As Mark noted in his post about Jim Bouton, his cards are collectable because of his position in the history of the game. For me and my generation of card collectors,* this influence extends beyond just Ball Four as Bouton is a big part of a few other products we remember fondly.
*Junk wax aficionados who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s.
While I liked them as a kid for being different, I found myself really appreciating them as objects once I revisited my collection as an adult. As a print and design geek these are super nifty.
Bouton’s patent is for a method of creating booklets through just folding and gluing. No staples or traditional binding, instead the sheets are printed, folded, glued and then you have a strip of booklets that just needs to be trimmed on the tops and bottoms. The covers are double-thick compared to the inside pages and the end result is just about perfect.
It feels like a baseball-card sized book without any of the worry about staples keeping the pages together. Nor do they feel any worse for wear after three decades in storage. Slides out of the pocket easily and even the glue is still holding.
Many of my magazines have rusty staples and pages that are pulling out even though I haven’t abused them. No such worries here. It handles like a card and flips through like a book and I don’t have to treat it with kid gloves.
Flipping through the booklets is a lot of fun. Not the best design but an interesting thought experiment about what you could include on a baseball card if you had seven times as much back space. So we’ve got a page of stats, a page of biography, a page of career highlights, an inspiration quote and facsimile signature, a cartoon caricature, a page of vital information, and four additional photos.
In some ways this is almost too much space and after putting literally everything that’s usually on the backs of cards things still feel nowhere nearly as information dense as they should be.
I had three sets of twelve booklets from 1990* and very much enjoyed them. Looking at the checklist now is a wonderful who’s who of the big names of the day—both stars and hot rookies—as well as a nice sample of nine all-time greats. The most-interesting thing about these 36 cards though is how few of the players were notable for multiple teams since this suggests something that would’ve been very fun for the insides.
All that space and all those photos offer a great way to show guys playing for different teams and at various stages in their careers. Unfortunately there’s precious little of this. There’s one photo of Nolan Ryan as a Met and Warren Spahn’s card depicts him in a Boston uniform as well as a Mets uniform. No Rickey Henderson as a Yankee. No Hank Aaron with Milwaukee. Bob Feller and Ted Williams are old in all their photos.
But that’s all minor stuff. The real issue for me is that I want to display these better moving forward. 9-pocket pages are obviously insufficient. Instead I’m going to switch to 4-pockets and pick which inside spread I want to show on the other side. These deserve better than to be encased all closed up with only 25% of their content visible.
Note: This is Part IV of a series focusing primarily on the material featured on the backs of baseball cards(previous articles featured the 1956 Topps, 1960 Topps, and 1954 Topps/Bowman sets).
By 1955, the battle for baseball-card supremacy between Bowman and Topps had been going on for several years. And though Topps was making some inroads, Bowman still had the edge when it came to established stars signed to exclusive contracts. Frankly, it wasn’t even close. Here’s a comparison of the number of players named to the American and National League teams for the 1954 All-Star Game who were featured in each company’s 1955 card set.
The All-Stars who appeared in both sets were Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges, Sherm Lollar and Willie Mays. (Somewhat mysteriously, three 1954 All-Stars had cards in neither 1955 set: Larry Doby, Don Mueller, and Stan Musial). Bowman also boasted four future Hall of Famers who didn’t make the 1954 All-Star teams: Richie Ashburn, Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, and Early Wynn; Topps only had a well-past-his-prime Hal Newhouser. (Non-1954 All-Star but future Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto had cards in both sets.)
Yet despite Bowman’s edge in overall star power, Topps had been beating Bowman pretty handily in the marketplace. Kids just seemed to prefer the innovative, attractive design of the Topps cards, a credit to the work of Topps’ master card designer, Sy Berger.
So in 1955, Bowman pulled out all the stops in their card design, on both the fronts and the backs. While my primary focus continues to be the material on the backs of the cards, the fronts of the 1955 Bowman and Topps sets deserve a look as well. That year, both Bowman and Topps used a horizontal (or landscape) design on their card fronts for the first time. The Topps cards featured both a head shot and a small “action pose” of each subject, set against a solid colored background. This was essentially the same design that Topps had used in 1954; the main difference was that the head shot and action pose had been in vertical (or portrait) mode in ’54. For players who had cards in both its 1954 and 1955 sets, Topps often used the same head shot in both sets (and continued to use the same head shot in 1956).
