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.

Mid-90s Pop-ups

I read the post about Stouffer’s pop-up cards with a lot of interest because it’s always fun to find out about new sets and I love gimmicky things like pop-ups. However the assertion that those were the “best engineered baseball cards that have been issued to date” made me pause.

I have no argument with the best-engineered part since the pop-up mechanism is super nifty. It was the to-date that got me thinking. Why? Because there were a lot of similar pop-up cards in the mid-1990s.

Quickly referencing my collection and googling for images that show some of the different mechanisms in action turned up at least four other sets. There’s the 1994 Oscar Mayer Superstar Discs,* and each year from 1993 to 1995 Kraft issued a set of pop-up cards as well.

*A full write-up of these is over at Angels in Order

Unlike the 5-card Stouffers checklist, all four sets here involve 30-card checklists. Oscar Mayer is cool in that it includes one player per team. Kraft on the other hand is a more generic top-30 players approach. I much prefer the one-per-team  checklists. Yes some big names end up missing but there’s so much more to a season than just the names. Plus as a team collector it’s always a downer when a cool-looking set doesn’t offer a logical entry point for my collection.

Anyway, the most-interesting thing for me to find out is that these sets all appear to use slightly different mechanisms for either the pop-up effect or the card manufacturing. Some are folded and glued from one sheet of cardboard. Others look like multiple sheets. The Discs are obviously more complicated than that. The 1995 Kraft set pops up from the end of the card rather than the middle.

Something was obviously going on so I wandered over to the patent library and did a quick search. There are a lot of patents for pop-up cards in the late 80s and early 90s. So many that I can’t figure out which ones correspond to what cards.

A quick sample. US patents 5259133, 5450680, and 5746689 all look superficially the same as the Stouffers, Oscar Mayer, and 1993 Kraft cards (I’ve been unable to find one that looks like the 1995 Kraft cards). They’re mainly just assembled differently. I wish the cards or packaging had a patent number listed.

What’s amazing to me is that many of the patents are explicitly for baseball cards. In two of the images I’ve chosen here the illustration clearly features a baseball player.

Patents are usually written somewhat broadly so that they can apply to multiple applications beyond the original intent of the application. But in the artwork here the inventor’s inspiration comes through. The mid-90s explosion of card-related technologies* resulted in multiple patents about baseball cards and in this case multiple patents to achieve the same effect.

*Other patents are in my previous patent dive post but relics, foil stamping, holograms, die cuts, chrome, dufex, etc. all exploded that decade.

Toehold

I wrote about a selection of Exhibit/Arcade cards I got on my own blog but there are enough of them to warrant a toehold post here as well.

We’ve had a handful of posts about Exhibit Cards here before but haven’t had a post specifically dedicated to them yet.* This is not going to be that post except to note that Exhibits are kind of wonderful because they represent a different method of card collecting and distribution and a different direction that the hobby could’ve gone.

*A good writeup is over on Sports Collectors Digest but I’d love to see more here as well.

Instead of packs of cards and the association with food and gum products, Exhibits are clearly photo products and place baseball players in the same ecosystem as Hollywood stars, cowboys, pinups, etc. of pop idols that fans would want to collect and display. Instead of products like photo packs you purchased at concession stands in stadiums, you bought your Exhibits from a vending machine in an arcade or store and you got what you got.

By the time I was a kid the only thing left being sold like this was mini plastic football helmets. It amazes me that there was an era when you could get 3.5″×5″ photo cards instead. Anyway while cards of Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart are lots of fun, this is a baseball card blog so I’m only going to write about the cards of baseball-related stars.

I was super-pleased to find cards of Abbott and Costello in my batch. Who’s on First* is a comedy classic that’s in the Hall of Fame because it’s not only required viewing for any baseball fan but one which I suspect we’ve all memorized as well.

*Link included as part of standard practices. 

