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"Enduring Freedom" cards draw praise, anger
By Patrick Cooper
With the World Trade Center towers burning, the details of who bats right and who throws left suddenly didn't matter to workers in an office six blocks away.
Stunned employees at the Topps Company in Manhattan put aside their trading card and bubble gum projects on Sept. 11 and looked into the sky. Within a week, they would be planning cards based on a new war.
"Enduring Freedom" is the glossy, 90-card result. Named for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, the set comes complete with Osama Bin Laden card and some controversy.
Its supporters see the set as a work of pride. Its critics attack it as work of profit. Some Chicago-area card store owners won't carry the set, accusing Topps of making money off violence.
The company defends its product. Long-time chief executive officer Arthur Shorin says Topps cards should be a medium for children to learn about a world that has gotten dustier.
"When the buildings collapsed, right outside of our windows, bright day turned to pitch black night," Shorin says in an interview.
Over the phone, he sounds on the verge of becoming lost in thought. "When the light returned, it looked like it had snowed."
Out of these circumstances, the Enduring Freedom card emerged. Fast.
Topps began work on the set within a week of the attacks, according to Shorin. "Our feeling was, the quicker the better."
Card store owners say they received promotional packages before the end of September. Boxes of the cards shipped to retailers as early as mid-October.
The set contains pictures of national leaders, relief work and military vehicles, accompanied by text that champions U.S. efforts. And then there is card 19 of 90, the only black and white card in the set: "Osama Bin Laden: The Suspected Ringleader."
"We couldn't put him in the red, white and blue cards," said Shorin, noting that it "wasn't a tough decision" to include the most reviled man in America. "First we thought, 'should we put one in there?' Then we thought, 'how could we not?'"
Topps officials say they won't talk down to kids but still want to convey a simple message: that the president will keep them safe and that the evil-doers will be punished.
By seeing the Bin Laden card, children learn who the villain is, Shorin said.
"We wouldn't be surprised if they tear, stomp all over it, and dump it in the garbage," he said. "They might rip a card, who knows. It's their form. It's their media. I couldn't be more proud of what we do."
But the cards have angered the proprietors of some card stores in the Chicago area. "All this set should be ... and nothing that it shouldn't," a Topps slogan for the set, doesn't hold true for them.
Concerned about the company's timing and possible profiteering, the owners have flatly refused to carry the $2 packs of Enduring Freedom. Each pack contains seven cards and a patriotic sticker.
Doug Tyska was shocked when the Topps promotional package arrived in his mail at the Icon Sports store he owns in Berwyn. "It was like, boom, right after [the attacks] happened," Tyska said.
The package included letters from Secretary of State Colin Powell and former U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, both praising Topps's 1991 Desert Storm cards. But there was no mention of charity.
Millions of dollars had already poured into the Red Cross and other Sept. 11 relief funds, and Tyska was disturbed that Topps didn't have similar plans for donations. "I mean, they're digging through all the rubble there," he said, and "there wasn't a single thing about it."
At AU Sports and Memorabilia in Skokie, owner Steve Gold will not carry the set either. "They did not mention anywhere in the brochure that they sent me that they were donating any of the proceeds to the victims group," Gold said.
He sent Topps an e-mail to find out if perhaps the company had forgot to make note of a charitable program, he said. "They never responded."
But missing from the promotional package was a crucial fact: Topps indeed was giving money to the relief efforts. In fact, according to company officials, Topps has already made a large donation to the Twin Towers Fund and will continue to donate to relief funds.
"We as a company feel a responsibility to help people in need, and we do," CEO Shorin said, but the company does not want to publicize these efforts. "We don't want anyone buying this product because we're tugging at their heartstrings."
Apart from its detractors, Enduring Freedom cards have gotten strong support from others in the trading card industry, many of whom cite Topps's precedent.
The Enduring Freedom set is not the company's first experience with war. Selling at 50 cents a pack, its Desert Storm cards were wildly popular. Topps produced a "Freedom's War" set during the Korean conflict as well.
"If you know the history behind this card company, you know they've been involved with producing these historical sets," said Tom Hultman, managing editor of Tuff Stuff, a card industry publication. "Every one of them turns out to be a nice encyclopedia on cardboard of these events."
Locally, store officials who are carrying the set expect it to sell well, especially as the war effort and holiday season progress.
"The media gets people interested in things, and people like a winner," said Bill Pekarik, president of Past-Time Hobbies store in Brookfield. "There's a long way they can go with it."
At Carson Pirie Scott's Loop store, Ned Fishkin said his sports card and coin section hadn't seen much interest yet but expected to see more soon. "People have a feeling for what is right and what is wrong," he said.
Even if people want to buy the sets now, however, industry experts say Enduring Freedom won't be much more than a small boost to the market.
Topps Desert Storm card sales dropped steeply after the war ended, making store owners wary of ordering war cards now and being left with unsold boxes later. Store operators report virtually no demand currently for any of the four series of Topps Desert Storm, and all have little value, according to price analysts.
An informal check of Chicago-area stores found that many are ordering very limited quantities of Enduring Freedom or only ordering the set after customer requests.
Owners simply don't know yet how strong collector support is. In "Talk Topps" discussion boards on Topps's own Web site, collectors have heatedly debated its merits. Some thought the set took a jingoistic tone.
"So, let's hear it for Topps -- educators, censors and moral guardians of todays [sic] youth!" one sarcastic poster wrote. "Hip hip hooray!"
Topps has specifically and unapologetically touted its positive viewpoint in the set's promotional campaign.
"Not included are the disturbing images shown repeatedly on national newscasts," a message on the company's Web site reads. "Instead, Topps has chosen to focus on America's strengths -- it's elected leaders, the security of its military, its worldwide supporters ... and the courage and unity of its people."
From his spot at the helm, Shorin says feedback about the set has been positive, and he declines to criticize those who disagree.
"That's what's great about America," he says. "If they don't choose to carry our product, fine. I think that the product is entirely wholesome, in very good taste, and I think useful for kids."
He is hopeful about the war. He mentions in the interview that the last part of the Desert Storm set was the "victory" series. "Maybe this very series we have now, the Enduring Freedom series, will be the victory series," Shorin says.
"I guess everybody responds to the new war on terrorism in a different way. I guess if I were a musician, I would have written a song."
Design influence: Greetings from Asbury Park NJ.
© Patrick Cooper 2007