At the tail end of the “junk wax” era in 1995, Upper Deck—in tandem with a company called Metallic Impressions—produced a set that exemplifies the excess and weirdness of the era. Taking advantage of the hoopla surrounding Michael Jordan’s attempt to become a baseball player, Upper Deck released a set of five Jordan “cards” on steel stock. The five-card set is contained in a metal box with a detachable lid.
The “Michael Jordan Tribute Set” is rather conventional in design. Paper fronts and backs are adhered to the gold embossed steel. Action photos grace the fronts, with narratives of Michael’s baseball odyssey contained on the back along with another photo. The cards are numbered MJ1-MJ5.
The first card features a Little League photo of Michael Jordan, with the back providing the inspiration and rationale for retiring from basketball and trying a sport he last played in high school.
Card MJ2 is about the White Sox sending Michael to the Arizona Fall League after the Birmingham Barons AA season ended in September of 1994. By the way, he got off to a fine start at bat and finishing with a respectable .252 average.
The final three cards are devoted to hitting, baserunning and fielding. The text details Jordan’s hard work and continued improvement.
Of course, Jordon decided to end his pursuit of a baseball career in 1995 and the bottom fell out of the baseball card market. The set I have is from the markdown section at Target, where my wife or I purchased it for my son in the late 1990s. Last summer, I rediscovered the set buried within a storage bin.
This set is an example of the prevailing philosophy of the “junk wax” era; throw stuff at the wall and hope something sticks. In the case of the “Michael Jordan Tribute Set,” it fell clanking to the floor.
“You better let Michael out of the can before he suffocates to death!”
Our collecting habits are almost certainly influenced by time and place, and my own certainly are. The players I collect were primarily active in the 1980s and 1990s, the team I collect was on top of the baseball world in 1986 with their spring training site moving about two miles away from my house, and, with my formative collecting years being the late 1980s and early 1990s, I find having a single card producing company with a full MLB license maddening.
At some point, probably in the early 2000s, I began collecting “cards” of players from the area in which I grew up. “Cards” is in parentheses because I have other items of the non-card variety, including Starting Lineup figures for the few who had them as well as other assorted card-like items. While the definition of a card varies by individual, my own definition of a “card” is broad.
Port St. Lucie was small when I lived there – the title of the post shows how much the area codes changed due to population growth over the span of about 15 years. There was not actually a high school in the city of Port St. Lucie until 1989 (I was in the second class that could possibly have attended the school all four years) – so I branched out a little into the rest of St. Lucie County as well as neighboring Martin and Indian River counties. But despite its size there were a few players who made it to the show.
The most famous player from the area is almost certainly Rick Ankiel. A highly touted pitching prospect who likely would have gone higher in the draft if he didn’t have Scott Boras as his agent, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Rafael Furcal then proceeded to struggle with control against the Braves and Mets in the playoffs. He of course made it back to the majors as an outfielder, which, according to his book, may not have happened had he not had Boras as his agent. It’s that story which likely elevates him to the most famous player from the area.
Charles Johnson went to Fort Pierce Westwood and was drafted in the first round twice – once out of high school and once out of the University of Miami. I believe his dad was the baseball coach at Westwood for many years. He is probably the best player (at least according to WAR) to come out of the area, or at least he was until Michael Brantley came along. Again, there are dividing lines for a collection – I don’t collect Brantley because I had left the area before he became a local player. He was in the right place just at the wrong time. Brantley’s time in that area did overlap perhaps an even more famous individual from the area – you may have seen Megan Fox in a movie or two.
There are other players from the area, more minor players in the history of the game. Ed Hearn, who was born in Stuart and went to Fort Pierce Central, was a favorite of my best friend’s mom. He also happened to play for the 1986 Mets, which is good enough for me. Like Charles Johnson, Terry McGriff is a catcher out of Westwood and is actually Charles Johnson’s uncle. He’s also a cousin to Fred McGriff (who I also collect in a limited fashion though that has nothing to do with location – it has everything to do with time). A friend of mine in elementary school got Terry McGriff’s autograph when Terry visited my friend’s elementary school. Eventually that card ended up in my collection through a trade of some sort.
Danny Klassen, who went to John Carroll High School, is the closest in age to me, and while I didn’t play baseball with him (I was on the north side of Port St. Lucie and played at Sportsman’s Park; he was playing on the south side at Lyngate Park) I know many people who played on teams with him in Little League and Legion Ball. I believe he has a World Series ring with his time on the Diamondbacks. Wonderful Terrific Monds was a player I didn’t know much about, but (1) a good friend of mine’s parents couldn’t stop talking about how good he was and (2) his name is awesome. He never made it to the majors, but he has minor league cards and a handful of cards from mainstream sets due to being in the minors at the right time (a prospect in the early 1990s).
I should probably have a Jon Coutlangus collection, but alas, I think he was a year too late. At one point I identified Joe Randa as the best MLB player to attend Indian River Community College (which is now Indian River State College), so I started a Randa collection, though I don’t remember much about his IRCC career.
The more prominent players (Ankiel, Johnson, and Randa) have some game-used and autographed cards; most have parallel cards in one product or another. Okay, Ankiel has over 100 different autographed cards and over 50 memorabilia cards according to Beckett; he was a hot prospect at a time when there were multiple fully-licensed producers. He’s also popular enough that he has autographed cards in recent Topps issues, well after his retirement from baseball. Hearn, McGriff, Monds, and Klassen only have a handful (or what I would call a handful – less than 75) of cards. It’s usually easier to find the rarer cards of the bigger names because sellers will list them, with the cards of the less popular players coming up occasionally.
While the cards of these players aren’t going to set records at an auction or allow me to buy an island, the collection provides a tie to my formative baseball playing and baseball card collecting years. For me, those types of connections are why I collect.
