A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1960-1963)

Seventy years of baseball card prose…four cards at a time. 

In this installment of my ongoing series, I’ll continue my project in which I examine the baseball card prose for one Detroit Tiger card from each year of the flagship set released by Topps.  We’ll learn about writing craft and baseball history, but we may just learn a little about ourselves…

Or maybe not.  Here we go:

1960 Larry Osbourne #201

Design of the reverse: Reduced stats, cartoon, and prose.

Text (59 words, plus 8 words in captions):  Larry showed great promise in his first full seasons of major league ball last year. In April he blasted his initial major league homer to climax a perfect 3 for 3 day against the Orioles. In June his 3 RBI’s helped rout the Red Sox 8-1 and in August he drove in a trio of markers against Kansas City.

Larry’s dad was a major leaguer in 1922 [Larry’s father shows Little Boy Larry how to hold a bat.]

The 1950s were a fascinating time.  The Cold War was heating up, rock and roll was born, and there were three major leaguers who were nicknamed “Bobo.”  Bobo Newsom began his MLB career in 1929 with the Brooklyn Robins and didn’t retire until 1953.  That same year, Bobo Holloman enjoyed his only stint in The Show, hurling in 22 games for the Browns. 

Bobo Newsom was referred to by his nickname in his 1953 card: his only Topps flagship card.  Sy Berger and his colleagues, on the other hand, referred to Osborne as Larry in his several Topps releases.  The writers of The Sporting News frequently used “Larry (Bobo) Osborne” when detailing the player’s exploits.  (He was just “Larry” on May 11, 1955, when the News described how Osborne, then with the Augusta Tigers, sidelined righthander Russ Swingle indefinitely by spiking him “on the ankle.”  Swingle’s “gash required 13 stitches.”)

One wonders what the authors thought about the rhetoric of nicknames in those early years.  In 1952, anyway, Harold Henry Reese was “Pee Wee” and Harry Lavagetto was “Cookie.” In 1956, “Pee Wee” received quotation marks, and Cookie went back to “Harry” on his 1961 manager card. 

In 1952: “Cookie” on the front…
…”Harry” on the back.
In 1961: “Harry.”

Forrest Harrill Burgess’s career spanned all of Topps’s early years, and he was always “Smoky.”  Later issues in the 1960s didn’t even include his real name on the back of the card.

The issue cuts to the idea of identity formation and the hero worship naturally stoked by baseball cards.  “Smoky Burgess” and “Pee Wee Reese” just sound cool.  Does “Bobo Osborne” have the same ring?  Did Topps use “Larry” because it sounded more traditional?  Did Topps just feel that Newsom, a long-time big leaguer, was the only Bobo?  (Holloman didn’t receive a Topps card until the 1991 Topps Archives “Cards that Never Were” release.  Yes, he was called “Bobo.”) 

A nickname lends a kid-friendly familiarity to a ballplayer–think George Herman Ruth–but it can also distance the fan from the player.  Do A-Rod’s close friends call him “A-Rod?”  I can see starstruck fans greeting Mattingly with a hearty, “Hey!  Donnie Baseball!”  The proliferation of digital technology makes it easier for fans to see a player’s real personality if he wishes to share it.  The cost is a loss of the majestic distance I felt when I ACTUALLY saw Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker in REAL LIFE and they were ACTUALLY playing baseball IN FRONT OF ME.  It’s wonderful to see a video of Trevor Bauer taking his Covid-19 test and eating a healthy lunch before working out on an off day, but does it dull the mystique when I watch him stare down batters on MLB.TV? 

There’s another big issue that I need to address with this card and others from 1960 Topps. 

Punctuation problems!  (Don’t worry.  I’ll keep it fun.) 

There isn’t a single comma in the prose on the reverse of Osborne’s card.  (There should be three, along with a couple hyphens.)  Many 1960 Topps cards feature “Season’s Highlights” instead of traditional prose; punctuation is easier when you’re writing bullet points.  But look at Johnny Callison’s card: 

That last bit needs a full stop!  Without it, the sentence implies that Callison hit 27 home runs on December 8th.  There weren’t even any games that day! 

Perhaps the Topps staff paid less attention to the sentences on the cards in the years during which they devoted more space to cartoons…

1961 Larry Osbourne #208

Design of the reverse: Full stats, no prose, cartoons

Text (16 words in captions):  Larry showed great promise in his first full seasons of major league ball last year. In April he blasted his initial major league homer to climax a perfect 3 for 3 day against the Orioles. In June his 3 RBI’s helped rout the Red Sox 8-1 and in August he drove in a trio of markers against Kansas City.

Larry’s dad was a major leaguer in 1922 [Larry’s father shows Little Boy Larry how to hold a bat.]

Speaking of years in which Topps cut down on the copywriting budget…

Topps opted to include fuller stat lines, including minor league lines for a player like Osborne.  I wish we could still ask Sy Berger, but I wonder if this was indeed done as a cost-cutting measure, or if Topps wanted to build the players’ identities in a different way.  Statistics certainly tell a story, just in a different way.  A savvy kid could take one glance at Osborne’s stats and see from the man’s .185 batting average why he spent the entire 1960 season in AAA.

I chose to write about two Larry Osborne cards for a couple reasons.  First, that’s what’s in the my one-Tiger-for-each-year collection.  Second, I love that Topps repeated the same anecdote about Osborne.  Larry’s father was Earnest Preston Osborne, nicknamed “Tiny.” (Is “Bobo” better than “Tiny?”)  

Tiny pitched from 1922 to 1925 for the Cubs and the Robins.  Only 22 years later, his son was in the bigs.  Ballplayers have long served as father figures to kids, whether or not the real father figure was around.  By emphasizing that Bobo had ostensibly made Tiny proud, a young boy or girl who pulled this card in 1961 might have subconsciously confronted his or her own subconscious desire to please the old man.  The cartoons are also part of Topps’s history of highlighting father-son ballplayer duos.

1962 Terry Fox #196

Design of the reverse: Reduced stats, one cartoon, prose

Text (53 words in prose, plus 13 in captions): Terry was considered “just a toss-in” in the deal that sent Frank Bolling to the Braves last winter.  Instead, despite some arm trouble, the righthanded bullpen artist developed into a gem as his 1.42 E.R.A. points out.  He won 12 games in relief in the P.C.L. in 1960.

TERRY OUTFOXES THE HITTERS

Terry won 21 games with New Iberia in 1955.  [From behind the umpire, we see Terry in his follow-through.  The ball is halfway to the plate, and the umpire has already extended his right arm into the air.]

Significantly, humor doesn’t seem to have a prominent role in most baseball card prose.  I suppose that there are a few jokes here and there, particularly in cartoons, but I’m not sure how often we see an honest-to-goodness pun like “Terry outfoxes the hitters.”  

Get it?  There you go.

Perhaps the authors don’t want to diminish the players through the use of humor or risk offending the parents of their target audience.  (Come to think of it, examining humor in baseball cards would be a fun study.)

If you’ll notice, the events in the prose are out of order.  Did the author want to fill up that last line above the stat box?

Oh, and that penultimate sentence is missing a comma.  

1963 Howie Koplitz #406

Design of the reverse: Full stats, cartoon, some prose.

Text (13 words in prose, plus 10 in captions): The righthanded reliever is still undefeated after 2 seasons in the American League.

Howie was in the Armed Forces for part of ’62.  [An annoyed staff sergeant watches Howie go through drills using a baseball bat instead of a rifle.  The rifle says, “BANG!”]

Topps always had affection for prospects and rookies.  As is the case today, the company was hoping to get in on the ground floor with players who would become the next big thing.  (Of course, the money in today’s baseball card ecosystem is completely different…)  

The Topps All-Star Rookie designation first appeared on cards in 1961, and Koplitz received the honor on his 1962 rookie card.  Unfortunately, the prose on the reverse of Koplitz’s 1963 issue sounds like the kind of statement we might make in a resume: technically accurate, but perhaps overly flattering.  It’s absolutely true that Koplitz was undefeated in the American League.  On the other hand, he was 5-0 as a starter as well as a righty coming out of the bullpen. 

