Everything must be considered

Likewise, there is a vocal group of collectors who seek, nay DEMAND, perfection from Topps when it comes to retro sets such as Heritage and Archives. Any deviation from these unwritten rules results in an outcry in the blogosphere, Twitter and the various forums.

Cardboard Jones

I planned to respond to this as a comment but in hashing things out on Twitter realized that it deserved to be a blogpost. First off. I’m not feeling attacked by the statement nor do I even disagree with it. Expecting things like Archives and Heritage to match the originals is the most boring of positions to have. But as someone who frequently comments and calls out where Topps deviates in the retro set typsetting and designs I feel like I need to clarify when and why I do so.

When I approach a retro set it’s impossible for me not to notice changes. My mindset though isn’t “these changes are crap.” Instead I’m asking myself why Topps made them.

One of the chief mantras from my design classes was that “everything should be considered.” In other words, every part of the design should be a conscious choice with a reason behind it. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t leave things to chance, just that you needed to be as aware, if not moreso, of what you weren’t designing.

When it comes to the retro sets, too many of the choices feel like Topps has decided to copy the old design but couldn’t be bothered to do it right. When I cringe at a font choice or shake my head at a color selection it doesn’t reflect that I want the design to be perfect, it reflects that on that card, Topps feels like it’s trying to recreate the card and is doing it badly.

Let’s take a look at the 2020 Archives Luis Robert. In this case, the font used for Robert’s name is super small. 1974 used condensed fonts for long names* but for most names the font matches the font used to the city and position. As a result the font looks off compared to the other fonts on the card** and the space for his name looks super empty because these cards weren’t designed to have a big white space on the bottom.

* If this were a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. card then the font would be fine.

**Lucky for Topps the condensed font is also in use for “White Sox” else this would look even weirder.

There’s a reason I often refer to the uncanny valley when I critique retro designs. Changes like Robert’s font feel unconsidered and suggest a lack of awareness about how the original design works. The result is something that’s just close enough to the originals to feel incredibly wrong.

I don’t expect Topps to match the originals. I want them to make considered choices about how to honor the philosophy behind the original designs while updating them to the modern game and modern printing.

For example, sticking with the Robert card, 1974 is noteworthy as the first set where Topps tried to use team colors in the design. In 1974 the White Sox’s dominant color was red and as a result, the 1974 design used red.* In 2020, the Sox are a grey and black team and for me, updating the 1974 design to use those colors is the kind of change that I would treat as a considered choice.**

*That Topps stuck with red is yet another push toward reading these cards as remakes instead of updates and justifies critiquing the font choices along those lines. At the same time, that Topps apparently changed the colors on a lot of the cards in this set—e.g Giants in green, Pirates in red, Orioles in white—suggests that my initial reaction to the Robert was maybe giving Topps too much credit for trying to reproduce the original design. No I still have no idea what possessed them to make the Willie McCovey Giants card green and yellow and the overall reaction is still that Topps didn’t think about what they were doing.

**Along these lines, if Topps had had the lead time and creativity to do “Buffalo, Amer’n Lea” cards for the Blue Jays I would’ve been out stalking blasters of Archives at my local Target.

Topps has made considered changes like these before. Going back to my post about 2019 Heritage provides a great example. Where 1970 Topps (on the left) use a 50% black screen for the grey border, 2019 Heritage (on the right) uses a custom grey ink printed at 100%.

I don’t remember anyone complaining about this. I wouldn’t expect anyone to complain about this. Why? Because the change is the kind of thing that involves looking at the old design and consciously improving upon it. It’s not trying to recreate something, rather it’s showing the strength of the original design and how it would be produced today.

If Topps changed the retro set fonts to give the design a little more character* I wouldn’t complain. Same if they took the random colors of the 1960s and made them more team-specific.**

*A reliance on fonts such as Helvetica and Univers throughout most of the Topps’s history means changes like using Gotham in the 1981 design in 2018 Archives is something I was cool with.

**Something they did with some teams like the Astros in 2018 Heritage.

What I want to see is that the changes have a clear and obvious point. Changes that look intentional rather than accidental. Changes that indicate that Topps has truly considered the design and thought about what it’s doing with it.

Misery Loves Company

Now that Beckett has published a short post about this I’m sort of obliged to write a longer version detailing the Al Kaline debacle.

I don’t chase shortprints but I enjoy looking through them every new release. Very often the photographs there are more interesting and remind me of the variety that we saw in the 1990s. Plus the old players are always an interesting reflection of the kinds of players who still resonate today.

When Series 2 dropped, I did my usual look through. The Andrew McCutchen is awesome but what stopped me was the Al Kaline. I’m looking for good/interesting photos in the short prints. I’m not expecting to see a photo showing the wrong player.

Yup. That’s not Kaline in the photo. How do I know? Because I made this exact mistake with this exact photo only nine months earlier.

I enjoy writing Through the Mail autograph requests but I also refuse to send things through the mail which I don’t want to risk losing—say, for example, a vintage card of Al Kaline. Even though he was such a great signer (typically turning things around under 20 days and often closer to 10) I just refuse to tempt fate with the USPS like that. Instead I created a custom card by searching around around the web for photos I liked and dropping them into a template I had created.

Last November I sent a couple custom cards off to Al with a note asking him to keep the extras and hoping he enjoyed them. A week and a half later they came back to me. I was not expecting the result.

Gulp.

At first I was mortified. This is the most embarrassing kind of mistake to make when autograph hunting. Then I double-checked Getty* and confirmed that I’d done my homework. Did I make a mistake. Yes. But it wasn’t through either lack of caring or lack of effort on my part. I hadn’t just grabbed a photo, I’d made sure that multiple places including a somewhat authoritative source had identified the player.