As a baseball card collector and enthusiast, I feel that I am living through the Renaissance era of baseball card art. My Twitter feed is filled daily with spectacular images of cards from many artists that are working with a variety of mediums to produce their own interpretations of what cards of past and present players should look like. A number of these artists are also using their artwork to support charitable causes.
There was certainly an undercurrent of fine baseball card artwork being produced long before 2020, but the Topps Project 2020 brought to the surface a tidal wave of beautiful cards from a wide variety of artists.
Was Project 2020 an original idea or was it a variation on a project from the Junk Wax era? A case can be made that Project 2020 can be linked back to the All Star FanFest Cards from 1994 to 2000.
The two projects are similar in that they have multiple artists and designers coming up with unique cards of a single player and they also share some common player subjects – Roberto Clemente (1994 – Pittsburgh FanFest), Nolan Ryan (1995 – Dallas FanFest), and Jackie Robinson (1997- Cleveland FanFest).
Ray Schulte was responsible for the All Star FanFest cards from 1994 to 2000. At the time he was working as an event consultant for MLB Properties, and cajoled some of the major baseball card producers of the 90’s to design and distribute unique cards of an iconic player from the city that was hosting the All Star Game. To obtain the cards a fan had to redeem 5 pack wrappers of any baseball product of the manufacturer at their FanFest booth.
I was introduced to the cards when I attended the All Star FanFest event held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston in 1999. I attended the event with my family and upon learning about the cards from a Fleer representative sent my two kids on a mission to purchase 5 packs of cards produced by each of the four manufacturers from dealers at the event so we could exchange the wrappers for the Carl Yastrzemski cards designed just for the 1999 FanFest.
Now let’s take a closer look at the All Star FanFest sets which feature players that overlap with the Topps 2020 Project.
1994 All Star FanFest Set – Roberto Clemente
1994 was the first year that FanFest cards were issued and with Pittsburgh hosting the All Star Game the player subject was Roberto Clemente. Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck, Donruss, and Pinnacle issued cards for the event.
Fleer and Topps decided not to mess with perfection and produced cards that were essentially reprints of Clemente’s 1955 Topps rookie card and his 1963 Fleer card with 1994 All Star logos. Upper Deck issued a metallic looking card of Clemente that contains career stats and accomplishments on the front. Upper Deck would utilize the “metallic look” design for player subjects for the next 6 years. As you would expect, an image of a Dick Perez painting of Clemente is on the front of the Donruss Diamond King card.
1995 All Star FanFest Set – Nolan Ryan
With the 1995 All Star Game being held in the home park of the Texas Rangers the logical choice for the player subject for the FanFest cards was Nolan Ryan who retired in 1993.
The 5 card manufacturers who designed cards for the 1994 All Star FanFest also produced cards for 1995 All Star FanFest event held in Dallas.
Topps produced a re-imagined 1967 Rookie card of by eliminating the Jerry Koosman photo and enlarging the Nolan Ryan image to fill the front of the card. In microscopic print, Nolan’s complete major league pitching record is on the back of the card. Steve Carlton got the same treatment a year later when Topps enlarged his airbrushed 1965 photo to produce a new version of his Rookie card. Fleer issued an Ultra Gold Medallion version of a Ryan card. Upper Deck continued with its metallic design for a Ryan card. The Pinnacle card featured a Nolan Ryan painting and Donruss produced a Tribute card.
1997 All Star FanFest Set – Jackie Robinson
With the All Star Game 1997 marking the 50th year of his major league debut, Jackie Robinson was the correct selection for the player subject for the 1997 set.
Topps released a reprint of his 1952 card with a All Star logo on the front and his complete major league batting record on the back. Leaf distributed a reprint of Jackie’s 1948 “rookie” card with small All Star Game logo in the upper right-hand corner. Fleer choose a nice posed photo of Jackie looking like he is going to tag out the runner for its Ultra card. On the back of its Tribute card, Pinnacle included a great action shot of Robinson coming in head-first at home plate with the catcher about to make a tag. The photo leaves you wondering – Which way did the call go? Upper Deck once again used a metallic design for its Jackie Robinson FanFest card.
Other All Star FanFest Cards
1997 All Star FanFest Larry Doby Cards
Depending on your definition of a complete set, collectors should be aware that Fleer and Pinnacle released Larry Doby cards to coincide with the All Star game being held in Cleveland. Included below are photos of the Fleer Ultra card and the Pinnacle 3-D Denny’s card.
2000 Henry Aaron FanFest Error Card
For some reason Topps decided not to make a reprint of Aaron’s 1954 Rookie card part of the official 2000 All Star FanFest set. Instead, Topps designed a unique card that featured a spectacular color photo of Aaron in a posed batting stance. Topps did however print some of the 1954 Rookie reprints with an All Star Game logo. These Aaron Rookie reprints are considered “error” cards.
Almost all the All Star FanFest sets can be purchased for under $12 on eBay. The exception is the 1994 Roberto Clemente All Star FanFest set. Each manufacturer produced 15,000 cards for the event. Less than 10,000 of each card were distributed at FanFest. The rest of the cards were destroyed. A Clemente set will set you back about $60.
Here is a collecting goal virtually nobody has, whether because the club includes some ridiculously expensive cards or because it includes so many players of near zero interest to the modern fan. At the time I type these words, the club currently has 925 players plus one active player, Jackie Bradley, Jr., sitting on 99. [UPDATE: He did it!]
Of course, that’s if we’re talking about today’s collector in 2021. How would the 100 HR Club look to a collectors from days of yore?
T206 and the 100 HR Club
We’ll start in 1911, which is the final year of the famous 1909-11 America Tobacco Company “monster” known as T206. We were still firmly in the Deadball era, but the 100 HR Club already had eight members.
Interestingly, none of the players were still active during the span of the set’s release. Fortunately, the 100 HR Club collector wouldn’t strike out entirely, thanks to Hugh Duffy’s inclusion as White Sox manager in the set.
