Thursday, April 15, 2010


Those who stopped buying packs of baseball cards years ago may be surprised to learn that neither wax nor gum are part of the package. Topps quit placing gum in its packs in '92, when it started "modernizing" its cards in order to compete with Upper Deck and its other competitors. The UV coating and higher-quality cards meant that not only would wax packaging be discontinued, but the wax and gum stains would no longer be a cold hard fact of life for collectors.

The ironic part of gum's eviction from Topps' packs is that the company had spent a lot of money over the years on lawyers who argued before a number of courts that only Topps should be allowed to have it in their packs in the first place. Then, once the hobby began to argue they didn't need the gum anyway, Topps unceremoniously dumped it.

Topps wasn't the first to sell cards along with gum. The practice began long before Topps was founded. Cards were being sold along with candy products since at least 1903, even as they were still appearing in tobacco packages. By the time Topps came on the scene in 1951, baseball cards were widely known as "gum cards." When Topps drove Bowman out of business in 1956, it became the only major manufacturer of baseball cards. Topps signed all major leaguers to a contract and prohibited them from appearing on cards made by any other gum company.

During the next 25 years, Topps enjoyed a virtual monopoly. Some competition did show up on occasion. Another gum manufacturer -- Fleer -- issued some minor "old-timers" sets in the early 60s and began to issue a contemporary set in 1963 (without the gum) before Topps went to court and halted it. Post issued some cards on cereal boxes for a few years in the 1960s, and Kellogg's distributed cards inside cereal boxes from 1970-83. Jell-O also placed cards on their boxes of gelatin mix. Hostess printed cards on boxes of Twinkies and cupcakes through the late 1970s. For baby boomers, collecting baseball cards meant buying sugary cereal, snack cakes and a lot of gum. Dentists across America must have been happy with all the extra business.

In my own youth (late 70s-mid 80s), I didn't chew a lot of gum for a different reason. I wasn't so concerned about cavities as I was in breaking my teeth, because the slab of gum was so hard. Instead of chewing the gum that came in the packs, I either gave them to my sister or tossed them away with the wax packaging and that contest card Topps included in each pack.

In 1990, I read an amusing article about Topps' gum by Jim McLaughlin ("proud possessor of eight Topps-induced cavities") in the old Baseball Cards Monthly magazine. He related his theory that Topps bought a stockpile of gum back in 1954, stored it in an underground vault and was still giving it out. It seemed to be a reasonable explanation of why the gum was getting harder and more stale with each passing year. I'm certain he was kidding, but at the time I wasn't so sure.

Has it really been that long ago? New collectors have no recollection of gum residue sticking to the back of Dave Winfield's card, nor of wax stains that ruin Carlton Fisk's picture. Back then, inserts were contest cards, stickers or puzzle pieces often thrown away, rather than a "chase" card that may be worth the extra money you have to spend on a pack now.

In Topps and Bowman Heritage packs today, the gum is soft, larger and wrapped inside cellophane to keep the residue off the cards. The wrappers aren't wax, the gum isn't hard enough to sculpt diamonds with, and they cost three or four dollars a pack. It just isn't the same.

Which brings me to my lament: instead of gum, I really wish they could bring back the old prices I paid for a pack of cards.

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