On thinking about what makes a card a card

One of the few editorial positions we have on this blog is a very catholic stance toward what counts as a baseball card. We’ve published posts about photos, toys, games, stamps, coins, etcetera, all of which serve to flesh out and describe the way that we collected cards. We’re not interested in being gatekeepers for what cards are. We’re interested in use and how cards relate to our fandom and interest in the game itself.

All that said, the discussion about what constitutes a card is one that comes up periodically on Twitter or on here.* It’s a fun discussion to have since we all have very different ideas** which in turn impact our collections and interests. I enjoy taking part in these discussions but I really love just watching them since the criteria people bring up have turned out to all over the map.

*Probably also in the Facebook group but as I’m no longer part of that website I’m unable to confirm as much.

**Quite similar to the “what constitutes a complete set” discussion we had earlier on this blog.

We all, of course, have significant agreement on what a card is. But there are so many variables where an item can deviate from being a card™  that I found myself creating a taxonomy of card attributes. Looking at cards with these attributes in mind is something I’ve found helps me understand why my gut reacts to different products the way it does.

This post will explain my thinking and hopefully help other people put words to things their guts have already intuited. Again, this is in no way intended to be a gatekeeping thing. We all have different reactions to which attributes we care about and where on the spectrum something stops being a card. But if the Twitter conversations have taught me anything it’s that being our most interesting conversations are when we’re being positive about our definitions rather than negative about someone else’s.

Material

We’ll start with the obvious and discuss the material of the card. Obviously the expectation is that they be made of cardboard. They are called “cards” after all.

But cards have never been limited to just that. From the silks and blankets in the pre-war era to the plastic, metal, and wood releases of the modern era we’ve always had cards that weren’t made of cardboard. We’ve had stamps, stickers (some made of cloth), rub-offs, rub-downs, and decals as well.

Even in the cardboard/paper realm there’s also a discussion with having about the thickness of the paperstock. We’ve had posts on the blog about cards printed on newsprint and cards which are almost a quarter of an inch thick.

Size

In general tobacco-sized to 3.5″×5″ seems to have a consensus as being a card. But what about 5″×7″ or 8.5″×11″? What about minis and micros that are smaller than tobacco cards? What about posters and pin-ups?

A lot of this comes back to storage concerns and the way many of us use binders and binder pages to organize our collections. But it’s more than that too. For most of us, “card” indicates something from the business card to postcard size and anything beyond that becomes something else. Too small and the card starts to feel insignificant. Too large and it becomes something else—a photo, a poster, a flyer.

Form

This is sort of related to size but refers to non-rectangular items like discs and diecuts but also encompasses folders, booklets, and pop-ups as well as  coins, poker chips, and buttons. Many of these are binderable. Just as many lose what makes them distinct and interesting as soon as they get bindered.

The items which aren’t binderable at all are especially interesting here. Things like the 1957 Swift Meats diecut paper dolls or those Topps 3-D Baseball Stars from the 1980s are clearly intended to be like cards but do not fit into any standard card storage or presentation systems.

Content

The question of what makes a card a card is more than just the physical description of what it’s made of and what shape it is. What it actually depicts is also important. Yes, picture on the front, stats/bio on the back is the expectation. But there are a lot of cards out there which don’t do this.

We’re not just talking about blank backs either although those are definitely relevant to this category. Backs that are advertising, common designs, or just a player name are all part of this. The same goes with fronts that depict a generic player instead of someone specific.

And for my money, all the more-recent relic, autograph, or online cards with backs that are functionally blank fit in here as well. I’ve seen way too many people refer to them as “half a card” to not mention them.

Release

No images for this section because it’s not something that can really be depicted visually. Traditionally, cards are part of a set and are released in either packs or complete sets. Cards that exist by themselves without the context of a set or the lottery of a pack stray into a grey area. This is something that’s really been pushed into new territory with online releases and the way Topps has in many ways optimized its distribution around selling and creating individual items on demand, but the idea of one-off card releases has been around a long time.

There’s also the discussion here about what connotes a set—both in terms of size and how things are numbered. At what point does a release of cards become a “set”? If something is unnumbered or only has a weird alphanumeric code on the back does that mean that it was intended to be collected by itself?

Case Studies

Why do I bother thinking and categorizing different attributes? Because as I watch the discussions it seems that most of us tolerate a certain amount of variance in one or two categories as long as the others remain “standard.” So let’s dig in.

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Let’s start with 1969 Topps Deckle Edge. These are pretty clearly cards but they serve as an example of something that sort of fails one of the categories because the backs are non-existent. But as you move from card size to 5″x7″ to 8″x10″, more and more people switch from treating them as cards to treating them as photos.