Even better, you as the reader now know the answer to a trivia question that will stump your friends: “Which of the subjects in the T206 set had the most career home runs at the time of the set’s release?”
1933 Goudey and the 100 HR Club
Time travel back to 1933, and the club becomes much more interesting. By season’s end, the club has swelled to 48 members, more than half (26) still active at the time of the set’s release.
Ignoring the fact that the set included multiple cards of certain players, let’s take a look at which 100 HR Club members a 1933 Goudey collector could attain that year.
Of the top 11 names on the list, all nine active players were present in the 1933 Goudey set. The only absences were Cy and Ken Williams, who were a few years removed from their Major League playing careers.
Making our way through slots 12-25 on the list, only five of the players were still active in 1933. Of these, four had cards in the set: Ott, Hartnett, Herman, and Terry. Chick Hafey was not only still active but an (inaugural) All-Star that year. Still, he did not appear in a Goudey set until 1934. (If you’re looking for more trivia, he and Oral Hildebrand are the only 1933 All-Stars not present in 1933 Goudey.)
The next four players on the HR list, Tillie Walker, Jimmy Ryan, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker were all retired for either 5, 10, or 20 years. However, Speaker landed a card in the Goudey set as a part owner of the American Association’s Kansas City Blues. (And of course die-hard Goudey fans could nab the Cobb from the Sport Kings set.)
Following Speaker, the next seven players in the 100 HR Club were all active in 1933. However, Don Hurst would have to wait until the 1934 set for a Goudey card.
Continuing down the list we hit a streak of old-timers (Brouthers, Meusel, Duffy, Tiernan) before landing on a run of three straight 1933 Goudey cards.
Of the final five members of the 100 HR Club, the two still active in 1933 each had cards in the set.
By the way, can I right now declare Berger’s 1933 Tattoo Orbit card a work of art?
Adding an angle I’ll develop more fully in my treatment of 1952 Topps, I’ll note that there were five Negro League players with 100+ home runs by 1933: Oscar Charleston, Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, and John Beckwith. All five were still active in 1933, but none appear in the Goudey set.
1952 Topps and the 100 HR Club
By 1952 the home run was most definitely “a thing” so it’s not surprising that the 100 HR club more than doubled it ranks from 48 members less than two decades earlier to a robust 116. Here are the 27 who were still active in 1952.
Collectors with knowledge of the 1952 Topps set will recognize right away at least a couple of players who definitely were not in the set: Ted Williams and Stan Musial. The same would be true of Ralph Kiner and Charlie Keller, leaving the Topps set with 23 of the 27 players listed.
However, the 1952 Topps set also included 6 managers and 11 coaches, two of whom (sort of) were 100 HR Club members.
The more famous 100 HR Club member-coach in the set, 30th on the list with 202 home runs, was Bill Dickey of the Yankees.
Then it’s up to you if you want to count the other. Checking in at 39th on the list is Sam Chapman, with 180 home runs. Strictly speaking, he does not make the set’s checklist. However, his photograph was the source of Cincinnati coach Ben Chapman’s card. (And if the name is familiar, Ben Chapman was the manager that was a total a-hole to Jackie Robinson in 42, not to mention real life.)
For completeness, I also checked to ensure that 100 HR Club members who retired in 1950 or 1951 (e.g., Joe DiMaggio) did not somehow eke out a spot in the set, which they did not.
As I eagerly await the inclusion of Negro League records and statistics into the MLB record book, I’ll simply note that Seamheads currently shows nine players with 100+ home runs from 1920-48, the period MLB will be recognizing. I haven’t done the extra work to examine whether or not all of these home runs “will count.” That said, none of these nine players were included in the 1952 Topps set.
Nonetheless, the inclusion of Negro League records does appear to add a player. By the end of the 1952 season, Monte Irvin had 43 National League homers and (per Seamheads) 61 Negro League homers for a total of 104.
There are also two players who come very close. Luke Easter lands at 97, counting 11 Negro League roundtrippers, and Jackie Robinson lands at 96, counting 4 taters from his days as a Monarch.
1989 Upper Deck and the 100 HR Club
Though it sometimes feels wrong to type, I regard the 1989 Upper Deck set as the fourth iconic baseball card set of the 20th century, so this is where I’ll conduct my final analysis.
The 100 HR Club has now swelled to 442 (!) members, a gigantic number compared to 1952 but still less than half the club’s size today. Of this number, 56 were active in 1989. As the Upper Deck set, counting its high series, had 800 cards, I will simply assume for now that all 56 of these players were represented in the set. (Let me know in the comments if you know of any exceptions.)
Still, this would not be the whole story for the 1989 Upper Deck set. For example, Dave Winfield did not play in 1989 but nonetheless registered a card. Fittingly, the card shows him just chillin’.
“Career cappers” were also in vogue by 1989, so I also took a look at player’s who retired following the 1988 season. One such player in the set was Don Baylor, whose card back appears provides a fitting farewell to a great career.
Ditto Larry Parrish who seems to be handing over the reins to new 100 HR Club member Mark McGwire.
And finally, Ted Simmons and Bob Horner, who are each shown on the team more commonly associated with the other.
Of the four sets profiled, the 1933 Goudey set featured the largest percentage of 100 HR Club members. Officially (at the time I type this), it included 25 of 48 100 HR clubbers, or 52%. Including Negro League records (though my data may not ultimately match what MLB recognizes), the numbers change to 25 out of 53, or 47%.
Naturally, the question crossed my mind whether this figure–either one–represented a pinnacle across all sets. In a very boring way the answer is no, since a cabinet set from 1890 included a Harry Stovey when he was the sole member of the club. As such, that set included 100% of all 100 HR Club members. To allow for more interesting answers I’ll re-ask the question but use the “Modern Era” as a qualifier. I’ll also restrict the sets in question to ones mainly featuring active players as opposed to all-time greats tribute sets.