The 1955 Bowman cards, by contrast, were completely new and daring. Color television was brand-new in 1955—the first color TV sets had only become available to the mass market in 1954, and there were next to no actual color broadcasts available—but Bowman put the new medium into the hands of card collectors by featuring each subject on the screen of a wood-grained color TV. Pretty “hep,” as we cool cats used to say back in ’55.
But did the new design work? Before moving on to the backs of the 1955 Topps and Bowman cards, let’s compare the card fronts of a few players featured in both sets that year. Here’s Ernie Banks, a young star who would have his first big season in 1955.
I have to say that, then and now, I preferred Ernie’s dreamy-eyed look on his Bowman card to the blank expression featured on both his Topps head shot and action pose. (He looks like he’s saying, “Let’s play none today!”) Even so, there is one problem with the Bowman design that was apparent even to a kid unconcerned with the future value of his cards: with no white border on the edge of the cards, those Bowman TV sets could often start to look pretty beat up.
Like Banks, Al Kaline had his breakthrough season in 1955, and I like the fronts of both his Bowman and Topps cards: relaxed and confident on the Bowman, determined kid on the Topps. Two nice cards.
Steve Bilko’s Bowman card shows him staring off in the distance… maybe toward the Pacfic Coast League, where he was about to become a legend as a slugger with the minor league Los Angeles Angels. Bilko’s Topps card isn’t exactly beautiful, but the head shot gives you a better glimpse of him, and the corkscrew swing and Cubbie logo are nice touches.
Give Bowman points for innovation; its 320-card set featured not only the TV-set design, but 31 cards devoted to major-league umpires (including one for American League umpire supervisor Cal Hubbard, a future member of both the baseball and pro football Halls of Fame)—certainly a unique touch.
Bowman continued the innovations on its card backs: about one-fourth of the Bowman cards had articles supposedly written by the player on subjects such as “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” “My Childhood Hero,” “The Best Hitter I’ve Ever Seen,” and “My Advice to Youngsters.” I’m sure that seemed like a promising idea to Bowman, but the result was usually pedestrian and sometimes outright comical. Let’s look at a few examples.
Typical of the genre were “The Most Important Part of Baseball” by Don Hoak and “My Advice to Youngsters” by Rip Repulski. “As far as I’m concerned, ‘Hustle’ is the most important part of baseball,” writes Don. “Never give up,” says Rip. Good advice, to be sure, but it makes for pretty dull reading. Heck, when Don Hoak was in the minors, he was one of four members of the Fort Worth Cats who were married at home plate (by four different ministers) before the start of the game. Wouldn’t that have made a good “Greatest Thrill” article?
The afore-mentioned Steve Bilko’s card has an article entitled “My Favorite Memories in Baseball.” His biggest thrill was the day he hit four home runs in one game, but he doesn’t mention when or where it happened; it definitely was not in the major leagues, and I’ve yet to track down a four-home game by Bilko in his minor-league career, either. When and where it happened would have been pretty nice to know. Bilko picks Willie Mays’ great catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series as the best catch he’s ever seen, but as he was neither a member of the Giants nor the Indians, he likely only saw the catch on film or on (black and white) television. He picks picks Stan Musial as baseball’s best hitter and Robin Roberts as the best pitcher. Not exactly scintillating stuff.
“The Most Exciting Game in Which I’ve Played” by White Sox catcher Sherm Lollar recounts a 1953 game in which the Sox—trailing 3-1 with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the ninth—beat the Yankees with a pinch-hit, grand-slam home run by Tommy Byrne. But Lollar gets some of the details wrong, and doesn’t mention the fact that Byrne was a pitcher, the main reason why the homer was so memorable. Even more strangely, Byrne had a card in the ’55 Bowman set, but the Bow-men did not select Tommy for one of those “Greatest Thrill” first-person articles, opting instead for a boilerplate rundown of his career.
Then there is “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” by Eddie Waitkus. “In 1949, I was shot by a deranged girl,” it begins, recounting the bizarre incident in which a female fan who was obsessed with Waitkus invited him to her hotel room and then shot him in the chest. (The incident was later fictionalized in The Natural by Bernard Malamud.) The article recounts Waitkus’s recovery, with the help of the woman who became his wife, and it’s a heck of a story, but… getting shot… that’s your “greatest thrill”?
