The Whites of Their Eyes

Topps changed the face of baseball card collecting in the early 1950s and became the standard bearer for the hobby.  By the early 1960s, they had expanded the size of the “base set” to more than 500 cards to include nearly all the players, and not just the stars. 

Before the proliferation of baseball magazines in the later 1970s, cable television in the 1980s, and the internet explosion in the 1990s, these cards became the primary window for a young fan falling in love with the game to tie a player’s name to a recognizable face, and maybe even get a glimpse into their personality.

The reason it worked so well was in large part due the photography style.  The photos looked so personal, so intimate, as though they were taken for your own family album.  Each spring into summer, you got a fresh take (or maybe two or three, for stars and league leaders) on what a player looked like, adding dimension to your perception of that player.  With time you got to see a player mature, from baby-faced rookie all the way to aging veteran.

My interest in cards was resurrected in 1985 as a re-capturing of my baseball fandom youth as it has done with countless others.  For a whole new generation of players, even unrecognizable ones, I was provided with a recognizable face.  I jumped back into the hobby with great enthusiasm. Four years earlier, Fleer and Donruss had broken up the Topps stranglehold, which ultimately led to a flood of manufacturer and set options that would follow for more than two decades. But I remained loyal to the Topps base set as the stable rock of the hobby, with its rich history and continuity.

Within a few years, something changed in the nature of the Topps base set, the cornerstone of the hobby.  For many of the players, the intimate photo where I could see into a player’s eyes (and his soul?) was replaced by a photo of him turning a double play, or straining to throw a fastball.  These “in game action” photos actually appeared on some cards as far back as the early 1970s, but they were the rare exception.  During the 1980s they became commonplace.  By the early 1990s they became the rule.  In 2020, they’re essentially all you get in the Topps base set.

I did a little research to gain some insight into this evolution.  I turned to my Red Sox card collection to get a sample of cards over several decades and classified the photos into a five different categories based on photo style:

Game Action:  As described above, a photo taken during an actual game, usually with the player in motion swinging, pitching, fielding, etc., most often from a distance where the player’s entire body is in the photo

Candid Portrait:  A photo of a player from the shoulders up that is not taken during a formal photo shoot, often taken when the player is in the dugout or on the field outside of actual game action.

Candid Action:  A photo of a player “doing something”, but not in-game action.  Maybe swinging a warmup bat or playing long toss.  The photo is usually taken close enough to see expression in the player’s face.

Posed Portrait:  A photo in the style of what you’d see in a high school yearbook, usually from the shoulders up, or just a “head shot”.  You get the sense the player knows he’s being photographed, even if he’s not looking into the camera.

Posed Action:  A posed photo of player “pretending” to be in action, in a batting stance, mid-swing, winding up to pitch, in a fielding stance, etc.  The player knows his picture is being taken.  It’s usually taken from close enough to see the player’s expression.

My collection starts in 1965, so I used a sample that ran from then until 1999.  Binning it into five-year chunks, the distribution of cards falling into each of the five categories yields the distribution shown below. Even with this relatively small and not-so-random sample, the trend from posed shots to in-game action shots is unmistakable.

I realize many people like action cards.  I understand it’s a matter of taste.  Me?  I get to see action when I watch the games.   When it comes to cards, I’m looking for the personal charm.

Take another look at the three Don Sutton cards above, from 1967, to 1976, to 1985.  You can see an actual person there.  Now let’s take a look back to see how David Ortiz changed over a 10-year span of his illustrious career:

Ugh. David Ortiz is a beloved local hero in Red Sox Nation and loaded with charm. You certainly can’t see it here.

I often hear the retort that Topps provides all this in their Heritage and Archives products.  For that, we’ll need a whole other discussion.  For now, please Topps, put these classic photo styles back in your signature base set, so that the cards won’t get thrown away as mere nuisances in the lottery chase for rare inserts. Bring the base set back to its rightful prominence.  It’s even okay if you include some action cards to keep everybody happy.

14 thoughts on “The Whites of Their Eyes”

  1. Great analysis. You make this crystal clear. I’m not a fan of using a long shot on a card. Stadium Club happily reveals personality with their close-ups, candids, in-actions, often with the player’s face prominent.

