The Scoop on Classic sets!
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2002 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
The toughest part about writing for The Wrapper is finding good sets that haven't been written about. After 185+ issues, there are not many classics left to cover. Of course, it's fun to write about bad sets too. Ripping them apart is one of the unique joys The Wrapper affords that other magazines can't. (Since we don't get the big advertisers, we don't have to worry about offending them!) Ultimately, however, it's more fun to read and write about sets you like rather than ones you don't. So there's a special thrill when a cool set turns up that deserves attention. Scoops (Topps, 1954) is just such a set. The only time The Wrapper featured it was issue #26. A series as unique and interesting as this certainly warrants additional coverage!
First off, there's the neat-o gimmick. Topps issued this series with a black coating that kids were supposed to scrape off to discover the colorful images hidden beneath. This set was created while Topps was still competing with Bowman, and the result was better products from both companies. Once Bowman was dead, Topps resorted to various short cuts to save time and money. Puzzle backs were one of their more typical effort saving measures. But in the 1950s, cards were packed full of interesting reading on the backs and Scoops was one of the best. The idea was that each card would recreate an important historical event and report on it like it was a current newspaper story. The burning of Rome occurred centuries before the Guttenburg press was invented, but that didn't stop Topps from giving it banner headlines in the World-Wide News, or pretending to provide a photograph (invented 1800 years later) of Emperor Nero. This is the same Nero who slept with and murdered his own mother, although that part of the story didn't make the Chewing Gum Gazette.
The full color artwork on the fronts was original, too. Although good, the art isn't anywhere up to Bowman's standards. Some speculate that Bowman's high expenses lead to their downfall while Topps did what corporations today do: Go with cheaper contractors whenever possible. Whoever was doing the art at Topps at this time was clearly not top shelf material. Comparing Scoops to something like Bowman's Wild Man is embarrassing! But Scoops is professional enough and the sensational content compensates for its pedestrian art.
This series was popular enough to generate a sequel. Both the first and second series consisted of 78 cards. The numbering sequence continues with series two and goes up to 156. Like most second series sets, these cards are more scarce and command higher prices ($7 vs. $4). Another budget busting aspect of this series for cost conscious collectors are the sports cards. There are at least eleven cards that sports collectors often rob from this set and drive up the prices for the rest of us. They include Bob Feller Strikeout King, Joe Louis New (boxing) Champ, Babe Ruth Sets Record, Notre Dame's 4 Horsemen, Jesse Owens Races Horse, and Ben Hogan New Golf King. The Babe Ruth card alone can cost over $100. Some of the non-sports topics also command higher prices. Common examples include San Francisco Earthquake, Lindbergh Flies Atlantic, Custer's Last Stand, and Flying Saucers. Add them all up, and it's little wonder why a complete set in EX often runs between $1K - $1,500.
Another aspect of Scoops worth mentioning is the size. They're small, measuring about 2 x 3 inches. The text on the back looks microscopic compared to modern cards. Topps was probably receiving kickbacks from Optometrists for creating so many new customers from reading sets like these. The stories on the backs were usually pretty detailed. One of the things I like most about this set is learning all the forgotten trivia from previous decades, if not, centuries.
I never knew (until I read it in this set) that the British lost 2,000 soldiers in the final battle of 1812, while we only lost 13. Or that the war had been over for 2 weeks when the battle occurred, but neither side heard the news before fighting. Scoops is where I first read about the Johnstown flood of 1889, which killed 2,200--a staggering civilian death toll in those days. I never heard of people camping out on the top of flag poles for weeks on end. Then I read all about it in a Scoops facsimile of the Vancouver Province newspaper of 1930. Try to envision the horror of attending a circus and being trapped under the Burning Big Top. No, it wasn't a spooky ride, but an actual disaster that killed 107 and critically burned 412 customers at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1944. This set is also the first place I heard about a disaster that would later be dwarfed by current events: The crashing of a large B-25 bomber into the Empire State Building in 1945. Remarkably, only 12 people were killed.
Even the well known historical events included in Scoops contain juicy tidbits I never heard from other sources. For example, did you know that Chief Rain-in-the-face was said to have cut out General George Custer's heart and eaten it after the massacre at Little Big Horn? (I suppose the Politically Correct Police censored that detail by the time I went to grade school in the 1970s.)
Several of the cards provide stories that seemed complete when first published, but that modern audiences would recognize are really precursors of bigger events. The sinking of the U.S.S. Panay in 1937 is an example. The "Jap Bombing" was said to be an accident, killing two Americans aboard the gunboat in the Yangtze River near Nanking. The USA apparently accepted an "oops, we so sorry" excuse at the time, even though the Japanese were raping and pillaging Nanking and other Chinese cities in their blood-thirsty quest to conquer the orient. Readers know the story gets much more dramatic on December 7th, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. That event gets its own card as well. Topps doesn't pussyfoot around either, blasting our WW2 nemesis with both barrels. Topps describes the sneak attack which murdered 2,117 Americans by saying, "Seldom, if ever, in history has a nation stooped to practice such deception as that perpetrated by the Japanese officials." (Of course, that didn't stop Topps from joining the Japanese in 1999 to push Pokemon on our kids!)
Scoops is more sparing of the details when it casts America in a poor light. (This was before Vietnam, when the media made our military out to be the villain.) For instance, the story on the Hindenburg disaster is very short and terse. It makes no mention of the famous scandal at the time by those who claimed the disaster would have been avoided if Roosevelt's administration had allowed the sale of Helium to the Germans. This was in 1937, and critics claimed it was a spiteful effort on Roosevelt's part to deliberately force the Germans to take greater risks with combustible Hydrogen. The Nazis may have gotten the last laugh, however, since the vast majority of victims were Americans.
Another "rest of the story" tale that originally seemed less controversial but created a big brouhaha as the details emerged was that of the Dionne Quintuplets born in Canada in 1934. This was billed as a feel good story of day, both by the newspapers and also by Topps. Unfortunately, the childhood of those children was ruthlessly exploited when they were basically "rented out" for years to a doctor who took them on the road to show them like some sort of freak show.
For all its minor imperfections, this series is one of my favorite 1950s sets. It was original, educational, and interesting. Maybe one day someone will do a follow up series. Now wouldn't that make an exciting headline?
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