Sy Berger, who in 1952 created the modern-day baseball card -- an American cultural mainstay for generations of children and collectors -- died Sunday morning in his sleep at his Rockville Centre home from natural causes, his family said. He was 91.
Berger was a salesman turned executive at the then-Brooklyn-based Topps Co. when he redesigned the look of baseball cards, making them wildly popular.
From his kitchen table in Brooklyn, he added team logos, simulated player autographs on the cards' fronts, and bios and stats on the backs, according to Topps' website.
In doing so, he earned himself the moniker "father of the modern day American baseball card."
"Before the days of ESPN and social media, everybody's connection to the players were through the cards," said Marty Appel, a Berger family friend and former Topps spokesman. "It seemed like every kid in America that liked baseball saved the cards, played with them. What he did at his kitchen table became an important American cultural icon."
Born July 12, 1923, in Manhattan, Seymour Perry Berger grew up in the Bronx and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. He majored in accounting at Bucknell University. He served for three years in the military overseas during World War II.
He graduated from Bucknell in 1946 and took a temporary job at the B. Altman department store in Manhattan, working in the linens and luggage sections. He started at Topps the next year as a temporary worker in sales.
He and his wife, Gloria, who were to celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary in January, moved to their Rockville Centre home in 1954.
His daughter, Maxine Berger-Bienstock of Manhattan, said she grew up playing with baseball cards, going to games, and meeting players and their families. She said her father was beloved by players.
"He used to say, he was happy that he made kids happy" through baseball cards, she said.
In a statement, Hall of Fame centerfielder Willie Mays said: "What can I say about Sy Berger? He was my longtime friend. He helped me from my first days in the majors. I never could have made it without him. He always knew the right thing to say or the right thing to do. We worked together. We laughed together. We grew up together."
Berger retired in 1997 as Topps' vice president of sports and licensing, but remained on the board of directors and as a consultant to the company until 2002, his family said.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Berger is survived by sons, Glenn Berger of Concord, New Hampshire, and Gary Berger of Glen Cove; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A private burial is planned for Monday.