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.