Perhaps most importantly, there is precious little room for prose on the reverse of this card.  In this way, Topps boosts Koplitz in an efficient manner.  The pitcher is undefeated, and if you’re wondering why he’s only pitched in 14 Tiger games over two seasons, well…he was serving our country.  I can’t think of a better way to explain a gap in one’s resume!

And perhaps my sense about the scarcity of baseball card humor is slightly off; note the appropriately Bazooka Joe-esque joke.  (I love the expression on the annoyed drill instructor’s face.)


The amount of prose may be decreasing, but I’m getting ever more excited as I get closer to that World Champion 1968 team.  Next time, I’ll write about a couple of the cogs on that squad and a highly underrated southpaw who was brave enough to strike out the Splendid Splinter the first time they faced each other.


Series: A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers
1952 – 1955,
1956 – 1959, 1960-1963
or the posts can be found under the “CardProse” tag.

Back Story: 1971 Topps

Note: This is Part V of a series focusing primarily on the material featured on the backs of baseball cards (previous articles featured the 1956 Topps, 1960 Topps, 1954 Topps/Bowman and 1955 Topps-Bowman sets).

A popular set among collectors, the 1971 Topps baseball card set was truly innovative, offering something a little different on both the front and back sides of the cards. The fronts of the 752-card set—at the time, the biggest ever—featured a black-bordered motif, as exemplified by card No. 100, Pete Rose, and No. 600, Willie Mays.

This was a striking design. But for collectors interested in a card’s condition, the set offered two obvious challenges:

  • With a black, rather than a white, border, any imperfections on the edges showed up much more clearly than on a traditional white-bordered card
  • Unless the card was perfectly centered—and good luck finding perfectly-centered cards—there was usually either too much, or too little, of that slim black border on the left or right side of the card

But hey, this was 1971, and who ever thought people would be shelling out big bucks for baseball cards in mint (or near-mint) condition? Give Topps props for changing things up… and that was even more true of their design of the back side of the 1971 set. For the first time since 1962, Topps eschewed the by-now-standard year-by-year stat line for each player, instead providing the numbers for only the previous season, along with the player’s career totals. With more available room, Topps added a headshot of the player. These headshots came in several styles. Sometimes the shot had a little background; like clouds, trees or the stands of a stadium; No. 450, Bob Gibson, is a good example.

The backgrounds could be a little distracting; more effective were headshots with just the sky as a background. A good example is No. 501, Andy Etchebarren, whose “Wolf-man”-inspired eyebrows offer the viewer enough of a distraction.

And finally, some of the “head” shots were exactly that: just the head, ma’am. The results are, well, interesting. To me, the shots of New York mainstays Tommie Agee (No. 310) and Horace Clarke (No. 715), look like a pair of balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Whatever their quality, the headshots on the backs of the 1971 cards let the collector know what the guy looked like… albeit via a small black-and-white shot of lower quality. Still, this gave Topps the freedom to do some experimenting on the card fronts. For the first time, the 1971 set replaced the standard posed shot on the front of many cards with a photo taken from major league game action. Way cool!

It was a nice innovation, and a number of these “player in action” shot are outstanding.
No. 118, Cookie Rojas, turning a double play, is a beauty. I also love the classic pitching motion of No. 520, Tommy John (better known in the Zminda household as “Johnny Tom”).

There are a number of excellent shots of players at bat. The afore-mentioned Andy Etchebarren swinging the bat is very nice, and No. 360, Jim Fregosi, is even better—a stunning action shot in horizontal format.

You can even do “Compare Batting Stances” with the horizontally-oriented cards of the Yankees’ Roy White (card No. 395) and Ron Woods (No. 514). The shots, pretty obviously taken from the same game, both include catcher Duane Josephson of the White Sox. (Pop quiz question: of this trio, who is the only one who does not yet have a SABR bio? Answer at the end of the article.)

However, Topps was brand-new at this action-shot stuff, and sometimes the photos lacked action, or contained needless distractions. Bob Gibson’s card has both problems. His card front shows him just standing on the mound between pitches, with his image dissolving into the crowd in the background. The action shot of No. 513, Nolan Ryan—in his last season with the Mets before being shunted off to Anaheim in a disastrous trade for Fregosi—also has a distraction problem: the pitching motion is nice, but the billboard in the background makes the card look more like an ad for Royal Crown Cola.

Ryan showed up again—this time as a spectator—on the card front of No. 355, Bud Harrelson. There is some nice activity at second base in the shot, with Harrelson tagging an Astro while the ump and the Mets second baseman look on. However, the action is shown from a distance; the foreground includes the back of Ryan’s uniform number as he watches from the mound. A little cropping (as shown below), and this would have been a much better shot, in my opinion.

But overall the action shots worked very well, and proved to be a hit with collectors. Less successful—on both the front and back sides of the cards—was how Topps dealt with the always-tricky issue of players who switched teams after their card photos had been taken. For the airbrushers, the Old English White Sox logo was a particular challenge. Not surprisingly, they had more success with the small black-and-white shots on the backs of the cards. (It’s also likely that some of the shots on the backs of the cards came from other sources for black-and-white headshots, like team media guides.) For Pat Kelly (No. 413) and future Harry Caray whipping boy Tom Egan (No. 537), Topps neatly avoided having to airbrush the cap of the photo on the front by using a shot looking up at the bill of the player’s cap. No logo to mess with!

For Rick Reichardt (among many others), Topps employed the familiar strategy of showing the player capless.

The airbrusher actually did a pretty fair job with the front of John Purdin’s (No. 748) card. As for Don O’Riley (No. 679)… not so much. Even the photo on the back of O’Riley’s card is pretty bad.

Of course, the White Sox were hardly the only challenge to Topps’ airbrushers. In a few cases, late roster moves left Topps with no time to airbrush logos onto either the front or back sides of the cards—resulting in a number of caps with no team logo at all. Jim Qualls (No. 731), forever immortal (and to some, notorious) as the man who ruined Tom Seaver’s 1969 perfect game bid, was dealt from Montreal to Cincinnati so late (March 31) that the back of his card still identifies him as “the Expos’ only switch-hitter.” For me, the red paint job on the on the front of Qualls’ card brought back memories of Holden Caulfield in his red hunting hat.

Marv Staehle (No. 663), signed by the Braves on April 3 after being released by Montreal, wound up looking like the guy who filled your tank at the Sunoco station on Route 23.

By 1971, “Rookie star” Archie Reynolds (No. 664), one of a trio of Reynolds rooks on the same card, had already seen brief action in three major league seasons, and he had been a part of the Angels’ organization since mid-1970. So what’s with that painted-on cap, Arch?

Dick Williams (No. 714) is an even bigger curiosity. Williams was named manager of the Oakland Athletics in late January of 1971, and Topps had time to utilize a non-airbrushed shot of Williams in the familiar white cap worn by A’s managers and coaches on the back of his card. So how did Williams wind up in the goofy green cap on the card front?

One final mystery. Topps had no worries about Hank Aaron (No. 400) changing teams… and surely they had more than a few Aaron images to choose from. Yet they somehow chose to use the same photo—nothing special, to be honest—on both sides of Bad Henry’s card.

Ah, but I protesteth too much; despite the occasional slip-ups, this is a wonderful card set. Both the front and back sides of the cards contain interesting innovations… and while the use of action shots is the primary innovation on the front side of the cards, there are some wonderful posed shots as well. Here are a few of my favorites.

Quiz answer: Ron Woods, who would be traded by the Yankees to the Expos in June of 1971 in exchange for former 1969 Mets hero Ron Swoboda, still awaits a SABR bio.

