When Topps covers politics

One of the elements of Topps Heritage that routinely catches my eyes are the Heritage News Flashbacks. For a small insert set which is purportedly about the heritage year’s news highlights, I’ve found it to be an interesting window into what kind of things Topps considers mass-market newsworthy.

Given Topps’s coverage of the 1950s–1970s we have a lot of civil rights firsts,* a lot of space exploration, and a lot of Vietnam War related events. All things which are conceivably politically neutral. In many years though Topps also commemorates legislation and other political achievements. These were clearly highly political at the time but also frequently remain political even today. When I look through the insert checklists it’s these cards that catch my eye in the way that they have one foot in both “this is something worth commemorating” territory and “this is what people say we shouldn’t talk about in the hobby” territory.

*The number of “first black” or “first woman” events Topps chose to celebrate is both refreshing to see and an indictment of who has been traditionally allowed to succeed in our society.

Not only do these legislative inserts catch my eye but they frequently have an interesting context outside of the just the card. This 2009 card commemorating the 1960 Civil Rights Act for example came out the same year that Barrack Obama became the first Black President and the year that Congress authorized the Civil Rights History project to collect oral histories from people who were active in the struggle during the 1950s and 1960s.

The thing with these news flashbacks cards though is that they also tend to frame history as a series of accomplishments rather than a continuing struggle and discussion. Looking at this card gives the impression that we’ve achieved equality at the polls and that no further work needs to be done to maintain things let alone improve on them further.

In 2010 we have acknowledgment of how Washingon DC residents were disenfranchised through the 1960 election with a card the commemorates the ratification of the 23rd Amendment. It’s definitely a good thing that their presidential votes count now but the struggle for DC statehood and representation continued after this amendment.

In terms of the context of this 2010 card it’s important to mention DC’s statehood has been endorsed by multiple Presidents now and that there was a referendum in 2016 in which 86% of DC voters expressed a desire for statehood.

Skipping to 2012 and we find a card commemorating the US Government forcing the University of Alabama to integrate in 1963. This isn’t a legislative card but it positions the Federal Government overruling a state government both in the courts and via the National Guard as an inherently good thing.

In 2013 we pick up where 2009 left off with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As with the 2009 card this states plainly that segregation is outlawed as well as discrimination against ethnic, racial, and religious minorities plus women. This card doesn’t note how the Civil Right Act of 1964 is what prompted Southern Democrats to switch parties and drastically rearrange the political geography of the United States.

Coming out in 2013 is kind of some amazing immediate context too. Between the Trayvon Martin murder which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and the Fisher v U of Texas case that threatened to roll back Affirmative Action the discussion about how relevant the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still was and whether its protections were still needed make this card anything but politically neutral.

The 2014 card which commemorates the Voting Rights act of 1965 is the card which prompted this post. For Topps to publish this the year after Shelby v Holder feels almost like an intentional political comment. With a headline about securing voting equality despite the mechanisms for actually keeping voting equality having just been ripped out of the act this card reads almost as a eulogy for what was rather than a milestone that was reached.

The ensuing decade has confirmed my sense of it being a eulogy as we’ve seen increased attacks on voting access nationwide.

We’ll skip a few more years and land in 2017 with yet another Civil Rights Act, in this case 1968’s, which was in the news a bit that year. This act contains within it the Fair Housing Act which prohibits discrimination in both renting and sales. The list of protected categories started off as including just race, religion, and national origin but has expanded to include sex, disabilities, and children. In 2017 sexual orientation and gender identity were added to this list via the judicial system (but never got anywhere in Congress).

This act also included some anti-riot language which made it a crime to travel between states in order to participate in a riot. It was notably used on the Chicago Seven and came up again in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in which the courts ruled that its language was over-broad.

While this isn’t a legislative card I’ve included the 2018 card of the 1969 Stonewall Riots because of how much of a lighting rod it would be in today’s political landscape. This is history—both from a Gay Rights point of view and the fact that Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender woman—which is currently being actively legislated against in multiple states nationwide and Topps just had it as a card only four years ago.

This card also came out in the aftermath of the 2015 Obergefell decision which legalized gay marriage and resulted in years of stories of workers and businesses who refused to acknowledge those rights and insisted that their rights to discriminate were more important.

After having maybe one political card per year, Topps went a bit nuts in 2019 and released four of cards of  things the government did in 1970. Some of these like expanding voting access to 18 year olds don’t require much comment. Others like the PBS card are noteworthy in the timing of how free educational television was moving to streaming services with shows like Sesame Street only releasing new episodes through HBO Max.

