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.

Lifers II

Baker2016Ginter

A sequel to my first Lifers post featuring guys I missed the first time around. Most of these were mentioned in the comments so a big thank you goes out to everyone who participated. Also I did finally find an image of Dusty Baker’s 2016 Allen&Ginter Mini so I’m including it above.

Connie Mack

Mack1887OldJudge Mack1950R423StripC

64 years
1887 Old Judge–1950 R423 Strip Cards

I don’t know how I missed Mack the first time around as he’s the definition of a baseball lifer. I love his Old Judge card with the posed hanging baseball. And that strip card is TINY. Mack also has a 1940 Play Ball card as a more-traditional last card which still makes him a 54-year baseball lifer. It’s also nice to have one guy on this list where both cards look nothing like modern cards.

Don Zimmer

 

51 years
1955 Bowman–2005 Topps All Time Fan Favorites

I’m still waffling on whether or not to include Zim. Not because he’s not a lifer but because the All Time Fan Favorites set doesn’t feel like a real set to me. It’s a checklist full of players (and other figures) from baseball’s past which, while a lot of fun, isn’t the kind of thing which reflects on the current state of the game.

Still, Zim’s in the set as a current Bench Coach and since he was the successor to Jimmie Reese as baseball’s lifer mascot of sorts I’m going to put him here.

Joe Torre

 

49 years
1962 Topps–2010 Topps Heritage

A super obvious one to miss even though I did kind of forget about his time with the Dodgers. The weird thing about Topps Heritage here is how with the design reuse results the last card having a design which predates the rookie card design. So in this case it kind of looks like Torre’s first card was in 1962 and then he travelled back through time to manage in 1960.

Davey Johnson

 

49 years
1965 Topps–2013 Topps Heritage

While I’m sort of skeptical about Heritage in terms of design reuse, it’s doing a lot other things I wish Flagship were still doing. In this case that it’s the only place where manager cards can be found now is a point in its favor. Still it’s no surprise that many of the guys I missed all have manager cards which aren’t part of Flagship.

Anyway Davey Johnson is one of those guys who’s been a manager as long as I can remember that I had kind of forgotten that he used to be a player. That his name did not some up in the SABR comments either suggests that he’s slipped a lot of our minds. As with Torre I appreciate that he’s travelled a year back in time from 1965.

Tony LaRussa

 

47 years
1964 Topps–2010 Heritage

Another manager in the 2010 Heritage set. Another time traveler, this time from 1964 to 1960. And the one lifer I’m most embarrassed to have missed in my original post even though I actively try and forget about “The Genius” and his school of overmanagement.

The funny thing about this list is that everyone I missed feels like someone I should’ve thought of originally. Since these are all lifers they’re all baseball names and as such, people who I recognize immediately.

As with the first Lifers post I’d love to see more guys I missed in the comments. I arbitrarily set the cut-off at 45 years (counting inclusively). While moving to 40 years wouldn’t change things much, there’s a distinct challenge in finding guys who stay around for 45.

Lifers

One of the things I enjoy most about collecting cards is putting together checklists of things that interest me. Sometimes these become projects like the action cards or photographer cards that I try and collect. Other times just the exercise of figuring out the checklist and thinking about the theme is enough.

One such checklist I’ve been working on is about baseball lifers and trying to find cards that reflect the longest periods of time in organized baseball. Many of the cards on this list are unobtainable for various reasons but it’s been a fun project to research. I’ve limited to 45 or more years in the game but moving to 40+ would only add a few more guys like Clay Bryant. Also, before anyone questions my math, I’m counting inclusively.

Jimmie Reese

69 years
1925 Zeenut–1993 Mother’s Cookies

It’s fitting that Jimmie Reese’s first and last cards are both regional issues from the West Coast. I remember fascinated by him as the ancient Angels coach in the late 1980s and he was one of the few (if not the only) coaches who occasionally showed up in regular sets as well (he has cards in both 1991 Leaf Studio and 1991 Bowman).