Everything must be considered

Likewise, there is a vocal group of collectors who seek, nay DEMAND, perfection from Topps when it comes to retro sets such as Heritage and Archives. Any deviation from these unwritten rules results in an outcry in the blogosphere, Twitter and the various forums.

Cardboard Jones

I planned to respond to this as a comment but in hashing things out on Twitter realized that it deserved to be a blogpost. First off. I’m not feeling attacked by the statement nor do I even disagree with it. Expecting things like Archives and Heritage to match the originals is the most boring of positions to have. But as someone who frequently comments and calls out where Topps deviates in the retro set typsetting and designs I feel like I need to clarify when and why I do so.

When I approach a retro set it’s impossible for me not to notice changes. My mindset though isn’t “these changes are crap.” Instead I’m asking myself why Topps made them.

One of the chief mantras from my design classes was that “everything should be considered.” In other words, every part of the design should be a conscious choice with a reason behind it. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t leave things to chance, just that you needed to be as aware, if not moreso, of what you weren’t designing.

When it comes to the retro sets, too many of the choices feel like Topps has decided to copy the old design but couldn’t be bothered to do it right. When I cringe at a font choice or shake my head at a color selection it doesn’t reflect that I want the design to be perfect, it reflects that on that card, Topps feels like it’s trying to recreate the card and is doing it badly.

Let’s take a look at the 2020 Archives Luis Robert. In this case, the font used for Robert’s name is super small. 1974 used condensed fonts for long names* but for most names the font matches the font used to the city and position. As a result the font looks off compared to the other fonts on the card** and the space for his name looks super empty because these cards weren’t designed to have a big white space on the bottom.

* If this were a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. card then the font would be fine.

**Lucky for Topps the condensed font is also in use for “White Sox” else this would look even weirder.

There’s a reason I often refer to the uncanny valley when I critique retro designs. Changes like Robert’s font feel unconsidered and suggest a lack of awareness about how the original design works. The result is something that’s just close enough to the originals to feel incredibly wrong.

I don’t expect Topps to match the originals. I want them to make considered choices about how to honor the philosophy behind the original designs while updating them to the modern game and modern printing.

For example, sticking with the Robert card, 1974 is noteworthy as the first set where Topps tried to use team colors in the design. In 1974 the White Sox’s dominant color was red and as a result, the 1974 design used red.* In 2020, the Sox are a grey and black team and for me, updating the 1974 design to use those colors is the kind of change that I would treat as a considered choice.**

*That Topps stuck with red is yet another push toward reading these cards as remakes instead of updates and justifies critiquing the font choices along those lines. At the same time, that Topps apparently changed the colors on a lot of the cards in this set—e.g Giants in green, Pirates in red, Orioles in white—suggests that my initial reaction to the Robert was maybe giving Topps too much credit for trying to reproduce the original design. No I still have no idea what possessed them to make the Willie McCovey Giants card green and yellow and the overall reaction is still that Topps didn’t think about what they were doing.

**Along these lines, if Topps had had the lead time and creativity to do “Buffalo, Amer’n Lea” cards for the Blue Jays I would’ve been out stalking blasters of Archives at my local Target.

Topps has made considered changes like these before. Going back to my post about 2019 Heritage provides a great example. Where 1970 Topps (on the left) use a 50% black screen for the grey border, 2019 Heritage (on the right) uses a custom grey ink printed at 100%.

I don’t remember anyone complaining about this. I wouldn’t expect anyone to complain about this. Why? Because the change is the kind of thing that involves looking at the old design and consciously improving upon it. It’s not trying to recreate something, rather it’s showing the strength of the original design and how it would be produced today.

If Topps changed the retro set fonts to give the design a little more character* I wouldn’t complain. Same if they took the random colors of the 1960s and made them more team-specific.**

*A reliance on fonts such as Helvetica and Univers throughout most of the Topps’s history means changes like using Gotham in the 1981 design in 2018 Archives is something I was cool with.

**Something they did with some teams like the Astros in 2018 Heritage.

What I want to see is that the changes have a clear and obvious point. Changes that look intentional rather than accidental. Changes that indicate that Topps has truly considered the design and thought about what it’s doing with it.

A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1956-1959)

In the previous installment of this series, I began my journey through nearly seventy years of baseball card history.  I’m examining the prose featured on the backs of one Detroit Tiger for each year of Topps flagship sets.  We’ll learn about culture and technology, but we’ll also find out what this prose can teach us about writing and storytelling.

So let’s dip back into the collection that inspired this series and pull out my beautiful…

gromek1956 Steve Gromek #310

Design of the reverse: The typed prose has been replaced by three cartoons.

Text (33 words in captions):  This will be Steve’s 16th year as a major league star. [Three boys seek autographs from Gromek. The rightmost one says, “Gee, he wuz pitchin’ before we wuz born”]

In ’54, he had a brilliant 18-16 record. [Gromek following through after a pitch with a sunburst behind him.]

Steve started as an infielder in ’39, but switched to pitching in 1941. [Gromek standing on a pitching mound. He says, “I like the view from here”]

Sy Berger and his colleagues took a turn away from straight prose in 1956: the first set to eschew straight prose altogether.  (Of course, making such a statement to fellow SABR members makes me nervous; they know everything!)  The cartoons may be out of order, but the authors are still engaging in the identity construction that is such an important part of early Topps card prose. 

Gromek, a member of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians team, did indeed have a very long career as a hurler after switching to pitching.  His major league career began in 1941, just as Indians star Bob Feller enlisted.  A December 25th, 1941 Sporting News article described the competition to take his spot in the rotation in an article with this delightful headline: “Five Young Flingers as Feller ‘Fill-Ins.’”  (The article engages in a fascinating description of how each pitcher qualified for a deferment.)

The authors put the colloquialism “wuz” into the mouth of one of the children.  The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first print usage of the term to the classic 1886 children’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy.  I’m reminded of “Nuf Ced,” the nickname attributed to Red Sox superfan Michael T. McGreevy.  While the writing teacher in me bristles at such phonetic spellings in popular use, the creative writer in me loves how the children who first opened these packs enjoyed the informal nature of the diction.  Such playful use of language has always been around, and today’s young people certainly make the language their own while texting.  

Perhaps the authors of the captions had more didactic/instructional aims; Steve Gromek’s career teaches us all that we may fail in one pursuit, but the point is that we should dust ourselves off and “try pitching,” whatever that may mean in our specific cases.

bobkennedy

1957 Bob Kennedy #149

Design of the reverse: Full career stats for the first time.  No cartoons.  

Text (21 words): A valuable veteran, Bob is an all around ball player who can take over|first, and third base or play the outfield.

I’m sure Topps had proofreaders, but they must have had the day off when someone approved this card.  (I certainly make my own share of mistakes.)  There should be a hyphen in the compound adjective “all-around.”  That “and” should be an “or.”  And what is going on with that vertical bar?

1957 Topps seems to begin a phenomenon that I noticed as a kid.  When I flipped over a 1987 Topps Nolan Ryan, all I saw was a sea of numbers.  (“He’s been in the majors since my dad was in junior high!”)  There was no room for prose. 

nolanryan

Fifth-year player Tim Hulett, on the other hand, had room on his card to note that he “attended both the University of South Florida and Miami Dade North Community College.”
hulett
Statistics are another form of identity formation, to be sure.  Any kid who checked out the reverse of this card before clothespinning it into his bike spokes would notice that Kennedy had a long American League career and would have understood what a great ballplayer the man was. 

Perhaps the most interesting prose on the card is on Kennedy’s stat line for “‘43-5:” “(In United States Marine Corps).” 