The Earth Day and creation of the EPA cards though are fascinating to see in an age of runaway climate change, the complete abdication by the US Government to do anything about it, and the shortsighted focus on immediate profits over a sustainable world.

Way back in 1970 the government realized it had to do something about air and water pollution. But in 2019, in addition to global climate change, the Flint Water Crisis was entering its fifth year and China had stopped taking all of our recycling and there was zero political will to do anything about any of it.

Back to only one card in 2021 but it’s a doozy for a year which was threatening to roll back many of the protections that women fought for in the 1970s as Covid had a greater impact on women’s jobs and abortion is getting outlawed nationwide.

In many ways that the Equal Rights Amendment was even put up for ratification in 1972 is something that surprises me. At the same time, in 2021 the House voted to remove the ratification deadline and the Senate version of that bill has 52 cosponsors.

Which brings us to this year and the commemoration of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. I haven’t seen anything specific about it in the news this year but it does seem like we’ve spent the past decade opening up public lands for development at the expense of habitat and wildlife needs.

In any case it’s pretty clear at this point that the biggest habitat threat is climate change and while the explicit protections and goals of the Endangered Species Act are laudable a larger, more-global, solution will be required moving forward.

And that’s the list. When looked at together it’s easy to reach a conclusion that Topps thinks that discrimination based on race, nationality, and gender is bad, that protecting the environment is good, and that voting should be accessible to all citizens. But it’s also easy to reach a conclusion that Topps considers that all of that has been accomplished already and something we can look back upon and celebrate much in the same way the Major League Baseball commemorates Jackie Robinson as a way of ignoring its current track record on racial equity.

Donut hole

I started collecting cards in 1987. Since  my primary purchases were Topps rack packs at Toys R Us I accumulated a lot* of both 1987 and 1986 Topps that year. I also acquired a bunch of repacks—also from Toys R Us—which featured “old” cards back to 1979**

*A lot for a 2nd grader which means a couple hundred or so of each.

**While I found exactly one each of 1976, 1977, and 1978 in those packs, a single 1979 per repack was usually the oldest card.

I say “old” because for me, anything from 1979 to 1984 was old back then. Not only did they predate my being in school* but the relative rarity of the cards in how they didn’t show up en masse in the repacks and how different they looked with their multiple photos, facsimile autographs, or cartoonish caps made them feel distinct.

*Apologies if this post makes anyone feel super old.

1985 though was different. Especially the Topps cards. They showed up more frequently in the repacks and felt similar enough to 1986 to end up being something I never really paid attention to. Not old or different enough to be interesting. Not new enough to be relevant. I accumulated a couple Giants but outside of those I didn’t pay any attention to that set until after I found my first card shop and discovered that there was a super-desirable (especially in the Bay Area) Mark McGwire card inside.

Even with the McGwire knowledge—which I remember feeling at the time as sort of a betrayal of the concept of a rookie card—I never got to know more about the set. I had other newer cards to acquire and shiny things like Score and Upper Deck to covet. All of which left me in an interesting place where to-date, 1985 Topps remained a complete donut hole in my card knowledge.

I neither educated myself about it like I did with older sets nor is it one I had any actual experience with. I did however get a big batch of it last summer and as a result have had a chance to really take a good look at it for the first time in my life.

Looking through that pile was a bit uncanny since, while I’ve mentally treated it as a border between classic cards and junk wax, in many ways it actually functions as this border. Yes I know people draw lines at 1981 and 1974* but the more I looked at the 1985 cards the more I could see the beginnings of what I expected to see in the cards of my youth in a set which wasn’t quite there yet.

*When I periodized this blog I chose to avoid naming eras and just drew lines in places that felt like logical breaks and listed them as date ranges.

1985 is one of those basic Topps designs that so many people wish Topps would return to. White borders. Simple solid colors. A good-sized team set for each team. It dropped the multiplayer cards that marked so many of the previous releases but it still feels like a classic Topps set that serves as both a yearbook of the previous season as well as a marker of the current season.

The photography is mostly the same as previous sets. Action is increasingly creeping in but there’s nothing really fantastic yet. Catchers are clearly leading the way here but there’s nothing like the amazing action shots which we’d see in the coming years. It does however feel that a lot of the action is cropped a bit tighter than in previous seasons. Feet and legs are frequently out of the frame and there’s an overall emphasis on getting closer to the scene.

There are also a few wonderfully casual images which would fit in perfectly with the variety of 1990s photography. We’ve had candid shots ever since 1970 but they really became a staple of 1990s sets.

