You say you want a revolution…

For me, Topps Now and Upper Deck Documentary are two of the most promising baseball card concepts that I’ve seen in terms of new directions the hobby could take. I love the idea of having one card per game for each team. And I love the idea of using modern printing technology for small print runs and quick product turnarounds. Marrying those two concepts is something I wish Topps Now would do instead of focusing on the usual big market teams and currently-hot stars.

I know I know, the idea of creating up to sixty different cards each day is a significant amount of work. That’s a lot of photos to pick, text to write, designs to compose, proofs to check, etc. etc. with a one-day turnaround. And yes at $10 a pop there’s no way anyone would collect a set of 162 cards for their team.* But the potential is so compelling I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to have such a set growing as the season grows with a photo of each highlight.

*As an aside, what price point would such a set be something worthwhile? Even $1/card feels high when thought of as a set.

Enter Matt Prigge who late last month dropped a tweet about rolling his own version of these and has since committed to doing this all summer. Matt’s using the Rookies App for this and the results look great so far.

Prigge1 Prigge2

The Rookies App has a bunch of different templates that just drop photos into. You can add text to the pre-defined text fields and change some of the colors. But otherwise it’s pretty limited. It is a lot of fun and I’ve played with it a bit for photos of my sons in Little League but for a set like this where the text on the back is kind of important, I suspect that the app might get frustrating since you’re stuck entering all the text on your iPhone.

Matt’s doing a modified documentary set of just highlights. But he’s also doing  a complete roster of everyone who appears for the Brewers this season. He’s sourcing highlight photos for the highlights but he’s not limiting himself to this season for the roster images. I like this idea very much since not every game is a highlight and that sometimes there will be multiple highlights in a single game. Also not all players will have their own highlights but it’s nice for everyone to have a card in a set like this.

Bucs

A bunch of us on Baseball Card Twitter have been inspired to try our own version of this project. Battlin’ Bucs has been doing a set of Pirates cards using his own design inspired by the 1961 Topps World Series subset. He’s taken what’s already a notable subset for Pirates fans and tweaked the colors to be even more Pirates-appropriate.

Battlin’ Bucs is only doing single-sided cards so the fact that this design allows for so much text is a big plus. I suspect that he’s also doing these in a Photoshop template and modifying each layer in his template where appropriate before saving everything as a JPG. He’s also going for a full 162-card set (with fingers crossed for more).

VossbrinkF

Meanwhile I’ve been inspired by 1993 Upper Deck and am doing a set of highlights and a complete roster like what Matt’s doing. I’m creating these in Indesign since I’m too much a text geek to do everything in Photoshop. This is definitely more work that using the Rookies App but it fits my preferences better.

It’s definitely been an interesting start to the season and has changed the way I’m reading game writeups since I’m now on the lookout for good photos from each game. I’m trying to only use photos of the players from this season as well (I’m missing only a few despite the newness of the season) but we’ll see if I can stick to this.

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The thing about doing all these on my own is that I had to design the backs as well. This was the hardest part of the entire project. I’m pretty satisfied with a line score and one-paragraph writeup. And the Giants even had a 14-inning game to stress test my template to the limit of what it can handle.

By doing fronts and backs I’ve pretty much committed to printing these out. I’m not sure how I’ll be doing that but I’ll probably start with cheap 4″×6″ photo prints that I glue together since that’ll run me 20¢ a card max. If that doesn’t work I’ll figure out something else.

I’m looking forward to seeing how these projects progress over the summer. My fingers are crossed that more bloggers and card twitter people join us since an end-of-season round up of everyone’s sets will be cool to see.

And if anyone else in this community wants to join us but needs help getting started, don’t hesitate to ask. The more the merrier. We don’t need to rely on a company to make the cool yearbook sets that we all see as the promise and potential of Topps Now, we can do it ourselves.

