright’s tavern. The jury didn’t buy the entire bill of goods, but came close. After deliberating just over three hours, the jury returned with a guilty verdict and the minimum sentence allowable, a year in the penitentiary.
It might be expected that a woman of Mollie’s notoriety and profession would have some connections. In prison, she was given a private cell and allowed to receive visitors and wear her own clothes, but that was just a nickel ante in a smaller game. Mollie had bigger cards to play: she was pardoned by Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby after serving just a month of her sentence.
The Driving Park Association did not survive McKeever’s death. With its reputation completely ruined by the autumn’s gruesome murders, the grounds were sold at auction in December of 1866 and soon demolished. Dexter Park, specifically named after the trotter, opened in July of 1867 to replace the disgraced track. The spacious infield of the racing oval contained the baseball diamond.
A tobacco card celebrates Dexter
The horse Dexter had a short career. So did the park named after him. It burned to the ground in 1871, a victim of the Great Chicago Fire.
William McKeever has never appeared on a baseball card.
Author’s Note: This is the third in a multi-part series that explores the legal backstories that have shaped (and continue to shape) the baseball card industry.
You may recall that Fleer and Donruss entered the baseball card market in 1981 after a Pennsylvania district court found that Topps and the Major League Baseball Players Association (“MLBPA”) had illegally restrained trade in the baseball card market. The court voided Topps’ player contract exclusivity clause and the MLBPA was ordered to enter into at least one additional licensing agreement “to market a pocket-size baseball card product, to be sold alone or in combination with a low-cost premium.” This freewheeling baseball card market was short-lived, however, once the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the Pennsylvania district court’s order on August 25, 1981 and held the exclusive rights in Topps’ player contracts were legal and enforceable.
Ultimately victorious, Topps filed separate matters in Delaware (seeking to disgorge Fleer of its 1981 profits) and New York (seeking to recover Fleer’s profits for 1982/1983 claiming that Fleer’s team logo sticker was a “sham product”). Both cases were settled on confidential terms, though with a provision that allowed Fleer to continue selling baseball cards with team logo stickers.
The MLBPA Turns the Screws on Topps
Despite settlement between Topps and Fleer in the Delaware and New York matters, the case continued as to the counterclaim by the MLBPA against Topps, which the court astutely observed had likely been filed “in order to exert some pressure on Topps to abandon or at least modify the breadth of its interpretation of its player contracts.” Specifically, the MLBPA sought declaration that the word “alone” in Topps’ contracts did not include “low-cost non-confectionary items like Fleer’s team logo sticker.”
Marvin Miller, however, had admitted under oath in the prior Pennsylvania matter that Topps’ rights would be infringed by the sale of cards with a “completely valueless item” and that the MLBPA would have denied any proposal for baseball cards to be sold with a “trivial product.” Additionally, the court took issue with the absence of evidence regarding how much it cost to produce the stickers or “the extent, if any, to which the sticker motivates purchases” of Fleer wax packs. Topps argued the only way for Fleer to avoid an infringement claim would be to “make sure that the production cost of the [logo sticker] at least equal[ed] the production cost of the cards in the package.”
However, the settlement of the underlying case between Topps and Fleer had altered the nature of the contract issue that the MLBPA wished to litigate. Although the precise terms were confidential, the settlement agreement required Fleer to increase the production cost of the logo sticker compared to the cost of the cards in each pack and specified that the logo sticker needed to be featured prominently on packaging and advertisement for the product.
Because Topps was satisfied that Fleer’s logo stickers no longer infringed on their rights to market cards alone, the court held that the MLBPA was seeking remedy for a package of cards (containing a “sham” sticker) that was no longer being marketed and that the MLBPA’s claim was nonjusticiable—it simply did not present an active controversy over which the court could preside. Accordingly, the matter was dismissed on August 25, 1986.
Turnabout is Fair Play
Separate litigation continued between Topps and MLBPA in New York. There, Topps alleged that the MLBPA had instigated a group player boycott; had attempted to monopolize Major League Baseball players’ publicity rights in violation of the Sherman Act; and had tortiously interfered with Topps contractual relationships with the players.
The compensation Topps offered for player contracts had remained unchanged since 1975—players received $5 upon signing the initial contract and received a $250 advance against his pro rata share of a royalty pool for every season he was a member of a major league club (and Topps used his picture on a card). All-Star pitcher Jim Kern described the deal with Topps rather pithily, “you get $250 from Topps, hell or high water, if your face is on a card.”
Marvin Miller had repeatedly attempted to negotiate better terms, but Topps ignored all demands—mainly because Topps’ individual contracting system left the MLBPA with little bargaining power. In fact, Topps had offered a lower royalty rate for exclusive rights than Fleer and Donruss had for non-exclusive rights prior to the 1982 season.
In an effort to increase their bargaining power, the board recommended that no player enter into or renew an agreement with Topps. Executive board member Buck Martinez acknowledged the MLBPA “simply wanted to negotiate a new contract with Topps.” The matter came to a head in January 1986, when Miller and Don Fehr distributed a memo that declared “the Executive Board has determined that it cannot, and will not recommend that any player enter into a new agreement with Topps, or renew or extend any existing agreement with Topps, pending the outcome of the discussions between the association and Topps.” Accordingly, few players signed renewals with Topps. The MLBPA thereafter presented Topps with a licensing offer of “commercially reasonable terms.”
Topps’ player contracts were set to expire with approximately 100 individual Major League players (a group that included most of the players deemed “superstars”) on December 31, 1986. Topps complained that it would be unable to produce a complete set of cards for 1987 if those contracts were allowed to expire.
In its opinion issued on August 1, 1986, the court found questions of fact regarding whether the MLBPA intended to obtain monopoly power. However, denial of Topps’ request for a preliminary injunction was a monumental win for the MLBPA, “Topps can easily avoid the irreparable harm it claims it will suffer by accepting the offer the MLBPA has made.” In other words, Topps could simply pay for the rights to renew those 100 players with expiring contracts, however unpalatable it was to Topps. Forced into the corner, a deal was struck that allowed Topps to market a full set in 1987 and beyond.
Though card manufacturers like Topps generally kept production numbers private, “one trade magazine estimated the tally at 81 billion trading cards per year in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, or more than 300 cards for every American annually.”
In Re: Nolan Ryan Rookie Card
In April 1990, a 12-year-old collector walked out of the Ball-Mart card shop in Addison, Illinois with a beautiful 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan card. The owner of the shop, Joe Irmen, had been in the baseball card business for just a few weeks and had marked the card “1200” without a dollar sign, comma, or decimal point ($1200 was essentially top dollar for the card at the time). During a blitz of customers at the card shop, Irmen asked a clerk from his next-door jewelry store to help out. Unfortunately, that clerk had no knowledge about the value of the card and mistakenly sold it for $12.
After being inundated with requests for cheap Ryan rookie cards, Irmen discovered the $1200 card in his case had been sold at a steep discount—the receipt on file clearly showed the $12 purchase price.
Irmen initiated a manhunt and posted a sign in his store offering a $100 reward for information about the person who had purchased the card. Once the buyer (a minor) was identified, Irmen went to the child’s house, but no one answered the door. Thereafter unable to negotiate its return, Irmen filed a lawsuit in an effort to recover the card. The family, who felt the card was purchased fairly, filed a $60,000 counterclaim for defamation.
The matter was set for trial on March 5, 1991 in front of DuPage County Judge Ann Jorgensen. Before the proceedings began, it was revealed that a trade had been made the night before in which the 1968 Ryan card had been exchanged for a 1965 Joe Namath rookie and 1967 Tom Seaver rookie. The bombshell revelation resulted in a shouting match between the attorneys. Bailiffs had to clear the courtroom.
Once order was restored, the case was continued and eventually settled by way of the parties agreeing to have the card auctioned off for charity. On June 21, 1991 the card was sold for $5000, and the proceeds split between the parties to be donated to charities of their choice.
Cutting Cards: A Cautionary Tale
In what may qualify as the original “cart art,” Dad’s Kid Corporation produced a set of “Tri Cards” in 1992 that were assembled using three identical baseball cards issued by Donruss, Fleer, Score, or Upper Deck. The top two cards were die-cut such that only the body of player remained. Those two pieces were then stacked and glued atop an uncut card to create a neat 3-D effect. Each card was encased in a plastic box and sold individually or in a two-pack, packaged such that each card was visible to potential buyers.
The owner of Dad’s Kid Corporation, Christopher Kamar, had struck deals with Toys R Us, F.A.O. Schwartz, Spencer Gifts, and other retailers to sell his Tri Cards. Almost immediately, the Tri Cards were so popular that Dad’s Kid had to run three shifts of 100 assemblers per shift just to meet demand. In fact, its initial shipment to Toys R Us was so successful, Dad’s Kid had a reorder on the table worth upwards of $20 million when Upper Deck, Score, Leaf, and the MLBPA filed coordinated lawsuits in New York and California seeking to stop Dad’s Kid from selling its Tri Card products. The respective lawsuits alleged that any modification of existing baseball cards, without prior written permission, violated trademark and copyright law.
For its part, Dad’s Kid had undertaken a thorough legal analysis before it began the manufacturing process and was operating under a good-faith belief it was not infringing on any rights; it was simply using cards purchased legally on the secondary market. Moreover, the company posted an explicit disclaimer on each box alerting consumers it was not claiming any rights with respect to the cards and was otherwise not affiliated with any of the card manufacturers, MLB, or the MLBPA.
In the New York case, the MLBPA moved for an injunction asking the court to stop Dad’s Kid from selling Tri Card products. The district court refused, citing the “first-sale doctrine” in a ruling issued on November 12, 1992:
“The fact that an enormous secondary market exists for baseball cards and baseball card derivative works leads me to conclude on this record that baseball players have little if any continuing publicity rights with respect to the use and reuse of their pictures on cards by subsequent purchasers and sellers of duly licensed baseball cards following a perfectly proper first sale into commerce for which the players get a royalty.” Effectively, the players did not have the right to control what was done with the cards after the initial sale and had no claim for any additional compensation. On the heels of this victory, Dad’s Kid announced its Tri Cards would be back in 1993.
The lawsuits rolled on, however, and in April 1993 the New York case was consolidated with the California matters to continue there. Unfortunately for Dad’s Kid, the California district court did not agree with (and was not bound by) the New York first-sale ruling and instead issued a permanent injunction on August 12, 1994 that prohibited Dad’s Kid from producing any further Tri Cards. The court further ordered that Dad’s Kid reimburse the plaintiff card manufacturers and MLBPA over $1 million collectively in attorneys’ fees and costs.
Dad’s Kid appealed and the case was eventually dismissed on March 8, 1996, pursuant to a confidential settlement.
Johnny Bench Hit by his Own Pitch
Sports cards and memorabilia sales continued to soar in the 1990s and quickly became a fixture on shop-at-home television stations. This format often preyed on those unfamiliar with the actual value of items and otherwise created an environment where even sophisticated collectors might get caught up in the frenzied sales tactics.
Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench appeared on the Home Shopping Network on August 5, 1993 to hawk baseballs he had signed. In typical shop-at home fashion, viewers were initially told the autographed balls were worth $129. They claimed the baseballs would sell out at $99.95. Finally, the Bench-signed baseballs were dropped to the low, low price of $49.95.
Unfortunately for the Home Shopping Network and Bench, however, the New York Department of Consumer Affairs had started to monitor the values claimed for sports card and memorabilia. With the help of a trusted price guide, they determined that an autographed Johnny Bench baseball was worth $35, only 70% of its final “sensational” sales price.
The first celebrity endorser to face such charges in New York, Bench was personally cited for misrepresenting the value of his own signature on a ball. Bench was hit with a $5000 fine in December and Home Shopping Network was ordered to pay $30,000.
