My Braves fandom was one of the biggest joys of my family’s move from Memphis to Columbus, Georgia in the Summer of 1981. Right after that might have been the discovery of a Majik Market within walking distance of our new house. For the longest time, you could buy baseball cards at every convenience store. They were usually on the candy aisle. At our Majik Market, you could find them right at the end of the row with the Jolly Rancher Stix candies that cost 10 cents each. I’d usually pick up a peach one with each stack of packs. When my family arrived in Georgia, I already had an impressive stack of 1981 Topps stored in a shoebox. The shock was when I found boxes of both Fleer and Donruss cards for sale, right next to the Topps cards. As far as I was concerned, baseball cards and Topps were the same thing. It was a shock to my system.
At the time, I had a limited and not very sophisticated understanding of the baseball card industry. All I knew was that I was now being asked to spend what limited money I had on three different brands of cards. I bought packs of all three brands. It was obvious that the inaugural Donruss set was just crap. The paper stock was so cheap that the cards would crease if you blew on them. That first Fleer set was, on the other hand, an absolute home run. It was even better than the Topps set and I would split my purchasing for the rest of the year. I wouldn’t complete either set until I returned to collecting in 2005.
See, even though I loved the Fleer set, I wasn’t happy about the competition for my dollar. I wanted to think of myself as loyal to Topps, whatever that means. Loyalty to a brand? What does that even mean? It’s the stupid and simple conceit of a child. It is obvious now that competition was good for collectors and for the manufacturers. That includes Topps. Especially Topps.
Anyone who knows baseball cards knows the history. The Topps monopoly fell in 1981 when Donruss and Fleer entered the market. These three would complete until 1988 when Score entered the market. In 1989, everything was turned upside down when Upper Deck produced their first amazing set. Every improvement in card production was a result of competition. Better card stock. Better photography. Update sets. Premium Sets. Eventually, autograph cards and relic cards. All were the result of competition.
Fast forward two decades, and once again, Topps has a monopoly. It was not an earned monopoly. It wasn’t accomplished by dominating their competition in the marketplace. It’s simply because Michael Eisner and his buddies convinced Bud Selig and the powers that be at MLB Properties to take their check and throw Upper Deck out of the game. Every time that Topps or MLB claims that this monopoly was engineered for the benefit of the card industry or the benefit of collectors, they are lying. In the long term, there’s not even a convincing case to make for it being good for Topps.
The first year of Topps new monopoly was 2010 and all Topps has accomplished is a strange combination of treading water and gimmicking up the product. Outside of the changing design, the base set composition has varied little each year. They switch the color of the shiny parallel, but that’s a minor change. They add more parallels. They add more ridiculous insert sets that make no sense each year. Everyone knows what to expect from Bowman, Chrome, Heritage, Allen & Ginter, Triple Threads and Finest and Topps has done nothing to challenge those expectations. Sure, Gypsy Queen has been a hit, but it wasn’t exactly original. It was simply a better designed version of the same retro-styled sets that Topps has been producing for the better part of the last decade. Any difference in the products from year to year has been the addition of gimmicks. A Topps official even promised that the 2012 base set was a “game changer”, right before Topps released the same set they’ve been releasing year after year.
For reasons that would confuse anyone capable of rational thought, MLB Properties has rewarded Topps’ laziness with seven additional years of exclusivity. This means seven more years of the same. Changes will be kept to the absolute minimum. Set composition will stay the same. Long term collectors will continue to abandon unopened boxes of new product, and in many cases, they will abandon collecting new product altogether. If you think Topps is stale now, imagine what their products will be like if there are seven more years without real competition.
Both Panini and Upper Deck have released the occasional unlicensed product over the past several years. They’ve varied widely in quality. Personally, cards that airbrush away logos have always looked awful to me. I’ve always avoided collecting them, but I’m ready to change. Not long after the news that MLB Properties had extended Topps exclusivity came the news that the Player’s Association has issued a new license to Upper Deck. Essentially, Upper Deck now has permission to create cards for any current major league player, they just don’t have permission to use team logos and uniforms. Right now, I would eagerly purchase a hobby box for a new Upper Deck base set, even if they have to photoshop away team insignia. I’m not the only one.
Of course, there are those who are OK with the status quo. I disagree, but I have no problem with that. If you like the way Topps is doing business right now, that’s fine. If you have no intention of collector any other manufacturers cards, that’s also fine. You can even argue that the gimmicks Topps are using are in their best interest. There is not, however, an argument to be made in favor of the monopoly. There are those who shill for Topps and claim that the monopoly is good for the hobby, but they are either stupid or lying. Without competition, Topps has gotten soft and they will only get softer.
These aren’t theoretical concerns. Braves collectors have benefitted from competition in the baseball card market in ways both large and small since the original Topps monopoly fell in 1981. Each year, each manufacturer would release their own base set. Each checklist was different. Sure, all of the best players were in each of the sets, but the young players and fringe players selected could be different. If Upper Deck had the ability to produce sets this year, would David Ross have gotten a base card? Would Chipper Jones have gotten a final base card this year? Which Braves would they have gotten to sign for their set? Would it be guys Topps can’t get to sign? Who knows?
We can’t say without any certainty what we’ve lost because of the lack of competition. We can say what we’ve gained over the years. Without competition, we would have never gotten the 1984 Fleer Glenn Hubbard card with the snake. We would have never gotten that awesome 1993 Donruss Chipper Jones with the Rated Rookie logo. If it wasn’t for Upper Deck, I wouldn’t have Greg Maddux’s great 2003 card in the retro Braves uniform or my 2000 Pros and Prospects Tom Glavine relic/auto. Upper Deck also produced that amazing Strike Force card in 1993 with the entire pitching staff. Donruss gave us a Hank Aaron puzzle in 1986 and a Warren Spahn puzzle in 1989. I could go on and on and on and on, but I won’t. Every card you see pictured with this article was produced by a company that was in competition with Topps.
Here’s my ultimate point: there are hundreds upon hundreds of great Braves cards released by manufacturers competing with Topps and our collections are undeniably better off because of them.