Digital Junk Wax from Fox

During the playoffs a few of us noticed that Fox was putting out baseball card inspired graphics. These were showing up as Tweet previews among other things and they caught my attention due to being interesting twists on something I was already familiar with.

The first batch I noticed were all riffs on 1991 Topps. Urias is from October 11, Marsh from October 18, and Kim from the 21st. They seem to be used to illustrate player profiles—quite appropriate for a baseball card reference—and show a great attention to detail. I really like the addition of the facsimile autographs and adding the logo baseball so they can use the pennant for the Fox logo. Everything fits together perfectly plus they have some of the better fake printing I’ve seen.

Depending on your browser window width you’ll see either the horizontal or vertical designs. The horizontals show up on narrower views as a header and, since they’re the social media preview image as well, I suspect they were designed first. That said I really like the vertical designs and how they look like they might fit in tobacco pages.

Just when I’d gotten used to 1991 Topps though Fox dropped a 1991 Donruss inspired design of Jeremy Peña. This one doesn’t work quite as well in part due to the need to have a vastly different approach to the name box. 1991 Donruss is such a diagonal design that the horizontal modification just won’t work.

I do however really like making the border designs match the team colors. Dropping the Astros logo back there is a fantastic as well and letting the photo of Peña overlap the borders makes everything much more dynamic. While this doesn’t work as well as a design reference it has a lot of great ideas demonstrating about how 1991 Donruss might not be as bad as so many people say it is.

Fox then threw me by using 1989 Topps Football for Harrison Bader. It’s interesting that this very plain design* works so much better digitally.**  I suspect that a large part of this is due to the way the horizontal design makes the stripes a lot more prominent. I’m not sure the vertical would be as nice if it didn’t have the black fade.

*I’ve never seen anyone gush about this set or design. 

**Though one reason for this is that Fox’s logo is a black overlay that I barely notice against the out of focus crowd.

The most-recent “card” Fox has posted is this one of Chas McCormick. I don’t recognize the design except that it kind of looks like a mashup of of all three previous designs. Some of 1991 Topps’s double borders mixed with 1989 Football’s stripes and a 1991 Donruss cant. The result is kind of generic but also something that totally suggests modern Topps Big League.

I also went back through the archives and found Fox had been doing these well before the playoffs started. Working backwards through the archive I found Rowdy Tellez in a 1991 Topps design on September 30, Mike Trout as 1991 Donruss on September 22, Trayce Thompson and 1988 Donruss on September 14, Adam Wainwright as 1989 Pro Set Football on September 13, and Aaron Judge in 1989 Topps Football on September 7.

I continued looking back into July but the Judge was was first obvious trading card design I could find. Is interesting to me it was a football design which Fox selected. It’s also worth nothing here that the Judge uses a fantastic halftone dither with a real rosette pattern.

The Mike Trout also deserves some discussion. There are differences in the name/position handling, logo treatment, and photo cropping compared to Peña but the 1991 Donrussness shines through. I’m pretty sure the borders use the exact same design elements too. But the team color treatment looks great and confirms how taking 1991 Donruss in a team color direction would completely transform the set.

The whole group of eleven designs is also something that I find really cool. There’s a whole range of made-up cards as used on programs and other printed material but the way these are intended for a digital audience got me thinking about Topps Bunt, the nature of digital cards, and how so many of them evoke physical properties.

These are purely digital creations (though you could absolutely print the horizontal ones out as real cards) but they have designs which suggest that they’re real physical items and aren’t just web graphics. From things like the print screens to the way there are borders and margins which treat the graphic as a self-contained object, they don’t feel at all like the usual illustrations we see online.

It’s also interesting to me how every one of these evokes a junk wax era design. That’s not what a lot of people think of as the golden age of baseball cards* but it may be the era of peak trading card ubiquity. Those borders—even the football ones—are from an era when cards were everywhere and their presence was part of the national language of sports.

*As I gesture at the breakdown of what years are most covered by this blog.

That Fox uses them 30+ years later as visual shorthand for saying “this article will profile a player” confirms both how deeply steeped they are in our sports culture and how much trading cards in general color the way we remember and interact with sports.

Note

There are a couple other fake-printing graphics which Fox made before they started making the trading-card inspired ones. These suggest that Fox was moving this direction before it realized that trading cards were the look they wanted.

On September 1 Fox profiled Julio Rodríguez using a fake postcard complete with a fake stamp/postmark on the picture side of the image and bubble lettering that’s asking for a small image inside each letter. This graphic also includes a drop shadow to give the card depth and faked wear and tear on the paper.

