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Digital baseball cards innovator Chris Vaccaro

Chris Vaccaro created a digital-age dynasty at Topps that built on the glory days of America’s most legendary baseball card company.

If we’re lucky, we live out childhood dreams in adult careers, the preeminent example being the Little Leaguer who makes the starting lineup of a major league baseball team. While Chris Vaccaro never swung a bat at Yankee Stadium, he hit a grand slam when he became editor-in-chief and digital director at the Topps Company. Having collected sports cards as a kid — thousands of them — Vaccaro already had a heartstring attachment to the Topps product. Yet as a member of the Topps leadership team, he faced a challenge worthy of a World Series: helping the beloved brand leap from cardboard product to digital-age destination.

That Vaccaro did, and then some. But his winning cards, if you will, weren’t handed to him in a silver-lined box. The values he traces to his earliest memories are grounded in a uniquely Italian-American truth: Victories are earned through dedication, persistence and tireless effort.

Just named the vice president of digital news at Altice USA, Vaccaro shared with Lou&A how he rose through the ranks to earn a big-league shot at Topps, and how his Italian heritage forever shaped his success in a way that would do Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra or Anthony Rizzo proud.

Lou&A: Tell us about your Italian ancestry.

Chris Vaccaro: I’ve personally traced my Italian ancestry back about five or six generations so far. My father’s ancestors came mostly from Sicily — Palermo, Lipari, and Giuliana — and we can also trace part of the family tree to Turin. My mother’s Italian ancestry is traced to Carini, Sicily, and Brescia, Lombardy.

L&A: Which brings us to your upbringing, and how that shaped your passion for writing and creating.

Vaccaro: I was born, raised and reside on Long Island. I grew up in a very loving and caring household in a middle class, blue-collar community. Being a writer and journalist really took shape for me as a freshman at Sachem High School, when I began to write for the school paper. Our school district is the second biggest in New York by enrollment and spans multiple towns and miles. With that size comes ample opportunity, and for me it was the school paper, radio station and website.

L&A: That sounds like an incredible training ground for a future star.

CV: I was producing professional caliber work by the time I graduated high school. I thank my parents often for buying a house in this community because it really shaped who I am. My wife and I bought a house in the same community so our kids will also go to Sachem. My father, Bob, has been a writer for decades, specifically writing about the fire service, his real passion. My mother, Annmarie, is a nurse and she cares deeply about her career and helping others. They didn’t push me to specifically be a journalist: They pushed me to be the best version of myself at all times, and I was able to harness a deep love of storytelling at an early age. And it hasn’t stopped.

Being an Italian American comes with an innate level of work ethic and pride that I carry with me in everything I do. I have always likened my Italian-American upbringing to my New York mentality in that nothing has been given to me. It is earned through dedication and persistence. I’m proud of my Italian heritage and culture. It’s who I am.

L&A: Tell us about your career path to Topps.

CV: I started as a newspaper reporter at the Southampton Press, transitioned into an online producer at the New York Daily News and became a digital editor and reporter for AOL’s Patch.com. Then I landed in mobile content and product development at The Topps Company.

The ability to write, tell stories and assess different media landscapes has always been the most consistent element of my career since day one. I’ve covered the Olympics, Super Bowl, golf’s U.S. Open, Belmont Stakes, Stanley Cup Playoffs, NFL Draft, MLB Draft and much more. I’m also very proud of my clips in The New York Times and Rolling Stone. My sons are a 3 year old, Hunter, and a 1 year old, Thompson, both after Hunter S. Thompson, my favorite writer, so when I was able to write for Rolling Stone, you can imagine it was extra special.

L&A: Your Topps story is fascinating. Walk us through that.

CV: I worked at Topps from April 2012 through July 2018, rising from sports editor to editor-in-chief and director of digital. We had no clue our basic idea of creating a baseball card-collecting app would evolve into a transformational model for the company. What started as one app called Topps BUNT eventually became eight apps for some of the world’s largest sports and entertainment brands — Star Wars, NFL and so on — and a thriving digital business. There was a hungry consumer base of passionate Topps fans. Once we released the first app, the rest seemed to fall into place within months.

L&A: There’s also the throwback to your own youth.

CV: The best part was helping transform a company that meant the world to me as a kid. I grew up collecting cards. I still have every card I collected as a kid, probably 50,000 at this point.

L&A: 50,000? Holy cow!

CV: I also helped create a digital autograph program that added another layer of revenue and renown to the overall digital business. Athletes signed their autographs digitally with a stylus and iPad. Fans gravitated to the scarcity of the product. For me, it meant spending a lot of time with some incredible athletes: Mike Piazza, Tommy Lasorda, Mike Trout, Lawrence Taylor, Reggie Jackson, Alex Rodriguez, Jeremy Roenick, Bill Goldberg and Noah Syndergaard to name a few. I learned an incredible amount about product development, leadership and corporate management. I would not be in my current executive role if not for my experiences at Topps, which I will cherish for the rest of my life.

L&A: It also meant connecting to a leader in the Italian-American sports community.

CV: Topps was the gateway for a major connection to my Italian-American pride. I became friendly with George Randazzo, the founder and president of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame — and as a personal donation helped produce commemorative custom Topps cards the last few years as part of the organization’s annual inductions. I’ve since been a member of the Hall’s selection committee and dinner committee. Attending the inductions and mingling with icons such as Piazza, Lasorda, “Boom Boom” Mancini and Bobby Valentine has been a dream come true. There is something special about Italian-American sports legends. Their swagger is incomparable. I’ve always had this gut feeling that they’re out there competing for me, for us.

L&A: Truly, you belong in such successful company as well.

CV: I’m just proud to work as hard as I can for my family and my community. If my career is defined as successful, great. If I can make a difference in my community and inspire others to be the best versions of themselves in a creative capacity, even better. As long as my sons and wife are happy and my parents are proud, that’s all that really matters at the end of the day.

The above appears in the November 2018 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Lou Carlozo

Lou Carlozo is award-winning journalist who spent 20 years reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chicago Tribune. He began writing for Fra Noi in 2007, and claims maternal and paternal southern Italian lineage. The monthly Lou&A columnist and a music reviewer/writer, his work has appeared in Reuters, Aol, The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor and news outlets around the world. In 1993, he was a Pulitzer Prize team-reporting finalist for his contributions to the Tribune’s “Killing Our Children” series. He resides in Chicago with his wife of 21 years, a hospital chaplain, and their teenage son and daughter.