Rolling my own

1987 was my first full year as a baseball fan. After attending my first Giants game in 1986, despite the ridiculousness of the game—16-innings including the Giants using pitchers as outfielders and switching them between left and right field depending on the batters’ platoon splits—I ended up a hard core Giants fan the following year. That the Giants were actually good for the first time in anyone’s memory certainly helped. As did the fact that 1987 was also the year I got bitten bigtime by the baseball card bug.

That fall when the Giants won the Western Division* my local paper, The San Jose Mercury News, celebrated by printing cartoony baseball “cards” of the entire team on the back page of the sports section. It was a pretty silly thing. Cheap newsprint. The card backs were just whatever was on the previous page of the newspaper. But I was undeterred.

*30 years later I still instinctually think of the Reds, Astros, and Braves as the Giants’ rivals even though they’re no longer in the same division nor, in the Astos’ case, the same league.

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I scrounged some old vertical file folders from my parents, brushed on glue, and carefully laid the newspaper onto cardstock. I still remember carefully brushing the bubbles out before the glue dried. Later in the day once the glue had dried, I busted out my scissors and turned that cheap newsprint into real cards.

30 years later and I’m a bit surprised that these are in as good shape as are. Yes, of course I kept these in binders. But newsprint isn’t the most archival of materials and there was no guarantee I’d selected an appropriate glue. I probably just grabbed a bottle of Elmer’s but it’s not like I knew what I was doing when I was nine.

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The best part of these cards is the backs though. Besides being woefully uncreative—I had, after all, only been collecting cards for under a year—it’s an interesting snapshot into what I felt was important on a card back at the time. Yes, I also remember being fascinated with all the statistics but that would’ve been outside of my lettering ability at the time. But I felt very strongly about knowing a player’s position and recording the team/year information that the card represents.

It’s also very clear that I believed that a baseball card should be part of a numbered set. I have no idea how I chose to number these, but not only did I number them, that’s the order I sleeved them in my album.

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I was apparently not the only burgeoning baseball card collector who received The Merc at home. These cards got such a reception that a few days later they reappeared on the back of the sports page—this time in color and with proper backs. Or, well, sort of proper backs. It looks like something produced by a newspaper whose priorities are creating readable copy using the existing house style. I do however love the optimism of including a line for autographs. Even today I don’t know what pen I’d choose for that task.

Anyway, I went ahead and turned the new series into cards too. Same method only I had to both procure a second copy of the paper and figure out how to register the two sides for gluing.

I wish I could remember how I accomplished the registration.

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The following year when the A’s won their first pennant in over a decade The Merc celebrated the same way. This time though the cards were oversize—closer to the pre-1957 Topps size—and, while they were printed in color the first time around, they never got any backs.

So, as someone whose first exposure to cards the late 1980s with backs that stayed the same year after year, I went ahead and used the same template for my hand-pencilled backs that I’d used the previous year.

Productionwise though I no longer used vertical files. My parents encouraged me to find a cheaper source of card stock so these are, I think, on reclaimed cereal boxes. This resulted in way thicker cards and produced the nice side benefit of encouraging me to use a paper cutter instead of scissors. Where the 1987 cards have all janky hand-cut edges, these 1988s are nice and square.

Alas, The Mercury News never made any more cards. The following year’s Bay Bridge Series had plenty of other things for them to print commemorative back pages of and by the time the Giants returned to the World Series in 2002 the baseball card bubble had imploded. But I’m happy these were around right at the beginning of my collecting and I love rediscovering them both in how they’ve survived and how they suggest possible projects for my sons to try as they flirt with the hobby.

A’s cards and Cards cards

Growing up in the Bay Area, while I wasn’t an A’s fan, my local card shops had a lot of A’s cards in the cases. I remember noting even at the time how the team name tended to break a lot of Topps’s designs: “A’s” was too short, had punctuation, and required a lower-case letter. “Athletics” meanwhile was one of the longest team names.

As I’ve gotten older and gained more familiarity with the older cards I’ve realized that the A’s are not the only team whose name Topps messed around with. Throughout the 1960s, Topps referred to the Cardinals—another team with a long name—as “Cards” on many of their cards. So I’ve decided to go through Topps’s styled-text designs from 1964 to 1986 and see how they handled the A’s and the Cardinals and any other odd cases.

