Everything must be considered

Likewise, there is a vocal group of collectors who seek, nay DEMAND, perfection from Topps when it comes to retro sets such as Heritage and Archives. Any deviation from these unwritten rules results in an outcry in the blogosphere, Twitter and the various forums.

Cardboard Jones

I planned to respond to this as a comment but in hashing things out on Twitter realized that it deserved to be a blogpost. First off. I’m not feeling attacked by the statement nor do I even disagree with it. Expecting things like Archives and Heritage to match the originals is the most boring of positions to have. But as someone who frequently comments and calls out where Topps deviates in the retro set typsetting and designs I feel like I need to clarify when and why I do so.

When I approach a retro set it’s impossible for me not to notice changes. My mindset though isn’t “these changes are crap.” Instead I’m asking myself why Topps made them.

One of the chief mantras from my design classes was that “everything should be considered.” In other words, every part of the design should be a conscious choice with a reason behind it. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t leave things to chance, just that you needed to be as aware, if not moreso, of what you weren’t designing.

When it comes to the retro sets, too many of the choices feel like Topps has decided to copy the old design but couldn’t be bothered to do it right. When I cringe at a font choice or shake my head at a color selection it doesn’t reflect that I want the design to be perfect, it reflects that on that card, Topps feels like it’s trying to recreate the card and is doing it badly.

Let’s take a look at the 2020 Archives Luis Robert. In this case, the font used for Robert’s name is super small. 1974 used condensed fonts for long names* but for most names the font matches the font used to the city and position. As a result the font looks off compared to the other fonts on the card** and the space for his name looks super empty because these cards weren’t designed to have a big white space on the bottom.

* If this were a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. card then the font would be fine.

**Lucky for Topps the condensed font is also in use for “White Sox” else this would look even weirder.

There’s a reason I often refer to the uncanny valley when I critique retro designs. Changes like Robert’s font feel unconsidered and suggest a lack of awareness about how the original design works. The result is something that’s just close enough to the originals to feel incredibly wrong.

I don’t expect Topps to match the originals. I want them to make considered choices about how to honor the philosophy behind the original designs while updating them to the modern game and modern printing.

For example, sticking with the Robert card, 1974 is noteworthy as the first set where Topps tried to use team colors in the design. In 1974 the White Sox’s dominant color was red and as a result, the 1974 design used red.* In 2020, the Sox are a grey and black team and for me, updating the 1974 design to use those colors is the kind of change that I would treat as a considered choice.**

*That Topps stuck with red is yet another push toward reading these cards as remakes instead of updates and justifies critiquing the font choices along those lines. At the same time, that Topps apparently changed the colors on a lot of the cards in this set—e.g Giants in green, Pirates in red, Orioles in white—suggests that my initial reaction to the Robert was maybe giving Topps too much credit for trying to reproduce the original design. No I still have no idea what possessed them to make the Willie McCovey Giants card green and yellow and the overall reaction is still that Topps didn’t think about what they were doing.

**Along these lines, if Topps had had the lead time and creativity to do “Buffalo, Amer’n Lea” cards for the Blue Jays I would’ve been out stalking blasters of Archives at my local Target.

Topps has made considered changes like these before. Going back to my post about 2019 Heritage provides a great example. Where 1970 Topps (on the left) use a 50% black screen for the grey border, 2019 Heritage (on the right) uses a custom grey ink printed at 100%.

I don’t remember anyone complaining about this. I wouldn’t expect anyone to complain about this. Why? Because the change is the kind of thing that involves looking at the old design and consciously improving upon it. It’s not trying to recreate something, rather it’s showing the strength of the original design and how it would be produced today.

If Topps changed the retro set fonts to give the design a little more character* I wouldn’t complain. Same if they took the random colors of the 1960s and made them more team-specific.**

*A reliance on fonts such as Helvetica and Univers throughout most of the Topps’s history means changes like using Gotham in the 1981 design in 2018 Archives is something I was cool with.

**Something they did with some teams like the Astros in 2018 Heritage.

What I want to see is that the changes have a clear and obvious point. Changes that look intentional rather than accidental. Changes that indicate that Topps has truly considered the design and thought about what it’s doing with it.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

16 thoughts on “Everything must be considered”

  1. Nick, I agree with your thoughts, but on a broader level. With Heritage, I’m not as concerned with the minute details as the overall spirit of the set and the effort put into it.

    The trouble is, Topps got lazy.

    The first Heritage set in 2001 was clearly a labor of love. A lot of attention was paid to detail, from having both black and red backs for the first 80 cards to having a 407-card set total identical to 1952, to having a more limited “final series” of 97 cards (okay, it may have just been an excuse to short-print cards, but at least there was a rationale).

