Why Bowman sold out to Topps, or how Topps bought Bowman

Why Bowman sold out to Topps, or how Topps bought Bowman

Virtually every schoolboy who is interested in baseball cards knows the story of how Topps bought Bowman. After World War II, Bowman was the leading brand of baseball card, or, at least from 1948 until 1951. Then, in 1952, Topps released its landmark 1952 set. Bowman and Topps battled for baseball fans’ nickels and pennies until 1955. Then, in early 1956, Topps bought Bowman, and that was the end of Bowman until the late 1980s, when Topps dusted off the brand name and started issuing Bowman cards again. And Topps faced precious little competition in the baseball card field until 1981, when Fleer and Donruss won the right to produce cards.

That’s the story as I knew it. But there’s a lot more to the story, starting with the details of the purchase. In January 1956, Topps bought its once mighty rival for a mere $200,000. Normally a company sells for 10 times its annual revenue, and Bowman had sold $600,000 worth of baseball cards alone just two years before. The purchase price makes no sense, until you dig a bit deeper.

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The case of the fake 1935 Babe Ruth

Quick: Why is it easier to find a 1935 Goudey Babe Ruth on Ebay than the 1935 Goudey card featuring four of his former Yankee teammates, the less-than-immortal Red Rolfe, Johnny Allen, Jimmie DeShong, and Dixie Walker?

Because Red Rolfe was more likely to end up clothespinned onto bicycle spokes, right? Right?

That’s likely, but definitely not the only reason. Read more

It’s hard to know what to make of Jose Canseco’s steroid allegations

I remember back when the words "Jose Canseco money" meant something, even among people who weren’t really all that interested in baseball.

You see, Jose Canseco was a huge name. He hit long home runs in large quantities, and people paid him huge amounts of money to do it. For a time, he was the most popular and highest-paid player in the game.

Today, the money’s gone and he can’t get a job, and reading about his tell-all book is pretty sad.Terry Steinbach, a former teammate of Canseco, summed it up pretty well. Canseco worked pretty hard his first couple of years, and he actually got better during those first few years in Oakland. He worked on improving his outfield defense and got promoted from left field to right field. He worked on improving his speed and became the first man to ever hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season.

But something happened. Steinbach says he stopped taking extra outfield practice, and it showed. The player who once was lauded for his defense became a full-time designated hitter. In one notorious incident after the Athletics had traded him to the Texas Rangers, a catchable fly ball bounced off Canseco’s head and into the stands, turning a long flyout into a home run.

And if you look at Canseco’s numbers, it’s almost like you can tell what years he was trying. Take 1998 for instance. That year, he stole 28 bases. But he stole 8 bases the year before and 3 bases the year after. He was out of baseball after 2001. He made some comeback attempts but to no avail. He complained about a conspiracy. Conspiracy? By 2001, he was good for a .250 batting average and 15 home runs per year. Why should anyone break out the Jose Canseco money a guy who can’t field and who puts up Steve Balboni-esque numbers at the plate?

So I think part of it is jealousy. Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro came up about the same time Canseco did, and they played longer and put up better numbers. Both seem destined for the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to believe now that in 1987, Canseco was by far the most complete player of the trio. But both McGwire and Palmeiro worked on improving their defense, and Palmeiro worked on improving his power numbers and McGwire worked on his contact.

Meanwhile, Canseco was plagued by legal troubles. Speeding tickets (like 120 in a 55), allegations of spousal abuse, financial troubles… Seems he may have learned a thing or two from Pete Rose.

So, he’s likely a bit short on good character references.

But who better to recognize steroid users than another steroid user? And while much has been made of Barry Bonds’ transformation from a lanky guy into something that resembles a professional wrestler, a look at Mark McGwire’s 1987 Topps rookie card shows he made a similar transformation in the years between his 49-homer rookie season and his 70-homer binge. Was it just the andro?

It’s been said so many times that it’s cliche that taking steroids won’t help you keep up with Randy Johnson’s fastball and it certainly won’t make you able to hit a curveball. Whether you’re juiced or not, it’s a lot of work to stay in the big leagues. That’s why Canseco played his last game at age 37 while Julio Franco is still in the big leagues at age 45.

But the steroids will change long fly balls into homers. They may turn a hooking foul ball into a fair ball, or a broken-bat grounder to short into a broken-bat single.

And while the conspiracy that Canseco alleges may very well not exist, there’s no question that owners and the players’ union like the effects that steroids have. Fans like home runs, so more home runs means more fans, which means more money in the owners’ coffers. And the players’ union loves home runs, because nothing drives a player’s salary more than his ability to hit a long one. Ozzie Smith may have saved two runs a game with his glove, but he never made as much money as the guys who averaged a homer every 3-4 games.

Like it or not, regardless of how much truth there is in Canseco’s book, there’s a problem in baseball, and Canseco’s loud mouth is only a symptom. The bigger problem is that a drug that’s illegal for you and me to use is getting used by these professional athletes. The risk to their health is enormous, but worse yet, these men are idolized by millions of boys. Most of them are anything but good role models for children anyway, even without the steroids, but the steroids make it even worse.

In 1983, the Kansas City Royals realized they had a problem. A good half-dozen of their players had massive cocaine habits, including nearly every core player aside from George Brett. One by one, the Royals traded or released every last one of those players except for leadoff hitter Willie Wilson, who spent the first couple of months of the 1984 season in rehab. The Royals knew they were decimating their team–which had finished second the year before, and the same basic team had been in place since 1976 and been a contender every year–but they did it anyway. Surprisingly, the team of castoffs and rookies did well that year, winning its division.

Will any team have the guts today to purge itself of its steroid abusers?

I doubt it. But I guess I can hope.

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