I chose to stop in 1986 because 1987 is the first year that Topps had just logos, no team names, on the card fronts. There are a few text-based designs which followed—specifically 1988, 1989, 1990, 2004, 2006, and 2008—but Topps has also used “Athletics” every since 1988.

Before 1964, Topps just used plain text to list the team name. Yes it’s part of the design, but it was never the distinguishing element. All that changed in 1964 when Topps began using styled text and team names as a key element of its designs.* This opened the door to having to create designs which worked for all name lengths. Sometimes this was successful, other times team names which were either too long or too short ended up revealing some problems in the design, and sometimes Topps just made some weird design decisions which I still can’t figure out.

*There are some earlier examples such as the 1960 manager cards which use pennants very similar to the 1965 design but nothing as part of the default set design.

For their first real foray into styled type 1964’s design is pretty robust. It works well with all the team names. It doesn’t feel too cramped and everything’s still legible with the nine-letter ones. If anything this design works better than the super-extended letters Topps used for the four-letter teams, although the extended font does have a certain 1960s appeal.

1965—while a design I love—starts to reveal how things can start to go bad. “Athletics” begins to get really pinched and hard to read in the point of the pennant. “White Sox” has the same issue but works a bit better. It’s easy to see why Topps decided to go with “Cards” in what would be the first year of six consecutive years where Topps used “Cards” instead of “Cardinals.”

I’m not covering 1966 except to note that Topps used “Cards.” 1966, like a number of years in the ’70s and ’80s*, doesn’t use styled text but rather puts plain text in a colored box. Since the box functions as the design element rather than the text the length of the word doesn’t bother me as long as it’s legible.

*1974, 1976, 1979, 1980, 1983, and 1985.

1967 continued with “Athletics” and “Cards.” In this case it’s clear that the design doesn’t quite work with nine-character team names. The font is too condensed, it’s too close to the edges of the photo, and the black stroke is too heavy for the letter sizes. Despite it being the consensus best design of the decade that it doesn’t work as well with long team names is a strike against it.

1968 meanwhile, while not exactly styled-text, presented a lot of challenges for how to fit the team names into that little circle. Topps opted to go with “A’s” and it’s a great fit. “Cards” works wonderfully too. Since eight-letter names like Pirates barely fit—you can see that Topps had to use a thinner font—Topps made the wise decision to put White Sox on two lines instead.

1969 is similar to 1967 except that Topps chose fonts which work better. Rather than using a super-compressed font with the long names, Topps used a completely different extended font for the shorter names. It kind of weirds me out how different these fonts are* but by using two distinct fonts the design itself works better for all name lengths.

*Look at the “C” and “S” and how in “Athletics” they’re parallel to the baseline but in “Cards” they’re at an angle.

I have no idea what Topps was doing in 1970. They stayed with “A’s” even though the design would’ve accommodated “Athletics.” It certainly looks fine with “White Sox.” This is the first—and certainly not the last—case of using “A’s” where the design just looks weird to me. The font is huge and bold and the lower-case “s”—especially with the right-aligned type—doesn’t fit.

But it’s not just the A’s thing I can’t figure out. In 1970 Topps released cards with both “Cardinals” and “Cards” AND both “Yankees” and “Yanks.” Besides the fact that I’ve not seen “Yanks” on any other Topps cards, the idea that Topps was just changing team names from series to series is bizarre to me. That Topps was doing this while not changing the Pilots cards to Brewers cards? I don’t understand. At all.

In 1971 I’m mainly surprised that Topps stayed with “Cards.” It looks fine, using such an extended font for the long names means that even the centered shorter names look good. And I’m certainly glad Topps didn’t stretch the short names to fit. But to my eye the design looks better when the team name fills the entire top of the card and if “Athletics” fits, they should’ve been able to get “Cardinals” to fit as well. In any case this was the last year Topps went with “Cards.”

In 1972, Topps swapped from 1971 and went with “A’s” and “Cardinals” instead. Since this is how things stayed for the next decade I’m mainly going to focus on the A’s cards from here on out. Topps’s designs going forward, including this one, all work with “Cardinals” so going with “A’s” is never a reaction to a design restriction and instead reflects some other corporate choice.

