There’s Something About Marc

The Shy Kid at the Center of a Frenzy

On a sunny afternoon in January 1992, a line of fans stretched from inside the Huntington Beach High School gymnasium, out into the parking lot. That Saturday, the gymnasium was the scene of a sports card show. And though eight-time MLB All-Star and former National League Rookie of the Year, Darryl Strawberry, and the L.A. Raiderettes were on site attracting their own throngs of fans, those standing in the longest line were not waiting to meet them. Instead, their line snaked its way to a table, behind which sat 19-year old Marc Newfield, a baseball player who to that point had never played a game above AA. Newfield was a hometown kid who, just a couple years before, played basketball in this same gymnasium versus rival Huntington Beach High School as a member of the crosstown Marina High School Vikings varsity basketball squad.

It was during his time at Marina High School that Newfield established himself as a star baseball player, one of the most heavily scouted hitters in the nation. In June 1990, the Mariners selected Newfield in the first round of MLB Amateur Draft. As a 17-year-old, he tore up the Arizona Rookie League, clubbing a mammoth homerun (some said it went nearly 500 feet!) in his first professional game on his way to batting .313/.394/.495 with 6 HRs and being voted the league’s MVP. Then, as an 18-year-old in 1991 in the High-A Cal League, his first full-length season, Newfield continued to flourish. In 125 games, he hit .300/.391/.439 and was named a Cal League All-Star and the MVP of his San Bernardino Spirit.

But at this card show, organizers had hired Newfield to appear and sign autographs. After signing for two straight hours, he paused for a respite, observing “My hand’s killing me. All these people…I never expected anything like this. I don’t know what’s going on.” The painfully humble Newfield was bewildered by the gaggle of grown adults waiting in a lengthy line on a Saturday afternoon for his signature.[1]

Many of the dealers and collectors in attendance that day viewed Newfield as a commodity and believed his early professional success would help them make a buck. One vendor was selling his cards for $1.75 each and explained, “He’s $2.50 according to the book. Somebody else here is selling them for $3.50.” Another vendor was laminating Newfield’s cards, mounting them to small wood plaques, and selling the simple displays for $15. A Huntington Beach card shop proprietor on site that afternoon claimed to have 10,000 Newfield cards stocked away in his inventory, lecturing: “The idea is to buy his card cheap now and sell high when he’s made it.” He then held up a box, “There are 1,000 Marc Newfields in here. Hopefully, someday, this card will be worth $70 [similar in value to a Frank Thomas rookie card at that time], too. That’s $70 times 1,000.”[2]

As demonstrated at the January 1992 card show, Newfield’s first two professional seasons launched him into the stratosphere of the baseball card hobby. Baseball card manufacturers, too, wanted a piece of the teenager. At the end of the 1991 season, Upper Deck had scrambled to send a photographer to San Bernardino’s Fiscalini Field to snap shots of Newfield in a Seattle Mariners uniform in what was described as a “just in case session.” Upper Deck did not want to run into the same issue it had a couple years earlier when it did not have a photo of Ken Griffey, Jr. in a Mariners uniform and was forced to airbrush his San Bernardino Spirit hat a lighter shade of blue in order to include him in its 1989 set. Similarly, here Upper Deck wanted to account for all contingencies in the event that Newfield, like Griffey, leapfrogged higher levels in the Mariners minor league system and reached the big leagues in early 1992.[3]

That August 1991 day at Fiscalini Field, Upper Deck provided Newfield a #24 Mariners jersey to wear during the shoot. At the time, Newfield—who was more focused on his own season than the goings-on at the big-league level—had no idea that this #24 jersey with no name sewn on the back was that of Ken Griffey Jr. Even without the knowledge that this jersey was Griffey’s—and the added sense of pressure that such a comparison would inevitably stir in a teen—the modest Newfield, who at that point had not played higher than Class-A, was already uncomfortable being put on a pedestal. Lacking even the slightest hint of ego, he sheepishly confessed on the day of the Upper Deck shoot that though he was honored to be photographed and presented as a big-league talent, “It’s kind of embarrassing. It just seems like it’s not the right time.”[4]

Newfield had no idea that Upper Deck put him in a Griffey jersey.

That whole season, Newfield had done his best to navigate the attention thrown his way. He’d been an attraction at ballparks around the Cal League, signing for young fans. He didn’t mind doing this—it came with the territory. But he admitted getting irritated “when the same people ask for me to sign over and over again. They bring 10 cards one day and five the next.” Though this constant attention might have led some young athletes to develop an attitude or sense of entitlement, Newfield handled it like a professional well beyond his 18 years. Tommy Jones, his manager at San Bernardino, explained in 1991, “He’s handled the off-field pressures of the season very well: baseball-card companies, national magazines, TV, radio, all the media,” adding that Newfield never let the attention affect his play or his relationship with his teammates.[5]

Everybody in the baseball card hobby wanted a piece of Marc Newfield. In January 1992 Baseball Cards magazine named Newfield its “Hot Rookie” in a feature story. The Beckett Focus on Future Stars profiled Newfield twice—in August 1992 and April 1994. And Beckett Baseball Card Monthly showcased the young ballplayer, interviewing him for its April 1994 edition.

I was no different. I had my own Marc Newfield collection. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and by 1992 I was 7 years old and developing my own interest in baseball cards. When I acquired a Seattle Mariner, I put it in a special binder with other Mariners cards. I recently dug out that old Mariners binder and found six different Marc Newfield cards dating 1991 through 1993.

Two of those cards have always stood out to me, and I’ve long wondered the story of those cards and the player pictured in them. I ran an internet search for Marc Newfield and quickly discovered that since his professional baseball career ended in the late 1990s, the once-shy kid from Huntington Beach has, perhaps unsurprisingly, lived outside the public spotlight.

Fortunately though, after a little effort, I was recently able to track down Newfield and speak to him about his personal and professional journey, and of course, about his baseball cards. Like all of us, he’s grown up in the intervening three decades since these cards were issued. But he maintains a sharp memory of those early days of his pro baseball career. He’s also patient and generous with his time. The humble kid from the early 1990s maintains a low profile these days, and, consistent with the personality he showed as a teenage baseball star, he’s still eager to come through for others. It was a real pleasure discussing his cards, and as a result of those conversations, I’m now a bigger fan of his than when he was a hero of mine as a youngster.

The Favorites

Newfield in his Marina High School varsity uniform

The first card I’ve always loved is the 1991 Topps “#1 Draft Pick” (#529). It shows a 17-year old Newfield in his senior year of high school, wearing his Marina Vikings pinstripes. On one knee in a traditional amateur baseball pose, an aluminum bat leaning into his body, a Mizuno batting glove on his left hand, and stirrups showing from below mid-calf, Newfield displays the widest, most sincere smile ever featured on a professional baseball card. The obvious happiness in his face reminds me of the great joy that baseball has brought so many of us. Newfield told me that, indeed, the most fun he ever had on the diamond occurred, not during his ten professional seasons or when he was in the major leagues, but in high school. He specifically recalls the summer of 1989 following his junior year, when he was learning to play first base on a Mickey Mantle 16U team that won tournaments all over the nation before securing a National Championship at Waterbury, Connecticut. The reverse side of the card lists this accomplishment along with Newfield’s high school offensive statistics and many prep accolades, the sort of eye-popping achievements that explain the swarms of scouts in attendance at his high school games. 

As a child, I did not understand why this Seattle Mariners baseball card did not show a player in a Mariners jersey. It made no sense. But it also made the card unique. None of the other cards in my collection had players wearing another team’s uniform. And back then, the card’s uniqueness made it stand out against others.  

Just a couple of kids, waiting for a ride to the big leagues

Perhaps my favorite card, though, is the 1992 Upper Deck Top Prospect (#51) checklist. I liked it for the same reason as the 1991 Topps card: it was unique. Newfield is not even in a baseball uniform, but rather street clothes, looking like a teenager waiting for a bus. And here, the card shows two players, a second unique trait!

Newfield stands with Montreal Expos prospect Rondell White, and each has a team-issued duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Newfield sports a San Bernardino Spirit hat, and his oversized outfielder’s glove pokes out of his unzipped bag. But I’ve wondered: why doesn’t he have a bat in his bag the way White does?

The card shows the two young men standing in grass, seemingly along a road. Newfield pointed out that in the card, he is wearing two different shoes—I’d never observed this detail before. The grey shoe on his left foot is actually a medical boot. Following the 1991 season, he had undergone a surgery to try to correct a foot issue that had been bothering him for years and had become increasingly painful.  He was recovering from that surgery when Upper Deck staged this photo. That surgery, however, did not alleviate the pain, and he was forced to undergo a much more invasive foot surgery in 1992 that cut short his season at AA Jacksonville.

White’s right hand rests on Newfield’s left shoulder, like a nurturing big brother. Interestingly, Newfield explained that he and Rondell White had no prior relationship—they were not friends, nor did they enjoy a personal connection. Upper Deck simply paired them together for this card. Nevertheless, the men gaze, together, into the dream-filled distance.

Behind them is a short wire rope fence, and a post rises over their heads with two signs attached. One sign points left toward Seattle; the other right to Montreal—with this signage, the photo should have been taken in central North America at a geographic point between those two big-league cities. But rather, Upper Deck had flown White out to Orange County, California, where Newfield lived in Huntington Beach and was recovering during the offseason. They staged the photo nearby, along California’s iconic Pacific Coast Highway.

Newfield has his own favorite cards from his playing days, though unlike me, he was never much of a baseball card collector growing up. Early in his career, he admitted that seeing himself on baseball cards was exciting and surreal, if not a little odd: “I’ll get a card, or my friends get the cards, and we kind of laugh because we all grew up together. It’s weird that one of us would be on a baseball card.” In 1994 he told Beckett magazine that his favorite of his cards was the 1994 Fleer Major League Prospects (#26), in which he is shown following through on a swing, in front of a Mariners logo.[6]

Newfield’s favorite card in 1994

But these days, his favorite card is the 1996 Select Team Nucleus (#22) that pictures Newfield, with Padres teammates Tony Gwynn and Ken Caminiti. He smiles and suggests how “ridiculous” it was that Select included him on a Team Nucleus card in 1996. After all, the Padres had acquired Newfield from the Mariners at the 1995 trade deadline, and he’d played just 21 games in a Padres uniform by the time the card was produced. But those 21 games represented the first time in Newfield’s young career in which he was afforded the opportunity to play every day and adjust to big league pitching without fear of imminent demotion or losing his place on the lineup card. And Newfield excelled, hitting .309/.333/.491 during that stretch. That late season performance in 1995 landed Newfield on this 1996 Team Nucleus card alongside first-ballot Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn—Mr. Padre himself—and Ken Caminiti, who would win the NL MVP after that 1996 season and eventually land in the Padres Hall of Fame. And though he still thinks the card is ridiculous, Newfield values this card because he was featured alongside two baseball legends. It is also not lost on him that, of the three ballplayers on the card, he’s the lone survivor.

Newfield’s all-time favorite card from his playing career

Though the vendors at the January 1992 Huntington Beach card show may be disappointed that Newfield’s cards won’t finance a lush retirement, I still enjoy flipping through my Marc Newfield collection and adding more to my growing set. Each card tells its own story. And now, after I’ve had the good fortune of meeting Marc Newfield and getting to better know the man pictured in the cards, they are more valuable to me than any others in my collection.


[1] Mike Penner, “Investing in Stars of the Future,” Los Angeles Times (Orange County Edition), February 2, 1992: 1.

[2] Mike Penner, “Investing in Stars of the Future,” Los Angeles Times (Orange County Edition), February 2, 1992: 1.

[3] Gregg Patton, “Majors seem in the cards for Newfield,” San Bernardino County Sun, August 23, 1991: C1.

[4] Gregg Patton, “Majors seem in the cards for Newfield,” San Bernardino County Sun, August 23, 1991: C1.

[5] Jim Callis, “On the Mark,” Baseball Cards, January 1992: 55.

[6] Matt Hayes, “Focus on Marc Newfield,” Beckett Focus on Future Stars, April 1994, No. 36: 20.

Interview with Garrett Prentice

Last November I wrote about how Fox Sports has been using junk wax baseball cards as inspiration for its web graphics. It was a fun piece to work on and one of the best things about it is that it came to the attention of the designer at Fox who worked on those graphics. Garrett Prentice (@garrett_psd) has been a designer for Fox Sports for two years and has previously designed key art for television and movie releases. He has also designed for both the Washington Commanders née Redskins and the Los Angeles Rams.

We’ve been following each other on Twitter for a few months now and when it became clear how popular the baseball card graphics were with this community I asked him if he’d agree to answer a few questions about himself, his designs, and his relationship to card collecting. Garrett graciously agreed to answer my questions and put a lot of thought into his responses. What follows here required basically no editing.

Nick: Looking at the Fox Sports story cards as well as your portfolio shows a lot of designs that distinctly reference physical prints. From things like worn edges, wrinkled paper, and scotch tape to seriously geeky things like reproducing halftone rosettes, creating two-ink looks, and including printing crop marks and registration it’s clear that you appreciate the history of graphic design and the fingerprints of its production. Can you talk about your design influences and whether the baseball cards are a natural progression from this or if they were something special for you?

Garrett: I make it a point to include a decent amount of texture and familiar printing techniques in my work so that it doesn’t feel digital and synthetic. Sometimes, all the little extra things that you mentioned can really elevate a design. It shows attention to detail. I used to go to antique stores a lot in college, and would keep an eye out for fine details that I could incorporate in my work.

While in college, I loved the work of Fraser Davidson, Michael Schwab and Darrin Crescenzi. Although they have extremely different styles, I was really drawn to each of them. Davidson has a fun and playful side to his work that I really love. He is also probably the best sports logo designer in the world. Schwab has an iconic and vintage style that is timeless. Lastly there’s Crescenzi, whose work is so elegant and modern. I always thought he had the coolest style of any designer. He made a pretty sweet Game of Thrones poster you should check out.

These days, I’m influenced by Neil Jamieson, Matt Lange, and TRAN LA. Most of the time I try not to pull inspiration for my work. I just try to make the best design with the images I find. I’m also inspired by the social team at FOX Sports. It’s pretty awesome that I have access to their PSDs* — not only because I can incorporate them into my work, but because I can dive in and see how they did something.

*.psd is the native Photoshop file format which preserves all layers, masks, etc.

I think making baseball cards at some point is a natural progression, but I just need to keep working hard and learning. There are so many great designers out there to learn from.

Nick: How did you choose the card designs you’ve been using since they’re as old as you are? Do you just like the “junk” era of cards or is that part of the general nostalgia marketing that’s currently directed at my generation?

Garrett: I gravitate to the ’90s era of card design simply because it reminds me of my childhood. I started asking my mom to buy me cards around at 10 years old, so that would be around 1996–97. I had mostly Topps and Upper Deck — which I always revered the most because I loved the shiny logo. Another reason for this is that I didn’t have the money to afford the “premium” cards.

Nick: Making digital web graphics look like physical objects is something I’ve thought about for long time with things like the Topps Bunt App. Sometimes I feel like it’s not fully embracing what digital is best at. Other times it’s a reminder that we have centuries of practice about what works best for communication. Outside of the way they look, what are your thoughts as a graphic designer about what it means to maintain and reference the concept of a physical object in the digital realm.

Garrett: I think it’s nice to have a little bit of both. Sleek and polished digital design certainly looks awesome when it’s executed the right way, which is how a lot of my favorite NFTs look. But adding the printed or real-world mistakes and imperfections just shows me that the designer took the time to add another layer of detail. I think there should always be room for digital art that looks organic or is a reference to mixed media. It gives things a warmer feel. Take a look at the work by Sergio Santos (@elsantosbaseball). He does this to the extreme, mostly because he paints everything, but also because he doesn’t care if it’s perfect, which is why I love his work.

Nick: Both regarding cards and regarding the other reference materials you’ve used (like the Harry M. Stevens scorecard), what’s your reference library like and is it part of your personal collection?

Garrett: My reference library includes a ton of cards from my youth, about 100 Sports Illustrated magazines that I saved (mostly from the late 90s) and hundreds of Starting Lineups. I also love buying printed things on eBay, like old postcards, money, and recently, a map of The Masters golf course at Augusta National. Aside from that, my main reference sites are Behance, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, IMP Awards, The Cardboard Connection, and Automobilist.

Nick: If you have a personal collection what do you collect and how long have you been collecting?

Garrett: I have a respectable junk card collection that isn’t worth anything from a collecting standpoint. Upper Deck and Topps were my favorite brands as a kid, and I would jump at an opportunity to work with either of them. Although I love cards, what I cherish most are my Starting Lineups. I love the packaging and they’re just nostalgic for me. My favorites are the 1991 Michael Jordan, and two Kobe Bryants (1996, 1998). They’re all in very good/mint condition, but I’ve never sent them in to be graded. I’m too nervous they will get banged up in delivery.

I bought three (Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Steph Curry) of the newly released NBA series, but I was underwhelmed. I really don’t like the new branding, and the size and packaging style of the originals can’t be beaten.

Nick: Your portfolio shows off the vertical images. Fox Sports however tends to emphasize the horizontal versions due to mobile site and social media preview reasons. I appreciate that the two versions are actual redesigns. Which aspect ratio do you prefer (if any) both in terms of creating the cards and in terms of the final product?

Garrett: I start with the vertical since that’s what the user sees first on the Home Screen. The art used to go full-bleed on the home screen before the FOX Sports app was recently redesigned, so that was always the main priority. I typically prefer the vertical also, since it’s more similar to one-sheets I’ve designed in the past.

Nick: How do you feel about people printing your work out and putting them into binder pages?

Garrett: It’s a huge compliment. It’s always nice to see people appreciate your work, with whatever you do. I appreciate the time they took out of their day to do something like that. It’s really cool.

Origins of Baseball

It seems like an impossible job—condense the history of baseball in the 19th Century to a set of one hundred cards.  After all, it took Harold and Dorothy Seymour three hundred pages to cover the same ground in their collaborative volume Baseball:  The Early Years.  But that was the task undertaken by a small band of researchers in a set titled “The Origins of Baseball 1744—1899.” 

Presided over by Jonathan Mork, the team included David Martin for artwork and Mer-Mer Chen for graphic design and photo restoration.  Jonathan’s brother Jeremy authored the stories on the back of the cards.  Issued by the American Archives Publishing Co. in 1994, the boxed collection logically balances most of its imagery between player and executive portraits, team photographs, playing fields and notable events.  The year 1744 in the title refers to the date of an English woodcut of a game of Rounders included as card 3 in the set, below.

More than twenty-five years after printing, the cards need gentle handling.  The black finish of the borders easily flakes.

Images were carefully selected from photographs and other illustrations maintained by the Hall of Fame’s National Baseball Library.  The full-length studio photographs are especially striking in the card format.  Clockwise from upper left: Jack Chesbro (card 92); Tony Mullane (card 66); Sam Thompson (card 93); and Paul Hines (card 37).

Noted personalities of the game include pioneering sportswriter Henry Chadwick (card 11), the grand old man of the game Connie Mack (card 84), and umpire Tom Connolly (card 72).  The surprise is the 17th President of the United States, Andrew Johnson (card 14).  Said to be a fan of the game, Johnson is honored for allowing government clerks and staffers to clock out early when the Washington Nationals were scheduled to play an important game.

Team cards are an important part of the set.  The collection naturally includes the founding Knickerbockers (card 5) and the undefeated 1869 Red Stockings (card 19).

The three powerful early Brooklyn teams are also pictured:  the Atlantics (card 16), the Eckfords (card 9), and the Excelsiors (card 12).  The Atlantics virtually monopolized the early championships of the sport.  The Eckfords notched a pair of flags themselves.  The third and deciding game of the 1860 championship match between the Atlantics and the Excelsiors produced one of the game’s first great controversies. With his team leading 8-6 in the sixth inning, Excelsior captain Joe Leggett pulled his club off the field when gamblers and Atlantic partisans in the crowd shouted one too many insults against his players. The two great teams never faced each other again.   Leggett may have been incorruptible on the diamond; off was a different matter.  Over the years, his hands found themselves in a number of tills to feed a gambling habit he could not afford.  He disappeared in 1877 with $1,000 missing in liquor license fees from the Brooklyn Police Department Excise Bureau.  