Barajitas EEUUs: más Pacific

This is my third post featuring Spanish-language baseball cards released in the United States. Previous posts are:

  1. Introduction and 1978 Topps Zest
  2. 1993–2000 Pacific and Pacific Crown

Where the previous post covered Pacific’s “flagship” Spanish-language sets, this post will touch on some of their other Spanish-language sets. This isn’t meant to be a definitive list but rather a recognition that Pacific had other, smaller sets—general release, inserts, oddballs, etc.—which were also aimed at a Spanish-speaking market. These are what I’ve encountered so far and I know there are many more issues out there.

From what I can tell the 1997 Gems of the Diamond is a 200-count insert set for a 150-count base set—in this case Pacific Prisms. In 1994 Prisms were the insert set but from 1995–1997 Pacific Prisms was a 144-card set with all kinds of crazy stuff going on on the fronts and a sentence in Spanish about the players on the backs. In 1999 the mark returned but as an English-language set.

In many ways the Gems of the Diamond insert set is more interesting from a Spanish-language point of view since it includes a lot more text about the players. The copy on this Bonds card interests me because it feels like it was written in English first and then translated to Spanish since it uses evocative words like “smacked” and “tallied” in English while in Spanish it just repeats “conectó” (literally, connected) when describing his home run hitting.

In 1998 the Gems of the Diamond set became an insert for Pacific’s Invincible line. This was the same deal as Prisms where the insert set outnumbered the base cards.* It looks like Invincible took over from Prisms since the invincible line ran from 1998–2000 and featured a different flavor of over-the-top designs.

*While not the point of this post I’m beginning to wonder when an insert set stops being something I can conceive of as an “insert.”

Less biographic text this year and there are now stats on the back. Stats are in English which really stands out when the text references them in Spanish.

While I don’t have any of those tricked-out Prism cards I do have some Invincible cards. This one from 1999 has a weird translucent circle which features the player headshot so you can see him in mirror-image on the card back. Or maybe the point is you can hold the card up to the light and get a bit of a slide effect. I don’t know.

I don’t have much to note on the Spanish language usage here except to point out that the positions are in English. It’s weird, in many ways Prism and Invincible are both cards lines which would be better served by not having any text on the backs and just embracing themselves as two-sided graphic design. The only reason to have text on many of these is so you know which side is the front.

Be still my beating heart. In 1998 Pacific partnered with Nestlé on an oddball set. I’ve been unable to find out much about how the set was released but it’s a pretty good checklist featuring twenty Latino stars.

Five of the cards are a distinct design and function as something like inserts. The fronts don’t scan well because of all the foil but they’re distinct among all the cards I’ve seen in having bilingual position information. This is a pretty regular feature on Pacific’s backs but is a lot of information to include on the fronts. Sadly the team names are the English version as I would’ve loved to have had a Vigilantes card instead of a Rangers card.

The backs meanwhile continue to feature English-language stats. Given the size of the type being used for the statistic categories this is kind of a disappointing use of space and it would’ve been fun to see bilingual stats here too.

The other fifteen cards are what I guess you’d call the base design. No position information on these fronts and the same huge English-language stats on the back. I do appreciate how the smaller, italic font is used for English though. Still readable but very clear these are primarily for the Spanish-language market.

Heritage and the Uncanny Valley

1969 Topps was a rough year as the player boycott plus four expansion teams put Topps in a major bind with the photography. As a result, many of the cards featured photos which had been cropped super tightly to obscure out-of-date photos, featured hatless players, involved unflattering low-angle shots to hide cap logos, or had the logos painted over. This, plus the numerous re-used photos overshadowed what could’ve been a great design.

Needless to say I was a excited to see 2018 Heritage since I expected that the 1969 design would look really nice if done well. The results have mostly confirmed this. Photos aren’t cropped too closely—more three-quarters length portraits instead of neck-up headshots—and are distinct from what we’ve seen in Flagship (though there does appear to be some reuse from previous years of Heritage). They’re also generally taken in better light than Topps took photos in in the 1960s. No more squinting in full sun or dealing with shadows across faces.

Many of the Heritage images use fill flash well and balance things nicely with the ambient light. Where in the mid-80s Topps went a bit overkill on the flash and turned many of the photos into impending thunderstorms, 2018 Heritage features sunny days that look perfect for a day game or sunsets that suggest it will be a wonderful night for a ballgame.

