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.

Overanalyzing Goudey, part eight

Author’s note: This is the eighth in a series of pieces that will offer a mix of facts, unknowns, and speculation on one of the Hobby’s most iconic brands. This installment focuses on some of the more mysterious relics associated with the 1933 set.

1933 Goudey #106, Napoleon Lajoie, issued in late 1934

While the famous Napoleon Lajoie card 106 is traditionally regarded as the set’s rarest card, there are a handful of cards even more rare. One such rarity even bears the same number, 106.

Wait, WHAT?! Isn’t Durocher supposed to be card 147?

The “Keith Olbermann” Durocher, believed to be a 1/1 in the Hobby, is what’s known as a proof card from the set. Provided the card’s name is suggestive of its origin, we should imagine this card was part of a pre-production test run of the printing sheet Durocher was ultimately a part of, specifically Sheet 6. (Any speculation that the card might have been produced much earlier, for instance as part of a test run of the entire set, can be quashed by noting Durocher here is already with St. Louis, reflecting a trade that did not happen until May 7.)

An alternative explanation for Durocher 106 has been put forth, claiming it was not a pre-production proof or pre-anything but instead created by hobbyists post-1933 as a means of helping die-hard collectors complete their sets. Ignoring what would seem to be the prohibitive costs of producing a single card to this level of quality, there are at least two reasons to doubt such a hypothesis.

  • Duplicating a card already in the set, numbering aside, seems like the least satisfying way in the world to complete the set. I get it that maybe these guys weren’t artists, but even a newspaper picture of Hank Greenberg would seem an upgrade over the second Durocher.
  • Even more compelling, however, is the existence of other proof cards from the set, none of which would render any comparable service to collectors since their numbers are not 106.

Here is the most complete list of 1933 Goudey proofs I’m able to assemble.

Proof card of Jack Russell
  • Leo Durocher #106 (released as 147)
  • Eddie Farrell #107 (released as 148)
  • Goose Goslin #110 (released as 168)
  • Jack Russell #121 (shown above, released as 167)
  • Luke Sewell #123 (released as 163)
  • Al Spohrer #124 (released as 161)
  • Al Thomas #127 (released as 169)
  • Rube Walberg #128 (released as 145)

The numbering of the proof cards is interesting in that it’s hardly a random collection of numbers from 1-240. Rather, we see that all eight proof cards are clustered between the numbers 106 and 128. The numbers take on even greater significance if we consider the state of the Goudey checklist just prior to the release of the set’s sixth sheet.

Remarkably, each of the proof cards fills an existing gap in the set’s skip numbering. Were we to imagine there were once 24 such proof cards (i.e., an entire sheet), we might suppose their numbering would have been as follows. (I’ve used magenta here for the eight known proofs and a lighter pink for the remaining 16.)

Of course, Goudey’s actual Sheet 6 did not fill the gaps in the manner indicated. Instead, it left nearly all of them in place. (And we’ll return soon to the fact that only 23 new numbers are highlighted.)

Were the new numbers for all eight proof cards to be found along this blue band, the story of Sheet 6 would be a simple one: the cards were simply renumbered late in the production process to leave rather than fill gaps.

As for why this occurred, I suppose there are a couple of reasons we could ascribe. Perhaps someone simply forgot that the set employed skip numbering as a means of conning kids into buying more and more packs. Or perhaps Goudey really did intend to close out the set earlier (i.e., at 144 cards rather than 240) but shelved such plans at the eleventh hour.

Of course, as with much about this set, the answer would not be so simple. While five of the proof cards remained on Sheet 6 with new numbering, three of the proof cards (Russell, Goslin, Thomas) landed at 167-169 and would not be seen again until Sheet 7, which included cards 166-189.

Sheet 7 from 1933 Goudey set (numbering added)

Admitting some speculation here, the picture that emerges of the set’s sixth sheet is this:

  • Proof version: 24 cards that filled the set’s existing gaps, namely 97-99, 106-114, 121-129, and 142-144.
  • Final version: Renumbering of all cards, including the demotion (or promotion if you like) of at least three cards to the next release.

Now let’s take a quick look at Sheet 6 as it was actually produced.

Sheet 6 from 1933 Goudey set (numbering added)

There are at least two key features that distinguish this sheet from all five of its predecessors.

