As a baseball card collector and enthusiast, I feel that I am living through the Renaissance era of baseball card art. My Twitter feed is filled daily with spectacular images of cards from many artists that are working with a variety of mediums to produce their own interpretations of what cards of past and present players should look like. A number of these artists are also using their artwork to support charitable causes.
There was certainly an undercurrent of fine baseball card artwork being produced long before 2020, but the Topps Project 2020 brought to the surface a tidal wave of beautiful cards from a wide variety of artists.
Was Project 2020 an original idea or was it a variation on a project from the Junk Wax era? A case can be made that Project 2020 can be linked back to the All Star FanFest Cards from 1994 to 2000.
The two projects are similar in that they have multiple artists and designers coming up with unique cards of a single player and they also share some common player subjects – Roberto Clemente (1994 – Pittsburgh FanFest), Nolan Ryan (1995 – Dallas FanFest), and Jackie Robinson (1997- Cleveland FanFest).
Ray Schulte was responsible for the All Star FanFest cards from 1994 to 2000. At the time he was working as an event consultant for MLB Properties, and cajoled some of the major baseball card producers of the 90’s to design and distribute unique cards of an iconic player from the city that was hosting the All Star Game. To obtain the cards a fan had to redeem 5 pack wrappers of any baseball product of the manufacturer at their FanFest booth.
I was introduced to the cards when I attended the All Star FanFest event held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston in 1999. I attended the event with my family and upon learning about the cards from a Fleer representative sent my two kids on a mission to purchase 5 packs of cards produced by each of the four manufacturers from dealers at the event so we could exchange the wrappers for the Carl Yastrzemski cards designed just for the 1999 FanFest.
Now let’s take a closer look at the All Star FanFest sets which feature players that overlap with the Topps 2020 Project.
1994 All Star FanFest Set – Roberto Clemente
1994 was the first year that FanFest cards were issued and with Pittsburgh hosting the All Star Game the player subject was Roberto Clemente. Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck, Donruss, and Pinnacle issued cards for the event.
Fleer and Topps decided not to mess with perfection and produced cards that were essentially reprints of Clemente’s 1955 Topps rookie card and his 1963 Fleer card with 1994 All Star logos. Upper Deck issued a metallic looking card of Clemente that contains career stats and accomplishments on the front. Upper Deck would utilize the “metallic look” design for player subjects for the next 6 years. As you would expect, an image of a Dick Perez painting of Clemente is on the front of the Donruss Diamond King card.
1995 All Star FanFest Set – Nolan Ryan
With the 1995 All Star Game being held in the home park of the Texas Rangers the logical choice for the player subject for the FanFest cards was Nolan Ryan who retired in 1993.
The 5 card manufacturers who designed cards for the 1994 All Star FanFest also produced cards for 1995 All Star FanFest event held in Dallas.
Topps produced a re-imagined 1967 Rookie card of by eliminating the Jerry Koosman photo and enlarging the Nolan Ryan image to fill the front of the card. In microscopic print, Nolan’s complete major league pitching record is on the back of the card. Steve Carlton got the same treatment a year later when Topps enlarged his airbrushed 1965 photo to produce a new version of his Rookie card. Fleer issued an Ultra Gold Medallion version of a Ryan card. Upper Deck continued with its metallic design for a Ryan card. The Pinnacle card featured a Nolan Ryan painting and Donruss produced a Tribute card.
1997 All Star FanFest Set – Jackie Robinson
With the All Star Game 1997 marking the 50th year of his major league debut, Jackie Robinson was the correct selection for the player subject for the 1997 set.
Topps released a reprint of his 1952 card with a All Star logo on the front and his complete major league batting record on the back. Leaf distributed a reprint of Jackie’s 1948 “rookie” card with small All Star Game logo in the upper right-hand corner. Fleer choose a nice posed photo of Jackie looking like he is going to tag out the runner for its Ultra card. On the back of its Tribute card, Pinnacle included a great action shot of Robinson coming in head-first at home plate with the catcher about to make a tag. The photo leaves you wondering – Which way did the call go? Upper Deck once again used a metallic design for its Jackie Robinson FanFest card.
Other All Star FanFest Cards
1997 All Star FanFest Larry Doby Cards
Depending on your definition of a complete set, collectors should be aware that Fleer and Pinnacle released Larry Doby cards to coincide with the All Star game being held in Cleveland. Included below are photos of the Fleer Ultra card and the Pinnacle 3-D Denny’s card.