It’s a great demonstration of how good 1969 Topps could’ve looked and really illustrates the promise and appeal of the Heritage line. Topps also did very well this year in using photos which overwhelmingly feature white home uniforms or road grey uniforms. In previous years there have been a lot of colored alternates or spring training tops* which clash with the retro-esthetic of the designs.

*As a Giants collector this has been one of my biggest peeves about Heritage.

I’m also glad that Topps used the smallest possible ® and ™ symbols on the team names. In many of their retro sets (including this year’s 1983 throwbacks), adding those characters throws off the alignment and, to my eye, ruins the design. So kudos to Topps for getting it right here.

Being the type/design nerd I am though there are also a few things going on that really bother me about Heritage. One big one is that Topps chose to use the longest-possible position names—including “Outfielder” instead of “Outfield,” a choice I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a card before. This wouldn’t normally be an issue except that in order to fit the positions into the circle Topps had to compress the font. And even compressed, “Second Baseman” doesn’t fit well.

I have no idea why Topps did this especially since both last year’s Heritage and the original 1969 design use short position indicators like “2nd Base” instead.

I’m also disappointed, but not surprised, that Topps went with “Diamondbacks” instead of “D-Backs” since the extra-long team name pretty much breaks a lot of the 1960s designs. It is indeed cramped on these cards as well but still looks better and is easier to read than previous years’ Heritage.

While I’ve seen a bunch of complaints about changing the color of the Astros dot from light green to dark blue, that doesn’t bother me. I’d actually like to see all the dots updated to better match the team colors. What does bother me is that Topps went with black ink for the position name inside the dark blue dot. This is literally unreadable and an obvious design screwup. I’d love to see the positions in white or orange here instead.

This Gattis card though also takes me into the thing about Heritage that upsets me the most. While Topps has done a great job in updating the design with good photography they’ve also gone ahead and ruined a lot of the effect by post-processing many of the photos with a fake dot pattern which I’m assuming is intended to mimic a traditional halftone screen.

For a few years now Heritage has been printed using stochastic screening.* This results in much cleaner photographic images and generally improves print quality. Or at least it would if Topps didn’t add this silly dot pattern back into the photo. On the fronts of cards it’s especially visible in the skies and I suspect Topps intended it to replicate the vintage look.

*Why yes I do have a post on print screens and what they look like.

For the few of us who would even notice what Topps is doing it’s borderline close to ruining the whole product by sending it into an uncanny valley between looking “authentic” and being a wonderful update which modernizes the design.

This becomes especially apparent on the All-Stars cards. I’ve gone ahead and scanned details from a real 1969 card since it makes the comparison that much more obvious.

Topps, to its credit, has the greyscale background image printed in just black ink.  But the fake halftone effect is extremely obvious and extremely large. You can tell its a fake effect because the dots are all the same size—in a traditional screen the dots change size—plus the scale is completely off.

There’s also an artificially large trap where the black and white photo overlaps the red header graphic. This is also something that was done intentionally as it appears on all the All-Star cards and is way too large to have been introduced by the printing process.

Comparing to the 1969 card shows just how different the screening looks. The fake halftone in 2018 distracts from the image since it’s merely imposed on top of it as a texture. In the 1969, the dots are the image.

You can also see here how much better the modern screening is when Topps doesn’t screw with it. In Trout’s cap you can barely make out any noise from the printing screen and what you can notice looks more like film grain. On the 1969 card Hawk’s hair is full of the halftone rosette pattern.

On the backs of the All-Star cards—and from what I’ve seen, the Deckle Edge inserts—this is even more obvious because Topps only applied the fake screen effect to parts of the image. As a result it stands out even more. The Deckle Edge inserts appear to be very similar to this. Rather than improving on the originals Topps has tried a lazy approach to faking an old-time look.

This is especially frustrating because there was so much potential for those inserts to look amazing compared to the 1969 versions. Just printing black and white photos with a stochastic screen would’ve been a huge improvement. But Topps also could’ve considered making them duotones and getting them even closer to looking like real photographs.