Or look at Broders. They’re generally “backless” but they also start to deviate from the expected release method.* They consist of small checklists and were generally not released the same way most cards are. Art cards and customs fit in this area as well. Move up a size in this area and we have things like team photo postcards. Change the paper stock and we end up in Jay Publishing land. At some point things stop being a card for a lot of people**

*There’s also something to be said about the licensing stuff but I’ve not heard anyone claim that Panini or other unlicensed logoless cards aren’t even cards.

**Although we still collect them and cover them on this blog.

The one that’s sort of stumped me in my own collection are the Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball stadium giveaways from the early 1990s. Despite being letter-sized and blank-backed, because they’re cardboard and manufactured by Upper Deck they physically feel more like cards than a lot of the posters that Topps has folded up and inserted in packs over the years.

At the same time, since they were distributed via stadium giveaway and do not function as part of a set. They’re also functionally distinct from those late-60s, early-70s posters that were issued in packs and formed part of a distinct set.

But I could go on and on. As stated initially, the point of this post isn’t to provide a definitive answer or even an official opinion. Instead I hope that organizing my thoughts about the different ways we evaluate cardness is helpful to other people as I’ve found it to be for my own thinking.

Art Market

We don’t talk a lot about value and sales prices on this blog. This is by design. Neither Jason nor I (nor Mark nor Chris) are interested in that stuff too much and we all agree that the primary interest of this committee is in card usage. Yes value maters when it comes to putting together a collection or knowing what to expect to pay. But none of us are in this committee to talk about how we’ve made (or lost) money on cards.

At the same time, when the market goes up and new money comes in, the results affect all of us. The past year in the hobby has been wild enough to result in numerous articles over the past year about the exploding market for sports cards. Most of these are nothing new to anyone who’s been collecting for more than a couple years. At their best they serve as decent primers to anyone who hasn’t thought about cards in decades. At their worst they end up being lazy analogies comparing card prices to index funds. Almost all of them mess up some key facts, such as calling the 1952 Topps Mantle his rookie card.

I read them because sometimes there’s something interesting. Usually I’m disappointed or frustrated but a recent article in the New York Times caught my eye because it made an explicit connection to the art market.

“This is the art of the future for sports enthusiasts who have money and don’t want to buy art,” Davis said. “Pretty much everything I collect now is because I think it is a good investment and because I like the player. The common thread is, I think it will be a good investment. It’s part of the fun.”

I’ve been making this point on Twitter for a while. While many people like to think of sports cards as analogous to stocks, it’s been clear to me that the better analogy is to the art market. From the way serial-numbered cards are basically art editioning to restoration issues and catalogue raisonné issues, the hobby has been moving in a direction which takes it out of the realm that most of us grew up in.

Becoming more like the art market means that extremely rich people are buying things as part of a portfolio. Some of them might be fans. Many of them though just like the idea. But the products they’re buying and selling are going to be products that the rest of us never see in person.

Most worrisome is the likelihood that the market will be manipulated as these investors seek to prop up the values of their cards. This kind of stuff is pretty common in the art world and, despite being a Potemkin Village, seems to skirt right by the press coverage which focuses just on the latest record-setting auction price.*

*It’s also worth watching the developing Non-Fungible Token art world here.

What the two dealers were apparently attempting to do was thread the needle on the two lesser Warhols. To bid high—as much as the consignor was hoping to get—might serve to prop up values for the Warhol market at large, but would be expensive and make the paintings that much more difficult to sell down the road.

Sure this might be fun for some people. But the fun is in the making money, not the medium which enables these flips.

The thing about the art market is that many museums have let the art investor/collectors drive the business. Some museums make a big deal showing one person’s collection. Often these feature a piece from all the prescribed big names and do nothing but allow for the owner to enhance the prestige of their collection. Other museums are basically showcases for a specific collection.

I don’t inherently dislike this but it’s important to realize that the immense platform we give the expensive stuff is only a sliver of the whole picture. As baseball cards move toward this territory it’s important for us all to remember that the art market side of things has pretty much nothing to do with the way we collect and that the focus on the expensive stuff tends to remove the hand of the curator.

In art, the museum curators are in charge of what museums display, illuminating why they’re on display, and considering how they interact with other items in the same gallery. There’s no similar position in trading card world. Instead, each of us is wears that hat and our collections are our personal curatorial projects.

The expensive 1:1 stuff is not only unattainable, it’s a distraction. It makes the focus just about value and turns a lot of heads. A collection of “these are expensive cards” is ultimately as boring as an art museum which only talks about how much the paintings are worth. There’s so much more interesting stuff to do with cards. There are so many more interesting ways to collect.

