Sports Nut

The Secret Lives of Baseball Card Writers

I worked for Topps and lived to tell about it.

As a child, when I had what might be called a serious baseball card habit, I looked forward to a new year of Topps baseball cards in a way I looked forward to nothing else. In the way things happen when you’re a kid, baseball, basketball, and football cards took on an outsized importance in my life. And then, in the way things happen when you’re a slightly older kid, cards just stopped mattering to me. I forgot about them for 15 years.

Topps became real to me again thanks to some basketball cards my roommate left around the apartment. Deep in the doldrums of underemployment, I started flipping through them while enjoying an afternoon beer. Inspired by the text on Vitaly Potapenko’s 2001 Topps card (his teammates had nicknamed him “Eddie Munster”) and with a courage assist from Miller High Life, I sent Topps my résumé. I figured that would be the end of it, but I got an e-mail in response. They asked how I would describe my interest in and knowledge of sports; I answered “freakish/obsessive.” I got an interview, and then I got the job.

Starting a job at Topps was stressful. I was about to enter, as an adult, a place I’d always imagined as a gum-scented, Willy Wonkafied dream palace. Before my first day of work, I pictured packs piled in leaning towers, slides from long-ago Darryl Strawberry photo shoots, game-worn Mickey Tettleton jerseys. When I showed up, I found a standard corporate office: cubicles, recycled air, bad carpeting, worse lighting. There was plenty of candy—Topps makes Ring Pops, Push Pops, and Bazooka bubble gum—but few cards in sight. There was little indication that this place churned out baseball cards and not, say, bath mats.

My job was to edit the text and statistics for the card backs. These came from a Virginia-based head writer named Bruce Herman (author of the Potapenko card that led me to Topps) and a Quebecois statistician named Nicolas Chabot, respectively. I did ordinary editor things—assigned text, edited it for accuracy and aesthetics, drew elaborate geometric doodles at meetings—but was buoyed by the fact that I was doing these in a not-so-ordinary environment.

While the text was inescapably repetitive, the stuff I edited was certainly better than the “Hector’s hobbies are eating and sleeping” non sequiturs that made up the Topps backs of my youth. Today’s cards top out at 400 characters (including spaces), or about 70 words, and usually take the shape of punchy feature articles. My favorite was a card for the St. Louis Rams’ Harvard-educated backup quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. The back text dealt with a question posed to him by his offensive line. Figuring that perhaps he’d covered this in Cambridge, they asked Fitzpatrick what would hurt more: getting kicked by a donkey or whipped in the face by an elephant’s trunk. Fitzpatrick went with the elephant slap. Bruce provided a source, and I checked it. All true. At times like that, the job was something very close to fun.

Tight deadlines created tension, but it’s hard to stay stressed when your bosses are pestering you for 50 words about some punt returner’s hobbies. Sadly, though, the same things that bothered me about previous corporate gigs were easy to find at Topps. Upper management was a distant, nepotistic network descending from a mysterious, largely invisible septuagenarian CEO. Below that, departments feuded with other departments. Middle managers skirmished in snarky, caps-locked e-mails CC’d to higher-ups. “Good mornings” seethed with passive aggression.

My co-workers and I shared a sense that our contributions were undervalued. My job’s irrelevance—I worked on the less glamorous back half of the card, you see—was confirmed through my absence from the card-distribution rolls. At Topps, the haves receive free boxes of each new product. The have-nots, like me, do not. When I asked for boxes of the products I’d worked on, I got brushed off. Eventually, I gave in and queued up at the company store along with copy editors from the quality-assurance department.

I was frustrated not only because this wasn’t what I’d expected—who even has company stores anymore?—but because a myth from my childhood got sullied. Baseball cards, it turned out, are not made in a card-cluttered candy land. Rather, they are created by ordinary men and women who are generally unawed by their proximity to a central part of American boyhood.

Neither trading cards nor “novelty candies” have been breaking any sales records recently. Consequently, Topps has banked increasingly on ultra-high-end trading cards. The company’s most expensive “pack,” the beautiful, autograph-laden Topps Sterling, comes in a cherry-wood box and costs $250 for five cards. While those cards make money—as, it should be said, do the basic $1.50 packs—the trading-card business has been more or less moribund for a decade. So, it wasn’t a total surprise when I was laid off in July, effective mid-September.

I’m glad I got the chance to work at Topps, if only because it was fun to tell people at parties that “I’m in the baseball card business.” My Topps experience also helped me remember why collectors collect. It’s the hunt for what the brand managers call “white whale” cards. I know it’s awfully literal, but mine is the Herman Melville card I wrote for Topps’ Allen and Ginter set. That’s a new product—scarce around the office, not sold in the company store, $5 a pack in card shops—in which Gilded Age cultural figures mingle with the A-Rods and Nick Puntos. Odd, I know, but I love the set.

Before I left for good, I found what I’d been searching for. It was behind a locked door, which was itself behind an ordinary-looking backroom. I flipped the switch, and lights flickered on overhead, revealing a back-backroom awash in cards. Binders lined the walls, filled with every card in every Topps baseball and football set from the 1950s through the 1990s, all pasted—why?—to white three-hole-punch paper. To get to those shelves, I had to step on and over boxes brimming with loose cards and cards in bricklike 500-count vending boxes. And that was just the cards. A box fell off a shelf and baseballs autographed by Frank Robinson rolled out. Jerseys that were to have been cut up and inserted into “relic” cards gave one dusty corner the look of a chaotic locker room. A box of bats inscribed with the names of journeymen such as Geronimo Berroa and Ron Coomer sat in another.

This back-backroom would not have looked like much to most people. I was relieved, though, to discover that the baseball card wonderland I’d dreamed of was somewhere in that office after all.