It’s trying a little too hard for my taste (though the fake halftone rosettes are great) and ends up in the uncanny valley where it looks like something designed by someone who’s never seen an actual postcard.

The next day Fox wrote about Judge and Maris using what I’m guessing is a reference to a vintage program.* This is an interesting design complete with yellowed paper effects and a less-convincing fake halftone. Clearly not a card but, as with the postcard, it’s drawing on our associations with these things as physical objects.

*It looks very familiar to me but I can’t place it.

I haven’t noticed anything really like these since they started doing the trading card graphics the following week so it kind of feels like the trading cards had exactly the right feel Fox was looking for. I also didn’t see anything like these as I kept digging back in time through Fox’s archives. Nothing in August and I gave up digging in July.

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

12 thoughts on “Digital Junk Wax from Fox”

  1. OMG, team colors with ’91 Donruss design, I AM THERE! Funny how that’s all you have to do to improve some of the more overbearing junk wax designs (’90 Donruss, ’91 Fleer).

    I don’t recall seeing those graphics on Fox broadcasters either, probably just me not focusing.

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    1. Right!? Definitely fun to imagine. Though it’s tough since the printing tech of that era would’ve been unable to do full-bleed team colors so something like 1990 Donruss or 1991 Fleer would’ve been limited to like 6 border colors (and 1991 Donruss being two series possibly only 3 border colors per series). Is a fun exercise to try and split 26 teams across 6 different colors but it doesn’t quite work out.

      I have seen some white-border team-color customs of 1991 Fleer which look nice but also look a ton like 1990 Fleer. I actually like treating 1991 Fleer as design which should’ve been a black-border set with foil stamping.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Having also just read the prior post from @baseballlawreporter I can’t help wondering if Fox infringed on any copyrights in using these older designs. It’s not a stretch to imagine Fox and Topps cutting a small deal, but then I’d expect to see the Topps logo somewhere. More of a stretch to see a second deal with Panini/Donruss since that only adds cost while leaving dozens of Topps junk wax designs on the table.

    My theory here is that a designer went rogue and potentially nobody at Fox recognized that the designs were from real cards…at least until this blog post goes viral, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So, while I’m not a lawyer, as a photographer and designer I’ve had to educate myself about where some of those lines are. I’d argue that the 1991 Topps and 1991 Donruss graphics are sufficiently different to not be copying. You can see the inspiration but they’re actually pretty different from the originals to the point where they can serve as commentary and critique of those designs.

      The 1988 Donruss and 1989 Topps Football ones on the other hand are a bit to close for my comfort. Yes there are some changes but the primary design is basically untouched. And the 1989 Pro Set looks like a straight up copy where I can’t even discern a difference.

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      1. I’m not sure what happened in the early 2000s, but Upper Deck basically used the 1963 Topps, 1971 Topps, and 1965 Topps designs, respectively, for their 2001, 2002, and 2003 Upper Deck Vintage product. And that was producing actual cards, not digital promotions. So if there’s a case on the issue I’d guess there’s one there.

        The 2004 Upper Deck Vintage design looks familiar but it’s not a Topps design.

        Upper Deck also used a Play Ball design for its 2003 Upper Deck Play Ball product, but presumably they had some type of rights to that as they were using the Play Ball name.

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      2. As I understand things there were two things going on here. One is that Topps did eventually sue Upper Deck after they copied the 1975 design in 2009 (eventually settled after Upper Deck lost its license in 2010). And, as I understand things, Upper Deck had acquired O Pee Chee so here were some shenanigans about using OPC designs not Topps designs (though the backs of the 2002 UD Vintage suggest that that’s crap).

        Also 2004 UD Vintage is *really* close to 1954 Red Heart dog food.

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      3. Red Heart – I knew it looked like something earlier.

        So 1965 and 1971 “make sense” because there are OPC versions of the cards, but I don’t see a 1963 OPC set. Maybe that’s what pushed UD to go with later years to get around those issues. It’s not like UD wasn’t using their own designs – the 2002 UD Authentics brand uses 1989 UD.

        Now that you mention it, I recall a 1975 Topps design from a UD product in 2009; looks like it is the UD OPC insert set and not the OPC product. Somewhere (probably on Twitter) I saw someone asking about a Brooks Robinson buyback auto that was pulled from an UD product around 2009. Looked like a 1971 Topps card, but was an OPC, which makes sense.

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