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Former Employee Butch Jacobs Explains How Topps Picked the Pictures

By George Vrechek Player images on sports cards today are clear, focused and often depict a player in game action. A card may show a pitcher just releasing a 90-mph fastball, and you can count the stitches on the ball. The cardboard, coating and printing look top-notch; some might say they look too nice and shiny compared to older cards. A closer look at those vintage sports cards turns into a history of the development of photography and printing. The cards of yesteryear didn’t look like the cards of today for a very good reason: the technology wasn’t there.

In previous SCD articles, I covered the development of Topps baseball cards through stories about Sy Berger and Woody Gelman, who first started working together creating the 1952 Topps Baseball cards. During the 1950s, card images evolved from colorized black-and-white photos to true color photography. There were even in-action images used on the 1956 cards, although it turns out some of the images weren’t who they were supposed to be. Hank Aaron’s card shows an exciting slide at the plate – by Willie Mays.

Butch Jacobs, Topps 1973-2007

I interviewed Len Brown, who started working on the backs of the Topps cards in 1960. Brown explained who was responsible for the statistics, write-ups and cartoons, as well as how occasional goofs could occur. Brown was hired by Gelman in 1959 and continued at Topps until 2000 writing descriptions for the player cards. My interviews of Berger and Brown led me to Butch Jacobs, 62, another long-time former Topps employee. Brown wrote the back of the cards; Jacobs picked out photos to use on the front of the cards. Jacobs started at Topps in 1973 and left in 2007. Jacobs provided a wealth of information as to understanding how cards were created and images selected. Like many Topps employees, Jacobs came from Brooklyn; he lived in the Bushwick neighborhood. He was working on an associate degree in business at Staten Island Junior College and found a job in the mailroom at Topps delivering mail to executives like the late Sy Berger. Jacobs would take a look at The Sporting News before delivering it to Berger and then could chat with him about sports. Jacobs was a sports fanatic, played baseball in high school and collected Topps baseball cards in the early 1960s. He didn’t know what he wanted to do for a career, but he wanted to get ahead and concluded that to get out of the mailroom, he needed to leave Topps. Fortunately for Jacobs, Topps had a philosophy of promoting from within, and a new position became available. Berger’s phone call Bill Haber (1942-95) had been working at Topps handling both the statistics for the cards and the selection of photos. Haber was temporarily relocating, his job needed to be split in two and Berger thought Jacobs might be the person to handle organizing the photography. That Jacobs had no prior experience or training in photography didn’t seem to be an obstacle. Jacobs remembers sitting at home with his parents watching a Mets game on television in 1973 when Berger called him and offered him the new position. Jacobs grabbed the opportunity. He was given the extensive photo files organized for each player. His responsibilities evolved from initially a filing function to selecting the photos and ultimately becoming the director of photography, acting as a liaison between the art and the sports departments and staying with the company for 34 years. He learned photography and kept up on the ever-changing technology. In retirement, Jacobs and Berger lived a few miles apart on Long Island and remained in touch until Berger’s death in December 2014. Berger’s widow, Gloria, commented that, “Butch Jacobs has remained a good and loyal friend.” - See more at: