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.
For collectors of a certain age, there was a time in our youth when there were a few rules about Topps cards. I’m referring here to later end of the “single-series” era of 1974-1992, when a rookie card meant one line of MLB stats on the backside, off season transactions waited until the Traded set, and 792 was a sacred number.
But these were not strict rules, of course, and thusly led to aberrations that fascinated collectors like myself. Take 792, for example. Between 1982 and 1992, every flagship set was made up of 792 cards. Then 1993’s two-series set brought Baltimore’s Jim Poole at #793… I remember being thrilled by that card when I pulled it in ’93. It was totally new territory. Or the audacity of BJ Surhoff’s 1987 Future Stars rookie card – which featured NO big league stats on the back as Surhoff had yet to make his MLB debut. This was NOT something that supposed to happen.
But none of that compared to the shock I felt finding Jody Davis’ 1989 card… in which he was in the uniform of the Chicago Cubs, had a Cubs title above his name, but featured a plain text warning that read “NOW WITH BRAVES.”
I was amazed by this. Was this something that happened just as these cards were going into their wax wrappings? Was some poor schmuck stationed over the sheets as they came off the press, stamping ever Jody Davis that flew past? What was happening here?
I spent some time recently looking at Topps’ ‘deadline dates’ – the date past which offseason moves did not get coverage in the following year’s set. Of course, even after Topps stopped reflecting off-season moves in flagship in 1979, Topps still had a deadline date. From 1979 to 1981, it was the end of the World Series, when the playoff cards were set. Following that, it was at the end of the regular season, when league leaders cards could be finalized and everyone was depicted with the team with which they had ended the season. Of course, this wasn’t quite accurate – as evidenced by the 1980 Dock Ellis and Ralph Garr cards, in which late-season team changes were acknowledged only in their 1979 stat lines.
This was, for the most part, not an issue. Certainly Topps had an eye on the trading deadline, when a few big names were likely to change clubs, after which they could get to work unimpeded. But September trades were rare and usually inconsequential. Between 1980 and 1984, only two players important enough for cards the following year changed teams in September. On September 13, 1980, Sparky Lyle was traded from the Rangers to the Phillies and appeared in the 1981 set in an airbrushed Phillies cap. Doug Bair joined the Cardinals on September 10, 1981 and got a similar treatment in the 1982 set. And then, for two years, nothing of note to Topps happened late in the summer.
But on August 31, 1984, the Oakland A’s shipped Davey Lopes to the Cubs to complete a minor swap they’d made in July. Two days earlier, the Astros had traded All-Star Ray Knight to the Mets. Somewhere in Duryea, PA, a Topps artist set Knight up with a Mets card for the forthcoming 1985 set. They’d even manage to get a actually photo of him in his Mets uni to go with. But those two days were enough to leave Lopes with nothing more than three little words crammed into the corner of his Oakland A’s card – NOW WITH CUBS.
The concept was one that had been practiced north of the border for a decade and a half. O-Pee-Chee, a Canadian candy company, had been licensed to issue a bilingual version of Topps baseball sets in the Great White North since 1965. Since 1971, the O-Pee-Chee set had used the advantage of its later release date to reflect trades and transactions that had come too late to include in the Topps set. This usually consisted of using the Topps photo, but updating the team marker and including a small note in the photo detailing the move.
It’s not clear why Lopes got this treatment in 1985, but it indicates that Topps held a pretty hard line on when their 1985 card fronts needed to be finalized. They were a bit more relaxed in 1986, when three early September moves from the ’85 season – Don Sutton to the Angels, Dave Stewart to the Phillies, and Joe Nierko to the Yankees – were reflected with unaltered photos. But when Darryl Motley was traded to the Braves ten days before the end of the 1986 season, it was enough past the set’s bedtime that he became the second man to get the “NOW WITH” treatment in Topps’ flagship.
The 1988 set continues this mini-trend of depicting early September moves, but merely tagging late September transactions. On September 15, 1987, John Candelaria was traded by the Angels to the Mets and his 1988 card show him in an unaltered image as a Met. However, when Dickie Noles was traded to the Tigers (for a player to be named that ended up being… Dickie Noles) on the 22nd and when Doug DeCinces signed with the Cards four days later, Topps slapped both of their 1988 cards with the “NOW WITH.” Same for the aforementioned Jody Davis and Kevin Coffman, who went between the Cubs and Braves in a deal just four days before the end of the 1988 season.
This would mark the end of the “NOW WITH” phenomenon in Topps flagship. Neither 1989 nor 1990 produced any late September player moves that would have upset the next year’s set make-up and a late-September trade in 1991 involving Mike Bielicki, Damon Barryhill, and Turk Wendell (once again the Braves and Cubs), was actually represented in the 1992 set. That same year, O-Pee-Chee issued its final “Now With” cards as it was their last year of mimicking the Topps flagship (they issued their own unique set in 1993).
For more on O-Pee-Chee and its marvelous variations, please visit the Oh My, O-Pee-Chee blog, which is an incredible resource and helped out with my work here.
Now… hold on here. I don’t mean it however you take that I mean it there. What I mean is, at some point when putting together their flagship checklist, Topps had to stop reacting to new player transactions. This is most apparent in the early part of the single-series era, but it also reflects in their multi-series issues of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Between 1957 and 1969, every Topps set reflected at least one trade made in either late March or early April (years prior to 1957 are a little hard to figure due to a lack of meaningful pre-season trades).
Things start to roll back a bit, though, entering the 1970s. In the 1970 set, the latest reflected move is Phil Roof’s trade to the Pilots on January 15 – placing the “deadline” a full two months sooner than it had been in decades. In the 1971 set, the latest is Andy Kosco’s February 10 trade to the Brewers, depicted in the sixth and final series. In 1972, Topps cheated just a bit – depicting transactions that occurred as late as March 4 in the ‘Traded’ series in the sixth series, which featured players who had already appeared earlier in the set (in this era, of course, Topps could only reflect team changes on players who were slated to appear in the higher series).
