A Fascinating Letter from Sy Berger to Fred Corcoran Extending Ted Williams’ Contract with Topps

A couple of weeks ago, a collector (@TJisonline) shared an incredible hobby artifact with me: a letter from Sy Berger, the mastermind behind Topps Trading cards, to Fred Corcoran, the agent of baseball legend Ted Williams. It dates back to the intense bubble gum card war of the 1950s. I thought I would use it to explore the story of Ted Williams’ association with Topps, Bowman, and eventually, Fleer during this era, shedding light on the fierce completion that unfolded and the impact it had on a few of the most popular baseball card sets in the hobby.

If you don’t know a lot about Ted Williams, his Wikipedia article is a good starting point, but he’s known as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, finishing his career with a .344 batting average, 521 home runs, and 1839 RBIs. He was a 19x All-Star, 2x AL MVP, 2x Triple Crown Winner, 6x AL batting champion, and the last player to hit over .400 in a season. His career was also peaking during the Topps/Bowman card wars.

But Teddy Ballgame’s 19-year MLB career was interrupted twice for military service, from 1943-45 for WW2 and 1952-53 for the Korean War. But first, after WW2, in the post-war era, Williams had cards in the 1948-49 Leaf, 1950 Bowman, and 1951 Bowman sets. 

1951 Bowman #165 Ted Williams

Topps wasn’t a real competitor to Bowman until 1952, but the Navy had called Williams back to serve on active duty for the Korean War on January 9, 1952 (he played just six games in the 1952 season before returning for refresher flight training). So, Williams wasn’t in either Bowman’s or Topps’ 1952 or 1953 sets because of his military service. Williams did have a few oddball cards those years, namely 1952 Berk Ross, 1952 Red Man, and 1952 Wheaties.

Williams returned to baseball in 1953 and hit .406, but with only 110 at-bats, he wasn’t qualified for the batting title. At this point, Sy Berger, a Red Sox fan, was desperate to sign Ted Williams, and at the time, exclusive deals were around $100-125 annually.

In December 1953, Berger managed to sign Ted Williams to a five-year contract with Topps because he offered Williams more money than the standard fee; $400 per year. Bowman had to stop production of William’s 1954 Bowman card #66, and Topps double-downed on their star, making him the first and last card of the set (#1 and #250).

1954 Topps #1 Ted Williams

Berger would give Ted Williams premium places in their following three sets; Williams was card #2 in 1955, #5 in 1956, and #1 in 1957. That’s when the letter this article was motivated by comes into the picture, and here it is:

1957 Sy Berger Letter to Fred Corcoran – Ted Williams Topps Extension

You can see that it’s dated October 1, 1957, and is from Sy Berger to Fred Corcoran (Ted’s agent). It references the agreement to extend William’s exclusive deal with Topps for the 1958 season. I suppose this means the original contract was for five years, but both parties had to renew or review it yearly. 

1958 Topps #1 Ted Williams

The collector picked it up to pair with his three 1958 Topps Ted Williams cards, #s 1, 321, and 485. The Red Sox team card and checklist, #312, is a fourth “Williams” card, of sorts, in the set. The collector picked up the letter from a local estate reseller/dealer who supposedly bought a lot of items from Fred Corcoran’s daughter (who was Ted Williams’ goddaughter).

1957 Sy Berger Letter to Fred Corcoran With Cards

At this point, another company was looking to enter the sports card market. The Frank H. Fleer Corporation wanted to grow its gum market share, and they targeted Williams for a single-player set since Topps had the exclusive MLB license by that point. Williams was the only player with the popularity to carry an entire set. Williams signed with Fleer for $5k per year for four years, which deprived Topps collectors of Ted Williams cards for the remainder of his playing days. But fans could grab Topps Ted Williams Manager cards from 1969-1972.

1959 Fleer Ted Williams #80 – Ted’s Goals for 1959

Topps also signed Ted Williams in 1991 for inclusion in the 1953 Reprint Series. Heritage Auctions sold the contract pictured below for $286.80 in January 2008. So we have some idea of what a 1953 Topps Ted Williams card could have looked like.

Topps Contract With Ted Williams – 1991
1991 Topps Archives #319 Ted Williams 1953 Reprint

This recently unearthed letter from Sy Berger to Fred Corcoran amplifies the intense competition and significant impact of the bubble gum card wars on the hobby. It helps provide a bit more historical context and another glimpse into a pivotal era when the hobby really developed.

If you’re a Ted Williams fan, I’ve highlighted a few of his cards in previous articles:

And if you want to learn more about cards from this era and the competition between Topps and Bowman, I recommend picking up a copy of The Bubble Gum Card War by Dean Hanley. 

The Bubble Gum Card War

Happy collecting, and don’t forget to subscribe to the Post War Cards Newsletter for a few shorter hobby insights every Thursday.

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