    But over the last two decades, there has been a decreasing attempt to in any way be an homage to the design depicted. The quirks or specific poses that highlighted early Heritage sets are gone, and there’s a cookie-cutter nature to the sets. I’ve collected every one of them, but they kind of lost me on some level four years ago. I’d been looking forward to the 2016 Heritage set, because the 1967 Topps set was my first and favorite baseball card set. And I was sorely disappointed. The card fronts were flat by comparison to the originals, the colors far less vibrant. The multi-player cards were all accidental pairings . . . what, in the 21st Century players can’t be encouraged to sit down for a posed shot with a teammate? At some point, the Heritage sets had jettisoned checklists, so the disembodied heads of super-stars floating on a yellow background were absent.

    But mostly, there’s been an assembly-line feel about the posing. I’m a White Sox fan, so I notice their cards more than others, and apparently there’s a spot out behind the Sox spring training facility that the photographers like, because almost every posed White Sox shot is taken there. It’s boring, and it’s lazy. There’s little imagination or variety to any of the posing.

    Sadly, there is little or no institutional memory remaining at Topps. I understand Cardboard Jones’ point about nit-picking, but the point he’s missing is that Topps has forgotten why it even makes the Heritage set every year. If the baseball card hobby is about middle-aged Boomers recapturing their youth, then this should be the ultimate concept. Instead, increasingly, Topps shows that it doesn’t really understand the attraction to its own product. It’s early in the year, the calendar says it’s time to release another Heritage set, and the records show this is the design we should be using, so crank up the sausage-making machine.

    I’m sure that’s unfair on my part, that there are probably people at Topps who put real effort into the Heritage set. But it doesn’t feel like it any more . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment about Topps not understanding its own product is well-observed. I have stated numerous times that Topps cards, and flagship in particular, is more than just a product at this point but represents the “card of record.” A design and touchstone for a season which represents who’s who in the game that year. It connects back seven decades and across multiple generations of baseball fans and the fact that the custodian of that legacy doesn’t behave in a way that demonstrates any understanding of this importance is immensely frustrating.

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  2. So, this must be the blogosphere…how did I get here…what have I done?
    Well, while I’m here, allow me to say that Nick’s and Van’s points are dead on. Heritage issues are no longer an event. They have become tired money grabbing rehashes with no creative elan. A few spring training shots would be fine. Too many, however, breed indifference. The slapdash and poorly executed graphics serve only to reinforce a mediocre product.
    If this is what the blogosphere is like, I’m staying.

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  3. I will admit to not being a Heritage collector. I started doing 2011 (because of the 1962 design) and then got bored. I have a mostly complete set of 2006 and I’m not quite sure how I got into that (oh wait, it was probably the first time I had actual money to spend and that was what was on the shelf). Part of that is those designs don’t really resonate with me because I started collecting in the 1980s – but I even get bored with Archives, which has more recent designs.

    But to Van’s point about 2001 Heritage – Topps had to be on its game. I enjoy the cards from the post-strike era up through 2005-2006 (and even a little later through 2010 when it was just Topps and Upper Deck) because there was competition in the market (there was competition in the 1980s and early 1990s as well but they made a lot of those cards and I have most of them because you can usually buy a 5,000 count box of them for $5-$10). So the manufacturers had to be innovative and they had to produce something that people wanted because if they didn’t collectors could buy other products made by their competitors. Sure, there was some junk produced along the way and I don’t mean junk wax – sets that didn’t make much sense. But at least they were exploring the product space, and not by stamping 1/1 on a bunch of cards.

    But now, with Topps having the only MLB license, if a collector wants MLB-licensed cards they have to go to Topps. Panini makes some really nice cards, and they do a decent job of making the logos in the picture not matter, but I (and I think others) really like seeing the team names, logos, jerseys, etc. And so I think that lack of competition is part of the reason (maybe a big part) for the general lack of concern about the details on the part of Topps. You want cards with MLB logos of today’s players – you have to come to us.

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    1. Love the observation about sets that are junk because they took a risk and didn’t work out. I love a lot of the 80s releases because there’s a palpable sense of “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.” Into the 90s the trend is often toward “how can this be premium” (glossier photos, foil stamping, die cutting, embossing, auto inserts, relics, holograms, chrome, foil, etc.) and post-strike it seems like taking risks went down a bit. But there was still a ton of innovation in card manufacturing and it is fun to see the ways different companies approached checklists.

      All together it brings up a completely distinct issue that cards the past decade have felt too corporatized and safe. The same approach to hits. The same approach to checklists. The same approach to parallels. The same approach to distribution. Instead of sets which are interesting for what they are, it’s yet another product where the base cards are an afterthought aside from whoever the rookie du jour is. Even sets like Ginter which have distinct character seem to have those distinctions filed down year after year.