Casey Stengel

56 years
1910 Old Mill Cigarettes–1965 Topps

Stengel was the obvious standout in this department. He benefits from the sheer number of card releases in the pre-World War 1 era. When I was researching this checklist there were a decent number of guys who debuted in pro ball between the wars but who didn’t get cards until after World War 2.

As with Reese, I really enjoy the difference between his first card and his last card. All the pre-war cards just feel like they’re from a completely different world.

Frank Robinson

50 years
1957 Topps–2006 Topps

Compared to Reese and Stengel, Robinson’s cards are much more familiar feeling. If anything, his 1957 card feels much more comfortable to me than that awkward 2006 design.

Felipe Alou

48 years
1959 Topps–2006 Topps

The first pair on this checklist that I can conceivably acquire. While a Frank Robinson rookie is also something that I could get, it’ll always be out of my price range. But these two, as a Giants collector, are pretty much already on my wantlist as it is.

As with the Robinsons, these both feel familiar although I appreciate how both of them are so of their time while also sharing the common Topps DNA.

Del Baker

47 years
1914 B18 Blankets–1960 Topps

Baker is actually the inspiration for this post. I found a 1917 Zeenut card of him at my grandmother’s house and subsequently acquired his 1954 Topps card. When someone else posted about a different 1954 Topps coach card we started talking about baseball lifers, Casey Stengel’s name came up, and then I started thinking about who else should be on the list.

Dusty Baker

Baker1971Topps

46 years
1971 Topps–2016 Topps Allen & Ginter Skippers minis

Dusty was actually the first name I thought of when the topic of baseball lifers came up. Sadly Topps doesn’t make manager cards in Flagship anymore. Nor do they appear to be in Heritage either. So Dusty’s last card as a manager is part of an Allen & Ginter mini set which is either so rare or so boring that the only images I can find online are the Topps promotional ones.

I miss manager cards and wish Topps would bring them back. Dusty also hasn’t retired yet so there’s a possibility he could move up this list if he gets another gig and Topps produces manager cards again.

Lou Piniella

46 years
1964 Topps–2009 Topps

Because of Ball Four I always associate Piniella as being a rookie in 1969. But as has been pointed out before, he was one of those multi-year rookie stars and his first rookie card from 1964 gets him into this checklist.

Leo Durocher

 

45 years
1929 Exhibits Four-in-One–1973 Topps

I’m glad I found one lifer whose last card is in the 1970s. As I mentioned earlier, the hardest part here is finding rookie cards in the 1920s and 30s. Which is too bad since the way that Topps includes coaches in 1973 and 1974 means that there was a possibility for more lifers to have last cards.

Anyway I’m sure I’ve missed some guys. I don’t have anyone whose last card was in the 1980s. Nor do I have anyone whose career started in the 30s or 40s. So I look forward to being corrected in the comments here.

El Doble Apellido

A month ago I picked up a box of ~800 late-1970s cards. I didn’t have many of these as a kid so as I started sorting through the box I found myself taking the time to really look and get used to the cards. One of the first things that jumped out at me was how the 1975 cards included not only the full player names but the latino players’ double last names. This is something which, even with the increasing numbers of latinos in the US, confuses a lot of people today so I was a bit surprised to see it in the 1970s cards.

I appreciated that it was in parentheses too. While that typesetting isn’t the way the double name is used in Spanish, it’s a nice visual way of including it while also marking it as optional.

Anyway I figured I’d take a quick look through the rest of my Topps cards and check to see how they managed the issue. This ended up being a quick tally of which years Topps used the players’ complete names on the back and which years they didn’t. But in each year Topps used the complete names, most of the latinos’ cards had the double last name on it.

Fuentes1970

While 1975 was the last of a three-year run of full names beginning in 1973. Topps had previously used full names in 1970. Then I have to go back to 1955 to find the next example.

1970 and the pre-1956 cards are why I said “most” have the double last name. I didn’t do an exhaustive check of the 1970 cards but I did see enough to come across a few examples (like Juan Marichal) which should’ve had the double last name but didn’t.