There’s also something else weird going on in many of the Heritage photos. This Porcello is the most egregious of the ones I’ve seen but it’s happening a lot. The photos look like they’ve been printed out of register except that printing on the dot and the edges of the photo are all registered correctly.

In the Porcello example there’s severe magenta fringing on his right ear and elbow. There’s equally-severe yellow fringing around the red details on his jersey. I’m a total loss at guessing what’s going on since the rest of the card doesn’t look out of register.*  However I am crossing my fingers and hoping that this isn’t another attempt to create a retro look through post-processing.

*It almost look like the purple/green chromatic aberration you get from cheap photographic lenses but it’s not that either since the colors are off and chromatic aberration only shows up in the slightly-out-of-focus areas.

I want to like this set. I really do. Aside from all the short print nonsense* Topps is very close to having something wonderful here in updating old designs to show how good they are and how well they work today. Many of the cards in this set are extremely nice with their good photography, full statistics, and easy-to-read backs. The World Series cards with their box scores are fantastic. There’s so much going on that appeals to me.

*I can ignore the parallels and variants but having 20% of the checklist be intentionally short-printed just to create artificial scarcity is something that directly antagonizes me and the way I collect cards.

Yet this straddling of wanting to improve the original while simultaneously weighing it down with faked versions of 1969’s production keeps me from fully enjoying it. I’d love an update. And I’d love an all-period-details replicated set which is actually printed with a coarse traditional linescreen. Unfortunately those two goals aren’t compatible and trying to do both means Topps does neither. Did I enjoy my pack? Yes and it was fun seeing these in person for the first time. Do I feel the need to buy another? Not really.

Typesetting ambition

As much as the 1980s is denigrated as the beginning of the decline into junk wax, over production, and, to a certain degree, the ruin of the hobby, it’s also the heyday of the regional oddball. One of the best parts of this hobby is being introduced to new regional oddball sets through people sharing things on twitter, blogs, etc. I’m not one of those people who tries to collect a little bit of everything. Instead I just enjoy seeing how many different sets were out there and the diversity of designs they offered.

A week or so ago I encountered a sample of the Mets Fan Club cards on Twitter. As someone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, this was something I’d never seen before* and my reaction went from “oh interesting” to “holy crap” as I looked at the photos.

*Mother’s Cookies? Yes. Most other regional oddballs? No.

Especially the one of the card back.

In general, baseball cards backs don’t get the respect they deserve from either card companies or collectors. Yes, many of us grew up and learned our stats from there. But many of us also also stored cards back-to-back in binders and only checked backs to confirm whether or not the card was a rookie card.* Card companies meanwhile know that the card fronts are what move the product;** as a result it’s rare to see a back which has been considered seriously.

*Now get off my lawn.

**This is confirmed by the way modern chase cards have backs which consist of just “congratulations, you’ve found a certified relic/autograph/etc.” and no other useful information.

Oddballs and regionals are frequently extra bad here since the backs often involve branding or demonstrate that the people making the cards have only a passing understanding of what’s supposed to be on a card back.

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My jaw hit the floor when I first saw the backs of the Mets Fan Club cards. They’re good-looking backs just in general. Besides being a strong design thought they’re extraordinary both in terms of their ambition and their execution.

First, the ambition. The text is set in a parallelogram-shaped box with a slanted baseline. The angle of the baseline was selected so that the ascenders on the italic font become vertical again. This isn’t straightfoward to do with computers and I can’t imagine doing mechanically by hand. It’s an impressive stunt on its own.

That this text grid is continued into the statistics panel is what blows my mind. Stats are hard enough to do well as it is. Just getting the numbers to align correctly is something that companies frequently mess up.* Doing it on a grid like this? You’ve got to be kidding me. Whoever laid this out was challenging themselves in ways that go far beyond the expectations for the usual baseball card backs.

*One of these days I’ll write a post about typesetting statistics.

That the execution of the backs is as good as it is is a testament to the skill of the designer and typesetter who put these together. There are still a few weird things like how the bold italic font has characters at a slightly different angle than the text font. But everything else including how the Innings-Pitched statistics head is aligned so that the decimals hang is done to near perfection.

