Typesetting ambition

As much as the 1980s is denigrated as the beginning of the decline into junk wax, over production, and, to a certain degree, the ruin of the hobby, it’s also the heyday of the regional oddball. One of the best parts of this hobby is being introduced to new regional oddball sets through people sharing things on twitter, blogs, etc. I’m not one of those people who tries to collect a little bit of everything. Instead I just enjoy seeing how many different sets were out there and the diversity of designs they offered.

A week or so ago I encountered a sample of the Mets Fan Club cards on Twitter. As someone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, this was something I’d never seen before* and my reaction went from “oh interesting” to “holy crap” as I looked at the photos.

*Mother’s Cookies? Yes. Most other regional oddballs? No.

Especially the one of the card back.

In general, baseball cards backs don’t get the respect they deserve from either card companies or collectors. Yes, many of us grew up and learned our stats from there. But many of us also also stored cards back-to-back in binders and only checked backs to confirm whether or not the card was a rookie card.* Card companies meanwhile know that the card fronts are what move the product;** as a result it’s rare to see a back which has been considered seriously.

*Now get off my lawn.

**This is confirmed by the way modern chase cards have backs which consist of just “congratulations, you’ve found a certified relic/autograph/etc.” and no other useful information.

Oddballs and regionals are frequently extra bad here since the backs often involve branding or demonstrate that the people making the cards have only a passing understanding of what’s supposed to be on a card back.


My jaw hit the floor when I first saw the backs of the Mets Fan Club cards. They’re good-looking backs just in general. Besides being a strong design thought they’re extraordinary both in terms of their ambition and their execution.

First, the ambition. The text is set in a parallelogram-shaped box with a slanted baseline. The angle of the baseline was selected so that the ascenders on the italic font become vertical again. This isn’t straightfoward to do with computers and I can’t imagine doing mechanically by hand. It’s an impressive stunt on its own.

That this text grid is continued into the statistics panel is what blows my mind. Stats are hard enough to do well as it is. Just getting the numbers to align correctly is something that companies frequently mess up.* Doing it on a grid like this? You’ve got to be kidding me. Whoever laid this out was challenging themselves in ways that go far beyond the expectations for the usual baseball card backs.

*One of these days I’ll write a post about typesetting statistics.

That the execution of the backs is as good as it is is a testament to the skill of the designer and typesetter who put these together. There are still a few weird things like how the bold italic font has characters at a slightly different angle than the text font. But everything else including how the Innings-Pitched statistics head is aligned so that the decimals hang is done to near perfection.

And that doesn’t get into other wonderful things like the use of the Mets’s colors as the two spot colors and the way that the Mets logo interacts with the bare paper in the top box. Even the card numbering with the single non-italic font on screened-back orange ink in a circle that fits perfectly into the corner of the box feels intentional and correct.


I do have to point out though that while I applaud the ambition, typesetting multi-year stats ended up being too difficult. Davey Johnson’s card is having problems getting the verticals to line up. This also occurs in the text but it’s especially obvious in the stats where everything bends to the right as you go down the columns.

That this card is not nearly as well-done as the rest shows how much manual work went in to making all eight cards in the set. Each card’s type is set slightly different in a way that never happens with computer typesetting.

I love these because of what they intend to do, how they do it, and even the way they fail. It’s exciting to see designs which are inspired by the text itself—in this case the angle of the italic font. I just never expected to see this kind of thing on a baseball card back and I’m glad baseball card twitter continues to surprise me with things I never knew existed.

[It’s been pointed out that I should have mentioned how these are Topps-designed and manufactured despite not having a Topps copyright slugline. That Topps made these does explain how the designers could get away with being this ambitious. At the same time, that many of Topps’s oddballs in the early 80s consisted of slapping a corporate logo (Coca Cola, Burger King, and Nestle being the examples which come to my mind first) on the base design for the year means I didn’t feel like Topps being the manufacturer explained everything.]

Author: njwv

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area.

3 thoughts on “Typesetting ambition”

  1. In the early 80s, Topps was all over the place with oddballs. Sometimes it was just slap a different logo on the base set design, but many were totally different designs like this one. It probably had more to do with what the companies for whom Topps was producing the cards were willing to pay than anything else.

    Liked by 1 person

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