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The Sweet Smell of Innocence

May 13, 2002
May 13, 2002

Table of Contents
May 13, 2002

The Sweet Smell of Innocence

Innocence survived Sept. 11. Its walls shuddered and its windows
rattled and its switchboard was silenced. But the day didn't mark
the death of innocence, whose headquarters still stands, six
blocks from ground zero, at 1 Whitehall Street, where the Topps
Company continues to conjure up baseball cards, bubble gum and
Bazooka Joe comics for a nation in need of summer.

This is an article from the May 13, 2002 issue Original Layout

Step inside. The hallways are redolent of rectangles of pink
bubble gum, the kind still inserted in Topps's Heritage line of
baseball cards. The gum is still pressed, to judge by its
texture, from the same cardboard used in the manufacture of the
cards.

"People's eyes roll back in their heads when they smell the gum,"
says Scott Silverstein, a company vice president, his office
festooned with cards and candy. "Males of a certain generation
are transported back to childhood"--and here the executive gets
lost in his own Proustian reverie--"and carefree days."

In an age when athletes decline White House invitations,
virtually every professional baseball player, from A ball to the
bigs, still signs a ridiculously unremunerative contract to
appear on a Topps baseball card. For decades the deal was $5 upon
signing plus $250 when the card came out. (The latter fee is now
$500.) "And many times," says Silverstein, "a player has said,
'Five dollars? Great! Just let me get my wallet out of the car.'
We've had to tell them, 'No, you don't understand: We pay you.'"

If the Smithsonian is America's attic, then the Topps building is
a nine-year-old's bedroom. Cubicle floors are littered with
laundry: The game-worn uniforms of Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones
and Curt Schilling will be cut into nickel-sized patches and
inlaid into baseball cards. Topps's hockey honcho, Mark Sakowitz,
holds a cross section of a game-used NHL puck--sliced as thin as
deli salami--and says, "We're thinking of putting these into packs
of hockey cards." Says an officemate, Clay Luraschi, "It's like
working in Willy Wonka's factory."

"It is not unusual to be in a roomful of adults here who are
blowing bubbles and sucking on [Topps] Ring Pops," says
Silverstein. "It's a combination of a board meeting and the movie
Big."

The Topps Company was founded in Brooklyn in 1938 by the four
Shorin brothers--Abram, Ira, Joe and Phil--whose first product was
adult chewing gum. "During the war," says Topps CEO (and Joe's
son) Arthur Shorin, a small man in a large cardigan, "our slogan
was, Don't talk, chum, chew Topps gum. It was along the lines of
Loose lips sink ships." When the war waned, sales of Topps gum
did likewise. That's when the Shorins created Bazooka, whose
eye-patched mascot--Bazooka Joe--may have been named for Arthur's
father. The comics that come in every nickel piece of Bazooka
remain, to this day, borscht belters. (Mort: "I'm thinking of
taking driving lessons." Joe: "Well, I won't stand in your way!")

And the gum is still chewed by nearly every player in the big
leagues. When Luis Gonzalez hocked up a gum wad that sold at
auction for $10,000, that wad was Bazooka.

In 1951, to bolster candy sales, Topps began to insert baseball
cards into its packs of taffy. The next year, cards were sold
with gum. The modern-day baseball card--standardized in 1957 as
a 2 1/2-by-3 1/2-inch rectangle of cardboard--was invented by a
Topps employee named Sy Berger. (Card number 1 was Brooklyn's
own Andy Pafko.) It was Berger who, around 1960, dumped
thousands of unsold '52 Mickey Mantle cards (the most valuable
Mantles) into the Atlantic Ocean.

The two worlds of Topps--baseball cards and Bazooka--realized a
remarkable synthesis in 1976, when a Topps card featured
Milwaukee Brewer Kurt Bevacqua winning the 1975 Joe
Garagiola/Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Championship, monitored (as
memory serves) by a man measuring the bubble with a caliper.

In addition to career stats, the flip side of many Topps cards
features stylistically unmistakable line drawings of ballplayers,
say, pumping gas in full uniform. ("Bobby works at a service
station in the off-season.") The subversive American artist
Robert Crumb got his start at Topps. "All the old guys are gone
now," says creative director Shu Lee, referring to the masters
whose canvas was the card's back, "but we have a couple of
artists who studied under them."

"Before SI and SportsCenter," says Silverstein, "a primary
conveyor of information on an athlete was the back of his
baseball card." Indeed, all I ever knew of Jim Fregosi was on the
back of his Topps card: "Jim is a sales executive in the
off-season." Fregosi was, to go by his line drawing, a
door-to-door salesman of Fuller brushes, and he rang doorbells
while wearing his baseball uniform.

The other day I bought a pack of Topps at a Target, peeled back
the wrapper with a tingle of anticipation and felt the hair on my
neck stand at attention before I saw--staring back at me, on top
of the stack--not Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa or Pedro Martinez but
(sigh) Giants pitching prospect Boof Bonser.

But then I pressed the gum to my nose and--for a moment,
anyway--all was forgiven.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE
All I ever knew of Jim Fregosi was on his Topps card: "Jim is a
sales executive in the off-season."