Quite a few years (and ballfields) ago, I got my first photo assignment from The Topps Company. A friendly editor asked if I was available to shoot the Steelers-Vikings game that weekend, thus welcoming me into his world of sports card photography.
Wow. What a dream come true.
Sports cards are cool, and they dig deep into my childhood memories. About once a week, I would take my allowance or lawn mowing money, hop on my bike, and ride over to Clara’s Market on upper Arch Street to buy baseball cards for five cents a pack.
Topps has been the key player in the sports card business for 70 years, and I have been lucky enough to be helping them for more than half of that span. When I returned from spring training this year, I was up to 1,400 assignments that have taken me to more than 50 stadiums across the U.S. (and even a few in Canada).
So, last week, I and many others were shocked by the “headline news” that Fanatics Inc. would be pushing Topps out of its baseball card kingdom. Fanatics has signed lucrative and exclusive deals with both Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association.
I never dwelled heavily on the financial aspect of the card industry during the past 30-some years, but it was no secret to Topps shooters that the company was making money, and in some years lots of it. Even when other card companies were going bankrupt, Topps kept chugging along, thanks to its talented front office, art staff and editors.
In Surprise, Ariz., a few years ago, I was reminded point-blank that money talks. Turning pro after a stellar college career, San Diego Padres rookie Hunter Renfroe (now on the Boston Red Sox) was in spring training camp for his first time. One morning, a Topps editor asked me to find him before I headed to my assigned game later that afternoon.
As I began my search, a coach told me that Hunter had been working so hard that he was allowed to leave early that day. Yikes! “Is he still in the locker room,” I asked. “Maybe. Go see,” the coach told me.
Sure enough, there was Hunter, pulling on a T-shirt, getting ready to head for the parking lot.
Sheepishly, I asked if I could get some shots of him before he left for the day. “What do you mean,” he asked, in a nice way. “Can’t we do this tomorrow?” There are 15 teams that train in the Phoenix area’s Cactus League; I told him I would not be near Surprise the next day, and then I was headed home.
“Who is this for,” he wondered. I told him Topps. At that, Hunter stood up and started to undress. “Do I need shoes too,” he asked. “Yes, full uniform, please. And bring a bat and glove. I’ll see you out there,” I said as I headed to the field to get set up for our 10-minute shoot. Then I turned back to ask, “Topps was the right answer, huh?”
“Oh, heck yeah, man” he said. “You guys sent me $17,000.”
I knew that players signed card contracts for $5 or $10 when I started working for Topps. Many players would frame the Topps check rather than cashing it. Eventually, much bigger money found its way to the players, including shared royalty checks each year from Topps’ multi-million-dollar deals with the players union. Almost 20 years ago, we were told that Barry Bonds was getting an extra $50,000 a year from Topps. I wonder what Fernando Tatis Jr. or Mookie Betts get now.
So, along comes Fanatics. Topps is no slouch when it comes to creativity and marketing, but this very high roller apparently has some bigger ideas, and the players can smell the money.
Published reports say Fanatics plans to share about $2 billion with major league baseball players in the next 20 years. Yes, that’s billion with a “b.” It’s a good guess that Topps could not or would not have come close to offering that amount.
As for me, I’ve been blessed with a great ride. I have my theories about the future of cards and of Topps, but right now your guess is as good as mine.
Mailliard, a Meadville resident, retired from The Tribune in 2013 after 40 years. In 2015 he was inducted into Major League Baseball’s Cactus League Spring Training Hall of Fame.