And that doesn’t get into other wonderful things like the use of the Mets’s colors as the two spot colors and the way that the Mets logo interacts with the bare paper in the top box. Even the card numbering with the single non-italic font on screened-back orange ink in a circle that fits perfectly into the corner of the box feels intentional and correct.

Johnson_B

I do have to point out though that while I applaud the ambition, typesetting multi-year stats ended up being too difficult. Davey Johnson’s card is having problems getting the verticals to line up. This also occurs in the text but it’s especially obvious in the stats where everything bends to the right as you go down the columns.

That this card is not nearly as well-done as the rest shows how much manual work went in to making all eight cards in the set. Each card’s type is set slightly different in a way that never happens with computer typesetting.

I love these because of what they intend to do, how they do it, and even the way they fail. It’s exciting to see designs which are inspired by the text itself—in this case the angle of the italic font. I just never expected to see this kind of thing on a baseball card back and I’m glad baseball card twitter continues to surprise me with things I never knew existed.

[It’s been pointed out that I should have mentioned how these are Topps-designed and manufactured despite not having a Topps copyright slugline. That Topps made these does explain how the designers could get away with being this ambitious. At the same time, that many of Topps’s oddballs in the early 80s consisted of slapping a corporate logo (Coca Cola, Burger King, and Nestle being the examples which come to my mind first) on the base design for the year means I didn’t feel like Topps being the manufacturer explained everything.]

Barajitas EEUUs: ’93–’00 Pacific

This is my second post featuring Spanish-language baseball cards released in the United States. The first post features an introduction as well as 1978 Topps Zest.

Before 1993 Pacific had released a number of Legends or All-Time-Greats sets. They also had a number of massive player-specific sets such as their 220-card Nolan Ryan. But it was only in 1993 that they received a license to make a set of baseball cards for current Major League players. The catch was that the set had to be Spanish-language.

So from 1993 to 2000, Pacific Trading Cards released a set of Spanish-language trading cards. Even after they received* a full license in 1998 and began releasing a umber of English-langauge sets—as well as really pushing the limits of what you could do with baseball cards in terms of diecutting and other fancy post-printing effects—they maintained at least one Spanish Language release.

*If you can say “received” to describe winning a court case against Major League Baseball (hat tip to ArtieZillante for this).

Rather than going through each set individually, I’m going do two posts. This first one will look at the “flagship” Pacific/Pacific Crown sets on a year-by-year basis. The second will cover a handful of other Spanish-Language releases.

Pacific’s 1993 set feels very much like a first set; it’s basically the 1993 version of 1981 Donruss and Fleer, i.e. kind of a generic design which hasn’t aged particularly well. The beveled edges and gradient mania fit right in with 1992 Ultra, 1993 Donruss, 1993 Ultra, and 1994 Topps and suggest that everyone had just gotten computers with which to design their cards and had succumbed to all the temptations that the graphics programs offered.

Of special note here is that this is a Spanish-only card. The position on the front is in Spanish as is the bio and statistical information on the back.* While Pacific’s license was for Spanish-language cards, 1993 would be the only year that Pacific’s cards did not have any English on them.

*The less said about the typesetting of the stats the better. 

1994 has a stronger sense of identity as Pacific introduced its crown logo but this set on the whole still exhibits growing pains. The photo processing for example is really weird. Many of the cards feature images which are very low contrast and almost faded and the typesetting of the player names is just bad.

These cards though are now bilingual and the stats are in English. Where 1993 lists things like J (juegos) and C (carreras), 1994 lists G (games) and R (runs). This is also the only year that there’s no player biography so we have a huge photo on the back.

Pacific’s 1995 set is still a bit of a work in progress. Those beveled edges return on the backs and the front isn’t exactly a cohesive design yet. But by keeping things minimal and staying out of the way of the photo these cards still look pretty good.

Biographies return on the card backs and while the back design has both English and Spanish in the same size font, the English translations omit a few words like “tambien/also” which appear in the Spanish and as a result are much smaller blocks of text.

