A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1952-1955)

If I had a time machine, I would zip around the fourth dimension to all of the expected places. I’d love to see Hamlet at the Globe. Maybe I’d drop in on the Constitutional Convention or the Cavern Club in 1961. I suspect that many of us might set our personal flux capacitors to 1951 so we could see Sy Berger design the 1952 Topps set on his kitchen table. There were baseball cards before that set, of course, but Berger and his team set the standard that still guides the industry. 

Two of the great constants in my life are baseball and writing. I could never hit a curveball. Or a fastball. Or a softball in a batting cage. I can, however, tell a decent story and put together decent sentences. It’s no surprise, then, that baseball cards were among the first literary works I read. It was Frog and Toad are Friends, Encyclopedia Brown, and the (primarily) Topps cards that my father would let me pick up in the supermarket candy aisle. 

These modes of “non-traditional” literacy formation are well-studied in the fields of education and rhetoric and composition. (How many immigrants learned to speak English by watching popular television shows?) Often overlooked, however, is the way that baseball cards served as a form of reading instruction, particularly during the time when the industry’s target demographic consisted almost solely of little kids. 

In this series of articles, I will engage in an admittedly surface analysis of baseball card prose, looking at the writing on the reverse of random base Detroit Tiger cards from each of Topps’ nearly seventy years of flagship releases. Other writers for this blog have chronicled how the prose on the backs of 1954 Topps cards offers valuable lessons.  Don Zminda had the great idea to compare how Topps and Bowman handled the prose in their 1954 sets.  I am curious to see how the prose changed over the decades, and how Berger and his successors used a few sentences to reinforce the construction of the ballplayer’s identity. Of course, I am also interested in isolating what writers of all kinds can learn from these works. 

A few notes on methodology. Topps has printed many tens of thousands of base cards since 1952. Unfortunately, I don’t have a fleet of researchers at my beck and call, so I can’t accumulate data on each of them. There are variations between base cards in sets, of course; a card released at the end of Alan Trammell’s career, for example, may feature only statistics because there was no room for prose. During some years, Topps included cartoons on the backs of the cards. I have typed up the prose and included a bracketed description of the image. Further, I have tried to preserve the baseball card prose as printed, mistakes and all. 

It just so happens that I have what I call my “Tiger Stadium Collection.” During a visit to Cooperstown, an ex-girlfriend purchased me a small, square tin decorated to look like the exterior of the best ballpark in the history of baseball. (I’m biased.) I keep a base flagship Tiger from (almost) each year of Topps in the tin: a fortuitous coincidence. 

With all of that blather out of the way…let’s look at some cards!

groth

1952 Johnny Groth #25

Design of the reverse: prose and reduced stats

Text (81 words): Johnny was the best fielding outfielder in the American League in 1951 winning the title by 2 ten-thousandths of a point. At the plate, he started the ’51 season slowly, but hit .325 during the last half of the season to bring his average up. He had trials with the Tigers in 1946 and 1947, but didn’t make the grade until 1949 after hitting .340 at Buffalo in 1948. His first year up, John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950.

In its inaugural effort, Topps begins providing kids with the information that they couldn’t easily get elsewhere. There was no Baseball Reference in 1952, so it makes sense to include a stat-heavy summary of Groth’s career.

The formation of the ballplayer as a relatable hero also seems present. Imagine a second-string Little Leaguer opening up a one-cent pack and learning about how Groth succeeded after years of work dedicated to “making the grade.” It’s also interesting that the person who composed the prose alternated between “Johnny” and “John.” A mistake, or something else?

While the first sentence is missing a comma between the clauses, the second and fourth reinforce one of the basic uses of the comma: it joins a dependent clause to an independent clause. “His first year up” is not a sentence; it doesn’t have a subject, object, AND a verb. “John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950” does have all of those elements. Therefore, you glue the not-a-sentence to a sentence with a comma. 

hatfield

1953 Fred Hatfield #163

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (76 words): “Hattie” was the top-fielding third sacker in the American League in ’52. The Red Sox spotted him playing American Legion Ball and he signed his first pro contract in ’42. After hitting .300 for Birmingham of the Southern Association in ’50, “Hattie” was brought up to the AL. The Sox used him in a utility role in ’51 and traded him to the Tigers early in ’52. Fred was [a] paratrooper during World War II.

Once again, the author begins with the player’s name, but does so in an even more intimate fashion, twice using Hatfield’s nickname. And once again, the reader gets a fairly rote (but necessary) description of Hatfield’s career to that point. Remember: both 1952 and 1953 only included “last year” and “lifetime” stat lines.

There are a couple mistakes in the prose. Was it convention to capitalize the generic “ball” in “American Legion Ball?” The author drops a word in that final sentence, too. With regard to that final sentence, I imagine how relevant the information would seem to the Topps target audience: little kids, mostly boys, whose fathers stood a great chance of having served during World War II themselves. 

