Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Over the Topp
QUESTION: When my son was just a young boy back in the 1960s, he seemed to be constantly buying bubble gum. I told him it wasn’t good for him, but he bought pack after pack. It wasn’t until later that I realized he wasn’t buying the packages for the gum but for the cards that came along with it. He’s got his own family now and his kids are grown and off on their own. Recently, I was going through some old shoe boxes and discovered over 100 of these bubble gum cards. To my surprise, they didn’t picture sports heroes, like baseball players, but instead showed everything from animals to stars of T.V. shows. What can you tell me about these cards and are they worth anything?
ANSWER: Believe it or not, your son’s cards are highly collectible. While they may not have a high monetary value, their value is in their collectibility. These cards, often called “bubble gum” cards are commonly known as “non-sports” cards because they depict subjects that aren’t sports related. They’re also referred to as “entertainment” cards because their subject matter, at least in the past 20-30 years, has portrayed subjects such as comic book heroes, T.V. shows, movie stills, cartoon characters, as well as pop culture, science fiction, trains, dinosaurs, music, history, and the military.
The original makers, including bubble gum makers like Topps, the leading producer of sports and non-sports trading cards, designed them to be collected into sets. But to do so required young collectors to buy lots and lots of packages of bubble gum in order to find the cards they needed to complete a set.
Cigarette makers over a century ago provided the earliest popularly collected versions of most trading cards—issuing one per pack. At that time, most of the cigarette cards featured images of sports figures, but eventually, cigarette manufacturers began including images of various subjects from outside the world of sports. These included scenes of famous places, exotic animals, and people from the world of entertainment.
As the cigarette makers stopped issuing cards with their products, bubble gum, cereal, and candy makers began to include a non-sport or sports card as a bonus in their packages. By the 1950s both sports and non-sport cards had achieved a popularity that made the cards, themselves, the point of sale. While bubble gum makers continued to include a piece of gum in most packs of non-sport cards up until about 1990, after that, they stopped including the cards in their packs. Very few card issues since 1990 have included bubble gum in the packs, making the once common term "bubble gum cards" a misnomer today.
While non-sports cards initially featured real world subjects such as entertainers, animals, and famous places, their success expanded with the introduction of new concepts created specifically for the cards. These included the popular Wacky Packages product label parody sticker cards from the Topps Company, issued originally from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. Cards depicting historical events have also been popular with collectors.
Over the past 50 years, cards based on television series and movies have really gained a foothold. In fact, media-based cards account for a large portion of the cards produced. Some of the most popular media-based non-sport cards have been based on Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman in both T.V. and movies, Planet of the Apes, Lord of the Rings, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are also sets from the Munsters, the Addams Family, and the Three Stooges.
Cards based on movies and TV shows such as Star Wars often relate the story of the movie or series in both picture and editorial form. The front of the cards have a picture of an event or person from the show or movie, while the back describes the event pictured on the front. Often these sets will include character cards as well as behind the scenes or quote cards.
Other popular modern day non-sport cards feature characters from comic books, including Batman and Spiderman and others from Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and comic books from independent publishers.
While most card sets include a title card and a checklist card—the first and last cards respectively—most non-sport card sets now include different levels of insert cards in the packs. Topps and other companies started this by including a sticker in each pack of cards. Now inserts can include autograph cards, sketch cards (featuring the original sketch for a card), cards that complete a nine-card puzzle (usually by combining the backs of the cards), memorabilia, along with parallel sets which mimic the standard cards in the set with some slight difference like the color of the border or the finish on the card. For instance, the background might be plain or holographic as in a set from Star Trek Voyager.
The goal for collectors is to assemble complete sets, either of different subjects or variations of one subject. For instance, take Batman from DC Comics. The character has been the subject of dozens of trading card sets. A collector interested in assembling a complete collection of Batman trading cards today needs to search eBay for unopened boxes of up to 60 cards—six packs of ten cards each. Out of these boxes, a collector should be able to compile a complete set, as well as several duplicate cards for trading or resale.
The greatest potential for investment-quality cards lies in the vintage sets published before 1980. These sets, in premium condition, can be difficult to complete but are highly collectible. Collectors may also choose to assemble complete sets of the same cards printed specifically for the Canadian or UK markets. Because of the popularity of these sets, it’s common to find reprints on the market that look similar to the originals. Beginning collectors should remember that it’s unlikely that a 1966 Batman Black set in mint condition will appear on eBay for $20.
Virtually every major pop culture phenomenon of the past 50 years has at some point been immortalized in non-sport trading cards. However, the places where collectors can find these cards have become limited. Non-sport card shows, held in every major city around the country, feature dealers selling every type of non-sport card. And while retailers like Walmart do carry sets devoted to hit movie blockbusters, they do so for only a short time. Comic book stores used to be a great source for purchasing and trading these cards but even they sell fewer of them. Besides the card shows, the best place to find cards to start or fill out a collection is online.
There are plenty of vintage sets and cards worth hundreds of dollars and many more worth tens of dollars, but newer cards aren’t really worth the paper they’re printed on. The availability of non-sports cards allows collectors a quick and relatively inexpensive way to begin or add to their collections. With non-sport trading cards, it’s all about the love of collecting.