At a more technical level there’s an increased reliance on fill flash in the posed photos. Skies are underexposed and there’s more contrast between the player and the background. I’ve seen this described as something distinct to 1985 and 1986’s look but the technique itself is something that is used with increasing sophistication as we get into the 1990s as well.*

*This probably helped by cameras becoming much much smarter in the late 1980s. For example the Nikon F4 was released in 1988 and was a game changer in both autofocus and flash photography.

The last part that presages where the hobby would go comes from the multiple subsets. We’re not talking about things like the Record Breakers and All Stars which have been around a long time. Instead we’re looking at the USA Olympics cards and the #1 Draft Pick cards.

These wouldn’t just return in refined forms in later years but would come to dominate the entire hobby. The concept of printing “rookie” cards of guys way before they debuted in Major League Baseball became the tail that wags the dog as Topps, and everyone else, tried to catch the same lightning in a bottle that they caught with the Mark McGwire.

Team USA cards in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993. #1 Draft pick cards for all teams starting in 1989. Bowman turning into the pre-rookie card set. The flood of non-40-man-roster players in card sets throughout the 1990s and into he 2000s such that MLBPA had to be explicit about what was allowed in its 2006 license. 1985 Topps is patient zero for all of this.

Junk Wax Rainbows

I’ve had a running joke on Twitter about how “when I was your age rainbows looked like this” where “this” refers to the multiple different colors of the late 80s and early 90s Donruss releases. From 1985 to 1992 Donruss released smaller—often 56-card—box sets around certain themes like Highlights, Rookies, Opening Day, All Stars, or the more-generic “Baseball’s Best.”

These sets are fun both because they’re often super-focused thematically and because they always presented a color variation on the base Donruss design. Highlights were orange in 1985 and 1986. Rookies were green from 1987–1992 except in 1991. The other themes had no consistent colors.

Occasionally players would appear in all the different sets in a year. The result of this is that you can collect something that appears similar to the modern parallel rainbow collecting where you can see what the base design looks like with different border colors. The only one of these I have in my collection is Pete Stanicek’s 1988 rainbow* but it occurred to me that it would be fun to go through and see how many guys had a proper rainbow each year.

*Yeah he’s one of my PC guys.

For the purposes of this post I’m only looking a years where there are at least three different sets available. This rules out 1985, 1991, and 1992 since 1985 only has a set of Highlights while 1991 and 1992 only have a Rookies set. I’m also not counting small sets like the Grand Slammers or any of the inserted bonus cards. Nor am I looking at sets which use a different design whether it’s the oversized Action All Stars or the close-but-not-quite 1988 All Stars.

1986

There aren’t a lot of rookies in the Highlights set but since two of the Highlights cards each year are the Rookie of the Year winners, those are the two most-likely ones to have rainbows. In 1986 both of these winners also had cards in the base Donruss set (and Worrell even had two Highlights to choose from).

I actually really like the Highlights set concept with all the monthly and yearly awards, other records broken or unique achievements reached, and Hall of Fame inductees. Is a very nice quick summary of that season of baseball and I really wish it had lasted more than just from 1985–1987.

1987

Just a single rainbow available. With four sets in 1987 I wasn’t sure there’d even be one. As it is, Kevin Seitzer is in all three box sets but for some reason doesn’t have a base Donruss card and Mark McGwire apparently wasn’t an Opening Day Starter.

It’s worth noting here that while in 1985 Donruss kept the black borders and changed the red stripe to be orange for highlights, in 1987 Donruss is doing the full border color swap.

Opening Day is one of my favorite sets of all time. The idea of having a set of just the Opening Day starting lineups is absolutely wonderful. It bookends highlights as a “state of the league in the beginning of the season” marker and is the kind of hyper-specific checklist which I’d love to see more of.

1988

In 1988 Donruss stopped making a Highlights set and switched to a larger, 336-card set called “Baseball’s Best.” This was more of a star-based set and the larger checklist combined with the looser specification meant that instead of looking for the on or two rainbows we have fifteen of them. This is more than 25% of the Rookies checklist. Heck, almost half of these guys didn’t even qualify as Rated Rookies.

1989

Like 1987, 1989 features three extra sets in the same design as the base cards. With the rainbow already existing as part of the base design it would’ve been unlikely to be able to build a real rainbow of parallels. The All Star design however did use a completely different color scheme compared to the base cards (not so much Baseball’s Best or The Rookies). Unfortunately there are no Rookies in he All Star set and so there’s no possibility for a proper rainbow.*

*It is however worth noting that every card in the Grand Slammers set this year comes in all five color options available in the base set.