Teams of the 1880s are well-represented in the set.  The Boston Beaneaters (card 98) were the most successful National League team of the 1890s, winning flags in 1891, 1892, 1893, 1897 and 1898.  The City of Chicago lent its broad shoulders to the development of baseball behind the likes of National League founder William Hulbert, star pitcher and later sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding, and five-time pennant winner Cap Anson.  The 1886 team is pictured on card 45.  The 1887 National League Detroit Wolverines (card 51) played a 15-game championship series that year against the American Association St. Louis Browns.  Eight of the games were played on neutral grounds.  Detroit claimed the flag in Game 11, played in the afternoon in Baltimore after a morning tilt in Washington.

The set doesn’t sugarcoat the game. 

Above:  Jesse “The Crab” Burkett of the Cleveland Spiders (card 88) earns a spot in the set for his role in a post-game melee in Louisville that saw the entire Cleveland team hauled off to jail.  Edwin Bligh (card 31) scandalized the game when he was accused of fathering a child with a 17-year-old girl.  

Below:  Hard drinking plagued the early years of the sport.  A detective once trailed Mike “King” Kelly (card 48) into the early morning hours, reporting the Chicago catcher enjoying a glass of lemonade at 3 a.m. at a local watering hole.  Kelly denied the allegation.  “The detective is a complete liar.  I never drink lemonade at that hour.  It was pure whiskey.” 

Ed Delahanty’s attraction to the spirits had a grim ending (card 74).  The only player to win batting titles in both the American and National Leagues, the outfielder was thrown off a train in 1903 near Niagara Falls by a conductor for being drunk and disorderly.  He fell off a bridge into the Niagara River and was swept to his death. 

A SABR biography of Delahanty by John Saccoman can be found at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ed-delahanty/.

Several cards highlight the playing fields of the day. A diagram of a New England version of the game is shown on card 10:

The decades of the 1850s and the 1860s are summarized on individual cards.

Top:  Elysian Fields, the ancestral homeland of the game, is shown card 7.  A game between the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Philadelphia Athletics is shown on card 18.  Gamblers congregate in the lower left.  Seated umpires and the official scorers at their table take up station between home and first base.

Abraham Lincoln is featured on card 13 of the set.  Commentary on the back of the card includes an early debunking of the theory that returning Civil War soldiers spread the game to the American South.  As the back of the Lincoln card states, an especially robust strain of the game emerged in New Orleans before the Civil War.  It sure did. 

At least half a dozen baseball clubs were playing regularly by 1859.  The Magnolia and Southern clubs squared off in one series; the Empire and the presiding elder Louisiana Base Ball Club played one match series against each other.  The Louisiana club didn’t appear to take things as seriously as their younger counterparts.  In one game, the patriarchs were forced to start with just eight players present, and in another with just seven.  Other nines played side against side.   The Orleans Club was active on and off the field of play, leading a political parade on horseback in red velvet caps on one occasion and giving a Mardi Gras masquerade ball on another.

The Magnolia and Southern clubs seemed especially well-suited to each other. After one game, the teams exchanged badges and then marched together to the United States Hotel for a round or two of drinks.

The clubs had trouble finding spaces for their games.  The Third District, where many of the teams were located, had only three open fields.  One behind Claiborne Circle was the province by seniority of the Black Racket clubs.  White Racket clubs claimed the grounds near the Old Paper Mill behind the Pontchartrain Railroad by the same rights of prior occupancy.    An open square on Claiborne Street was guarded by neighborhood youths known as the Squatters.  When a Les Quatre club tried to use the field one day, the Squatters drew knives and pistols and ran them off.

The New Orleans Crescent described Racket as “the game of all games for the spectator,”   a spirited Creole affair of base and ball with a high reputation for entertainment value, played with a short one-handed bat—the racket.

A box for a game between Les Quatre clubs shows a scored and umpired game of runs played in innings with 12 men to a side.   By the following spring, the teams were described as baseball clubs.

City newspapers approved of all the play.  The Sunday Delta observed:

Lately a furore has been started among us, which, if it only goes on progressing in the same spirit it has commenced, will make cricket and other games of ball as common in this section as they are in England.  Whether it continues long or not, it will exercise a good influence as long as it lasts, and we see no reason for its abatement, as the better these games are generally understood, the more popular do they become.

The New Orleans Crescent apologized for not being to attend all the games.  “There are now so many Base Ball and Cricket and Racket Clubs, and they play so frequently, appearing in the field nearly every day, up town, down town, and over the river, that we cannot keep the run of them.”

Up and down the great rivers of the United States the game still thrives, from town to town as the Crescent saw so long ago.  One hundred cards cannot tell the whole story of the 19th Century game, but each card provides a path to a different chapter in the story.  It’s a fine set, worthy of time and study.  Listed for $25 or so on eBay, it’s a steal.

DISCLAIMER

Images in this article have been brightened from original scans for presentation purposes.  Master heckler William Gleason on card 36 is pictured before (top) and after modification (bottom).

Digital Junk Wax from Fox

During the playoffs a few of us noticed that Fox was putting out baseball card inspired graphics. These were showing up as Tweet previews among other things and they caught my attention due to being interesting twists on something I was already familiar with.

The first batch I noticed were all riffs on 1991 Topps. Urias is from October 11, Marsh from October 18, and Kim from the 21st. They seem to be used to illustrate player profiles—quite appropriate for a baseball card reference—and show a great attention to detail. I really like the addition of the facsimile autographs and adding the logo baseball so they can use the pennant for the Fox logo. Everything fits together perfectly plus they have some of the better fake printing I’ve seen.

Depending on your browser window width you’ll see either the horizontal or vertical designs. The horizontals show up on narrower views as a header and, since they’re the social media preview image as well, I suspect they were designed first. That said I really like the vertical designs and how they look like they might fit in tobacco pages.

Just when I’d gotten used to 1991 Topps though Fox dropped a 1991 Donruss inspired design of Jeremy Peña. This one doesn’t work quite as well in part due to the need to have a vastly different approach to the name box. 1991 Donruss is such a diagonal design that the horizontal modification just won’t work.

I do however really like making the border designs match the team colors. Dropping the Astros logo back there is a fantastic as well and letting the photo of Peña overlap the borders makes everything much more dynamic. While this doesn’t work as well as a design reference it has a lot of great ideas demonstrating about how 1991 Donruss might not be as bad as so many people say it is.

Fox then threw me by using 1989 Topps Football for Harrison Bader. It’s interesting that this very plain design* works so much better digitally.**  I suspect that a large part of this is due to the way the horizontal design makes the stripes a lot more prominent. I’m not sure the vertical would be as nice if it didn’t have the black fade.

*I’ve never seen anyone gush about this set or design. 

**Though one reason for this is that Fox’s logo is a black overlay that I barely notice against the out of focus crowd.

The most-recent “card” Fox has posted is this one of Chas McCormick. I don’t recognize the design except that it kind of looks like a mashup of of all three previous designs. Some of 1991 Topps’s double borders mixed with 1989 Football’s stripes and a 1991 Donruss cant. The result is kind of generic but also something that totally suggests modern Topps Big League.

I also went back through the archives and found Fox had been doing these well before the playoffs started. Working backwards through the archive I found Rowdy Tellez in a 1991 Topps design on September 30, Mike Trout as 1991 Donruss on September 22, Trayce Thompson and 1988 Donruss on September 14, Adam Wainwright as 1989 Pro Set Football on September 13, and Aaron Judge in 1989 Topps Football on September 7.

I continued looking back into July but the Judge was was first obvious trading card design I could find. Is interesting to me it was a football design which Fox selected. It’s also worth nothing here that the Judge uses a fantastic halftone dither with a real rosette pattern.

The Mike Trout also deserves some discussion. There are differences in the name/position handling, logo treatment, and photo cropping compared to Peña but the 1991 Donrussness shines through. I’m pretty sure the borders use the exact same design elements too. But the team color treatment looks great and confirms how taking 1991 Donruss in a team color direction would completely transform the set.

The whole group of eleven designs is also something that I find really cool. There’s a whole range of made-up cards as used on programs and other printed material but the way these are intended for a digital audience got me thinking about Topps Bunt, the nature of digital cards, and how so many of them evoke physical properties.

These are purely digital creations (though you could absolutely print the horizontal ones out as real cards) but they have designs which suggest that they’re real physical items and aren’t just web graphics. From things like the print screens to the way there are borders and margins which treat the graphic as a self-contained object, they don’t feel at all like the usual illustrations we see online.

It’s also interesting to me how every one of these evokes a junk wax era design. That’s not what a lot of people think of as the golden age of baseball cards* but it may be the era of peak trading card ubiquity. Those borders—even the football ones—are from an era when cards were everywhere and their presence was part of the national language of sports.

*As I gesture at the breakdown of what years are most covered by this blog.

That Fox uses them 30+ years later as visual shorthand for saying “this article will profile a player” confirms both how deeply steeped they are in our sports culture and how much trading cards in general color the way we remember and interact with sports.

Note

There are a couple other fake-printing graphics which Fox made before they started making the trading-card inspired ones. These suggest that Fox was moving this direction before it realized that trading cards were the look they wanted.

On September 1 Fox profiled Julio Rodríguez using a fake postcard complete with a fake stamp/postmark on the picture side of the image and bubble lettering that’s asking for a small image inside each letter. This graphic also includes a drop shadow to give the card depth and faked wear and tear on the paper.

It’s trying a little too hard for my taste (though the fake halftone rosettes are great) and ends up in the uncanny valley where it looks like something designed by someone who’s never seen an actual postcard.

The next day Fox wrote about Judge and Maris using what I’m guessing is a reference to a vintage program.* This is an interesting design complete with yellowed paper effects and a less-convincing fake halftone. Clearly not a card but, as with the postcard, it’s drawing on our associations with these things as physical objects.

*It looks very familiar to me but I can’t place it.