*Note: As of July 17, 2020 Getty has corrected its database to reflect that the photo is actually of Don Demeter.

At this point I became much more comfortable with the humor of the situation. Did I trust Kaline over Getty? Absolutely. So I tossed it onto Twitter so people could laugh at both me and Getty while also hoping that the hive mind could identify who the mystery player was.

Many people—including many Tigers fans—confirmed that they’d always thought this was Kaline as well. Only after realizing that it wasn’t him did the hive mind quickly nominate Don Demeter. Similar build and swing. Same time period. He certainly seemed like the most-likely suspect.

Thankfully, Demeter is great responding to autograph requests as well. I acquired a card of him, wrote a letter explaining the screw up, included one of the customs, and asked him if he could confirm that the photo was indeed him.

While getting the card signed was fun, this was one of the rare autograph returns where the autograph request was always going to be less important than the response to my question. Much to my pleasure and satisfaction, Demeter answered my question and confirmed that it was him.

His response was actually this sketch. It’s pretty conclusive to me and makes a fantastic companion piece to the Kaline and Demeter cards in my autograph binder. I just wish there were a way to submit this to Getty so they can update their database.

As a custom card maker, it’s always somewhat flattering to see Topps select a photo that I’ve already used on a custom. In this case though, as soon as I saw the Kaline short print I started laughing. I recognized the photo instantly and knew exactly what had happened. While I’ve already made peace with my mistake, seeing someone else fall for the same thing just makes me feel even better about it.

While I’m sad that this is sort of a RIP Kaline card for Topps, I’m glad that he didn’t have to deal with being asked to sign it. I would however be thrilled to see someone ask Don Demeter to sign it. That would be awesome.

In the course of current events

For the most part baseball cards reflect last year. Last year’s stats, last year’s teams, last year’s highlights, last year’s posteseason, last year’s leaders, etc. Yes this has never been exclusively the case with multiple series releases in the past making things complicated and dedicated traded and update sets in more recent years which exist to explicitly address the last-year’s-information issue.* But speaking in a general way, I’ve never expected my cards to be current.

*Later-season releases like O Pee Chee also fit in this category.

This season-long delay makes it easy for cards to avoid commenting on current, or even semi-current, events. The closest I can think of are the memorial cards in 1964 which mention events that happened the year they were issued. Compare those to how ToppsNOW avoided mentioning Tyler Skaggs despite the emotion of the no hitter just last year and it’s clear to me that I shouldn’t expect Topps, or any other company, to change things up.*

*The Stephen Piscotty card from 2018 may be the only exception to this.

That Topps includes Flashback inserts in its Heritage sets that describe noteworthy events that happened in the original set year has me thinking about what would happen if Topps chose to address even just events that happened in the past year. What kind of events might Topps choose and how would it deal with politically charged news?*

*The closest Topps has come to this was by releasing a Heritage Flashback card of the Voting Rights Act the year after the Supreme Court gutted it.

Enter Project 2020. The massive amount of engagement, interest, and speculation that has accompanied the emergence of Artist Cards as a viable collecting medium has driven most of the commentary. Recently though two cards from Efdot Studio have caught my eye for a completely different reason.

His JaKCie Robinson card dropped mid-June in the midst of the first wave of the Black Lives Matter protests precipitated by the George Floyd murder. It’s a hell of a card with a lot of great stuff going on but what struck me first was that small Justice sign in the top right corner.

Major League Baseball has a tendency to trot Jackie out as a defensive measure against any racial critiques. As if retiring his number league-wide and having a special Jackie Robinson Day each season somehow makes up for ever-decreasing numbers of African American players and a near-absence of African American coaches and front office executives.

Efdot’s card is a reminder that Jackie’s struggle is still ongoing. Things weren’t solved 73 years ago and it took a horrific murder for many white players to recognize what their black teammates have been trying to tell them. The Kansas City Monarchs logo meanwhile is a reminder of how while Jackie represents the integration of MLB on the field, he also represents the destruction of the Negro Leagues.

I’m honestly shocked that Topps published it. Yes we’ve been getting all kinds of corporate messaging (including from Topps) decrying injustice but I remain skeptical about any company taking a real stand. It’s just not the corporate way where trying to both-sides an issue and remain centrist/ignorant is the “best” way to not offend anyone.

One of the coolest things about digital art and (and digital cards) is that you can get stuff like this timelapse of many of the different ideas that Efdot had. Including a couple that didn’t make the cut such as the MLB/BLM which he eventually replaced with “Justice.” As much as  the final card captures the moment and takes Topps into areas it doesn’t usually go, it’s also interesting to see that things could’ve gone further.

Efdot actually says that he and Topps pulled back because they didn’t want to commercialize “Black Lives Matter.”* I understand this but also feel like it represents a missed opportunity. It’s a good thing to not want to piggy back on a movement like this for profit. It’s a bad thing if that instinct results in behavior which is indistinguishable from not caring.

*Something that may also explain Topps’s choice regarding Tyler Skaggs last year.

Would it be more work to find a non-profit to steer the money into? Absolutely. But that would be a much more meaningful statement.

A couple weeks later Efdot did it again. This time with a fantastic Dr. K card where Gooden is wearing a facemask. As with the Jackie card there’s a ton of wonderful small details but the mask steals the show. We’re three months into a pandemic crisis that shows no sign of letting up partly because many people refuse to follow the most basic of advice that doctors insist on.

Wear a mask. Listen to doctors. Protect each other.

