From time to time, Mike Orzechowski takes out his card binders to flip through his collection.
It makes him happy to look at his extensive Philadelphia Phillies collection. The 39-year-old has every Phillies team set that Topps has ever produced from 1951 to present.
“I think the rich history with baseball and with Topps, in particular, that consecutive run is something that there’s just something awesome about it,” Orzechowski said. “I remember thinking of different ways to do an example and I was like, I have some of my childhood Phillies team sets in some of the recent years, why would I not go back and build the entire roster.”
One of Orzechowski’s favorite parts about opening the four binders is seeing how Topps has changed its design over its eight decades of printing cards. He also likes to look at how the Phillies’ rosters developed every year and how uniforms and hairstyles changed.
When baseball is right around the corner prior to each season, Orzechowski looks forward to collecting the next batch of Phillies cards that Topps releases.
“As you approach spring training, you look forward to that Topps Series 1 release day every year, generally in early February,” Orzechowski said. “Usually, a week before that is when they drop the checklist, so you kind of anticipate when that checklist is going to drop. It drops, you get that link, you roll through, kind of look and see what rookies are in it, what are you looking forward to. For me, I roll through and kind of count and look at how many Phillies cards are in it and kind of know, ‘OK, this is what to look forward to in a week when the product comes out.’
“It’s part of that yearly tradition. Then you have Topps release day and you look forward to opening a few packs and finding a way to build up your set.”
Sadly, Orzechowski’s anticipation for Topps release day might be a faded memory in the not-too-distant future.
Orzechowski, like most loyal Topps collectors, was devastated when news broke that Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association weren’t renewing Topps’ card licenses. Instead, Fanatics was granted the exclusive product rights starting in 2023 for MLBPA and 2026 for MLB.
Topps is all about nostalgia for Orzechowski.
“It’s a tradition of something I’ve been doing for over 30 years at this point and I can kind of have conversations with my dad, who bought cards and collected cards and I know they played with their cards, they flipped them and stuff back when he was a kid,” Orzechowski said. “It’s a history really of the sport, at least for the last 70 years. It’s a documentation year by year.”
The news hit hard for old-school collectors. After 70 years, there is uncertainty if Topps will ever produce baseball cards again after their licenses expire.
“I just felt so blindsided,” said Topps collector Bob Lewis. “I was in the middle of my work day and it’s like, what? This can’t be real.”
When Lewis’ wife saw him later that day, he said she could tell something was wrong. Lewis tried to explain the shocking Topps announcement in terms she could understand.
“I wasn’t really able to put it in words,” Lewis said. “I just was like, ‘I’m sad. I think I’m sad about this.’ Guys aren’t really big on emotions. This feels like a piece of who you are is in jeopardy.”
Similar to Orzechowski, Lewis is a Topps team set collector, building Pittsburgh Pirates sets. He is building his master set from the early 1950s on and figures he’s picked up about two-thirds of the cards.
“I enjoy rookie cards from hall of famers and the stars of their day,” Lewis said. “So, I have that all-time wants list from rookie cards which are reasonably within my price range to one day acquire.”
It’s important for Lewis to collect strictly Topps team sets and not from the other companies that entered the market during the “junk wax” era of the 1980s.
“You didn’t feel like you had the rookie card that everybody wanted until you got the Topps card,” Lewis said. “I know from ’52 to ’80, there was only Topps. I think that idea of that’s the main rookie card regardless of Donruss and Fleer coming out, I wanted the Topps card. When they added the traded sets and you would get somebody that wasn’t in the base sets or maybe you got him a year earlier than he appeared in the base set and extended rookie cards … you wanted to get them all.”
FORMER TOPPS REP REFLECTS
The Topps news hit extremely close to home for Sooz Lulgjuraj. She was Topps’ marketing communications manager from 2014-19 and still keeps in contact with folks at the company.
“For me, personally, my first thought went to the people that work there, because I worked there for five years and some of these people are still my friends now,” Lulgjuraj said. “There’s people that have been working there for 25, 30 years and you think like, well, what’s next for them given what’s going on? I’m sad for them. I’m sad because these people love cards and they love collecting. I’m sad for them that everybody was stunned in this way.”