I haven’t noticed anything really like these since they started doing the trading card graphics the following week so it kind of feels like the trading cards had exactly the right feel Fox was looking for. I also didn’t see anything like these as I kept digging back in time through Fox’s archives. Nothing in August and I gave up digging in July.

Death and Taxes and Baseball Card Litigation [Part III, 1986-1998]

Author’s Note: This is the third in a multi-part series that explores the legal backstories that have shaped (and continue to shape) the baseball card industry.

You may recall that Fleer and Donruss entered the baseball card market in 1981 after a Pennsylvania district court found that Topps and the Major League Baseball Players Association (“MLBPA”) had illegally restrained trade in the baseball card market. The court voided Topps’ player contract exclusivity clause and the MLBPA was ordered to enter into at least one additional licensing agreement “to market a pocket-size baseball card product, to be sold alone or in combination with a low-cost premium.” This freewheeling baseball card market was short-lived, however, once the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the Pennsylvania district court’s order on August 25, 1981 and held the exclusive rights in Topps’ player contracts were legal and enforceable.

Ultimately victorious, Topps filed separate matters in Delaware (seeking to disgorge Fleer of its 1981 profits) and New York (seeking to recover Fleer’s profits for 1982/1983 claiming that Fleer’s team logo sticker was a “sham product”). Both cases were settled on confidential terms, though with a provision that allowed Fleer to continue selling baseball cards with team logo stickers.

The MLBPA Turns the Screws on Topps

Despite settlement between Topps and Fleer in the Delaware and New York matters, the case continued as to the counterclaim by the MLBPA against Topps, which the court astutely observed had likely been filed “in order to exert some pressure on Topps to abandon or at least modify the breadth of its interpretation of its player contracts.” Specifically, the MLBPA sought declaration that the word “alone” in Topps’ contracts did not include “low-cost non-confectionary items like Fleer’s team logo sticker.”

Marvin Miller, however, had admitted under oath in the prior Pennsylvania matter that Topps’ rights would be infringed by the sale of cards with a “completely valueless item” and that the MLBPA would have denied any proposal for baseball cards to be sold with a “trivial product.” Additionally, the court took issue with the absence of evidence regarding how much it cost to produce the stickers or “the extent, if any, to which the sticker motivates purchases” of Fleer wax packs. Topps argued the only way for Fleer to avoid an infringement claim would be to “make sure that the production cost of the [logo sticker] at least equal[ed] the production cost of the cards in the package.”

(L) 1982 Fleer logo sticker, (C) 1984 Fleer logo sticker front, (R) 1984 Fleer logo sticker back

However, the settlement of the underlying case between Topps and Fleer had altered the nature of the contract issue that the MLBPA wished to litigate. Although the precise terms were confidential, the settlement agreement required Fleer to increase the production cost of the logo sticker compared to the cost of the cards in each pack and specified that the logo sticker needed to be featured prominently on packaging and advertisement for the product.

Because Topps was satisfied that Fleer’s logo stickers no longer infringed on their rights to market cards alone, the court held that the MLBPA was seeking remedy for a package of cards (containing a “sham” sticker) that was no longer being marketed and that the MLBPA’s claim was nonjusticiable—it simply did not present an active controversy over which the court could preside. Accordingly, the matter was dismissed on August 25, 1986.

Turnabout is Fair Play

Separate litigation continued between Topps and MLBPA in New York. There, Topps alleged that the MLBPA had instigated a group player boycott; had attempted to monopolize Major League Baseball players’ publicity rights in violation of the Sherman Act; and had tortiously interfered with Topps contractual relationships with the players.

The compensation Topps offered for player contracts had remained unchanged since 1975—players received $5 upon signing the initial contract and received a $250 advance against his pro rata share of a royalty pool for every season he was a member of a major league club (and Topps used his picture on a card). All-Star pitcher Jim Kern described the deal with Topps rather pithily, “you get $250 from Topps, hell or high water, if your face is on a card.”

Marvin Miller had repeatedly attempted to negotiate better terms, but Topps ignored all demands—mainly because Topps’ individual contracting system left the MLBPA with little bargaining power. In fact, Topps had offered a lower royalty rate for exclusive rights than Fleer and Donruss had for non-exclusive rights prior to the 1982 season.

In an effort to increase their bargaining power, the board recommended that no player enter into or renew an agreement with Topps. Executive board member Buck Martinez acknowledged the MLBPA “simply wanted to negotiate a new contract with Topps.” The matter came to a head in January 1986, when Miller and Don Fehr distributed a memo that declared “the Executive Board has determined that it cannot, and will not recommend that any player enter into a new agreement with Topps, or renew or extend any existing agreement with Topps, pending the outcome of the discussions between the association and Topps.” Accordingly, few players signed renewals with Topps. The MLBPA thereafter presented Topps with a licensing offer of “commercially reasonable terms.”

Topps’ player contracts were set to expire with approximately 100 individual Major League players (a group that included most of the players deemed “superstars”) on December 31, 1986. Topps complained that it would be unable to produce a complete set of cards for 1987 if those contracts were allowed to expire.

In its opinion issued on August 1, 1986, the court found questions of fact regarding whether the MLBPA intended to obtain monopoly power. However, denial of Topps’ request for a preliminary injunction was a monumental win for the MLBPA, “Topps can easily avoid the irreparable harm it claims it will suffer by accepting the offer the MLBPA has made.” In other words, Topps could simply pay for the rights to renew those 100 players with expiring contracts, however unpalatable it was to Topps. Forced into the corner, a deal was struck that allowed Topps to market a full set in 1987 and beyond.

Though card manufacturers like Topps generally kept production numbers private, “one trade magazine estimated the tally at 81 billion trading cards per year in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, or more than 300 cards for every American annually.”

In Re: Nolan Ryan Rookie Card

In April 1990, a 12-year-old collector walked out of the Ball-Mart card shop in Addison, Illinois with a beautiful 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan card. The owner of the shop, Joe Irmen, had been in the baseball card business for just a few weeks and had marked the card “1200” without a dollar sign, comma, or decimal point ($1200 was essentially top dollar for the card at the time). During a blitz of customers at the card shop, Irmen asked a clerk from his next-door jewelry store to help out. Unfortunately, that clerk had no knowledge about the value of the card and mistakenly sold it for $12.

After being inundated with requests for cheap Ryan rookie cards, Irmen discovered the $1200 card in his case had been sold at a steep discount—the receipt on file clearly showed the $12 purchase price.

The case was literally frontpage news in 1990.

Irmen initiated a manhunt and posted a sign in his store offering a $100 reward for information about the person who had purchased the card. Once the buyer (a minor) was identified, Irmen went to the child’s house, but no one answered the door. Thereafter unable to negotiate its return, Irmen filed a lawsuit in an effort to recover the card. The family, who felt the card was purchased fairly, filed a $60,000 counterclaim for defamation. 

The matter was set for trial on March 5, 1991 in front of DuPage County Judge Ann Jorgensen. Before the proceedings began, it was revealed that a trade had been made the night before in which the 1968 Ryan card had been exchanged for a 1965 Joe Namath rookie and 1967 Tom Seaver rookie. The bombshell revelation resulted in a shouting match between the attorneys. Bailiffs had to clear the courtroom.   

Once order was restored, the case was continued and eventually settled by way of the parties agreeing to have the card auctioned off for charity. On June 21, 1991 the card was sold for $5000, and the proceeds split between the parties to be donated to charities of their choice. 

Cutting Cards: A Cautionary Tale

In what may qualify as the original “cart art,” Dad’s Kid Corporation produced a set of “Tri Cards” in 1992 that were assembled using three identical baseball cards issued by Donruss, Fleer, Score, or Upper Deck. The top two cards were die-cut such that only the body of player remained. Those two pieces were then stacked and glued atop an uncut card to create a neat 3-D effect. Each card was encased in a plastic box and sold individually or in a two-pack, packaged such that each card was visible to potential buyers.

Front and back of Wade Boggs Tri Card, constructed from three 1991 Upper Deck cards.

The owner of Dad’s Kid Corporation, Christopher Kamar, had struck deals with Toys R Us, F.A.O. Schwartz, Spencer Gifts, and other retailers to sell his Tri Cards. Almost immediately, the Tri Cards were so popular that Dad’s Kid had to run three shifts of 100 assemblers per shift just to meet demand. In fact, its initial shipment to Toys R Us was so successful, Dad’s Kid had a reorder on the table worth upwards of $20 million when Upper Deck, Score, Leaf, and the MLBPA filed coordinated lawsuits in New York and California seeking to stop Dad’s Kid from selling its Tri Card products. The respective lawsuits alleged that any modification of existing baseball cards, without prior written permission, violated trademark and copyright law.

For its part, Dad’s Kid had undertaken a thorough legal analysis before it began the manufacturing process and was operating under a good-faith belief it was not infringing on any rights; it was simply using cards purchased legally on the secondary market. Moreover, the company posted an explicit disclaimer on each box alerting consumers it was not claiming any rights with respect to the cards and was otherwise not affiliated with any of the card manufacturers, MLB, or the MLBPA.

In the New York case, the MLBPA moved for an injunction asking the court to stop Dad’s Kid from selling Tri Card products. The district court refused, citing the “first-sale doctrine” in a ruling issued on November 12, 1992:   

“The fact that an enormous secondary market exists for baseball cards and baseball card derivative works leads me to conclude on this record that baseball players have little if any continuing publicity rights with respect to the use and reuse of their pictures on cards by subsequent purchasers and sellers of duly licensed baseball cards following a perfectly proper first sale into commerce for which the players get a royalty.” Effectively, the players did not have the right to control what was done with the cards after the initial sale and had no claim for any additional compensation. On the heels of this victory, Dad’s Kid announced its Tri Cards would be back in 1993.

The lawsuits rolled on, however, and in April 1993 the New York case was consolidated with the California matters to continue there. Unfortunately for Dad’s Kid, the California district court did not agree with (and was not bound by) the New York first-sale ruling and instead issued a permanent injunction on August 12, 1994 that prohibited Dad’s Kid from producing any further Tri Cards. The court further ordered that Dad’s Kid reimburse the plaintiff card manufacturers and MLBPA over $1 million collectively in attorneys’ fees and costs.