  • It has two of the exact same card, Babe Ruth’s iconic card 144. (This explains how the sheet only managed to check off 23 numbers earlier.)
  • It repeats (with new numbering and a new color in one case) the Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth cards from earlier releases.

These contrasts are particularly notable as Sheets 1-5 contained no repeats at all, either within or across sheets. Prior to Sheet 6, the Goudey set consisted of 120 distinct players, each appearing in the set exactly once. From this perspective, we might regard five of the cards on Sheet 6 to be anomalies:

  • Ruth 144 (first instance)
  • Ruth 144 (second instance)
  • Ruth 149
  • Foxx 154
  • Gehrig 160

Already knowing that at least three cards (Russell, Goslin, Thomas) were bumped from Sheet 6 between the proof and production stages, it’s intriguing to consider whether five cards may have been bumped, transforming the sheet from a fairly standard collection of 24 new players to the spectacular, mega-star studded, triple Ruth sheet we know it as today.

If so, this would constitute the biggest (and most lopsided) blockbuster trade ever made!

  • Sheet 6 gets Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Lou Gehrig
  • Sheet 7 gets Jack Russell, Goose Goslin, Al Thomas, and two players to be named later?
Extremely rare 1/0 Babe Ruth traded card

If this is indeed what happened, the next question to ask is why.

  • Why turn Sheet 6 from a standard sheet to a super sheet? If Goudey had figured out more stars meant more money, what a curious choice to then follow up with six minor leaguers on Sheet 7!
  • Why number two of the Ruth cards 144? Conventional wisdom in the Hobby is that Goudey needed the duplicate numbering in order to ensure a (near) permanent hole in the checklist, thereby causing kids to keep buying packs in futile pursuit of card 106. (I question this theory at the end of my first article.)

Returning to a theme prevalent throughout this series, the 1933 Goudey set holds and will continue to hold mysteries, no matter how much over-analysis we apply. Fortunately, at least in my view, this is precisely what makes the set so fascinating!

* * * * *

I’ll close this article with a few additional notes on the 1933 Goudey proof cards that may be of interest.

  • According to hobby lore, most or all of the proofs came from a single partial sheet obtained by hobby pioneer Woody Gelman directly from a source at Goudey.
  • While the most salient feature of the proof cards is their numbering, some also exhibit small differences in artwork or typesetting. For example, notice the placement of “AL THOMAS” on these two cards.
Proof card (L) and standard card (R)
  • The Goslin proof card is an interesting one in that its number 110 was ultimately used by Goudey (probably just coincidentally) for Goslin’s other card in the set, his World Series card from Sheet 10. I’ve drawn goose eggs in my search for an image of the Goslin proof, but the Standard Catalog notes his name breaks onto two lines rather than the single line shown on his standard card.

Author’s note: If you are aware of other 1933 Goudey proofs with numbers that differed from their final printing, please let me know.

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.

Cardboard Crosswalk: T205 Brooklyn Superbas and 1911 Spalding Guide

The Brooklyn Superbas of 1911 finished seventh in the National League standings and in attendance as well, which is to say they were not a pretty team to watch, but oh what a gorgeous team to collect!

Carpet o’ Superbas

While it’s the gold borders of these cards that give the T205 set its nickname and hallmark feature, I am just as much a fan of the rich, colorful backgrounds and simple design and an even bigger fan of the expressive (mostly) Paul Thompson portraits on which the player artwork is based. (See Andrew Aronstein’s site for some absolutely stunning side-by-side images.)

As many collectors of the T205 set are aware, many of the images used on the cards can also be found in the 1911 edition of Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide. For example, here is the two-page spread on the Brooklyn team.

The Zack Wheat image matches up nicely with his T205 card.

In all, half of the 24 Brooklyn portraits in the Guide use the same photo as an image in the T205 set. I created this mashup to show the correspondence.

As there are 14 different cards in the T205 Brooklyn team set, there are necessarily instances where cards do not match the Guide portrait.

One such example is “Bad Bill” Dahlen, who managed the team from 1910-13.

A more unusual example occurs with the Tony Smith card, which matches up to the Guide image of a different Smith: Henry Joseph “Happy” Smith.

Interestingly, the Guide image of Tony matches up with the T206 card of Happy.

The third and final T205 Brooklyn card that doesn’t match the Guide image belongs to Cy Barger. Sort of.