It appears that Topps had been trying to hasten the release of their full baseball checklist in the early 1970s by skipping out on late-spring player moves and moving from seven series to six after the 1970 release. But in ’72, they released their largest set ever – nearly 800 cards – and the inclusion of the actual photos taken at some point in early March (Denny McLain’s March 4 trade is the latest reflected and he is shown in his Oakland uniform) – suggests a release schedule more in line with what they had been doing in the 1960s. But the changes Topps made for the 1973 and ’74 sets (as well as the modern-day scarcity of ’72 sixth series cards) indicate that their 1972 release schedule had been a significant burden on the company’s bottom line. For ’73, the set was trimmed back to 660 cards and five series. The latest depicted transaction was Earl Williams’s trade to Baltimore on November 30, 1972 and the final series contained a card of Orlando Cepeda as an Oakland A, even though he’d been released on December 18 – all of which indicates a transaction deadline about three months earlier than it had been for 1972.
The multi-series concept was ditched for 1974, and for the first time we can see a true line past which transactions did not matter. Jerry Ruess’ October 31, 1973 trade from the Astros to the Pirates was the latest off-season deal recognized in the set. Bob Locker, who went from the Cubs to A’s three days later, had to settle for an outdated offering in the main 1974 set.
Topps issued their first-ever “traded” series that year in an effort to make up what had been lost in the single-series issue. The cards – essentially updated takes on traded player’s 1974 base cards – were inserted into later-run packs. The 43 player set covered transactions that occurred between Locker’s trade and the December 11 trade that sent Ron Santo from the Cubs to the White Sox.
With no traded set in 1975, Nate Colbert’s shift to the Tigers on November 18 was the latest move that Topps included in the flagship. Bafflingly, the two men he was traded for – Dick Sharon and Ed Brinkman – are ALSO depicted as Tigers in the set. Topps brought back the Traded set in 1976, again including the updated cards in later-run packs. While their flagship was deadlined just after Nelson Briles’ trade to the Rangers on November 12, the Traded series covered moves made between November 17 and mid-December.
The advent of wide-spread free agency following the 1976 season pushed the flagship deadline back to the beginning of December. Not surprisingly, Topps waited on the offseason’s biggest prize – Reggie Jackson – to land his star in New York City before setting that set’s team designations. Jimmy Wynn, who went to the Yankees from the Braves the day after Jackson signed, would remain a Brave (on cardboard anyway) for another year. The 1978 set waited even longer, issuing a card of Ron Schueler in an airbrushed White Sox cap after he signed on December 3. It would be the latest-ever transaction Topps would acknowledge in the single-series era.
While I’ve been unable to find any information on release dates from this era, by 1979, Topps shifted their priority to getting their set to market as soon as possible. Perhaps wishing to avoid the messiness of only being able to cover half of a given off-season’s moves, Topps stopped acknowledging post-season player shifts all together. In 1980, their cutoff for finalizing player base cards even left two late-September 1979 moves (Ralph Garr to the Angels and Dock Ellis to the Pirates) to be recognized only in passing on the back of each card.
The introduction of an annual Traded set in 1981 gave Topps a means of recognizing off-season moves while still being able to get their cards to market soon enough as not to get swamped in a suddenly-competitive marketplace. But Topps would still be operating with a transaction deadline… a topic I’ll be exploring in a soon-to-come post.
After working hard on several vintage football sets, I turned back to baseball in late September. I was having a great time (still am) working on old Bowman, Topps and Philadelphia football sets of the 1950’s and 1960’s (short checklists, not too many pricey cards), but, for me, a 1964 Jim Parker doesn’t resonate as much as a 1964 Wes Parker. For reasons stated previously, I dove into the 1964 Topps baseball set.
It’s been pretty fast work. I thought I’d get from my starting point of 157 cards to 400 relatively quickly, and I did. And how! In two months, thanks to multiple purchases of 50–60 cards at a clip (including two incredibly productive trips to Yastrzemski Sports in Cooperstown), a few trades, and enough sales to help cushion the cost, I powered up to over 560 cards. Twenty or so to go, none more expensive than the Niekro rookie (which I think I can get for less than $50 in EX).
I’m at the point where any 3 or 4 card pickups are meaningful. Yesterday I got four in the mail—an upgraded Dick McAuliffe, Dave Morehead, Ken Harrelson, and Frank Baumann. In Baumann lies today’s story.
It’s rare to me when something sticks out as fishy. I had a weird incident last week with a ’64 Maris. It was off center, which I knew, but only when I had it in hand did I notice the right edge was clearly trimmed. It was uneven in a way that only a hand cut could produce. I sent it back, got a refund, no problem.
Handling yesterday’s delivery, I was struck by the quality of the Baumann. Sure, it had all the looks of an EX/EX+ card (as advertised), but it didn’t feel right. First, it was glossy, not at all like the finish that vintage cards have. Second, the paper stock was thin and bendy. Third, the back had a thin white line that seemed out of place.
The dealer is one of my favorites, and I had no reason to suspect foul play. Perhaps it was in a collection they bought, and the original owner printed it up at home to fill a binder slot. I reached out and they were happy to offer a refund.
But it still bugged me this morning. How could it be fake? Why would it be fake? The counterfeit Frank Baumann market can’t be a lucrative business. Why would anyone go through that trouble?
I first turned to Nick, our esteemed committee co-chair and knower of all things print related. I sent him a hi res scan, 800 dpi, and he gave it a look. He didn’t think it was beyond the regular Topps inconsistencies of the day, and the printing was not what he’d expect to see in a fake.
I put it out on Twitter and Keith Olbermann knew. Of course Keith Olbermann knew. Keith has often pointed out Topps’ use of different printers for different series (which resulted in severalyears of last series having a brighter look), and he believed that was what went on here. He was aware of cards from the 6th series of 1964 having a “slick” feel. Mystery solved, refund not needed.
Interestingly, one of my Twitter pals (@KenBorsuk1) replied that he had recently bought a 1969 Roy Face card online that had the similar quality of not feeling right. Then more Tweets followed. Nick checked his Giants and they all were printed this way. Gio (@wthballs) thought the Gaylord Perry he recently sent my way was like this, and it is! Why that didn’t make an impact on me is a mystery.
This all makes me wonder how many years this happened, how many of these glossier cards are out there and is there any real rarity there. Not for Frank Baumann of course, but for Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry? If that type of card was harder to come by, then shouldn’t that be a pricing factor?
Check your collections everyone! We may be on to something here!
When the insider information Mark was hoping for didn’t arrive, I decided to make a day of delving deep into the Donruss checklist. Best case scenario, I’d have answers to all Mark’s questions. Worst case scenario, you’d get an article that at least brought back some of the nostalgia and fondness of the company’s debut baseball offering.
