On December 14, Sy Berger passed away at the age of 91. He leaves behind his wife Gloria, his daughter Maxine, his two sons Glen and Gary, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren. When modern-day baseball cards at Topps are mentioned, the name Sy Berger immediately comes to mind because he was responsible for starting their long history of baseball cards in 1951; but he was a friend to non-sport cards, as well.
In 1997, Nick Portantiere wrote an article about Berger for Non-Sport Update in celebration of his 50 years of working at the company. In it, he discussed how Berger had taken a temporary job at Topps in 1947 at their Brooklyn office. He was hired to head a sales promotion for something called “Gold Rush Jamboree.” Fifty years later, Berger was still employed at Topps and remained there until he retired in 2002.
Also in 1947, Topps introduced Bazooka Bubble Gum which was a fruit-flavored gum and became popular very quickly. There were small comics inserted in the packaging and a premium offer. Kids were told to send for a gift catalogue and the mail really piled up but there was not a gift catalogue so Berger was given the task of putting one together in a hurry. Not only did he have to put together the catalogue but he had to find all the gifts to offer.
In his early years at the company working in sales promotions, he recalled Hocus Focus, a mini-card which was chemically treated so when you wet the wrapper and rubbed it on the card, a picture magically appeared. Another item he remembered was Pixie. When you placed a piece of red cellophane over the card, it made a picture appear.
Later he again became involved with non-sport cards by being a member of the Topps team who traveled down South to meet with Colonel Tom Parker to discuss what would be in the 1956 Elvis Presley card set. In 1964, Topps wanted to do a set on the Beatles. They just couldn’t get it done so he went to visit Brian Epstein and convinced him to let them issue cards. In 1965, Topps issued the first series of Ugly Stickers and one of the stickers is named Sy. I am willing to bet Sy Berger is the Sy they were referring to as they sometimes used the names of their employees in their products.
In 1977, Berger took over Topps licensing business. It was his responsibility to negotiate deals with licensors and because of him, Topps did Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws 2, E.T., New Kids on the Block, Michael Jackson, Batman and Batman Returns. Bigger than any of the others was Star Wars. All these years later, Topps still retains the license to do Star Wars cards.
I contacted Ira Friedman, Vice President of Publishing and Licensing at Topps to find out if the company kept in touch with Berger after his retirement. He told me, “His tie to Topps continued well beyond his official retirement. Sy was a special guy who devoted his long career to Topps. He’ll always be synonymous with the company. He was a wonderful, generous guy to work with and a visionary in the sports/trading card industries. Sy was larger than life, yet at the same time so kind and humble. I wouldn’t have worked at Topps and been in my 26th year there were it not for Sy Berger. He not only impacted my life, but his pioneering role in the card industry touched the hearts of millions.”
Over the years, I had occasion to speak with Berger by phone several times. He was very friendly and always returned phone calls. In one of our conversations, I asked him if the story about his dumping of 1952 baseball cards into the Atlantic Ocean was true. He confirmed it and said they over-produced the cards and just couldn’t get rid of them. The cards were dumped in 1960.
Sy Berger will be missed but his name will live on.