It's Just Not in the Cards

I DIDN'T HAVE an easy spring this year. I was shivering in my winter jacket until late May. I wrote 50 pages of reading period drivel. I went home alone after my spring formal.

But none of that surprised me. Global warming never visits Cambridge. My professors always resemble Simon Legree more than Neil Simon. And my experience with "Love" always comes coupled with "Boat."

This spring, however, was not like any other. One lazy April afternoon, sick of hitting the books, I wandered over to Store 24 and bought a pack of baseball cards. Unfortunately, I didn't find any Yankees. That's all right, I thought, it's only one pack. And then it hit me--there was no stick of bubble gum in the middle of the cards.

Yes, it's true. My first pack was no mistake. The 1992 Topps baseball cards for the first time do not come packaged with a stick of chewing gum. An era has ended.

Don't get me wrong: The gum was always disgusting. This was not normal gum. It was hard, brittle, implausibly pink and covered with a puzzling flour-like substance. All in all, not a particularly pleasing gustatory sensation.


I was a teetotaler, preferring to donate the stuff to mouths less discriminating than mine. And for some reason, from second grade through college, I found the few takers for this vile chew were almost exclusively female.

I can't really offer a cogent explanation for this gender gap. But this sociological imbalance was duly noted by my friends and me, and we played the gum card (pardon the pun) for all it was worth, finding it a relatively effortless method of currying favor with the females.

But with the demise of baseball card gum, it's a whole new ballgame. (And now I can't find a date.) Gum used to be the raison d'être for the cards: Topps itself started as a gum purveyor, founded in 1938 as the Topps Chewing Gum Company. But the peculiarly petrified gum that Topps churned out probably didn't do wonders for profits.

So in 1951, Topps decided to shake things up a bit and supplement the gum with--you guessed it--pictures of baseball players on 2" by 3" cards. This wasn't a new idea--cigarette manufacturers included cards with their smokes in the 1900s--but Topps slugged a homer with its new combination.

While cigarettes were unwholesome and associated with decrepitude, what could be more American--short of Mom and apple pie--than baseball and chewing gum? Sales took off. Topps swiftly began to focus less on gum and more on cards--delighting legions of card collectors (and probably gum chewers as well).

Baseball card collecting became a passion for millions of kids across the nation who strove to collect each year's entire set, trade their "doubles" for eagerly sought cards and augment their education by gleaning statistics off the cards' backs.

Kids weren't the only lucky ones. Professional collectors quickly learned to make a living through buying and selling these precious commodities. Some individual cards skyrocketed in value, often selling for several thousand dollars.

And two generations of Americans grew up with the ethereal smell of bubble-gum-bathed baseball cards. Lying side by side in such close quarters, the cards reeked of the gum (and couldn't have tasted much worse). Every winter, kids desperately awaited this unmistakable odor as a sure sign that spring had sprung, that baseball diamonds were green once again, that God was in heaven and all was right with the world.

BUT NO MORE. The Topps Chewing Gum Company has brought an official end to my childhood by rupturing the holy matrimony between baseball cards and bubble gum. In case anyone missed the point, the firm now calls itself The Topps Company, Inc., severing the link for good.

What provoked such a colossal break with tradition? Unsettled by this ominous development, I placed an urgent call to Topps headquarters in Duryea, Pennsylvania. Topps spokesperson Timothy X. Boyle tried to calm me down, assuring me that this was "not an overnight decision," but instead the product of two years' worth of deliberations and "a lot of brainstorming sessions." Small comfort, this.