In the 1950s only about half of the few latino players had their maternal names included. Some of them use parentheses, others have an “y” (and) between the two names. It’s even more interesting to me that the Topps’s 1950s cards are this aware of the double name. It’s just a shame that Minnie Miñoso’s cards fall don’t include “(Arrieta)” since he’s the most-important latino player from this era.*

*At least they do say that his first name is Orestes.

Maldonado1990

I also looked forward from 1975 to see if I could find any more-recent examples. I was unsuccessful with Topps—none of my cards have full names for anyone. But I looked at other brands too. When I was a kid in the 1980s Donruss was notable for always having the full names on the backs but they don’t have the double last names (well except for José Uribe who, as the “ultimate player to be named later” is somewhat of a special case.)*

*Note. Speaking of Uribe and Donruss I did notice that his 1990 Donruss has the accent on “José,” a detail I never saw when I was a kid.

Fuentes2005

And I had to take a look at how Topps behaved when it reused designs which originally had full names. Topps hasn’t used a lot of these very often but I did find a 2005 Archives Fan Favorites which uses the 1973 design including the double last name.

By 2014 though it seems Topps had given up on maintaining that level of authenticity in its design reuse. 2014 Topps Archives used the 1973 design again but this time there were no more middle names or maternal names. Which is kind of a shame since that kind of information is both good to have in general and is a way of learning about different naming customs around the world.

I’m hoping that with all the Ponle Acento movement going on, by the time Topps Heritage gets around to the 1970 design in 2019 we’ll have complete names for all the latino players. Maybe we’ll have accents and won’t even need the parentheses either. And bonus points if they list the Japanese players’ names last name first on the backs.

Cahiers des Cartes

 

The Conlon Project reminded me that despite being in many ways about photography, baseball cards almost never credit the photographer who took the photo. While we can often figure out which cards were shot by the same photographer based on the location, putting a name to that photographer often required putting the pieces together from other media.

We know that Richard Noble’s portrait of Bo Jackson was used in 1990 Score because of his lawsuit against Nike. And we know that Ronald Modra shot the photo of Benito Santiago in 1991 Topps because Sports Illustrated used a different photo from that session on its cover. But there’s no credit on the cards themselves even though anyone can see that they’re above the usual standard of baseball card photography.

Where we did have photographer credits is in the Broder card realm. I don’t just mean Rob Broder’s sets either. There were a number of photographers at this time creating their own unlicensed sets—all of which are known in the hobby as Broder cards.And there are even some licensed photographers like Barry Colla whose sets have the same “Broder” look and feel. On the surface these cards look very similar to each other and remind me of Mother’s Cookies* with their emphasis on the photo and the plain Helvetica text.

*I’ve been led to understand that Colla shot a lot of the Mother’s photos.

Often the photo is more of a function of someone who has access to a telephoto lens and a field-level press pass. It’s nice to see these photos but most of them aren’t anything portfolio-worthy. Sometimes though they’re clearly part of a portrait session and those are much more fun to see. Even if they’re standard baseball poses the portrait session is a more accurate gauge of the photographer’s abilities.

The backs remind me of the backs of mass-produced 8×10 photos. Name and numbering and not much else.* So they’re more like 2.5″×3.5″ photos rather than baseball cards. In many ways this makes them a wonderful artifact of the 1980s/90s freelance photography hustle where self-publishing was a feasible approach amidst the junk wax boom. The Barry Colla cards at least have some more information but the overall design still feels like an afterthought.

*That this is so close to my self-designed backs suggests I shouldn’t give my nine-year-old self such a hard time.

All of these sets—if you can call these packets of a dozen or so cards sets—were very much created to capitalize on whoever was rising on the Beckett hot list. Multiple cards of the same star player. Hot rookies. I’d snark more but it cuts very close to what I’ve seen going on with cards today where Topps is releasing an uncountable number of cards for Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger.

The Conlon cards exist in that same late-80s, early-90s ecosystem as the Broder cards. The earlier releases are very much in the same vein of treating the cards as photographs first and cards second. I very much appreciate how they’re printed as duotones* and it’s charming how the text is an afterthought and no one thought to even provide numbering.