A couple springs ago I was coaching Little League and had a kindergartner named Hugh on my team. Did I put him at first base? It would’ve been irresponsible and negligent not to.

Anyway these Exhibits appear to date to the 1940s and so represent this pair at the height of their popularity. I especially like that Costello’s salutation is “Yours for fun.”

There are a lot of Cowboy Exhibit cards but the only one in my batch was Gene Autry. I should probably have scheduled this post for Christmas to coincide with Here Comes Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but things were busy and it was Autry’s involvement first with the Hollywood Stars and then as the primary owner of the Los Angeles California Anaheim Angels which makes him relevant here.

It’s funny, for someone like me who learned about the game in the 1980s, Autry should’ve been someone  I knew first as a team owner. I didn’t though. He was always the singing cowboy and showman first for me and I have to remind myself that he was involved with baseball for much longer than he was recording.

Some of this though is probably because by the time I was learning about baseball the only owners I was truly aware of were the ones like Marge Schott and George Steinbrenner who were in the news for all the wrong reasons. Autry with his hands-off nature is exactly the kind of owner that I can see Angels fans loving and everyone else not knowing anything about.

The last baseball-related Exhibit has turned out to be one of my favorites of the batch. Yes I like her even over Abbott and Costello. Laraine Day is not exactly a household name as a movie star but the tabloid scandal of her marriage to Leo Durocher and her subsequent involvement with the New York Giants makes her card something I’m considering moving out of the non-sport/non-baseball album and into my Giants album.

While she was married to Durocher she wrote a book about her life with the team* and even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. If what I’ve been able to find around the web is accurate this cover upset a number of racists in the United States due to Day’s “embracing” of Mays.

*I’ll probably have to pull that book from the library just to take a peek (having access to the university library is a nice perk).

That’s about it for now. We’ll see if anything more shows up in the next batch of non-baseball cards I get.

Printing fingerprints

For most printed material, the method of printing is the means to the end. As long as the result looks good it doesn’t really matter how things were actually printed. Heck, from a printing point of view, noticing how something was printed is arguably a production failure since the standard processes are intended to make the printer’s hand as invisible as possible.

As a print and design geek though, one of my favorite things are designs that not only do something interesting with the printing but use the printing as a design feature in and of itself. Designs where I not only notice the printing method but which highlight the fingerprints of the printer.

There are actually two baseball card designs from my youth which do this. The first is 1985 Fleer. Lots of people love this set for the colorful borders and interesting photography. I admit that I like it for this as well. What is especially interesting to me though are the grey borders. I’ve seen some people call them grey. I’ve seen others call them burlap and compare them to the textured borders on 1983 Fleer or 1968 Topps.

So let’s take a closer look. On the left, 1985 Fleer. On the right, 1970 Topps. Both borders are basically the exact same color: just black ink printed at close to 40%. The only difference? The way the dots are arranged on the paper, specifically the angle of the dots.

Traditionally, when a halftone* is printed by itself it’s printed at a 45° angle.** This minimizes the screen pattern and results in a color that we tend to view as solid and patternless. 1970 Topps’s border is a textbook example of how this works. Zoom in on the photo and, if you can get your brain to not see things as just grey,*** you can see that the rows of dots are at 45° angles and produce somewhat of a checkerboard effect.

*Previous posts about halftones on this blog look at 2017 Topps releases, 2018 Heritage, and 2019 Flagship and Heritage

**I could write a post just about traditionally-printed screen angles but there’s already a good one on the web.

***Something my brain has a hard enough time doing since the entire point of the 45° angle/screen is to confuse your brain.

1985 Fleer though is printed at 0°—instead of a checkboard effect we have a clear grid of dots in rows and columns. This creates an effect where many people notice the actual pattern of the dots rather than treating the area as a flat grey color. I was unaware of this as a kid but it’s something I love about the design now. It’s an elegantly simple approach which uses the actual mechanics of printing to produce an effect that didn’t have to be designed.