Pick themes. Tell stories. Run down a rabbit hole of weird stuff that interests only you.

Use your cards. Look at them. Share them. Display them. Talk about them.

Remember that this is a personal hobby.

Jim Abbott and Rookie Cards

During one of the never-ending discussions about rookie cards and what constitutes them I had a realization that when I was a kid there were four different completely-defensible Topps Rookie Card possibilities for a player to have. Those four are:

  1. A team USA card which is part of Flagship or Traded and features the player before he turned pro.
  2. A Flagship #1 Draft Pick card that features him as a brand-new professional who has yet to play professionally.
  3. A Topps Traded card that marks his MLB debut.
  4. A post-debut Flagship Topps card that marks his first appearance as a MLB player in a flagship set.

It’s worth noting here that, both personally and as one of the editors of this blog, I encourage everyone to decide what counts for you and treat neither the RC badge nor any price guide’s ruling as gospel. I’ve encountered collectors who choose every different option here and have seen plenty of Twitter chops busting (or worse) when differing opinions encounter each other.

Anyway I looked at these options and immediately began wondering if there were any players who had all four types of Rookie Cards. It turns out that there’s not a huge checklist to pick from.

Team USA cards are only part of 1985 Topps, 1988 Traded, 1991 Traded, 1992 Traded, and 1993 Traded. The 1985 predate the #1 Draft cards and of the rest, not all those guys who made it were actually #1 Draft Picks. While I did not click through everyone’s name, I did check  the obvious choices. Much to my surprise the only name I found that had all four cards was Jim Abbott.

His 1988 Topps Traded USA card is a classic. I remember watching Team USA practice at Sunken Diamond in Stanford back before the Olympics and not believing the people who were talking about a one-handed pitcher. Did. Not. Compute.

When I got the 1988 Traded set that winter though, finding the Team USA cards inside was a fantastic surprise. The stars and stripes twist on the team name was a lot of fun and the entire set gave me my first sense of the addiction of prospecting. Plus they had even won the gold medal this time.

In 1989, the #1 Draft Picks cards were a similar breath of fresh air to me. Yes, both the USA and Draft Picks cards are ideas that can be found in 1985 Topps but the 1989 version is also a prospecting thing.* Seeing the college uniforms was fun but the real appeal was the sense of promise that this was the guy your team had decided to bet its future on.

*A couple years later I would realize that I should take these cards to Minor League games and try to get them signed.

That this subset was coincidental to Scott Boras sort of breaking Draft Pick signing bonuses also explains why it resonated so much with me. Draft Picks were big news. So not just the future of the club but also part of the big signing contract buzz as well.

Abbott ended up being one of those guys who stormed through the minors and made it to to the show super-fast. That his Traded “MLB debut” card* is the same season as his #1 Draft Pick card is impressive as hell. I like the fact that this would normally be an XRC but he already has two “Rookie” cards which pre-date it.

*I call this an MLB debut card because cards of rookies who debuted in MLB that year has always been half of what Traded is about. Topps did release its first official MLB debut set in 1989 as well. This is a confusing set since it’s listed as 1989 but uses the 1990 design. Also I’ve not come across any collectors who treat any of those cards as rookie cards whether they were release in the MLB Debut set or as part of Update. But yes Abbott has a card in that set as well.

It’s worth noting here that Abbott has cards from other late-season sets like Bowman, Fleer Update, Score Traded, and Upper Deck Extended. This suggests that the Topps Traded card has the most-logical claim as the definitive Topps Rookie Card since that’s where the manufacturer consensus is.

But for people like me who prefer the base flagship cards, Abbott’s 1990 Topps card, complete with Rookie Cup, is the old-school choice. A card you can pull from packs and on which, when you turn it over, you find a single line of Major League stats.

For a lot of players this is the best they could ever hope to get as their rookie card. For Abbott though it probably comes in a distant fourth when ranking which of his cards people consider to be his rookie card. It’s neither his first flagship card nor his first card as a Major League player. And it definitely wouldn’t qualify for the RC badge in today’s hobby.

Use vs Abuse

Last couple weeks ago Mark Armour and I had a brief conversation about markings on cards. In short, we disagree. Not a bad thing—we all collect differently and have distinct standards about what kind of condition we like—rather, like most good conversations, our discussion caused me to think more clearly about what my standards are.

The discussion Mark and I had was specifically about marked checklists. He avoids them while they don’t bother me in the least. Do I seek them out? No. But I’m also not going to pay a premium for an unmarked one.

Checklists were intended for kids to be able to keep track of their collections. Seeing one that’s marked up tells me about a kid who was keeping track of his collection and I enjoy seeing how his set progress was going, what good cards he had, and who he was missing.