2000 Henry Aaron FanFest Error Card
For some reason Topps decided not to make a reprint of Aaron’s 1954 Rookie card part of the official 2000 All Star FanFest set. Instead, Topps designed a unique card that featured a spectacular color photo of Aaron in a posed batting stance. Topps did however print some of the 1954 Rookie reprints with an All Star Game logo. These Aaron Rookie reprints are considered “error” cards.
Almost all the All Star FanFest sets can be purchased for under $12 on eBay. The exception is the 1994 Roberto Clemente All Star FanFest set. Each manufacturer produced 15,000 cards for the event. Less than 10,000 of each card were distributed at FanFest. The rest of the cards were destroyed. A Clemente set will set you back about $60.
I’ve been looking forward to 2021 Heritage for a couple years now. This is partially because 1972 was the first set which stood out as the oldest cards in my childhood collection, but the main reason is because it’s just an incredibly challenging design to reproduce. Up to 1972, Topps’s designs are pretty restrained. Nothing complex is going on with the fonts and even the colorful sets feature solid blocks of color.
1972 though. Hoo boy. Custom type for the team names. Bright and colorful with different-colored borders. I could see the potential for a major trainwreck and I was split between hoping for such a wreck and hoping that Topps instead got it all right.
The reality of course lies between those two extremes. For the most part 2021 Heritage looks about right and the differences aren’t really worth complaining about. Those differences though are however the kind of thing I happen to find really interesting.
So let’s start out just comparing a bunch of 1972 Topps cards with their 2021 Heritage equivalents. Not a whole lot worth noting. Some color differences but most are really just shifts in darkness. Only the change from magenta to red on the Indians and Cubs cards is particularly noteworthy.*
*Side comment here but I’ve yet to see anyone post a tribute to the Billy Cowan card and that seems a massive missed opportunity. I am however not at all surprised that there’s no tribute to the Billy Martin card.
Zooming in though shows the usual interesting (to me at least) comparisons between printing technology in the 1970s and today. Or in the case with most of the Heritage cards, they show how the design workflow is different.
So let’s look at some details. 1972 on the left, 2021 on the right. I’m not going to look at the pairs in order, instead I’m grouping them based on how they differ colorwise.
Or, as is the case with this first group, how they don’t differ. The red, yellow, and greens are all solid. These all feature 100% yellow ink. The red also features 100% magenta and the green features 100% cyan. The difference in color between the two greens is a reflection of how heavy the cyan ink was printed.
In the borders and text sections you can see how the trapping and registration differs between 1972 and 2021. This is especially obvious on the 1972 red card since the black plate is a bit misregistered and doesn’t cover up the transitions between yellow, orange, and red.
And in the white text on the 2021 green card you can just make out the faint yellow screen that Topps printed to warm up the white card stock.
There’s also some weird stuff on a couple of the 2021 cards—a yellow edge in the S on the yellow card and a white edge between the green solid and black hairline—a which suggests that something else is going on. Since this oddness continues in the other examples I’ll wait until the end to address it.
The oranges are also pretty close. Still 100% yellow but now you can see the magenta screen. 2021 Heritage uses a much much finer line screen which could account for some of the color shifting.* The blues are completely different but we’ll cover those later.
*Also the bottom of the S on the Tigers card is yellow instead of white but I think this is just a mistake.
The oddness in the blacks—both the S and the hairline borders—in the 2021 cards continues here. The edges of the black components of the design just aren’t crisp. This is similar to the black edges in 2020 Heritage but has a very different shape in the way that the edge is screened.
The blue cards show the most-serious changes since they’ve gone from being just cyan ink to being a mix of all the inks. In 1972 the dark blue is 100% cyan and the light blue is like 40% cyan. In 2021 you can see multi-color halftone rosettes.*
*These changes can also be seen in the green and blue details on the Angels cards I showed in the previous orange section.
Nothing new to note in the blacks except that to my eyes the edges on the blue are even rougher.
To the last two pairs. Not much to say about Topps changing pink to red except to wonder if they had the same problem printing magenta-only that they had printing cyan-only and in the same way hat the blue cards ended up being a richer blue, maybe the pinks became more reddish until someone decided they should just be all red.