1996 is the first set that looks like a Pacific™ set. Pacific’s design in the late 1990s is like nothing else in the card collecting world and their Spanish-language cards have designs which feel akin to boxing posters—especially for lightweight or welterweight fighters.*

*Yes we’re talking boxers like Julio Cesar Chavéz.

On the backs we can see that the font for the English translation is now smaller than the Spanish translation. But we’re still seeing things in their own boxes rather than being a cohesive design on the back. I do have to call out how the position abbreviation is also in English. Pitchers are P instead of L (lanzador). Catchers are C instead of R (receptor). Outfielders are OF instead of J (jardinero). etc. etc.

1997 though is peak Pacific™ and peak boxing poster. We’re getting into cards now that are not many people’s cup of tea but I appreciate how much this one commits to the design. On the back we’ve finally lost the multiple text boxes for each language and the the English text continues to get smaller. Stats though remain in English as do the positions.

I really like the 1998 set. It’s not as over-the-top as 1997 but it retains a lot of the character. This is the first year since 1993 that Pacific put positions on the front of the cards only this time they’re are in English just like in 1996 and 1997.

Not much has changed on the backs. They still emphasize Spanish and continue to have a more cohesive design.* And I’m happy to see bilingual positions return here even if it makes English-only choice for the front design even more mysterious to me.

*Although this one is kind of a train wreck for my taste.

1999 continues the retreat in terms of design. Where the previous three years had a lot of character this one verges on boring. This is the first year since 1993 without full-bleed printing too. The backs are a huge improvement though and the English-text has gotten even smaller.

The most-noteworthy thing about 1999 is that the set size has decreased to the point where there are only 11 cards per team. From 1995–98 there were 16 cards per team, still not a lot but enough that you had most of the starters as well as a handful of Latino players.

In 1999 and 2000? Just the stars and then the rest are Latino players. This is both a good thing in that it allows some more fringe players to have cards—especially given how few players got cards in many of the other sets in the late 90s—but it also means that Pacific didn’t think that Latino baseball fans cared about anyone other than Latino players.

Pacific’s last year of Spanish-language cards was 2000 and I find this set to be kind of boring. The only change of note from 1999 is that the English-language text continues to decrease in size—something that is no doubt easier to do when it’s black text on a light background instead of reversed text on a black background.

Outside of the Spanish-language stuff in these sets, I also have to call attention to how Pacific handled horizontal images from 1995–98. One of the most interesting things for me is seeing how flexible Pacific’s designs were with accommodating both vertical and horizontal images.

1997 and 1998 are the clear standouts here in how the design elements are basically just rotated with the card layout. In 1997 the Pacific logo and the Giants logo rotate 90° and everything else stays the same. Pacific could’ve (should’ve) done this in 1995 as well but instead kept the design exactly the same for vertical and horizontal cards.

In 1998 the logos rotate 90° and the name/position graphic rotates 180°. 1996 is very similar except that instead of rotating the name graphic 180° it rotates 90° and shifts to the corner of the card instead of staying centered on the side.

The end result is that when these cards are paged on a sheet there’s much less visual jarring in the design of the cards. This is something that many card designs don’t do particularly well and it kind of amazes me that Pacific seems to have figured it out so quickly.

Barajitas estadounidenses: ’78 Zest

A while back I received a package of Tampa Bay football cards. One of the cards in it was a 1991 Spanish-language ProSet card and it got me wondering why I had never seen any Spanish-language baseball card issues. I grew up in the Bay Area and even as a 6th grader realized that learning to speak Spanish would be an  important skill to have. I even occasionally listened to Tito Fuentes broadcasting Giants games in Spanish on KLOK but I never saw any of that creep into my baseball card hobby. So I resolved to start looking for non-English cards and Spanish-language cards in particular.

The only non-English cards I remembered were the French/English O Pee Chee and Leaf cards from Canada. Those were cool but very clearly weren’t intended for the US market and as I’ve thought about the novelty of the 1991 Spanish ProSet card, I realized that it was the idea of releasing Spanish-language cards explicitly for the US market which most interested me here. So while I learned about of the Venezuelan Topps cards,* they weren’t what I was looking for.