Dad’s Kid appealed and the case was eventually dismissed on March 8, 1996, pursuant to a confidential settlement.

Johnny Bench Hit by his Own Pitch

Sports cards and memorabilia sales continued to soar in the 1990s and quickly became a fixture on shop-at-home television stations. This format often preyed on those unfamiliar with the actual value of items and otherwise created an environment where even sophisticated collectors might get caught up in the frenzied sales tactics.  

Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench appeared on the Home Shopping Network on August 5, 1993 to hawk baseballs he had signed. In typical shop-at home fashion, viewers were initially told the autographed balls were worth $129. They claimed the baseballs would sell out at $99.95. Finally, the Bench-signed baseballs were dropped to the low, low price of $49.95.

Unfortunately for the Home Shopping Network and Bench, however, the New York Department of Consumer Affairs had started to monitor the values claimed for sports card and memorabilia. With the help of a trusted price guide, they determined that an autographed Johnny Bench baseball was worth $35, only 70% of its final “sensational” sales price.   

The first celebrity endorser to face such charges in New York, Bench was personally cited for misrepresenting the value of his own signature on a ball. Bench was hit with a $5000 fine in December and Home Shopping Network was ordered to pay $30,000.

Poking the Bear

Seeking to “put the fun back in baseball card collecting,” Cardtoons readied a 1993 release of parody baseball cards intended to poke fun at the egos and greed in the game (and the world) with an issue that was equal parts Wacky Packages, Garbage Pail Kids, and traditional trading cards. The set of 130 cards lampooned current players, retired legends, Michael Jordan (the baseball player) and political figures like Bill Clinton.

Clockwise: Raging Tartabull (No. BB-15), The Say What Kid (No. 40),
Treasury Bonds (No. 8), Slick Willie (No. S-3).

Cardtoons tapped free agent sportswriter Mike Sowell to create the players’ alter egos and write the card backs. Caricatures by Dayne Dudley and Dave Simpson were deftly rendered so that each individual was recognizable without including team logos that might run afoul of MLB’s rights. In fact, even the team names were changed to cheeky monikers (e.g., Orioles/Bore-Ioles and Cubs/Scrubs). The glossy cards were distributed in foil packs along with chase cards, foil versions, insert sets, puzzles, and redemption cards intended to skewer the baseball card industry, itself. Cardtoons’ initial run called for some 13 million cards to be printed.

Cardtoons first advertised their cards in the May 14, 1993 issue of Sports Collector Digest. This caught the attention of the MLBPA (who had not issued a license to Cardtoons to use the likenesses of the players depicted). The MLBPA sent Cardtoons a letter on June 18 asserting that its product violated the “valuable property rights of MLBPA and the players” and threatened legal action if any cards of active baseball players were sold. A similar letter was sent to the printing company, who immediately halted production.

Just days after receipt of the cease-and-desist letter, Cardtoons filed a lawsuit against MLBPA seeking a declaration that it could sell parody baseball cards without license from the MLBPA pursuant to First Amendment protection. At a subsequent evidentiary hearing, Cardtoons revealed it was sitting on nearly 4000 cases of product ready to ship. The MLBPA claimed it would never have licensed a parody set that poked fun at individual players (and also admitted to a “glut” in the market for baseball cards!).

The district court considered that parodies (such as political cartoons) were generally protected by the First Amendment and “deserving of substantial freedom—both as entertainment and as a form of social and literary criticism.” The issue the court wrangled with, however, was whether “one can sell a parody” and ultimately decided that Cardtoons could not profit from the players’ likenesses and fame. An order was entered that prohibited Cardtoons from selling cards containing the likenesses of active Major League ballplayers (101 of the 130 cards in the set). Damages were denied because none of the cards had actually been sold at the time the decision was rendered on November 23, 1993.          

The Cardtoons set eventually saw the light of day, however, because raunchy rap group 2 Live Crew sampled a Roy Orbison song without permission. In a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, 2 Live Crew prevailed in a ruling handed down on March 7, 1994 in which it was held that a commercial (i.e., made specifically for sale) parody song could constitute fair use.

Cardtoons sought reconsideration in light of the 2 Live Crew ruling and on October 25, 1994, the district court reversed its prior decision, this time finding it reasonable that Cardtoons would seek compensation for its efforts and recognized that “parodists will seldom get permission from those whose works are parodied. Self-esteem is seldom strong enough to permit the granting of permission even in exchange for a reasonable fee.” The court ultimately ruled that that right of publicity did not “confer a shield to ward off caricature, parody and satire” and that the Cardtoons cards were protected by the First Amendment, regardless of their commercial nature.   

Finally clear to distribute their cards, Cardtoons released the set in 1995—the product’s overarching message elegantly punctuated by intervening strike and cancellation of the 1994 World Series. While the original version of cards was set to be “90 percent positive in the way they portrayed players,” Sowell’s opinion soured as the court battle raged. He decided there was “no need to be nice” and satirized the players as he saw fit.

Front and back of Egotisticky Henderson (No. 35).

The appeal filed by MLBPA was denied in 1996, the Tenth Circuit ruling succinctly that “the last thing we need, the last thing the First Amendment will tolerate, is a law that lets public figures keep people from mocking them.” But for the protracted lawsuit, Cardtoons had plans to issue card sets for other sports.

Mickey Mantle v. Upper Deck

On February 1, 1993 Mickey Mantle entered a three-year contract that gave Upper Deck “exclusive worldwide rights to use and reuse. . .Mantle’s name (as well as any nicknames), image, likeness, artists’ portrayal of image or likeness, visual representation, signature (or facsimile thereof), photograph, voice, biography, statistics and endorsements” for baseball cards and associated promotional materials. Upper Deck’s 1993 Mantle issues were relatively modest, including several “All-Time Heroes” multiplayer cards and a “Then and Now” card featuring a young Mantle aside a holographic image an older Mantle wearing an Upper Deck jersey. 

In 1994, Upper Deck produced a slew of Mantle cards, including one that was personally signed by both Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. That year, Topps also issued a Mantle card as part of its Archive set, styled as a 1954 Topps card and clearly indicating on the reverse that it had rights to issue the card per an agreement with Upper Deck. (Mantle was signed with Bowman exclusively in 1954 and 1955 and Topps had not issued Mantle cards those seasons.)

Though labeled as a Topps Heritage issue, this card (No. 259) was actually distributed as an insert card in packs of 1994 Upper Deck All-Time Heroes because Upper Deck held exclusive rights.

Despite Upper Deck wholeheartedly issuing a multitude of Mantle cards in 1994, the company reportedly soured on the deal after Mantle publicly admitted he had undergone alcohol rehabilitation. Mantle filed a lawsuit late in the year claiming that Upper Deck had threatened to rescind the contract unless he agreed to take a pay cut. Upper Deck admitted, “discussions regarding restructuring Mr. Mantle’s contract were the product of his disability and other performance-related concerns.” Upper Deck claimed Mantle had “failed to live up to his commitments as effective spokesperson for the company.”  

In February 1995 the parties agreed to participate in arbitration (an alternative dispute resolution process in which three arbitrators—not a jury or judge—decide the case and amount of damages, if any). Despite the ongoing dispute, Upper Deck went ahead and issued a set of metallic Mickey Mantle baseball cards in 1995.

Somewhat ironically, Upper Deck sued several parties in a separate action on February 14, 1995 claiming that those companies could not sell items autographed by Mantle during the term of Upper Deck’s exclusive contract with Mantle. One of those companies, Score Board, prevailed because its contract with Mantle specifically provided it could sell off remaining merchandise after that contract expired on January 31, 1993.  At the same time, Score Board had separately sued Upper Deck in New Jersey claiming that Upper Deck was improperly selling autographed Ken Griffey Jr. signatures that Score Board had exclusive right to sell.

On May 28, 1995, Mantle was hospitalized and underwent a liver transplant on June 8. After Mantle passed away on August 13, 1995, collectors scrambled to acquire Mantle items and Upper Deck, alone, sold more than $500,000 worth of Mantle memorabilia on the heels of his death. Mantle’s (estranged) widow Merlyn and personal attorney Roy True continued to prosecute the Upper Deck case on behalf of Mantle’s estate.  

On May 22, 1996 the arbitration panel awarded the estate nearly $5 million (approximately $9.7 million in today’s dollars), which included actual damages for having sold Mantle merchandise without a license to do so, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. Upper Deck sought to have the award vacated, but their efforts failed, and the lawsuit was closed in April 1997.

Orel Hershiser Adds Another Shutout

Orel Hershiser is probably best known for his amazing 1988 pitching performance in which he tossed 59 consecutive shutout innings. A decade later, Hershiser sued Vintage Sports Plaques (“Vintage”) for infringement of licensing and publicity rights after learning that Vintage was selling Hershiser’s baseball cards affixed to wooden plaques and labeled with his name. (Deluxe plaques included a “clock with a sports motif.”) The Hershiser cards used by Vintage were purchased from licensed manufacturers and framed without alteration. Vintage, itself, had no licensing agreements with any parties.

1989 Topps Record Breaker (No. 5)
Wouldn’t this make an amazing clock?

Vintage argued that the “first-sale doctrine” was a complete defense to the publicity claims. The first-sale doctrine provides that “once the holder of an intellectual property right consents to the sale of particular copies. . .of his work, he may not thereafter exercise the distribution right with respect to such copies.” The court rightly recognized that its failure to apply the first-sale doctrine in the Hershiser case would “render tortious the resale of sports trading cards and memorabilia” and would have a chilling effect on the secondary market for trading cards. In fact, refusing to apply the first-sale doctrine here would essentially make it impossible for a child to sell a baseball card to a friend.

Ultimately, the court found that Vintage was merely reselling cards that it had lawfully obtained. “This is more appropriately classified as a case of an entrepreneur repackaging or displaying the trading cards in a more attractive way to consumers rather than a case of an opportunist using Plaintiffs’ names and likenesses to sell frames and clocks.” The appellate court affirmed and the plaintiff’s declined to pursue any further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hershiser was shutout.

An Ocean of Cards

Although the MLBPA had long been involved in baseball card-related disputes and litigation, the owners of the ballclubs had not been quite so active, perhaps because collecting money for the use of their trademarked logos and uniforms, while very lucrative, was not the lifeblood that licensing revenue represented for the MLBPA.