What’s weirder is that the In Action cards do not feature solid inks and instead the Magenta ink is screened. This is the definitive tell of a computer trying to match a target color instead of printing the input color* but the fact it only appears on this one color mix could just be a fluke.
*Back in the days before computer-generated print screens, it wasn’t just easier to print colors as solids, that was how the entire workflow went. For most things you picked the simple screen mix you wanted and what came off the press is what you got. With computers, the process is reversed. The designer picks the final desired color and then the computer decides what physical screen mix will achieve that.
Instead, I need to point out the difference in the black edges between the “In Action” text and the player name since this highlights how differently Topps created each element
If I had to guess I would say that Topps created the design of this set as continuous-tone artwork instead of linework. Continuous tone art consists of individually colored pixels such as you’d have in photographs or other Photoshop creations. They don’t scale well and the transitions between colors often end up being dithered and fuzzy instead of clean and crisp. Linework is also known as vector graphics and consists of shapes—whether simple like a box or complicated like a font—which the computer draws via a formula. Such shapes can be scaled and maintain crisp edges at multiple sizes.
The edges of the blacks in the team names, as well as the way that the ™ and ® symbols are fuzzy, suggests that Topps produced the borders in Photoshop instead of Illustrator.* This isn’t the way I’d want to design these since the flexibility of linework would allow for much better printing in terms of the crispness of the edges, control of the color, and trapping along the color transitions.
*They also provide an example of one of the first things to look for with counterfeited cards. Those kind of fuzzy edges are an obvious sign that something has been scanned and reprinted.
While I’m pretty sure that Topps produced the artwork using Photoshop, I’m a bit confused at how they created the text in the team names. While the type in the 22 team names that existed in the 1972 set* looks correct, the type in the eight new names** is a disaster.
*There were 24 teams in 1972 but the Expos became the Nationals and the A’s became the Athletics.
**Six expansion teams plus the Nationals and Athletics.
The arch effect in 1972 is simple vertically-arched lettering.* All the vertical lines are supposed to remain vertical and only the horizontals follow the curve. The 1972 font highlights this by having the engraved lines which should all be parallel. None of the eight new team names are able to do this however.
*For you custom card makers out there, in Illustrator, using “Type On Path” with the “skew” option instead of “rainbow” will do this with zero effort. And yes I’m assuming Topps has the font for this.
The least offensive is the Rays where only the stem of the Y really shows how things are going bad. The others have multiple letters (or in the case of the Marlins and Blue Jays, all of the letters) tilted incorrectly. On top of this, some letters—all the Es for example—are bizarrely malformed and there’s also the backwards first A in Diamondbacks to contend with.
This all feels like some one tried to warp things in Photoshop and failed miserably and the end result shows off all the worst things about Heritage. A shame since there’s a lot of good stuff going on otherwise and I do like the 1972 design.
Oh and the postseason card is included here because the choice to mix italics into the arched lettering is such a bad choice that it ends up looking like the same kind of warping weirdness that bedevils the team names.
Moving to the backs. Yes there are legitimate problems with the font size Topps used on some of the cards. But that’s a basic choice (or lack of caring) and isn’t that interesting. What I did find interesting is how Topps is printing the backs using 4-color process instead of just black and orange ink and how the actual paper “color” is now a printed design element.
This faked grey card stock thing is why the back colors are different card-to-card. Keeping that kind of color consistent is really hard. A slight deviation in any one of the ink densities throws the whole color slightly warm or cool.
I scanned these two cards together so that the color differences came form the cards and not my scanning. Zooming in shows no discernible difference in the screening so the final color differences are just printing variations. These zooms also show how all three colors (the only black in appears to be in the text and lines) are also present in the orange portions of the design.
This is something I’m used to on Archives but it’s a bit of a disappointment to see shortcuts like this in Heritage. Especially when it results in visibly highlight printing differences in a stack of cards.
Author’s Note: The SABR Baseball Cards blog is pleased to introduce new SABR member Donna Muscarella, whose interests in baseball, the Negro Leagues, and photography led her to produce a Hinchliffe Stadium baseball card set.
What led to your interest in Hinchliffe Stadium?
I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum during a baseball-themed vacation in 2016. The experience left me feeling a range of emotions—from anger to awe and much in between—but mostly, it left me with a desire to learn more about the Negro Leagues players, owners, and teams.