*Which are very cool and also up my alley.

After asking the Twitter hive mind and searching through the Standard Catalog I started to put a list together of sets and things to look for. Some of the cards (or card-related ephemera) like the 1972 Esso Coins or 1989 Bimbo Discs are from Puerto Rico and, like many other things Puerto Rican, fall into a grey area where they’re both part of and completely distinct from the US. That these two sets are also either impossible to find or ridiculously expensive when they do pop up encouraged me to further limit my search to cards released just in the continental US.

So I consulted the Twitter hive mind and searched the online Standard Catalog and have a list, of sorts, that I’m pursuing now. There aren’t many sets and there were only two which came out when I was actively collecting as a kid so I’m no longer surprised that I hadn’t encountered any of these. Anyway, the list which I currently have is as follows.*

  • 1978 Topps Zest
  • 1991 Kelloggs Leyendas
  • 1993–2001 Pacific, Pacific Crown, etc.
  • 1994 Topps Spanish
  • 2002–2004 Donruss Estrellas

*There are also a few Topps Now Spanish-language cards from the 2017 World Baseball Classic. They’re neat but are Spanish-language variants of specific cards rather than a general Spanish-language release. So those are more akin to the occasional per-player Japanese-language variant releases for me.

I’m sure there’s more. I’m pretty also sure that I didn’t miss much. I’ve been going down this search list and grabbing cards which also fit my other projects since I don’t want or need complete sets of everything. And in the process I’m enjoying seeing how the companies are creating and designing cards for a segment of the US market which obviously doesn’t get a lot of cards marketed specifically for it.

I also plan on posting about the different sets on here. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on and through both their target demographics and the way so many of the sets fall into that post-strike period of baseball history a lot of these sets don’t appear to be that well known.

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The Topps Zest is in many ways the perfect way to start this series. It’s a small five-card set which predates the rest of the sets by a dozen years but it covers many of the things that I’m noticing in the other sets.

But first, some background. This was a promotion aimed at the Spanish-speaking market with a mail-in coupon which was completely in Spanish. Mailing Proctor & Gamble the redemption certificate along with the wrappers from two bars of Zest bath soap got you the set of five cards in return. It was a short promo too—August 1 to November 1—so you only had three months to take advantage of this.

The front of the cards are mostly indistinguishable from their 1978 Topps base cards. Eagle-eyed readers who know their 1978 cards will recognize that Topps updated Willie Montañez’s card with both a new photo and team to reflect that he was traded from the Braves to the Mets. My eye caught instead how Topps didn’t change the position abbreviations. Joaquin Andujar is a Pitcher instead of a Lanzador and Manny Mota is an OutFielder instead of a Jardinero.

montanez1978zest

The backs are where things get interesting because of how Topps made them bilingual. Again it’s Montañez’s card which deserves the most attention because of how Topps added the tilde to his last name* in addition to the other translations. I also can’t help but look at the statistic headers to see how the different stats got translated—or how in the case of Batting Average Topps still used .AVG.

*Some early #PonleAcento action and the reason why I’ve been writing his name as Montañez in this post.

One of the nice things about a statistically-heavy back is that since numbers don’t have to be translated, fitting everything in isn’t too bad. When there’s more text on the back like with Ed Figueroa’s card, the designer has to figure out how to avoid things getting too confusing. This appears to have involved working with the translator to create text which is about the same size in both languages as well. I found it especially interesting that while none of the team names were translated anywhere else on the cards that Red Sox did get translated as Medias Rojas on Figueroa’s.

Arbiters of authenticity

BVG_MantleWatching baseball card twitter over the past month or so has involved seeing a number of stories pop up which increasingly remind me of the art market. Many of these stories in particular involve grading companies and their increasingly prominent role as arbiters of “authenticity.”

The first story involves the newly-discovered 1950s Mickey Mantle. This is and extremely cool story and it’s always great to be reminded of how many things about baseball cards we all don’t know. They can always be another regional or oddball out there just waiting to be discovered and those discoveries are the stuff I’m sure all of us dream of. The thread on Net54 documenting the discovery is especially interesting as the community there came together to figure out what these were.