*Yes there’s a post with more information than you ever wanted about printing. And much to my surprise many of the cards Topps released in 2017 are actually duotones or use spot colors for the black and white images.

By the early 90s the set has been redone as proper cards. More stats. More design. Set numbering. A large set count. In many ways they’re not really about the photo anymore.

Which is a shame since one of the things I did as part of the Conlon Project was check out Baseball’s Golden Age from the library. Where the Conlon cards have somewhat generic player information and stats on the backs, the book includes some of Conlon’s stories about photographing the players. These stories—such as Lefty Grove refusing to let Conlon see how he gripped the ball or how in that famous Ty Cobb photo Conlon was more worried about the well being of the third baseman than whether or not he got the shot—are fantastic and suggest another approach that these photographer-based cards could’ve gone.

Thankfully Upper Deck did exactly this in 1993 with its Walter Iooss collection and again in 1996 with its V.J. Lovero collection. These cards are great in how they’re so clearly photo-focused* but also allow us to see how the photographer approaches the game and his subjects.

*Something that mid-1990s Upper Deck excelled at in general.

The Iooss cards are also a wonderful demonstration of what makes Iooss’s work so distinct. The lighting relies on off-camera flash and underexposes the background. But unlike the “every sky must be dark and rainy” look that dominated Topps in 1985 and 1986, the Iooss photos balance the light temperatures well. The skies aren’t that weird grey blue color and the players all have a wonderful warm glow.

And the stories are great. Most of them are interesting—Albert Belle’s refusal to pose and Iooss’s subsequent having to take an action photo stands out—but I like the comparison of Paul Molitor and Will Clark.

Lovero’s photos don‘t have a clearly-defined look the way Iooss’s do. If anything it’s that they have a tendency to be shot extremely tight—similar to Topps’s current approach in Flagship except that I think Lovero shot this way and Topps just crops things this way.

What I like about the Lovero cards is that their backs often get into the technical side of the photography. The Caminiti card talks specifically about how to shoot tight action. There are others that talk about trying different angles for shooting. Reading them you get a real sense of how Lovero approaches photographing baseball action.

His stories about the posed shoots are closer to the Iooss stories except that they’re often about the context of the shoot rather than the player himself. Combined though, both the Lovero and Iooss sets offer a wonderful look at how a professional had to approach sports photography in the 1990s and offer a lot of pointers to anyone who’s interested in shooting sports action now.

AM vs FM

In my Topps Archives Snapshots post I had to write about duotones and include a brief note about how printing works in general. I’ve come to realize that this should be a much longer post of its own. I’m not enough of an expert on pre-war cards to cover the way they were printed,* the post-war era where cards are mainly printed with process inks and offset lithography is pretty standard.

*While I can write about photography on old cards, printing is much harder to discuss without being able to actually see the card under a loupe.

CMYK Process

Printing at its basic level involves putting pigment on paper. We’ve standardized to using CMYK process—four different ink colors, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK—in order generate all the other colors. Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow are the official versions of the blue, red, and yellow primary colors we all learned in grade school (black is referred to as K because many people will refer to cyan as “blue”). Any color can be broken into CMY components or separations. Because of the nature of how the inks don’t combine into a true black and how putting three full layers of ink on a piece of paper can cause issues with drying or wrinkling or sticking, we also use a distinct black separation to provide the full contrast and tonal range of the image.

The black separation in particular is also very useful for text as text will be printed in just black ink, often overprinting the other colors so there aren’t any issues with registering it and it’s easy and crisp to read.

This is why when the black separation is missing or damaged we have variations like the 1990 Frank Thomas missing name or the 1982 no-autograph cards. Those are technically print defects which would normally indicate a below-grade card that should’ve been destroyed in the factory. However, due to the nature of how the black separation behaves, they ended up being desirable errors because they only look like printing mistakes to those of us who are print geeks.

The black separation is also one of the common tells of a forged card. It’s very difficult to generate the correct black separation from a scan so black text on forgeries is frequently printed as CMYK instead of just black. The results are often obvious due to the absence of a crisp black edge on the text when you look closely.