When the Tip Your Cap campaign associated with the Negro Leagues’ 100th Anniversary started in June 2020, I wanted to have Topps do a small run of twenty custom baseball cards for me. Initially, I planned for the cards to depict me tipping my cap in tribute to the Negro Leagues. That’s a pretty dull card on its own, so I started thinking about places that would complement the theme. With local venues closed, and my feeling uncomfortable traveling during a pandemic, every idea I had about location seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream. I scrapped the plan.
In addition to limited or no access to venues of all kinds, 2020 also brought limited or no access to modern baseball cards (at least, not at prices I felt were reasonable, Project 2020 aside). The lack of product led me to think about other hobby options, and I became enamored with the thought of building a collection of postcards depicting stadiums in which Negro Leagues baseball had been played. The first step in that process was to compose a list of ballparks. Imagine my surprise and jubilation when I discovered that a dedicated Negro Leagues ballpark—not a Major League stadium rented to a Negro League team—was still standing a little more than ten miles from my house!
What made you decide to turn your Hinchliffe photos into a baseball card set?
Once I learned about Hinchliffe, the plan for my Tip Your Cap tribute card was on again. A bigger plan snapped into focus the second Hinchliffe came into sight. There in front of me was a beautiful Larry Doby mural painted on the stadium wall. My vision was to pose in front of the stadium gate, but as soon as I saw the Doby mural, I knew it was the perfect spot for my Tip Your Cap photo. I felt compelled to get that stadium gate onto a card, though. And if I was going to do a card featuring the gate, then why not a small set of cards showcasing Hinchliffe? As I began to walk around the stadium with goosebumps growing on top of goosebumps, I knew it had to be.
Though the write-ups are brief, I learned a lot from the backs of your cards. How much was it a goal of yours to educate collectors?
The idea for the cards was born out of a desire to pay personal tribute to the Negro Leagues during its centennial year and to inspire others to learn more about the Negro Leagues. I was moved by the thought that maybe, just maybe, each person that read the cards might be moved to not only do some research on their own, but also to invite someone else to explore all that the history of the Negro Leagues has to offer. You know, kind of like that shampoo commercial from the 1980s: “I told two friends and they told two friends and so on and so on and…”
The backs of your cards pay homage to 1933 Goudey. What made you choose that style for your card backs?
I thought it would be fun to incorporate some aspects of vintage cards into this set. After all, it showcases a venue that opened to the public in the early 1930s. I chose to model the card backs after the 1933 Goudeys because Hinchliffe Stadium hosted the Colored World Series in 1933. And the rounded font on the card fronts, while not exactly the same, is meant to be reminiscent of the Goudey font. The uncoated front and back surfaces are another vintage attribute I chose.
How did you decide how many cards to include and which cards/pictures to include in your set?
I wanted the card images to tell a story, to give a small sense of what it might have been like to visit Hinchliffe on a game day. The images chosen and the corresponding size of the set grew organically from the elements of the ballpark I was able to photograph from outside the gates that would support that journey.
How did you decide how many sets to make?
Being that I’m a first-time custom-card creator, I wanted to keep the print run small. Fifty was the minimum amount I could order using the card stock I chose, so I went with it. Should there be enough interest in my work, I would consider a larger edition for other sets.
You mentioned that you live very close to Hinchliffe. Do you see yourself traveling someday to other historic baseball sites to take pictures and/or make trading cards?
Absolutely! Incorporating baseball into vacations is a tradition that my parents started, and as a fourth-generation baseball fan, I’ve taken it one step further by building many of my travel plans around baseball. My discovery of Hinchliffe has made me want to incorporate even more exploration of baseball history into my travels.
I can walk down an ordinary New York City street or stroll through a nearby park and want to take photos left and right, but put me in the midst of baseball history with my camera and I’m like a kid in a candy store. It’s a pretty safe bet that more historic baseball sites will be visited and captured through my camera lens.
This Hinchliffe trading card project has been invigorating, and I hope to repeat that feeling by creating and releasing more card sets.
Aside from stadiums or places, what other baseball-themed card sets you hope to make?
I would love to do a set or series of sets that incorporate some of my favorite images of players that I’ve captured over the years. But without licensing from at least the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (and Major and Minor League Baseball if I want to include team names and logos), I can’t release those images in bulk, or even in duplicate. I can, however, use those images in one-of-one pieces of art. I have some ideas for combining my photos of players and stadiums with baseball cards to create unique artwork and plan to begin experimenting with them soon.
