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Donruss-Playoff (D-P) was a trading card manufacturer that had a MLB/MLBPA license from 1981-2005 and is now owned by Panini America. D-P produced cards under the Donruss, Playoff, Leaf, and Score brands.
Donruss-Playoff traces its roots to 1954, when Donald and Russell Weiner became owners of the Thomas Weiner Company of Memphis, Tennessee, which manufactured hard candy, suckers, and a brand of gum called Super Bubble. They renamed the firm Donruss, using a combination of their first names, and continued to produce a variety of candy and gum products. In the early 1960s, the company began to issue sets of trading cards, one of the first of which was "Idiot Cards" from 1961, which featured cartoons and jokes aimed at the elementary and middle-school market. The 21/2 by 31/2 inch, thin cardboard cards, which had a full-color front and duotone back, were packaged in waxed paper "wax packs" that included 15 cards and a flat stick of gum and retailed for approximately a quarter. There were 66 different cards, and since each pack contained a random assortment, children would have to buy a number of packages or trade duplicates with their friends to form a complete set.
By the middle of the decade, Donruss had begun licensing entertainment properties for new series of cards. Some of the first such sets were based on the hit 1964 television shows The Addams Family and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. In the latter half of the decade other series based on television's The Monkees and The Flying Nun were issued as well.
In 1969, Donruss made the national news when a lawsuit over its payment of corporate taxes reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The firm had paid a required $30,000 surtax on accumulated earnings for 1960-61, but then sued the government to get the money back, claiming the earnings did not pass the "purpose test" of being accumulated strictly to avoid taxes. Although a U.S. Circuit Court found in the company's favor, the high court ruled unanimously that Donruss would have to pay the tax, effectively voiding the purpose test for all corporations.
That same year, the Weiners sold the firm to food giant General Mills, under whose ownership operations continued much as they had before, with the company manufacturing a range of candy and bubble gum products and issuing sets of trading cards. In the 1970s, these continued to be based on pop-culture phenomena such as the film Saturday Night Fever, television's Bionic Woman, and rock and rollers Elvis Presley and Kiss.
Production of Baseball Cards Begins in 1981
Though Donruss was generally doing well with their non-sports sets, the firm was frustrated by its inability to break into the popular category of baseball cards, which Topps had held exclusive rights to produce since 1956. In 1975, a lawsuit was filed by Topps rival Fleer to try to break the lock on baseball, and five years later a Federal judge ruled that Topps had illegally obtained exclusive rights to use the players' images. Fleer and Donruss immediately worked out agreements with Major League Baseball to issue their own sets of cards, and Donruss's first series hit stores in time for the 1981 season. In August of that year, the judge's ruling was overturned by an appellate court, but Fleer's lawyers discovered a loophole in the Topps contract which allowed cards to be sold if they were not packaged with gum or candy, or if they were sold in combination with some other item. Donruss quickly removed gum and added three pieces of a Babe Ruth puzzle to its 30 cent, 15-card packs, while Fleer enclosed team logo stickers. (This loophole was ended in 1992).
Rather than over-saturating the market for baseball cards, the new competition proved a stimulant. Total sales grew from an estimated 500 million cards a year in the late 1970s to one billion by the mid-1980s as each of the three firms strove to make their card sets distinctive. For its part, Donruss included a 26-card "Diamond Kings" subset, which featured paintings of one player from each team by noted sports artist Dick Perez, and other cards that depicted non-player subjects like the San Diego Padres mascot "The Chicken," which thousands of fans mailed to the company to have autographed.
Donruss's initial success with baseball cards was soon followed by problems with distribution and overproduction, however, and in late 1983 General Mills sold the firm to conglomerate Huhtamaki Oy of Finland. Huhtamaki had also recently bought Leaf Confectionery, Inc. of Chicago and Beatrice US Confections, and the three operations were combined under the Leaf, Inc. banner. Together, the companies produced such popular brands as Milk Duds, Heath, Jolly Rancher, Switzer, and Good 'n' Plenty, as well as trading cards and Super Bubble Gum. Huhtamaki, which had been founded in 1920, owned a number of different firms that included makers of beverages, canned and frozen foods, pharmaceuticals, and industrial products. At this time, Donruss had annual sales of approximately $40 million.
The Leaf association proved a boon to the firm, as it provided access to that company's well-established distribution network. In 1985, Donruss began making a special edition of their flagship baseball card set the Canadaian market under the "Leaf" name (similar to the Topps-influenced O-Pee-Chee sets of the era), and introduced it's first post-season update set "Donruss Highlights." Sales of cards were continuing to grow and increased approximately 100 percent in both 1986 and 1987 to reach an estimated three billion industry-wide. Topps remained the leader, producing approximately half of the total, with Donruss selling about a quarter and Fleer a shade less. By this time, the concept of baseball cards as investments was gaining wider acceptance, and specialty shops were beginning to spring up around the country to serve customers who now included many adults along with the industry's core audience of teen and pre-teen boys. Prices for the 15-card packs were on the rise, now standing at 45 cents.