I suppose the lesson of this baseball card is that less can be more, and that a writer can coax a reader into filling in what the writer leaves unsaid or implied.  Kennedy missed three years in the Marines.  One wonders what he saw and did and how it shaped him.  The kid who opened the pack might have been able to relate through his or her own father.  I also wonder if any little kids read the card and realized for the first time that a sentence filled with mistakes is difficult to read and was inspired to be more careful in English class…

sleater

1958 Lou Sleater #46

Design of the reverse: A return to partial stats and cartoons.

Text (34 words): Lou worked exclusively in relief last season. He is specially effective against lefty hitters and his good control makes him tough for any one to hit. A fastball and curve are Lou’s main weapons. 

This will be Lou’s 12th season in baseball. [Lou shows off a number of medals on his chest, saying “A real veteran!”]

He’s been with 4 A.L. and 1 N.L. clubs in his career. [Hands in pockets, Lou asks, “Any bidders?”]

Whoever composed the prose for Mr. Sleater’s card has unintentionally forced me into a dilemma.  Look at that second sentence.  The adverb “specially” applies to the specific purpose of its noun.  (“The logo was specially chosen to bring attention to the indie ball team.”)  Either the author has simply misused the word, or he or she meant “especially,” which is an adverb meaning “particularly.”  If the latter is true, the writer may simply have forgotten the apostrophe that represents the omitted “e.”  

My hunch is that the author simply used the wrong word, but it’s interesting to consider that he or she intended to use “‘specially.”  There is a history of popular writers playing with words beginning in “s” in this way.  It’s not a leap to believe that a baseball card prose composer living in Brooklyn in 1957 was aware of “S’Wonderful,” the Gershwin standard.  The Disney film Song of the South had been released in 1946 and was re-released in 1956.  One of the more prominent lyrics from Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” goes, “It’s the truth, it’s “actch’ll”/Everything is “satisfactch’ll.”  Perhaps the author of the baseball card was engaging in similar wordplay.

Okay, it was probably just a mistake.

I am also struck by the generic nature of the description.  Aside from Sleater’s pitches, the author only includes details that could be gleaned from Sleater’s stat lines.  (Topps employees must have had more extensive statistics at hand that they later condensed into the lines they included on the cards.)  Maybe the author wasn’t inspired to describe Sleater in more fulsome terms.  Or maybe it was Friday afternoon when he or she was working on card 46, and Sy Berger walked through the bullpen to tell everyone to knock off early once they finished the card they were writing. 

hoeft
1959 Billy Hoeft #343

Design of the reverse: Full(er) stats, cartoon. AND prose.

Text (41 words): A good fastball, a baffling curve and expert control spell success for Billy Hoeft. In ’56 he was one victory shy of teammate Frank Lary and the A.L. Win Crown. Billy’s 7 shutouts in ’55 were tops in the Junior Circuit.

Billy is a dedicated fisherman. [Billy dozes with a fishing line dangling from his big toe.]

Although the author has omitted the Oxford comma (the one before the last item in a list), I love the construction of that first sentence.  The adjective “good” could apply to “fastball, curve, and control,” but look how much more powerful and specific when each noun gets its own modifier.  Better yet, the adjectives improve.  Which sounds more complimentary to you?  “Good?”  Or “baffling,” and “expert?”

Again, the author has turned away from some of the specifics and identity building that was present in the first few years of Topps baseball card prose.  The reader certainly gets the idea that Hoeft, who once struck out all 27 batters in an American Legion game, is a good pitcher, but who is he, really?  Would a little kid look up to Hoeft and mimic his windup because the man is a “dedicated fisherman?”

And then there’s the matter of the missing comma in the second sentence.  It should read “In ‘56, he was one…” because the introductory clause must be joined properly to the independent clause.  There’s a non-blahblahblah way to think about it.  If you read the sentence like a newscaster–deep voice, clear articulation–you will want to pause after “In ‘56.”  That’s my rule of thumb for those who have comma anxiety. 

 

It’s been interesting to see how the prose changed from the early to late 1950s.  Next time, I’ll look at the same player in consecutive years and a right-hander who looks even more like an accountant than Greg Maddux!


Series: A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers
1952 – 1955,
1956 – 1959
or the posts can be found under the “CardProse” tag.

A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1952-1955)

If I had a time machine, I would zip around the fourth dimension to all of the expected places. I’d love to see Hamlet at the Globe. Maybe I’d drop in on the Constitutional Convention or the Cavern Club in 1961. I suspect that many of us might set our personal flux capacitors to 1951 so we could see Sy Berger design the 1952 Topps set on his kitchen table. There were baseball cards before that set, of course, but Berger and his team set the standard that still guides the industry. 

Two of the great constants in my life are baseball and writing. I could never hit a curveball. Or a fastball. Or a softball in a batting cage. I can, however, tell a decent story and put together decent sentences. It’s no surprise, then, that baseball cards were among the first literary works I read. It was Frog and Toad are Friends, Encyclopedia Brown, and the (primarily) Topps cards that my father would let me pick up in the supermarket candy aisle. 

These modes of “non-traditional” literacy formation are well-studied in the fields of education and rhetoric and composition. (How many immigrants learned to speak English by watching popular television shows?) Often overlooked, however, is the way that baseball cards served as a form of reading instruction, particularly during the time when the industry’s target demographic consisted almost solely of little kids. 

In this series of articles, I will engage in an admittedly surface analysis of baseball card prose, looking at the writing on the reverse of random base Detroit Tiger cards from each of Topps’ nearly seventy years of flagship releases. Other writers for this blog have chronicled how the prose on the backs of 1954 Topps cards offers valuable lessons.  Don Zminda had the great idea to compare how Topps and Bowman handled the prose in their 1954 sets.  I am curious to see how the prose changed over the decades, and how Berger and his successors used a few sentences to reinforce the construction of the ballplayer’s identity. Of course, I am also interested in isolating what writers of all kinds can learn from these works. 

A few notes on methodology. Topps has printed many tens of thousands of base cards since 1952. Unfortunately, I don’t have a fleet of researchers at my beck and call, so I can’t accumulate data on each of them. There are variations between base cards in sets, of course; a card released at the end of Alan Trammell’s career, for example, may feature only statistics because there was no room for prose. During some years, Topps included cartoons on the backs of the cards. I have typed up the prose and included a bracketed description of the image. Further, I have tried to preserve the baseball card prose as printed, mistakes and all. 

It just so happens that I have what I call my “Tiger Stadium Collection.” During a visit to Cooperstown, an ex-girlfriend purchased me a small, square tin decorated to look like the exterior of the best ballpark in the history of baseball. (I’m biased.) I keep a base flagship Tiger from (almost) each year of Topps in the tin: a fortuitous coincidence. 

With all of that blather out of the way…let’s look at some cards!

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1952 Johnny Groth #25

Design of the reverse: prose and reduced stats

Text (81 words): Johnny was the best fielding outfielder in the American League in 1951 winning the title by 2 ten-thousandths of a point. At the plate, he started the ’51 season slowly, but hit .325 during the last half of the season to bring his average up. He had trials with the Tigers in 1946 and 1947, but didn’t make the grade until 1949 after hitting .340 at Buffalo in 1948. His first year up, John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950.

In its inaugural effort, Topps begins providing kids with the information that they couldn’t easily get elsewhere. There was no Baseball Reference in 1952, so it makes sense to include a stat-heavy summary of Groth’s career.

The formation of the ballplayer as a relatable hero also seems present. Imagine a second-string Little Leaguer opening up a one-cent pack and learning about how Groth succeeded after years of work dedicated to “making the grade.” It’s also interesting that the person who composed the prose alternated between “Johnny” and “John.” A mistake, or something else?

While the first sentence is missing a comma between the clauses, the second and fourth reinforce one of the basic uses of the comma: it joins a dependent clause to an independent clause. “His first year up” is not a sentence; it doesn’t have a subject, object, AND a verb. “John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950” does have all of those elements. Therefore, you glue the not-a-sentence to a sentence with a comma. 