I say “sort of” because Barger had two different cards in the T205 set but only one Guide portrait. The second of the two Barger cards, known as “Full B on Cap,” is the one that matches the Guide.

That Barger had two cards in the set is curious but hardly unique. Seven other subjects had multiple cards in the set as well: Roger Bresnahan, Hal Chase, Eddie Collins, Russ Ford, Bob Harmon, Bobby Wallace, and Hooks Wiltse. That Barger had the least impressive resume of the lot, circa 1911, may or may not be significant, and we’ll return to it shortly.

Returning to the crosswalk, there are a dozen Guide images that failed to make it onto cards, including the Smith and Dahlen portraits already discussed.

Had the set lived up the “400 designs” promised on the backs of the cards, perhaps we’d have cards of all or most of these players.

While four of the “missing” players made it into the T207 “Brown Backgrounds” set the following year, some had to wait all the way until the 1990 Target Dodgers mega-set to get their first cards with the team.

Before closing out the crosswalk portion of this article, I’ll note that there are two other pages of the Guide that include photographs of Brooklyn players. Each of pages 34 and 36 features four-player composites using photographs taken by Charles Conlon.

Collectors may recognize the Bergen image on page 34 as matching one of his two T206 cards, but none of the images provide matches to T205.

Having exhausted the Spalding Guide/T205 crosswalk angle, I’ll now return to the two cards of Cy Barger for something of a postscript.

When I first saw these two cards, I firmly believed they showed two different players, the shapes of the face and ears initially striking me as most discrepant. With Barger also being an unusual player to double up on in the set, I wondered if the reason for the second card was that the first card depicted the wrong guy. In other words, did the two cards represent an error card and its correction?

Let’s assume for a minute that this error/correction theory is correct. Perhaps the first question to ask is which card, if either, shows the real Cy Barger. As the Spalding Guide matches “Full B,” let’s start there. Additionally, as my wallet can attest, “Full B” is the more common of the two, which is what we would expect where errors and corrections are concerned.

However, any further scrutiny seems to torpedo the error/correction theory. Take the population report for the set, for example. Were one card a correction of the other, we would expect the combined population of the two cards to correspond roughly to that of a typical card in the set. Conversely, if the set simply (intentionally or not) doubled up on Bargers, then we would expect their combined population to be roughly double of a typical card in the set.

What we do find (as of May 31, 2022) is that the PSA population report for “Partial B” is 125 and “Full B” is 249. Meanwhile the population for a typical card in the set appears to be in the 200-250 range. This seems to refute the error/correction theory, instead suggesting “Full B” as a standard print and “Partial B” as a short-print in the set.

Were an error and correction at play, we would also not expect to see continued or repeated usage of the erroneous image on other cards. However, there are two other sets where both Barger images appear.

The first is the S74 Silks set, in which “Full B” appears on white silks and “Partial B” appears on colored silks.

The precise dating of these silks within the 1909-11 window can vary by source, though most that differentiate between white and colored have the former preceding the latter. (See the S74 website for an argument that dates the white silks to mid-1911 and the colored silks to later in the year.) Provided the white silks indeed came first, then we would have the correct Barger image replaced by the incorrect one, which feels odd. Obviously, odder things have happened in the baseball card universe, but I’d still say the Silks provide yet another blow to the error/correction theory.

We also see both Barger images in the 1912 Hassan Triple Folder (T202) set. Certainly one possibility is that T205 artwork, known errors and all, was simply recycled into T202 without scrutiny. More plausibly, however, there was no known error to begin with.

The two Barger images appear in several other issues, though not together. For example, here is the “Full B” image used in a few oddball issues of the period: 1909-12 Sweet Caporal Domino Discs, 1910-12 Sweet Caporal Pins, and 1911 Helmar Stamps.

Meanwhile here is the “Partial B” image used in the 1914 Helmar Art Stamp issue, which a discerning eye will note places him with the Pittsburgh Rebels of the Federal League. Careless recycling? Perhaps. Or, as before, we can take this as another nail in the coffin of the error/correction theory.

Even with the error/correction theory looking like a big, fat nothingbarger, a question still alive is whether one of the two Barger images is an uncorrected error, or UER as we way in the Hobby.

To no avail, I’ve tried to locate a source photograph for the “Partial B” image, even going so far as reviewing all 350+ portraits across the 16 teams in the Spalding Guide. I’ve also reviewed a couple years or so of images from old newspapers thanks to the free newspapers.com access our SABR memberships now include.