The backs of the 1955 Topps cards avoided such histrionics, instead opting for a prose rundown of the player’s career, his 1954 and lifetime stats, and a cartoon Q&A that was very similar to the “Dugout Quiz” featured on the backs of the Topps 1953 set. Here are three examples, using players who also had Bowman cards that year.
To summarize, the Bowman 1955 cards were very creative on both sides of the card, while the Topps cards recycled formats they had used previously, down to even using the same head shots from 1954. Bowman also had a bigger set—320 cards versus 206 for Topps (the Topps set was supposed to have 210 cards, but they had to pull four players who turned out to have exclusive contracts with Bowman)—along with more star players. Yet Topps dominated the marketplace once again. Why was that? Here are a few reasons:
As card dealer and author Dean Hanley has pointed out, Topps countered Bowman’s edge in overall star power with a stronger first series. That included baseball’s biggest star of the day—Ted Williams (who had shifted from Bowman to Topps in 1954), along with Jackie Robinson and Warren Spahn. Additionally, the Topps first series included rising stars Banks, Kaline, and Hank Aaron; all three players appeared in the Bowman set as well, but only Kaline was part of Bowman’s first series. Topps was faster out of the gate. (Topps did similar in 1954 as well.)
Hanley also notes that Topps’ last series included the likes of Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider, while Bowman was countering with a series full of lesser lights and umpires. Topps had Bowman coming and going.
The Bowman set included some quality control issues, like blurry photos; mixing up the card fronts and backs for Milt and Frank Bolling and Ernie and Don Johnson; and misspelling Harvey Kuenn’s last name. Bowman issued corrected cards for the Bolling, Johnson and Kuenn gaffes, but the damage was done.
With the TV-set design taking up a large part of the borders of the Bowman cards, the player photos were smaller by necessity. That was a major contrast to the large head shots on the Topps cards, and an obvious disadvantage. Here’s Hanley again, from his excellent book The Bubble Gum Card War: The Great Bowman & Topps Sets from 1948 to 1955: “There is too much wasted canvas space [in the Bowman set]. Most of the pictures of the players are standing upright, resulting in smaller pictures and a lot of empty background. The design of the 1955 Topps set did a much better job of filling the canvas and creating a more attractive product.” Amen to that!
Ultimately Topps outsold Bowman again in 1955, as it had for the previous few years; kids just liked the Topps cards better. As a Chicago-area youngster who was just beginning to collect baseball cards in the spring and summer of 1955, I can attest to that: I and most of my friends preferred the look and feel of the Topps cards, with their large head shots and team logos on the card front, and the clever cartoons on a clear white background on the back.
By the time the 1956 baseball season rolled around, Bowman was out of the trading card business (the final nail in Bowman’s coffin came when Topps issued its first football card set in the fall of 1955, an all-time college All-American set that logged better sales than Bowman’s NFL cards). This was a major loss for collectors: whether or not they sold as well as Topps, the Bowman cards were always great, and continue to be a worthy part of anyone’s collection.
The past couple of seasons Minor League Baseball has been running a Copa de Diversión promotion which involves rebranding teams with Spanish nicknames and uniforms. My kids really wanted to go to a Trenton Trueno game and due to a rainout at one of the Kids Club games we were able to go while only having to pay for parking.
Anyway, while we went for the Trueno experience, it turned out that it was also a baseball card giveaway night. We each got perforated strips of four cards (plus an advertisement) featuring four current Yankees who’d played for Trenton and who were also Latino—Andújar, Severino, and Sánchez are from the Dominican Republic while Torres is from Venezuela.
The cards are manufactured by Choice—the same company that makes Trenton’s Minor League team sets—and, aside from the perforations are legitimate cards rather than something that feels like a cheap digitally-printed sheet. The only problem is that the cards were designed with bleeds but whoever laid them out for perfing didn’t take that into account so the three center cards in the panel are closer to 2.625 inches wide.
Still it’s a fun little set with photos of the guys while they were at Trenton, nice Trueno logos, and some #PonleAcento action. I’m a bit confused at how Andújar got the accent and Sánchez did not though.
The back design is also nicely bilingual. The positions and vitals information are still English-only but the biographies allocate equal space to both languages. It does kind of feel like they were written in English and then translated semi-literally to Spanish but it’s a solid effort.