Apropos to Mark’s questions, let’s take a closer look at the cards that open the set.
Much like some of the early Bowman sets or even 1940 Play Ball, the set’s numerical checklist (cards 1-17 shown below, including both Duffy Dyer variations) includes small team runs. As already noted by Mark, cards 1-4 above are San Diego Padres and cards 5-10 are Detroit Tigers.
Were the pattern to continue throughout the set, no deep study or article would be warranted. However, the Mike Schmidt card is our first of many hints that the organization of the set is hardly as simple as your binder’s opening sheet might have suggested.
Was Schmidt’s presence simply a mistake? After all, like the Fleer set of the same year, the set did include several errors and variations. A look at the next two pages in the binder might shed some light.
Things start out simple enough: Astros, Astros, Astros, Astros, but then what’s this? Another lone Phil, this time Manny Trillo, appearing out of nowhere, before the run of Astros continues. Next up, a run of Rangers cards, a run of Blue Jays, and then…you guessed it! Another Phillie, this time Steve Carlton, pops in.
Were we forced to describe the structure of the set based only on what we’ve seen so far, I suppose the description would go something like this: groupings of 4-6 teammates, punctuated by the occasionally lone Phil.
This schematic of the set’s first hundred cards (excluding variations) illustrates that our description continues to hold, at least mostly, well past the cards we’ve seen so far. The only deviation comes from our lone Phils ultimately giving way to lone Braves.
The schematic also shows us that the placement of the lone Phils/Braves cards is not random. Geometrically, they form a perfect diagonal down the grid, meaning numerically they differ by exactly eleven. Specifically the cards are numbered 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, and 99.
You might wonder if the numeric pattern extends further down the checklist. It does, at least sort of, but not for long. The next number in the pattern, 110, does correspond to a player all by himself, amidst a larger Yankees run. However, he’s an Oakland A’s player rather than a Phillie or a Brave.
Phillies? Braves? A’s? What does it matter, as long as these loners keep popping up every eleven cards. That’s the real pattern we care about, right? Well, I have bad news. Card 121 in the set, Dave Cash, is hardly a loner but instead the leader of a run of four Padres. Drat!
Are we done then? Not a chance! Inserted between a run of Tigers and Pirates is card 131, Pete Rose, another lone Phil! Then at 142, eleven cards later, Larry Bowa, another lone Phil! Card 153? Another lone Phil—
Does the pattern continue even further? As the signs used to say at Veteran’s stadium in 1980, DEL-IVERS! Card 164 is another lone Phil, Del Unser! Poppycock, you say? I think you mean Bull! Yes, Greg Luzinski does keep the Phillies solo parade going with card 175.
The loners continue every eleven cards like clockwork (if clocks had eleven numbers), just not with Phillies. As before, the team run interrupter baton is passed to Atlanta before (again!) having an Oakland player crash the party.
186 – Brian Asselstine (Braves)
197 – Rick Camp (Braves)
208 – Bruce Benedict (Braves)
219 – Chris Chambliss (Braves)
230 – Jeff Cox (A’s)
I wish I could say card 241 was another lone Phil or Brave or even Athletic, but I can’t—as before, the Oakland A’s player proved a harbinger of discontinuity. All we get at card 241 is Gene Tenace (first sheet, second card) initiating a run of four Padres.
Well talk about deja vu all over again! Again, Pete Rose restarts the pattern of lone Phils, this time with his second card in the set, number 251. (Recall Donruss included multiple cards of many top stars in 1981.)
Do a host of lone Phillies again follow the Hit King at intervals of eleven? You bet!
262 – Bob Boone (Phillies)
273 – Tug McGraw (Phillies)
284 – Sparky Lyle (Phillies)
295 – Lonnie Smith (Phillies)
And if you guessed some Braves would come after that, you are on a roll!
306 – Gary Matthews (Braves)
317 – Rick Matula (Braves)
328 – Phil Niekro (Braves)
339 – Jerry Royster (Braves)
And if you’ve really been paying attention, you can probably guess the next two things that will happen. (Bonus points if you can guess the next three!)
Yes, an Oakland A’s player shows up at 350.
Yes, nothing special happens at 361. We just get Bill Fahey kicking off a four-card run of Padres (first sheet, third card below).
“But what’s number three,” you ask!
It’s Pete Rose once again, with his third card in the set (371), serving as Grand Marshal of the solo parade:
382 – Keith Moreland (Phillies)
393 – Bob Walk (Phillies)
404 – Bake McBride (Phillies)
415 – Dallas Green (Phillies)
426 – Bobby Cox (Braves)
437 – Dale Murphy (Braves)
448 – Doyle Alexander (Braves)
459 – Glenn Hubbard (Braves)
480 – Mike Davis (A’s)
We’ve now made it through 80% of the set, ignoring the five unnumbered checklists, and we have seen a remarkably consistent if not perfect pattern all the way through. You may think you know the ending then: more of the same. Unfortunately (unless you like chaos), things get much more complicated in our final 20%, so much so that I’ll pause here and “solve the riddle” before unleashing the cacophony of the set’s final 100+ cards.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In our case, that picture is an uncut sheet of the first 121 cards (sort of) in the set. (Like Topps at that time, the Donruss set used 11 x 11 printing sheets.)
Read from left to right and the sequencing appears random, but read top to bottom and you see that the sheet in fact runs in numerical order. Head down the first column and we have cards 1-11: our four Padres, six Tigers, and Mike Schmidt. Head down the next column and we see the run of Pirates and the start of an Astros run, interrupted briefly by Manny Trillo of the Phillies.
As for those darn Phils and Braves, we now see that they too are part of consecutive team runs, only horizontally rather than vertically down the sheet. But what about Mickey Klutts, or for that matter any of the A’s streak-breakers who seemingly crashed the parties solo? Mickey isn’t so much alone but simply nudged aside one slot by the first unnumbered checklist in the set. (That checklist is why I said the sheet “sort of” showed the set’s first 121 cards. From a numbering perspective, you are really seeing 1-120 plus an unnumbered card.) Swap Mickey with the checklist, and he’d fit right in with a nice vertical strip of A’s teammates.
The second uncut sheet in the set (cards 121-240 plus another unnumbered checklist) follows EXACTLY the same pattern, right down to the A’s player nudged by the sheet’s checklist.
Ditto for the third sheet, featuring cards 241-360 and the third unnumbered checklist.