Finally, I’ve looked at the various Cy Barger cards that use neither the “Full B” nor “Partial B” image in hopes that they might provide hints.

In the end, I’m not sure any of the Barger cards, save the first two, look like the same guy, and that may well be the true conclusion of all this. There is always some “drift” in creating artwork from photographs, and this is only accentuated when the photos themselves differ. Each piece of art, or baseball card in our case, may resemble its source photograph reasonably well while at the same looking very different from other art of the same subject.

Personally, I still see two different guys on the T205 Barger cards. However, it’s no longer a hill I’d die on but one I can only Cy on. Feel free to share your own take in the Comments.

Revisiting the 1973 Set – The Ugliest Topps Baseball Set Ever

In my last blog post about the 1973 set I stated that I was 50 cards shy of a complete set. Over the past two years I have picked up all but one of the cards needed to complete my set.

With the recent release of the 2022 Topps Heritage cards that are patterned after the 1973 set, I felt it would be a good time to share some additional thoughts about the set.

The Good

With the election of Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat earlier this year the total number of Hall of Famers pictured on base cards and manger cards is an impressive 40. Hall of Fame coaches with chopped off ears are not included in my total.

The Terry Crowley card was one of the missing 50 that I purchased. I feel that the photo would have been a much better choice than the one Topps used on the 1973 card of Thurman Munson.

One of the major problems that I have with this set – the lack brightness and pop with regards to the photos of the players – is actually a benefit for Through The Mail (TTM) autograph collectors like myself – since just about every card is a good one to send to players to sign if you are a fan of nice, visible signatures.

The Bad

In this section I am going to just focus on some of the 50 cards that I acquired to complete my set.

For the Jim Fregosi card we have another photo of a player popping up. It is a bad photo – but not as bad as the memories it brings back of how bad the Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi trade really was.

Picked up a few more “could be anyone” cards due to the afternoon action shots created by high contrast situations that shaded the faces of the player or action shots with too little player information (no uniform numbers, no names on jerseys).

The Ugly

The Checklists are terrible. These ugly cards looked like they were designed in under 5 minutes. For comparison purposes I have included below what I feel is one of best checklist cards produced by Topps.

Two Great Cards

There are two great cards in this set. The Roberto Clemente card (which I mentioned in my first blog post about this set) and the Pat Corrales Card.

The current Topps management team thought so highly of the Clemente card that they included a reprint of the 1973 card in the base 2022 Heritage set.

There have been numerous blog posts and twitter mentions about the Pat Corrales card since the action shot features Hall of Fame pitcher – Ferguson Jenkins – sliding into home and upending Corrales. Jenkins was called out on the play, but if you watch the replay it looks like Corrales missed the tag.

1973 was not the last time that Corrales and Jenkins were on a Topps card together. Pat Corrales was the manager of the Texas Rangers from 1978 to 1980. Corrales and Jenkins appeared together again on the 1979 and 1980 Texas Rangers Team cards.

A Nice 1973 Tribute Card

One of the nicest cards from the Project 70 set was the Roberto Clemente card by Mimsbandz. The card utilizes the 1973 design and features four embroidered scenes from Roberto’s September 30, 1972, game where he collected hit number 3,000.

The Last Card

So, what is the last card I need to finish the set? It is not the Mike Schmidt rookie card. It is the 5th Series Checklist card – number 588. If you include shipping charges unmarked examples of this card are going for over $50 on eBay currently. Slabbed examples range in price from $90 to $339. I refuse to spend over $50 for a checklist – especially an ugly one.

While we are talking checklists, does anyone else think it is crazy that people are sending in checklists to get slabbed?

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.

Unoriginality as the norm

Meet the new set, same as the old set. Or something like that.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Or maybe not. You were thinking this was about the new Topps cards? 😊 Don’t worry, we cover that too, courtesy of my friends Nick and Jeff.

Me? I’m here to channel my outrage at a card producer no longer even around to defend itself. Yes, I’m talking to you, Gum, Inc., as if your very name itself wasn’t a dead giveaway that originality would never be your hallmark. Shall we review the evidence?

PART ONE: 1939-41

The first Gum, Inc., baseball sets were released from 1939-41 under the Play Ball name. Here is the Joe DiMaggio card from the 1939 set.