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1953 Fred Hatfield #163

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (76 words): “Hattie” was the top-fielding third sacker in the American League in ’52. The Red Sox spotted him playing American Legion Ball and he signed his first pro contract in ’42. After hitting .300 for Birmingham of the Southern Association in ’50, “Hattie” was brought up to the AL. The Sox used him in a utility role in ’51 and traded him to the Tigers early in ’52. Fred was [a] paratrooper during World War II.

Once again, the author begins with the player’s name, but does so in an even more intimate fashion, twice using Hatfield’s nickname. And once again, the reader gets a fairly rote (but necessary) description of Hatfield’s career to that point. Remember: both 1952 and 1953 only included “last year” and “lifetime” stat lines.

There are a couple mistakes in the prose. Was it convention to capitalize the generic “ball” in “American Legion Ball?” The author drops a word in that final sentence, too. With regard to that final sentence, I imagine how relevant the information would seem to the Topps target audience: little kids, mostly boys, whose fathers stood a great chance of having served during World War II themselves. 

As in 1952, the author begins with a fulsome description of the player’s fielding capabilities and then engages in prolepsis, flashing back to where the man began his career and how he got to the point at which he was so useful with a glove. Writers can engage in flashback while leaving the reader blind about the eventual outcome, or he or she can do so after informing the reader about the protagonist’s present conditions. In this case, the author of the card has no choice; the reader knows that Hatfield eventually made the majors…if he hadn’t, there would be no baseball card to trade with friends!

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1954 Don Lund #167

Design of the reverse: Two cartoons, reduced stats, prose

Text (94 words total, 68 without cartoon captions): Don began his career with Brooklyn in 1945, pinch hitting in 4 games. A University of Michigan graduate, he was sent down and recalled by the Dodgers in ’47. In 1948, he went to the Browns and was bought by the Tigers in 1949. Don was with Toledo in 1949-50-51 and in 1952 at Buffalo, he hit .302 and returned to Detroit to bat .304 in 8 games.

At Michigan U. Don was a Big Ten football star! [Lund, in Michigan green(?), carries the football.]

But, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree, Don decided to make baseball his career! [Lund makes a nice grab at the right field fence.]

Once again, the reader learns about Lund’s path to the big leagues. Once again, the main piece of prose begins with the player’s first name. I don’t believe the latter is an accident. These cards, of course, were made primarily for children, some of whom would be at the beginning of their journey as readers. Sentences that begin with the subject are very simple and clear. (“Matt Nokes hit a home run.” “Al Stump mischaracterized Ty Cobb.” “Alan Trammell wore number 3.”)

The author is clear to make education a part of Lund’s identity. The reader (again, a child), learns that being a sports star can go hand-in-hand with being a scholar. I also wonder if Topps included such information to give parents more reasons to allow their children to use their hard-earned pennies and nickels to purchase cards. The cultural storm that resulted in the 1954 adoption of the Comics Code Authority put a spotlight on comic books: a competitor for the same disposable income. Perhaps Berger and his team were reinforcing the relative wholesomeness of their product.

One of my dear, departed Creative Writing MFA professors joked that writers are allowed a single exclamation point in their careers. After all, feelings are better evoked with the other tools that a writer has in his or her toolbox. The author (or perhaps authors) of this card use two. Notably, both exclamation points occur in the cartoon captions. This makes sense; cartoons must be very punchy, and the exclamation point is a compact representation of emotion. 

miller
Yes, it’s autographed. Isn’t it amazing how his handwriting stayed so consistent?

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1955 Bob Miller #9

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (64 words): The huge bonus paid to Bob for signing a Detroit contract in ’53 looked like a good investment to Tiger fans last year. Used mostly as a relief pitcher, Bob’s wide-breaking curve and flashing fastball placed him 4th in E.R.A.’s among American League Hurlers. Before deciding on Baseball as a career, he won a Yale scholarship for his straight “A” average in High School.

The author was presented with a challenge when writing about Bob Miller. At the time, clubs had no choice but to keep “bonus babies” on the major league roster for two years. The author, therefore, couldn’t chronicle Miller’s pro journey to The Show.

The reader learns about the Yale scholarship offer that Miller received, but there is more to the story. Page 10 of the July 1, 1953 issue of The Sporting News features a wonderful article about the Bengals’ two new bonus babies. Seventeen-year-old Miller received $60,000, and Detroit offered $35,000 to an eighteen-year-old named Albert Kaline. Writer Watson Spoelstra helpfully informs us that the latter’s name is “(pronounced Kay-line).” Good to know!

Again, the author of the baseball card capitalizes the generic nouns “Hurlers” and “Baseball.” (Though goodness knows that “Base-Ball” has been called many things in print.)

From a writing craft perspective, I get the sense that the person who wrote this card wasn’t feeling maximum enthusiasm for Bob Miller. Look at the structure of the three sentences and how they all feel similar. I suppose the paragraphs in the 1952 and 1953 cards are similar, but I suppose this could just be an indication that tone is inherently about perception to some extent.


There are an awful lot of cards left before we get to 2020. I hope you’ll join me to consider how the prose changed along with the times and its audience. If nothing else, perhaps this project will help me learn how to make my writing more compact!

Next time: Robert Kennedy (the baseball player, not the former Attorney General) and a left-hander who once struck out all 27 batters he faced in an American Legion game!


Series: A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers
1952 – 1955,
1956 – 1959
or the posts can be found under the “CardProse” tag.

Rethinking the Hobby’s most iconic cards

If you came here to read about the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle or 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken, you came to the wrong place. I’m here to talk about true baseball card icons…these!

These are of course the position icons Topps used on their 1976 flagship set. Now that you see where the post is headed, I’m only going to get the ball rolling and look to you, the readers, to finish it for me.

Use the comments area either to fill a vacant slot or upgrade one of the existing slots. Together I believe we can assemble a team of the most iconic baseball cards ever, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if the entire collection could be had for only a few bucks.

Catcher

I was reasonably happy with the 1988 Score Bob Boone card, but I suspect there’s something better out there. Terry Steinbach had a couple that were very close but facing the wrong way.

Right-handed pitcher

As in the 1973 set, Topps used different icons depending on whether a pitcher threw righty or lefty. Until a better match comes along, here is the iconic 1991 Topps Donn Pall card in the righty slot.

Left-Handed Pitcher

Hunting for the LHP icon proved harder than I thought and introduced me to just how much variation in follow-through there can be from pitcher to pitcher. As with all of these, feel free to upgrade.

First Base

No entry yet.

Second Base

Though not a second baseman, Walt Weiss comes close to the Topps icon with his 1991 Topps card. My guess is one of you will find something better though, and bonus points if your sliding baserunner is a match too.

An honorable mention from the vintage division is found on another shortshop card, the 1956 Topps Pee Wee Reese. (And you thought only his 1953 Bowman was iconic!)

Third Base

For some reason when I look at the third baseman icon I see George Brett in my head. He has a few near matches like this 1982 Topps In Action. Still, I suspect another player will make for an even closer match.

Shortstop

No entry yet, but I’ll use this third baseman’s card as a placeholder.

Outfield

No entry yet.

Designated hitter

Pinch-hitting for the DH until something better comes along is the 1992 Topps Jay Buhner. For some reason, even though the batter is a righty, this position icon always reminds me of Yaz.

Not satisfied?

If near matches weren’t what you had in mind, have I got the set for you. Let’s call it the Topps equivalent of participation trophies, a set where EVERY player is iconic: 2004 Topps!

P.S. I kind of like these!

Was National Chicle on the Ball or Off the Mark With its 1935 Diamond Stars Jimmie Foxx?