And finally, sheet four, featuring cards 361-480 and the fourth unnumbered checklist.
While these sheets don’t answer every question about the set’s quirky checklist, they do provide a nice visual context for not only the patterns but the breaks in the patterns previously noted.
The “every eleven” patterns of lone Phils, Braves, and sometimes A’s corresponded exactly to the bottom rows of each sheet.
The breaks in our “every eleven” patterns (cards 121, 241, 361) were caused by the insertion of an unnumbered checklist at the end of each sheet.
As for Pete and Re-Pete (sorry, wrong brand!) and Re-Re-Pete re-starting the pattern each time, his (honorific?) spot in the bottom left corner of sheets 2, 3, and 4 are what make it work. (For what it’s worth, the first sheet also had a Phils great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left corner.)
With the sheets in front of us, we can add two more observations to our list.
The order of the teams on each sheet is identical: Padres, Tigers, Pirates, Astros, Rangers, Blue Jays, Mets, White Sox, Mariners, Angels, Dodgers, Reds, Cardinals, Giants, Indians, Brewers, Expos, Red Sox, Royals, Yankees, Orioles, and A’s (with Phils and Braves along the bottom).
Two teams are nowhere to be found: Cubs and Twins.
Now that you know just about everything about the set’s first 480 (or 484 counting checklists) cards, we are ready for the final sheet. Just be sure you’re sitting down…or standing on your head.
Again, we have a Phillies great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left hand corner and a checklist in the lower right. Next, notice…oh gosh, you’re not gonna let me do this to you, are you? Okay, fine, let’s try this again.
As promised, chaos. But not total chaos. I’ll illustrate the order by using thick red borders to identify contiguous team groupings (horizontal or vertical) and use big black “T” markings to identify cards like these.
A hallmark of the 1981 Donruss set is the subset of cards where player uniforms mismatch their team names. While Topps would have gotten out the airbrushes, Donruss left player photos intact, using only the team designation to reflect updates. If we include these players with their former (uniform) teams, we end up with twelve mini-team runs. Not surprisingly, half are Cubs and half are Twins.
The fact that Donruss placed all 17 of the “T” cards on the final sheet surprised me at first but perhaps isn’t surprising at all. I’ll illustrate this with two examples.
Ron LeFlore, photographed as an Expo, was granted free agency on October 28, 1980, but not signed by the White Sox until November 26. If we assume Donruss was in the homestretch of card-making for most players come November, then it makes sense that LeFlore would be moved to the back of the line while his team status was in limbo. (Note LeFlore’s bio opens with his signing by the Sox.)
On the other hand, what about Larry Milbourne, who was traded from the Mariners to the Yankees on November 18? While his team status changed, there was no prolonged limbo period attached. I can’t say what happened for sure, but there are a couple possibilities that seem viable.
Donruss had already completed Milbourne’s Mariners card prior to the trade and then bumped him to the back of the line for correction once the trade took place.
Donruss was aware of the trade when Milbourne’s card was being worked on, but they had not yet reached a decision on how to handle team changes. Would they ignore them? Would they go the airbrushing route? Would they race to Spring Training for a new photo? Or would they simply update the team name while leaving everything else the same? Again, back of the line makes sense pending a design decision.
You’ll notice the sheet has several other special cards not yet mentioned: a “Best Hitters” card featuring George Brett and Rod Carew, two MVP cards (Brett/Schmidt), and two Cy Young Award cards (Stone/Carlton).
We can add all of these cards to the “seems logical to have them here” pile, and we end up with 63 cards on the final sheet making sense. There may be a story to the remaining 58 (e.g., other pending free agents who stayed with their prior teams, rookies identified late in the process), but most are probably players who simply didn’t fit on the first four sheets.
To illustrate that there really are cards in this last category, consider Steve Howe (card 511). He was the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and had completely unambiguous team status as a Dodger. As such, Howe would have been an absolute lock for the set from the beginning but was nonetheless part of this final sheet.
UPDATE: From Keith Olbermann…
I have info. Donruss contacted me late in production for photos of ~15 guys. I believe I had taken 14 of them. 9 of these – Minton, Gross, Rivers, Oberkfell, Kaat, Hassler, Stapleton, Boggs, Perkins – are on the last sheet. I suspect card numbers correlate to photo availability.
I’m not sure my work here directly answers any of Mark’s original questions. At best I can say Ozzie Smith has card #1 because he is a Padre and the Padres lead off every sheet. Still, why Ozzie as opposed to other Padres, including bigger stars like Dave Winfield and Rollie Fingers? And why are the Padres with their last place finish in the top spot at all?
About all I can do is (maybe) add some rationale for the organization of the set into mini-team runs as opposed to complete team runs such as Fleer used that same year. I’ll start with a wrong answer but one that in some small way may inform a right answer.
At the very beginning of this article I mentioned the use of mini-team runs in 1940 Play Ball. For example, the New York Giants cards in this set occur at numbers 83-93, 154-159, 209-215. (There are also some “retired greats” cards at other checklist locations, but I’ll keep my focus on the active roster.) The Play Ball set was released in series, meaning had all 24 Giants cards been together on the checklist (e.g., cards 1-24), one series would have been jam-packed with Giants while the remaining series would have had none at all.
Of course 1981 Donruss was not released in series. All 605 cards came out all at once. As such, nothing terrible would have happened if the Padres simply opened the set with cards 1-18 rather than 1-4, 121-124, 241-244, 361-364, 525, and 595. On the other hand, let’s say that Donruss lacked whatever machinery Topps had in place for randomizing and collating cards into packs and boxes, something their past experience with non-baseball sets might have made clear to them going into the enterprise. If we assume that cards from the same sheet would have had a much higher than chance probability of going into the same packs, it’s easy to see that sheets with complete rosters would lead to collation issues more evident to consumers than sheets covering 24 different teams.
Personally, my own pack opening experience with 1981 Donruss (some as recently as last year) was that I still managed to open a great many packs with runs of 10-12 of the 18 cards spread across only two teams (e.g., Expos/Red Sox only). While this undoubtedly reflects poor collation, the fact is it could have been even worse. Had Donruss grouped entire team rosters together, those same packs might have yielded all Expos or all Red Sox.
Perhaps to address collation issues, the next year Donruss not only moved away from team runs entirely but also made several updates to their uncut sheets.