The baseball card boom was drawing more competitors into the fray, with Score of Texas and Upper Deck of Anaheim, California, joining the ranks in 1988 and 1989, respectively. Score boosted the cards' quality a notch by using better paper, action photographs, and improved writing on the backs, while Upper Deck went even further, issuing a 700-card set that featured holograms to discourage counterfeiting and opaque foil packaging instead of the traditional waxed paper. Its cards cost 89 cents for 15 and were also sold in complete sets through dealers.
Donruss Introduces Premium Cards in 1990
In the summer of 1990, Donruss took a page from Upper Deck's book and introduced a new, higher-quality card series on top of its standard set. Offered initially only on the West Coast and in the Great Lakes, 1990 Leaf cost $1.09 for 15 cards and three pieces of a Yogi Berra puzzle. The cards featured a more elegant design, with two-sided color printing on glossy paper, and foil packs, though no full sets were made available to dealers. They would be issued in two series, one in July and the other in September, so the company could add late player trades and other changes to the second set. Donruss' sister company, Leaf, had itself issued baseball cards in the late 1940s, and the use of the brand name represented a return to that legacy.
In 1991, Topps and Fleer introduced their own premium card sets (1991 Stadium Club and 1991 Ultra, respectively) and, following Upper Deck's lead, all card makers began inserting limited-edition bonus cards (inserts) into random packs. Donruss came up with The Elite Series, which each card serial-numbered to only 10,000 copies, as well as 5000 cards signed by Cubs All-Star Ryne Sandberg.
This was the peak of what became known as "The Junk Wax Era," with sets of premium cards whose suggested price per pack was just over $1 commonly selling for $2-$3 or more at hobby shops, and still more new competitors wanting to enter the market. In the summer of 1991, Donruss began expanding its Memphis plant from 256,000 square feet to nearly 400,000. It would continue to make trading cards and bubble gum at the facility, where employment grew from 550 to 720.
In 1992, with sales of standard card lines plunging in the face of more attractive higher-end versions, Donruss announced that it was severely curtailing its production and doubling their flagship set's retail price to 99 cents a pack. At the same time, their quality was upgraded, and they were packed in foil, while certain limited-edition and autographed cards would be included at random. One subset would be the popular Diamond Kings cards, which would henceforth be produced only in limited quantities. The year 1992 also saw the firm create card series for use as giveaways by McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Cracker Jack, and introduce a new, cheaper line of cards called "Triple Play." The latter set contained 264 cards and was sold in 12-packs that also contained a rub-off game card. Priced at 59 cents, they were geared toward the youngest collectors, who were increasingly being ignored in a market that was more and more aimed at teenagers and adult investors.
A study by Salomon Brothers of market share for card makers at this time highlighted the dramatic changes that had occurred since the 1980s. First place was now held by newcomer Upper Deck with 24 percent, followed by Topps with 22, Fleer with 20, Score with ten, Donruss with eight, and the remainder of the pie divided up by smaller companies like SkyBox and Classic. This had more to do with the fact that Donruss produced only one sport (baseball), while the other companies had multiple sports.
In 1993, Donruss branched out into hockey cards. A year later they introduced the Leaf Limited line, which featured cards that utilized both holograms and metal foil. Inspired by the previous year's Topps Finest series, Leaf Limited would be restricted to 60,000 Hobby boxes. At more than $5 per pack of six cards, it was Donruss's most expensive offering to date.
Sports Strikes Wreak Havoc for Card Industry in 1994
The year 1994 proved disastrous for many sports card manufacturers. The 1994 baseball strike forced cancellation of the World Series and soured many on the game, while a lockout of National Hockey League players threw that sport into disarray for a time as well. Simultaneously, the proliferation of card makers and their increasing emphasis on premium and super-premium cards, along with a sizable drop in their secondary value, was causing large numbers of speculators to rethink their investments. Further aggravating factors included the actions of the players' associations, which signed deals with unlimited numbers of companies for high licensing fees that drove up card prices, and the chicanery of certain unscrupulous dealers, who found ways to remove valuable inserts before packs were put out for public sale or even stooped to counterfeiting desirable cards. By the end of 1994, sales of baseball and hockey cards had fallen an estimated 40 percent. At Donruss, still without an NFL or NBA license to fall back on, revenues were down by nearly half to approximately $50 million.
The company took several measures to regroup under new head John D. Williams, who had previously run Huhtamaki's Polarcup packaging unit -- and had no previous Hobby experience. In 1995, the firm, which had recently become known as Donruss Trading Cards, Inc., began developing a line of non-sports cards, marketing a set based on the Ace Ventura films.
The company's sales slump was dragging down Huhtamaki's profits, however, and in May of 1996 the Finnish company sold Donruss's baseball and hockey card lines to Pinnacle Brands, Inc. for approximately $41 million, and then sold the entertainment card and game businesses to U.S. Playing Card Co. Coming in the aftermath of Fleer's merger with Impel Marketing (owners of NBA and NFL card producer SkyBox International), the Donruss sale reduced the number of baseball card companies to four.