Though among most everyone’s candidates for the best first baseman in history, Jimmie Foxx—much like Honus Wagner two generations earlier—was a versatile player who could man various positions. (He ultimately took every position on the diamond besides second base and center field, including famously pitching—and pitching well—for the 1945 Phillies, as well as an earlier inning for the Red Sox.) Brought along gingerly by manager Connie Mack, Foxx was eased into the Philadelphia A’s lineup over several seasons. He originally reached the majors as a catcher, but with Mickey Cochrane claiming the position in his freshman season, Foxx had no future as Philly’s backstop. Tried variously in the outfield and the corner bases, Foxx did not become the Athletics regular first baseman until 1929. Not coincidentally, the A’s established themselves as the cream of baseball that season, leaving Babe Ruth’s mighty Yankees in the dust and cruising to a World Series championship.

With the arrival of Philadelphia’s quasi-dynasty of 1929–31 and Foxx’s subsequent eruption into Lou Gehrig’s near-equal as a devastating run producer, Jimmie was synonymous with first base throughout the 1930s.

Yet Foxx’s 1935 Diamond Stars card shows him as a catcher, despite the fact that he had not played an inning behind the plate since July 1928.

Having recently won back-to-back American League MVPs and now standing as one of the most famous and popular baseball players—not to mention first basemen–in the country, there seems to be no logical reason for National Chicle, the manufacturer of the Diamond Stars cards, to portray Foxx in his “long-lost” position.

Except that, for the first time in seven seasons, Jimmie donned baseball’s tools of ignorance, playing 26 of Philadelphia’s first 27 games behind the plate, before returning to first base. Mickey Cochrane had already traded in his white elephant for a tiger a season earlier and was busy player-managing Detroit to consecutive pennants, and Mack refused to put his trust in the A’s two other backstops when opening day arrived. In a strategy that could happen only in those quainter days, Mack moved Foxx back to catcher until he shelled out cash to the New York Giants for Paul Richards on May 25. (Richards was a short-term solution and did not even return to the majors until 1943; Mack ultimately solved his problem at catcher by bringing Frankie “Blimp” Hayes back to Philadelphia from the Washington organization, though Hayes was hardly a replacement for Mickey Cochrane.)

Anyway, National Chicle did not randomly or coincidentally depict Foxx as a catcher—the back of Jimmie’s card (spelled “Jimmy”) states that he had been “dividing his time between first base and catching…since Mickey Cochrane became manager of Detroit.”

This is flatly inaccurate (although to how much up-to-date and comprehensive statistics National Chicle availed itself certainly could be a factor): Cochrane had been traded to Detroit in December 1933, yet Jimmie never once played a game behind the plate in 1934 (though he unrelatedly did start nine game at the hot corner, for a total of 78 innings).

Thus, the only factual or rational reason for Foxx to be shown as a catcher on this card is because it wasn’t created until after Foxx debuted in 1935 as Philadelphia’s backstop on April 17. And he certainly would have had to have played at least several games at catcher before anyone at National Chicle either noticed or decided that enough of a pattern had been established to warrant capturing Foxx in catcher’s gear. (Considering National Chicle was based in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, it could be significant that the Red Sox and A’s did not clash until April 29, possibly delaying awareness that Foxx was currently not a first baseman.)

Exactly when in 1935 this card hit candy store shelves is unknown (at least to me). Foxx’s pose suggests—if we give National Chicle the benefit of the doubt on the facts of Jimmie’s defensive play, if not the semantics of his bio on the card—that National Chicle prepared and released its cards well after opening day. However, playing a handful of games at catcher in the early days of 1935 hardly can be considered “dividing one’s time” between the two positions when it never once occurred during the entire 1934 season. Either this was an excessively liberal take on National Chicle’s part or the writer of the card’s text assumed that Foxx had been catching in 1934—which, even in those less-enlightened days, was easily provable as false, had anyone bothered to fact check.

So perhaps National Chicle was under the erroneous impression that Foxx had been working behind the plate in 1934—which would make when the card was designed moot.

And yet, Foxx is mentioned as a first baseman even on the back of Jim Bottomley’s card, which was issued in the same series—and thus at the same time—as Foxx’s card, making Foxx’s portrayal as a catcher all the more curious.

Regardless, one must question to a degree the philosophy of so readily abandoning Foxx’s well-established reputation as an MVP first baseman based, presumptively, on a handful of games at the outset of the new season. It’s difficult to imagine the bigwigs at National Chicle thought Foxx’s move to catcher would be permanent, especially with light-hitting rookie Alex Hooks filling in for Foxx at first base, followed by powerless, though able, outfielder Lou Finney.

Still, National Chicle deserves a modicum of kudos for staying on the ball enough to reflect this recent, albeit temporary, change in Foxx’s defensive status—something of a Depression Era version of “keeping it real” (though whether it was necessary is debatable). As well, National Chicle should be commended from an aesthetic standpoint not only for providing an intrinsically interesting card but for similarly reminding the public that a baseball player is defined more by his many innings in the field than by his far shorter involvement at bat—a fact that modern fans tend to forget, especially in the era of the designated hitter and the current clamor for its adoption by the National League.

But as for whether Jimmie Foxx’s 1935 Diamond Stars card represents National Chicle being cutting edge or operating on erroneous information will likely never be known.

1997 Denny’s: The Most Ambitious Set Ever?

I was introduced to holograms by Desi Arnaz, Jr in 1983. Arnaz played Walter Nebicher, a nerdy police officer/computer whiz who craved more responsibility within the police department. In his spare time, Nebicher developed a powerful crime-fighting, helicopter-piloting, Tron-like-hologram hero he dubbed “Automan.” Unfortunately, Automan was canceled after only 12 episodes and I pretty much forgot about holograms until those marvels of dimensionality began to be incorporated into baseball card sets in the late 1980s.

On the other hand, lenticular cards had been a hobby staple since the 1970s. These plasticky “3-D” oddball issues were first introduced as a Topps test issue in 1968. Collectors most likely became aware of the 3-D technology, however when they found baseball cards in their Kellogg’s cereal boxes or discs on the bottom of 7-11 Slurpee cups. The Sportflics issue in 1986 introduced the lenticular card on a much grander scale, incorporating a headshot and a pair of action poses for individual players and cards featuring up to 12 different player photos. Regardless, the 3-D card has largely remained a novelty.

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Whether a baseball card featured a holographic or lenticular element, the creator of that card was endeavoring to capture the action and movement of the game into a static format—what else could a collector ask for in a two-dimensional card? Many of these cards are downright magical.

Famous for its Grand Slam breakfast, Denny’s began producing a branded baseball card set with Upper Deck in 1991. That set featured a full bleed holographic image on the front and narrative statistical information on the reverse, along with—cleverly—the player’s career grand slam tally. One card was issued for each of the 26 Major League teams at the time. Denny’s followed a similar format in 1992 and 1993, the latter set growing to 28 cards with the addition of players from the Rockies and Marlins. These cards were given to patrons who ordered a Grand Slam breakfast.

In 1994, Denny’s and Upper Deck changed the format a bit and for the first time, the set included pitchers. The player’s grand slam tally was discontinued, perhaps because none of Jim Abbott, Kevin Appier and Cal Eldred had never hit a home run, let alone a grand slam. This year, the issue also included a special Reggie Jackson card that was reportedly distributed one to a location and was to be given away as a prize. This remains the rarest of any Denny’s issue.

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The 1995 Denny’s set was the last for Upper Deck, the restaurant chain having partnered with Pinnacle for 1996. While the 1991-95 Upper Deck holographic issues simply added some shimmer and dimension to the card fronts, the 1996 set really brought home the bacon. Touted as “Full Motion Holograms,” these cards—when pivoted at just the right angle—actually depicted fluid action of a batter’s swing or pitcher’s windup. This issue also added a randomly inserted ten-card Grand Slam subset, with a parallel ten-card Grand Slam Artist’s Proof subset. The holographic image on the Grand Slam subset card was just a generic Grand Slam breakfast advertisement, ironically making the chase cards much less desirable than those in the base set.