Either way, for the moment I do not know the answer but expect it will still be circa 1933, probably a tad earlier. (The 1931 W517 set is a strong candidate.)
Forgetting about baseball cards at the moment and not yet incorporating Negro League data, it’s easy using Stathead to look at the percentage of active 100 HR Club members over time. I’ve done this from 1900 to 2020, in 10 year increments and the results seem to confirm 1930 or so as when the greatest percentage of 100 HR Club members were active.
One thing clear from the data is the percentage of active 100 HR clubbers is only trending downward at this point. Were I to compute the data year by year rather than in ten year increments, we might see the occasional upward blip, but what’s certain is the days of a new release capturing anywhere near 50% of baseball’s “elite” 100 HR club are completely behind us. At this point, even 5% may live entirely in Baseball’s rear-view mirror.
Trading Card Database for checklists and card images
In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to shine a light on some notable female baseball card artists, past and present. I make no claim that my list is exhaustive, so please use the Comments area to let me know about the artists I’m missing.
2021 Topps Project 70
Though Topps seems to shy away from regarding it as a sequel, Project 70 follows in the footsteps of the prior year’s Project 2020 while opening up the selection of players and years and increasing the number of participating artists to 51. Notably, five of the artists in Project 70 are women. Here is the Topps bio of each, along with one of the first two cards released by each artist. (Check back soon for a full-length SABR Baseball Cards interview with Lauren Taylor!)
2020 Topps Project 2020
Five female artists out of 51 total may or may not feel like a big number to you, but either way it represents a significant jump from Project 2020, in which Sophia Chang was the lone female creator.
Chang’s cards cracked the coveted 10,000 print run threshold three times, led by Mike Trout at 14,821 and followed closely by Roberto Clemente (12,077) and Willie Mays (10,480).
When Sophia released her debut Project 2020 card, Mariano Rivera, I wondered how many female artists had preceded her. As it turned out, I didn’t have to look back very far.
2019 Montreal Expos
Montreal-based sports artist Josée Tellier, who may well be the world’s biggest Montreal Expos and Andre Dawson fan, created her own set of Expos greats in 2019 to honor the 50th anniversary of the franchise.
While the set was not an official release, her cards spread quickly on social media and became one of the Hobby’s hottest underground releases. Definitely don’t be surprised to see Josée take part in an official Topps product sometime in the future.
2018-present Topps Living Set
The Topps Living Set, which began in 2018 and continues to this day, combines current and former players into a single set based on the 1953 Topps design.
For the first three years of the Living Set, all artwork was done by Japanese artist Mayumi Seto. Beginning this year, Jared Kelley will join the Living Set team and share the artwork duties with Seto.
2016-2018 Various other sets by Topps
As the back of Seto’s 2019 Allen & Ginter card shows, Living Set was not the first baseball card set to feature her artwork.
You can also see her art in at least three other sets: Museum Collection (2016), Transcendent (2018), and Gallery (2018).
2000 Upper Deck
In 2000 the Upper Deck Company, still riding high, held a promotion where collectors could submit their own artwork to be used in the Upper Deck MVP “Draw Your Own Card” subset. Ultimately, 31 cards were chosen, with this Frank Thomas by Joe Dunbar, age 36, leading off the subset. As the card back notes, Mr. Dunbar was one of ten artists in the 15 years and over category.
This particular age category featured three female artists in all: Linda Marcum (age 34), Kat Rhyne (age 23), and Melina Melvin (age 32).
The set’s most notable creator–man, woman, or child–was Alexandra Brunet. At age 6, she was the youngest artist in the set, beating out her brother and a few other 8-year-olds by two years, so there’s that. However, Brunet’s card was particularly noteworthy for reasons wholly unrelated to her age.
Where other artists gravitated toward established MLB stars such as Sosa and McGwire (hey, it was 2000!), Alexandra chose instead to feature…herself (!) as the Yankees first basemanwoman of the future.
In lending her artistry to a baseball card set, Alexandra was also continuing a tradition that began at least 25 years before she was born. However, before we get to the oldest cards I’m aware of, we’ll look at some wonderful postcard series issued from 1988-91.
1988-91 Historic Limited Editions
Some of the most attractive cards of the 1980s and early 1990s came from the brush of Susan Rini. Her artwork was featured in multiple series of limited edition (usually 10,000) postcards from the appropriately named Historic Limited Editions brand. The earliest set I’m aware of is a 1988 set of Brooklyn Dodgers (ultimately the first of four Brooklyn Dodger releases), and other work included the 1961 Yankees, 1969 Mets, and various player sets including Nolan Ryan, Thurman Munson, Roberto Clemente, and Lou Gehrig.
Backing up 20 years more, we come to a set that was not only pioneering in terms of “girl power” but also for its place in the history of one of the Hobby’s great enterprises.
1968 Sports Cards for Collectors
The prehistory of TCMA begins with another four-letter acronym, SCFC: Sports Cards for Collectors. While Hobby pioneer and SABR Jefferson Burdick Award Winner Mike Aronstein was the originator and distributor of the 1968 SCFC set, the artwork fell to two other relatives: Mike’s Uncle Myron and Aunt Margie.
Per Mike’s son Andrew Aronstein, the drawings initialed MSA were done by Myron S. Aronstein, and those initialed MA were done by Margie.
Was Aunt Margie the very first female baseball card artist? Our Hobby has a long history, so just about any time the word “first” is used, it ends up being wrong. What I will say is that Margie Aronstein is the first female card artist that I’m personally aware of. I will also offer that the industry is sufficiently male-dominated that any female card artist–first, last, or anywhere in between–is a pioneer of sorts.
The combination of artists and baseball cards is experiencing quite a boom these days. Congratulations to today’s female artists leading the charge and the past artists who paved the way!