Pinnacle Brands was a Texas company that had evolved out of baseball card maker Score, which also made NFL, NHL, WNBA, and NASCAR cards. It had started in 1970 as Optigraphics, which made special "moving-image" cards using lenticular printing -- which it pioneered. It entered the baseball card market in 1986 with Sportflics, an all-lenticular product. Two years later, it released Score, a traditional baseball card set.
Opticgraphics/Score/Pinnacle's co-founders and co-owners, Ann Blake and John Flavin, had divorced in 1992, with Flavin selling his stake in the firm, while Blake left to found her own company: Cardz Distribution.
Under the aegis of Pinnacle, Donruss continued to be operated as a separate company, with separate product development teams, separate marketing teams, and separate distribution channels -- although it's headquarters was moved from Memphis to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. In addition to MLB and NHL cards, Donruss made use of Pinnacle's NFL and NASCAR licenses. During this period, Donruss was known for their innovative "materials" insert cards printed on actual pieces of metal, leather, canvas, and wood, and in 1997 Leaf issued some of the first game-used cards with a series of corporate spokesman Frank Thomas.
Such strategies did not succeed in reversing the company's fortunes, however, and in July of 1998 Pinnacle Brands, Inc. and subsidiaries filed for bankruptcy. Later that year, the Donruss, Score, Leaf, and Pinnacle brands (excluding their MLB and NHL licenses, which were revoked by their respective leagues) were acquired by Playoff Corp. of Grand Prairie, Texas, after a heated bidding war with representatives of Fleer and Upper Deck. Playoff, which was owned by Ann Blake, had grown out of her Cardz operation and now produced several lines of high-end football cards. It generated some $25 million in annual revenues. In the months following the sale, new series of Leaf, Score, and Donruss Elite football and hockey cards were issued, and in 2000 the firm, now renamed "Donruss-Playoff" added a new 36,000-square-foot distribution facility.
Baseball Cards Return in 2001
In early 2001, the company won a license from Major League Baseball Properties and the Major League Baseball Players Association to produce cards for the forthcoming season. Donruss-Playoff's first licensed baseball card product 2001 Donruss included sets for the two "lost" years of 1999 and 2000 as well. During the year, Donruss-Playoff also moved its headquarters from Grand Prairie to Arlington, Texas, where it planned to eventually open a visitors center and memorabilia museum -- although the museum never panned out.
In 2002, the company spun-off their trademark Diamond Kings into it's own stand-alone set and sold most of the original paintings on Internet auction site eBay. Other new card series contained insert cards that held pieces of bats and uniforms used in actual games by 100 current and past players, a practice copied from Upper Deck -- and being replicated industry-wide. The year 2002 also saw the firm produce entertainment cards for programs such as Buffy, The Vampire Slayer through its new Score Entertainment division and introduce the first U.S.-produced Spanish-only baseball card set, the 225-card Super Estrellas. A six-card pack, which included a mini-poster, retailed for $1.99.
Donruss stirred up controversy in 2003 when it announced plans to slice up a rare game-worn Babe Ruth jersey, for which it had paid $264,210 at auction. It would randomly insert 2,100 cards bearing pieces of the shirt into packs over the next several years. The company responded to critics of the jersey's shredding by stating that it gave average fans a chance to own a piece of history and brought out the legendary Yankee's 86-year old daughter to give the cutting her stamp of approval. Also in 2003, Donruss created a first-ever set of cards for players of the 17-year old Arena Football League, which would be sold at games and via the teams' Web sites. The following year, the company launched a baseball card insert series called Fans of the Game, which depicted baseball-loving performers like Regis Philbin, Charlie Sheen, Joe Mantegna, and Sopranos star James Gandolfini.
In 2004, D-P acquired Pacific Trading Cards, who had pulled out of the baseball card market in 2000, but was still producing hockey and football cards.
End of the Licensed Era; Return Under New Ownership
Towards the end of 2005, it was announced that Donruss-Playoff would not have their MLB/MLBPA licenses renewed. After sitting out a year, D-P would return to the baseball card market in 2007 by producing unlicensed products focusing on draft picks & prospects (Donruss Elite Extra Edition) and retired players (Prime Cuts). These products, all released between 2007 and 2013 would not feature any active MLB players and would have all their trademarks removed.
In 2009 Panini Group, an Italian firm best known for their European soccer and non-sports collectible stickers and trading card games, acquired the worldwide exclusive license for the NBA, beginning with the 2009-10 NBA season. Days later, Panini purchased Donruss-Playoff which it then renamed "Panini America." Under the Panini marque, the company continued to produced unlicensed draft pick and retired player sets.
In 2014 Panini America acquired a license from the Major League Baseball Players Association, allowing the firm to produce partially-licensed trading cards -- with all MLB Properties trademarks are airbrushed out -- of current MLB players for the first time in nearly a decade. Panini America also has the USA Baseball and the Collegiate Licensing Corporation licensees, allowing players (mostly draft picks and prospects) to be seen in their USA and college uniforms -- although the USA Baseball license does NOT include the World Baseball Classic, which, being organized by MLB, is exclusive to Topps.