Another thing worth pointing out about 1985 Fleer is the composition of the colored borders. As you can see in the sample above, there’s no screening pattern at all in the blue. This is because it’s being printed as 100% Cyan (one of the four standard printing inks).* One ink. No screen pattern of dots. No registration to worry about.

*Why yes a previous post starts off with a brief primer on Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black and the standard “process color” inks.

The red and green borders are similarly solid. This time though they consist of two inks. Red is 100% Magenta and 100% Yellow while green is 100% Cyan and 100% Yellow.* The three colors we’ve covered so far are some of the simplest colors to print and as a result are colors that come up frequently on baseball card designs.**

*You can see a bit of misregistration in the red border as there’s some Yellow fringing on the bottom edge and Magenta fringing on the top edge of the red elements.

**The other simple colors are the pink (100% Magenta), yellow (100% Yellow), black (100% Black), and dark blue/purple (100% Cyan plus 100% Magenta).

The other three colors show that Fleer’s screen choices were intentional. All three borders here feature a Magenta screen at 45° mixed with either 100% Yellow or 100% Cyan. It’s worth noting here that these screen angles are only being used for the borders too. The photos appear to be printed using the traditional angles.*

*Magenta can be seen at 75° in a couple of the zoomed in images—specifically green-bordered Essien and light-blue-bordered Teufel. And for anyone who didn’t read the link provided earlier, the traditional angles are Cyan 15°, Magenta 75°, Black 45°, and Yellow 0°.

Why am I looking at the screen angles for the solid colors? Two reasons but for now the only important one is that the other set which is about print screens happens to be about colored screens. Once we start looking at this set the screen angles become part of the design.

Yup. Come on down 1990 Topps. I’ve seen this one referred to as the Lichtenstein set since the screens look like the Ben-day dots that dominated comic book shading and which Roy Lichtenstein referenced in his pop art paintings. This is an appropriate name even though 1990 Topps’s design is still a halftone screen rather than Ben-Day dots.

So let’s dig in, starting off with the simplest of the color options in the base set, the light blue gradient. This should look somewhat familiar. Just Cyan ink. A screen angle of 45°. Up close it’s just dots but at arm’s-length it’s still a somewhat smooth gradation from almost white to 100% Cyan.

The crop above is a half-inch square from the middle of the gradient Comparing the sizes of the dots on the top of the crop to the bottom shows how halftone screens work in general and how the gradient effect works specifically. In a halftone, the size of the dot changes as a color gets lighter or darker. Larger dots are darker colors, smaller dots are lighter ones*. In the gradient here as the dots get smaller the color approaches white and as the dots get larger the colors approach turquoise/cyan.

*Compare to stochastic FM screens where the dots are all the same size and it’s frequency/quantity of the dots which changes as colors get lighter or darker. 

Printing the dots at a super-coarse screen of around 20 lines per inch instead of over 100 allows them to be part of the design while still conveying  the color information.

It’s in the mixed colors that things get interesting. The red, orange, and green gradients all involve mixing two inks together. In each of these cases the darker ink (Cyan or Magenta) is printed at 45° while the Yellow is printed at 15°.

The 30° difference in angle minimizes moiré effects and produces the halftone rosette pattern that we’re used to seeing. In these cases though the yellow is so light that we don’t really see it and even zoomed in it’s very easy to see these as being red or green dots a a 45° angle and not even notice the yellow ink and the fact that it’s also being screened into a gradient.*

*Sharp-eyed readers will also notice that in the orange gradient above (second image) the dark blue stripe is screened at 0° and Mike Scott’s background is Black-only at 45°. These black-only All Stars show voids when they’re from the same press sheet that the famous Frank Thomas no-name “error” is printed on.