Poking the Bear
Seeking to “put the fun back in baseball card collecting,” Cardtoons readied a 1993 release of parody baseball cards intended to poke fun at the egos and greed in the game (and the world) with an issue that was equal parts Wacky Packages, Garbage Pail Kids, and traditional trading cards. The set of 130 cards lampooned current players, retired legends, Michael Jordan (the baseball player) and political figures like Bill Clinton.
Cardtoons tapped free agent sportswriter Mike Sowell to create the players’ alter egos and write the card backs. Caricatures by Dayne Dudley and Dave Simpson were deftly rendered so that each individual was recognizable without including team logos that might run afoul of MLB’s rights. In fact, even the team names were changed to cheeky monikers (e.g., Orioles/Bore-Ioles and Cubs/Scrubs). The glossy cards were distributed in foil packs along with chase cards, foil versions, insert sets, puzzles, and redemption cards intended to skewer the baseball card industry, itself. Cardtoons’ initial run called for some 13 million cards to be printed.
Cardtoons first advertised their cards in the May 14, 1993 issue of Sports Collector Digest. This caught the attention of the MLBPA (who had not issued a license to Cardtoons to use the likenesses of the players depicted). The MLBPA sent Cardtoons a letter on June 18 asserting that its product violated the “valuable property rights of MLBPA and the players” and threatened legal action if any cards of active baseball players were sold. A similar letter was sent to the printing company, who immediately halted production.
Just days after receipt of the cease-and-desist letter, Cardtoons filed a lawsuit against MLBPA seeking a declaration that it could sell parody baseball cards without license from the MLBPA pursuant to First Amendment protection. At a subsequent evidentiary hearing, Cardtoons revealed it was sitting on nearly 4000 cases of product ready to ship. The MLBPA claimed it would never have licensed a parody set that poked fun at individual players (and also admitted to a “glut” in the market for baseball cards!).
The district court considered that parodies (such as political cartoons) were generally protected by the First Amendment and “deserving of substantial freedom—both as entertainment and as a form of social and literary criticism.” The issue the court wrangled with, however, was whether “one can sell a parody” and ultimately decided that Cardtoons could not profit from the players’ likenesses and fame. An order was entered that prohibited Cardtoons from selling cards containing the likenesses of active Major League ballplayers (101 of the 130 cards in the set). Damages were denied because none of the cards had actually been sold at the time the decision was rendered on November 23, 1993.
The Cardtoons set eventually saw the light of day, however, because raunchy rap group 2 Live Crew sampled a Roy Orbison song without permission. In a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, 2 Live Crew prevailed in a ruling handed down on March 7, 1994 in which it was held that a commercial (i.e., made specifically for sale) parody song could constitute fair use.
Cardtoons sought reconsideration in light of the 2 Live Crew ruling and on October 25, 1994, the district court reversed its prior decision, this time finding it reasonable that Cardtoons would seek compensation for its efforts and recognized that “parodists will seldom get permission from those whose works are parodied. Self-esteem is seldom strong enough to permit the granting of permission even in exchange for a reasonable fee.” The court ultimately ruled that that right of publicity did not “confer a shield to ward off caricature, parody and satire” and that the Cardtoons cards were protected by the First Amendment, regardless of their commercial nature.
Finally clear to distribute their cards, Cardtoons released the set in 1995—the product’s overarching message elegantly punctuated by intervening strike and cancellation of the 1994 World Series. While the original version of cards was set to be “90 percent positive in the way they portrayed players,” Sowell’s opinion soured as the court battle raged. He decided there was “no need to be nice” and satirized the players as he saw fit.
The appeal filed by MLBPA was denied in 1996, the Tenth Circuit ruling succinctly that “the last thing we need, the last thing the First Amendment will tolerate, is a law that lets public figures keep people from mocking them.” But for the protracted lawsuit, Cardtoons had plans to issue card sets for other sports.
Mickey Mantle v. Upper Deck
On February 1, 1993 Mickey Mantle entered a three-year contract that gave Upper Deck “exclusive worldwide rights to use and reuse. . .Mantle’s name (as well as any nicknames), image, likeness, artists’ portrayal of image or likeness, visual representation, signature (or facsimile thereof), photograph, voice, biography, statistics and endorsements” for baseball cards and associated promotional materials. Upper Deck’s 1993 Mantle issues were relatively modest, including several “All-Time Heroes” multiplayer cards and a “Then and Now” card featuring a young Mantle aside a holographic image an older Mantle wearing an Upper Deck jersey.
In 1994, Upper Deck produced a slew of Mantle cards, including one that was personally signed by both Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. That year, Topps also issued a Mantle card as part of its Archive set, styled as a 1954 Topps card and clearly indicating on the reverse that it had rights to issue the card per an agreement with Upper Deck. (Mantle was signed with Bowman exclusively in 1954 and 1955 and Topps had not issued Mantle cards those seasons.)
Despite Upper Deck wholeheartedly issuing a multitude of Mantle cards in 1994, the company reportedly soured on the deal after Mantle publicly admitted he had undergone alcohol rehabilitation. Mantle filed a lawsuit late in the year claiming that Upper Deck had threatened to rescind the contract unless he agreed to take a pay cut. Upper Deck admitted, “discussions regarding restructuring Mr. Mantle’s contract were the product of his disability and other performance-related concerns.” Upper Deck claimed Mantle had “failed to live up to his commitments as effective spokesperson for the company.”
In February 1995 the parties agreed to participate in arbitration (an alternative dispute resolution process in which three arbitrators—not a jury or judge—decide the case and amount of damages, if any). Despite the ongoing dispute, Upper Deck went ahead and issued a set of metallic Mickey Mantle baseball cards in 1995.
Somewhat ironically, Upper Deck sued several parties in a separate action on February 14, 1995 claiming that those companies could not sell items autographed by Mantle during the term of Upper Deck’s exclusive contract with Mantle. One of those companies, Score Board, prevailed because its contract with Mantle specifically provided it could sell off remaining merchandise after that contract expired on January 31, 1993. At the same time, Score Board had separately sued Upper Deck in New Jersey claiming that Upper Deck was improperly selling autographed Ken Griffey Jr. signatures that Score Board had exclusive right to sell.
On May 28, 1995, Mantle was hospitalized and underwent a liver transplant on June 8. After Mantle passed away on August 13, 1995, collectors scrambled to acquire Mantle items and Upper Deck, alone, sold more than $500,000 worth of Mantle memorabilia on the heels of his death. Mantle’s (estranged) widow Merlyn and personal attorney Roy True continued to prosecute the Upper Deck case on behalf of Mantle’s estate.
On May 22, 1996 the arbitration panel awarded the estate nearly $5 million (approximately $9.7 million in today’s dollars), which included actual damages for having sold Mantle merchandise without a license to do so, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. Upper Deck sought to have the award vacated, but their efforts failed, and the lawsuit was closed in April 1997.
Orel Hershiser Adds Another Shutout
Orel Hershiser is probably best known for his amazing 1988 pitching performance in which he tossed 59 consecutive shutout innings. A decade later, Hershiser sued Vintage Sports Plaques (“Vintage”) for infringement of licensing and publicity rights after learning that Vintage was selling Hershiser’s baseball cards affixed to wooden plaques and labeled with his name. (Deluxe plaques included a “clock with a sports motif.”) The Hershiser cards used by Vintage were purchased from licensed manufacturers and framed without alteration. Vintage, itself, had no licensing agreements with any parties.
Vintage argued that the “first-sale doctrine” was a complete defense to the publicity claims. The first-sale doctrine provides that “once the holder of an intellectual property right consents to the sale of particular copies. . .of his work, he may not thereafter exercise the distribution right with respect to such copies.” The court rightly recognized that its failure to apply the first-sale doctrine in the Hershiser case would “render tortious the resale of sports trading cards and memorabilia” and would have a chilling effect on the secondary market for trading cards. In fact, refusing to apply the first-sale doctrine here would essentially make it impossible for a child to sell a baseball card to a friend.
Ultimately, the court found that Vintage was merely reselling cards that it had lawfully obtained. “This is more appropriately classified as a case of an entrepreneur repackaging or displaying the trading cards in a more attractive way to consumers rather than a case of an opportunist using Plaintiffs’ names and likenesses to sell frames and clocks.” The appellate court affirmed and the plaintiff’s declined to pursue any further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hershiser was shutout.
An Ocean of Cards
Although the MLBPA had long been involved in baseball card-related disputes and litigation, the owners of the ballclubs had not been quite so active, perhaps because collecting money for the use of their trademarked logos and uniforms, while very lucrative, was not the lifeblood that licensing revenue represented for the MLBPA.
This changed in 1998, however, when Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. (“MLB”) learned that Pacific Trading Cards was in the process of manufacturing and distributing cards that depicted players in their MLB uniforms, despite MLB having refused to grant a license to Pacific for the current set. (MLB had authorized previous Pacific issues).
Pacific was fully licensed by the MLBPA and went forward with manufacture “either believing mistakenly that it would receive a license from MLB or not caring whether it would.” The MLB sued to stop Pacific from distributing their cards. The MLB’s request for a preliminary injunction was denied, inter alia, because the court felt that the inclusion of the logos or trademarks were only incidental to the depiction of the player and did not imply any sponsorship by MLB for the card.
An appeal followed by MLB and Pacific implored the court for permission to ship their cards immediately or the results would be financially ruinous. Ultimately, MLB and Pacific were able to reach a settlement and Pacific continued to issue sets of baseball cards through 2001.
Throughout the 1990s, card companies, like Pacific, continued to churn out nearly innumerable piles of cards. An exclusive license for Topps was on the horizon, but the fighting would continue in nearly every corner of the hobby.
To be continued…
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 501 F.Supp. 485 (E.D. Pa. 1980). The only trading card product ever to outsell baseball cards was Wacky Packages in 1973-74. The court noted that the slab of gum weighed “4.30 grams” in 1978. Fleer had a net operating loss in 1978 and its net income (loss) was as follows: 1977—$346,621; 1976—$502,257; 1975—$720,274; 1974—($309,261); 1973—$382,354; 1972—$268,926; 1971—$148,494; 1970—($200,016). Roughly two thirds of baseball cards purchased are purchased by “heavy” buyers (i.e., those who purchase more than 200 cards per year.)
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 658 F.2d 139, 658 F.2d 139 (3rd Cir. 1981). The number of players included in each licensing agreement varied. Some contracts, like those with Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s covered all the players, while others included “not less than 72, and not more than 300.”
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1019 (1982).
Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 547 F.Supp. 102 (D. Del. 1982).
Tetley, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 556 F.Supp. 785 (E.D.N.Y. 1983). Tetley Tea manufacturer sued Topps for including “Petley Flea Bags” in its Wacky Packages release. Approximately 200,000 of the sticker was issued between 1975 and 1977 and Topps had produced approximately 400,000 more of the sticker for its 1982 release. Topps agreed to discontinue distribution of the offending sticker once the printed run was fully depleted.
Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Major League Baseball Players Association, 641 F.Supp. 1179 (S.D. N.Y. 1986) Topps paid royalties to the MLBPA computed at 8% of Topps’ first $4 million in net sales and 10% of Topps’ net sales in excess of $4 million.
Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 799 F.2d 851 (2nd Cir. 1986). The MLBPA was granted intervention as a defendant in Topps case against Fleer; Topps had not sued the MLBPA directly in this action. The matter was remanded to the district court to be dismissed without prejudice, which would have allowed the MLBPA to have filed a new lawsuit against Topps, if they desired. No such suit was filed.