Among the other changes identifiable on this 1982 Donruss sheet are—
New size of 11 x 12 (132 cards), with five sheets again building the complete set, this time of 5 x 132 = 660 cards.
Change from vertical to horizontal sequencing of cards. For example, the top row run of Cal Ripken to Ray Burris covers cards 407-417 consecutively.
Insertion of Diamond Kings every 26th card.
Sheets covering a more complicated range of numbers. For example, the first six rows of the sheet shown (excluding Diamond Kings) cover cards 405-467 consecutively while the next six rows cover cards 279-341. (If you must know, the six Diamond Kings on the sheet are 16-18 followed by 11-13.)
Rather than go down the rabbit hole of 1982 any deeper, I’ll just close with some fond recollections of the 1981 set, some foggy and some vivid. I was 11 when the set came out, a perfect age for believing cardboard was magic while also being old enough to have more than a few cents in my pocket. We won’t talk about where the money came from, but I somehow “found” enough to ride my bike to 7-Eleven just about every day from March to October, often more than once.
I didn’t think in terms of monopolies and competition back then. In my world, more cards was a good thing, case closed. There was a lot for a kid to like about 1981 Donruss. More cards per pack, for one thing, and super colorful cards for another. Yes, there were plenty of errors, but boy were they fun to discover.
We had no internet back then to look this stuff up. (There were hobby mags, but I didn’t have subscribe yet.) It was just kids comparing notes at school: Steve Rodgers with a “d,” that’s not right! And then imagine the thrill of pulling a Rogers (no d) later that same year! Of course, some of the errors were funny too, like Bobby Bonds and his 986 home runs (giving father and son 1748 homers combined, by the way)!
Most of all though, I loved that some of my favorite players had extra cards in the set for no reason. Sure Topps might give a guy two cards if he was a Record Breaker, but here was Donruss with two Steve Garvey cards just because. Ditto Yaz. Tritto Pete Rose.
How about you? If you were a kid in 1981 what memories do you have of the set? And as you look back on it today, do you love it any more or any less?
It is scary out there. And probably not the best time for a post, but writing helps me keep sane during these trying times. I also thought that there might be a few of you looking for a diversion as we shelter in place.
One of the posts that I read when I first came across this blog was by Nick Vossbrink about creating your own baseball cards. I thought that was a pretty cool thing to do and was very impressed by the images of the creations in the post. In the post Nick mentioned that Matt Prigge was using the Rookies App to create his cards, so I decided to give it a try.
I downloaded Rookies App from the Apple App Store (it is free) and installed it on my iPhone.
Overview of the Rookies App
The Rookies App is extremely easy to use.
To get started you click on the Create Your Own button. A template pops up, but you can change it by tapping on the 4 small squares at the bottom left of the screen. From there you can choose from 24 templates. In each template there will be a plus sign button or buttons (some templates allow you to have 2 images on a card) for uploading images. You can choose images stored in you photo library on your phone, take a photo with you camera and use that image, or choose photos from your Facebook library (you will need to sync the app with Facebook library). You can resize the image by pinching up or down on your photo.
Once you choose you image or images you can enter text in the various fields on the front of the by tapping the Aa letters at the bottom of the screen. By tapping the ink dropper icon on the bottom of the screen you can change the colors used in the template that you have selected. You can even add information on the back of the card by tapping on the icon with 2 boxes. This will allow you select one of 5 different template to add information to the card.
You will also need to enter information for a credit card if you want to order cards. You order 20 cards at a time. The price with shipping and taxes is $16.99 (will vary slightly depending on where you live).
Once you place your order you will get your cards in about 10 days. The cards arrive in packs of 20.
The quality of the cards are excellent.
Using Published Photos
There are tons of possibilities for utilizing already published photos of players for your cards – magazines, picture books, scorecards, yearbooks, etc. I have found that if you have a steady hand and a smart phone with a good built-in camera that you can take photos of published pictures that are fine for your cards. A few things to keep in mind are to make sure the image is as flat as possible and that there are no shadows.
Included below are some cards from my Pittsburgh Pirates Team Set using photos from the 1979 Pirates Yearbook.
Using Original Photos
I enjoy taking photos and the Rookies App allows me to merge my two hobbies – photography and baseball cards. I have included below some of my favorite cards that I have made using photos that I have taken. Under each card are some details about the picture.
I’m not going to compare a bunch of cards in this post. Nor am I going to complain about the type changes.* What fascinates me in this year’s Heritage is how differently the black is handled. We’ll just look at these two cards. Heritage Tyler Naquin on the left, a buyback 1971 Ken Harrelson** on the right.
*It’s not the slight differences in font/size/weight that bother me but rather the fact that Topps not only didn’t fix 1971’s kerning problems but proceeded to royally mess up the the word spacing.
**I have very few non-Giants 1971 Topps cards so I chose one that matched a team I got in my solitary pack.
It’s superficially a pretty good match. Slight color differences but those can be attributable to aging or print variances. I noticed some weird stuff going on around the edges of the black areas though which turned out to be pretty interesting.
So let’s zoom in on the edges. Heritage on the left still and 1971 on the right. One of the first things that jumped out at me was that the vertical edges of the black frame were not crisp. To be honest I have no idea why Topps did this. It could just be a mistake where the edges of the artwork were for some reason set to be 50% black and as a result got screened instead of being printed as a solid.
It could also however be an homage to the way that 1971 frequently had a different kind of non-crisp edge around the black border. That little edge of Cyan screening on the top and right side of the white border and white text? It’s what we call in the print shop a bump plate or rich black.
While black is the darkest color of light, with printing you can print other inks with the black ink to make it seem even darker.* In 1971 Topps ran like a 40% Cyan screen under the black borders to make them a bit darker.
*The other benefit of printing a bump plate is that it smooths out the black coverage so that instead a non-white color peeks though if the black is run light in a spot.
At high magnifications this screen peeks out from under the Black if there’s a slight misregistration between the Black and Cyan inks. It’s possible that this misregistration is something Topps was trying to emulate with the fuzzy black edges.
Anyway, I’ve seen a couple wonderfully out of register 1971 Topps cards that show the bump plate in even more detail. In both of these cards the Cyan is shifted left so far that a huge cyan strip is printed down the righthand side of the picture area. It’s a bit hard to see on the Purdin card but it extends directly below the “r” in “pitcher.” It is super obvious in the Perez card.