The difference in angle is also what keeps this design from looking like Lichtenstein or Ben-day dots. With the yellow in the mix it’s easy to miss the two inks. But with the dark blue and purple cards the screening is much more obvious. These screens involve two similarly-dark inks but Topps chose to print them differently. Above on the left is dark blue which Topps chose to print Cyan is at 45° and Magenta at 75°. On the right is the purple which printed Magenta at 45° and Cyan at 75° instead.

Despite one screen being at 45° these two colors look much more halftone-like than the other four colors in the set. There’s a clear mix of colors and the 45° angle is difficult to see. Even though I know it’s there I see these as being more rosette-like.

Compared to other color choices Topps made for this design though the dark blue and purple are pretty restrained. This would change later in  1990 as Topps’s later sets—Topps Traded, the Mini Leaders, and Major League Debut—are all very different from what Flagship is doing.

Topps Traded (photo 1) is a basic red gradient except that unlike Flagship the Yellow isn’t being screened at all and the Magenta is screened at 15°. This is the only design of the nine 1990 designs where there’s a solid ink (Yellow) in the gradient.

Mini Leaders (photo 2) meanwhile feature a gradient from Cyan to Yellow so the mid-point looks green as one ink fades out and another fades in. Where all the other 1990 designs fade from a dark color to a lighter version of that color, this one features essentially two gradients. In the zoomed in image above, the Yellow ink is at 15° and goes from large dots at the top to smaller ones at the bottom. Cyan meanwhile is at 45° and goes from large dots at the bottom to smaller ones at the top.

The last image is the most-interesting sample for me. Major League Debut consists of a four-color gradient. Zooming in on this design shows all kinds of dots. Rather than looking remotely Lichtenstein this is pure halftone all the way down. Black is at 45° like it usually is. As are Cyan at 15° and Magenta at 75°. Yellow meanwhile looks like it’s at 30°—not the 0° I’d expect but slipped in between two of the other screens where it’ll result in the same kind of halftone rosette pattern.

Anyway, despite my not particularly liking the 1990 design even though it’s full of things for me to geek out about, one of the things I do love about it and 1985 Fleer is how they’re extremely hard to replicate with modern technology.

Before computer-based color separations, all the printing elements were assembled manually, stripped together, and then burned onto a printing plate. This allowed different elements to be screened at different frequencies and angles. The photo is screened differently than the borders and it doesn’t matter.

Now, everything is done on the computer and the plate is made using the same screen on all elements. This is generally better in terms of color accuracy and reproducibility but when replicating old designs runs into the issue where things that were formally-solid inks are now being screened.* Or in the case of designs like 1990 Topps, things that used to be screened are now being double screened.

*A lot of the heritage designs show how this works

This brings us to the second reason I was looking at screen angles. Modern remakes of these designs are completely different. Zooming in and comparing the Topps Archives version (left) to the dark blue screen of the 1990 design (right) shows how Topps Archives treats the halftone dots as only a pattern. Instead of two coarse Cyan and Magenta screens, there’s a light blue background color and a dark blue dot pattern, both printed with a super-fine stochastic screen. The edges of the dots aren’t crisp and, for me, the design just isn’t the same.

I get it. With today’s technology, doing this kind of thing requires you to go out of your way for an effect that’s intentionally going to make the printing look “worse.” When Fleer reprinted its 1985 design in 2001* it got hit with all kinds of moiré because Fleer couldn’t cope with changing the 0° angle to 45° (what a computer would want to print it at). Computers just don’t do this kind of thing well plus manually making your own screens means you also lose all color controls that your printing process has.

*I do not have this card and refuse to buy it just for this post but if someone supplies a 24oo DPI scan of that card I’ll edit this post to show how badly it was handled.

That’s the shame or replicating these kind of things. No one points to the 1980s and 1990s as a time of being careful about how cards were made. Despite being massively overprinted, it’s clear with sets like these that there was still some thought being paid to the nitty-gritty details of how the ink was actually going on to the paper. And that’s pretty cool to realize.

