Sunday, May 12, 2013

1951-61 Topps sales numbers discovered

As I said in my last presentation (May 9), I am not adept at navigating legal web sites so it was almost accidental when I recently discovered a federal government document that almost made me wish I was still editor of Sports Collectors Digest so that I could enjoy the thrill of presenting the hobby with some long-sought data.

Some of the most often asked -- but never answered -- questions about post-World War II baseball cards concern production numbers. How many cards did Topps, Bowman, etc., produce in the Golden Age of the 1950s-1960s? 

Admittedly, having access to those numbers would little change current market realities, for the value for such cards is as much a factor of demand as of supply. 

Still, because production numbers have never been revealed and are probably now lost to history, it is human nature to speculate. 

Unfortunately, I did not discover production numbers . . . but I've got the next best thing. An arcane entry in the 1965 compilation of Federal Trade Commission decisions has provided the first presumably accurate figures I've ever seen that list annual sales of baseball cards for Topps 1951-1961, Bowman 1951-54, Goudey 1933-1942, Fleer 1959-1962 and Leaf 1960.

If I ever had the mathematical acumen to translate these sales figures into production numbers, I no longer have the professional incentive to do so. About all I can do with these figures is draw relative comparisons, i.e., if Topps sold $950,000 worth of baseball cards in gum packs in 1953, and $1.9 million in 1957, the company must have printed about twice as many cards in 1957 as in 1953 (since the number of cards in a 5-cent wax pack was nearly the same).

Keep in mind that the numbers we'll be seeing represent wholesale sales and that they provide no data that would be useful in trying to determine the ratio between the quantities of early-season low numbered cards and late-season short-printed high-numbers.  

Some of the Topps figures separate sales of baseball cards with gum (wax packs) from sales of baseball cards without gum (vending boxes, rack and cello packs). Depending on which packaging Topps offered in any given year, this can provide a tantalizing clue as to relative production of the various packagings.

Because baseball card sales in that era were totally coincident with the baseball season, I think we can assume that sales figures for a given year represent only that same year's production of baseball cards.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I stumbled across this information while searching the internet for information about 1949 Bowman v. Leaf baseball card litigation.

These numbers are found in a Federal Trade Commission decision of April 4, 1965, regarding anti-trusts allegations against Topps made in a Jan. 20, 1962 complaint.

The decision runs about 100 pages in a pdf format. I'm sure that besides providing baseball card sales numbers it contains a lot of other information about the card companies' activities of 50 years ago. I didn't read the document thoroughly and, again, have no interest in trying to digest its findings in this venue. About all I took away from the legalese is that the examiner did find Topps guilty of at least come of the particulars in the complaint, though it would require a close reading by a legal mind to determine how that finding affected the company and its baseball cards in the aftermath.

If you want to read the document for yourself, and perhaps share your findings and analysis with the hobby, here's a link:

I'm just going to print here the sales numbers given and let you enjoy making of them what you will.

Unfortunately, a blog is not a great place to facilitate a dialogue about these numbers, but I invite you to share your thoughts, speculations, etc., Keep in mind that my blog doesn't accept anonymous comments, so you'll have to follow the directions at the bottom of this post to comment.

To make it easier, you can email me at scbcguy(at)yahoo(dot)com, and I can add appropriate follow-ups to this posting.

So, here's what the FTC found concerning Topps sales from 1951-1961. The FTC document did not have some data for some years, a N/A indicates "not available." Veteran collectors know that Topps was selling baseball cards without gum in cello packs as early as 1952, and in vending boxes by at least 1955, so we are left to assume that those numbers were not significant before 1956 and were rolled into the "with gum" number. There was some rounding of figures. 

We could be a lot closer to estimating production numbers if we had an idea of what Topps charged at the wholesale level for its products, but such information was not included in the FTC findings. Did the retailer who sold a wax pack for a nickel pay Topps 2 cents? 2-1/2? 3 cents? I have to think that some Topps wholesale price lists remain extant, though I can't specifically remember seeing them.

In future installments we'll look at similar baseball card sales numbers from the other bubblegum companies and some hobby odds and ends I noticed within the FTC document.

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