Original Appalachian Artworks, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 642 F.Supp. 1031 (N.D. Ga. 1986). The makers of Cabbage Patch Kids sued Topps for copyright and trademark infringement caused by the sale of its Garbage Pail Kids stickers. Between May 1985 and August 1986, Topps had sold more than 800 million stickers. Before issuing the Garbage Pail Kids product, Topps had unsuccessfully tried to obtain a license for Cabbage Patch Kids. Topps eventually agreed to a confidential cash settlement and design changes to the cards. “Cabbage Patch Dolls are Victorious Over Garbage Pail Kids.” The Columbus (Georgia) Ledger, February 4, 1987: 8.
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 539 A.2d 1060 (Del., 1988). “Restitution serves to ‘deprive the defendant of benefits that in equity and good conscience he ought not to keep, even though he may have received those benefits honestly in the first instance, and even though the plaintiff may have suffered no demonstrable losses.’”
Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 838 F. Supp. 1501 (N.D. Okla. 1993). The six companies with MLBPA licenses to sell baseball cards at the time were producing an estimated $1.3 billion in annual sales. Caricature was defined as “the deliberate distorted picturing or imitating of a person, literary style, etc. by exaggerating features or mannerisms for satirical effect.”
Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569 (1994). The District Court had granted summary judgment for 2 Live Crew, holding that its song “Pretty Woman” was a parody that made fair use of the original Roy Orbison song “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The appellate court reversed because they felt 2 Live Crew had “taken too much” of the original for their own use and that the song constituted a commercial use. The Supreme Court subsequently reversed and remanded holding that 2 Live Crew’s commercial parody might qualify as fair use.
Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 868 F. Supp. 1266 (N.D. Okla. 1994).
Cardtoons, L.C. v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 95 F.3d 959, 39 USPQ2d 1865 (10th Cir. 1996). “Because Cardtoons’ First Amendment right to free expression outweighs MLBPA’s proprietary right of publicity, we affirm.” The court noted that royalties from baseball cards generated over 70 percent of the MLBPA’s licensing revenue.
Mantle v. Upper Deck Co., 956 F.Supp. 719 (N.D. Texas, 1997). Mantle sued The Upper Deck Company and Upper Deck Authenticated, Ltd. These related companies are referred to collectively as “Upper Deck” for the reader’s benefit. Judgment confirmed for Estate of Mickey Mantle against defendants in the principal amount of $2,725,258.00, exemplary damages in the amount of $1,000,000.00, attorney’s fees in amount of $1,241,628.00, prejudgment interest at 10% per year from the date of the award until the date of judgment, and post-judgment interest at 5.81% per year.
Upper Deck Authenticated, Ltd. v. CPG Direct, 971 F.Supp. 1337 (S.D. Cal. 1997). Defendants included Shop at Home, Inc., CPG Direct, B&J Collectibles, William Rodman, Kenneth Goldin, Classic Games, Inc., Catch a Star Collectibles, Inc., The Score Board, Inc., Score Board Retail Corporation, The Score Board Holding Corporation.
The Score Board, Inc. v. Upper Deck Co., 959 F.Supp. 234 (D. N.J. 1997).
Allison v. Vintage Sports Plaques, 136 F.3d 1443 (11th Cir. 1998). Hershiser had otherwise earned $230,000 from licensing and endorsement deals from 1993 through 1996. Stockcar driver Cliff Allison’s widow Elisa was also a plaintiff in the case.
Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Pacific Trading Cards, Inc., 1998 WL 241904 (S.D. N.Y. 1998).
Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Pacific Trading Cards, Inc., No. 98-7700 (2nd Cir. 1998).
Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 182 F.3d 1132 (10th Cir. 1999); Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 208 F.3d 885 (10th Cir. 2000); Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 335 F.3d 1161 (10th Cir. 2003). Cardtoons tried, and failed, to collect monetary damages from the MLBPA.
Paul Lomartire, “Baseball Cards and the Snaps of Spring,” The Tampa Tribune, April 4, 1982: 133.
John Leptich, “Boy sued over baseball card,” Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1990: 1.
“Nolan Ryan rookie card snafu headed to court,” The Tribune (Scranton, Pennsylvania), March 6, 1991: 12.
John Leptich, “Baseball card returns, trial goes on,” Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1991: 49.
John Leptich, “Charity delivers winning pitch in baseball card suit,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1991: 47.
John Leptich, “Ryan card brings $5000 and another flap,” Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1991: 41.
“Upper Deck Sues Rival Card Firm; Claims Trademark Infringement,” North County Times (Oceanside, California), August 2, 1992: 31.
Anne Michaud, “Small Baseball Card Firm Takes Hit from Big Leagues,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1992: 265.
“For the Record,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1992: 195. Dad’s Kid filed a counterclaim for $955 million.
Jim Bullard, “More than kids’ stuff,” Tampa Bay Times, January 1, 1993: 96.
Owen Canfield, “ML Players Association not amused by ‘Cardtoons,’” Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey), July 9, 1993: 24.
“Bench’s ink pitch draws ire,” Herald and Review (Decatur, Illinois), October 8, 1993: 30.
“Mantle files lawsuit against Upper Deck on contract balk,” Logansport (Indiana) Pharos-Tribune, November 4, 1994: 12.
Jay D. Preble, “Leagues fighting unlicensed cards,” Tampa Tribune, November 12, 1994: 24.
Gene Collier, “How do you spell egomaniacal?,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette February 12, 1995: 25.
John Mabry, “Satire cards aren’t a hit with big-league players, Kansas City Star, April 16, 1995: 44.
Christopher Kamar, telephone interview with author, October 21, 2022.
Michael Sowell, telephone interview with author, November 5, 2022.
Special thanks to Jason Schwartz for reviewing this article and offering helpful suggestions.
Tri Cards Checklist (Cards are not identified with a Tri Cards set number or date of issue by Dad’s Kid Corp. Cards are individually numbered to 50,000. Production was halted before 50,000 of any card was manufactured and no records remain regarding the actual number produced of each Tri Card. Additionally, no checklist of Tri Cards manufactured exists, so the following list may be incomplete.)
One of the elements of Topps Heritage that routinely catches my eyes are the Heritage News Flashbacks. For a small insert set which is purportedly about the heritage year’s news highlights, I’ve found it to be an interesting window into what kind of things Topps considers mass-market newsworthy.
Given Topps’s coverage of the 1950s–1970s we have a lot of civil rights firsts,* a lot of space exploration, and a lot of Vietnam War related events. All things which are conceivably politically neutral. In many years though Topps also commemorates legislation and other political achievements. These were clearly highly political at the time but also frequently remain political even today. When I look through the insert checklists it’s these cards that catch my eye in the way that they have one foot in both “this is something worth commemorating” territory and “this is what people say we shouldn’t talk about in the hobby” territory.
*The number of “first black” or “first woman” events Topps chose to celebrate is both refreshing to see and an indictment of who has been traditionally allowed to succeed in our society.
Not only do these legislative inserts catch my eye but they frequently have an interesting context outside of the just the card. This 2009 card commemorating the 1960 Civil Rights Act for example came out the same year that Barrack Obama became the first Black President and the year that Congress authorized the Civil Rights History project to collect oral histories from people who were active in the struggle during the 1950s and 1960s.
The thing with these news flashbacks cards though is that they also tend to frame history as a series of accomplishments rather than a continuing struggle and discussion. Looking at this card gives the impression that we’ve achieved equality at the polls and that no further work needs to be done to maintain things let alone improve on them further.
In 2010 we have acknowledgment of how Washingon DC residents were disenfranchised through the 1960 election with a card the commemorates the ratification of the 23rd Amendment. It’s definitely a good thing that their presidential votes count now but the struggle for DC statehood and representation continued after this amendment.
In terms of the context of this 2010 card it’s important to mention DC’s statehood has been endorsed by multiple Presidents now and that there was a referendum in 2016 in which 86% of DC voters expressed a desire for statehood.
In 2013 we pick up where 2009 left off with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As with the 2009 card this states plainly that segregation is outlawed as well as discrimination against ethnic, racial, and religious minorities plus women. This card doesn’t note how the Civil Right Act of 1964 is what prompted Southern Democrats to switch parties and drastically rearrange the political geography of the United States.
Coming out in 2013 is kind of some amazing immediate context too. Between the Trayvon Martin murder which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and the Fisher v U of Texas case that threatened to roll back Affirmative Action the discussion about how relevant the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still was and whether its protections were still needed make this card anything but politically neutral.
The 2014 card which commemorates the Voting Rights act of 1965 is the card which prompted this post. For Topps to publish this the year after Shelby v Holder feels almost like an intentional political comment. With a headline about securing voting equality despite the mechanisms for actually keeping voting equality having just been ripped out of the act this card reads almost as a eulogy for what was rather than a milestone that was reached.
The ensuing decade has confirmed my sense of it being a eulogy as we’ve seen increased attacks on voting access nationwide.
We’ll skip a few more years and land in 2017 with yet another Civil Rights Act, in this case 1968’s, which was in the news a bit that year. This act contains within it the Fair Housing Act which prohibits discrimination in both renting and sales. The list of protected categories started off as including just race, religion, and national origin but has expanded to include sex, disabilities, and children. In 2017 sexual orientation and gender identity were added to this list via the judicial system (but never got anywhere in Congress).
This act also included some anti-riot language which made it a crime to travel between states in order to participate in a riot. It was notably used on the Chicago Seven and came up again in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in which the courts ruled that its language was over-broad.
While this isn’t a legislative card I’ve included the 2018 card of the 1969 Stonewall Riots because of how much of a lighting rod it would be in today’s political landscape. This is history—both from a Gay Rights point of view and the fact that Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender woman—which is currently being actively legislated against in multiple states nationwide and Topps just had it as a card only four years ago.
This card also came out in the aftermath of the 2015 Obergefell decision which legalized gay marriage and resulted in years of stories of workers and businesses who refused to acknowledge those rights and insisted that their rights to discriminate were more important.
After having maybe one political card per year, Topps went a bit nuts in 2019 and released four of cards of things the government did in 1970. Some of these like expanding voting access to 18 year olds don’t require much comment. Others like the PBS card are noteworthy in the timing of how free educational television was moving to streaming services with shows like Sesame Street only releasing new episodes through HBO Max.
The Earth Day and creation of the EPA cards though are fascinating to see in an age of runaway climate change, the complete abdication by the US Government to do anything about it, and the shortsighted focus on immediate profits over a sustainable world.
Back to only one card in 2021 but it’s a doozy for a year which was threatening to roll back many of the protections that women fought for in the 1970s as Covid had a greater impact on women’s jobs and abortion is getting outlawed nationwide.
In any case it’s pretty clear at this point that the biggest habitat threat is climate change and while the explicit protections and goals of the Endangered Species Act are laudable a larger, more-global, solution will be required moving forward.
And that’s the list. When looked at together it’s easy to reach a conclusion that Topps thinks that discrimination based on race, nationality, and gender is bad, that protecting the environment is good, and that voting should be accessible to all citizens. But it’s also easy to reach a conclusion that Topps considers that all of that has been accomplished already and something we can look back upon and celebrate much in the same way the Major League Baseball commemorates Jackie Robinson as a way of ignoring its current track record on racial equity.
Author’s Note: This is the second in a multi-part series [Part I] that will explore the legal backstories that have shaped (and continue to shape) the baseball card industry. Once considered mere ephemera used to induce children to buy penny confections (or cigarettes!), the industry has been inundated by costly legal battles waged in the name of baseball card supremacy.