My next planned project is a companion set to complement my original Hinchliffe cards. The images included in the initial release were taken with a somewhat photojournalistic approach. I wanted to convey the story of fans arriving to the ballpark (the gate on Card 1), purchasing tickets (the ticket windows on Card 2), heading to the seating bowl (the entry area on Card 3), and sitting down to watch the action (the stands on Card 4). The anticipation contained in those moments are precious.
What I’ve found though, is that there is so much more to Hinchliffe! I’ve begun capturing the character of the ballpark with more of an eye for detail. For example, the sphere-topped flagpoles now sit bare against a blue sky—to think how majestic they looked when serving their purpose on a game day! I don’t know what the final composition of the set will be, but plan for it to once again feature my photography and serve as a vehicle to share information about Hinchliffe and its relationship with the Negro Leagues.
Something that makes your set unique versus what I see from many other independent card producers is that you used photos you took yourself rather than found elsewhere. How long have you been a photographer and what got you started?
My parents tell me I was inquisitive almost from birth, and I am also very sentimental. I believe my love of photography stems from a need to explore and a desire to preserve my discoveries. This idea of exploration can take on many forms—for instance, it may involve visiting a new place or examining a familiar subject with a new perspective. The possibilities are endless, especially with photography.
That said, I’ve enjoyed photography since I was a child. My first camera, a 110 point and shoot, was the bonus I received when opening a new savings account. There were other gift options available, but I wanted that camera! When we’d get photos developed from family vacations, it was always easy to tell which rolls were mine. All you had to do was look for the envelopes full of photos of clouds and flowers and animals and unusual takes on buildings or statues…
Do you have any photography tips for our readers interested in taking their own photos of stadiums or other baseball subjects?
Experiment! Digital photography is extremely conducive to it. You can immediately see your captured image and decide if you like what the image conveys or if adjustments are needed. Play with different vantage points, different use of light and shadow, and different fields of view.
Don’t be afraid to get lost in the details. Search for gems hidden in plain sight. It’s easy to be captivated by the sweeping expanse of a ballpark. There is tons of beauty there, and it is worthy of attention. But there also is beauty to be found in the details! Maybe it’s the scrollwork on the aisle seats or the way the sunset is glowing through the lighting panels mounted on top of the stadium or the way a small portion of the stadium’s exterior appears even more majestic when its backdrop is an azure blue sky.
If photographing a stadium on game day, arrive early and go inside as soon as gates open. Take advantage of location and experience opportunities that may exist only in the first forty-five minutes or so after gates open.
As for equipment, sure it’s nice to have a “fancy” camera. I shoot with a DSLR (currently Nikon D500) and a compact camera (currently Canon PowerShot SX730). But if your phone’s camera is the only camera you own, don’t let that stop you from photographic exploration. If you decide you like the photographic adventure enough to invest in a more advanced camera, do so when your financial means allow. Don’t feel like you need to buy the top of the line camera, or even a camera with interchangeable lenses (DSLR or mirrorless) right away.
What’s involved in turning your images and text into an actual baseball card? What parts were “DIY” and what parts did you use outside resources for?
I designed and composed the cards myself. Aside from image selection, I started my design approach with the back of the cards. I was determined to pay homage to 1933 Goudeys, so I wasn’t starting from scratch with my design template. I needed to find fonts and colors that would evoke a Goudey feel. Since I was printing on white stock (to best preserve image colors), I needed to select not only a color for the lettering, but also a background color that would mimic 1933 cardboard. The most challenging part was fitting all of the information I wanted to include onto the tiny backs of those cards!
For the card fronts, I used desktop publishing software to experiment with different design options and color schemes. My experimentation ended when I found the combination that best complimented all of the images I had chosen and paired well with the flip-side design. Once the layout and content were finalized, I converted the “pages” to press-quality PDFs and gave them to a professional shop for printing.
Besides making your own cards, tell us about your favorite baseball cards, either from when you were a kid or present day.
Dave Winfield’s rookie card (1974 Topps #456) always comes to mind when I am asked about favorite cards. My love of this card has nothing to do with the card’s design. It is based solely on a personal experience involving the card.
One Saturday afternoon sometime in the 1980s, I answered the phone and was surprised to hear my dad’s voice on the other end. He and my mom were at the mall. Of course, back then, calls from public places were usually made using pay phones and weren’t made just to shoot the breeze—a call from a pay phone had a distinct purpose. I couldn’t imagine why my dad would be calling from the mall and hoped that everything was alright.