Read about photographer and SABR member Donna Muscarella and her baseball card set honoring Hinchliffe Stadium
Read about the “Decade Greats” sets issued by megadealer and card producer Renata Galasso
Inside the big box was a smaller box. A crooked smile crossed my face in curious wonder as I reached for some unknown treasure. I had just sorted through several things in Uncle Dan’s mystery box of baseball when I came across the familiar white cardboard baseball card box. Slowly I unpacked the contents as my curious wonder intensified. The cards I pulled out were just a random hodge-podge. I was flipping through cards from Score, Fleer, Upper Deck, Donruss, several Bowmans and only a few of my favorite, Topps. The majority of the cards were 1989s and 1990s. A few 1988s, and 1991s, as well. Interesting enough, I found a stack of 1990 Upper Deck hologram logo stickers, too.
Being somewhat compulsive with a need for order, I sorted this jambalaya of cards into stacks that made sense to me: by manufacturer and by year. I’ll sort them by number later. With a little bit of hope, I sorted through the 1989 Upper Decks, looking for “The Kid.” Hoping, maybe, maybeee … Nope, no Junior. Oh well. I knew it was too much to hope for. Regardless, there are some good names in the stack. I turned to the Donruss pile. A couple of good things, including a Bart Giamatti card. I don’t recall if I had ever seen a card for the commissioner of baseball before, but it was good to see. I like Giamatti, and for a moment I reflected on the scenes from the Ken Burn “Baseball” documentary, wondering what his tenure would have been like had he lived to serve a full term in office.
In the 1990 Donruss stack, I also found something cool: the Juan Gonzalez (#33) reverse-image card. The card manufacturer erred when they reversed the image of this Ranger “Rated Rookie” so that we see him batting in what appears to be on the left side of the plate, and of course, his uniform number 19 appears reversed. Fortunately, the correct image card is among the stack, as well.
The short stack of 1990 Fleers included #635 “Super Star Specials” called ‘Human Dynamos” picturing Kirby Puckett and Bo Jackson. I’m guessing since both players are sporting their home jerseys, the photo was probably taken at the 1989 All-Star Game, which was played at Anaheim Stadium (where Jackson was the game’s MVP). It’s an educated guess, but I would love to hear confirmation from someone.
I was a little more intrigued with the small pile of 1990 Bowman cards, which warranted a little research. As it so happened, by 1990 Bowman scaled down the size of their card, to a more standard dimension. A couple of things piqued my interest. First, this stack of cards featured a cool Art Card insert by Craig Pursely. My stack featured Kevin Mitchell. The reverse side gave a little blurb on the player, while the card also doubled as a sweepstakes entry. This Art Card insert set included 11 cards.
The other thing that piqued my interest is how the player’s information is presented on the reverse side. In this instance, only one year of data given, but the analytics are compiled by competitor. That is, the rows include the player stats, while the columns feature the specific teams. For example, the Red Sox first baseman/outfield Danny Heep played in 113 games in 1989: 8 vs Orioles; 9 vs Angels; 7 vs White Sox; 8 vs Indians; and so on. It’s a squirrelly way to present the data, if you ask me. I feel bad for the person that had to put all that together for all 500+ cards.
A couple of interesting things that stood out was a 1990 Score Tombstone Pizza Kirby Puckett card (number 25 of 30), a 1992 mini-set of three “Special Edition Combo Series” cards from French’s Mustard. The three in my set include: Julio Franco/Terry Pendleton (#3), Don Mattingly/Will Clark (#11) and Cal Ripken Jr/Ozzie Smith (#13). Brief information on each player (bio, stats, two-sentence blurb) is found on the card’s reverse side. The 1992 Combo Series featured 18 cards with 32 players. That is a lot of mustard to buy!
I’m still struck by this unusual collection of cards, and wonder about the original collector’s motivation and frame of mind. Such a wide assortment. It also makes me want to read up again on this era of cards, when it seems like the wild west of cardboard and baseball players, with everyone and his brother looking to cash in on the collecting craze of the late 1980s/early 1990s.
Uncle Dan’s mystery box of baseball cards continues to provide an ongoing sense of wonder, if not source of amusement. But wait, there’s more …
As a child of the junk wax generation, sports cards were just part of the air I grew up breathing. Boxes in every store. Inserted in any product you could think of. Printed in the newspaper. You couldn’t avoid them if you wanted to. Even my baseball-averse sister had a small album of cards that she’d just accumulated.
In many ways though, the thing that most exemplifies this era is the fact that my Junior High had a baseball card club. Yup. Looking through my yearbooks I find pages dedicated to the usual clubs—leadership, student council, journalism, yearbook, band, orchestra, drama, etc.—and nestled in there in the same spread as the chess club is the baseball card club.
The sponsoring teacher was a card dealer. He didn’t have a shop but you could run into him at local card shows (he’d give you a deal if you were a student) and two days a week he’d open up his science classroom during lunch and a couple dozen of us would hang out.
He’d always have a couple dozen singles for sale. Nothing crazy expensive but I still can’t recall anyone buying them. I do however remember him having a box of cards available as well (typically Upper Deck) and there was always someone ripping a pack to two over lunch.
I obviously don’t remember every card that went through that room but these three are all hits that commanded the whole room’s attention. There were certainly other cards that we wanted—we all dreamed of finding that Reggie autograph—but these were the ones kids actually hit.
I kind of like that these cards are as dated as everything else. Yes the Jordan is hot right now but the other two have kind of been forgotten by anyone who wasn’t there at the time. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to explain how big a deal the Ben McDonald error was.
The Joe Montana brings up the fact that since the school year doesn’t overlap much with baseball season, a lot of the club actually functioned more as football card club in terms of the cards that we saw. But Beckett doesn’t stop publishing over the winter and when we weren’t ripping or watching rips we were reading the latest Becketts and staying in touch with the hobby zeitgeist.