Since this set isn’t entered to Trading Card DB yet I have no idea how many other Minor League teams released cards as part of the Copa de Diversión. But it’s pretty cool and is a great recognition that not only is the game-day experience something that should be inclusive to Spanish-speaking fans, the merchandise and giveaways should also accessible to as many fans as possible.
Spring has been sprung; Training has commenced and come to a close. Your favorite team has made the last round of cuts and finalized their Opening Day squad and 40-man roster. Well, unless you’re Seattle or Oakland, in which case you’re already two games deep. But never mind that!
The 2019 season is in its nascent stages, and what better time to start making some of your very own baseball cards to commemorate such an occasion? It’s a long season, after all, and you’re going to need something to remember it by. Or perhaps you just want some actual cards of those bench players, swing men, LOOGYs, and the rest of the Taxi Squad. We can kick and scream all we want, but the fact of the matter is that Topps sure as heck isn’t rolling out another Total set.*
* Please, Topps. I’m begging you. You have at least five pointless sets, just give me one with all the dudes.
First things first—unless you want to go all MS Paint on this, you’ll need some software that will let you edit an image using multiple layers. Now, I’m not saying you have to shell out for Photoshop (although if you wanted to do a temporary Creative Cloud license, you could still do this fairly inexpensively)—you can go out and download GIMP for free. While I haven’t used it, it should fit the bill just fine.
Next, you’ll need a design of some sort. You could whip something up yourself, drawing some inspiration from past sets. Or you could replicate an existing set. Or, if you’re not up for the challenge, you can use the handy template that Nick whipped up at the end of that post* I mentioned. If you’re having trouble, reach out; one of us will be happy to help.
* You did read the post, right?
Next, you’ll need to source photos. If you’re not concerned with game action, then look no further than the Spring Training photo day galleries, which you can find on Zimbio—you can make a very nice Heritage-style set out of those. 😉
Or, keep tabs on the following: Zimbio (most games will have a gallery), your team’s blog, if they have one (the Astros run an excellent one which supplied many photos for my set), and of course, the local paper,* and don’t forget the home team’s paper if it was a road game. Bigger photos are always best—you have more to work with and it will be easier to print.
*as a former journalist—please subscribe to your paper!
Some quick guidelines: If you’re wanting to print your cards at some point (this is getting long, so I think I’ll make that a separate post), you need to make sure you’re working with a high enough resolution. Basically, you’ll want to set your file for 2.5″×3.5″* and 300 dpi.
*or however large you want the card to come out, if you’re going for an alternate size.
However you go about developing a design, you’ll want to use some layers—a border or background should go at the bottom, text layers (Name, Team Name, Pos, etc) toward the top, and your image in the middle, the meat of your card sandwiched amidst all those lovely condiments.
In your template, you’ll want to make a mask layer for the photo. DON’T PANIC.* This is not hard, and if you don’t understand it, don’t worry. Essentially, you want to make a shape that occupies the space where the photo should be. When you are making individual cards, you’ll drop your photo into a layer just above this mask, then “clip” the photo to the mask.
*And don’t forget your towel.
What does this accomplish? It means that even if your photo is larger than this area for the image, only stuff in this area will show. Then, just resize and reposition the photo layer accordingly.
Once you’ve got a card designed, do a quick “Save As” and rename it. I recommend saving a .PSD file (which will keep your layers and allow you to make edits), and then saving a .JPG copy as well. Then move on to the next card!*
*Hint: do a “Save As” from your existing card, use the next player’s name, and that becomes your working file.
Don’t feel like you have to have a design already put together. I can guarantee that the more you work with it, the more tinkering you’re likely to do. These things evolve, and your design is likely to go through some changes before you’ve decided you’re satisfied. For the record, I didn’t get my main card design finished until halfway through the season last year.
Also, don’t feel like you have to go nuts and make a card for every game, as I did last season: that was borderline insane and I won’t be doing it again—not unless I’m getting paid to do it, that is (hey Topps, wink wink). But, it can be incredibly rewarding to put together a team set. Or hey, do a custom set of your team’s legends, or make a full team set for that one year that you fell in love with your team for the first time, or when they did that big thing, or whatever! You get the idea.
If you do plan to tackle a project like this, please leave a comment with your name and the team, and perhaps where we can find you for updates. I’d love to see what everyone comes up with. Also, if you get into a jam, or need some assistance getting started, reach out!