In a very excited voice, Dad told me that Dave Winfield was at the mall for a free (!) autograph signing for another 45 minutes. He told me to grab a Winfield card and get there fast. So I grabbed my Winfield rookie and headed to the mall while my parents held a place in line.
When we got to the front of the line, Mr. Winfield extended his hand to greet us. I shook his hand first and watched my hand and wrist disappear in his. After he shook hands with my parents, I thanked him for being there and told him I would be honored if he would please sign my copy of his rookie card. As I placed it in front of him, he said, “Are you sure you want me to sign this? It’s going to ruin the card.” I exuberantly responded, “No it won’t, and yes please!” He asked again, “You’re sure?” “Absolutely!” He proceeded to sign the card and handed it back to me. I was beaming.
As I was shaking his hand again and offering my gratitude, my dad said, “Oh no! I just realized what shirt you’re wearing.” Mr. Winfield said, “It’s perfect. It’s a Yankees shirt!” “Yes,” my father responded, “but she’s got someone else’s name and number on her back!” As my father put his hands on my shoulders to turn me around, I let out a mortified “Dad!” as only a teenager could. Mr. Winfield laughed. I explained that if I had taken the time to change my shirt, I might have missed meeting him and apologized for the unintentional disrespect I had shown. He was the perfect gentleman. And so Dave Winfield’s 1974 Topps card will always be special to me.
Don Mattingly’s Topps rookie and the 1971 Topps Thurman Munson are also favorites from my younger years (although the Munson predates the start of my collecting by a few years).
In terms of modern cards, I am a fan in general of Topps Allen & Ginter and Heritage, including Heritage Minors, as well as Topps ProDebut. Stadium Club is another favorite because it features such beautiful photography.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some of my favorite artist cards here. Josh Trout’s Jackie Robinson from 2020 Topps Gallery is a beauty, and Efdot’s Mariano Rivera and Blake Jamieson’s Don Mattingly from Project 2020 are also standouts.
I understand you just recently joined SABR. What prompted your decision, and what aspects of membership are you most excited about?
My first non-statistical exposure to SABR came via an event in the late 2000s at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center. I recall fondly the sense of camaraderie amongst the panelists and gallery of attendees. So the first impression was a very good one. Fast-forwarding to 2020, I became more active on social media and found SABR’s contributions from both the master account and several committee accounts to be both interesting and informative.
I am most looking forward to meeting new people through SABR and participating in activities with fellow SABR members. I am also excited about the tremendous amount of knowledge that sits with members of SABR and affording myself of opportunities to learn more about the greatest game ever: baseball.
If our readers want to connect with you, what is the best way they can do that?
I’d love to hear from fellow baseball enthusiasts! For longer inquiries or conversations, please email me at TheLensOfDonnaM@gmail.com. I’m also on Twitter and Instagram: @TheLensOfDonnaM.
I expect fellow author-collector Dylan has really started something with his post on the subject a couple weeks back. The topic is one just begging for the pen of each of our members, even as the idea of choosing “just four?!” often feels impossible.
1934-36 Diamond stars
I’ll lead off with a set that Dylan included on his Mt. Rushmore, the “Diamond Stars” issued by National Chicle from 1934-36. Like Dylan, it’s the look of the cards that hooks me in.
The color palette jumps off the cardboard like ink off a comic book page, but I am also a big fan of the baseball scenes depicted in so many of the card backgrounds. I’ve already written about these scenes coming more from the imaginations of the artists than real life, but for me that’s a feature, not a bug.
From a purely visual standpoint, Diamond Stars is my favorite set of the 1930s and perhaps my favorite set of all-time. Where it falls short with many collectors is in its player selection. Conspicuously absent from the set are Yankee greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. For the budget set collector, this is yet another bug-turned-feature.
If you’ve read a few of my pieces already, you also know I enjoy sets with some novelty and mystery. Diamond Stars definitely fits the bill, not only for its various quirks but also offers early instances (though by no means the earliest) of “Traded” cards.
If I had to choose one thing I dislike about this set, it’s the repetition of 12 players at the end of the set’s 108-card checklist. Particularly as these final cards are more scarce than the first 96, the duplication introduces disproportionate pain for set collectors forced to pay a premium for cards they already have.
Here is another set I’ve written about quite a bit and the set under whose shadow all other sets of the era reside.