Are those things explicit in the card? No. That would be boring. But the mask; that Gooden is named as “Dr. K;” that he’s not only a New York player but that the Mets play in Queens, the hardest-hit borough of the hardest-hit city (so far) in the US; that there’s a detail of the Unisphere which is explicitly about global interdependence and is located in a place literally (and yes coincidentally) named Corona Park. Everything works together here and the message is clear.

Wear a mask. Listen to doctors. Protect each other.

I’m not surprised Topps published this one. As a New York company this would be a lot more personal to everyone at Topps Headquarters.* It still represents a willingness to wade in on not only current, but still-ongoing events that I don’t expect from Topps. Plus there are enough other corporations out there whose first step was to try and both-sides mask wearing.

*I am surprised we haven’t seen collectible facemasks but that’s another post for another day.

When you partner with artists you open yourself up to them commenting on things beyond the simple subject matter in the prompt you’ve given them. The best Project 2020 cards start with the card but explore who the player is, what he represents, and our associations with him and his team.

Jackie Robinson was a long-overdue first step, not the solution, and we still need to fight his fight today. Dwight Gooden is a Queens legend and we can learn a lot from what Queens and New York went through last March.

Stay safe out there and don’t just be a spectator in the fight for justice.

Digital Marketplace

Last December I wrote a post about Topps Bunt, digital cards, and the ways that cards can exist in both digital and physical forms. It was very much from my point of view as a digital skeptic who distrusts the way that digital items are locked into proprietary software and rely on corporate maintenance to exist.

It’s one thing to sink a bunch of money into physical cards. If Topps dies, I still have the cards. Whereas with digital cards we have no idea what will happen in a decade. Will Topps be around? Will it be supporting the app still? Will it be maintaining a server where all that stuff exists on the web? None of us knows and that’s a leap of faith I’m unwilling to make.

At the same time, events in the hobby the past couple months have had reevaluating my thoughts on this. Yes this is related to Project 2020. No it’s not about the cards or even the values they had. Rather it’s about the way they were being bought and sold online.

It was wild to watch and I’ve never seen something where card prices were behaving like a stock ticker and people were buying and selling faster than the the shipping could keep up. While there’s been a market for digital only cards, I sort of ignored it until realized how many people are totally willing to flip cards without ever really having them in their possession.

In the same vein of things, I’ve been seeing discussions about flipping on COMC and can’t help but see that universe as also being digital cards. The same thing is going on there. There’s a big marketplace for buying and selling cards that you never physically own.

Yes, people point out that the cards on COMC are literally there and you can always request a shipment. But from where I sit this is remarkably close to how money used to work back when it was backed by a physical standard—something we abandoned almost a century ago.

I know I know. Cards aren’t money. But as we move into purely digital currencies and purely digital cards, I can’t help but wonder about if the upcoming generation will treat these things differently. I’m already seeing reports of blockchain-backed digital transactions of digital collectibles. I suspect such things will only increase in the upcoming years.

This is the kind of thing that likely freaks out a lot of us. Especially in this nostalgia-focused hobby. One of the only editorial points of view that Jason and I enforce is to focus on usage rather than value on here, this trend toward a digital-only marketplace for cards is one that has me asking myself what it means to actually use a digital card. I certainly hope that the usage is not only for flipping on a digital marketplace.

Some of those questions have already been answered in the Topps Bunt post where, refreshingly, the digital marketplace can serve as a pure version of card collecting where people can just have fun acquiring, trading, and set building. But those digital collections also feel incredibly ephemeral, focused on new items with no long tail or ability to deep dive into the past.

I don’t want digital cards to be emulating physical ones. I’d love to see them do things that physical cards can’t do. But I’d also like to see them be something that can be collected and shared across generations. At the end of the day what makes cards interesting to most of us here is the story they tell about baseball and our connection to the game, not the story about how much money we spent or the profits we made.

On cropping and layers

For most of baseball card history there have been two basic types of card designs. Either the photo is placed in a box* or the player is silhouetted onto a background.** Both of these designs are pretty straightforward with their image requirements in that designers only have to think about what is and isn’t shown in the photos.

*Straightforward but none more pure of an example than 1953 Bowman.

**1914 Cracker Jacks, 1949 Bowman, 1958 Topps, and many of the inserts from the 1980s to today.

There’s a third design though which took over cards in the 1990s and has made photo cropping difficult ever since. Rather than putting photos in boxes the trend toward full-bleed cards has created design after design that layers text and other graphic elements on top of the photo itself.

While it’s true that this design took over in the 1990s and was made extremely easy to do by foil stamping, it’s important to realize that its ancestry has been in cards for decades and in fact tended to surface every decade. So let’s go back to one of the first such designs.

Yup. 1957. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as proto-Stadium Club except that the photos themselves are pretty standard Topps photos that you’d expect to see until about 1991 or so. Posed shots showing a player’s upper body, headshots, and a few full-body “action” (at this point still posed) images.

The first thing to point out here is that Topps likes to put the players’ heads as high in the frame that it can. The next thing to look at—specifically in the Kluszewski and Thompson cards—is how Topps deals with the text overlapping the image. Topps likes to crop at players’ waists and at their necklines. In 1957 this is frequently where the top of the text starts but there’s another half inch of image visible under the text.

On the upper-body portraits this extra half inch can give us a little more information about the location of the photo and allow us to see the field and stadiums.

Photographically, these photos were also composed somewhat loose since the image area of the film is huge* and the photographer knew things would be cropped later. This is why in the Gomez card there’s so much grass in the foreground.

*at least 2 and a quarter inches square and quite likely more like 4 inches by 5 inches.

