Newspaper article International New York Times

A Salute to Sy Berger, from a Lifelong, Card-Carrying Fan of Baseball

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Salute to Sy Berger, from a Lifelong, Card-Carrying Fan of Baseball

Article excerpt

Berger, a longtime Topps executive who died last Sunday at 91, added whimsy to baseball cards, creating indelible memories for young collectors.

When you grow up with a singular focus, whatever it is, you may find yourself relating to Will Ferrell's character in "Elf." Explaining his eating habits to his new family, the man-child from the North Pole says he sticks to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.

For me, the diet was baseball, baseball games, baseball cards and pitching. That was my sustenance, and I suppose I should thank Sy Berger for his role as a vendor. I emptied my pockets of quarters and singles, and he filled my soul with baseball, one 3 1/2-by-2 1/ 2 1/2-inch slice of cardboard at a time.

Berger, the longtime Topps executive considered the father of the modern baseball card, died last Sunday at 91. I never knew him, but oh, did I know his work. No marketing vice president could ever have devised a better way to sell baseball to the masses, and bring the players closer to the fans.

I saw my first major league game at age 6, in 1981. It was an interesting time to start collecting, with Fleer and Donruss new on the scene as challengers to Topps's supremacy. You understood that the hobby was becoming an industry and that cards should be handled with care. We were not the generation that flipped them or put them in our bicycle spokes.

I went to shows in giant exhibition halls and spent my allowance money on Topps "Traded" sets. I bought every Steve Carlton card ever made, including his 1965 rookie card, shared with a fellow named Fritz Ackley, who had one fuzzy eyebrow to match his career win total. I scored it for $75 from a friend who had a new driver's license and needed gas money.

But I never really understood the mass speculation as the '80s rolled into the '90s. I've never sold a card in my life. Not that I knew that the bubble would burst, or that the rookie cards of Dwight Gooden would not in fact pay for my future children's college education. I just never wanted to get rid of anything related to baseball.

So the cards piled up, some in plastic sheets and binders, but most not. We never threw away a shoe box; that was where the old cards went. The current year's cards would be sorted neatly, separated by index cards decorated with each team's logo. Almost all of those were Topps cards; Fleer and Donruss were harder to find in packs.

Topps cards, it seemed, were everywhere, and cheap enough to be an acceptable throw-in at the Acme or the Wawa, the Pennsylvania- based convenience store chain. Most were wrapped in wax paper, but the best, to me, were the so-called rack packs -- three joined packs in clear cellophane, sold as one.

One of Berger's innovations, when he designed the landmark 1952 Topps set, was to include a facsimile of the player's signature on the front of his card. …

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