This changed in 1998, however, when Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. (“MLB”) learned that Pacific Trading Cards was in the process of manufacturing and distributing cards that depicted players in their MLB uniforms, despite MLB having refused to grant a license to Pacific for the current set. (MLB had authorized previous Pacific issues).

Pacific was fully licensed by the MLBPA and went forward with manufacture “either believing mistakenly that it would receive a license from MLB or not caring whether it would.” The MLB sued to stop Pacific from distributing their cards. The MLB’s request for a preliminary injunction was denied, inter alia, because the court felt that the inclusion of the logos or trademarks were only incidental to the depiction of the player and did not imply any sponsorship by MLB for the card.

An appeal followed by MLB and Pacific implored the court for permission to ship their cards immediately or the results would be financially ruinous. Ultimately, MLB and Pacific were able to reach a settlement and Pacific continued to issue sets of baseball cards through 2001.   

Throughout the 1990s, card companies, like Pacific, continued to churn out nearly innumerable piles of cards. An exclusive license for Topps was on the horizon, but the fighting would continue in nearly every corner of the hobby. 

To be continued…

Sources/Notes:

Cases

  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 501 F.Supp. 485 (E.D. Pa. 1980). The only trading card product ever to outsell baseball cards was Wacky Packages in 1973-74. The court noted that the slab of gum weighed “4.30 grams” in 1978. Fleer had a net operating loss in 1978 and its net income (loss) was as follows: 1977—$346,621; 1976—$502,257; 1975—$720,274; 1974—($309,261); 1973—$382,354; 1972—$268,926; 1971—$148,494; 1970—($200,016). Roughly two thirds of baseball cards purchased are purchased by “heavy” buyers (i.e., those who purchase more than 200 cards per year.)  
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 658 F.2d 139, 658 F.2d 139 (3rd Cir. 1981). The number of players included in each licensing agreement varied. Some contracts, like those with Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s covered all the players, while others included “not less than 72, and not more than 300.”
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1019 (1982).
  • Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 547 F.Supp. 102 (D. Del. 1982).
  • Tetley, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 556 F.Supp. 785 (E.D.N.Y. 1983). Tetley Tea manufacturer sued Topps for including “Petley Flea Bags” in its Wacky Packages release. Approximately 200,000 of the sticker was issued between 1975 and 1977 and Topps had produced approximately 400,000 more of the sticker for its 1982 release. Topps agreed to discontinue distribution of the offending sticker once the printed run was fully depleted.
  • Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Major League Baseball Players Association, 641 F.Supp. 1179 (S.D. N.Y. 1986)  Topps paid royalties to the MLBPA computed at 8% of Topps’ first $4 million in net sales and 10% of Topps’ net sales in excess of $4 million.
  • Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 799 F.2d 851 (2nd Cir. 1986). The MLBPA was granted intervention as a defendant in Topps case against Fleer; Topps had not sued the MLBPA directly in this action. The matter was remanded to the district court to be dismissed without prejudice, which would have allowed the MLBPA to have filed a new lawsuit against Topps, if they desired. No such suit was filed. 
  • Original Appalachian Artworks, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 642 F.Supp. 1031 (N.D. Ga. 1986).  The makers of Cabbage Patch Kids sued Topps for copyright and trademark infringement caused by the sale of its Garbage Pail Kids stickers. Between May 1985 and August 1986, Topps had sold more than 800 million stickers. Before issuing the Garbage Pail Kids product, Topps had unsuccessfully tried to obtain a license for Cabbage Patch Kids. Topps eventually agreed to a confidential cash settlement and design changes to the cards. “Cabbage Patch Dolls are Victorious Over Garbage Pail Kids.” The Columbus (Georgia) Ledger, February 4, 1987: 8.  
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 539 A.2d 1060 (Del., 1988). “Restitution serves to ‘deprive the defendant of benefits that in equity and good conscience he ought not to keep, even though he may have received those benefits honestly in the first instance, and even though the plaintiff may have suffered no demonstrable losses.’”
  • Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 838 F. Supp. 1501 (N.D. Okla. 1993). The six companies with MLBPA licenses to sell baseball cards at the time were producing an estimated $1.3 billion in annual sales. Caricature was defined as “the deliberate distorted picturing or imitating of a person, literary style, etc. by exaggerating features or mannerisms for satirical effect.” 
  • Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569 (1994). The District Court had granted summary judgment for 2 Live Crew, holding that its song “Pretty Woman” was a parody that made fair use of the original Roy Orbison song “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The appellate court reversed because they felt 2 Live Crew had “taken too much” of the original for their own use and that the song constituted a commercial use. The Supreme Court subsequently reversed and remanded holding that 2 Live Crew’s commercial parody might qualify as fair use.
  • Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 868 F. Supp. 1266 (N.D. Okla. 1994).
  • Cardtoons, L.C. v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 95 F.3d 959, 39 USPQ2d 1865 (10th Cir. 1996). “Because Cardtoons’ First Amendment right to free expression outweighs MLBPA’s proprietary right of publicity, we affirm.” The court noted that royalties from baseball cards generated over 70 percent of the MLBPA’s licensing revenue.
  • Mantle v. Upper Deck Co., 956 F.Supp. 719 (N.D. Texas, 1997). Mantle sued The Upper Deck Company and Upper Deck Authenticated, Ltd.  These related companies are referred to collectively as “Upper Deck” for the reader’s benefit. Judgment confirmed for Estate of Mickey Mantle against defendants in the principal amount of $2,725,258.00, exemplary damages in the amount of $1,000,000.00, attorney’s fees in amount of $1,241,628.00, prejudgment interest at 10% per year from the date of the award until the date of judgment, and post-judgment interest at 5.81% per year.
  • Upper Deck Authenticated, Ltd. v. CPG Direct, 971 F.Supp. 1337 (S.D. Cal. 1997). Defendants included Shop at Home, Inc., CPG Direct, B&J Collectibles, William Rodman, Kenneth Goldin, Classic Games, Inc., Catch a Star Collectibles, Inc., The Score Board, Inc., Score Board Retail Corporation, The Score Board Holding Corporation.
  • The Score Board, Inc. v. Upper Deck Co., 959 F.Supp. 234 (D. N.J. 1997).
  • Allison v. Vintage Sports Plaques, 136 F.3d 1443 (11th Cir. 1998). Hershiser had otherwise earned $230,000 from licensing and endorsement deals from 1993 through 1996. Stockcar driver Cliff Allison’s widow Elisa was also a plaintiff in the case.
  • Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Pacific Trading Cards, Inc., 1998 WL 241904 (S.D. N.Y. 1998).
  • Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Pacific Trading Cards, Inc., No. 98-7700 (2nd Cir. 1998).
  • Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 182 F.3d 1132 (10th Cir. 1999); Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 208 F.3d 885 (10th Cir. 2000); Cardtoons v. Major League Baseball Players Ass’n, 335 F.3d 1161 (10th Cir. 2003). Cardtoons tried, and failed, to collect monetary damages from the MLBPA.

Articles

  • Paul Lomartire, “Baseball Cards and the Snaps of Spring,” The Tampa Tribune, April 4, 1982: 133.
  • John Leptich, “Boy sued over baseball card,” Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1990: 1.
  • “Nolan Ryan rookie card snafu headed to court,” The Tribune (Scranton, Pennsylvania), March 6, 1991: 12.
  • John Leptich, “Baseball card returns, trial goes on,” Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1991: 49.
  • John Leptich, “Charity delivers winning pitch in baseball card suit,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1991: 47.
  • John Leptich, “Ryan card brings $5000 and another flap,” Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1991: 41.
  • “Upper Deck Sues Rival Card Firm; Claims Trademark Infringement,” North County Times (Oceanside, California), August 2, 1992: 31.
  • Anne Michaud, “Small Baseball Card Firm Takes Hit from Big Leagues,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1992: 265.
  • “For the Record,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1992: 195. Dad’s Kid filed a counterclaim for $955 million.
  • Jim Bullard, “More than kids’ stuff,” Tampa Bay Times, January 1, 1993: 96.
  • Owen Canfield, “ML Players Association not amused by ‘Cardtoons,’” Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey), July 9, 1993: 24.
  • “Bench’s ink pitch draws ire,” Herald and Review (Decatur, Illinois), October 8, 1993: 30.
  • “Mantle files lawsuit against Upper Deck on contract balk,” Logansport (Indiana) Pharos-Tribune, November 4, 1994: 12.
  • Jay D. Preble, “Leagues fighting unlicensed cards,” Tampa Tribune, November 12, 1994: 24.
  • Gene Collier, “How do you spell egomaniacal?,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette February 12, 1995: 25.
  • John Mabry, “Satire cards aren’t a hit with big-league players, Kansas City Star, April 16, 1995: 44.
  • “Doctor Says Mantle’s Prognosis ‘Quite Good’,” Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, June 23, 1995: 10.
  • Norm Cohen, “Classy Ripken Has No Quota,” Newsday (Nassau Edition) (Hempstead, New York), August 6, 1995: 144.
  • “Jordan, others not satisfied with agreement,” Index-Journal (Greenwood, South Carolina), August 17, 1995: 17.
  • “Baseball,” Salina (Kansas) Journal, June 2, 1996: 34.
  • “Appeal Fails Over Use of C. Allison Trading Card,” Birmingham Post-Herald, March 28, 1998: 14.
  • Dave Jamieson, “The Great Baseball Card Bubble,” Slate, March 24, 2010.

Websites

https://bizfileonline.sos.ca.gov/search/business, Record number 1826013, accessed October 18, 2022.

tcdb.com

Interviews

  • Christopher Kamar, telephone interview with author, October 21, 2022.
  • Michael Sowell, telephone interview with author, November 5, 2022.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Jason Schwartz for reviewing this article and offering helpful suggestions.

Appendix 1

Tri Cards Checklist (Cards are not identified with a Tri Cards set number or date of issue by Dad’s Kid Corp. Cards are individually numbered to 50,000. Production was halted before 50,000 of any card was manufactured and no records remain regarding the actual number produced of each Tri Card. Additionally, no checklist of Tri Cards manufactured exists, so the following list may be incomplete.)