1990

This is the last year where a rainbow is possible and is very much the same as 1988. Twelve of the Rookies are also in one of the two Best sets* though at least most of them are Rated this year.

*For the purposes of this post I’m combining “Best of the AL” and “Best of the NL” into one set since hey share the same color and by being league-specific have no overlap.

One of the fun things about looking at the Donruss rainbows is how they reveal different directions the base design could have gone. A lot of base Donruss designs are very much things you either love or hate and the color choice is a huge part of that reaction. I’m not going to pass judgement on any of the options other than to say that as a Giants fan I prefer the orange versions of 1986 and 1988.

In which I get insulted by Topps Heritage

With cards only just making their way into retail stores I haven’t been able to procure even a blaster and so I’ve been unable to keep up with my annual dive into the printing weeds. Given the simplicity of the 1973 design I wasn’t expecting to find enough for a post anyway. No obvious things to improve upon or change like 1969/2018’s photography or 1970/2019’s grey borders. No interesting reveals like 1971/2020’s black borders. And no impending trainwrecks like 1972/2021’s typesetting.

I was mainly hoping for clever homages of the best things that 1973 did such as the Jack Brohamer and Mark Belanger pair of cards. I’m hoping the Twitter hive mind will turn up something like that here.

The only cards I got were my Giants team set courtesy of  case break. At first I was extremely satisfied since at an individual card level things looked mostly nice. Some of the usual Heritage photo smoothing and fake trapping shenanigans* but that’s standard with the territory.

*I haven’t really posted about these since I don’t know how to describe them but in short whatever photo processing Topps is doing to make things look older has bothered me for years.

Then I looked closer and realized that of fifteen cards in the base team set, twelve not only use the same background they in fact use the exact same background. This isn’t wholly unexpected since many teams have been posting photo day shots on Twitter than show players posed in front of a green screen. But I also expected a bit more effort from Topps instead of just pasting each player in front of a single stock background image.

I’ve gone ahead and turned my twelve Giants cards into an animated gif that shows how the backgrounds are identical, right down to the exact same cloud formations. I get it. Lead times are short. Creating a complete set is a lot of work. But still this level of templating is the kind of green screen photos that every family attraction used to ambush us with immediately after we entered the front gates.

It offends me professionally as a designer and it disappoints me personally as someone who loves baseball cards. It also shows that Topps is dialing up the worst qualities of their glory days. As much as I like those cards it’s a sad truth that many of them have the same handful of poses in front of the same kind of stadium background.

The difference though is that even with the sameness of location those cards have life to them. There are random dudes in the background. Players are bundled up against the elements. The photographer moves around the stadium so we end up with multiple views of the same place. Heritage instead is completely sterile and once you see how sterile it is you find yourself wishing for the awkwardness of the 1973 George Scott no matter how bad the compositing is.

Progress

So it only took four years since Topps/MLB yanked the mascot logo for us to see our first non-Indians Cleveland card. I was expecting to write this post next year with Series 1 but this week Topps went ahead and put out the first Cleveland Guardians card.

It’s nice to see even just as a mockup. I’m not sold on the logo but it works in the 1953 design since it’s not the usual modern overly-slick branding. I know it’s not actually hand-drawn but it’s one of the first I’ve seen in a long time that has that essence.  It, and the cap logo, are also huge improvements on the block C that’s been in use since 2017.

The amazing thing is that this card could’ve come out even sooner. Triston McKenzie looks to have been scheduled for the December 1st only he got delayed because Topps asked Jared Kelley to change his artwork. Given that the Guardians logos and everything were only announced at the end of July this is a fast turnaround to get it all into production.

The turnaround is so fast that I’m now wondering whether there were any discussions about changing the logo in other sets like Archives, Stadium Club Chrome, and Holiday which all reflect trade deadline team changes. Yes I know this also brings in the question of changing uniform logos in a way that requires more messing around with a photo than the way Living involves individual paintings.

I’m curious how the Guardians rollout will continue on trading cards. The photo issue will remain through next year—especially as the lockout pushes back the chances to get photos of guys in uniform—and Topps will clearly have to make a decision about how much photoshopping they want to do.

A T218 Toehold

One of the pre-war sets I’ve long admired is the 1910–1912 T218 Champions set. The cards are double-sized compared to standard tobacco cards and much of the artwork is spectacular. Unfortunately, there are no baseball cards in the checklist—ruling out obvious samples to pursue and rendering the set mostly irrelevant to this blog.

However, there are a handful of toehold cards to choose from. The big name is alleged Black Sox bag man Abe Attell who features in the boxing portion of the checklist. But there are also Platt Adams, Frank Irons, and Abel Kiviat who as track and field athletes also ended up playing baseball in the 1912 Olympics.