Now we flash forward a decade. On a lot of other sets* before this the image frame is knocking off a corner of the photo. This isn’t the same kind of design/photography issue since most of the photos are somewhat centered so there’s rarely something of import in the corners.

*eg. 1962, 1963, and 1965. Plus in 1966 there’s a layering effect in the corner.

1967 though is exactly like 1957 only there’s text at both the top and the bottom of the card now. Topps is doing the same thing as it did in 1957 too except that the players’ heads are now a little lower in the frame so that the names and positions can fit. The waist and neckline croppings though are pretty close to the 1957 croppings.

The net result here is that we get to see a lot more stadium details in many of the cards—giving the set a photographic character which differs from the other 1960s Topps offerings.

The Fuentes card though shows the dangers of this kind of design. Unlike the 1957 Gomez, Fuentes’s feet—and even his glove—are covered by the team name. This isn’t a big problem with a posed “action” photo but becomes much more of an issue when we move into the age of action photography.

I’ll jump to Japan for the 1970s since the Calbee sets of that decade deserve a mention. It’s obviously doing something very similar with extending the photo under the text. At the same time the simplicity of the text almost makes it an absence of design. In a good way.

It might be because I can’t read the text but the way it’s handled encourages me to not see it. Not because it’s not readable. Quite the opposite in fact. The way the text changes from black to white on the Sadaharu Oh card is handled masterfully in how my brain barely notices it. It’s there as information but manages to not take anything away from the photos.

It is worth noting though that the cropping on Oh and Davey Johnson is pretty similar to Topps’s standard cropping. And that third card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes has enough foreground space to give the text plenty of room to be legible.

Toppswise I skipped 1969 since it’s such a photographic nightmare that I don’t feel like it’s a fair to look at the photos. (Offhand though it’s interesting to note that it tends to crop the photos tighter at the bottom than 1967’s or 1957’s designs do.) 1980 is close, super close, to being included but it still feels like more of a corner-based design. Which brings us to 1988.

Not much to note with 1988 except for the layering of the player on top of the team name which is on top of the background. This is a wonderfully subtle bit of design that allows the photos to feel like they’re cropped similarly to the rest of Topps’s cards. Instead of getting more image area the layering doesn’t affect the image too much.

1991 brought us Stadium Club and the beginning of the full-bleed era of cards. Looking at this first set shows both that Topps was being pretty considerate with its cropping and how things would start to break.

Where earlier sets had the benefit of posed photos which could be cropped, as action photography began to be the priority for card companies the room for cropping started to decrease. For every card like Kent Anderson where there’s enough room for the graphics there’s a card like Damon Berryhill where the graphic is starting to intrude into the image.

1992 Stadium Club shows an alternative to just slapping a graphic on the bottom of the card. That Topps moves the graphic depending on where it best fits the photo is fantastic.

It’s also a lot of work since it requires each card to be designed individually. Instead of positioning an image into a template, this design requires the image and graphic to be adjusted until they work together. Find the best cropping, then adjust the graphic. This extra amount of work is probably why this approach hasn’t really been revisited since 1992.

By 1993 the standard operating procedure had been set. This design captures the way most sets ever since have been designed. A basic template, drop the picture in. Don’t worry if the graphic obscures an important part of the photo.

One of my pet peeves in the full-bleed era is when there’s a photo of a play at a base and the graphic obscures the actual play. The Bip Roberts is a textbook example of this. Great play at the plate except the focus of the play is obscured by the Stadium Club logo.

This is a shame since in 1993 Upper Deck showed how to do it right. The layering effect like 1988 Topps at the top allows the image to be cropped nice and tight at the top of the frame. Upper Deck though selected photos and cropped them to have empty space at the bottom.

You wouldn’t crop photos in general this way but as a background for the graphics it works perfectly. It forces the photos to be zoomed out enough that you can see the entire player and get a sense of what he’s doing within the game.

Most of the 1990s and 2000s however look like these. I could’ve pulled a bunch more sets—especially from Pacific and Upper Deck—here but they’re all kind of the same. Big foil graphics that cover up important parts of the photo. Some sort of foil stamping or transparency effect that cuts off the players’ feet.

Instead of cropping loosely like 1993 Upper Deck most of the cards in these decades feel like the photos were cropped before being placed in the graphics.

It’s easy to blame the card companies here but this is also a photography thing. Portrait photographers often find the crop after they take the photo. They use larger-format film and understand that the publication might need to crop to fit a yet-to-be-determined layout. Action photographers though get in tight and capture the best moment. This is great for the photos but not so great with baseball cards.

Baseball is a horizontal sport and there’s no reason to include dead foreground space. The only reason to include that space if you know that you’re shooting for a baseball card design that’s going to need it.

We’ll make a brief stop at 2008 though. This isn’t a transparency or overlay design but it’s doing something similar. Rather than the usual cropping at a corner of the image box, Topps placed its logo in a uvula at the top of the image box. Right where it would normally place the players’ heads.

The result? Very similar to 1967’s effect where the photos get zoomed out  a little and you see more background. The problem? These photos are already somewhat small and the change to mostly-action means that in most of them you’re just seeing more blurry crowds.

Fred Lewis is emblematic of the standard cropping. Small player image with lots of wasted space in the upper corners. That the posed photos like the Matt Cain are often bare skies at spring training locations instead of in Major League stadiums makes the added “information” there generally uninteresting.

All of this is a shame since the Tim Lincecum shows that when a selected photo is not impacted by the uvula, not only is the photo area not that small but the design can actually look pretty nice.

Okay. To contemporary cards and Topps’s recent dalliance with full bleed designs in flagship. I’m looking at 2017 here since it’s kind of the worst but 2016 to 2018 all do this. The transparency at the bottom of the cards is huge now. Yes it gets blurred out a bit but the photo information still needs to be there and as a result the cropping has to be even tighter.