Spot colors

Sometimes the card design will use what’s called a spot color in addition to (or instead of) the process colors. Topps’s card backs until 1992 were always printed as spot colors. The silver inks used on early-1990s Leaf are a spot color. The neon orange in the logo on early-1990s Stadium Club is also a spot color. The border colors in a lot of early 2000s Topps cards are spot colors.

Usually spot colors are printed at 100% and used to create a solid color which either can’t be printed with CMYK process (like metallics or fluorescents) or which if printed in CMYK would be hard to keep consistent over multiple print runs (eg 2001 Topps and that grey-green border). Sometimes though they’re used for images and photos. If it’s used by itself the result is called a monotone. If it’s mixed with other colors—typically black—we have a duotone (or tritone, etc. depending on how many inks are being used).

Duotones can either look like tinted black and white images or they can look truly black and white with more depth and contrast. Each ink you add allows for additional levels of depth and contrast in the resulting photos.

The downside with spot colors is that each one you use requires a special setup on the press. Process inks are standard and you can go from one job to the next pretty easily. Spot inks? You have to set up another print station before running the job and thoroughly clean it up before you can move on to the next one.

Screening

Which brings us to screening. While the rise of spot inks through the 1990s and 2000s is noteworthy, one of the biggest changes in recent years has been that the pattern of dots used to print the cards has changed. I did a quick loupe at my cards and found that until 2008 traditional screening was pretty universal.

Traditional screening involves lines of dots which create a pattern called a rosette on the printed page. Since the size of each dot is what changes the color traditional screens are also called AM (Amplitude Modulation just like on the radio).

After 2008, Topps increasingly used Stochastic screening. Stochastic screening is unpatterned small dots where the number of dots changes the darkness of the color. Yup this is also called FM (Frequency Modulation) screening. Because it’s only really doable with computer-generated printing plates there’s a reason it only started showing up en masse in the late 2000s.

FM screening results in images which look more like photographs and are less prone to showing misregistration. It allows printers to use less ink and is generally a higher-quality result. The downside? It does weird things (to my eye) in graphic elements like lines or solid blocks of color because the random dots are more visible there.

Anyway, I’d made the assumption that by now Topps was printing everything with FM screens. Then, when I was looking at some of my cards with a loupe* I discovered I was wrong and went down the rabbit hole of louping ALL of my 2017 Topps cards.

*I was curious how they were printing the black and white cards as well as some of the monotone-looking parallels.

Since that rabbit hole was too good for me to keep to myself, here it is on blog form for everyone else to enjoy too. My apologies for the fact that these are almost all Giants cards but it’s what I collect and most of these products are not interesting to me outside of those cards.

Flagship

Flagship

Flagship_PoseyScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

We’ll start with flagship since I always refer to it as the card of record. This crop shows exactly what to expect from FM screening. Lots of random dots which are all the same size. No crisp edge on the graphic elements.

You can see the distinct CMYK dots in the mix here and how what looks like a neutral grey color in in fact made up of multiple different colors.

Opening Day

OD

OD_BeltScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Opening day is exactly like Flagship. I considered excluding it from this post but I realized I should include it once I saw Chrome. Anyway in this crop you can tell how not even the white section of the design is completely without printing.

Chrome

Chrome

Chrome_BeltScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

This surprised me. A lot. I found myself wondering is the chrome paper couldn’t be printed with FM screening. Anyway, the crop is from about the same portion of the card as the crop of Opening Day and demonstrates how different the dot pattern is.

You can see the halftone rosettes and how crisp the edge of the graphic is here. You can also see how regular the ink pattern is in the graphic elements. And you can see how the dots change size depending on the darkness of the image.

Heritage

Heritage

Heritage_CrawfordScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

That Topps uses FM screens for Heritage is one of the reasons why I thought they were using it everywhere. The rosette pattern is part of the look of old printing. It’s what we expect to see and there’s something comfortable about it. Topps even recognizes this and has been adding it back in to the Heritage photos. That grid in the sky is designed to look like a halftone rosette and be part of the retro feel of this set. Rather than being a rosette though in the crop you can see it’s just denser clusters of cyan dots.