My most-enduring memory of the club though isn’t actually something that occurred during school hours. One of my local card shops* got burgled and for whatever reason the police thought that the perpetrator was a member of the card club.
*In those halcyon days there were more local shops than I had time to visit.
The result, everyone on the club roster received a visit from a police detective and got fingerprinted. Good times. As interesting as it was seeing how the fingerprinting process worked (I was surprised to learn that it didn’t involve ink) the visit was not done with any sensitivity toward the fact that they were dealing with kids. Questioning was very brusque and when he left it was with the vague threat of “hopefully I don’t have to come back.”
We didn’t talk about the police stuff in school but I can only imagine how much worse the experience must have been for a lot of the kids who came from rougher parts of town.
Which brings up one of the things that stands out to me now as I look back on the club. It was one of the few academic clubs which cut across the usual school cliques. The other clubs had certain kinds of achievement-oriented kids from “good” neighborhoods in them.* Baseball cards though were for all of us.
*Or in the case of things like chess or computer club, geeks who wanted to avoid the lunch crowd.
I’ve mentioned the card club a couple times on Twitter. It’s been met with surprise by guys who are older than me but it’s also turned up a couple other instances across the country from collectors my age. Their experiences seem to be similar to mine. Some ripping. Lots of Becketts. But no fingerprinting.
I was introduced to holograms by Desi Arnaz, Jr in 1983. Arnaz played Walter Nebicher, a nerdy police officer/computer whiz who craved more responsibility within the police department. In his spare time, Nebicher developed a powerful crime-fighting, helicopter-piloting, Tron-like-hologram hero he dubbed “Automan.” Unfortunately, Automan was canceled after only 12 episodes and I pretty much forgot about holograms until those marvels of dimensionality began to be incorporated into baseball card sets in the late 1980s.
On the other hand, lenticular cards had been a hobby staple since the 1970s. These plasticky “3-D” oddball issues were first introduced as a Topps test issue in 1968. Collectors most likely became aware of the 3-D technology, however when they found baseball cards in their Kellogg’s cereal boxes or discs on the bottom of 7-11 Slurpee cups. The Sportflics issue in 1986 introduced the lenticular card on a much grander scale, incorporating a headshot and a pair of action poses for individual players and cards featuring up to 12 different player photos. Regardless, the 3-D card has largely remained a novelty.
Whether a baseball card featured a holographic or lenticular element, the creator of that card was endeavoring to capture the action and movement of the game into a static format—what else could a collector ask for in a two-dimensional card? Many of these cards are downright magical.
Famous for its Grand Slam breakfast, Denny’s began producing a branded baseball card set with Upper Deck in 1991. That set featured a full bleed holographic image on the front and narrative statistical information on the reverse, along with—cleverly—the player’s career grand slam tally. One card was issued for each of the 26 Major League teams at the time. Denny’s followed a similar format in 1992 and 1993, the latter set growing to 28 cards with the addition of players from the Rockies and Marlins. These cards were given to patrons who ordered a Grand Slam breakfast.
In 1994, Denny’s and Upper Deck changed the format a bit and for the first time, the set included pitchers. The player’s grand slam tally was discontinued, perhaps because none of Jim Abbott, Kevin Appier and Cal Eldred had never hit a home run, let alone a grand slam. This year, the issue also included a special Reggie Jackson card that was reportedly distributed one to a location and was to be given away as a prize. This remains the rarest of any Denny’s issue.
The 1995 Denny’s set was the last for Upper Deck, the restaurant chain having partnered with Pinnacle for 1996. While the 1991-95 Upper Deck holographic issues simply added some shimmer and dimension to the card fronts, the 1996 set really brought home the bacon. Touted as “Full Motion Holograms,” these cards—when pivoted at just the right angle—actually depicted fluid action of a batter’s swing or pitcher’s windup. This issue also added a randomly inserted ten-card Grand Slam subset, with a parallel ten-card Grand Slam Artist’s Proof subset. The holographic image on the Grand Slam subset card was just a generic Grand Slam breakfast advertisement, ironically making the chase cards much less desirable than those in the base set.
Then, in 1997, the 24-hour diner chain turned the collecting world on its collective head. Not unlike the resplendent union of eggs and toast, a concept was hatched in which a single regulation-sized baseball card would include both lenticular and holographic elements. This intrepid design produced the most technologically ambitious baseball card ever—with roughly 71%* of the card’s real estate covered by special effects. The front of the card was oriented horizontally and featured crisp effects in front of or behind each subject. The back of the card contained biographical and career highlight information, along with a large holographic image of the player’s face. These cards were wrapped individually and were available for 59 cents to anyone who purchased an entrée and non-alcoholic beverage.
The set was comprised of 29 cards, one for each of the 28 Major League teams of the day, along with a special Jackie Robinson card in honor of 1997 having been the 50th anniversary of his having broken baseball’s color barrier. The Robinson card was based on Ernie Sisto’s depicting Robinson being tagged out at plate by the Pirates’ Clyde McCullough at Ebbets Field on May 2, 1951.
Oddly, Denny’s also produced a separately distributed card of Larry Doby, numbered “1 of 1.”** The Doby card was given out at the All-Star Game Fan Fest and National Sports Collectors Convention, both of which were held in Cleveland that year. [Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that the Doby card was also available at Cleveland-area Denny’s locations, but this has not necessarily been substantiated.] As you may know, Doby broke the color barrier in the AL, playing his initial game for the Indians on July 5, 1947.