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Then, in 1997, the 24-hour diner chain turned the collecting world on its collective head. Not unlike the resplendent union of eggs and toast, a concept was hatched in which a single regulation-sized baseball card would include both lenticular and holographic elements. This intrepid design produced the most technologically ambitious baseball card ever—with roughly 71%* of the card’s real estate covered by special effects. The front of the card was oriented horizontally and featured crisp effects in front of or behind each subject. The back of the card contained biographical and career highlight information, along with a large holographic image of the player’s face. These cards were wrapped individually and were available for 59 cents to anyone who purchased an entrée and non-alcoholic beverage.

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The set was comprised of 29 cards, one for each of the 28 Major League teams of the day, along with a special Jackie Robinson card in honor of 1997 having been the 50th anniversary of his having broken baseball’s color barrier. The Robinson card was based on Ernie Sisto’s depicting Robinson being tagged out at plate by the Pirates’ Clyde McCullough at Ebbets Field on May 2, 1951.

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Oddly, Denny’s also produced a separately distributed card of Larry Doby, numbered “1 of 1.”** The Doby card was given out at the All-Star Game Fan Fest and National Sports Collectors Convention, both of which were held in Cleveland that year. [Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that the Doby card was also available at Cleveland-area Denny’s locations, but this has not necessarily been substantiated.] As you may know, Doby broke the color barrier in the AL, playing his initial game for the Indians on July 5, 1947.

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The 1997 Denny’s cards are fun to handle not only because of the movement and special effects on both sides, but also because a good number include other identifiable individuals. For example, John Jaha appears to be holding Wade Boggs on at first. The Sammy Sosa card has Jose Hernandez positioned oddly as Sosa appears to be mid home run trot. It appears that Jeff Bagwell is depicted on Tim Salmon’s card, Hal Morris appears on Derek Jeter’s card, Kirt Manwaring is seen on Andruw Jones’s card, and Jim Thome makes a baserunning appearance on Bagwell’s card, the only dual Hall of Famer entry in the lot.

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Interestingly, Cubs catcher Scott Servais appears on two cards, those of Ray Lankford and Gary Sheffield. The Sheffield card is particularly interesting because the visible Wrigley Field bunting probably dates that photograph as having been taken during the Cubs opening series against the Marlins in 1997, not long before the set would have been finalized for manufacture.

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The card fronts are also interesting to study for the differing ways in which motion was added and whether the perspective of that motion was in the foreground, background, or both. The majority of the cards depict the main subject as a solid, two-dimensional figure. Several cards, however, animate a portion of the player’s body, such as Mo Vaughn’s glove, Mike Piazza’s arm, and Frank Thomas’s left hand gripping a baseball to autograph.

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Unfortunately, all this technology came at a price. While information regarding the cost to produce each of these cards has eluded the author, these cards could not have been inexpensive to produce and Denny’s ambition may have been the reason for the demise of their baseball card promotions. Alas, the 1997 set was the last that Denny’s would distribute.

Even now, Denny’s sets and singles are readily available and relatively inexpensive. The ambitious 1997 set is the pinnacle of baseball card fun, even more so than Automan ever was.

Here is the checklist: 1997 Denny’s Checklist

Notes:

*I say that “roughly 71%” because the hologram features a slight rounded contour of a baseball, not a straight line. I am not going to do any math that requires me to calculate the area of an arc section.

**Denny’s having chosen to celebrate Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby may have been an effort to help rehabilitate their corporation reputation on the heels of paying $54.4 million to settle a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit.

Sources:

Jeff Leeds, “Denny’s Restaurants Settle Bias Suits for $54 Million: Civil rights: Blacks complained of discrimination at the chain. Case marks new push for Justice Department,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1994.

Dwight Chapin, Greg Smith, “Highland Mint strikes gold in memorabilia market,” The Marion Star (Marion, Ohio), August 31, 1997.

On cropping and layers

For most of baseball card history there have been two basic types of card designs. Either the photo is placed in a box* or the player is silhouetted onto a background.** Both of these designs are pretty straightforward with their image requirements in that designers only have to think about what is and isn’t shown in the photos.

*Straightforward but none more pure of an example than 1953 Bowman.

**1914 Cracker Jacks, 1949 Bowman, 1958 Topps, and many of the inserts from the 1980s to today.

There’s a third design though which took over cards in the 1990s and has made photo cropping difficult ever since. Rather than putting photos in boxes the trend toward full-bleed cards has created design after design that layers text and other graphic elements on top of the photo itself.

While it’s true that this design took over in the 1990s and was made extremely easy to do by foil stamping, it’s important to realize that its ancestry has been in cards for decades and in fact tended to surface every decade. So let’s go back to one of the first such designs.

Yup. 1957. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as proto-Stadium Club except that the photos themselves are pretty standard Topps photos that you’d expect to see until about 1991 or so. Posed shots showing a player’s upper body, headshots, and a few full-body “action” (at this point still posed) images.

The first thing to point out here is that Topps likes to put the players’ heads as high in the frame that it can. The next thing to look at—specifically in the Kluszewski and Thompson cards—is how Topps deals with the text overlapping the image. Topps likes to crop at players’ waists and at their necklines. In 1957 this is frequently where the top of the text starts but there’s another half inch of image visible under the text.

On the upper-body portraits this extra half inch can give us a little more information about the location of the photo and allow us to see the field and stadiums.

Photographically, these photos were also composed somewhat loose since the image area of the film is huge* and the photographer knew things would be cropped later. This is why in the Gomez card there’s so much grass in the foreground.

*at least 2 and a quarter inches square and quite likely more like 4 inches by 5 inches.

Now we flash forward a decade. On a lot of other sets* before this the image frame is knocking off a corner of the photo. This isn’t the same kind of design/photography issue since most of the photos are somewhat centered so there’s rarely something of import in the corners.

*eg. 1962, 1963, and 1965. Plus in 1966 there’s a layering effect in the corner.

1967 though is exactly like 1957 only there’s text at both the top and the bottom of the card now. Topps is doing the same thing as it did in 1957 too except that the players’ heads are now a little lower in the frame so that the names and positions can fit. The waist and neckline croppings though are pretty close to the 1957 croppings.

The net result here is that we get to see a lot more stadium details in many of the cards—giving the set a photographic character which differs from the other 1960s Topps offerings.

The Fuentes card though shows the dangers of this kind of design. Unlike the 1957 Gomez, Fuentes’s feet—and even his glove—are covered by the team name. This isn’t a big problem with a posed “action” photo but becomes much more of an issue when we move into the age of action photography.

I’ll jump to Japan for the 1970s since the Calbee sets of that decade deserve a mention. It’s obviously doing something very similar with extending the photo under the text. At the same time the simplicity of the text almost makes it an absence of design. In a good way.

It might be because I can’t read the text but the way it’s handled encourages me to not see it. Not because it’s not readable. Quite the opposite in fact. The way the text changes from black to white on the Sadaharu Oh card is handled masterfully in how my brain barely notices it. It’s there as information but manages to not take anything away from the photos.

It is worth noting though that the cropping on Oh and Davey Johnson is pretty similar to Topps’s standard cropping. And that third card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes has enough foreground space to give the text plenty of room to be legible.

Toppswise I skipped 1969 since it’s such a photographic nightmare that I don’t feel like it’s a fair to look at the photos. (Offhand though it’s interesting to note that it tends to crop the photos tighter at the bottom than 1967’s or 1957’s designs do.) 1980 is close, super close, to being included but it still feels like more of a corner-based design. Which brings us to 1988.