My Favorite Common

One of the most-rewarding things about being the co-chair of this committee is seeing people come out of the woodwork to not only join the community we have here but contribute to it. Every new voice on the blog is wonderful and Jason and I have thoroughly enjoyed our role in encouraging new posters.

Some of you come bursting out of the gate with fantastic posts already formed and polished. Others of you have felt the desire to post but have needed some assistance in coming up with a good topic or angle of approach. As I’ve watched new posters try to find their voice or figure out what to do after they’ve exhausted their opening salvo of posts it’s occurred to me that it might be nice to have essentially an internal blog bat-around where we each address the same topic as a way of introducing ourselves and our relationship to baseball cards.

This isn’t a capital-A Assignment. But if you’ve run out of post ideas and want something to write about or if you’ve been lurking here for years and haven’t figured out what you feel comfortable adding, here’s a free post idea that I hope we return to for many years.

Mark Armour started this committee off on the right foot so it’s only fitting that his My Favorite Common post provides the blueprint. Please write about your favorite common card. No stars. No Hall of Famers. No errors. No in-demand rookies. No cards where the primary interest is how much it’s worth. We all know what common cards are; what’s of interest to the committee is you. Why it’s your favorite. How it relates to your baseball fandom.

For example, I’ll select my 1985 Fleer Dave Dravecky card for this exercise. I got this card before I even became a baseball fan or attended my first game in September 1986. My friend gave it to me before soccer practice and, not having any pockets, I shoved it behind my shinguard to “keep it safe.”

When I got home, it lived in my desk drawer, semi-forgotten even after I started collecting cards. Then in 1987 two things happened. The first was that the Giants and Padres made a blockbuster trade where the Giants got Kevin Mitchell, Craig Lefferts, and Dravecky in exchange for Chris Brown, Keith Comstock, Mark Davis and Mark Grant. The second is that Eric Show hit Andre Dawson in the face.

I’m not sure what it says about me that the Show/Dawson incident is what made dig through my drawer but yeah I had remembered that I had a Padre pitcher and so I went digging. Instead I found that I now had a Giants card.

Over the 1987 season Dravecky was usually good and occasionally great with multiple shutouts including a gem in the playoffs. Then the next year they found cancer in his pitching arm. His comeback game in 1989 remains the single most exciting sporting event I’ve ever been to. There was an electricity in the crowd with every pitch that I’ve never felt since. Playoff and World Series games are intense but this was much more than that.

This card has remained a sentimental favorite ever since but it also represents a lot of things that I like about baseball cards in general. Cards with colorful borders that correspond to the team colors. Cards with simple but professional headshots that also offer a glimpse at the stadiums. And Dravecky himself is poised and confident while also offering a bit a smile.

I love the way the yellow border is actually the same color as the Padres yellow and the way it works perfectly with the brown pullover jersey. The colors in general work really well together here with the red plastic seats and green artificial turf offering just enough contrast to keep the card from looking too much like a Reeses Pieces advertisement. It’s just a good-looking basic card.

The background details though are what I like best since they’re emblematic of the state of the game when I fell in love with it. I never thought I’d miss multipurpose stadiums with their barely-filled outfield stands revealing row-upon-row of brightly-colored plastic seats but here we are. Those donuts weren’t great but you could always walk up to the ticket window and expect something to be available.

Digital Footprints

A recent post by Jenny Miller about the Topps Bunt app got me thinking about digital cards. I’ve long wanted to see such a post on this blog but I suspect that our membership base is skeptical at best* when it comes to cards that only live in an app.

*And dismissive at worst.

I get it. This is a cardboard hobby and the idea of something existing only digitally doesn’t feel “real.” At the same time, the experience Jenny describes is closer to the pure ideal of the hobby than much of what’s going on with card releases. She doesn’t have to spend any money. She’s able to look at her collection and acquire new cards anywhere and anytime she has battery life on her phone. There’s no concern about finding a card shop or hoping that the card aisle hasn’t been raided by pack seekers. It sounds like a lot more fun than most of the bellyaching I see about the current state of the hobby on Twitter.