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  2. Agreed! My collection started at roughly the same time as yours, and I think our attitude toward what constitutes baseball card art was forged in those early years. With no Internet and little TV exposure, the baseball cards of the ’50s and ’60s were our way of being introduced to these athletes and what they looked like. To me, those candid poses and posed action shots were how baseball cards were supposed to look.

    Topps’ obsession with action shots started in the early ’70s, and no matter how they promoted their “In Action” subsets, the cards never looked as good as the standard poses. Some of them, in fact, were dreadful. And by the end of the century, and the early years of this one, the photos used were sometimes just embarrassing.

    Here’s what makes me shake my head: Topps realizes the fondness people have for that style of baseball card. That’s what Heritage and Archives is all about, and both lines are big sellers. But the company no longer applies those principles to their annual main set.

    As for the idea that those kind of poses now only belong in the specialty nostalgia sets, where they reflect the composition of the original, consider this: who is going to want to buy a Heritage set based on the lackluster Topps efforts of the ’90s or ’00s?

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    1. Spot on, Van. I was slow to figure out that Topps was essentially “withholding” the old-style photography for the premium-priced Heritage and Archives sets. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  3. I’m all about the variety. A pack full of similar action shots gets boring. So does a pack full of similar head shots. I’d always like to see a mix, where the best action shots get used but some portraits and poses are in the mix, too.

    Hopefully starting next year we’ll get that in Heritage, as 1971 was the first year there were both action and posed shots in the same set. But I suppose it’s too much to hope that Topps would use that as an occasion to add some portraits and such to the base set.

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  4. Good stuff! If there were ever a SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee megaproject to crowdsource across our membership it would be to apply this analysis across every set ever, possibly even adding a next level to the taxonomy to include more about the pose (e.g., pitcher in follow-through).

    When I got my start collecting, the true action shots were still enough of a rarity that they could be appreciated. For instance, a 1979 Mike Lum went from common to cool card based on the action photo. But yes, what was taken for granted then but appreciated now are the portraits that really show what the player looks like or conveys some hint of his personality. One of my favorite cards ever is the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams “How Ted Hit .400.” Just his head with a Boston cap but about as perfect as a card can be.

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    1. I totally agree with you on that ’59 Fleer Williams card. One of my favorites, too, and the best card in the first set I ever collected.

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  5. I don’t mind action shots, provided they are quality action shots. A great action shot can convey a player’s personality or “soul” as well as a posed picture. But let’s face it, many action shots, like most of the Ortiz shots featured in the post, are mediocre at best. Particularly galling are action shots featuring nothing more than the player’s dorsal side. I find myself saying out loud, ‘What were they thinking?!’.
    BTW I think the fourth Ortiz card from the left qualifies as a good action shot. It conveys a measure of accomplishment mirrored by the reactions of some of the fans in the background.
    Contrast that shot as well as Mike Lowell, Pedroia, Okajima, and Jason Bay from the same set with some of the rather tepid and ‘soulless’ cards from the most recent Heritage set. Action shots can work provided care, expertise, and quality control are utilized in the shot.

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  6. I will give Topps credit . . . the last three years or so, the quality of photos that they’r using in their flagship product represents a big step up from what they had been doing the previous 20 years or so. They’re action-based, but you get a clear view of the player. No blurry, badly cropped photos in which the player sometimes wasn’t even facing the camera . . .

    That having been said, I find that Topps has gotten lazy over the years with Heritage, the set that was supposed to satisfy those of us who prefer the presentation of the ’50s and ’60s cards. The last several years, you get the impression that they’re running assembly-line photo-taking operations, the same poses in front of the same backgrounds for players on the same team. As a White Sox fan, I particularly notice that there’s apparently one spot at the Sox training camp where they annually shoot all the posed stuff, with a background distinctive enough that you can’t miss it. I don’t expect Topps to reinvent the wheel every time out, but there’s something cynical about that kind of “let’s just get this over with” approach.

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  7. Yes, the Heritage series, about which I was initially excited, has not lived up to expectations. The lackluster effort in combination with the premium pricing has prevented Heritage from becoming a feather in the Topps cap.

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  8. I like a mix of everything. However, I would prefer “posed action” over “posed portrait”. I started collecting in the late 1980’s, so action photos are what I grew up with.

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