Although Fleer had hoped to wield the Federal Trade Commission as its cudgel, the commission ultimately found that Topps’ business practices did not constitute an unlawful monopoly and the matter was dismissed in Topps’ favor on April 30, 1965. Undaunted, Fleer renewed its efforts in 1966 to sign players at spring training camps and issued its “All Star Match Baseball” set, which featured a 66-piece puzzle of Dodgers ace Don Drysdale on the reverse side of the game cards. After this set was issued (and perhaps a result of disappointing sales) Fleer’s resolve faded, culminating in the sale of its entire player contract portfolio—some 3000 players—to Topps later that year for $395,000 (approximately $3.4 million in today’s dollars).
Having dispatched its closest competitor, Topps was poised for sustained dominance in the baseball card market. Indeed, the 1967 set was its largest to date with a checklist comprising 609 bright, colorful cards. Unfortunately for Topps, its newly bought peace would be fleeting. The next assault, however, would be waged not by rival card manufacturers, but by new adversaries—the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and Major League Baseball (MLB).
Frank Scott and the Proto-MLBPA
A “short, feisty, impeccably dressed man,” Frank Scott was road secretary for the New York Yankees from 1947 through 1950 and developed close relationships with Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle. In exchange for a 10% commission, Scott began to represent those players for off-field income opportunities—namely personal appearances and product endorsements—and eventually developed a client list of over 90 baseball stars including Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Robin Roberts. At his peak, Scott was earning $250,000 per year (approximately $2.4 million today) pursuing endorsement deals. One of those deals included landing Mickey Mantle a $1500 payment from Bowman for rights to a photo of Mantle blowing a bubble (although no such card was ever issued).
In May 1959, Scott was named director of the nascent MLBPA—an organization originally created to help ensure the players’ player pension fund was being adequately funded. He continued his player representation business and staffed a provisional MLBPA office at a New York City hotel. Although he had been paid $1000 ($9600 today) a year by Topps for his assistance getting players to sign baseball card contracts, Scott ceased all relationships with Topps after becoming head of the MLBPA.
Considered “too smart to meddle in the players’ salary debates,” Scott avoided contract negotiations between his clients and their respective ballclubs. Similarly, the MLBPA was not yet recognized as a union under Scott’s leadership and did not engage in collective bargaining with MLB on behalf of the players. The direction of the MLBPA, however, changed drastically in late 1965 as a search was undertaken to find a full-time director and establish a permanent office.
The Marvin Miller Experience
Though not their first choice, the stars aligned when the players’ landed Marvin Miller, then chief economist for the United Steelworkers. Under Miller’s leadership, the MLBPA saw unprecedented progress for players’ rights and eventually led to his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in December 2019.
Miller’s nomination for Executive Director was ratified by a player vote on April 11, 1966. He was given a two-and-a-half-year contract starting July 1, at $50,000 per year (approximately $430,000 today), plus a $20,000 expense budget. In need of quick revenue to fund association operations, Miller prioritized a group licensing program. With Frank Scott’s help, the MLBPA first inked a deal with Coca-Cola to print player photos on the underside of bottlecaps. The team owners demanded that Coca-Cola pay separately to use of their club logos. Coca-Cola refused, however, so the bottlecaps were printed with blank hats.
At the time Miller took the helm, the players were still being paid $125 per year by Topps to use their photographs, the amount unchanged for over a decade. Miller met with Topps’ president Joel Shorin in the fall of 1966 looking to renegotiate. Shorin was dismissive of the ballplayers’ leverage as he quipped, “I don’t see your muscle.” Miller, however, was ready to play hardball with Topps:
“In early 1967 Miller suggested to the players that they stop renewing their individual Topps contracts and boycott Topps photographers. This was the only way, Miller advised, that they could get Topps to deal with them. Although the action was voluntary, Topps was able to take no more than a handful of photos during the 1967 season, and, with the dispute unresolved, none at all in 1968.”
Around this same time, the baseball club owners established Major League Properties, Inc. looking to monetize the use of their logos depicted in the photos taken of the ballplayers. After initially refusing to engage with the owners for these rights, Topps was warned that future player photos should be taken in “street clothes, or in pajamas or bathing trunks.” Accordingly, uncertainty created by the demands made by the club owners and the MLBPA were the main reason hatless, underbrim, and duplicative photos proliferated Topps’ offerings the second half of the 1960s.
The players’ boycott convinced Topps to pursue further talks with the MLBPA in early 1968. Topps’ opening volley was no olive branch, however. At a meeting on April 23, Shorin presented Miller with a legal opinion stating that the MLBPA’s group licensing program violated antitrust laws. The MLBPA responded with an opinion that Topps’ contracts with the players violated antitrust laws. (Ironically, both Topps and the MLBPA would soon have to defend a lawsuit that alleged that they conspiredtogether to violate antitrust laws.)
Fleer (Briefly) Back in the Mix
In a move designed to enhance the MLBPA’s bargaining position with Topps, Miller proposed giving Fleer exclusive rights, beginning in 1973, to sell baseball cards with gum for up to 80% of the MLB player pool—in exchange for $600,000. Alternatively, the MLBPA offered Fleer immediate rights for all players sold with a product other than gum. Fleer rejected both offers, claiming it was only interested in cards sold with gum, and that 1973 was simply too long to wait.
Despite the hostile start to their renegotiations, Topps and the MLBPA were able to reach an accord on November 19, 1968 that doubled the player’s annual payment to $250. More importantly, Topps agreed to pay royalties on its annual baseball card sales revenue, resulting in $320,000 (approximately $2.5 million today) paid to the MLBPA in the first year of the deal alone. The deal also allowed the MLBPA to grant a license for any products that were at least 5” x 7” and sold for 25 cents, although Topps reserved the right of first refusal as to any such proposal.
The MLBPA issued numerous trading card licenses during the 1968-1974 period to companies like Beatrice Foods, ITT Continental Baking, Kellogg’s, Pro Star, Inc., Madaras, Inc., Pasco, Inc., and Charles Linnett Associates—several of which were granted over Topps’ objection. In 1969 the MLBPA granted Sports Promotions, Inc., a license to market baseball cards “with cheap novelty rings, iron-on patches, and similar novelties so long as the value of the novelty represented half of the total retail value.” Topps complained to the MLBPA that their rights had been infringed when they learned of the agreement. Topps also objected to Kellogg’s selling baseball cards alone through the mail in 1974. Officially licensed by the MLBPA, Kellogg’s sold sets 54 baseball cards for $1.50, plus a box-top from box of cereal (that typically cost 60 cents). The MLBPA did not revoke Kellogg’s license but obtained a waiver from Topps to allow the continued license for cards sold in that fashion. (Topps could not object to the Kellogg’s cards inserted as premiums in Kellogg’s cereal boxes.)
Despite some occasional complaints to the MLBPA, several years of prosperity followed for Topps and by 1974, its sales of baseball cards and gum approached $6 million annually (approximately $34 million today). Pleased with their arrangement, the contract between Topps and the MLBPA was extended through 1981.
A Fleer in the Ointment
In 1974, Fleer’s president Donald Peck approached the MLBPA seeking approval to market 5” x 7” satin patches to be sold for 25 cents each. The proposal appeared to exploit the product size loophole granted by Topps but appears to have been bit of clever subterfuge in hindsight suggested by Fleer’s paltry $25,000 guarantee on projected sales of $1 million. Moreover, Fleer was likely aware Topps and the MLBPA routinely discussed whether proposed licenses infringed upon Topps’ rights.
Topps took the bait and advised the MLBPA that Fleer’s proposal “was probably not worthwhile.” Without explicitly asking that the license be denied, Shorin warned that the large-format satin patches proposed by Fleer would sit on store shelves and likely depress the sales of Topps’ baseball cards, along with the players’ royalties. Not surprisingly, Topps declined its right to claim the license for the satin patch product.
Miller presented both Fleer’s proposal and Topps’ criticism to the players’ executive board for consideration. Fleer’s offer was rejected unanimously because of fears “Fleer’s product would remain unsold on store shelves, prompting store owners to cut back on orders of Topps’ baseball cards.” Additionally, the executive board was skeptical of Fleer’s sales projections and inadequate guarantee. Miller suggested several changes that might secure a license for the product, but Fleer declined. By April 1975, Fleer had dropped its 5” x 7” product proposal all together.
Peck met with Joel Shorin on April 17, 1975 and threatened to file a lawsuit unless Topps granted Fleer the rights to sell “stickers, stamps, and decals depicting active major league players.” Shorin refused, so Fleer approached the MLBPA about joining in a lawsuit against Topps. The MBLPA declined.
The Monopoly Defense, Part Deux
Even though it had apparently abandoned a desire to produce baseball cards of current players by selling off its contract portfolio to Topps in 1966, Fleer kept a toe in the water by selling team logo cloth stickers with its gum from 1967 through 1972. While Curt Flood’s antitrust case captured headlines throughout the early 1970s and pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally played out their 1975 seasons without contracts in an effort to gain free agent status, Fleer pursued an antitrust case of its own in July 1975, filing a federal lawsuit against Topps and the MLBPA alleging they were co-conspirators in an illegal restraint of trade under the Sherman Act.
Donald Peck claimed that “Topps’ methods had made it impossible for a competitor to bid for rights to the players’ pictures, that the players had been deprived of a chance to maximize their income,” and “the gum and candy industries had been deprived of open competition.” In its complaint, Fleer alleged that it had attempted to obtain the rights needed to produce a set of current major league baseball 5” x 7” cloth stickers as recently as 1974 and was otherwise equipped to reenter the market, but for its lack of “suitable contracts with baseball players.”
Now united, Topps and the MLBPA vowed to vigorously defend the case, which made antitrust accusations eerily similar to those Topps had successfully defended just a decade earlier in the FTC matter. Joel Shorin remained confident that Topps “had complied with all relevant laws.” Likewise, Marvin Miller was satisfied with the Topps’ arrangement and “would not like to see it disrupted.”
In response, Topps filed a motion to dismiss asking the court to find that Fleer was a de facto party in the FTC matter, alleging “Fleer took such an active part in the FTC hearings, and its interests were so aligned with those of the FTC complaint counsel, that it had a “full and fair opportunity . . . to present its evidence and arguments on the claim.” Because the FTC matter had already been resolved in Topps’ favor, they felt it unfair to allow Fleer another bite at the apple.
It seems reasonable to infer that Fleer had no intention of ever issuing a set of 5” x 7” satin stickers, especially when they rebuffed Miller’s attempts to restructure the deal. Most likely, Fleer’s proposal was engineered to be rejected by the MLBPA, both by its puny guarantee and bold expectation Topps would exert its influence to sink the project. By perpetuating this bluff, however, Fleer could allege the requisite intention and capacity to reenter the baseball card market necessary to prove its antitrust case.
The court found that Fleer had undertaken substantial steps to compete in the marketing of current baseball player picture cards and had sufficiently pled that the alleged conspiracy between Topps and the MLBPA prevented them from entering the market. The defendants’ motion to dismiss the case was denied on May 28, 1976; Fleer survived round one.
The Pure Card Set
In late 1974, Topps was alerted that Mike Aronstein and Sports Stars Publishing Company (SSPC) was interested in issuing cards featuring current baseball players. Topps notified the MLBPA, who issued a cease-and-desist letter to Aronstein asserting Topps’ status as the “exclusive licensee for baseball cards sold alone or together with confectionary products” of the MLBPA. Up until Fleer’s request for a license to issue its 5”x7” cloth stickers, the MLBPA had refused but one license request—Aronstein’s—because the SSPC cards conflicted with Topps’ rights to sell cards alone.