Not much to note with 1988 except for the layering of the player on top of the team name which is on top of the background. This is a wonderfully subtle bit of design that allows the photos to feel like they’re cropped similarly to the rest of Topps’s cards. Instead of getting more image area the layering doesn’t affect the image too much.

1991 brought us Stadium Club and the beginning of the full-bleed era of cards. Looking at this first set shows both that Topps was being pretty considerate with its cropping and how things would start to break.

Where earlier sets had the benefit of posed photos which could be cropped, as action photography began to be the priority for card companies the room for cropping started to decrease. For every card like Kent Anderson where there’s enough room for the graphics there’s a card like Damon Berryhill where the graphic is starting to intrude into the image.

1992 Stadium Club shows an alternative to just slapping a graphic on the bottom of the card. That Topps moves the graphic depending on where it best fits the photo is fantastic.

It’s also a lot of work since it requires each card to be designed individually. Instead of positioning an image into a template, this design requires the image and graphic to be adjusted until they work together. Find the best cropping, then adjust the graphic. This extra amount of work is probably why this approach hasn’t really been revisited since 1992.

By 1993 the standard operating procedure had been set. This design captures the way most sets ever since have been designed. A basic template, drop the picture in. Don’t worry if the graphic obscures an important part of the photo.

One of my pet peeves in the full-bleed era is when there’s a photo of a play at a base and the graphic obscures the actual play. The Bip Roberts is a textbook example of this. Great play at the plate except the focus of the play is obscured by the Stadium Club logo.

This is a shame since in 1993 Upper Deck showed how to do it right. The layering effect like 1988 Topps at the top allows the image to be cropped nice and tight at the top of the frame. Upper Deck though selected photos and cropped them to have empty space at the bottom.

You wouldn’t crop photos in general this way but as a background for the graphics it works perfectly. It forces the photos to be zoomed out enough that you can see the entire player and get a sense of what he’s doing within the game.

Most of the 1990s and 2000s however look like these. I could’ve pulled a bunch more sets—especially from Pacific and Upper Deck—here but they’re all kind of the same. Big foil graphics that cover up important parts of the photo. Some sort of foil stamping or transparency effect that cuts off the players’ feet.

Instead of cropping loosely like 1993 Upper Deck most of the cards in these decades feel like the photos were cropped before being placed in the graphics.

It’s easy to blame the card companies here but this is also a photography thing. Portrait photographers often find the crop after they take the photo. They use larger-format film and understand that the publication might need to crop to fit a yet-to-be-determined layout. Action photographers though get in tight and capture the best moment. This is great for the photos but not so great with baseball cards.

Baseball is a horizontal sport and there’s no reason to include dead foreground space. The only reason to include that space if you know that you’re shooting for a baseball card design that’s going to need it.

We’ll make a brief stop at 2008 though. This isn’t a transparency or overlay design but it’s doing something similar. Rather than the usual cropping at a corner of the image box, Topps placed its logo in a uvula at the top of the image box. Right where it would normally place the players’ heads.

The result? Very similar to 1967’s effect where the photos get zoomed out  a little and you see more background. The problem? These photos are already somewhat small and the change to mostly-action means that in most of them you’re just seeing more blurry crowds.

Fred Lewis is emblematic of the standard cropping. Small player image with lots of wasted space in the upper corners. That the posed photos like the Matt Cain are often bare skies at spring training locations instead of in Major League stadiums makes the added “information” there generally uninteresting.

All of this is a shame since the Tim Lincecum shows that when a selected photo is not impacted by the uvula, not only is the photo area not that small but the design can actually look pretty nice.

Okay. To contemporary cards and Topps’s recent dalliance with full bleed designs in flagship. I’m looking at 2017 here since it’s kind of the worst but 2016 to 2018 all do this. The transparency at the bottom of the cards is huge now. Yes it gets blurred out a bit but the photo information still needs to be there and as a result the cropping has to be even tighter.

As much as Topps was drifting toward in-your-face all-action shots, the actual designs of these cards sot of prevents any other kind of action. They also prioritize action that focuses in the top half of the frame. Any plays at a base gate stomped on by the design and even photos like the Chase Headley which don’t focus low in the frame are pretty much ruined too.

It’s easy to blame the TV graphics in Flagship but even Stadium Club—a set I love—has this same problem. On action photos the name/type often gets in the way of the image (compare Tim Anderson to the 1993 Upper Deck Lou Whitaker) but it’s the otherwise-wonderful wide-angle photos which fare the worst.

As the angle gets wider and the players get smaller, the odds that the text becomes intrusive increase tremendously. On Dexter Fowler’s card he’s the same size as the text and, as great as the photo is, the design of the card ruins it. Same goes with the Jose Berrios where the text is covering the entire mound and the ground fog Topps adds for contrast covers the whole playing field.

Which brings us to 2020 and a design that gets a lot of flak because it features sideways names.* What isn’t mentioned very frequently is how moving the transparency effect to the side of the card results in tremendously better photos and photo cropping.

*I don’t mind the sideways names except that I think they should’ve been rotated 180° so that when paged the horizontal cards don’t end up upside down.

All of a sudden we can see players’ feet again. Images aren’t all as in-your-face. We can have action images at second base where you can actually figure out what’s going on. Instead of cropping out the bottom of an image which a photographer has already framed, this design uses the space the photographers already provide for players to “move into.”*

*In action photography you’re generally trying to give the subject some room to move into the frame.

More importantly, it opens up the possibility for great photos that would never have worked in the previous full-bleed designs. For example, Omar Narvaez’s image is impossible to use in any design that puts transparency at the bottom of the card. Even Stadium Club. But 2020 Topps is flexible enough that it can use a wider variety of images.

I hope Topps learns some lessons from 2020 and that if we’re to see further full-bleed designs that they’ll be done in such a way so as to not get in the way of the images or to take advantage of the Transparency to give us more interesting photos.

When there was nothing to do except admire 1957 Topps…

Sometimes inspiration strikes when you least expect it. With everything going on in the world, I had put almost no time into my collection and for the first time in well over a year had no new articles in progress. Then, from my home-office-bunker in the basement I looked up at my framed 1957 Topps Brooklyn team set and didn’t love one of the cards.

It wasn’t just that my “Oisk” was off-kilter. (Try saying that to a normal person and see what kind of reaction you get!) It’s more that it just didn’t pop the way some of the other cards in my display did.

I headed to the Bay on my lunch break and quickly remedied the situation. (And if you can’t tell the difference between this card and the one above it, congratulations! It just means you are a normal person. It also means collecting vintage will be a lot cheaper for you than for some of us.)

Of course you all know how collecting works. Now that I had this beaut in the shopping cart, was there anything else I needed? The Erskine seller seemed to have an extensive inventory, and there was of course the added benefit that I’d save on shipping if I found other cards to order. In fact, I didn’t end up buying anything else. (And maybe like some of you I’ve found it hard to spend real money that can be used for food and toilet paper on little squares of cardboard…even if, yes, if we get really, really, really desperate…okay, let’s not go there.)

What I did come across, however, was a reminder: 1957 Topps is a gorgeous set. Here then, in no particular order, are some of my favorite shots in the set. Other than Ted Williams, I challenged myself to avoid Hall of Famers. This kept my focus on the card rather than the player.

And as a special bonus for the Dodger fans out there, here’s my new Brooklyn team set, complete with Erskine upgrade, nearly ready to frame back up.

So that’s it. That’s the post! Stay safe, stay home, and stay sane. If you have a favorite card from the 1957 set, let me know about it in the comments.

Quick postscript

Particularly with some of the cards in the set, there seem to be two versions. Side by side, one appears a bit more dull (which sometimes works!) and the other seems more green.

Initially I dismissed the differences to fading over time or the scans themselves, but having owned “pairs” of a couple players now, I think the differences are real. If you prefer one look over the other, don’t buy the first card you see. There doesn’t seem to be any pricing premium for one over the other, so go with what looks best to you.