As much as Topps was drifting toward in-your-face all-action shots, the actual designs of these cards sot of prevents any other kind of action. They also prioritize action that focuses in the top half of the frame. Any plays at a base gate stomped on by the design and even photos like the Chase Headley which don’t focus low in the frame are pretty much ruined too.

It’s easy to blame the TV graphics in Flagship but even Stadium Club—a set I love—has this same problem. On action photos the name/type often gets in the way of the image (compare Tim Anderson to the 1993 Upper Deck Lou Whitaker) but it’s the otherwise-wonderful wide-angle photos which fare the worst.

As the angle gets wider and the players get smaller, the odds that the text becomes intrusive increase tremendously. On Dexter Fowler’s card he’s the same size as the text and, as great as the photo is, the design of the card ruins it. Same goes with the Jose Berrios where the text is covering the entire mound and the ground fog Topps adds for contrast covers the whole playing field.

Which brings us to 2020 and a design that gets a lot of flak because it features sideways names.* What isn’t mentioned very frequently is how moving the transparency effect to the side of the card results in tremendously better photos and photo cropping.

*I don’t mind the sideways names except that I think they should’ve been rotated 180° so that when paged the horizontal cards don’t end up upside down.

All of a sudden we can see players’ feet again. Images aren’t all as in-your-face. We can have action images at second base where you can actually figure out what’s going on. Instead of cropping out the bottom of an image which a photographer has already framed, this design uses the space the photographers already provide for players to “move into.”*

*In action photography you’re generally trying to give the subject some room to move into the frame.

More importantly, it opens up the possibility for great photos that would never have worked in the previous full-bleed designs. For example, Omar Narvaez’s image is impossible to use in any design that puts transparency at the bottom of the card. Even Stadium Club. But 2020 Topps is flexible enough that it can use a wider variety of images.

I hope Topps learns some lessons from 2020 and that if we’re to see further full-bleed designs that they’ll be done in such a way so as to not get in the way of the images or to take advantage of the Transparency to give us more interesting photos.

Ultra Pro and the Patent Lifecycle

A bit of online discussion about my previous patent post got me thinking about the patent lifecycle and the way that patent numbers are printed, or not, on products.

Unlike copyrights,* patents have only a 20-year lifespan. After they expire the patent holder no longer has a monopoly on the design. Printing the patent number on a product is only legal if the patent has not yet expired.**

*which remain active as long as Disney wants them to.

**Topps has gotten trouble for this in the past.

While patents don’t show up on cards very often they do show up on other things we handle all the time. For example pages. When I was a kid in the early 1990s Ultra Pro pages were the fancy new thing. I couldn’t always afford them but I got them when I could. They just felt better at the time and upon revisiting my childhood collection 25 years later the Ultra Pros were the only ones that were still usable.

Yeah I’m still using Ultra Pro pages from before they added the holograph. More importantly for this post, they state “patent pending” which gives us a decent idea as to when the 20 year clock started. There is no patent number listed on the pages I’ve purchased since I rejoined the hobby in 2017. Nor should there be since 2017 is more than 20 years after the early 1990s.

I asked on Twitter if anyone had any Ultra Pro pages from the 2000s and lo and behold, the Twiter hive mind/collection responded.

This page is from around 2010 and lists two patents, 5266150 and 5312507. Presumably UltraPro included these numbers on all their tooling for the ~20 years that those patents were valid and then had to retool once they expired.

Anyway, now that we have numbers let’s take a look. The first thing I found was that the two patents are basically the same. The earlier one, 5266150, is a bit larger and the portion relevant to making the pages was split off into its own patent, 5312507 so we’re only really looking at one patent here. And looking at the timeline we can see when Ultra Pro would’ve been printing a patent number on its sheets

1991-03-08 Priority to US07/666,260
1993-09-10 Application filed by Rembrandt Photo Services
1994-05-17 Application granted
1994-05-17 Publication of US5312507A
2011-05-17 Anticipated expiration

So if you got UltraPros between 1994 and 2011 odds are the patent numbers are on there. This means I just missed getting some of these since I dropped out of the hobby on August 12, 1994 and didn’t get around to paging any of the cards I had purchased that year.

Looking at the rest of the patent, the pictures very clearly show the nine-pocket pages we’re all familiar with but the patent itself is actually about how to weld polypropylene together. A long pull quote from the patent itself explains the problem and in doing so, also describes the nature of card pages in the late 1980s.

Unlike vinyl, attempts to weld polypropylene sheets (as well as other polyolefin sheets) by radio-frequency welding techniques have been in general unsatisfactory. Instead, thermocontact welding is generally employed, although attempts to produce a solid weld seam by thermocontact welding have previously caused the welded sheets to exhibit a tendency to curl or otherwise deform, thought to be a result of polypropylene’s sensitivity to heat. In order to prevent curling or deformation, prior art thermocontact methods for welding polypropylene sheets have utilized discontinuous or intermittent die surfaces for producing discontinuous or intermittent welded seams—i.e. the welded seam is comprised of a sequence or series of welded dots or short dashes with unwelded material between successive dots or dashes.

So many of my childhood pages were vinyl and just did not age well. Thankfully none destroyed my cards. I also had a decent number of pages with seams that were welded in dashes. These did better but I never liked them. There’s a reason why UltraPro became the standard.

The rest of the patent explains how the pages are made. From what I can tell the key distinction is that only one side of the metal die that does the welding is heated. The other is kept cool and I guess this makes the overall operation run cooler so only the seams get heated and the rest of the polypropylene has no chance to thermally deform.