The 1997 Denny’s cards are fun to handle not only because of the movement and special effects on both sides, but also because a good number include other identifiable individuals. For example, John Jaha appears to be holding Wade Boggs on at first. The Sammy Sosa card has Jose Hernandez positioned oddly as Sosa appears to be mid home run trot. It appears that Jeff Bagwell is depicted on Tim Salmon’s card, Hal Morris appears on Derek Jeter’s card, Kirt Manwaring is seen on Andruw Jones’s card, and Jim Thome makes a baserunning appearance on Bagwell’s card, the only dual Hall of Famer entry in the lot.
Interestingly, Cubs catcher Scott Servais appears on two cards, those of Ray Lankford and Gary Sheffield. The Sheffield card is particularly interesting because the visible Wrigley Field bunting probably dates that photograph as having been taken during the Cubs opening series against the Marlins in 1997, not long before the set would have been finalized for manufacture.
The card fronts are also interesting to study for the differing ways in which motion was added and whether the perspective of that motion was in the foreground, background, or both. The majority of the cards depict the main subject as a solid, two-dimensional figure. Several cards, however, animate a portion of the player’s body, such as Mo Vaughn’s glove, Mike Piazza’s arm, and Frank Thomas’s left hand gripping a baseball to autograph.
Unfortunately, all this technology came at a price. While information regarding the cost to produce each of these cards has eluded the author, these cards could not have been inexpensive to produce and Denny’s ambition may have been the reason for the demise of their baseball card promotions. Alas, the 1997 set was the last that Denny’s would distribute.
Even now, Denny’s sets and singles are readily available and relatively inexpensive. The ambitious 1997 set is the pinnacle of baseball card fun, even more so than Automan ever was.
*I say that “roughly 71%” because the hologram features a slight rounded contour of a baseball, not a straight line. I am not going to do any math that requires me to calculate the area of an arc section.
**Denny’s having chosen to celebrate Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby may have been an effort to help rehabilitate their corporation reputation on the heels of paying $54.4 million to settle a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit.
Jeff Leeds, “Denny’s Restaurants Settle Bias Suits for $54 Million: Civil rights: Blacks complained of discrimination at the chain. Case marks new push for Justice Department,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1994.
Dwight Chapin, Greg Smith, “Highland Mint strikes gold in memorabilia market,” The Marion Star (Marion, Ohio), August 31, 1997.
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.
That’s a pretty obvious way to start this, right? Pretty much anyone who has spent time in the baseball card hobby knows how that digit and that name go together, that Andy Pakfo, as a Brooklyn Dodger, was card #1 in the landmark 1952 Topps baseball card set.
I’ve often wondered why Andy Pafko, of all people, got the fabled #1 spot in that set. But did it matter in 1952 that he was card #1? When it card #1 start mattering? The earliest example of a card set with a clear numbering system was the 1909 Philadelphia Carmel set. The cards aren’t individually numbered, but rather featured a numbered listing on the back for the 25-card set, with Honus Wagner is the #1 spot. Wagner was (and is) a huge name in the sport, but given that 10 of the 25 subjects of the set are Hall-of-Famers, it’s likely that Wagner was listed first, well, just because he was listed first. The 1910 Philadelphia Carmel set had the same numbering system, this time with Athletics’ first basemen Harry Davis is the #1 spot, with the checklist arranged by team and Davis in the top spot for no obvious reason.
The first true #1 seems to be Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets set. This set, too, features a list of all subjects in the set on the backside of each card, but each card is also numbered, with “No. 1” gracing the backside of Brown’s card. The number system had a purpose – smokers could collect coupons from certain Turkey Red products and exchange them for the cards, instructed to “order by number only.” As for Brown’s place in the #1 spot, it isn’t clear whether not is was supposed to mean anything. There’s a haphazard alphabetical ordering to the set, but many of the names are out of place, including Brown’s. And while Brown was one of the biggest names in the sport at the time, the set is loaded with similarly famous names. The 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets were also numbered, with no clear system to their assignment. The #1 card in each (the 1915 set re-issued most of the 1914 set) was Otto Knabe of the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League. Knabe had a few good years with the Phillies of the National League, but was hardly a star in Baltimore and was out of baseball by the end of the 1916 season. Again, we find a #1 with no obvious reason behind it.
The 1933 Goudey set is a landmark in hobby history, but no one cared to memorialize this occasion with it’s opening card. The spot went to Benny Benough, a career back-up catcher who had played his final season in 1932. But in the 1934 Goudey set, Jimmie Foxx – winner of the AL MVP award in both of the previous seasons – was given the lead-off spot. This is the first obvious example of the #1 used as an honorarium. And it would be the last until 1940, when the Play Ball set devoted the first 12 spots in its 240 card checklist to the four-time defending champion New York Yankees, with the #1 spot going to reigning MVP Joe DiMaggio. But in 1941, Play Ball went with Eddie Miller as card #1. Miller was an all-star the year before but, as a member of the moribund Boston Bees, was hardly a household name.
The first two major post-war releases honored a pair of reigning MVPs with their #1 spots – 1948-49 Leaf with Joe DiMaggio and 1948 Bowman with Bob Elliot. But Bowman got a little more obscure with their 1949 #1, picking Boston Braves rookie Vern Bickford – a member of a pennant-winning club, but hardly a national stand-out. Bowman’s 1950 #1 was Mel Parnell, an all-star and a sensation on the mound in ’49, and in 1951 they opened with rookie Whitey Ford, who’d helped lead the Yankees to another World Series win. Both were stand-out players and names collectors would have known, but neither are as convincing as purposeful picks for #1 as Foxx, DiMaggio, or Elliot. For Topps’ 1951 Game release, there were a pair of #1s (for both the blue and red back sets) – Yogi Berra and Eddie Yost – who, like Parnell and Ford, don’t really indicate any obvious attempt to use the number as an honor, particularly given the small size of 1951 issue.
