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Sy Berger defined Topps' success with his drive, creativity and integrity.

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Sitting at his kitchen table in early 1952, Sy Berger designed a masterpiece.

Baseball card collectors have benefited from his artistry ever since. And Sunday, collectors lost the “father of modern day baseball cards.”

Seymour P. “Sy” Berger, the iconic Topps employee known as the “father of modern day baseball cards,” died early Sunday at his home in Rockville Center, New York, said baseball historian Marty Appel, a friend and former public relations man for Topps who made the announcement on behalf of the family. Berger was 91.

Ted Williams called Berger “the Jewish bubble gum guy.” Berger cut a card deal with the Beatles. And he famously (or infamously) dumped uncut sheets of 1952 baseball cards into New York’s East River. At a spring training game at Tampa’s Legends Field in 1998, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner ventured down from his box to chat with Berger, while a young Derek Jeter came to the netting near the first-base dugout to exchange pleasantries.

Topps was in the business of selling chewing gum when Berger joined the company in the late 1940s, and the insertion of baseball cards was intended as an afterthought. Topps’ rival, Bowman, had been designing baseball cards since 1948, but they were black-and-white, colorless efforts.

But Berger’s creativity and hustle transformed the Topps Company into a sports card giant.

In 1951, Berger began visiting the clubhouses at Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. He quickly established a rapport with the players.

“His best friend was Willie Mays — not his best professional friend, but literally, his best friend,” Appel said Sunday. “They had many adventures together and great times.”

Berger brought Topps’ gum product, Bazooka, and handed them out to the players. He signed players for $75 per year for non-exclusive contracts, and $125 for exclusive deals, and Topps’ war with Bowman began in earnest.

Mostly, that money was applied toward buying items’ in Topps’ catalogs.

“In the early days before the Players Association gained some muscle, the players got paid in merchandise — toaster ovens, vacuum cleaners, etc.,” Appel said. “But they loved it because their wives loved going through the catalogs. This all made Sy one of the few ‘inside baseball’ people that the players and their wives both felt a personal relationship with.

In the spring of 1952, Berger and artist friend Woody Gelman designed the 1952 Topps set — 407 cards — at the kitchen table at his Manhattan apartment. Using scissors and cardboard, Berger, put together an iconic design. The large card fronts had color images of the players and team logos, along with their positions. The card backs included vital statistics like height, weight, hometown and birthdate, plus statistics from the previous season and “lifetime” stats. Where there was room, a sentence or two shed some light about the player’s career. A pack had six cards and sold for a nickel.

“Those trading cards personalized baseball players, brought them into your home,” Appel told EPSN later Sunday.

“We wanted the cards to help sell more gum,” Berger told Appel for a 2009 story. “That was the whole idea. We didn’t think the cards would take off like they did.”

Berger, a graduate of Bucknell University always said that his favorite card was that of friend and fellow alumnus Bob Keegan, who pitched for the White Sox from 1953 to 1958. But his favorite deal — or perhaps, his most interesting one — did not even involve baseball.

In early 1964, Berger flew to England to meet with Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles. Berger signed the Fab Four to a Topps contract, and three series of cards were issued between 1964 and ’65.

“I love it,” Appel said. “He flew to London where Brian Epstein had set up a licensing office, and he greeted Epstein in Yiddish. Then, he made a deal.

“Those Beatles cards are valuable today, too.”

Speaking of valuable, those uncut sheets of 1952 Topps second series cards were causing a storage problem in the company’s Brooklyn warehouse. Berger tried to unload the cards, but there were no takers. Young collectors in 1960 were not interested in players from nearly a before.

“I went around to carnivals and offered them for a penny apiece, and it got so bad I offered them at 10 for a penny,” Berger told Sports Collectors Digest in 2007. “They would say, ‘We don’t want them.’”

So Berger commissioned a garbage scow to head into the East River and dump the stacks of the uncut cards. Lots of Mantle rookie cards were lost that day.

Berger’s son Glenn told collector/author George Vrechek three months ago that his father “dealt with people with a handshake.”

“While he was a great negotiator, he didn’t have an ego or try to play hardball,” Glenn Berger told Vrechek for an article that ran in Sports Collectors Digest on Sept. 2, 2014.

Berger worked for Topps until 1997, retiring as vice president for sports licensing. He remained with Topps as a consultant until 2002. In the 1980s he produced a book called “Topps Baseball Cards: The Complete Picture Collection,” which showed pictures of every Topps card issued between 1951 and 1985.

Topps has featured Berger on a few of its cards. He appeared in the 2004 Topps Fan Favorites, depicted in the design of the 1952 Topps set he created. In 2011 he appeared in the Topps Lineage set, signing all 60 cards; he kept one for himself. Also in the 2011 Topps flagship set, Berger appeared in an insert called “History of Topps,” which showed him against a background of 1952 Topps cards.

Sports cards might be an investment to some, but for collectors 40 years and older, they were something to put in shoeboxes or on bicycle spokes, or to be kept together by rubber bands. The taste of the gum was horrendous, and sometimes it would stain the cards. But to a generation of collectors, Berger’s creations were the gold standard of baseball cards.

He is survived by his wife Gloria, sons Glenn and Gary, daughter Maxine Bienstock, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

As Berger told Vrechek, “I was never a collector; I was a gatherer.”

Collectors worldwide now gather to honor Berger’s memory.
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