When Lulgjuraj was working the Topps booth at the National Sports Collectors Convention every year, it wasn’t uncommon for longtime collectors to come by and talk to staffers about their Topps collections. Lulgjuraj loved to hear the stories.
“You see how much Topps means to these people, because a lot of the stories were, ‘Oh, I started collecting with my grandfather. He bought me my first set and this is something we were able to do for years.’ Or, ‘I collected with my dad,’” Lulgjuraj said. “And it’s not just about collecting cards — it’s about the bonds that you make through collecting cards. It’s about family and friends and all these people that you’ve been able to meet because of collecting cards. And because Topps has been synonymous all these years with baseball cards, naturally Topps was the company for you.”
On a few instances, collectors would show off their Topps tattoos to Lulgjuraj and her co-workers at the company’s National booth. The wildest tattoo Lulgjuraj ever saw?
“I remember one guy had the Topps logo on his calf,” Lulgjuraj said. “It was like, everywhere you go, if he’s wearing shorts, you’re going to see that tattoo.”
Lulgjuraj enjoyed her time working for Topps and it certainly fueled her passion to collect cards. She now has a solid Twitter following — her handle is @yanxchick — and as a big New York Yankees fan, she specializes in collecting Derek Jeter cards.
“When it comes to Topps, you’re like, man, I’ve been collecting Topps literally my whole life, because they’ve been around longer than I’ve been alive,” Lulgjuraj said. “You wonder like, what now? Does the name somehow continue on forever? It’s just a little crazy, because it’s like as a collector, despite changes and new companies and this, Topps has literally been that one constant in the hobby.”
Lulgjuraj believes new Topps products are going to be extremely popular as the company’s time winds down.
“I think in the last year, whenever that may be, you’re going to find a run on people buying product to hoard so they can say, ‘Oh, yes, I have the last Topps product that was made,’” Lulgjuraj said. “Even now, people are hoarding sealed wax in general because of just how high the prices of them are. I think you’ll see that especially in the last year. Think about that, it’s still hard for me to fathom to think like, oh, Topps isn’t going to make cards anymore. To own as a collector, even if that’s just a collectible in itself, I own the last year of Topps flagship. That’s crazy to even think that’s a possibility.”
COMFORT IN TOPPS
Longtime collector Bart Bartholomew has always gravitated to Topps cards because of the nice, clean photos he gets of his favorite players.
For collectors who religiously collect Topps cards for, it’s a big blow.
“It’s a punch in the chest to a certain degree,” Bartholomew said. “You have that level of purists that when Topps was the only game in town they got consistent with that and they would build a 700-some-card set every year whether they put them in top loaders or put them in binders. There’s tons of folks out there that will just have a wall of binders and they’ll beam with pride as they show you every year consistently that they have that Topps flagship set that they’ve assembled through busting packs.”
Since Topps held exclusive licenses through MLB and MLBPA, Bartholomew grew ever frustrated that there wasn’t any competition with producing baseball cards. Panini only has an MLBPA license.
“It would have been nicer if we had the level of competition so that they were still pushing the limits of design and quality,” Bartholomew said. “As for the collectors, the normal folks out there, we’re all on a bit of a budget, so competition would often breed competitive prices maybe a little bit, too, instead of just seeing everything skyrocket.”
Without question, Bartholomew would like to see Topps’ name continue in the hobby. Like other collectors, he has grown to know Topps’ definitions of a player’s prospect card and what is his official rookie card.
“There’s comfort in that,” he said. “We like that consistency in lots of things throughout the hobby. Topps, we knew when Series 1 was coming out, when Opening Day was coming out. We knew roughly when Series 2 was coming out, when Update was coming out and the other sets that go along with it, whether it was Chrome or Bowman or Bowman prospects. All of those types of things, there was a predictability amongst it all. Things to look forward to, things to budget for — because don’t get crazy now because Topps is releasing in two weeks — that type of stuff. You had all those things to look for.”
The hardest thing for Topps collectors to swallow is that they may not be able to look forward to a release in a few short years.
“I haven’t fully explored that because I’m sort of unwilling to admit that might be an option,” Lewis said. “However, my love is for the hobby as a whole, so I’ll find a way to collect. There still will be Topps cards available to me, but it won’t be the fresh, new, won’t be able to get your guy’s rookie card in a new Topps. It’s sad to think.”