Topps continues to stay on top of evolving baseball card culture.
Topps unveiled its new and improved 2015 Series 1 and 2 sets earlier this month and Clay gave us some insight into the many secret treasures that the set contains and the motivation and inspirations behind the baseball card giants latest masterpiece of collectibles.
Luraschi, who has been with Topps for 15 years, speaks on how the card collector game has evolved, how Topps was able to take over the game and corner the market in the past two decades and how it plans to stay relevant with the youth in a digital age.
Gambler: The 2015 Topps set is bigger than usual. Why?
Clay: Its the biggest one we’ve done in over a decade. We’ve generally had 660 cards in the past and we bumped it up to 700. The bigger the set, the more we can do with it. That’s 40 more players that wouldn’t normally be in there and regardless of where a player is on the team as far as position or role, there’s always someone who is a fan of that player. The larger set to collect is just a bigger challenge and collectors love the challenge of putting together a bigger set.
Gambler: What are some of the more popular special features that can be found in this set?
Clay: Card No. 1 has been designated for Derek Jeter. Card No.1 has always been a special spot in the set and I think Derek Jeter deserves that spot as much as anyone after the career he’s had. He’s the captain of the Yankees. Were a NY company. So obviously there’s an affinity to Derek and Yankee Stadium. The shot is great… It’s of him jumping up and down when he got his walk-off hit in his last home game.
One big collecting aspect of trading cards is the rookie card. So new players that collectors are looking out for this year are Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo, Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs, Michael Franco from the Phillies and Joc Pederson from the Dodgers so there are some top notch rookies in here that people will be chasing.
Theres a special tribute set in the product commemorating the careers of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. Another interesting tie-in to the product is Ernie Banks, who was a good friend of Topps, right before he passed in 2014, he signed autographs for us and those cards are in the product, so Ernie Banks last autographed card can be found in Topps Baseball as well.
Gambler: Rumor has it you guys have a special 15-card set of celebrity ceremonial first pitches. Included in that set is music mogul Curtis Jacksons (50 Cent) terrible first pitch, which has now become a viral sensation and is a VIP gut-buster among baseball historys many wacky moments.
Clay: Its not a rumor. It’s funny because someone asked me why would we commemorate that first pitch with a card, and I said, Look, Ive actually thrown out a first pitch and the distance is farther than it seems and the task in itself is challenging. I played college baseball and its not a joke to throw from 60-feet, six inches. Especially, when you have all of those people there. You get a different perspective from the mound than you see on TV, so Im sure there will be many more first pitches that arent that great either. 50 Cent is not alone. Im sure there are a ton more each year.
The ceremonial first pitch is an honor and its been something thats been happening as a tradition since President Taft threw out the first pitch. It was a Presidential thing and now more people get to do it and its a big part of the game and here at Topps, what we do is commemorate anything that is recognized as a big part of the game and throwing out that ceremonial first pitch is a big deal.
Some of the people we are featuring: Jeff Bridges, Jack White (White Stripes), musician Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), rapper/DJ Biz Markie, Agnes McKee, the oldest person to throw out the first pitch. Shes 105 years old. Austin Mahone, teen pop star (Young Money Entertainment/Cash Money Records). Jermaine Jones, Team USA soccer player, US gymnast Mckayla Maroney, and Tom Willis whos a really interesting guy. His goal is to throw out the first pitch at every single stadium. I want to say hes thrown it out at 22 stadiums. He was born without any arms so he does the first pitch with his foot which is pretty amazing.
Gambler: You’ve been an integral part of the Topps Baseball machine for 15 years. How have you seen the collectors market change or the culture change over the years?
Clay: The business is very different now. If you collected cards when you were growing up like I did, we would have to wait once or twice a year to go to a baseball card show or go to a baseball card shop to get your favorite card. Now you can go on to the internet instantaneously and get whatever card that it is you’re looking for.
So what that’s done is created so many different segments of collectors. People who collect by the player. People who collect by the team. People who collect autograph cards. People who collect jersey cards. So in that way it has expanded our reach. And now with the analytics, we have WAR stats and OPS stats on the back of cards. They didn’t have that when we were kids, so as the game evolves we are capturing that. As we head into the digital age, we also play a big role in the digital space. We have some very popular Apps. One of them is called Bunt, where you can collect, play and trade digital baseball cards. So that’s kind of like the next generation of what Topps trading cards is about.
Gambler: Explain the Bunt app.
Clay: Download the bunt App which is free. You can purchase coins and the coins allow you to buy digital baseball card packs. The packs open up just like a regular baseball card pack would and then your cards appear. The cool thing about these cards is that you can actually play these cards with real stats. So when Opening Day starts and let’s say, Brett Garner is playing for the Yankees and gets two hits, the number of points you card has is based on the actual performance of the players in real MLB games. It’s a great experience. I’m actually pretty hooked on it.
Gambler: Is today’s baseball card industry supported more by people who want to gain a profit from collecting cards than by people who just genuinely love the game and nostalgic thrill of collecting?
Clay: There’s definitely that segment of people who are looking for some type of return on their investments and that’s fine. People can collect however they want to collect, but at the end of the day, people should be collecting cards because they enjoy it. The industry is very different than it was in the late 80s and early 90s, there were several different companies making millions and millions of cards billions even. Now, we are the exclusive producer of MLB trading cards so what that allows us to do is really focus in on our segment and what you’ll see moving forward is more of a focus on kids, especially with our marketing and some of our campaigns.
Gambler: Is there any particular strategy you will use to increase your marketing efforts to kids?
Clay: We have some pretty substantial sampling programs that we’re putting together with some of the teens so when kids go to the stadium on a designated day, they’re going to be able to get free packs of Topps cards, because the thing at the end of the day is the wonderful thing about trading cards is its a blind purchase so its like a present every time you open them up right? It’s just getting those cards into the kids’ hands. Its an experience that you can’t replicate and it’s a fantastic one, for us its, really about finding different ways to keep getting them out to the people.
Gambler: What separates Topps from the other baseball card companies?
Clay: There are competitors who put out cards but they don’t have major league marks on them. We have the licensing. We have a big involvement with spring training. We have been doing this for a lot of years and we have a relationship with every player. They sign contracts with Topps and that has become kind of a rite of passage for MLBers. They get to the major leagues and get their first Topps baseball card and they say, Wow I made it. I’m on a Topps baseball card. We have a very special relationship with the players in baseball and the league. We are a part of the fabric of the game.
Gambler: What’s the knockout aspect of this years 2015 Topps Collection?
Clay: If you love the game of baseball this product is so comprehensive that it captures everything you love about the game. And if you want to commemorate year after year this is the best way to do it.
Gambler: How did you come up in the game?
Clay: I was a baseball nut as a kid. I just naturally loved baseball. People ask me, So how’d you get into baseball? I say, I don’t know but everything I did after that day I picked up the game was just baseball, baseball, baseball, baseball actually started at Topps in public relations and that was my degree in college and then just being surrounded by creative people who were passionate about sports, I learned different roles and different parts of the business and my responsibilities increased as the years elapsed.
Gambler: You guys don’t make cards of amateur athletes but how do you feel about Jackie Robinson West being stripped of its Little League World Series U.S. Title for recruiting outside of the supposed geographic boundaries?
Clay: As a baseball guy, I feel like those kids are still champions. It’s unfortunate that happened, but you can’t take anything away from their performance on the field.