While the set’s iconic status goes hand in hand with its trademark “Big League Chewing Gum” banner along so many of the card bottoms, my favorite cards come from the set’s final three releases (e.g., Morrissey, Root, and Herman above).
Where Diamond Stars lacked Ruth and Gehrig, Goudey brought these players on steroids, combining for six cards across the set’s 240-card checklist. Counting the Napoleon Lajoie card issued the following year, the set includes 66 cards of Hall of Famers and all but two players who competed in the season’s inaugural All-Star Game.
Were I to find fault with this set, it would be in a flaw common to all other baseball sets issued in the United States around this time. The set included players from the National League, American League, Pacific Coast League, International League, Southern Association, and American Association but no players from the Negro National League or other Black baseball leagues.
Kudos to my bud Scott Hodges who is filling some big holes in the 1933 Goudey set and others with his own digital card creations.
I’ve attempted similar in analog fashion though I’ve been less faithful to the history. Here is Buck Leonard on the Grays a year before he joined the team.
I will definitely treat the absence of Black stars as a bug, not a feature, but if there’s a silver lining it’s that there is no chance I could afford a 1933 Goudey Josh Gibson, and its absence from my collection would absolutely torment me daily.
1911 T205 Gold Borders
Like Dylan I had to include a tobacco set on my list. The T206 set, which initially did little for me, has grown on me immensely over the past couple years. Still, it would have to gain a lot more ground to surpass its gilded sequel.
The set features three different designs: one for National Leaguers, one for American Leaguers, and one for Minor Leaguers.
I absolutely love the NL and Minor League designs and am somewhat ho hum about the AL one, so I’m fortunate to be a Brooklyn collector.
As brilliant as the card fronts are, the T205 card backs are not to be ignored. While some feature brief biographies and one of several tobacco brands, others include…stats!
As with the two sets covered thus far, you will not find a single Black player in this set. You might suppose no card set from 1911 included Black athletes, but this was not the case. For example, here is Jack Johnson from the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets (mostly baseball) set.
Once again then there is the knowledge in collecting T205 that you’re not collecting the very best players of the era. But again, did I mention I was a Brooklyn collector?!
Here’s where it always gets tough. I probably have ten or more sets I’m considering, but the rules are that I can only choose one. Though I love the cardboard of the 1930s (and earlier!) so much, my favorite era of baseball is the early 1950s. Though integration was slow, it was at least happening, and the mix of new talent and old talent was simply off the charts.
That said, the number of baseball card sets that managed to include all the top stars of the period was practically zero. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Robinson in the same (playing era) set? Your choices are already fairly limited:
1947 Bond Bread
1948 Blue Tint
1950 All-Star Pinups
1950 R423 Strip Cards
1952 Berk Ross
Add Stan Musial and Bob Feller and the list shrinks further:
1947 Bond Bread
1950 R423 Strip Cards
1952 Berk Ross
Add Mantle and Mays and the list boils down to one: 1952 Berk Ross.
With a selection of players that also includes Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, Duke Snider, Monte Irvin, and an awesome Johnny Mize “in action” card, could this set be the winner?
As much as I love the checklist, the answer has to be no. Most of the images are too dark, too light, or too weird for my taste, and the simple design borders on the boring. Still, what could have been!
The key then is to find a set with beautiful cards and almost all these same players, and–if we add a few more years–Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Ernie Banks.
As much as it pains me to give up Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, it’s hard for me not to land on 1956 Topps. The beautiful portraits, the Kreindleresque action shots, and the awesome cartoon backs offer my favorite overall design of the Golden Age of Baseball, and the absence of Bowman meant nearly every active star was included in the set.
Unlike 1952 Berk Ross, with only 72 cards, 1956 Topps included 342 cards (counting un-numbered checklists), hence was large enough to assign a card to nearly everyone, not just a couple stars per team.
If I have any bitterness toward this set, it’s only the sour grapes of waiting way too long to collect it. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that sometimes to collect your Rushmore you need to…rush more! Luckily, I do have all 24 Brooklyn cards from the set, and hey, did I mention I’m a Brooklyn collector?
How about you? Which vintage (or modern!) sets make your Mt Rushmore? We look forward to your article!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.” 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…
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
No entry yet.
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!)
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.
No entry yet, but I’ll use this third baseman’s card as a placeholder.
No entry yet.
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.
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!