1939 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio

While some collectors might refer to the card design as “classic” or “uncluttered,” let’s call it what it is: BORING!!! Just a black and white image on a nearly square piece of cardboard. No name, no team, no logo, no anything. This Play Ball brand will be lucky to last three years, give or take!

Gum, Inc., tried a little harder the following year, so I’ll give credit where due.

1940 Play Ball “Charley” Gehringer

Though many collectors are lukewarm on the 1940 Play Ball set, I rather like the working of baseball equipment into the design around the nameplate, and I absolutely applaud the level of effort taken to toggle the images of nearly every repeated player from 1939. Ah, and who doesn’t love nearly every first name in quotes?

Of course, just when we thought the good folks at Gum, Inc., were poised to innovate, they go full-on MP & Company on us.

1941 Play Ball “Charley” Gehringer

Yes, it’s a gorgeous card, but really?? All you did was color in the pictures from the year before? LAZY!!

True, conventional wisdom has it that U.S. entry into World War II is what brought Gum, Inc., baseball offerings to a standstill, but all geopolitics aside could they really have lasted another year with such a tepid creative team? I mean, gosh, what was next in line? Returning the 1941 images to black and white? (TCMA imagined a different path for 1942 Play Ball but unoriginality remained a key feature.)

PART TWO: 1948-52

When Gum, Inc., resumed baseball card production in 1948, the world was a very different place, and change can of course be a scary thing for most. Fortunately, card collectors could take comfort in the fact that time had not simply stood still at Gum, Inc., but actually gone backward. For its 1948 Bowman card design, the Gum, Inc., team–either intentionally or unintentionally–brought back 1939 Play Ball.

1948 Bowman Stan Musial

About the only discernible change to the cards was the use of about a third less cardboard, best shown by turning the 1948 card sideways.

The 1949 cards shrunk even more while “innovating” on the 1939/1948 design in swapping a solid color background into each photograph and colorizing certain elements of the player image.

1949 Bowman Ralph Kiner

In later series, Gum, Inc., even went a little crazy and added names.

1949 Bowman Boris “Babe” Martin

Teaming up with the George Moll advertising agency, the 1950 Bowman cards truly did something new and beautiful. I particularly enjoy the detailed baseball stadium scenes on some of the cards, complete with fans or sometimes “fan” as the case may be.

1950 Bowman Duke Snider

With no way to top the 1950 offering, Bowman adopted a “crop, don’t top” approach in 1951 for more than half of the players included in both sets.

1951 Bowman Duke Snider

Just for fun, here is a trio of 1951 Bowman cards superimposed on the same trio from 1950.

The 1952 cards continued the use of full color artwork and included my personal pick for the most gorgeous card of the entire decade. Facsimile autographs replaced the more pedestrian nameplate of the year before. If you couldn’t get an autographed photo of your favorite player, his 1952 Bowman card would have proved a worthy stand-in.

1952 Bowman Roy Campanella

Unfortunately for Bowman, much like the Campanella card’s background, the writing was on the wall.

PART THREE: 1953-1955

While Topps had some baseball cards of their own in 1951 and even 1948, Topps really got serious in 1952 and ready to compete in earnest for baseball card supremacy. While the Bowman cards had their merits in 1952, the Topps cards were much larger, featured lifelike player images, and even included stats on the back.

How could Bowman possibly compete?

“Hey, guys. I have an idea. How about we make our 1953 cards were larger, feature lifelike player images, and even include stats on the back? Am I a genius or what?!”

The result was that in 1953 the Bowman cards looked even more like Topps than Topps did!

While Bowman played catchup in 1953, Topps took their cards in other directions, going with a rectangular nameplate in the corner and a trivia question on the back…

So naturally Bowman did the same in 1954.

Still, the Bowman design proved no match for the near perfect, three-bordered beast Topps put out that year.

Rather than try to imitate Topps or evolve an older offering of their own, Bowman produced their most original (though perhaps imitative) set of cards to date, and this baseball card revolution evidently would be televised.

Creativity at last, emphasis on last. Just as Bowman’s baseball card minds were beginning to think outside the box, the company was gobbled up by a manufacturer of…wait for it…boxes!

But wait, what’s this? Accounts of Bowman’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated? A shocking claim but then again the cardboard doesn’t lie.