Buried in that story is the news that PSA refused to grade the newly-found cards. It seems that without a checklist, PSA doesn’t want to touch them. This strikes me as very weird if the grading companies are concerned with describing circulating cards. It is however totally consistent if the point of grading is to treat cards as part of a known catalog of works—in which case anything not in that catalog is inherently suspect.

SalvatorMundiIn the art world there was a lot of news this past year about the newly-attributed Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi. Much of the news involved the enormous price that it sold for but a lot of the discussion was about attribution and whether it should be considered part of the Leonardo catalogue raisonné. While a significant number of experts attest that it is a Leonardo, many remain skeptical and from what I can tell the jury is still out.

The newly-discovered Mickey Mantle card is not comparable to an ostensibly-new Leonardo—especially in terms of how attribution in baseball cards is less about who made the card and is instead about who’s pictured. But I found myself noticing a number of similarities in the objects and how the discussion about getting an imprimatur which would allow them to be sold at auction became as important to the objects’ stories as their actual provenance. In short, without becoming part of the catalog these items weren’t “valuable.”

In the case of the Mantle card, Beckett ended up doing the legwork to add it to the catalog and get it graded. And I found myself wondering about what it means when one authority won’t touch a card when another one will. In the art market this kind of disagreement produces controversy and is a big warning flag to the buyer. In the card market though as long as someone has graded the card it seems like people are okay with it.

ToppsBeckett

Which brings us to the other grading-related story that caught my attention. In brief, Topps mistakenly inserted cards into Bowman Draft which weren’t supposed to leave the factory. This is clearly an error and Topps has supposedly admitted as much. The most interesting thing about this SNAFU is that Beckett refused to grade those cards and initially blamed Topps for telling them not to. This resulted in a decent amount of outrage about collusion—especially given Beckett’s subsequent walking back of that note.

The idea that Topps would request that grading companies not grade these makes total sense to me. Mistakes like this could just as easily be backdoored out of a printing facility and that kind of shenanigan is something I can see Topps wanting to explicitly discourage. That said, in my opinion, that principle goes out the window once the card gets pulled out of a circulating pack.

CowboysMilkingWhat I’m fascinated by though is the concept that Topps could disavow a card which was released by mistake—removing it from the catalog by corporate fiat. This is similar to something that has come up in the art world, most famously wth Cady Noland whose disavowal of Cowboys Milking resulted in a number of lawsuits as people tried to recoup invested money and find a way to sell what had become “worthless” overnight. As with the Mantle and Leonardo, the discussion again is one of whether or not an item belongs in the catalog and who’s responsible for maintaining that catalog.

Now I’m not suggesting that the Visual Artists Rights Act applies to baseball cards. I am however noting that between the card companies and the card graders, there’s a real possibility for there to be a similar amount of control in the market for card makers to effectively render some cards as worthless—or at least ungradable—if they were released to the public by mistake.

That getting a card graded is the current standard of authenticity for much of the card market means that explicitly rejecting a card from grading rules it as “inauthentic.” As someone who primarily conceived of card grading as a way of certifying condition and chasing confirmed great-condition cards, this realization shook me. It’s not that I no longer trust graders themselves but rather I’ve found myself questioning our collective trust in them as the arbiters of authenticity—especially given the recent news which makes me wonder how things get into the baseball card catalog.

It’s one thing for us to have a Potter Stewart level discussion about what makes a baseball card a baseball card. It’s another when it appears that two of the most-prominent authorities in the business of authenticating cards demonstrate that they both maintain an official catalog of what counts as a baseball card and that those catalogs can disagree with each other.

So I can’t stop wondering now about what it means when grading companies disagree on an item’s authenticity? Does this stuff get tracked? If another company grades the Topps mistakes does it matter that Topps may have disavowed the cards initially? And what other kinds of production mistakes which shouldn’t have been released could cause a grading rejection?

I don’t know the answers to any of those but it’s where my mind—even though I’m not into card grading—has gone over the past month. I can only imagine how the people who swear by it are thinking.