What I found more interesting was that I never gave much thought to how the pages were actually put together with one big sheet of plastic in the back and three narrow strips on the front for each row of pages. I had to read about how the pages were assembled from 4 rolls of plastic* to realize that many of Ultra Pro’s products** are optimized around this arrangement.

*one for the back, 3 for the front.

**Such as its 15-pocket tobacco card pages.

Anyway, I found it an interesting read and decided to see what else UltraPro owned. Most of it wasn’t particularly interesting but one patent did jump out at me.

Yup. We’ve got a one-touch patent. This patent references a patent from a decade earlier for the single-screw cardholder and its main novelty is the replacement of the screw with a pair of magnets. No need to go too in depth on this one since it’s all about the functionality of the design and we’re all familiar with that. But it’s still a fun one to see and I like the idea that it took us from 1994 to 2003 to realize that we could replace a screw with a magnet.

Pinnacle Patent Dive

One of my favorite oddballs from my childhood was Action Packed. The 3D embossed effect was pretty cool but even as a kid I was impressed at the way they were made. As I’ve been looking for card-related patents I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for Action Packed.

This has been somewhat frustrating because Action Packed actually mentions patent number 315364 on the cards themselves but every time I searched that number I couldn’t find anything. A couple weeks ago though I got a tip from Paul Lesko that the Action Packed patent was in fact a design patent and should be listed as D315364.

Compared to the more-common utility/mechanical patents which describe how a product works, design patents are strictly about how the product looks. In the case of Action Packed, its design patent covers the different profile levels.

This is cool to see but also ultimately disappointing since design patents are literally just about how the product looks. I’m not a patent attorney but even though Action Packed put this patent number on all its cards—not just the ones that have this border design—I can’t help but think that this patent only applies to the specific profile of the original design.

Original design is on the left. It’s clearly the same design as the one in the design patent. I’m not sure if there was ever a proper baseball release in that design since all the baseball cards I’ve see are the design on the right.

Flipping the cards overs shows how they were made. There’s a seam that goes the length of the card (above the card number on Cunningham and above the stats on Jenkins) which shows how they’re printed on only one side of the paper and subsequently glued together. This is pretty clever since it hides the back of the embossing is on the card fronts.

It’s worth noting the prototype baseball cards which date to when the design patent was filed in 1988 use the design in the patent and are assembled differently. Instead of folding each side over and putting a seam on the back, this is just folded in half.

Anyway I’m still hoping to find more details about the production of these but I did notice that the patent is now assigned to Pinnacle Brands. So I decided to click on that name and see what else they owned.

There wasn’t as much interesting stuff in there as I was hoping for but this patent jumped out a me. Fellow early-90s collectors like myself will recognize it immediately, everyone else will be pretty confused.

The patent title itself gives it away. This is an anti-counterfeiting device. Where Upper Deck used holograms on its cards, Pinnacle decided to leverage its Sportflics brand and use lenticular printing.

That little slug under the player portrait on the back of every Pinnacle card? It’s basically what a Sportflics or Kelloggs card looks like before the plastic lens layer is added on top of the printing. It definitely confused me as a kid so it’s cool to see how it’s actually supposed to work.

Metacards

A couple years ago now, someone was running a Twitter sale and posted a batch of 1955 Bowmans. I hadn’t quite made the jump into pursuing Giants Bowman cards at the time but I looked at the batch anyway and one card jumped out at me that I had to have. So I responded to the tweet and the following conversation ensued.

“I’ll take the Bowman.”

“Which one? They’re all Bowmans.”

“The Bowman Bowman.”

“LOLOL”

The card that jumped out at me and the first 1955 Bowman I ever purchased was Roger Bowman’s Rookie Card. I knew nothing about him as a player* but the silliness of having a Bowman Bowman card was irresistible.

*I would discover that he was a former Giant but by the time his Rookie Card was printed his career was basically over.

And so a collection theme was born. I don’t have all of the cards in this post but they’re on my radar. Sometimes we collect our favorite teams. Sometimes we collect our favorite players. And sometimes we collect cards where the player name describes the card itself.

On the theme of the Bowman Bowman we’ll start with a pair of Johnson Johnstons. As a Giants fan the Johnston Cookies issues aren’t exactly relevant to my interests. But getting an Ernie or Ben Johnson card of those? That’s something I can feel completely fine about adding to my searchlist.

Sadly there aren’t a lot of guys whose names match the card manufacturers. Hank Gowdy, despite playing through the 1930s, never appears on a Goudey card. Score never made a Herb Score card.

Thankfully the Ted Williams company produced Ted Williams cards in its early 1990s sets and the Conlon Collection included a Jocko Conlan card as well. And to bring us back to where we started, Matthew Bowman gives us the modern version of the Bowman Bowman card.

But it’s not just card manufacturers where this checklist is relevant. Player names can match team names whether it’s Dave Philley as a Phillie or Johnny Podres on the Padres. Jose Cardenal almost got aced out since his time with the Cardinals corresponds to when Topps calls them the “Cards”* but his Kellogg’s card, with no team name on the front but Cardinals on the back, doesn’t do this.

*Cards cards are an honorary member of this collection.

Unfortunately guys like Daryl Boston and Reggie Cleveland never played for Boston or Cleveland respectively.

First names can also match in this department. Like we’ve got Angel the Angel who sadly never pitched when the club called itself The Los Angeles Angels. There are plenty of other players named Angel on Baseball Reference but none appeared for the Angels.