Undeterred by Topps’ monopoly and after success with Mets and Yankees team sets and a 24-card “puzzle back” set in 1975, SSPC set its sights high for 1976, with plans to issue a massive 630-card “Pure Card Set” inspired by Aronstein’s admiration of 1953 Bowman’s clean design. SSPC partner, Bill Hongach, (former Yankees’ batboy and Renata Galasso’s husband) helped obtain the photographs. A young Keith Olbermann wrote the card backs. The issuance of the Pure Card Set in 1976 (though copyrighted 1975), however, involved a fair bit of daring.
Two of Mike Aronstein’s other partners in SSPC were attorneys who opined the company could legally issue the cards because (1) the current players were public figures and (2) SSPC was simply disseminating editorial information about each player. They believed the SSPC format (despite its dimensions corresponding precisely to those of a Topps baseball card) was not substantively different than a photograph of a player accompanying a magazine article. Regardless, Aronstein said they “waited to be clobbered by Topps” once the set was advertised for sale.
Distribution of the Pure Card Set—printed and ready to ship as of January 21—was stopped in its tracks when Aronstein received notice that Topps had been granted a temporary restraining order. Despite Topps’ later admission it had no issue with TCMA’s minor league and reprint sets (as long as they did not contain any cards of active MLB coaches of managers under contract with Topps), the order also halted distribution of all TCMA card sets and otherwise attempted to put Aronstein’s Collector’s Quarterly magazine out of business. The SSPC operation was small (i.e., no employees) and had gone $40,000 in debt to print the Pure Card Set. Topps, on the other hand, tallied $8 million in revenue (approximately $40 million today) on sales of 250 million baseball cards produced in 1976.
Eventually, Aronstein was able to reach a deal that allowed SSPC to distribute the Pure Card Set to anyone who had ordered it on or before February 20, 1976. Aronstein was thrilled—SSPC had sold some three million cards (distributed as complete or team sets), which allowed them to cover the printing costs and claim a tidy profit. The deal also permitted SSPC to produce cards of current players in sizes other than the standard 2½” x 3½” size, which led to SSPC’s creation of fully sanctioned 27-card uncut sheets that the Phillies and Yankees included in their 1978 yearbooks.
Closing out the 1970s
In 1976, Topps and Fleer began to lose market share with their flagship hard bubblegum products (“Bazooka” and “Dubble Bubble, respectively) due to the introduction of “Bubble Yum,” a soft bubblegum product. Despite its new competition, revenue remained healthy for Topps through 1978, with total sales about $67 million (roughly $290 million today), $9.2 million of which (approximately $40 million today) originated from the sales of baseball cards. With revenue of $15.2 million in 1978 (about $66 million today), Fleer surely salivated at the opportunity to issue baseball cards as a way to close its revenue gap.
In 1978, royalty income for the MLBPA approached $1.1 million (approximately $4.7 million today). Topps’ royalty payments accounted for about $847,000 (approximately $3.65 million today) of that total. That Topps payment comprised more than 75 percent of the MLBPA’s total licensing revenue neatly explains why the MLBPA was reluctant to cross Topps.
The Bubble Bursts
Fleer’s antitrust case against Topps and the MLBPA rolled on for the better part of four years in Pennsylvania without much publicity until the defendants were dealt a massive blow on June 30, 1980. After trial on the matter, the district court issued its decision finding that Topps and the MLBPA had acted in concert to exclude Topps’ competitors and were in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act by having restrained trade in the baseball card market. Damning to be sure.
In order to arrive at its decision that Topps and the MLBPA conspired to monopolize, the court had to find a “specific subjective intent to gain an illegal degree of market control.” As a result, Fleer was entitled to monetary damages and the court was empowered to grant equitable (non-monetary) relief that could levy restrictions on Topps and the MLBPA and/or impose mandatory injunctions that would require defendants to perform specific actions. The equitable relief granted by Judge Clarence Newcomer would change the baseball card landscape forever.
In order to calculate any monetary damages owed to Fleer, the court assumed that, absent the conspiracy to monopolize, “the MLBPA would have granted Fleer a non-confectionary license for some product” at the market price. The court, however, considered the realities of Fleer’s chances for success in the market, “Fleer has never had a great deal of success marketing trading cards of any type (Topps and Donruss are the leaders in the field), and had it obtained an expensive license, its expertise would have been greatly tested. Fleer’s distribution system is not as effective as that of Topps (Topps uses its own sales force; Fleer works through brokers and wholesalers), and Topps could have been expected to have beaten Fleer to the shelves in the spring. Finally, Topps’ product has a great deal of market acceptance among retailers and consumers.” The court admittedly could not find that “Fleer would have been the company to succeed at the endeavor,” but it at least should have had the opportunity to try.
Generally, monetary damages must be provable in order to be recovered. Unfortunately for Fleer, the court found that trying to quantify Fleer’s losses depended on “an unacceptable amount of speculation,” especially because Fleer was “not a particularly robust company at the moment.” Its sales were roughly a fifth of those of Topps and both companies were suffering loss of market share at the hands of soft bubble gum products sold by larger competitors. Moreover, Fleer had never sold a trading card item that achieved $750,000 in sales.
Even without any conspiracy between Topps and the MLBPA, “Fleer would have faced two obstacles between it and its first dollar of profit. First, it would have had to obtain a license from the MLBPA to market a set of cards. Second, it faced the significant market power of a firmly entrenched competitor.” Because of this uncertainty, the court awarded Fleer symbolic damages of $1 (which was trebled to $3 pursuant to statute). The defendants were also ordered to reimburse Fleer its attorneys’ fees—likely hundreds of thousands of dollars incurred to pursue the protracted litigation.
More importantly, the court permanently enjoined Topps from enforcing the exclusivity clause in its player contracts and prohibited Topps from entering into any player contract that gave Topps the exclusive right to sell that player’s photograph. Wow.
The MLBPA was ordered to carefully consider any applications it received for licenses to market baseball cards and was explicitly required to enter into at least one such licensing agreement before January 1, 1981 “to market a pocket-size baseball card product, to be sold alone or in combination with a low-cost premium, in packages priced at 15 to 50 cents.” Fleer was granted right of first refusal as to any such license. The MLBPA was also cleared to grant as many similar baseball card licenses as it chose to.
Fleer and Donruss Enter the Fray
Following the court’s decision in June 1980, Fleer scrambled to assemble its 1981 set. At 660 cards, it was by far the largest set the company had ever produced. President Donald Peck was downright giddy, “I don’t know why we succeeded this time. I guess our case was just presented better. . .We’re just having a lot of fun competing in this area.” He predicted Fleer would sell less than Topps, but “more than Topps thinks.”
In 1980 the standard Topps wax pack contained 15 cards and a stick of gum for 25 cents. Topps included 15 cards and a stick of gum for its 1981 set but increased the price to 30 cents per pack. It also added “The Real One” tagline to its boxes and wrappers for the first time.
Fleer tried to outdo Topps by inserting 17 cards and a stick of gum in its 1981 wax packs, sold for 30 cents. It also included two extra packs in each wax box, promising retailers “60 cents extra profit”! Fleer’s 1981 issue was the first to market.
Donruss was an experienced player in (mostly non-sport) trading cards but had to scramble to produce a set once it was granted a license by the MLBPA in September 1980 (reaping the rewards without having to engage in expensive litigation. Although not a party, Donruss personnel was involved in the Fleer case only as witnesses).
Donruss’ president Stewart Lyman reached out to New York sportswriter Bill Madden, who was hired to write the backs for the 1981 set. Mike Aronstein was granted the exclusive right to sell complete hobby sets that year. Donruss sold its wax packs, 18 cards and a stick of gum, through its established distribution channels.
Unfortunately, the 1981 Fleer and Donruss issues were plagued by errors as they rushed to produce their sets, prompting collectors to question whether the errors were included intentionally to stimulate publicity. Fleer corrected some of its errors in its second printing, some more in its third. By June 7, Donruss was in its third printing and had made corrections to most of the errors that dogged its hastily assembled set. Lyman denied Donruss had intentionally included the error cards as a way to increase sales, “I’m embarrassed we made any errors, but I’m proud so few were made considering the timetable we had to put out the set.”
Interestingly, the district court observed that as of 1980, “no baseball cards are marketed which include statistics on stolen bases or fielding percentage, game winning hits, successful sacrifice attempts, or any number of other statistics which a competitor might choose to offer to attract baseball card purchasers.” Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Topps and Fleer both included stolen bases on their card backs in 1981.
Despite having prevailed, Fleer was not fully satisfied and appealed the district court’s decision. Fleer wanted the court to bar Topps from the baseball card market for at least one season and to require Topps to deal only with the MLBPA rather than through its exclusive individual player agreements. In addition, Fleer sought reconsideration of the award of nominal damages ($3). Topps appealed as well, seeking a reversal of the court’s findings of liability, damages, and injunctive relief.
In a bit of déjà vu, the Third District Appellate Court found that the agreements in place between Topps and the MLBPA “were neither unreasonable restraints of trade. . .nor monopolization of the relevant market.” Topps had won the appeal (again). The court held that just because Topps had managed to obtain licensing agreements with the overwhelming majority of major league players “did not make the aggregation of these contracts an unlawful combination in restraint of trade.” They noted further that Fleer chose to leave the trading card market in 1966 and sold all its existing licensing agreements to Topps.
In addition, Fleer had admitted it could compete against Topps for license agreements in the minor leagues, but it would take several years before it could produce a marketable product. The court found that this argument simply “identified a characteristic of Major League Baseball, rather than an illegal restraint of trade” or “an indictment of Topps’ licensing agreements.” While a Fleer may not have been able to sign major league players already under contract to Topps, it could still compete for player licenses at the minor league level. That this might take six or seven years to bear fruit did not make Topps’ agreements anticompetitive.
An examination of licenses granted by the MLBPA for the sale of trading cards with non-confectionary goods demonstrated that the fear of decreased royalty payments did not stop the MLBPA from licensing products competitive with Topps. As a licensor, “the MLBPA is free to grant licenses to any competitor, or none at all.” Ultimately, appellate court held that Fleer had not proven any intent on the part of Topps and the MLBPA to monopolize the trading card market.
In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Fleer’s appeal, which made final the Third District’s decision.
Restitution in Delaware
No longer free to market their cards with gum, Fleer and Donruss set about to distribute their cards in 1982 with a non-confectionary premium to exploit the loophole in Topps’ exclusive rights to market cards alone or with gum, candy, or confectionaries. (Fleer did not resurrect the cookie packed with cards in 1963.) Though Topps presumably protested to the MLBPA that Fleer’s team logo stickers and Donruss’s Babe Ruth puzzle pieces were simply “sham” products tantamount to selling cards alone, the MLBPA continued to officially sanction Fleer and Donruss, presumably content with the fruits of the royalty arrangements with each.
In May 1982, shortly after Fleer’s appellate recourse was exhausted, Topps filed a lawsuit in Delaware’s chancery court alleging Fleer was unjustly enriched by “sales of products to which Topps had the exclusive rights to manufacture and sell.” Topps sought to recover the profits Fleer realized on its $4 million in sales (approximately $12.4 million today) of 1981 cards. Fleer president Donald Peck dismissed the charges as meritless and assured that Fleer had no intentions of pulling its 1982 cards from the market. Regardless, in the course of the lawsuit Fleer acknowledged that did owe some amount of restitution but urged that disgorgement of its profits was unreasonable.
While the Delaware case was pending, Topps filed a separate lawsuit against Fleer in the Southern District of New York on March 29, 1983 seeking to recover all of Fleer’s profits for 1982 and 1983—along with $3 million in punitive damages—claiming that Fleer’s team logo sticker was a “sham product.” This lawsuit was settled confidentially in 1985, with Fleer given consent to “continue with the baseball cards and team logo stickers, as before.”