Last month Jason generously sent me a well-loved Frank Irons card. I’m not sure he was aware of the baseball significance as much as he wanted to make sure I had a sample, any sample, of the set.* I don’t care that it’s mighty beat up, I just enjoyed the excuse to go chase down internet reference links about baseball in the 1912 Games.

*I’m generally incapable of getting rid of any cards once I have them.

In those games there was a baseball exhibition between a Swedish club and a US team made up of Track and Field athletes. The result of the game made it to newspapers across the US but it’s a pretty bare-bones story which is more interested in just listing which athletes took part. There is however a PDF of the official report of the 1912 Stockholm games which is much more interesting.

Not only is “Baseball” listed in the Table of Contents,* there’s a writeup of the game, a box score, and a half dozen photos. Not quite as much information as the RG Knowles book had but still a fun read. I’ve gone ahead and screenshotted the PDF so I can summarize here.

*Since the PDF page numbering is messed up due to bilingual pages sharing the same page number the fact that Baseball starts on page 823 doesn’t help you navigate the PDF a all.

Because this is an official report about the games, the summary centers the Swedish experience. This is actually awesome since baseball had only reached Sweden in 1910 and they were still grappling with some of the fundamentals—especially regarding pitching—two years later.

Specifically, they hadn’t figured out how to throw curveballs and were worried about their ability to hit them as well. They ended up borrowing three pitchers and one catcher from the US team in order to have a semblance of fairness in the competition. While they were concerned about hitting, they do appear to have been proud of getting five hits and took special pride in Wickman’s* double.

*I can’t find a first name for him anywhere.

Of the toehold guys, two played in this game. Frank Irons was the starting left fielder, went 1 for 2, and made one put out. Abel Kiviat meanwhile played the whole game at shortstop, going 2 for 4, hitting a triple, stealing a base, scoring twice, and making two put outs.* Platt Adams only played in a USA vs USA game** but his brother Ben was the starting pitcher for Sweden.

*There’s a more US-focused writeup of the game which goes more into Kiviat as the star of he game as well.

*Which didn’t make it into the official report and Wikipedia doesn’t have a source for the  second box score. Jim Thorpe also supposedly played in the second game (the first one was the same day as the decathlon competition); no idea if he had found his shoes by then.

A couple other items of note. I cannot express how much I enjoy Sweden bragging about being able to play ball until 10pm in the summer. The location of the game still exists as a sporting facility. And the umpire of the game was none other than Hall of Famer George Wright.

The report also has a half-dozen photos of the game. The team photo of the Swedish side is great and the other photos showing Swedish action in the game are a lot of fun too. As I noted earlier it’s clear that the Swedes took pride in their five hits since one of the four game highlights is Wickman’s double while another is Welin’s single.

I do wish we had more photos of the US players—or at least a team photo—but I can’t complain about what’s here.

View-Master Instructional Baseball

For a long time the 1953 Viewmaster set was the only Major League Baseball one I was aware of. Stay on Twitter long enough though and of course people will turn up more. I’ve recently discovered that Viewmaster made other sets in the 1970s and 1980s. Theres’s a 1970 which one is part of an instructional series and features the 1969 Mets. And there are a bunch of 1981 sets from various teams’* Spring Trainings.

*I’ve seen Dodgers, Astros, Phillies, Twins, and Yankees on eBay.

I’m not a completionist and decided to skip the 1981 team-based sets (if a Giants set existed though I’d’ve absolutely behaved differently) but the 1970 Mets se intrigued me. This is partially because it’s older than I am but it also looked to be shot a Shea Stadium so there was potentially a lot more of interest to look at in it. When I found one for under $10 shipped my hand was forced.

I went ahead and made composite scans of the discs this time so you can see both the printing and the images. I didn’t receive the booklet but these don’t look like they were really that instructional either. Anyway, the most fun part of these is scanning and making wiggle gifs so let’s get to those right away.

Disc 1

Pitcher “looks in” for sign from catcher.
The catcher gives the sign to pitcher, Gary Gentry
Grips for fast ball (left) and curve ball (right)
Pitcher winds up for the pitch.
Leg lift helps pitcher bring body and arm forward.
Pitcher’s forward stride is key to good control.
Release of ball on follow-through is up to pitcher.

The first disc demonstrates pitching and features Gary Gentry. Pretty basic instructions but some of the images—such as the catcher giving the signs—were unexpected especially for what works in 3D. I like that this disc is basically a complete sequence of how to throw a pitch and I can totally see how it would have worked as an instructional item.