While running a bump plate allows you to not have to print the black as heavy as running without one, a design like 1971’s still results in the printer printing the black ink pretty thick. This puts some stress on the photos since black ink there is supposed to be somewhat subtle and only be used to punch a bit of shadow detail.
Which means that another thing Topps did in 1971 was reduce the amount of black ink used in the pictures. This is most apparent in the Senators card since Topps reused the photo in 1972 but re-did the separations with a lot more black details. Most of the shadow detail in the player faces is absent in the 1971 card. It’s all there in 1972.
Next, let’s zoom in on the red and green text. Heritage is still on the left, 1971 on the right. The different colors of red are an example of printing variances. Red is composed of two solid inks* and the absence of any screening in the red text shows that Topps ran them as solids.** The differences in the green though are related to the screening. 1971 has more Cyan and so the slightly darker green is accurate.
**Note the Cyan bump screen on the edges of “ken” in the 1971 card.
The fuzzy vertical edges show up in the “INDIANS” but what I want to call attention to here is the weird white edge to the Heritage lettering. One white edge is on the left side of every character in “tyler” and the other is on the right side of the characters in “INDIANS.”*
*A bit harder to see due to the fuzziness of that transition.
Those white edges suggest that Topps isn’t trapping the text. In printing, a trap is small overlap between two differently-colored sections so that in case of any misregistration, no paper shows through. This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy except for the fact that 1971’s traps are huge.
I’ve gone ahead and re-levelled my Ken Harrelson image so that the traps are highlighted. The red halo around his name and the green halo around “INDIANS” show the overlap of the Black ink with the colored inks.
Normally you’re not supposed to be able to see the traps with your eye unless you zoom way in but in 1971’s case, because of the heavy black borders, Topps played it safe and made giant traps since the black would cover them anyway.*
*Printing Black on top of the other colors, aka “overprinting” is pretty standard and is how all the facsimile autographs are printed.
I’m not sure why Topps would’ve run the text untrapped on purpose but it kind of looks like it was a choice. Yes a lot of printers default to running small text untrapped* but in a design like this there’s no reason to make that choice plus the team name is larger than what the defaults would be.
*Trapping small text, especially between two different colors, can create an outline effect since with small text the trap thickness can be similar to the thickness of the letterforms.
Anyway it’s time to look at the backs. I was worried for a bit that Topps would try to fake a halftone like they did in 2018 but thankfully the player headshot is a traditional lien screen. It’s a much much much finer screen than Topps ran in 1971 but the dot pattern is the same.*
*I’m tempted to hypothesize that the oddly slick/shiny feel that the backs of the Heritage cards have is due to Topps printing a line screen which is too fine for regular uncoated stock to hold. Uncoated stock soaks up ink and needs a coarser screen so that the white portions of the screen are large enough to not plug up with ink.
More interestingly, Topps is printing a light Black screen across the entire card back. It’s not enough that the paper is brownish, Topps is applying a faint texture to it to give it even more of an old feel. This is something that Topps is doing on the front of the cards as well* and shows that there’s a vested interest in these cards feeling “old” in addition to just using the old designs.
*The first zoomed in image of Heritage shows a faint yellow screen in the ostensibly white areas of the card.
When novice collectors hear the phrase “Venezuelan baseball cards,” they may picture something like this.
More seasoned collectors are more likely to identify Venezuelans as those hard to find, harder to afford, condition-sensitive cards that keep their player collections from the upper echelons of the PSA registries.
Other collectors, like this author, simply ignore such gaps in their collection based on most Venezuelan cards being so similar to their U.S. counterparts that there is not enough “there” there to pay through the roof for something you (mostly) already have.
In this post we will look very quickly at the years from 1959-1968 when the Venezuelan cards were nearly identical to their North American brethren and then spend my traditional very long time on the single year when they most certainly weren’t.
My understanding is that Topps was selling cards in Latin America as far back as 1952. From 1952-1958, the cards were produced in the United States and then shipped to other countries to be sold. It was not until 1959 that Topps was not just selling but actually producing cards in Latin America.
The 1959 U.S. and Venezuelan cards appear nearly identical, though in hand you would quickly detect two differences: a flimsier card stock and a less glossy finish. The backs of some of the cards would also replace the standard copyright line along the right edge with “IMPRESO EN VENEZUELA POR BENCO C.A.,” roughly translated as “Printed in Venezuela by Benco, Inc.”
As for the checklist itself, the 198-card Venezuelan issue simply followed the first 198 cards on the 1959 Topps U.S. checklist.
There was even less differentiation in 1960. Again, the 198-card Venezuelan set mimicked the first 198 cards on the U.S. checklist, but this time there was not even a different copyright line. From a design perspective there was no difference between the North American (top) and South American (bottom) cards. From a production perspective, there is still a flimsier feel to the Venezuelan cards.
More significant changes came to Caracas in 1962. The first is easy enough to spot: multiple elements of the card back are now in Spanish!
The second is one perhaps best known to collectors of a certain Latin American infielder. While the Venezuelan and U.S. checklists mirror each other for the first 196 cards, the Venezuelan issue skips U.S. cards 197 (Daryl Spencer) and 198 (Johnny Keane) and instead jumps to cards 199 and 200.
However, the Venezuelan issue didn’t simply jump to U.S. cards 199 and 200, both of which we recognize today as among the key cards in the U.S. set.
Rather, Venezuelan card 199 went to Venezuela-born second baseman Elio Chacon of the Mets, who would not be seen until card 256 in the U.S. set. (Side note: Frank Robinson sighting!)
Finally, card 200 went to an even more prominent Venezuelan infielder, whose card was number 325 in the U.S. set.
As a final note, the 1962 Topps U.S. set is famous for its variations. For example, all five (!) of these cards are number 139 in the U.S. set.
From what I can tell, “Babe on dirt” is the only one of the five variations present in the Venezuelan set, though (as in the U.S.) “Reniff portrait” can be found at slot 159 on the Venezuelan checklist.
Okay, I lied. I’ll say one last thing about the set. It involves a feature that would become commonplace across many Venezuelan and Canadian (O-Pee-Chee) sets during the decade.
As it came straight over from the much larger U.S. set, Venezuelan “3rd Series” checklist must have disappointed or at least baffled young collectors such as the one who this card belonged to. More than half the cards it listed were not in the set!
