Baseball card pioneer Sy Berger dies

Sy Berger Dies At 91 (2:47)

Former Topps spokesman Marty Appel discusses the legacy and career of baseball card pioneer Sy Berger, who died of natural causes at the age of 91. (2:47)

Sy Berger, the father of modern day baseball cards, has died of natural causes at the age of 91.

The news was announced Sunday morning by baseball historian Marty Appel on behalf of the family.

Berger most famously devised the practice of signing Major League Baseball players year after year to be able to use their name and image on cards in annual sets.

For more than three decades, Topps was paying players only $75 a year for that privilege and, most of the time, that amount was applied to buying something from the company catalog.

Berger's personal relationships with the stars in the beginning years made it easier to make them sign on the dotted line, though he did not sign St. Louis Cardinals slugger Stan Musial for the first six years. Berger was often seen at the side of Willie Mays, whom he considered among his closest friends

Topps was founded in 1938 as a chewing gum company. As the competition in the gum market exploded, Topps unveiled Bazooka -- with the added value of comics -- to help sell the brand.

That eventually led to putting gum in packs of baseball cards. And in 1952, Sy Berger arrived at the company to help make and produce the first set, which he designed at his kitchen table using cardboard and scissors. The packs of six cards were wrapped in wax and, of course, had a piece of bubble gum in it for a total cost of five cents.

Despite having a Mickey Mantle "rookie" card in the set, sales were not good. Since they overproduced the second part of the set that year, Berger, for years, would try to unload the cards anywhere they could.

"Around 1959 or so, I went around to carnivals and offered them for a penny a piece, 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.'"

In 1960, still saddled with a huge number of cards from the 1952 set, Berger put the remaining cards into three full garbage trucks and commissioned a barge to dump the remaining inventory into the Atlantic Ocean.

With kids putting the cards in the spokes of their bicycle and years later, the parents of those who had saved them throwing out their shoeboxes full of cards, scarcity led to an era where the baseball card became an investment.

After the T206 Honus Wagner card, the 1952 Topps Mantle is the most valuable card in the baseball card world. One of the 1952 Mantle cards sold at auction last week for $268,664.

For years, baseball cards were the marketing mechanism for the gum companies -- Topps competed with Bowman and Fleer and Donruss.

In the mid-80s, the fervor over cards led the cardboard to become the main attraction over the gum. Gum was soon wrapped in plastic so as not to hurt the cards and eventually was gone from packs altogether.

Berger, who worked for Topps until 2002, is survived by his wife Gloria, his daughter Maxine, and his two sons Glen and Gary.