Back in Delaware, Fleer filed a motion asking the chancery court to declare that Topps was not entitled to recover Fleer’s profits “because those profits were earned under the protection of a court order and not as the result of any illegal infringement of Topps’ exclusive contract or licensing rights.” The court denied Fleer’s motion, finding that even though Fleer had legally marketed its 1981 cards in accordance with the Pennsylvania district court’s order—once the decree was reversed by the appellate court, it was as though Fleer had infringed on Topps’ exclusive rights all along.
In 1988, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that Fleer had issued cards in 1981 under a wrongfully issued injunction and were responsible to reimburse Topps damages equal to the “net profits received by Fleer arising out of Fleer’s use of Topps’ previously exclusive license agreements.” The matter was returned to the lower court for an accounting. It is unclear how the chancery case ultimately resolved, but it seems likely that the parties reached confidential settlement. (No newspaper articles reporting on the resolution of the case have been located and no information is available remotely from the court.)
Otherwise, the MLBPA began preparing in 1988 for a potential work stoppage in 1990 when the collective bargaining agreement with MLB expired. At the time, baseball card royalties paid into the MLBPA garnered each player roughly $18,000 per year in additional income (approximately $43,000 today). The MLBPA used those royalty payments (only $5000 of the $18,000 total was distributed to the players) to fund a war chest, which proved a savvy move when the owners implemented a 32-day lockout that delayed the start of the 1990 season.
Also in 1988, newcomer Score joined Topps, Fleer, Donruss, and Sportflics (who began producing sets in 1986) as a major set manufacturer. Deep in the throes of the junk wax era, Dr. James Beckett expected some five billion cards would be manufactured in 1988. Predictably, more industry players would mean more fighting.
In re Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 67 F.T.C. 744 (1965).
Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972). In January 1970, Curt Flood filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York against the Commissioner of Baseball (Bowie Kuhn), the presidents of the two major leagues (Joe Cronin and Chub Feeney), and the 24 major league clubs after he refused an October 1969 trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood’s complaint alleged violations of federal antitrust laws, civil rights statutes, and the imposition of a form of peonage and involuntary servitude contrary to the Thirteenth Amendment, which had abolished slavery. Flood refused to report to the Phillies in 1970, despite a $100,000 salary offer, and sat out for the season. He appeared in 13 games for the Washington Senators in 1971 but left the club, and organized baseball, for good on April 27 unsatisfied with his performance. On June 19, 1972, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in the Flood v. Kuhn matter, holding that, in accordance with Federal Base Ball (1922), the business of baseball—including the reserve clause—was exempt from antitrust laws. No other business (i.e., vaudeville, professional boxing, National Football League) that had sought antitrust exemption in reliance on Federal Baseball had been successful. Accordingly, MLB had (has) the only legally sanctioned monopoly in the United States. Despite candidly admitting that “professional baseball is a business and it is engaged in interstate commerce,” a majority of the Supreme Court ruled against Flood, imploring any change to the law be had “by legislation and not by court decision.”
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 415 F.Supp. 176 (E.D. Pa. 1976). With regard to the FTC matter, “Fleer’s representatives were star witnesses and, in proportion, carried the burden of making the record in this proceeding. They were in constant attendance throughout the hearing. . . In retrospect, much of the struggle for contracts with ballplayers seems to be Fleer’s private struggle with Topps . . .The Hearing Examiner is, however, of the opinion that the delegation of the Commission’s ‘adjudicative fact-finding functions’ does not embrace a policy question going to the public interest.”
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 501 F.Supp. 485 (E.D. Pa. 1980). The only trading card product ever to outsell baseball cards was Wacky Packages in 1973-74. The court noted that the slab of gum weighed “4.30 grams” in 1978. Fleer had a net operating loss in 1978 and its net income (loss) was as follows: 1977—$346,621; 1976—$502,257; 1975—$720,274; 1974—($309,261); 1973—$382,354; 1972—$268,926; 1971—$148,494; 1970—($200,016). Roughly two thirds of baseball cards purchased are purchased by “heavy” buyers (i.e., those who purchase more than 200 cards per year.)
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 658 F.2d 139 (3rd Cir. 1981). The number of players included in each licensing agreement varied. Some contracts, like those with Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s covered all the players, while others included “not less than 72, and not more than 300.”
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1019 (1982).
Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 547 F.Supp. 102 (D. Del. 1982).
Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 799 F.2d 851 (2nd Cir. 1986). Fleer’s contract with the MLBPA required that the production cost of the logo sticker had to be “not less than 15 percent of the production cost of the baseball cards in a package.” No evidence was presented to show the production costs for the team logo stickers.
Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 539 A.2d 1060 (Del., 1988). “Restitution serves to ‘deprive the defendant of benefits that in equity and good conscience he ought not to keep, even though he may have received those benefits honestly in the first instance, and even though the plaintiff may have suffered no demonstrable losses.’”
“Mickey’s Bubbles Busted by Ol’ Case,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1953: 17. Mantle was redressed by Yankees manager Casey Stengel for having the audacity to blow a bubble while playing in the outfield.
Dick Young, “Young Ideas,” (New York) Daily News, December 2, 1967: C26.
Richard Wright, “Off-Season Paydirt for Pro Stars,” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), December 8, 1968: 59.
“Lawyer Probed on Ballplayers’ Complaints,” Detroit Free Press, November 2, 1970: 30.
Don Lenhausen, “Lawyer Linked to Tigers Is Accused of Misconduct,” Detroit Free Press, December 17, 1970: 16.
“Bad Check Charge Lawyer Sentenced,” Detroit Free Press, July 28, 1971: 17.
“Competitor Sues Topps Over Players’ Pictures,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times Leader, July 10, 1975: 4.
“Gum Firm to Pop Rival’s Bubble,” Detroit Free Press, July 10, 1975: 25.
“The battle of the baseball cards,” The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey), March 10, 1976: 62.
Mike Aronstein, “The Great Card War,” Collectors Quarterly, Summer 1976.
“The Topps-sponsored Bubble Gum Blowing Championships of 1975,” The Tampa Tribune, September 5, 1976: 118. In 1976, Topps issued a card honoring Milwaukee Brewers infielder Kurt Bevacqua as the “Joe Garagiola/Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Champ.” The win netted Bevacqua a first prize of $1000 ($5200 today) for his 18¼” bubble. Phillies catcher Johnny Oates was second with a 14½” bubble that won him $500.
Andy Lindstrom, “Kids still trade their baseball heroes,” News-Pilot (San Pedro, California), September 10, 1976: 11.
Michelle Mitkowski, “Baseball Card Collectors Have Field Day at Show,” Daily Record (Morristown, New Jersey), January 12, 1981: 19.
Paul Marose, “Just like runs and cards, errors part of the game,” The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), June 7, 1981: 13-14.
“Bubble gum game goes into extra innings,” Baltimore Sun, June 1982: 38.”
“No Hits, Runs, Errors Yet in Chewing Gum Lawsuit,” Scranton Times-Tribune, March 30, 1983: 11.
“Topps gum firm agrees to buy-out,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 17, 1983: 121.
“Gumming up the works,” Santa Fe New Mexican, April 8, 1985: 11.
“Investment in Baseball Cards is Topps,” Record-Journal (Meriden, Connecticut), April 18, 1988: 14.
Claire Smith, “Players saving for strike in ’90,” Hartford Courant, June 18, 1988: 191, 194.
Frank Litsky, “Frank Scott, 80, Baseball’s First Player Agent,” New York Times, June 30, 1998: Section B, Page 9.
Michael Haupert, “Marvin Miller and the Birth of the MLBPA,” Baseball Research Journal, Spring 2017.
Mike Aronstein, telephone interview with author, March 10, 2022.
The players’ first choice for Executive Director was Milwaukee County Judge Robert Cannon, who turned down the offer because his request to place the MLBPA office in Milwaukee or Chicago was refused and the association would not guarantee him a pension equal to what he would have received as a county judge. Cannon was later instrumental in moving the Seattle Pilots franchise to Milwaukee. The licensing deal with Coca-Cola was $60,000 per year for two years and was instrumental in securing funding needed to keep the MLBPA solvent until dues were first collected in May 1967. Topps agreed to pay an 8% royalty on the first $4 million in sales and 10% thereafter.
The MLBPA group licensing program applies to any company seeking to use the names or likenesses of more than two Major League Baseball players in connection with a commercial product, product line or promotion must sign a licensing agreement with the MLBPA. The license grants the use of the players’ names and/or likenesses only and not the use of any MLB team logos or marks.
Presumably a deal was reached between Topps and Major League Properties considering team logos appear in every set of the 1960s, but the terms of this deal have eluded the author.
The author has been unable to identify any products marketed under the name “Sports Promotions, Inc.” although this appears to be a company linked to Livonia, Michigan attorney Edward P. May, who along with Tigers pitcher Joe Sparma sold Tiger player caricatures in 1968 and had attempted to “merchandise bubblegum cards on a nationwide basis.” May had represented Al Kaline, who complained to the Wayne County prosecutor’s office that May had defrauded him out of $14,000 tied to a health club named for the slugger. Denny McLain complained he lost $100,000 on an ill-fated paint company venture May arranged. The MLBPA complained May had not paid royalties on baseball cards sold and accused him of forging the signature of a printing company executive on a document that guaranteed those royalties. In 1971, May was placed on three years’ probation for writing bad checks and suspended indefinitely from practicing law in Michigan.
Before 1981, Topps had only included stolen base statistics on the backs of its 1971 cards.
Special thanks to Jason Schwartz for reviewing this article and offering several helpful suggestions.
Author’s Note: This is the first in a multi-part series that will explore the legal backstories that have shaped (and continue to shape) the baseball card industry. Once considered mere ephemera used to induce children to buy penny confections (or cigarettes!), the industry has been inundated by costly legal battles waged in the name of baseball card supremacy. Punctuated by the recent announcement that Fanatics has agreed to acquire Topps’ trading card business, the players in the industry have endured nearly constant cannibalism, infighting, and subterfuge. Thank goodness for us, right? — John Racanelli
A Very Brief History of the Right of Privacy
Although perhaps difficult to believe, individuals were once without legal recourse if their names or likenesses were used commercially without permission. The “right of privacy” was essentially without basis at common law in the United States before 1902. Emerging privacy rights, however, would eventually become a central battleground as trading card makers fought to secure the pocket change of (mostly) American boys after World War II. The resulting litigation would shape the baseball card industry and provide Topps with nearly unassailable baseball card dominance by the 1960s. The story starts, however, at the turn of the twentieth century with a teenaged girl’s surprising discovery in a Vermont tavern.
As an 18-year-old from Rochester, New York, Abigail Roberson visited an “out-of-the-way tavern” in Vermont while on vacation. There she discovered an advertisement for Franklin Mills flour prominently featuring her photograph. The shocking discovery made Roberson physically ill—Franklin Mills had used the photograph without her knowledge or consent and refused to disclose how they obtained the image.
Roberson was humiliated by use of the photo (although admittedly flattering) and learned that some 25,000 copies of the advertisement had been distributed to stores, warehouses, saloons, and other public places. She sued to prevent the further distribution of the poster and asked for $15,000 in damages (approximately $475,0000 today). The trial court found in Roberson’s favor and the appellate division affirmed.
The case went up to New York’s highest court, however, where Chief Judge Alton Parker wrote for the 4-3 majority that Roberson had failed to state a cause of action because her complaint did not allege defendants acted maliciously or published a defamatory photo. They held that Franklin Mills was lawfully able to use Roberson’s photograph for its advertising without having to ask or compensate her.
Not surprisingly, a wave of public outrage followed Roberson’s loss. In the wake, the New York legislature enacted laws to codify the right of privacy, which allowed an aggrieved party to seek court intervention to enjoin use and sue for monetary damages if a photograph was used intentionally without consent.