Sticking with first names and moving to more thematic cards. We’ve got a Chase chase card and a Rookie Rookie Card. I went with Chase the batdog whose card is a short print in 2013 Topps Heritage Minors but there are also a few Chase Field cards that are numbered to various small numbers. Sadly, images of those are hard to come by.

The Rookie Rookie though I enjoy a lot. I usually hate the RC badge but in this case it really makes the card.

There are also a couple more thematic near misses. Cookie Lavagetto left the Oakland Oaks the year before Mothers Cookies started making its PCL sets in the 1950s and Cookie Rojas, despite managing for the Angels in the 1980s, was on the only West Coast team that did not get Mothers Cookies cards.

And finally, much to my dismay, the 1968 Topps Game Matty Alou Error Card does not contain an error. Although I do keep that card around as one of my favorite Error cards.

Any more suggestions? Please leave them in the comments!

Addendum

A couple cards that came up in the comments the week after this posted.

First a Wally Post Post card which Tom Bowen suggested in the comments. Thanks Tom! And second a green tint* Pumpsie Green that I knew of an completely spaced on when I wrote this.

*We haven’t yet had a post on this blog about the 1962 Topps green tint variants but there’s a definitive breakdown of all the variations over on Flickr.

Black Ink and Trapping

The third edition of what’s become an annual tradition where I use Topps Heritage as an entree into writing about how cards were, and are printed. In 2018 I looked at differences in the screening patterns and and attempting to fake a 1969-style screen. In 2019 I was struck by Topps replacing a black screen with a spot grey ink. This year with the 1971 design and all those black borders, it’s time to talk about printing solid blacks.

I’m not going to compare a bunch of cards in this post. Nor am I going to complain about the type changes.* What fascinates me in this year’s Heritage is how differently the black is handled. We’ll just look at these two cards. Heritage Tyler Naquin on the left, a buyback 1971 Ken Harrelson** on the right.

*It’s not the slight differences in font/size/weight that bother me but rather the fact that Topps not only didn’t fix 1971’s kerning problems but proceeded to royally mess up the the word spacing.

**I have very few non-Giants 1971 Topps cards so I chose one that matched a team I got in my solitary pack.

It’s superficially a pretty good match. Slight color differences but those can be attributable to aging or print variances. I noticed some weird stuff going on around the edges of the black areas though which turned out to be pretty interesting.

So let’s zoom in on the edges. Heritage on the left still and 1971 on the right. One of the first things that jumped out at me was that the vertical edges of the black frame were not crisp. To be honest I have no idea why Topps did this. It could just be a mistake where the edges of the artwork were for some reason set to be 50% black and as a result got screened instead of being printed as a solid.

It could also however be an homage to the way that 1971 frequently had a different kind of non-crisp edge around the black border. That little edge of Cyan screening on the top and right side of the white border and white text? It’s what we call in the print shop a bump plate or rich black.

While black is the darkest color of light, with printing you can print other inks with the black ink to make it seem even darker.* In 1971 Topps ran like a 40% Cyan screen under the black borders to make them a bit darker.

*The other benefit of printing a bump plate is that it smooths out the black coverage so that instead a non-white color peeks though if the black is run light in a spot.

At high magnifications this screen peeks out from under the Black if there’s a slight misregistration between the Black and Cyan inks. It’s possible that this misregistration is something Topps was trying to emulate with the fuzzy black edges.

Anyway, I’ve seen a couple wonderfully out of register 1971 Topps cards that show the bump plate in even more detail. In both of these cards the Cyan is shifted left so far that a huge cyan strip is printed down the righthand side of the picture area. It’s a bit hard to see on the Purdin card but it extends directly below the “r” in “pitcher.” It is super obvious in the Perez card.

While running a bump plate allows you to not have to print the black as heavy as running without one, a design like 1971’s still results in the printer printing the black ink pretty thick. This puts some stress on the photos since black ink there is supposed to be somewhat subtle and only be used to punch a bit of shadow detail.

Which means that another thing Topps did in 1971 was reduce the amount of black ink used in the pictures. This is most apparent in the Senators card since Topps reused the photo in 1972 but re-did the separations with a lot more black details. Most of the shadow detail in the player faces is absent in the 1971 card. It’s all there in 1972.

Next, let’s zoom in on the red and green text. Heritage is still on the left, 1971 on the right. The different colors of red are an example of printing variances. Red is composed of two solid inks* and the absence of any screening in the red text shows that Topps ran them as solids.** The differences in the green though are related to the screening. 1971 has more Cyan and so the slightly darker green is accurate.

*Magenta and Yellow. Refer to the post about 1985 Fleer and 1990 Topps for more information about this.

**Note the Cyan bump screen on the edges of “ken” in the 1971 card.

The fuzzy vertical edges show up in the “INDIANS” but what I want to call attention to here is the weird white edge to the Heritage lettering. One white edge is on the left side of every character in “tyler” and the other is on the right side of the characters in “INDIANS.”*

*A bit harder to see due to the fuzziness of that transition.

Those white edges suggest that Topps isn’t trapping the text. In printing, a trap is small overlap between two differently-colored sections so that in case of any misregistration, no paper shows through. This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy except for the fact that 1971’s traps are huge.

I’ve gone ahead and re-levelled my Ken Harrelson image so that the traps are highlighted. The red halo around his name and the green halo around “INDIANS” show the overlap of the Black ink with the colored inks.

Normally you’re not supposed to be able to see the traps with your eye unless you zoom way in but in 1971’s case, because of the heavy black borders, Topps played it safe and made giant traps since the black would cover them anyway.*

*Printing Black on top of the other colors, aka “overprinting” is pretty standard and is how all the facsimile autographs are printed. 