Yup. I’m overdue for my next post about print screens.* This time it’s 2019 Topps Flagship which caught my eye. When I got my first sample of Flagship this year, one of the first things I noticed was that they used a Traditional line screen instead of a Stochastic FM screen. This is the first time in a long time that Topps has printed Flagship this way so I figured I should go through my binders to see when exactly when it changed.
It turns out that it’s been just over a decade. The last time Topps printed Flagship traditionally was in 2008. This feels about right since the mid 2000s were when computer-to-plate technology took over the printing world. There were too many variables in the printing process to really do Stochastic screens before then but with computers both generating the plates directly and monitoring ink densities on press, the whole world changed.
I’ve gone ahead and scanned a half-inch swatch from the past dozen years of Flagship just to demonstrate. You can see the rosette pattern that Traditional screening creates in both the 2008 design and the 2019 design. The rest show how Stochastic screening results in a much smoother image.
Does this make a big difference to the card quality? Not really. Topps has been just fine using traditional screens in Stadium Club and that’s as quality a product as it comes in terms of printing.
Rather, this change interests me because it indicates that Topps has changed its production methods.* Either a new printer or something about the print run—scale, price point, etc.—means that the traditional screen is back.
*I’m also intrigued that Topps is printing Black at 15° and Magenta at 45° but the post about print angles is going to wait for another day.
That the mini Flagship cards over the years were printed traditionally points at differing distributions being perhaps a factor. That 2010 Update was printed traditionally despite Flagship being stochastic suggests I’m just reading too much into it. Anyway I found the change interesting.
While I was going through the decades I noticed that Heritage has been back and forth a lot more with this. It switched to Stochastic in 2008—a year before Flagship—went back to Traditional in 2010, then Stochastic in 2011, Traditional from 2012–2014, Stochastic from 2015–2018, and back to Traditional this year. Cropped samples starting from 2006 follow.
Looking at each year of Heritage is an interesting experience. As someone who’s used to looking at old cards, Heritage’s approach to reproducing the designs shows how different the printing world is now. Where the old designs had pure solid inks,* Heritage is frequently screened. Heritage is also consistently trying to fake the artifacts of old printing—really fat fake traps,** misregistered inks, large halftone rosettes.
*The reds, yellows, greens, blues, and purples are all supposed to be solid. Yes I will eventually have a post about the seven standard easy-to-print colors Topps used for decades.
**Trapping is the small overlap between design elements of differing ink compositions which prevents unsightly gaps from showing up in case of misregistration between the inks when printing.
It’s the treating the halftone as a pattern/texture that annoys me the most. I commented on it last year and was pleased to see that it was gone in Heritage High Numbers. Much to my surprise, Heritage High was printed Traditionally and had disposed of the fake rosette pattern*
*Well except for the Deckle Edge cards that featured a fake halftone pattern while also being printed Traditionally.
This year’s Heritage is printed with a Traditional screen but more excitingly, it’s printed with a spot color. Instead of printing the borders in a 50% black screen, Topps opted to use a solid spot grey ink (I noticed they also did the with the burlap pattern in the 1968 design). This is the kind of change I like to see Topps do with Heritage. Instead of mimicking the look of 50-year-old printing technology, taking a design and printing it as nicely as possible allows us to see how strong the design itself is.
Comparing a crop of 2019 Heritage vs 1970 Topps allows us to see the difference in quality. Heritage, in addition to using a spot grey ink, is also using a much much finer linescreen. It still gives some of that vintage rosette pattern and feeling but it’s also a massive improvement in quality.
This comparison also points out how Topps cut corners in much of the 1970 set by printing the skies as cyan-only. Heritage is much more comfortable with other colored inks giving the sky more depth.
Flipping the cards over on the back though shows one instance where I’m glad that Heritage chose to mimic old printing technology. One of the things I love about the 1970 design is how the trapping and overprinting* on the back feels like it was intended to create a third color beyond the yellow and blue.
*Overprinting is when one ink is printed completely on top of another.
The trap around the card numbers is massive and produces almost a black border. Topps faked this with a slightly-off-center trap that, if it weren’t identical card-to-card, would’ve been perfect. The statistics section of the card is blue text overprinting the yellow and also ends up being darker as a result.