PlayerCard Used
Alomar, Roberto1991 Donruss
Alomar, Sandy1992 Donruss
Boggs, Wade1991 Upper Deck
Bonds, Barry1991 Donruss
Bonilla, Bobby1991 Donruss
Browning, Tom1991 Upper Deck
Canseco, Jose1991 Score
Canseco, Jose1991 Upper Deck
Canseco, Jose1991 Score
Chamberlain, Wes1992 Donruss
Chamberlain, Wes1991 Fleer
Clark, Will1991 Upper Deck
Davis, Eric1991 Fleer
Davis, Eric1991 Upper Deck
Dawson, Andre1991 Upper Deck
Fielder, Cecil1991 Upper Deck
Fielder, Cecil1991 Donruss
Gonzalez, Juan1992 Donruss
Gooden, Dwight1991 Score
Gooden, Dwight1991 Upper Deck
Ken Griffey Jr.1991 Upper Deck
Ken Griffey Jr.1991 Donruss
Henderson, Rickey1991 Upper Deck
Henderson, Rickey1990 Score
Henderson, Rickey1991 Donruss
Jefferies, Gregg1991 Upper Deck
Johnson, Howard1992 Donruss
Joyner, Wally1991 Fleer
Justice, Dave1991 Donruss
Maas, Kevin1991 Donruss
Martinez, Ramon1992 Donruss
Mattingly, Don1991 Upper Deck
McGriff, Fred1991 Donruss
Mitchell, Kevin1991 Upper Deck
Morris, Jack1990 Upper Deck
Ripken, Cal1991 Upper Deck
Ryan, Nolan1991 Upper Deck
Ryan, Nolan1991 Donruss
Sandberg, Ryne1991 Donruss
Smith, Ozzie1991 Donruss
Strawberry, Darryl1991 Score
Thomas, Frank1991 Donruss
Vaughn, Greg1991 Fleer
Yount, Robin1991 Fleer
Appendix 1 – Tri Cards Checklist

Baseball Cards in Art

When William Klein died I tweeted out a quick RIP from the official account where I stated that he was one of the blog’s favorite photographers. If you were browsing Twitter on your phone it would’ve been easy to miss the details in the photo and realize why I tweeted it. For me as both an art museum goer and a card collector though, Klein represents one of the few genuine overlaps in my interests. Yes it’s great to be able to visit the Burdick Collection at The Met but it’s even more fun to see cards pop up in other parts of the museum.

I’ve started a small themed collection of cards that I’ve noticed in other artworks and I’ve found enough now to put a post together on here.

Baseball Cards, William Klein, 1955

I’ll start with Klein both because he’s what prompted this post and because this is the oldest piece. And yes, the title of this photo is indeed “Baseball Cards.” I’m not going to write a ton about him as a photographer on here but his book of street photos in New York is justly famous in part because of how it taps in to imagery that where you not only feel like part of the scene but suggests that the scene may be familiar to you.

Sometimes, like with “Gun 1,” the familiarity is disturbing. Other times, such as with “Baseball Cards” the scene is one that should resonate in a pleasant way with every reader of this blog. Kids showing off their stacks of cards. Kids showing off a favorite player. It’s why we started collecting and in many ways the feeling we’re trying to hold on to while we keep collecting.

If you only saw the tweet on your phone you might not have noticed that the kids were holding stacks of 1955 Bowman. Blowing up the image you can see that the central card is one of the few light wood borders and is pretty obviously Gil McDougald. I had to comb through the set to identify the other card. I’m pretty sure it’s Randy Jackson—the dark background plus the long sleeves plus the placement of name box is pretty distinct—but there are a decent number of righthanded batters which I had to choose from.

Anti-Product Baseball Cards,
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1979

I’ve written about these before on here so there’s no need for me to write much more. That said, at the time of first writing I hadn’t identified everyone in the cards and it took a committee effort in the comments of that post (as well as on Twitter) to both identify the actual 1979 Topps cards that were the basis for these.

I don’t think anyone’s identified the Rookies card but the other five are Steve Henderson (JOE), Bob Randall (JERK), Steve Kemp (HOT DOG), Ed Glynn (BUS PASS), and John Matlack (WALLY). The Mets Team Card meanwhile shows up on what we’re using as the checklist for these.

Pete Rose, Andy Warhol, 1985

In true Warhol fashion, multiple prints of this exist. While the one in Cincinnati is probably the definitive version I’ve only seen the one in the Smithsonian. Also, Paul Ember has written pretty extensively about these (and even gave a SABR presentation) so there’s not much for me to add here.

Most of us here probably recognized immediately that Warhol used a new photo and didn’t just copy either of Rose’s 1985 Topps cards. But the cards are clearly part of the piece. One of the things I like about Warhol’s Rose prints is how they combine the Campbell’s Soup elevation of industrial design into Art™ with his larger-than-life pop culture celebrity portraits and it says a lot about baseball cards and Topps that they were worthy of this treatment.

And yeah. A small short checklist so far which I hope to be able to add to in the future. But also a very fun one that speaks to baseball cards’ larger importance as part of our culture.

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1981 Fleer cards and stickers

Virtually all collectors around my age have vivid (or at least blurry) recollections of 1981 as a watershed year in Hobby history. This was of course the year that Fleer and Donruss crashed the Topps monopoly with full-size baseball card sets featuring active players.

Of the multiple offerings, the Fleer cards were hottest initially, largely due to a ridiculously high number of errors in early print runs. While the cards have cooled off considerably in the time since, I will say Fleer’s Tom Seaver photo is among my favorite and a George Foster card captioned “Slugger” is always welcome in my collection.

Building off their prior success with team stickers, Fleer complemented its baseball card set with a 128-card “Star Stickers” set, which I recall as coming out at least a month or two after the cards.

Even at age 11 I was smart enough to know the dumbest thing in the world would be to peel and stick the stickers as directed. That was for suckers. I had reached the age (thankfully only temporarily) where “protecting my investment” took priority over enjoying my collection.

Kids lucky enough to assemble collections of both the cards and the stickers, whether stuck onto notebooks or preserved for posterity in shoeboxes, likely noticed that some of the photographs used on the stickers matched those of the cards, subject only to minor differences in cropping, brightness, or background clean-up. Cobra presented one such example.

Other times, the Star Sticker offered a genuinely new shot of the player, as was the case with this Don Baylor pair.

Somewhere between these two possibilities were 30 or so stickers that might have been confused for their cardboard counterparts until placed side by side.

In this Cardboard Crosswalk, I’ll do my best to showcase all “near pairs” across the two sets. As you’ll see, some close calls will prevent me from declaring my work definitive.

HEAD TURNERS

The first grouping of near-pairs are these 19 players, whose images are nearly identical other than the direction the player is facing (and less interesting differences such as zooming or cropping). Generally, one image will show the player looking directly at the camera while the other will show a three-quarters angle.

POSERS

This next group of six players trades one pose in for another and includes some of my favorite pairings across the two sets, particularly Dave Kingman and his subtle shift from batter to fielder.

SMILE!

We already saw Bobby Grich go from stoic to smiling. The reverse occurs with Rick Burleson.

HIGHLIGHTS

This next collection could come straight out of the “Highlights for Children” magazine where the child awaiting dentistry staves off total boredom by attempting to spot all differences between two nearly identical images. In each case, I believe I have found at least one feature that distinguishes source photos across the pair, but you may want to check my work.

LEFTOVERS

Here are three other near pairs that I didn’t think fit neatly into any of the earlier categories.

NOT SURE

And finally, here is Richie Zisk. When pulled from the pack, I doubt any collector looked at the sticker and thought, “Hey, this looks familiar.” However, putting the card and sticker side by side suggests photographs taken in close succession.

The 28 pairs shown thus far reflect about 20 percent of the sticker set, which includes 125 numbered cards and three unnumbered checklists. What about the remainder of the set?

Similar to the Don Baylor shown early in the article, about 70 of the stickers offer a completely different look at the player, while about 30 draw from the same source image as the standard baseball card. Part of the reason I say “about” is that I can’t always tell.

Take Rod Carew for example. His card and sticker appear to use the same source photo (though clearly the background has been altered). However, his head may be tilted more on the card than the sticker, meaning we may be looking at neighboring images on the roll. Carew is not unique in this regard as there are numerous card-sticker pairs where I just can’t be certain.

A puzzle of the sticker set, at least to me, is why Fleer introduced new photos for some but not all players. At least to my eye, the sticker photo is neither consistently better nor worse than the card photo, so it doesn’t appear to reflect any desire to improve upon the photo quality of what had been a hastily produced set.

One thought is that whoever was working on the sticker set paid little attention to the card set and simply chose the sticker photo independently from among the options available. That the same photo was chosen about half the time suggests a fairly small pool of photos (or at least photos that someone might choose), which to me works against the overall theory.

Lacking any compelling theory on the above, I’ll simply close out the crosswalk with a few random tidbits about the sticker set.

  • While the card set is famous for its many errors and variations, the sticker set has no known variations and only one recognized uncorrected error (UER): the misspelling of Davey (or Dave) Lopes as Davy. (The same UER occurs in the card set.)
  • While a wonderful innovation of the Fleer card sets, not just in 1981 but in subsequent years, was to sequence the cards by team, the numbering of the stickers appears completely random.
  • Sadly for Jays fans, the sticker set includes no Toronto players despite all 25 other teams being represented.

Donut hole

I started collecting cards in 1987. Since  my primary purchases were Topps rack packs at Toys R Us I accumulated a lot* of both 1987 and 1986 Topps that year. I also acquired a bunch of repacks—also from Toys R Us—which featured “old” cards back to 1979**

*A lot for a 2nd grader which means a couple hundred or so of each.

**While I found exactly one each of 1976, 1977, and 1978 in those packs, a single 1979 per repack was usually the oldest card.

I say “old” because for me, anything from 1979 to 1984 was old back then. Not only did they predate my being in school* but the relative rarity of the cards in how they didn’t show up en masse in the repacks and how different they looked with their multiple photos, facsimile autographs, or cartoonish caps made them feel distinct.

*Apologies if this post makes anyone feel super old.