1956 Topps, a collector favorite to be sure, but that landscape format…the reused player photos…another year of background action scenes…the facsimile signatures…undoubtedly the least original cards produced by Topps thus far, or to put it another way “the most Bowman!”

Gum, Inc., is dead. Long live Gum, Inc.

EPILOGUE

All kidding aside, Bowman really did make some comebacks in the Hobby after 1955. Topps brought the brand back to life in 1989 with a set that was at once reminiscent of the much acclaimed 1953 Bowman series and wholly despised.

Even today, Topps continues to pump out sets under the Bowman name with the 2021 Bowman’s Best offering even spawning the “Wandergate” controversy.

Certainly, hockey collectors of a certain age will recognize the strong influence of the 1955 Bowman baseball design on the 1966-67 Topps Hockey set.

Finally, readers may be aware of the 1956 Bowman baseball prototypes, which among other things clearly influenced the 1958 Hires Root Beer cards and perhaps even 1957 Topps football and 1960 Topps baseball.

As Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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.

In which I get insulted by Topps Heritage

With cards only just making their way into retail stores I haven’t been able to procure even a blaster and so I’ve been unable to keep up with my annual dive into the printing weeds. Given the simplicity of the 1973 design I wasn’t expecting to find enough for a post anyway. No obvious things to improve upon or change like 1969/2018’s photography or 1970/2019’s grey borders. No interesting reveals like 1971/2020’s black borders. And no impending trainwrecks like 1972/2021’s typesetting.

I was mainly hoping for clever homages of the best things that 1973 did such as the Jack Brohamer and Mark Belanger pair of cards. I’m hoping the Twitter hive mind will turn up something like that here.

The only cards I got were my Giants team set courtesy of  case break. At first I was extremely satisfied since at an individual card level things looked mostly nice. Some of the usual Heritage photo smoothing and fake trapping shenanigans* but that’s standard with the territory.

*I haven’t really posted about these since I don’t know how to describe them but in short whatever photo processing Topps is doing to make things look older has bothered me for years.

Then I looked closer and realized that of fifteen cards in the base team set, twelve not only use the same background they in fact use the exact same background. This isn’t wholly unexpected since many teams have been posting photo day shots on Twitter than show players posed in front of a green screen. But I also expected a bit more effort from Topps instead of just pasting each player in front of a single stock background image.

I’ve gone ahead and turned my twelve Giants cards into an animated gif that shows how the backgrounds are identical, right down to the exact same cloud formations. I get it. Lead times are short. Creating a complete set is a lot of work. But still this level of templating is the kind of green screen photos that every family attraction used to ambush us with immediately after we entered the front gates.

It offends me professionally as a designer and it disappoints me personally as someone who loves baseball cards. It also shows that Topps is dialing up the worst qualities of their glory days. As much as I like those cards it’s a sad truth that many of them have the same handful of poses in front of the same kind of stadium background.

The difference though is that even with the sameness of location those cards have life to them. There are random dudes in the background. Players are bundled up against the elements. The photographer moves around the stadium so we end up with multiple views of the same place. Heritage instead is completely sterile and once you see how sterile it is you find yourself wishing for the awkwardness of the 1973 George Scott no matter how bad the compositing is.

Topps in 1972, Part 7

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the seventh of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning.

I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.”

—Hunter S. Thompson

This post concerns those ’72 Topps cards that lack a certain…uh…standard of quality…

It’s fair to say that for all my raving about how awesome these cards are no doubt many folks hated them back then and continue hating them to this day. They’re garish and have a comic book quality about them. The colored portion is extravagant and intrudes on the player pictures, almost crowding them out…and why all that gaudiness just for the team name? I get it. But as the saying goes, “there is no accounting for taste” and in any case I wouldn’t be the one to write a review disparaging these beauties.

Still, to be fair let’s point out a few questionable efforts —not all 787 cards can be great, right? I wouldn’t even say these are bad cards, but they are bewildering and a bit off compared to the rest of the lot. Or maybe they just lend more depth and nuttiness to the whole unwieldy series…

Take Astros players Rich Chiles (#56) and Roger Metzger (#217). Please! They’re noticeably off-center, with tiny unfocused coaches in the background that distract…if you even notice them. It makes these guys look like unimportant players…afterthoughts. Chiles is ignoring his little suspended toy coach and Metzger is bent over, ostensibly fielding a grounder while a tiny man walks out from his hindquarters. Both cards are a swing and a miss…but still endearing somehow.