A Bat Fight: Hanna Manufacturing Company v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co.
The baseball world would first see a battle over privacy rights in 1935, when Louisville Slugger sued the Hanna Manufacturing Company alleging Hanna was infringing on its trademarks by selling bats bearing the names of players under exclusive contract to Louisville Slugger, such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
The bats at issue retailed “for as much as $2.50 each” (approximately $28.00 today) and were bought by customers who were “careful and well-informed.” Louisville Slugger took pride in crafting bats of the size, shape, and balance that each major league player preferred and for a small (undisclosed) consideration, these players gave Louisville Slugger the exclusive right to use the player’s name, autograph, and photograph in connection with the sales of baseball bats for a lengthy term, typically 20 to 25 years. The contract signed by the players did not require them to use Louisville Slugger bats, however. In fact, Lou Gehrig had used Hanna bats for two years despite having signed with Louisville Slugger.
Hanna countered that the bats it sold bearing the names of “Babe Ruth” and “Lou Gehrig” were not sold based on the player’s name having been stamped on the bat, but because the purchasers (often college teams) wanted bats of that player’s particular shape and style. The district court found for Louisville Slugger, “baseball players, like any other individuals, have a property right to their names that has been assigned by certain players to Louisville Slugger, and Louisville Slugger used and advertised such right and has such right exclusively, irrespective of any trademark or unfair competition law.”
The appellate court reversed, however, remarking that there were some “interesting discussions as to a ‘right of privacy’” ongoing but that a “public man waives his right so that the public becomes entitled to his likeness.” The court continued, “fame is not merchandise. It would help neither sportsmanship nor business to uphold the sale of a famous name to the highest bidder as property.” [Wow is this shortsighted when viewed in the modern athlete endorsement landscape!]
The court was further convinced that the “name on the bat” was commonly understood to refer only to the model or style of the bat and implied no endorsement by the player. The court specifically ruled that Hanna could market bats bearing players’ names as long as the descriptive mark included the words “style” or “shape” conspicuously, such that a Hanna bat marked “Babe Ruth style” would be acceptable. Ultimately, those Louisville Slugger contracts operated only to prevent the ballplayers from objecting to Louisville Sluggers’ use of their names and likenesses.
“No matter what may be said about the habits and nature of ball players, they are not naïve.” It would not be long before “right of privacy” claims would invade the baseball card industry.
The Big Cat Takes a Swipe
On August 26, 1941, Johnny Mize went 4-for-8 with a double and home run as his Cardinals split a Tuesday doubleheader against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. That same day, Mize’s attorneys filed a right of privacy lawsuit against Gum Products, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts alleging that it had used photos of Mize in its Double Play Gum baseball card set without his permission.
In what appears to be the first baseball card-related lawsuit, Mize asked the court for a restraining order and damages commensurate with his appearance on some 140,000 cards issued by Gum Products. On September 5, the court issued a temporary injunction that prevented Gum Products from using Mize’s name or picture further in connection with the sale of gum. Mize’s “right of privacy” victory was short lived, however.
At a subsequent hearing on June 25, 1942, Gum Products admitted it had not directly obtained Mize’s permission, but had done so through the purchase of the picture from an agency. The defense also argued that as “a leading ballplayer of the country,” Mize had no right of privacy in connection to the publication of his name or photograph. On June 28, Judge Francis Good dismissed the case “without comment.” Despite their ultimate victory, Gum Products never produced another set of baseball trading cards.
Leaf: Blown Away
In 1949, Bowman Gum Company and a number of individual players, including Warren Spahn, sued Chicago-based Leaf Brands, Inc. and several east coast gum wholesalers for distributing cards featuring pictures of ballplayers under contract with Bowman. The lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia, where Bowman was based, and a friendly hometown judge issued a temporary restraining order that prohibited Leaf from selling cards with its gum anywhere in the United States (straining the bounds of enforceability).
Leaf took the defeat seriously and reached a settlement with Bowman in which Leaf agreed to withdraw from the baseball card business until at least 1951. Leaf tried in vain to work out arrangements with Topps to share printing rights, but Topps was not interested.
Bowman v. Topps: Birth of the Right of Privacy
Topps first dipped its toe in the baseball card market with its Magic Cards release in 1948. The 19-card baseball series was part of a much larger modern Allen & Ginter-like set that also included cards of football players, boxers, movie stars, famous explorers, and dogs. The tiny cards (roughly 1” x 1½”) featured sepia-toned photos that would appear on the card when exposed to sunlight. The baseball checklist consisted of highlight cards from the 1948 Cleveland-Boston World Series and individual cards of Indians player/manager Lou Boudreau and Braves 3B Bob Elliott. The balance of the baseball checklist was comprised of retired greats such as Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe Tinker/Johnny Evers.
In 1951, Topps issued a set of baseball cards featuring current players in direct competition with Bowman, who had produced “Play Ball” sets from 1939-1941 and their own branded sets starting in 1948. To create their set (commonly referred to as “red backs”), Topps licensed rights to the players’ names, photos, and biographical information from a third-party company, Players Enterprises, Inc. This initial set of 52 cards was designed like a deck of cards and was intended to be played as a game. The cards were distributed in a rather nondescript box of “’Doubles’ Baseball Playing Cards” that identified Topps cryptically (and perhaps by design) only by “T.C.G. Brooklyn 32, N.Y.” on the bottom of the box and wrappers. When Players Enterprises merged with Russell Publishing Company in April 1951, Topps was given an additional stable of players under contract that allowed them to distribute a second series of 52 cards (“blue backs”) sold in a redesigned box as “Baseball Trading Card Candy.”
Unhappy with the competition, Bowman sued Topps following their release of the red/blue back cards claiming trademark infringement, unfair competition, and impairment of contract rights. They sought to prevent Topps from selling any product having the appearance of gum with the word “baseball” connected to it.
Topps argued that they had lawfully obtained rights from Players Enterprises to use the names, pictures, and biographical data shown on the cards; denied there was any confusion with Bowman’s products; and claimed that the contracts Topps had with the players constituted a waiver of the player’s right to privacy—but conveyed no rights on Bowman to sue Topps. Topps also argued that it had not infringed on Bowman’s contracts with players because it had inserted a caramel candy—not gum—with its cards.
The evidence established that Bowman had contracted with 340 baseball players through Art Flynn Associates for the right to use the name, signature, photograph, and descriptive biological sketch of each. In exchange, Bowman paid $100 and provided a wristwatch to each player for 1951. (The 1951 contract included the word “confections” for the first time, which seemingly presaged knowledge Topps was intending to issue a baseball card set with candy.) The players were also eligible to complete for the Jack Singer Annual Good Sportsmanship awards sponsored by Bowman.
Topps proved it had contracts with 248 active major league players through the rights acquired by Players Enterprises and Russell. These contracts gave Topps the right to use players’ names, pictures, and biographical data in connection with the sale of candy in 1951 and candy andchewing gum for 1952.
Following a bench trial, Judge Clarence Galston ruled in Topps’ favor and dismissed the case. He found it significant that there was no player biographical data on the reverse side of the 1951 Topps cards; the packaging between Bowman and Topps was different; and there was no record of any confusion between purchasers of the two products.
More importantly, the court (in reliance on § 51 of New York’s Civil Rights Law enacted in the wake of Roberson) held that the contracts Bowman made with the players conveyed no rights on Bowman to sue a third-party, such as Topps. Accordingly, only the individual ballplayer would have a cause of action for an injury to his person. No “right of privacy” was applicable to a business.
Bowman v. Topps: The Appeal and Establishment of the “Right of Publicity”
Bowman took the matter up on appeal to the Second Circuit claiming their contracts were exclusive for use in connection with the sale of gum and that Topps deliberately induced the ballplayers to sign contracts giving Topps the same rights. Topps continued to argue that even if Bowman proved its case, there was no actionable wrong because any contract between Bowman and a ballplayer did not convey any right on Bowman to enforce those rights as to third parties.
Just prior to the start of the 1953 season, the appellate court formally established the “right of publicity” by way of recognizing an enforceable property right in each player’s name and likeness. This was huge. Accordingly, the ballplayers could grant exclusive rights to their pictures that could be enforced by third parties, such as Bowman. “For it is common knowledge that many prominent persons (especially actors and ballplayers), far from having their feelings bruised through public exposure of their likenesses, would feel sorely deprived if they no longer received money for authorizing advertisements, popularizing their countenances, displayed in newspapers, magazines, busses, trains and subways. This right of publicity would usually yield them no money unless it could be made the subject of an exclusive grant which barred any other advertiser from using their pictures.” That the appellate court recognized the right of publicity was an unprecedented hallmark for ballplayers’ ability to control (and cash in) on their names and likenesses.
The case was sent back to Judge Galston to determine if Topps had knowingly used photographs of players under contract with Bowman. This was a complicated case-by-case task in that up to six separate contracts were now at issue for players who appeared in any of the 1951, 1952 and 1953 sets issued by Bowman and Topps.
By May 1953, both Topps and Bowman had continued to issue sets of fluctuating sizes as their competition to ink players to contracts intensified. In fact, Topps pulled six cards from its 1953 set due to the ongoing litigation. The court also required Topps to remove the cards of players it was enjoined from using from stacks of cards printed but not yet wrapped, which allowed Topps to distribute any offending cards that had already been packaged. (Unfortunately, identification of these particular cards is not immediately discernable from the published decision.)
Bowman v. Topps: The Aftermath
The litigation continued, however, and on May 10, 1955 Judge Galston remanded the case to the New York state courts. This litigation was expensive for Bowman, which spent in excess of $110,000 in legal fees ($1.12 million today); it cost Topps only slightly less. Bowman had been losing money each year since 1952, culminating with a net loss in 1954 of $224,000 (approximately $2.3 million today).
In April 1955, Bowman was merged into cardboard box manufacturer Connelly Container Corporation. Connelly’s stewardship of the Bowman gum and trading card brand was fleeting, however, as it looked to shed the gum/baseball card line, which had averaged between 15% to 30% of total sales. On January 20, 1956, Topps settled the litigation with Connelly by acquiring Bowman’s gum-producing facilities, baseball player picture rights, and an agreement on the part of Connelly not to manufacture gum or picture card products for five years in exchange for $200,000 (approximately $2 million today). [Connelly was apparently much more interested in Bowman’s other business pursuits at the time of the merger, including an all-nylon squeeze bottle in development.]
All the while, Leaf wanted to get back into the baseball card business. After the Bowman litigation settled, Leaf again approached Topps with a proposal to share player rights. With main competitor Bowman eliminated, Topps had no interest in making any arrangement with Leaf. In fact, Topps sent a letter to the player representative of each ballclub on August 14, 1956, indicating it was not going to be sharing its baseball card picture rights with any other companies.
By 1959, Topps was the largest manufacturer of bubblegum in the United States with total sales of $14 million annually (approximately $133 million today). Leaf would eventually get back into the baseball card business in 1960 when it produced a black and white 144-card set that was sold with marbles.
Fleer Stirs the Pot
At the end of 1958, the Frank H. Fleer Corporation launched an offensive against Topps for control of the baseball card market by offering ballplayers contracts that would become effective upon the expiration any existing contracts with Topps. This started with a mail solicitation in December and followed up with visits at training camps in 1959 by ten of its sales and marketing personnel. Fleer was even able to enlist representatives who were active players on teams such as Charlie Lau and Chuck Cottier.