Between the matchups on the out-of-town scoreboard in and the San Diego on the game-day scoreboard this set appears to have been taken on April 21 or April 22. Both games started around 2:00 pm while the photos look to have been taken in the mid-morning with the sun getting high but still enough in the East to cast a distinct shadow.

Disc 2

Infielder’s stance enables him to field or block ball.
Shortstop takes ball hit on his left and…
…tags second to force out runner from first.
The throw to first must be fast to get double play.
Shortstop play: second baseman to shortstop double play.
Sacrifice bunt gets runner to next base.
Fielder bare-hands bunt for hurried throw.

The next disc features fielding with Bud Harrelson. Unlike Disc 1 this disc doesn’t show a single sequence and instead depicts three or four distinct plays. The photos however are a lot of fun because a bunch of them show the ball in motion and as a result, really really pop as 3D. I especially like the dust clouds that show that the balls were actually being hit to him.

I really really love the fifth image showing Harrelson taking the throw from the second baseman. While the photo quality is technically inferior to the 1953 photos* being able to capture action like this creates a very different 3D experience. The pair of bunting photos is similarly fantastic this way.

*Color is worse and the sharpness of the images is pretty bad too.

The lack of a crisp shadow in this set of photos indicates either a different session or that the weather got a lot worse after the Gentry photos were taken. Sadly no visible scoreboards to help us either.

Disc 3

Batter takes one of three stances—open, closed, or parallel.
Cleon Jones meets the pitch.
Fielder watches fly ball all the way into his glove.
Fielder catches line drive with glove straight up.
Outfielder throws ball to infielder.
Harrelson makes a base hit.
Cleon Jones makes a score.

Probably the least instructive of the discs since it doesn’t include any real sequences but also the most interesting of the three since it includes three images of actual in-game action, all of which work pretty well in 3D. The last image of Cleon Jones scoring is clearly from the April 21 game against the Padres and suggests that the Gary Gentry photos were likely taken the same day before the game.

Jones scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly but the Padres rallied for two runs in the top of the ninth to take the lead. Harrelson did indeed single in this game so there’s a very good chance that his photos were also taken in this game. Where the Gentry photos were taken mid morning under a crisp sun, these are approaching twilight with the stadium lights on even though it’s only 4:30.

The photos  of Jones in the outfield have similar light to the Harrelson photos on disc 2 and the scoreboard there indicates that they were taken before a Pittsburgh game. The out of town scoreboard suggests April 16 as the most-likely date in this case.

It’s interesting to me that Viewmaster used generic shirts or jackets and plain caps for these photos yet was able to use images of actual in-game action which show the Mets trademarks. I’m not well-versed enough in intellectual property law to make a guess as to why this is though.

With the 1953 set, I turned my scans into actual cards and even sent some out TTM. I don’t see myself doing the same with these. Some of this is the photo quality just not being good enough. But there’s a larger issue in this case in how the images weren’t selected to be portraits. Still it’ll be nice to print something out to go with the discs in the binder. I just have to figure out what that might be.

How baseball cards got us through a year and a half of remote learning

So school finally started a couple months ago. In person. We’re lucky to live in a district which is taking things seriously so everyone’s masked, anyone who can be vaccinated has gotten vaccinated, HVAC has been upgraded districtwide, and our class sizes are even reasonable. Is kind of a weird feeling since it’s been a year and a half since I last had this much time to myself.

I haven’t written too much about what we’ve been doing day-to-day. Exciting stuff like bats and fires? Yes. But the everyday grind of trying to keep things interesting and moving? Not so much. It’s been tough. School is hard and while I appreciate being able to know what they’re learning, it was a lot to stay on top of all their work.* Plus the daily grind of lessons and homework is not the most compelling stuff to write about.

*Though it has paid off as real-world events have required us to better explain things.

I can however comment on how baseball and baseball cards have given the boys somewhat of a rock to hold on to amidst all the uncertainty over the last year and a half. Not collecting—lord knows that that’s been basically inaccessible to them as Target was always sold out for months before they stopped carrying cards at all—but the hobby itself has given them something reliable to turn to for multiple school assignments.

My youngest started off remote learning with a “passion project” where he would have to research something he was interested in and then report about it to his class.* He picked baseball but sort of panicked about his presentation because he hates being on camera. After talking things over we figured out that if he made oversized baseball cards he could draw something on the front and have his notes on the back.

*Not the best assignment but his teacher used the time to put together an excellent remote-schooling curriculum so it worked out great.

So that turned out to be a fun thing to work on. We’ve got plenty of books and could also watch the Ken Burns documentary. He ended up doing a mix of small stories about early rules*, early games, and some stories about how teams got their nicknames.