Archives

Archives

Archives_BeltScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Topps isn’t faking the rosette pattern here but you can still see how different FM screening is in the solids. On the original 1960 cards most of the bright colors are solid and won’t show any dots. The red for example should be 100% magenta + 100% yellow and as a result look totally smooth. You won’t see any random blue or black dots in it.

Similarly the 1960 design would be a traditional black-only screen for the small photo. With the FM screen however you can see that it consists of the other process colors too.

Allen & Ginter

AG

AG_PenceScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Where Heritage and Archives are copying cards from the 1960s, Ginter is aping a look from over a century ago. Those cards predate the standard CMYK process colors and were often printed in many more inks.

That they also predate traditional screening and are artifacts that many of us are not entirely familiar with gives Topps a bit more leeway here. The oval graphic and the text are not in the crop but neither of them are printed in solid ink the way they would’ve been a century ago. I chose instead to crop a section which shows how the blue ink splash in the background  has a pattern which is meant to look like engraving lines in it.

Gipsy Queen

GQ

GQ_SamardzijaScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

I’ve not much to say about Gipsy Queen except to point out how the FM screen makes up the graphic elements. The lack of a crisp edge really bothers me although with thin curly elements like these a traditional screen isn’t the best choice either. Ideally these would be in their own spot color but that’s a lot more setup than I’d expect from Topps.

Bunt

Bunt

Bunt_BeltScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

Another with traditional screening, I was not surprised to see it in a low-end product. The orange panel in this crop really shows off exactly why we call traditional screens “line screens.” The patterns of dots are all set in a grid, each color at a 30° difference from the others (yellow is 15° off) so as to minimize moiré. It’s these 30° angles which create the rosette pattern.

Bunt_Blue

Bunt_Blue_CrawfordScreening: Traditional
Colors: Cyan, Black, spot blue tritone

The Bunt blue parallels are very interesting. I think they‘re tritones. I also think that Topps is using two of the process colors and only adding one new color to the mix. But it’s hard to tell for sure.

I can see that the black dots are at a distinct angle from the blue dots. And I think there are two distinct shades of blue in this image. Anyway this is an example of what non-process inks look like up close.

Stadium Club

SC

SC_SpanScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

I was surprised to se that Stadium Club uses a traditional screen since it’s supposed to be the photo-centric product. That it still looks great shows how little a difference this stuff can make to the naked eye.

Still that Stadium Club might have have looked even better with FM screening is something to wonder about.

SC_Sepia

SC_Sepia_SpanScreening: Stochastic
Colors: Spot Sepia monotone

The Sepia Parallels though are printed completely differently. Compare this to the crop of Bunt and it’s worlds different. The FM screen here makes the sepia parallels look a bit more photograph-like than they would if they were printed in a traditional monotone. And the way that Topps has gone with a lower-contrast look means that the single ink isn’t limiting.

SC_Grey

SC_WilliamsScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

One more Stadium Club note. There are a number of “black and white” cards in the set. None of the are actually black and white. As is visible in the crop they’re all printed in all four colors and have been carefully balanced so the results look neutral.

Archives Snapshots

TAS_C

TAS_BaergaScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

As with Stadium Club, it’s a bit disappointing to see these printed traditionally. Although as a more nastlagia-feeling product the line screens here aren’t out of place. Also, with the crisper graphics, even while they’re small, the traditional screens are preferable. I still wish it were easy to do FM screens for the photos only and let traditional screens do the rest of the graphics.

TAS_BW

TAS_GlasnowScreening: Traditional
Colors: Black and grey duotone

And a proper duotone. Where Bunt is heavily tinted and the black and white Stadium Clubs are really just process, the Archives Snapshots black and white cards are printed with black and a neutral grey ink. This gives the images a much-better tonal range of good shadows and highlight detail while still maintaining midtones and contrast.

The crop is indeed in color. I chose this particular section because you can make out the distinct screens by the angles of the dots. Other sections are more interesting under a loupe but on screen it’s nearly impossible to see the different inks.