Unfortunately, Heritage chose not to mimic the trapping in the cartoon—part of the 1970 design I loved most. The silver lining to this is that it shows how good Topps’s printer’s tolerances are. I can see the trap and it’s miniscule. In 1970, it feels like Topps chose to have the inks overlap so much that key portions of the cartoon turned black. It’s arguably a bit sloppy but I feel like Topps turned it into a design feature.
Anyway, I didn’t want to turn this into a deep dive into Heritage (though I do have to note that Topps didn’t do the double Latino surnames) and just wanted to highlight a few changes in Topps’s production this year and do a brief history of how they’ve printed cards in previous years.
I’m happy to report that three of us have completed our sets. Matt Prigge and I finished ours in mid-December—we both decided to wait until after post-season awards had been announced in November before drawing a line under things—and Marc Brubaker just finished his this month.
The app has a number of nice templates which Matt customized to make more Brewers-like. He did a great job at mixing an old-school 80s Topps esthetic with a more-1990s photo selection. The results speak for themselves and look fantastic.
I made my cards in a combination of Photoshop and Indesign. Since I knew I would be away from my computer for a couple months last summer I selected a design that was extremely text-focused and didn’t rely on any image adjustments. I printed everything through MagCloud and then trimmed them to size after the fact.
My design inspiration was obviously 1993 Upper Deck. It fit my text-based needs perfectly while also remaining photo-centric. And it’s a perfect match for the kinds of photos I liked. I tweaked it slightly to be Giants-specific but it’s otherwise as close a copy as I could make with the tools available to me.
Marc was a late addition to the group between starting late and having a team that went the furthest in the playoffs, he had the most work to do to finish his set. He created all his cards in Photoshop and got them printed locally.
Marc went with 1998 Upper Deck SP as his design inspiration. Marc and I are both photographers so we appreciate the rough filed-negative-carrier sloppy edges and generous white borders which suggest darkroom prints. Marc however improved in SP’s design by rotating and flipping the edge design so the cards don’t look like they’ve been run through a uniform Photoshop action.
Observations and Reflections
Matt and Marc both ended up making cards for every game of the season as well as the post season. I did cards for every Giants win, other highlights I felt needed to be called out, and in the (all too frequent) occasion of being swept, a single card for the series. We all seemed to feel that doing cards for the entire season was both a lot of work and became a bit of a chore and as such, are thinking about whether we want to commit to doing this again.
While we like the idea of ToppsNOW and making cards for an entire season, there are a lot of games where there’s really no good highlight. Or if there is a good highlight, there’s no good photo of it. Plus you have that looming specter of falling behind and having to catch up. Even with focusing just on wins—where there’s always something worth highlighting—I found it hard to keep going.*
*Though this could just be the Giants’ September.
What we all agreed was most rewarding though were the roster cards. We made cards for every guy who appeared in a game. As team collectors I think we all appreciate those cards of the September call-ups who never get proper Topps cards to reflect their appearance in the majors.
I know that we all plan on doing a complete roster again next season as well.
Also, the examples from our sets in this post are all Roster cards. It’s very telling that they are the first cards we all blogged about. Once Matt and Marc blog about their highlights cards I will write a second post which is just focused on examples of the different card designs we all came up with.*
*Highlights, Roster, All-Stars, Award-Winners, Post-Season, Memorials, etc.
All three of us are planning on doing something like this next season. It’s been a lot of fun to chat, encourage, and share design or photo-selection comments. I don’t know if any of us would have completed the season without the others’ support. Sometimes peer-pressure is a good thing.
We’ve also been discussing consolidating our efforts and making something that’s more like a proper “set” as both a way of coordinating things and encouraging more people to join us. We’re primarily suggesting roster cards—so 54 photos total. Names and positions on the front. Haven’t thought about backs yet but that may be more up to the discretion of each person.*
*Puzzle backs are always an option.
To this point I threw together a quick template which could be offered as an Indesign document or Photoshop template to whoever is interested. I’m serious. Please join us. It’s a ton of fun and there’s nothing like seeing the printed cards in-hand or in pages afterward.
Part III of my series about a neglected feature of baseball cards—the material on the back of the cards—continues with the two major baseball card sets from 1954: Topps and Bowman. (For review: Part 1, and Part 2)
By 1954 the companies had been competing in the trading-card market for several years, and in most years a number of ballplayers were featured in both card sets—an issue that became the subject of litigation, with Bowman claiming that they had exclusive contracts for use of the players’ images. (The courts ultimately upheld exclusivity on some of the Bowman contracts, but not all.) With the benefit of that quirk, this article will compare the material featured on the card backs of several players who had card images in both 1954 sets.