As in 1952, the author begins with a fulsome description of the player’s fielding capabilities and then engages in prolepsis, flashing back to where the man began his career and how he got to the point at which he was so useful with a glove. Writers can engage in flashback while leaving the reader blind about the eventual outcome, or he or she can do so after informing the reader about the protagonist’s present conditions. In this case, the author of the card has no choice; the reader knows that Hatfield eventually made the majors…if he hadn’t, there would be no baseball card to trade with friends!

7.10.2020lund

1954 Don Lund #167

Design of the reverse: Two cartoons, reduced stats, prose

Text (94 words total, 68 without cartoon captions): Don began his career with Brooklyn in 1945, pinch hitting in 4 games. A University of Michigan graduate, he was sent down and recalled by the Dodgers in ’47. In 1948, he went to the Browns and was bought by the Tigers in 1949. Don was with Toledo in 1949-50-51 and in 1952 at Buffalo, he hit .302 and returned to Detroit to bat .304 in 8 games.

At Michigan U. Don was a Big Ten football star! [Lund, in Michigan green(?), carries the football.]

But, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree, Don decided to make baseball his career! [Lund makes a nice grab at the right field fence.]

Once again, the reader learns about Lund’s path to the big leagues. Once again, the main piece of prose begins with the player’s first name. I don’t believe the latter is an accident. These cards, of course, were made primarily for children, some of whom would be at the beginning of their journey as readers. Sentences that begin with the subject are very simple and clear. (“Matt Nokes hit a home run.” “Al Stump mischaracterized Ty Cobb.” “Alan Trammell wore number 3.”)

The author is clear to make education a part of Lund’s identity. The reader (again, a child), learns that being a sports star can go hand-in-hand with being a scholar. I also wonder if Topps included such information to give parents more reasons to allow their children to use their hard-earned pennies and nickels to purchase cards. The cultural storm that resulted in the 1954 adoption of the Comics Code Authority put a spotlight on comic books: a competitor for the same disposable income. Perhaps Berger and his team were reinforcing the relative wholesomeness of their product.

One of my dear, departed Creative Writing MFA professors joked that writers are allowed a single exclamation point in their careers. After all, feelings are better evoked with the other tools that a writer has in his or her toolbox. The author (or perhaps authors) of this card use two. Notably, both exclamation points occur in the cartoon captions. This makes sense; cartoons must be very punchy, and the exclamation point is a compact representation of emotion. 

miller
Yes, it’s autographed. Isn’t it amazing how his handwriting stayed so consistent?

7.10.2020miller

1955 Bob Miller #9

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (64 words): The huge bonus paid to Bob for signing a Detroit contract in ’53 looked like a good investment to Tiger fans last year. Used mostly as a relief pitcher, Bob’s wide-breaking curve and flashing fastball placed him 4th in E.R.A.’s among American League Hurlers. Before deciding on Baseball as a career, he won a Yale scholarship for his straight “A” average in High School.

The author was presented with a challenge when writing about Bob Miller. At the time, clubs had no choice but to keep “bonus babies” on the major league roster for two years. The author, therefore, couldn’t chronicle Miller’s pro journey to The Show.

The reader learns about the Yale scholarship offer that Miller received, but there is more to the story. Page 10 of the July 1, 1953 issue of The Sporting News features a wonderful article about the Bengals’ two new bonus babies. Seventeen-year-old Miller received $60,000, and Detroit offered $35,000 to an eighteen-year-old named Albert Kaline. Writer Watson Spoelstra helpfully informs us that the latter’s name is “(pronounced Kay-line).” Good to know!

Again, the author of the baseball card capitalizes the generic nouns “Hurlers” and “Baseball.” (Though goodness knows that “Base-Ball” has been called many things in print.)

From a writing craft perspective, I get the sense that the person who wrote this card wasn’t feeling maximum enthusiasm for Bob Miller. Look at the structure of the three sentences and how they all feel similar. I suppose the paragraphs in the 1952 and 1953 cards are similar, but I suppose this could just be an indication that tone is inherently about perception to some extent.


There are an awful lot of cards left before we get to 2020. I hope you’ll join me to consider how the prose changed along with the times and its audience. If nothing else, perhaps this project will help me learn how to make my writing more compact!

Next time: Robert Kennedy (the baseball player, not the former Attorney General) and a left-hander who once struck out all 27 batters he faced in an American Legion game!

Author: Kenneth Nichols

I write and teach. Check out my Young Adult and Contemporary Romance novels at http://www.allisonrhodesbooks.com. One day, I'll write a great baseball novel. Someday.