I’m not sure why Topps would’ve run the text untrapped on purpose but it kind of looks like it was a choice. Yes a lot of printers default to running small text untrapped* but in a design like this there’s no reason to make that choice plus the team name is larger than what the defaults would be.

*Trapping small text, especially between two different colors, can create an outline effect since with small text the trap thickness can be similar to the thickness of the letterforms.

Anyway it’s time to look at the backs. I was worried for a bit that Topps would try to fake a halftone like they did in 2018 but thankfully the player headshot is a traditional lien screen. It’s a much much much finer screen than Topps ran in 1971 but the dot pattern is the same.*

*I’m tempted to hypothesize that the oddly slick/shiny feel that the backs of the Heritage cards have is due to Topps printing a line screen which is too fine for regular uncoated stock to hold. Uncoated stock soaks up ink and needs a coarser screen  so that the white portions of the screen are large enough to not plug up with ink.

More interestingly, Topps is printing a light Black screen across the entire card back. It’s not enough that the paper is brownish, Topps is applying a faint texture to it to give it even more of an old feel. This is something that Topps is doing on the front of the cards as well* and shows that there’s a vested interest in these cards feeling “old” in addition to just using the old designs.

*The first zoomed in image of Heritage shows a faint yellow screen in the ostensibly white areas of the card.

Cards and Autographing

I like collecting autographs. In those years in the early 1990s when the hobby exploded and the number of available sets to purchase had jumped from three to at least seventeen, one of the things that kept me sane was collecting autographs.*

*I prospected at college games. Pursued minor league coaches and managers. Went to Spring Training. Hung over the rail at Candlestick. Sent out some through the mail requests. Hit a couple card shows.

In many ways my card collecting hobby transformed into a way for me to be able to pull a card of any player at any time. No this was not efficient, but in those pre-internet days it was better than betting on my local shop having a card of the player I was planning to get. Having a couple years of complete Topps sets was a great way to be sure I had cards of almost everyone who played in the majors.

Getting into autographs also meant that I had to make a decision about hobby orthodoxy. In those early 1990s there were a lot of rules. Rules about what cards to collect.* Rules about how to store them.** And rules about what condition to keep them in. Chief among the condition rules was that writing on a card was bad even if it was an autograph.

*Prospects, Rookies, Errors, and inserts.

**Rubber bands out. Binders OK. Toploaders better. Screwdown cases best.

It didn’t take me long to decide that rule was stupid but it’s also part of a larger debate that we still have in the hobby. For a lot of collectors, writing on a card does indeed ruin it. Even if it’s an autograph. For others like me, there are many cards which are enhanced by getting them signed. That there’s no one way of collecting is great but it feels like the autograph divide is one where neither group understands the other.

The appeal of cards as an autograph medium is pretty simple since it piggybacks on the same appeal as baseball cards themselves. They’re mass-produced photographs so they’re usually both the cheapest and easiest thing to find. They label who the subject is and have information about him on the back. They’re small enough to carry in a pocket or send through the mail in a regular envelope. And after they’re signed they’re easily stored and displayed.

But that doesn’t mean that just any card will do for an autograph. One of the fun things about talking autographs with other collectors is discussing what kinds of cards and designs we prefer to get signed.

First off, things we want to avoid. It’s inevitable that you’ll get cards where a player has signed on his face. Cards are small and there’s almost always a time crunch. Avoiding closely-cropped portraits and picking a card that doesn’t encourage face signing is an important factor to keep in mind.

Dark backgrounds are also dangerous. Especially if you’re sending a card out through the mail or otherwise can’t control the pen being used. When I was a kid my hands were tied because silver sharpies didn’t exist and I was limited in my card options. Now though I just assume that the dark backgrounds won’t work.

What I did end up liking? Simple photo-centric designs with the bare minimum of design elements. A name. A team. A border. Nothing else. These designs often underwhelmed me as cards* but I found that I really enjoyed them signed.

*As my photo and print literacy has improved I found myself appreciating the photos and design in many of these sets.

In many ways I got into the hobby at exactly the right time as the early 1990s were a heyday for these kind of designs. 1989–1993 Upper Deck and 1988–1993 (except 1990) Topps in particular were tailor-made for my autograph preferences and are still sets I return to when I can.

The rise of full-bleed photos also occurred during this time. I was scared of gloss as a kid but have started looking for these designs whenever I can now. They’re an even more extreme point in my “simple photo-centric design” preference but the key for me is that I like the ones which adhere to the simplicity.

A lot of the full-bleed designs are anything but simple with crazy graphics and other stuff going on. But the ones where the designs are essentially just typography? Beautiful. In the same way that many of the guys who don’t like signed cards prefer signed 8×10s, these function more as signed photos than anything else.

To be clear, I’m not against more colorful designs. They just require me to think extra hard about the way things will look. In addition to considering how the autograph will work with the image there’s the additional concern about how it will interact with the design.

These cases usually result in an autograph which isn’t as pronounced but ideally still combine a bright colorful design and a nicely signed image into a pleasant and presentable result.

With these less-simple designs there’s the possibility for the wonderful occurrence when everything works together perfectly and results in an even stronger look. Would these look better just as photos? Maybe. But for me the complete package of a strong design and a perfect signature/photo combination is something I especially enjoy.

And sometimes the point isn’t how things will look but just about getting a specific photo signed because it’s funny, important, or both. These are the requests I enjoy most because I can talk about the specific photo being one of my favorites and why I chose this specific card to get signed.

The key for me is to be as intentional as possible with my card choices. An important season. A specific team. A nice photo. A special event. A favorite design. Or just something silly like a picture of a player milking a cow.