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      1. Good point about the Ginter sets. I still collect the inserts, because I love the modern take on the cigarette sets of many topics. But the main baseball set? Some years look better than others, but it feels like an idea that should have run its course five years ago.

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      2. Once you’ve created the refractor where else do you have to go 🙂

        I know our interests vary, but your point on things being made more premium is well taken. I like die-cuts, though I like them with a purpose. A set of 1995 SP Championship die-cuts doesn’t really appeal to me because the die-cut is kind of blah. But a set of 1995 Pacific Gold Crown Die-Cuts … I remember pulling a Juan Gonzalez and thinking that was a cool card (Pacific always seemed to have some unique inserts). I like parallels, but I like being able to tell the difference (don’t get me started on the 2019 Donruss Optic MVP Signatures parallels – purple, blue, light blue all numbered to 17 for Keith Hernandez; sellers didn’t even know what version they had; I somehow got the different versions without getting a duplicate).

        I’m okay with sets like 1995 Topps DIII and 1996 Topps Laser, neither of which really worked out but they tried something new. But something like 1999 Upper Deck Challengers for 70 – to me that would have been a good late-1980s small Fleer boxed set, not a pack product because it’s so narrowly focused. It’s a 90-card set, but it’s really a 45-card set because it starts repeating players at card 46. Drop one player and it’s a Fleer boxed set.

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      3. Yeah a lot of the 1990s stuff is premium for the sake of premium with little thought into how to use that stuff in an interesting manner. But the weird stuff like Laser or DIII are great calls and Fleer’s uncoated offerings in 1996 and 1997 are a fun example of zigging when everyone else is zagging. As always here, it’s a question of “to what purpose.”

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  4. All good comments. I often find myself feeling that all these sets are the same, just packaged differently and this box is $60 and that box is $350. The bigger overall question I have is this, does anyone at Topps collect cards any more? I really feel like they have lost touch with the collectors or are we just printing cards for breakers?

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    1. Good question. We have this nostalgia for the days when Sy Berger was creating the new baseball set on his kitchen table back in the ’50s, over the intervening decades the operation has become, to use Nick’s word, corporatized. Maybe I’m wrong (I HOPE I’m wrong), but I have a sense that there’s no reason to think the people working at Topps look upon it as any more than any other job, and that if Keith Olberman didn’t show up occasionally at the Topps offices in his role as consultant, that there’d be no cultural or historical sense at all of what the company represents.

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      1. I know that there are people at Topps who care deeply about this stuff. I also think that by the time they get their hands on things that there have been so many decisions already made upstream from that they aren’t able to make as much of a difference as they’d like to make. It very much feels like the inserts are wagging the dog at this point.

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      2. The inserts have been wagging the dog for YEARS, the direct result of too many sets by too many companies diluting the collecting experience. What does Topps (or ANY company) promote, no matter which set? The “hits.” How much do they promote the base set? And, sure, there are many, many of us who still collect for the love of the game and the hobby, but Topps can’t make a living off us. Their business model is built off the perceived value of autographs, relics, parallels and 1-of-1s . . . you know, the lottery experience. Far be it from me to argue that from a business standpoint, but it does boil away the kind of experiences that created the hobby in the first place. One can’t live in the past, even if it’s fun to occasionally visit, but what’s really sad is that the hobby as we know it will die out when we do. What 21st Century kid is going to get nostalgic about opening a box full of cards looking for some low-level autograph? It’s like buying a stack of lottery scratchers at the 7-11, taking them home and scratching one after another, hoping to hit the jackpot but probably winning less than you spent. I’m sure you’re right, there are probably people at Topps who consider working for a baseball card company their dream job, but you’re probably also right that most of them aren’t up top making the decisions.

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  5. Just want to say that the idea of Buffalo “Amer’n League” variations is brilliant! Can’t blame Topps since there wouldn’t be nearly enough time (and I do assume there will be some kind of homage to that in 2023 Heritage), but what a great idea!

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  6. As much as Heritage has fallen away from the faithfulness of the brand in recent years, it still has the feeling that there are some people on the team who care and are dedicated to the original spirit that launched the brand in 2001.

    However, your post was about Archives, and I see none of what Heritage is about in that set. It’s almost designed as an attempt to troll Heritage fans: “Yeah, see we matched some of the original set’s designs … and then we decided it was stupid.” In other words, as you said, it’s lazy. I guess, younger collectors who don’t know any better are supposed to love it? If I were them, I’d be insulted.

    The 1974 section of 2020 Archives really grates on me. I’m a huge fan of ’70s Topps sets and I agree: I’d prefer that tributes to them look like tributes, even if they’re modernized. Archives looks like someone started out trying but then they got bored and gave it to their little brother to finish.

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