As a kid I disliked my multiples of this Corrales card (#706) and today it still doesn’t bring me any joy. Where is the “action” exactly? Is Pat C. tanning that beefy forearm? Looks more like “Still Life With Tools of Ignorance”.

Another lousy In Action catcher shot (#570) – it looks like Ed’s trying to shake a spider off of his face mask…or maybe he’s confused about how the dang thing even works?

Yet a third catcher in crisis – Bob Barton (#40), looking like he’s trapped in a cage and maybe contemplating a career change.

Here’s Ron Theobald (#77) in a bunting pose, appearing almost grandfatherly, even though he was only 29 years old at the time.

Similarly, Bill Rigney (#389) is only 54 years old here, but could easily pass for 80 – maybe it was all that sun they got playing ball?

There’s Fred Patek (#531) off-center and in fielding-a-grounder pose, all 5’ 5’’ of him crouched over, looking about 14 years old—not his fault, just questionable staging or editing maybe. I hate to say it, but Billy and I laughed out loud at Freddie P. for this card. Many times. But he was a legit player who made three All-Star teams and stole 385 bases, so he does get the last laugh. At one point in his career when asked how it felt to be the shortest player in the major leagues, Patek took the high road, opining that it was “better than being the tallest player in the minors.” And who am I trying to kid—this is still a pretty cool card!

Here we have bespectacled Fred Gladding (#507), looking like he’s just been jumped by paparazzi after posting bail for some petty crime. Or maybe it’s just the look of a guy who would end up with a career batting average of .016 (1 for 63).

What about Rich Reese (#611), with the barrel of his bat swung way out in front, huge and blurry, taking over the picture, like it’s about to smash the camera lens? This one actually has a neat perspective, one of the better examples of a theme that shows up in other ’72 cards and other years too. Fine.

There’s the unfortunate close-up of Jim Beauchamp (#594), highlighting too much of his fleshy face with half-mast eyes, making him look like a sleepy plumber who might be hungover.

And get a load of pitcher Dennis Higgins (#278), pictured at the top of his wind-up with a foggy gray background, looking like an apparition or a full on translucent wax statue.

Another one I never liked or understood – why is Bobby Bonds (#712) laughing so hard at a meaningless pop-up? We will never know.

I hate to keep picking on the In Action cards, but will anyway – here’s another questionable effort.

The only way we can sort this one out is by knowing that Ron Santo (#556) never played catcher. Looks like another toothless pop-up.

The final three cards are not “bad” at all but they are outliers, so a reasonable way to wrap this up. How about this beauty? It’s the one and only team card in the ’72 series with disembodied heads and for that I am thankful. Some folks love these things and they are better than conventional team cards in one big way – you can actually make out the faces. But honestly, the signatures are tiny scribbles and those heads just look silly.

The best thing we can say about this one is that it features Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (in the center, just below the logo). Mr. Cub’s last year as a player was 1971 (the year seen within that logo), but he made the ’72 set (#192) as first base coach with the Cubbies. There’s Joe Pepitone’s big mug too, (#303), to the right of the logo…Manager Leo Durocher (#576) on top and Don Kessinger (#145) to the left. Is that you too, Burt Hooton? (#61)

Meanwhile, Tigers manager Billy “The Bird” Martin (#33) purportedly got so mad at the photographer who came out to take pictures in spring training that for his shot he furtively flipped off the camera, middle finger extending down the shaft of a bat so it blended in and cleared censors. You go, Billy! Turns out this one’s much more brazen than the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken, and easily wins the prize for Naughtiest 1972 Topps Card.

Finally, there’s the one we’ll amiably call “The Billy Cowan Card” (#19). What is it with the Billys? Probably a fair amount has been written about The Billy Cowan Card, and rightly so—the card is ridiculous looking, even for the time. It features the Angel outfielder in a relaxed batting pose, photo taken from around home plate looking toward the outfield, with the halo of Anaheim Stadium perched perfectly over Cowan’s head so that he looks like an enormous bat-wielding angel with burly sideburns. One has to wonder if Cowan was in on the joke—surely he was— he at least reportedly autographed this card for many a fan after his playing days were over. A classic.


Part of an ode, fifty years on, to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones! Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants some indulgence.

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.

Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink  for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.

Much gratitude to Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.