What really got me thinking though were the images Jenny used in her blog post. I’m online-averse in all my media. I prefer CDs/DVDs/BluRay to streaming. I prefer books to Kindle. As interesting as the Topps Bunt app seems it’s just not something that appeals to me…unless I can get the cards out of the app. As much as I’m a luddite, my concerns are actually more about being locked in to a corporate ecosystem and the fact that companies have a bad track record with regard to maintaining these things.

I just don’t trust these apps to last and while I don’t need ALL my cards to last another 20, 30, 40 years it would be nice to know that there’s a possibility of it. Jenny didn’t get her images out of the app (she confirmed with me that she pulled them from Topps’s Twitter feed) but she could have.

My phone (an iPhone8) produces screenshots that are 750×1334 pixels. This translates into 2.5″×4.45″ at 300 DPI. Even if you have to crop off a little of the image to get just the card this is enough data for good-quality printing. Yeah. There’s no reason why you couldn’t roll your own Bunt cards.

As much as it’s weird to me how the Bunt app cards show evidence of wanting to pretend to be physical items with their wrinkles, halftone rosettes, “autographs,” and peeling effects, they are actually something that can be taken into the real world if you wanted to.

Costco wallet-sized prints are 59¢ for four. Even if you didn’t print these, just being able to save them outside of the app gives you a level of flexibility and future-protection that alleviates a lot of my concerns. It also reminds me of a number of other card-related things we’ve covered on this blog where the original objects contain information that is no longer accessible for most collectors.

One of the best things about this hobby is how it’s a near perfect usage of technology—in this case print technology. Cards are the right size to hold and store. They’re durable enough to handle without falling apart immediately. And they don’t require any supplementary technology.

I very much love cards that push the into other technological realms though. They just require some help to be fully enjoyed if the other technology does not age as well as ink on cardboard.

For example, Auravision and Baseball Talk are both wonderful objects but the audio portions of them are tough to access. Record players may be making a comeback but they’ve not been standard in most homes for a long time. Plus you have to punch a hole in the middle of that nice Auravision photo to listen to anything. Similarly, Baseball Talk requires a special player which, even if you have one, is not guaranteed to work anymore since it’s a cheap child’s toy.

But the internet is a wonderful place. The Auravision recordings are up on YouTube. As are the Baseball Talk ones. This means I can have my Baseball Talk cards in my album and pull up the corresponding recordings on the web. Yes there’s always that fear that the recordings will disappear from YouTube but they’re out there, but there are tools out there that will download the audio from a YouTube video and convert it to MP3.

Another thing that YouTube has preserved is things like 2000 Upper Deck Power Deck. Sure you can just shove a baseball card sized mini CD-ROM into a binder page but reading the data is near impossible now. Most computers don’t have optical media trays and the ones that do are usually slot-loading ones that can’t accept non-standard sized or shaped media. So your only option to see what’s on the disc is to go to YouTube and hope it’s been uploaded.

I’ve actually been engaged in my own form of converting a somewhat-inaccesable product into one with digital footprints. I don’t have the toy to view my Viewmaster discs so I’m only able to see them by holding a disc up to light. This isn’t ideal. Scanning them into wiggle gifs produces a better way of seeing them.

I’m also going a step further and scanning the booklet so I can convert each image into a 2.5″ square card with a still image in the front and the booklet on the back. No it’s not the Viewmaster experience but it take the photos into a form that’s more accessible.

Do I expect Bunt to be around in a decade? No way. But I do expect JPGs of the cards to be available someplace. Maybe not all of them, but someone next decade will have an archive of a bunch of them. And I have my fingers crossed that a few cards will even be printed out the way I’m printing out my Viewmaster photos.