“¿Dónde está Daryl Spencer (197)? ¿Dónde está M. Mantle (200)? ¿Cuántos paquetes tengo que comprar?”
We know about sets with “chase cards,” but (counting the back of the checklist too) here was a set with 68 of them!
Following the more significant changes of 1962, the 1964 release represented a return to the original formula, only with more cards. The set included 370 cards that mimicked the first 370 cards on the U.S. checklist. Moreover, the card backs reverted to English once again.
From a design standpoint, the most evident difference across continents was the black background color used on the Venezuelan backs as compared to a salmon color used on the U.S. card backs. (I am also speculating that the trivia answers came already revealed rather than requiring scratch-off, but I would love it if a reader can provide definitive information.)
The next release was an awful lot like the one before it but with even less variation. The 370-card Venezuelan offering again matched cards 1-370 on the U.S. checklist and featured English-only card backs.
Flimsier stock and some subtle color differences provide the main means of recognizing these cards, and I have encountered quite a few tales of collectors thinking they bought a stack of ordinary Topps cards only to discover some number were Venezuelans.
We’ll skip this one for now as it’s actually the main focus of the article!
We have now reached the final year that Topps produced a parallel set for the Venezuelan market. The formula followed that of 1964 and 1966, a 370-card set matching up card for card with the first 370 cards of the U.S. issue. From a design perspective, about the only distinguishing feature was the nearly invisible (at my age) minuscule white lettering at the bottom of the card backs that read, “Hecho en Venezuela – C.A. Litoven.”
Hobby consensus, if not established fact, on every one of the sets from 1959-1968 is that Topps produced the cards expressly for the Venezuelan market to take advantage of baseball’s popularity and hopefully make a few extra bucks. As has been shown, the cards were essentially flimsier versions of the U.S. issues with the only interesting differences coming in 1962.
All this stood in stark contrast with what the kids of Caracas lined their pockets (or more likely their albums) with in 1967. Rather than a low-grade imitation of some early portion of the U.S. checklist, one could argue that Venezuelan collectors ended up with a better set of cards than their North American neighbors. Let’s take a closer look at the set, and you can decide for yourself!
While numbered consecutively from 1-338, there are three very distinct groupings of cards. In fact, the Standard Catalog lists them as three different sets, though most collectors I’ve talked to think of them as a single set in three parts.
Cards 1-138 feature the players and managers of the six-team Venezuelan Winter League. This averages to 23 cards per team, which means this was less a “best of” and more an “almost everyone” sort of checklist.
Though they present at least some visual similarity to the 1967 Topps set, the Venezuelan Winter League cards are immediately identified as distinct by their distinctly non-U.S. team identifiers and their lack of facsimile signatures. (Or you can just flip the card over and see what number it is!)
Two particularly notable cards in this subset are those of nine-time National League all-star Dave Concepcion and Hall of Fame manager (then third baseman) Bobby Cox, whose Venezuelan cards beat their U.S. rookie cards by four and two years respectively.
Cards 139-188 featured retired (“retirado” in Spanish) greats of the game. Believe it or not, at 50 cards, this was actually one of the larger sets of retired greats produced to this point. While most of the players would have been at home in a U.S. issue, this subset also included a number of Latin American legends such as Alex Carrasquel, Alfonso Carrasquel (more on these two later), and Connie Marrero. There is also one of the more unusual Ted Kluszewski cards you’ll ever see!
ACTIVE MLB PLAYERS
Cards 189-338, a block of 150 cards comprising almost half the set, feature near replicas of 1967 Topps (U.S.) cards, at least as far as the fronts of the cards go, but these cards for once do not simply mirror the first 150 cards of the U.S. set. If that were the case, the top stars would have been limited to the following players:
In fact, the 150-card subset included every one of these players except Ford (more on him later) AND also included Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Bob Gibson, Pete Rose, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, and many, many other top stars of the day.
To my eyes, the player selection represents a hand-picked “best of” that not only fully encompassed every major star from the Topps set but sprinkled in a disproportionate number of Latin American players to boot. (It’s important to note here that I’m placing us back in 1967 where Seaver, Carew, and the like were not yet established superstars.)
A quick aside to quantify the “best of” nature of this subset a bit more. In at least an approximate manner we can associate the best players in the original Topps set as the ones with “hero numbering,” card numbers that ended in 0 or 5. I’ve highlighted in green the “hero numbers” from the Topps set that have cards in the Venezuelan MLB subset. Cells in red (e.g., Whitey Ford, #5) reflect cards not selected for the subset.
The chart shows at least three interesting things about the MLB subset–
A very high proportion (89/121, or 74%) of hero numbers were selected vs the 20% that either random selection or any consecutive block of 150 cards would have yielded.
All multiples of 50, generally associated with the superstars in a set, were selected.
And finally, it shows that more than half the cards in the MLB subset (89/150, or 59%) were chosen from the Topps hero numbers.
“How very unlike Topps to build a set around the players kids actually want!” you say. And don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon enough. For now, just recognize that the full Venezuelan set now includes just about the entire Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, a huge selection of all-time greats, and all the best active players from MLB. How do you beat that!
1967 Card Backs
Diverging from the other years we examined, the 1967 card backs look nothing like Topps. This Mathews card is typical for the entire set, with the note that its blue background is (almost always) red for the Winter Leaguers and green for the Retirado subset.
What are these anyway?
For a variety of reasons including the similarity of the final 150 cards to the U.S. issue, the full 1967 release has frequently been referred to as “1967 Topps Venezuelan” or “1967 Venezuela Topps,” the name suggesting (as truly was the case in 1959, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, and 1968) that Topps was the company behind the set’s issue.
However, conventional Hobby wisdom seems to be that the 1967 Venezuelan set (or sets if you prefer) were produced completely apart from and without the blessing of Topps. The cards were bootlegs, “pirates of the Caribbean” if you will.
More than likely the cards were produced by Sport Grafico, essentially the Venezuelan equivalent of Sports Illustrated or Sport magazines in terms of content and equal to Life or Ebony in terms of size.
Before proceeding I’ll offer that the pirated nature of these cards is great news for all the collectors out there who avoid anything unlicensed. That said, I’d have a hard time imagining too many collectors who couldn’t find even one spot in their binders for beauties like these. (And feel free to click here for the most amazing 1967 Venezuelan collection I’m aware of, online or otherwise. Or click here for another amazing collection covering even more years.)