1985 though was different. Especially the Topps cards. They showed up more frequently in the repacks and felt similar enough to 1986 to end up being something I never really paid attention to. Not old or different enough to be interesting. Not new enough to be relevant. I accumulated a couple Giants but outside of those I didn’t pay any attention to that set until after I found my first card shop and discovered that there was a super-desirable (especially in the Bay Area) Mark McGwire card inside.

Even with the McGwire knowledge—which I remember feeling at the time as sort of a betrayal of the concept of a rookie card—I never got to know more about the set. I had other newer cards to acquire and shiny things like Score and Upper Deck to covet. All of which left me in an interesting place where to-date, 1985 Topps remained a complete donut hole in my card knowledge.

I neither educated myself about it like I did with older sets nor is it one I had any actual experience with. I did however get a big batch of it last summer and as a result have had a chance to really take a good look at it for the first time in my life.

Looking through that pile was a bit uncanny since, while I’ve mentally treated it as a border between classic cards and junk wax, in many ways it actually functions as this border. Yes I know people draw lines at 1981 and 1974* but the more I looked at the 1985 cards the more I could see the beginnings of what I expected to see in the cards of my youth in a set which wasn’t quite there yet.

*When I periodized this blog I chose to avoid naming eras and just drew lines in places that felt like logical breaks and listed them as date ranges.

1985 is one of those basic Topps designs that so many people wish Topps would return to. White borders. Simple solid colors. A good-sized team set for each team. It dropped the multiplayer cards that marked so many of the previous releases but it still feels like a classic Topps set that serves as both a yearbook of the previous season as well as a marker of the current season.

The photography is mostly the same as previous sets. Action is increasingly creeping in but there’s nothing really fantastic yet. Catchers are clearly leading the way here but there’s nothing like the amazing action shots which we’d see in the coming years. It does however feel that a lot of the action is cropped a bit tighter than in previous seasons. Feet and legs are frequently out of the frame and there’s an overall emphasis on getting closer to the scene.

There are also a few wonderfully casual images which would fit in perfectly with the variety of 1990s photography. We’ve had candid shots ever since 1970 but they really became a staple of 1990s sets.

At a more technical level there’s an increased reliance on fill flash in the posed photos. Skies are underexposed and there’s more contrast between the player and the background. I’ve seen this described as something distinct to 1985 and 1986’s look but the technique itself is something that is used with increasing sophistication as we get into the 1990s as well.*

*This probably helped by cameras becoming much much smarter in the late 1980s. For example the Nikon F4 was released in 1988 and was a game changer in both autofocus and flash photography.

The last part that presages where the hobby would go comes from the multiple subsets. We’re not talking about things like the Record Breakers and All Stars which have been around a long time. Instead we’re looking at the USA Olympics cards and the #1 Draft Pick cards.

These wouldn’t just return in refined forms in later years but would come to dominate the entire hobby. The concept of printing “rookie” cards of guys way before they debuted in Major League Baseball became the tail that wags the dog as Topps, and everyone else, tried to catch the same lightning in a bottle that they caught with the Mark McGwire.

Team USA cards in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993. #1 Draft pick cards for all teams starting in 1989. Bowman turning into the pre-rookie card set. The flood of non-40-man-roster players in card sets throughout the 1990s and into he 2000s such that MLBPA had to be explicit about what was allowed in its 2006 license. 1985 Topps is patient zero for all of this.

Junk Wax Rainbows

I’ve had a running joke on Twitter about how “when I was your age rainbows looked like this” where “this” refers to the multiple different colors of the late 80s and early 90s Donruss releases. From 1985 to 1992 Donruss released smaller—often 56-card—box sets around certain themes like Highlights, Rookies, Opening Day, All Stars, or the more-generic “Baseball’s Best.”

These sets are fun both because they’re often super-focused thematically and because they always presented a color variation on the base Donruss design. Highlights were orange in 1985 and 1986. Rookies were green from 1987–1992 except in 1991. The other themes had no consistent colors.

Occasionally players would appear in all the different sets in a year. The result of this is that you can collect something that appears similar to the modern parallel rainbow collecting where you can see what the base design looks like with different border colors. The only one of these I have in my collection is Pete Stanicek’s 1988 rainbow* but it occurred to me that it would be fun to go through and see how many guys had a proper rainbow each year.

*Yeah he’s one of my PC guys.

For the purposes of this post I’m only looking a years where there are at least three different sets available. This rules out 1985, 1991, and 1992 since 1985 only has a set of Highlights while 1991 and 1992 only have a Rookies set. I’m also not counting small sets like the Grand Slammers or any of the inserted bonus cards. Nor am I looking at sets which use a different design whether it’s the oversized Action All Stars or the close-but-not-quite 1988 All Stars.

1986

There aren’t a lot of rookies in the Highlights set but since two of the Highlights cards each year are the Rookie of the Year winners, those are the two most-likely ones to have rainbows. In 1986 both of these winners also had cards in the base Donruss set (and Worrell even had two Highlights to choose from).

I actually really like the Highlights set concept with all the monthly and yearly awards, other records broken or unique achievements reached, and Hall of Fame inductees. Is a very nice quick summary of that season of baseball and I really wish it had lasted more than just from 1985–1987.

1987

Just a single rainbow available. With four sets in 1987 I wasn’t sure there’d even be one. As it is, Kevin Seitzer is in all three box sets but for some reason doesn’t have a base Donruss card and Mark McGwire apparently wasn’t an Opening Day Starter.

It’s worth noting here that while in 1985 Donruss kept the black borders and changed the red stripe to be orange for highlights, in 1987 Donruss is doing the full border color swap.

Opening Day is one of my favorite sets of all time. The idea of having a set of just the Opening Day starting lineups is absolutely wonderful. It bookends highlights as a “state of the league in the beginning of the season” marker and is the kind of hyper-specific checklist which I’d love to see more of.

1988

In 1988 Donruss stopped making a Highlights set and switched to a larger, 336-card set called “Baseball’s Best.” This was more of a star-based set and the larger checklist combined with the looser specification meant that instead of looking for the on or two rainbows we have fifteen of them. This is more than 25% of the Rookies checklist. Heck, almost half of these guys didn’t even qualify as Rated Rookies.

1989

Like 1987, 1989 features three extra sets in the same design as the base cards. With the rainbow already existing as part of the base design it would’ve been unlikely to be able to build a real rainbow of parallels. The All Star design however did use a completely different color scheme compared to the base cards (not so much Baseball’s Best or The Rookies). Unfortunately there are no Rookies in he All Star set and so there’s no possibility for a proper rainbow.*

*It is however worth noting that every card in the Grand Slammers set this year comes in all five color options available in the base set.

1990

This is the last year where a rainbow is possible and is very much the same as 1988. Twelve of the Rookies are also in one of the two Best sets* though at least most of them are Rated this year.

*For the purposes of this post I’m combining “Best of the AL” and “Best of the NL” into one set since hey share the same color and by being league-specific have no overlap.

One of the fun things about looking at the Donruss rainbows is how they reveal different directions the base design could have gone. A lot of base Donruss designs are very much things you either love or hate and the color choice is a huge part of that reaction. I’m not going to pass judgement on any of the options other than to say that as a Giants fan I prefer the orange versions of 1986 and 1988.

Error cards

Sometime last year I picked up the last card I needed for my 1980 Topps set, placed it into its nine-pocket, and then took my well earned victory flip through the binder of majestic completed pages…only to find a page with a missing card. Dewey defeats Truman. Defeat from the jaws of victory. Bird steals the inbound pass.

Completing a set without actually completing a set is just one of the many cardboard errors I’ve made lately. Here are three more.

My largest player collection (by about 600) is the 700+ playing era cards I have of Dwight Gooden. For whatever reason, I decided a couple years back that the card at the very top of my Dr. K want list was Doc’s 1986 Meadow Gold milk carton “sketch” card.

I’d seen the card on eBay in the $10 range for a while, but you don’t amass 700+ cards of a guy by paying $10 each. At last one turned up for more like $3 and I couldn’t hit “Buy It Now” fast enough. When the card arrived I was genuinely excited to add it to my binder, only to find…

…I already had the card!

Just two weeks later, I “doubled” down by adding a card I thought I needed for my 1972 Fleer Laughlin Famous Feats set.

And again…

On the bright side, it’s not like these cards cost me real money. I’d never make the same mistake adding this Kaiser Wilhelm to my T206 Brooklyn team set, right?

Oops. Think again.

Of course what Hobbyist hasn’t accidentally added the occasional double or two…or three? Probably most, but how many could pull off the feat three times in one month?

In the corporate world, bosses would be calling for a root cause analysis and demanding corrective action. Am I simply getting old? Do I have too many different collections going? Have I gotten lazy at updating my want lists? In truth, probably yes to all three.

As a kid, and I think this was true of most die-hard collectors, I could open a pack and instantly know which cards I needed and which were doubles. I could do the same at card shows, looking through a dealer binder or display case. When it came to cards I had total recall. Evidently such cardboard lucidity is long gone, and it’s probably not a stretch to assume the same degradations have spread to various areas of adulting.

On the other hand, it’s also true that my purchases had much more riding on them back then. For one thing, every nickel, dime, and quarter were precious. Spending $0.50 on a 1963 Topps Ernie Banks (ah, the good old days!) when your entire card show budget (i.e., life savings) was $3.80 “borrowed” from various sources around the house was high finance. Add to that baseball cards being the only thing I thought or cared about, and it makes sense that I always batted a thousand.

An eternal optimist, it’s just not my nature to brand my “triple double” as what some collectors might bill a #HobbyFail. Rather, I’ll take solace in the adage errare humanum est and remember that it’s not the mistakes we make but how we respond to them that defines our true character. As a kid I would have sulked for weeks having committed even one of these blunders. Today I can laugh (and write) about them. Call these senior moments if you will, but isn’t”growing up” just a bit more pleasing to the ear?

Now does anyone wanna trade me a T205 Wilhelm for a T206?

UPDATE: The Wilhelm is no longer available for trade! About an hour after publishing this post the seller contacted me to let me know he’d accidentally sold it to someone else already. I guess I’m not the only one losing track of his cards these days! 😊