*Something we all learned about at a vintage baseball game a couple years ago.

My two favorite cards that he drew feature the first game in Hoboken—very appropriate given that we live in New Jersey—and a picture of a trolley mowing down inhabitants of Brooklyn. We may be a Giants household but the Dodgers nickname story is vastly superior. Oh, and these are intentionally uncolored because they’re supposed to be old and old photos are black and white.

My eldest meanwhile did a similar project and ended up making a presentation about the Giants where he picked the “best” lineup from their time in San Francisco. So he did some research into stats and had to make an argument about why he chose who he chose.

It wasn’t specifically a Baseball Card project but he ended up using baseball cards as his illustrations. Part of his choice to use cards was because it made for the easiest way of finding photos online and having them labelled clearly on his Power Point. But it also worked as a way of situating those players in time and showing when they played.

He’s made some noises of using this to make a small sent of custom cards but aside from a few design experiments nothing’s really come to fruition. As much as he likes the idea of making custom cards like I do, he hasn’t quite figured out that having a set theme is a good idea.

The following school year, my youngest decided to research baseball cards for one of his writing projects (specifically a research paper). This one felt a little weird to me since he had to list his sources and, while I didn’t spoonfeed him things, he definitely consulted with me.

At the same time, he has been to museums and seen old cards* and has a decent understanding of both card history as well as the nature of the hobby today. He definitely knows more about cards than I did when I was his age since I never got to see any of them.

*Also the Burdick cards at the Met.

He also was writing his report right when coverage of the hobby started to hit national media again. Between the number of high-profile sales—in particular the Mike Trout Superfractor which was briefly the most-expensive card out there—and the amount of other market craziness we all experienced last year, his report had a lot of almost current events to cover as well. I got a chance to see a lot of surprised comments from his teacher and he got to learn how nice it is to turn in a research project that teaches the teacher.

I don’t have screenshots of either of their reports (sharing writing seems a lot more personal than sharing drawings) but I was very happy to be able to read both of them and recognize how with everything else in upheaval, they were still able to draw on some hobbies as a source of inspiration and comfort in their schoolwork.

Facepalm

Checklist release day is always a fun one, especially when it’s a Flagship related set like Update where I’m curious which players made it into the “permanent record.” Yesterday was such a day. I woke up, noticed that the checklist had been released, and proceeded to click on multiple preview posts hoping to find an HTML list instead of an XLSX one.

I eventually did so but it took me about four tries and on each page I saw the exact same sell sheet sample images. The sameness of the images wasn’t a surprise—Topps obviously sends the same sell sheet to everyone—but the presence of one image caught me on every page.


Yeah.

I didn’t recognize at first that all the previews were originally written and posted in May. And I totally understand how easy it is to just tack on the new information at the bottom of an already-existing article. But still just a quick scroll through the article is enough to make me shake my head and doing that multiple times made me really sad about the state of the hobby.

This was a high-profile case which resulted in a player being suspended in early July and having that suspension extended to encompass the entire season. I don’t feel like discussing the details of the case here (Google is your friend if you somehow missed it but suffice it to say that I was not expecting to have to have baseball prompt an in-depth discussion about consent and its limitations with my sons) but his suspension and the way that Major League Baseball and the Dodgers have pulled his merchandise says more than enough.

He’s completely non-viable as a marketable part of the league yet Topps, despite a three-month lead time, was not only unable to pull him from the product but wasn’t even able to update the sell sheet. This is massively irresponsible. The new sell sheet should’ve gone out in July instead of relying on card bloggers and writers to edit their old posts.

That so many hobby publications completely missed the problem is also completely dismaying. This hobby already already skews heavily male* so stuff that feels almost designed to make women feel uncomfortable is embarrassing. It shouldn’t be hard to catch something like this. **

*Including this blog. I think the closest we have to a post authored by a woman is Jason’s interview with Donna. And yes Jason and I are acutely aware that this is is a problem.

**By the end of the yesterday multiple sites had actually edited their previews and removed the image. I’m fully aware that I’m using that image on this blog but it’s not the image itself which is a problem but rather its usage as an advertisement for the set. 

And yes it’s absolutely embarrassing. I got some crap on Twitter accusing me of being upset but my reaction to the initial posts was more just being appalled at how normalized this kind of thing is. I wish it made me angry* but the sad state of this country is that we’re so good at condoning and excusing violence against women that the most emotion I can muster is a facepalm and rueful headshake.

*The tweets I received did succeed in pissing me off.