Prior to 1954, neither Topps nor Bowman had done much innovation with the material that appeared on the backs of their cards. Here are the card backs for Mickey Mantle’s Topps and Bowman offerings from 1953. (A confession: for the 1953 Topps and Bowman sets and the 1954 Topps set, the images I’m using are from the reprints of these sets that were produced several decades later. Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford the originals…)
(Ed: in all cases, the Bowman card is shown first, followed by the Topps card).
Apart from the “Dugout Quiz” that appeared on the Topps cards, the material on these card backs was fairly identical. Both sets presented biographical data, past year and lifetime statistics (what, no WAR or Defensive Runs Saved?), and a few sentences of prose about the player that could have been swapped between Topps and Bowman without anyone noticing.
Under the leadership of the great Sy Berger, Topps went in a completely new direction in 1954—one that put Bowman to shame. Both the fronts and backs of the 1954 Topps cards were much more innovative and colorful than their Bowman counterparts. I’m primarily focusing on the backs, of course, but here’s a quick peek at the 1954 Topps and Bowman card fronts for one of baseball’s top stars of that era, Eddie Mathews of the Braves.
In its 1953 set, the Bowman card fronts had featured beautiful full-color portraits of its players for the majority of its cards (the final 64 cards had featured black-and-white photos). The result was a set that would be prized by collectors in the years to come… but one which was outsold in the marketplace by Topps in 1953. To save money in 1954, Bowman opted for a cheaper method of photography on its card fronts… basically black-and-white photos that were colored over. The result was a dull, washed-out image that compared unfavorably to the vibrant Topps card fronts.
The backs of these cards were another big win for Topps. Both sets featured the usual stats and biographical info. But the Topps cards added a two, sometimes three-panel “Inside Baseball” story told in cartoon fashion. I ask you, what sticks with you more: reading about how Mathews lost the 1953 slugging percentage crown to Duke Snider by two-tenths of a point, or a cartoon showing how he once landed in the lap of baseball commissioner Ford Frick?
Moving onto another future Hall of Famer, Larry Doby, while the back of the Bowman card was asking for the real first name of Grasshopper Whitney (I’m guessing that young Dick Cramer knew the answer without batting an eye), Topps was presenting a fun cartoon showing how Doby improved his speed by working with track legend Harrison Dillard.
Jim Greengrass of the Cincinnati Redlegs (no “Reds” during the McCarthy era!) was hardly a major star, but I loved reading on his Topps card about how his wife Cathy had talked him out of quitting baseball. Over in Bowman-land, you could try to guess how many night games the Cleveland Indians had won in 1952.
Both Topps and Bowman noted that Don Mueller of the New York Giants was nicknamed “Mandrake the Magician,” with different explanations for the source of the nickname. According to Mueller’s SABR bio, neither explanation is correct, but never mind… as a child and as an adult, I enjoyed the cartoon on the Topps card more than Bowman’s dull prose.
I’m being a little rough on good old Bowman here, so I’ll point out that the back of Richie Ashburn’s Bowman card included a nifty story about how Ashburn improved his timing by swinging at the pitcher’s offerings while in the on-deck circle. That’s probably a better story than one in the Topps cartoon about how Ashburn moved from catching to the outfield, but cards are marketed with kids in mind… and kids love cartoons.
In his excellent book The Bubble Gum Card War: The Great Bowman & Topps Sets from 1948 to 1955, author (and major card dealer) Dean Hanley noted that due to its exclusive contracts, “Bowman was clearly winning the battle to get most of the stars of the game onto their cards.” However, he added that “it is a shame that Bowman did not design a better product on which to display the images of these marquee players.” The Topps cards simply were more attractive and more fun, both front and back. After one more year of competition in which Bowman finally tried to do something different with its card backs (and fronts), Bowman was sold to Connelly Containers, Inc., a company which had little interest in trading cards. In January of 1956, Connelly sold all of Bowman’s assets—including its contracts with the players—to Topps for a measly $200,000. The Topps-Bowman card war over, and Topps had won. Sy Berger’s creativity—including innovations such as the cartoons on the backs of the 1954 Topps baseball set—played a major part in the Topps victory.