11 thoughts on “A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1952-1955)”

  1. This is wonderful. I look forward to more posts on the topic. I find it amusing when the writer tacks on an unrelated topic, such as a player’s military experience. Limited space prevented the writer from beginning a new paragraph. Still, the abrupt shift is jarring.

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    1. Thank you for the kind words! It hadn’t occurred to me that the lack of paragraphs is a bit jarring, but yes. As I’ve said a trillion times, each paragraph must have its own idea, and each idea must have its own paragraph.

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  2. I love articles written about baseball cards, better than ones about baseball itself. I am a Tiger fan from the Detroit area since 1954. I was 10. I, until early this year I had all the Topps Tiger cards that were produced. Since then I have been selling them on eBay. Selling them gives me a chance to lovingly handle raw cards (YIKES) and appreciate them again before I send them off to another generation of collectors. By the way, I also have read the backs of each of them. As hokey as some of them are I enjoy them. When I was young I learned how to use math better by studying how the stats were calculated for batting average and the more dificult calculation of the E.R.A.s. Sorry I my prose doesn’t match up with yours. Regards, Donn

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    1. Your prose is just fine! 🙂

      I don’t have a great collection of Tigers, but they are organized by year (and set for the newer ones). I also like thinking about who pulled the older ones from their packs. Once in a while, I’ll show young people the older cards. I can’t imagine that I’ve made any converts, but they do enjoy the art and the old-time qualities.

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  3. Card backs get so little attention. It’s great that you have focused (almost) exclusively on them. It’s also so easy to lose sight of the fact that card backs constitute 50% of the card. I have always loved the little cartoons on the backs, especially when they illustrate some kind of silly fact about the player. I remember a Hal Lanier card from the ’60s referring to Hal’s interest in…baseball cards! Oops, I used up my lifetime allotment of exclamation points.

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    1. I’ve wanted to do some real scholarship about card backs for a long time, as they do seem a little overlooked. There are a few massive barriers to more comprehensive work. There are SO MANY cards, so one must dramatically restrict the data pool in some way. Between the Trading Card Database, COMC, and eBay, we have images of most card backs, but these are difficult to handle because there’s no easy way to handle the text. For example, I’d LOVE to see how many times Topps mentions the players’ wives. Would that be interesting? And in what context? Unfortunately, you can’t just CTRL+F some magic database.

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  4. This was such a great post, it deserves an additional comment. One of my biggest bugaboos about card backs has been their readability. I’m not referencing the prose, but the color or brightness of the card stock. In the ’70s and ’80s some of the color schemes rendered the prose and stats very difficult to read. Of the examples you posted today, the only one that was truly difficult to follow was the Hatfield, but due to the autograph, not due to the stock. The Lund stats were somewhat problematic as the grey on green combination had me zooming in to figure out his hits total for the past year. Look forward to future posts. Would have loved to use an exclamation point there.

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    1. That’s an interesting comment! (I’m certain my teacher would condone the use of different diction in blog comments than literary short stories.)

      I’m not enough of a graphic designer to really understand the issues involved in readability with respect to color contrasts and the like. Rifling through my Tiger Stadium Collection, I will say that the 1963-1969 cards are a lot easier to read than the ones printed on the darker/grainier card stock used for the next couple decades. I also find the stats and prose easier to read on the Traded sets from the late 1980s to early 1990s in comparison with those years’ regular sets.

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      1. Your comments bring to mind the placement and color clarity of the card numbers. I don’t think collectors cared about how artistic the card numbers were. As a collector, I didn’t want to hunt around the backs looking for the number. Top, bottom, left, right! I would rather have them in the upper right hand corner for ease of filing or searching. I know some cards are rotated but the number should be in the same corner for filing in the typical card box. Even if the number is run sideways. As for color. A red number is not easily read on a dark blue field.

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  5. We can go a little further about needing to be stat heavy for those years in the 1950s. Not only was there no baseball-reference, there was no Baseball Encyclopedia to purchase and refer to when needed, at least not as we would know it today with traditional statistics for every player. Baseball card backs were an important part of tracking statistics and providing yearly updates.

    While not prose, I find the choice of which statistics to display interesting. Having grown up in the 1980s, when players like Henderson, Raines, and Coleman were stealing bases at historically high levels, I used to find it odd that card backs from earlier years didn’t include stolen bases because they were an important part of the baseball I was watching that helped to define certain players. And then when looking back at the yearly leaders from the 1950s I see something like 1953, where Richie Ashburn finished 10th in the majors … with 14 stolen bases, while Bill Bruton led the majors with 26 (Raines stole 27 bases in September 1983). They just weren’t as important to the game in the 1950s and so it makes sense not to use space for that statistic. The backs of 1988 Score may have had more prose than any card back in history (which is one reason I liked them), but it was slightly irritating that they excluded triples from the stat line.

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