The Fleer contracts paid players $5 as initial consideration and $125 upon reaching the major leagues. Further, Fleer offered a monetary gift or reward for players who provided Fleer with copies of their Topps contracts. After learning of this practice, Topps stopped sending copies of its contracts to the players (but would provide information regarding the terms of the contract upon request). Topps was flooded with requests once they started offering $75 for the players to sign extensions.
Fleer successfully lured Ted Williams and produced an 80-card set of the mercurial slugger in 1959. The Williams set accounted for $250,000 in sales (approximately $2.4 million today), which was just a fraction of the $3.8 million (approximately $36 million today) worth of Topps baseball cards sold in 1959.
During the 1960 and 1961 seasons, Fleer issued sets featuring “Baseball Greats,” each of which featured Ted Williams and a cast of retired Hall of Famers and stars. Sales of these sets again paled in comparison to Topps’ baseball offerings. Leaf also issued a small set of current player cards in 1960, sold along with marbles. The 1960 Leaf contract paid the players $50 and provided for rights when distributed in combination with “marbles or other non-edible novelties such as charms made of plastic or metal.”
The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Topps on January 30, 1962—with Fleer’s enthusiastic support—alleging that Topps violated § 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which made illegal “unfair methods of competition in commerce and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in commerce.” This section also outlawed business practices that were “unscrupulous, oppressive, exploitative, or otherwise indefensible.” The FTC alleged further that Topps created a monopoly in the manufacture and distribution of baseball picture cards “contrary to public policy” and “to the detriment of free and open competition.” The Hearing Examiner made sure to emphasize that “[m]onopoly is condemned without qualification,” somewhat ironic considering that Major League Baseball enjoys the protections of a legally sanctioned monopoly.
At the heart of the complaint was the allegation Topps had completely foreclosed Fleer from the baseball card market by entering exclusive contracts with almost all major league baseball players and practically all minor league players with major league potential. It was further alleged that Topps had the power to impose tie-in requirements and imposed retail price control on vendors because it “wanted to know about anybody who was not selling the cards at six for a nickel.” On the heels of the FTC filing, Fleer bombarded college coaches with correspondence attacking Topps’ contracts and accusing Topps of monopolistic practices that were under investigation by the FTC.
Taking a page from their prior battle with Bowman, Topps began drafting their contracts to give themselves broader rights and further restrict the players from contracting with others. In 1957, the Topps contract gave exclusive rights to cards associated with gum and candy; in 1958, Topps added “confections” to the list; in 1959, the Topps’ contract extended to cards sold without gum in bulk vending boxes (despite the fact that vending boxes were an exceedingly small part of its total sales); and in 1960, the Topps contract included an agreement by the player not to enter into any other contracts while under contract with Topps. By May 1961, Fleer had contracted with only five major league ballplayers who had not contracted with Topps.
At the time the FTC got involved, Topps had exclusive rights with 95% of major league baseball players and contracts with more than 6500 ballplayers in both the major leagues in minor leagues. Topps first approached players in the minor leagues with a payment of $5 to sign a contract that would pay the player $125 per year for five years if he were promoted to Major League Baseball. Those players who reached the big leagues were paid regardless of whether Topps issued a card of the individual. (Topps would not have to pay if it decided not to market a complete series of cards, except they had to pay the Yankees either way.) Topps’ network included “agents” such as scouts, managers and players who were compensated as much as $100 a year, plus five dollars for each ballplayer signed, or other “gifts, tips or small payments” upon delivery of signed contracts.
Fleer claimed their representatives were physically excluded or intimidated from soliciting players at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ and Detroit Tigers’ training camps “by goon or similar methods.” In the face of Topps’ established network, Fleer had signed only 20 major league players by 1962 and 27 by 1963. Undeterred, Fleer issued a 66-card set (plus an unnumbered checklist) of active major league players in 1963, dwarfed by the 576-card set issued by Topps that year.
The FTC hearing examiner also considered evidence that Topps actively sought to impose market restrictions on other food and beverage manufacturers who used baseball picture cards as promotional devices. General Foods included baseball cards on packages of Post Cereal from 1961 to 1963 and Jell-O from 1962 to 1963. Topps took issue with the Post Cereal promotion that offered a sheet of ten cards (not attached to a cereal box) for two box tops and ten cents, alleging this was an infringement on their rights to sell cards individually. Topps subsequently entered into agreement that Post would pay a license and royalty fees in connection with its distribution of cards alone under the offer. Topps also objected to the set issued in 1958 by Hires Root Beer. Ultimately, Hires made a deal that allowed them to use photos of the players without having to pay Topps, but never issued another set.
The Topps “Monopoly”
Generally speaking, a monopoly is the control of “an economically meaningful market.” In the FTC matter, all that needed to be established was that baseball cards were economically meaningful, and that Topps controlled the market. There was no need to establish that Topps intended to monopolize; nor was it necessary to show Topps exercised its monopoly power.
Hearing Examiner Herman Tocker issued his initial decision on August 7, 1964, after a full evidentiary hearing. He found that Topps had “monopolized the sale of current baseball card picture cards both as separate articles of commerce and as a promotional device for the sale of confectionery products,” in violation of § 5 of the Federal Trade Commission act—even though Topps’ exclusive contracts and other practices were not unfair when viewed separately. Although it had not actually done so, Topps could have controlled the baseball trading card market and “had the power to increase or decrease at will the price when sold alone or when in packages of gum and cards.” Tocker found further that Topps was in violation of § 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act—a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $50,000 or imprisonment.
Topps was ordered to cease and desist from entering or extending exclusive contacts with ballplayers, coaches, and managers for terms in excess of two years and enforcing any contracts in effect after October 31, 1966, along with an order to provide copies of the contracts to the ballplayers. Tocker also opined “[o]bviously, a single picture card, in and of itself, has little value” and “last year’s cards without current statistical content are about as valuable as yesterday’s newspaper,” observations that have not aged well.
The FTC Appeal
Both sides appealed the Hearing Examiner’s decision and order. FTC Commissioner Philip Elman thoroughly reviewed the evidence on record and reversed, holding Topps did not have a monopoly in the production of baseball cards because they lacked economic significance and alone were not “meaningful in terms of trade realities.”
Elman specifically decided that Topps’ control over baseball picture cards used to promote confectioneries was not detrimental to fair competition and that baseball cards were not so unique and indispensable a promotional technique that other bubblegum manufacturers could not compete on fair and equal terms with Topps. Elman cited several examples of successful promotional trading card series such as football players, retired baseball players, and non-sport sets featuring the Beatles and “Spook Theatre.” Moreover, but for the fact that Topps was the largest seller of bubblegum, there was no proof of any correlation between its superior market share and the sale of baseball picture cards.
Ultimately, Topps’ business model—tirelessly signing as many minor-league players as possible with hopes they would become big leaguers—was not an unfair or monopolistic practice. Because no monopoly was proven, the complaint was dismissed on appeal.
Fleer in the late 1960s
Despite its failure to break Topps’ hold over “current baseball picture cards,” Fleer remained the second largest manufacturer of bubblegum in the United States. Before the 1966 season started, Fleer announced it would be issuing a 66-card set dedicated to Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale and had a representative, Bob Quinn, continuing to visit Florida training camps looking to sign players to contracts.
The “Drysdale set” Fleer issued in 1966, however, was actually the “All Star Match Baseball” game, with each of the game cards including a black and white puzzle piece of Drysdale on the reverse, such that all 66 cards were necessary to complete the puzzle.
Fleer had also tried to get the jump on Topps by sending contracts and $25 checks to all players chosen in the newly implemented draft, which upset some college coaches who feared their players could jeopardize their amateur status by cashing those checks.
Despite Fleer’s continued efforts to erode Topps’ market stranglehold, Fleer ultimately acquiesced and subsequently sold all of its baseball contracts to Topps in 1966 for $385,000 (approximately $3.4 million today). This would not be the last we would hear from Fleer at the courthouse, however.
Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co., 171 N. Y. 538, 541, 64 N. E. 442 (N.Y. 1902). This right of privacy is generally attributed to this article in the 1890 Harvard Law Journal by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis.
Federal Base Ball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, 259 U.S. 200, 42 S.Ct. 465, 66 L.Ed. 898, 26 A.L.R. 357 (1922). Major League Baseball has a legal monopoly, “[t]he business is giving exhibitions of baseball, which are purely state affairs. It is true that in order to attain for these exhibitions the great popularity that they have achieved, competitions must be arranged between clubs from different cities and States. But the fact that in order to give the exhibitions the Leagues must induce free persons to cross state lines and must arrange and pay for their doing so is not enough to change the character of the business.”
Hanna Mfg. Co. v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co., 101 A.L.R. 484, 78 F.2d 763 (5th Cir. 1935). Defendant Hillerich & Bradsby Co. will be referred to as “Louisville Slugger,” its more widely used tradename today.
Bowman Gum, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 103 F. Supp. 944 (E.D.N.Y. 1952). Topps also issued 9-card set of team photos in 1951 (Boston Red Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, New York Giants, Philadelphia Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Senators) and Major League All-Stars/Connie Mack All-Stars. These sets do not appear to have been subject of the litigation between Topps and Bowman.
Haelan Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum, 202 F.2d 866 (2nd Cir. 1953). In April 1952, Bowman Gum shareholders approved the change of the company name to Haelan Laboratories. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1952: 4. Accordingly, the ensuing litigation lists Haelan—and not Bowman—as a party.
Haelan Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum, 131 F. Supp. 262 (E.D.N.Y. 1955).
In re Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 67 F.T.C. 744 (1965). Baseball card sales in 1960: Topps $3,638,000 (approx. $34 million today), Fleer $300,000 (approx. $2.8 million today), and Leaf $100,000 (approx. $934,000 today); in 1961: Topps $3,475,000 (approx. $32 million today) and Fleer $355,506 (approx. $3.3 million today). The second series of Fleer’s 1961 Baseball Greats accounted for an additional $85,000 in sales (approx. $778,000 today) for 1962. Though distributed under the company name “Sports Novelties Inc.,” the 1960 Leaf issue is referred to in the hobby as “Leaf” and is referred to similarly herein. The FTC hearing examiner described the Beatles as “a group of singing troubadours imported from England”. Additionally, for football cards, the contract was made with the league and not the individual players. The players received no direct compensation—all money was channeled to league pension funds.
“The Week in a Busy World,” Atlanta Constitution, May 5, 1901: 42.
“Chewing Gum Stuck with Suit by Mize,” Daily News (New York), August 27, 1941: 284.
“Johnny Mize Asks Damages from Cambridge Gum Firm,” Boston Globe, June 25, 1942: 11. Mize appeared on two cards in the set: Nos. 39/40 with Enos Slaughter and Nos. 99/100 with Dan Litwhiler. It is unclear how many of each comprised the total.
“Mize of Cardinals Wins Court Test on Use of Name,” Boston Globe, September 5, 1941: 23.
“Mize Suit Against Gum Firm Dismissed,” Des Moines Register, June 28, 1942: 16.
“Spahn, Five Others Take Action in Gum Distribution Controversy, Boston Globe, May 4, 1949: 23. Although this case attracted little press, that Warren Spahn was involved is not surprising based on the battle he would have in the future regarding the publication of the “Warren Spahn Story,” which he contended painted him in a false (but positive) light and was published without his consent.
“A’s Stars Get Writ to Bar Use of Pictures on Gum,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 7, 1949: 16.
“Haelan Merged into Connelly,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 28, 1955: 30.
Bob Rathgeber, “Young Bob Quinn: Bubble Gum Exec,” Bradenton (Florida) Herald, March 17, 1966: 14.
Wayne Shufelt, “’Gummed’ Up,” Tampa Times, April 2, 1966: 10.
Paul Bedard, “Bubble May Burst in Baseball Card Suit,” Washington Post, June 20, 1979.