So that brings us to “Handy” Andy Pafko. And tells us… well, not much. Sometimes the top spot was used to pay tribute and sometimes it was just used and sometimes it’s kind of stuck in between. But after Pafko, Topps would use the #1 spot for a variety of purposes, some honorific, others utilitarian. The 1950s were a mixed bag: a jumble of superstars (Jackie Robinson in 1953, Ted Williams in 1954, 1957, and 1958), executives (AL President William Harridge in 1956 and commissioner Ford Frick in 1959), and a postseason hero (Dusty Rhodes in 1955). The 1960s featured award winners from the year before (Early Wynn in 1960, Dick Groat in 1961, Roger Maris in 1962, and Willie Mays in 1966), mixed in multi-player league leader cards and a tribute to the 1966 Baltimore Orioles World Series win. Between 1970 and 1972, the #1 card honored the World Series winner with a team photo. 1973-1976’s top spots went to Hank Aaron, honoring his chase and breaking of Babe Ruth’s home run and RBI records. But this run of #1s could have been little more than a coincidence. After Aaron’s 1974 card (which is actually his base card, the front given a unique design to commemorate the home run records that he hadn’t actually set yet) was a pure #1 honor spot. But the ones that followed fit into a pattern that Topps would mostly use for the next decade – opening the set with either Record Breakers or Highlights and ordering those cards alphabetically. A fellow named “Aaron” setting records and making highlights was bound to take those top spots. (You can find Beckett’s visual guide to Topps #1s here)
Despite an boom in card production, the 1980s would see dark times for #1 cards. Fleer and Donruss joined Topps in the baseball card market in 1981 and both companies put player base cards in their #1 spots. Fleer honored the veteran Pete Rose and Donruss led off with young shortstop Ozzie Smith, a decision that – in the context of the great work on the ’81 Donruss set by Jason in a recent post here – seems to not have been much of a decision at all, leaving their brand’s Hall of Fame leadoff man more of a coincidence than a tribute. But by 1982, all three companies had locked themselves into numbering formulas that left little room for creativity at the top. Topps went with Record Breakers or Highlights, bottoming out in the #1 game in 1983 when Tony Armas took the honors with a card commemorating him fielding 11 fly balls in a single game, breaking a five-year-old record. Donruss debuted its famed ‘Diamond Kings’ subset in 1982 and opened each set of the 1980s with it, leading to some big names at the top, but never really lining up the assignment with any big event from the prior year (only Ryne Sandberg’s #1 card in 1985 followed up on a major award win). Fleer, arranging its checklist by team, opened up each set with the previous year’s World Series winner. But with the players within each team arranged alphabetically, their #1s went to guys like Doug Blair and Keith Anderson as often as they went to stars. What’s more, Fleer goofed in 1989 and opened the set with the Oakland A’s (Don Baylor at #1), even though the Dodgers won the World Series in 1988. And just two years later, Fleer would make the same mistake, handing the A’s a premature crown for the 1990 season by leading off with catcher Troy Afenir, who had 14 at bats the year before and hadn’t played at all in the postseason. Their habit of honoring (or at least attempting to honor) the World Champions at the open of their set was dropped after that year.
The truest honorary #1 spot from the big three in the 1980s was the 1986 Topps Pete Rose. His base card – a “pure” card – was given top billing and followed by a series of career retrospective cards to commemorate his breaking of the all-time hits records in 1985. It was the first time since Willie Mays in 1965 that a player’s pure base card was given #1. 1986 also saw the debut of Sportflics, a gimmicky set, but one that took its #1 seriously. George Brett led off the set and, for the next four years, the set would always open not just with a star, but with a player sought after in the hobby. In 1988, the Major League Marketing, parent company of Sportflics, debuted the more standard Score set, which opened with Don Mattingly at #1, continuing the trend set by Sportflics and bringing it into the collecting mainstream.
1989, of course, would be the year Upper Deck changed the hobby forever, in no small part to opening up their debut set with – for the first time ever in a major release – a player who has yet to make his Major League debut. This card, of course, was the iconic Ken Griffey Jr. rookie. It would become one of the hobby’s most recognizable cards and would join the Pafko as a famed #1. But oddly enough, it didn’t really change the trajectory of #1s. In fact, Upper Deck, who owed so much to that one card, didn’t even bother putting a player in the #1 spot in 1990 or 1991 – using that spot instead for checklists. The next big deal rookie to get a #1 spot from any brand was Mark Wohlers in the 1992 Donruss set. And who remembers that?
The heart of the junk wax era saw some interesting uses of #1. In 1990 and 1991, Donruss’s new Leaf Set – among the first line of upscale releases – didn’t even have a card #1, instead opening with unnumbered card with the Leaf logo. The 1991 Bowman set opened with a tribute to Rod Carew. Intended as a fun set for kids, Donruss’s 1992 Triple Play set opened with a card of Skydome. And to showcase the classiness of its first upscale set, Topps put Dave Stewart at the 1 slot for its debut Stadium Club set – dressed in a tuxedo and a baseball cap. There were a few true head-scratchers from this era as well, such as 1993 Donruss opening with journeyman reliever Craig Lefferts. Or Bowman giving its #1 in 1993 to Glenn Davis, who was 30 games away from the end of his career (it was actually Davis’ third straight year getting a #1, as he got the spot in 1991’s Studio set and 1992’s Fleer Ultra due being the first alphabetical player for the Baltimore Orioles, the first alphabetical American League team).
By the mid-1990s, nearly all major releases – save for Fleer, who clung to their team-based numbering system that gave no attention to #1 – had taken up the practice putting a base card of a star player with hobby appeal in the top spot. That trend continues today, with Topps offering an online vote to determine who gets #1 each year, and the winning players – Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, very much fitting that mold. So it ended up not being the legacy of Andy Pafko or Ken Griffey Jr. or Diamond Kings or broken records or hot rookies that live on as #1 in our binders today, but that of Sportflics and Score, who made things no more complicated than taking a player both talented and popular and putting him at the top of stack.