Definitely not the buzz I wanted to feel about a new set. But the wake up call is worth listening to. The hobby has got to do better here. The same goes to us as men.

Anatomy of a Reprint

This will be a short post but I just received a copy of the 2021 Stadium Club Will Clark reprint. It’s a striking portrait of The Thrill. In 1992 Topps treated  Clark, Matt Williams, and Kevin Mitchell all very similarly. Black jackets and a black background with just enough light to expose their faces and one other feature—glove, ball, etc.—while everything else receded into shadow.

They’re striking cards and I figured it would be fun to compare the Clark reprint with the original card that I have in my collection.

Starting off with a side-by-side pair of scans. I scanned and processed these together before splitting them into different images so the differences in color reflect actual differences between the two and not anything I introduced in post-processing the scan. In this pair, and the other pairs of images in this post, the original 1992 card is on the left and the 2021 reprint is on the right.

Two obvious differences. 1992 is a bit darker and yellower. 2021 has lower contrast and better shadow detail. First off, the yellowness extends to the white point of the paper and is very likely an effect of aging. Maybe the paper is getting old. Maybe the UV coating* is yellowing slightly. The contrast and shadow detail differences though suggest that a lot more is going on.

*UV coating is the high-gloss finish that Topps started using in 1991 Stadium Club and which took over the hobby in the 1990s. It’s called UV because it’s cured with ultraviolet light. It can yellow with age and, as many of us have found, can stick to other UV coated items as well.

Yup. Time to look closer. The print screens shows that Topps recreated the original cards and that they have, someplace, the original images that they used in 1992. How can I tell? The two different cards use different line frequencies—1992 is around 125 LPI, 2021 is around 170 LPI—and there’s no evidence of rescreening.*

*Poorly done reprints often scan and rescreen on top of the older screen and the result is often a mess.

LPI stands for lines per inch and refers to how many rows of dots occur in each inch of printing. A higher number means you have the ability to show more detail in the image but also requires better quality paper and a better press to hold that detail. Printing too fine a line screen can actually produce a darker image than expected if done incorrectly since the dots are closer together and can “plug” if the paper or press is wrong.* In the 1980s and 1990s, anything over 120 LPI was high quality. Nowadays things are routinely printed around 170 or higher.

* It’s my opinion that 1989 Upper Deck suffered a bit from this as it would completely explain why so many of the images are darker than they should be.

More importantly though, I can see in the blacks that the screen on the 2021 card is a lot more open. At the top of this pair of images, the 1992 version is almost solid black. There are occasional dots of color but it’s mostly plugged with ink. The 2021 version though is clearly a mix of inks. Not only is the linescreen much finer, Topps kept it from plugging up with ink. As a result, there’s a lot more visible detail in the cap, jacket, and even the background texture.

There’s also a lot less yellow being printed in 2021. Looking at Clark’s eye shows that even if the UV coating in the 1992 is yellowing, there’s actually a lot of yellow being printed as well. I see way fewer yellow dots in the 2021 card.

This pair of images shows off the difference in detail that we can see in the glove but what caught my eye is the way the Stadium Club logo is printed. This wasn’t clocked by most people in 1991 but in addition to the full-bleed images, glossy finish, and foil stamping, Topps also used a spot-color ink* for the first time on the front of its cards.** This continued in 1992 and in the scans here the difference between the pink stadium seats is pretty obvious.

*I’m not going to explain spot colors in much depth here since I’ve already done so elsewhere on the blog but in short, full-color printing uses four process inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) and any additional ink that’s not one of those four colors is a spot ink.

**1991 Stadium Club is the first full-color plus spot color I can think of for Topps. 1990 Leaf with the silver ink  if the first full-color plus spot color I can think of in general. Adding a spot ink to the four process inks was a serious premium step up in production.

No screening at all in 1992. Clear magenta and yellow screen patterns and even some slight misregistration in 2021. I can’t show this in images but the 1992 spot ink fluoresces under a black light as well.

I know why Topps chose not to use a spot color in 2021 since that would be a lot of extra production for an insert set that no one was really excited about anyway.* At the same time, that they didn’t strikes me as being as wrong as if they’d replaced the foil stamping with a gold color ink mix.

*Seriously, does anyone like Stadium Club inserts? I’m pretty sure we all just get Stadium Club because the base card photography is so great.

Still, it was fun to do a dive into the printing differences so I can’t complain too much. While things like Heritage or Archives often play a bit loose with adapting old designs to modern usage, a reprint is supposed to be the same and when it’s not I’m glad the differences give us a look in to how Topps’s production quality has changed and, for the most part, improved.