12/15/2014 04:58 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2014

The 'Father Of Modern Baseball Cards' Has Died

Even most non-sports fans know what a baseball card looks like. There's a color photo on the front, along with a player's name, team and position. Many have a copy of the player's autograph as well as the team logo. On the back is printed the player's stats along with his height, weight and maybe a fact or two.

It's been that way since 1952, when a Topps salesman named Seymour P. “Sy” Berger redesigned baseball cards for his company, coming up with the new format at his kitchen table in Brooklyn with artist Woody Gelman.

"We wanted to make something attractive that would catch the eye," Berger told The Associated Press in 2002. "And we gave you six cards and a slice of gum for a nickel."

Berger died of natural causes on Sunday at his Long Island home at the age of 91, more than 60 years after reinventing what would become almost as much of an American pastime as the sport itself.

"Before the days of ESPN and social media, everybody's connection to the players were through the cards," Marty Appel, former spokesman for the New York Yankees and Topps and a close family friend, told Newsday. "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."

The 1952 Topps cards were produced in two sets, the second of which proved so unpopular at the time that Berger couldn't give them away.

"Around 1959 or so, I went around to carnivals and offered them for a penny a piece, and it got so bad I offered them at 10 for a penny," Berger told Sports Collectors Digest, as quoted by ESPN. "They would say, 'We don't want them.'"

Years later, with the cards taking up storage space, Berger had hundreds of cases dumped at sea, as Bleacher Report retells it.

Today, the Mickey Mantle card in that set routinely sells for six figures, including one that fetched $275,000 in a 2001 auction.

But Berger's career was about more than just the cards. He also forged friendships with the players as he signed them to contracts for Topps -- including what would become a lifelong bond with Hall of Famer Willie Mays.

"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," Mays told Newsday. "He always knew the right thing to say or the right thing to do. We worked together. We laughed together. We grew up together."

Along with ballplayers, Berger also signed a contract with Brian Epstein, then manager of the Beatles, for Topps to produce cards of the Fab Four in 1964 and 1965.

He flew to London where Brian Epstein had set up a licensing office, and he greeted Epstein in Yiddish. Then, he made a deal," Appel told Tampa Bay Online. “Those Beatles cards are valuable today, too.”

Berger retired from Topps in 1997 but remained with the company as a consultant until 2002, Newsday reports. He is survived by his wife of nearly 70 years, three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.