The 1972 A’s example is notable in that the “S” is also capitalized—heck even the apostrophe is huge. I still feel like it’s not quite enough text to really work in the space the way that all the other team designs do though.

  

1973 is non-styled text like how Topps’s designs were before 1964. 1974 and 1976 are text in colored boxes. 1975 and 1977 though are two examples where the “A’s” looks just awful—probably the two worst designs for the A’s in all Topps’s history. I appreciate white space in design but in these cases just having two letters centered on the text area doesn’t give the impression that Topps thought about the design at all.

In both of these cases, “Athletics” would’ve worked better. Although with 1977—and this is part of a more general critique of a design which I’ve come to actively dislike—if the text were aligned to the left rather than being centered I think things would’ve been ok. The off-center centered text thing is especially egregious.

1978 and 1981 though (1979 and 1980 are colored boxes with text in them) are two examples where the “A’s” works really well. 1978 in particular is fantastic in how Topps created lettering which fills the space without looking different from the rest of the cards in the set. Where 1975 and 1977 didn’t consider the design at all, 1978 is an example of how to do it 100% correct.

1981 meanwhile is an example where the A’s cards look better than every other team.* I don’t care much for those floppy hats. I was okay with them as a kid because I only really saw them on the Giants and A’s cards—two teams with two-color caps—but on every team with a single-color cap this design is already in trouble. Putting the team name on the hat? Who does that? So I enjoy that the A’s caps on the cards end up looking very much like their actual on-field caps.

*The only other contender is the Pirates with their pillbox cap and the special design exception Topps made for them.

  

Skipping around a bit now. 1983 and 1985 are color box years. We’ll get to 1984 soon. But 1982 and 1986 are two examples where things work okay. Not great, but okay enough. 1982 is very similar to 1977 in terms of how it’s handling the fonts. The difference is that the hockey sticks work way better than the position pennant. The team name is supposed to continue the color stripe across the bottom of the card. “A’s” is barely big enough to do it. That Topps used an almost-full-height “S” is a huge help here. As is the fact that the font is also somewhat extended.

1986 meanwhile is similar to 1975 in that the “A’s” is kind of small all by itself on the top of the card. The saving grace here is again how wide the font is. That A is wider than it is tall. It also has a ton of character with the triangular crossbar which, while not specially-designed like the 1978 cards, gives the team name a similar kind of presence.

Back to 1984 and the first year in over a decade which Topps used “Athletics.” It’s not hard to see why. Four-letter names are a stretch. Literally. “A’s” would’ve looked ridiculous. That nine letters is also a bit tight is part of why, while I liked this set as a kid, I’m less impressed by its design now.

Until the Diamondbacks came around, baseball team names were all between four (Cubs, Mets, Reds) and nine (Athletics, Cardinals, White Sox) characters long. Many years it feels like Topps’s designs were optimized for five to seven characters. Four and eight work okay. Anything longer or shorter is pushing things. I’m less surprised that Topps used “Cards” for “Cardinals” than I am that they stopped doing so in 1972.

About the Diamondbacks

With the Diamondbacks taking over as the longest team name, They’re now the more interesting example than the A’s. There’s not enough to really post here but it’s worth noting that Topps has used both “Diamondbacks” and “D-Backs” on the few type-based designs it’s had since 1990.

That Topps hasn’t used “D-Backs” on any of the Heritage designs shows how badly those designs work with long team names. The 1965 and 1968 team names are almost unreadable. And if I thought the 1967 Athletics cards looked bad, the Diamondbacks ones look even worse. In all these cases the cards would look way better with “D-Backs” instead.

So About Heritage

Oof. Maybe this is MLB trademark silliness* but, as with the photography, not respecting the original designs is one of the main reasons I’m down on the Heritage product. There’s no reason not to use “Cards” or “A’s” here. In all cases  the results are a downgrade—especially in 1968 where the ™ symbol throws off the centering and makes the name fit even worse.

*All the team names all have a ™ on them now. This started in 1992 but only became standard in 1999.

There are many reasons to like Heritage. It does capture a certain baseball card essence which the modern flagship sets no longer have. But for Topps to reuse designs like this and then not get the details right in ways which breaks the design itself? Infuriating.