They also remind me of my first year in the hobby when I dutifully marked all my checklists. As I remember it, I enjoyed the activity as a way to both gauge my progress and to see what cards I still needed. I don’t remember studying the checklist as much as looking through them and feeling like I just missed certain cards if they were near a card I was checking off.

What I realized when talking about the checklists is that I really just like seeing cards that have been used. For example, 1964 Topps has these cool rub-to-reveal backs. Some of mine have been rubbed, others have not. I can’t bring myself to rub the ones I get (same goes with marking checklists now) but the fact that some kid followed the instructions over 50 years ago is very cool. Heck I know I certainly would’ve if I were a kid.

Technically I guess this kind of thing is back damage. Practically though I treat it the same as a marked checklist where the subsequent handling qualifies as usage.

There’s a whole bunch of other cards in this kind of category where the intended usage results in wear and tear to the card. Pop-ups, whether it’s a 1937 O-Pee-Chee Batter Up or a junk wax Donruss All Star, are probably one of the best examples here. That the card has been punched out and folded and perhaps has even lost some of the pieces is immaterial.

The same thing goes with stamps and stickers that have been pasted into albums. I understand the desire for something to be nice and minty but there’s also something sad about it sitting in protective storage and never being used for its intended purpose.

My interest in usage though extends beyond the uses intended by card companies. I very much love annotations that reflect how fans have used cards to enjoy and enhance their baseball fandom. Things like the do-it-yourself traded cards which I’ve written about before demonstrate how people watch baseball through their cards.

For many people cards weren’t just something that you acquired and stored, they were references for when you had to look things up. Updating them each season with new teams and positions kept those references current and, when taken to extreme, results in something that documents a career better than a non-modified can ever hope to.

I also consider autographs to count as usage. They document experiences with players whether in-person or through the mail. Many times the choice of card is intentional whether it’s a favorite photo or a memorable season. And in all times the autograph is intended to complement the card as a way of enjoying the sport.

I love all of these things which indicate how a card was used by a previous owner. They tand in stark opposition to cards that have been abused or damaged though non-baseball-related activities. From drawn-on facial hair to flipping and bicycle spoke damage there’s a whole range of modifications that are deal breakers to me.

Yes I have some abused cards in my collection too but they’re the kind of cards I’ll always be wanting to upgrade. It’s the rare doodle that stands out as being clever to me, the rest I can’t help but see as mindless destruction.

When I look at a card that’s been damaged intentionally, the use or abuse question turns out to be the first thing I think of. I just hadn’t quite realized that that was actually the question I was asking.

Bartolo Colon: Free Agent

Topps Update has increasingly felt like a set consisting of several other set ideas all jammed together. All-Stars, Trades, Free Agent signings, and Rookie debuts are all things that used to be somewhat distinct sets or subsets. Update kind of throws them all into the same template and churns out something that’s kind of the Swiss Army Knife of cards sets: lots of things going on and handy to have but none of them particularly satisfying to handle.

This year of course threw Topps for a loop. No All Star Game. A season that started after the deadline for including new players. As a result the only traditional Update cards that made it into the set were players who changed teams during the offseason. Without Rookies or All Star cards Topps had to figure out how to fill the checklist.

One of their solutions was an “Active Leaders” subset which showed the active players who currently lead the league in various categories. This subset resulted in an amazing Bartolo Colon card. Colon hasn’t pitched  for two seasons now but since he hasn’t retired he’s still technically active and as a result, the active leader in Wins.

So despite not appearing on any cardboard as an active player last year. And despite not being on any teams’ rosters this year, Colon found himself with a real 2020 baseball card. The photo is at least four years old* and depicts him with the Mets instead of his most-recent team but what I find amazing is that he’s listed as a Free Agent with the Major League Baseball logo being used where the team logo would normally be.

*Actually over 6 years old.

We did a quick check of the hive mind on Twitter about whether Topps (or anyone else) has ever done something like this before and came up blank. As far as we know we’ve never had a card of an active player which depicts him as an unaffiliated player (let alone a free agent).*

*Suggestions that Curt Flood’s 1970 should’ve been done this way are noted and have me wanting to make a custom version which indicates how he was unaffiliated in 1970.

I usually just grab Giants cards from Update but I think I might snag one of these if I come across one because it’s so different. If Colon does in fact retire without playing in the Majors again this will become an especially interesting addition to Jason’s Ghost card concept.

I also can’t help but wonder if perhaps this might be a better approach to dealing with free agents in Series 1. Seems weird to commit to putting them on the wrong team if you know they’re free agents and now that the method has been established maybe we’ll see more of these in the future.

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.