One of the best pages for learning more about the 1967 Venezuelan cards is here, though you will either need to remember your high school Spanish or use a translation feature on your browser. Among the fantastic information shared on that site is the actual album designed to hold all 338 cards. If you go to the site you can even see what the pages inside looked like.
Among other things, the album seems to all but confirm that the cards were produced by Sport Grafico. After all, their logo is prominent in the upper left corner. Though one might be tempted to regard the cartoon parrot as a nod to the pirated nature of the set, each cartoon character actually represents one of the six teams in the league:
Leones del Caracas (lions)
Tigres de Aragua (tigers)
Cardenales de Lara (cardinal)
Tiburones de la Guaira (shark)
Navegantes del Magallanes (sailors/mariner)
Pericos de Valencia (parrot parakeet)
Most online sources on the Venezuelan league refer to the name of the Valencia team as “Industriales” or the Industrialists! Fortunately, we have baseball cards to set the record straight.
You can even make out the parakeet logo on the Luis Rodriguez card!
When did the 1967 set come out?
On one hand this probably reads like the joke about who’s buried in Grant’s tomb. On the other hand, the Hobby has more than a few sets that came out later than their name would seem to suggest (e.g., “1948” Leaf).
Looking at the album cover again, we see the years 1967-1968 in the bottom right corner. This is no surprise given that the typical Venezuelan Winter League schedule ran from mid-October through early January. This alone makes me think a designation like 1967-1968 would make more sense for the cards than simply 1967. (Collectors of basketball and hockey are already quite used to this convention for dating their sets.)
One card that quickly tells us the Venezuelan cards could not have come out until (at best) very late in 1967 is the Brooks Robinson (pictured earlier) from the MLB portion of the set. In the U.S. set, this was card 600, part of the seventh and final series (cards 534-609), presumably released around September 1967. (This same series also produced 11 other players for the MLB portion of the Venezuelan set.)
I don’t claim to know all the steps and turnaround times involved to go from a stack of Topps cards to a full-fledged Venezuelan set (or even just the final third of one), but I would imagine at least the following things would all need to occur:
Select the players
Capture images from the Topps card fronts
Write bios and other info for the backs
Print, cut, and pack the cards
Get the cards to the stores
I’m sure I’m leaving out some important steps, but I’ll still say all of the above feels like at least two months of work. I’d be surprised if at least this final third of the Venezuelan set was out in time for Winter League Opening Day, and it definitely wouldn’t shock me to learn this final subset might not have hit the shelves until early 1968.
“Okay, but that’s the final portion of the set,” you say. Might the other portions have come out much earlier?
I’ll start with the Winter Leaguers since at least their numbering suggests they would have been the first out the door. We can gather some clues about timing from some of the players who made their Venezuelan Winter League debut during the 1967-68 campaign. One example is Paul Schaal, shown here with the Leones del Caracas team.
As 1967-68 was Schaal’s first year playing in Venezuela (also noted by the last line of his card bio), it stands to reason that the photo on the card could not have been taken before October 1967. Ditto for Jim Campanis (yes, the son of Al), who also made his Venezuelan debut in the 1967-68 campaign but is already shown in his Cardenales de Lara cap.
As these two players were still with their Major League teams (the Angels and Dodgers respectively) through the end of September, their cards would be a good month or so behind Brooks Robinson in how soon they could hit the shelves. I don’t want to underestimate the production team at Sport Grafico, but Christmas actually feels optimistic to me here.
Another interesting example here is Jose Tartabull, who remained stateside with the Red Sox all the way through the seventh game (October 12) of the 1967 World Series. However, as a returning player to the Leones del Caracas, it’s certainly possible his photo could have been a holdover from an earlier year.
We have now looked at cards in both the MLB and Winter League portions of the Venezuelan set that suggest either an extremely fast production process or at best a very late 1967 (e.g., December) release. What you probably wouldn’t expect is that even a card in the Retirado subset tells us something about the release window. His card also puts a bow on a minor mystery you might be hanging onto from a previous section.
Recall that Whitey Ford was the one big star from the 1967 Topps set not present in the MLB portion of the Venezuelan set. Given Ford’s retirement on May 30, 1967, it actually makes perfect sense that he would A) be excluded from the set of active MLB stars and B) find himself included in the set of retired greats. Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t make sense is why he’s posing with what I assume is Joe Pepitone’s jersey! (UPDATE: A reader provided an excellent explanation in the comments section.)
Ford’s retirement was early enough in 1967 that it wouldn’t have exerted any real pressure on releasing the Retirado cards by the opening of Winter League. Nonetheless, it takes the one subset that at least theoretically could have come out the soonest and probably pushes it back to August/September at the earliest.
Yes, one certainly could argue that the team at Sport Grafico simply had a feeling in advance that Ford would retire. However, the back of the card shows that he had in fact already retired.
Translated into English the last sentence of the card reads, “The lefthander’s career was shortened by muscular pains and although he underwent surgery he could not recover his effectiveness, so he voluntarily retired in 1967.”
Ultimately, the question of when these cards came out, if not established by the distinct memories of contemporary collectors, might be settled by a thorough enough review of Sport Grafico magazines from late 1967 and early 1968. Assuming the cards genuinely were the work of the magazine, then perhaps there would be an ad dedicated to their release.
That said, the bulk of the ads in the issues I have (early 1970s) are primarily targeted to adults who would not have been the target market for cards, at least not back then! Still, I’d enjoy the search if I ever found the right issues, and depending on what I found I might annoy my fellow collectors by referring to the set as 1968 Sport Grafico rather than any of the various names it goes by today.
Everything I’ve offered thus far is simply a curation (but with less accuracy or authority) than what you’d find on the Web if you spent a dozen or so hours trying to learn everything you could about these sets. Of course the reason I’m the highest paid blogger at SABR Baseball Cards (okay, fine, tied for highest with all the other guys making $0.00) is because I try to bring something new to the table whenever I can.
In this case I’m talking about my trademark needlessly detailed analysis of the set’s checklist. Since we’re talking about a VENEZUELAN issue, it stands to reason that I will be employing VEN diagrams. (And yes, I know I spelled it wrong. Work with me, please, work with me.)
This first VEN diagram looks at the 338 subjects in the set, organized by which group(s) they appear in. The main thing to notice is that five of the subjects have cards in multiple groups.
Since the numbers are small, I’ll show each of the cards that land in the overlapping sections of the VEN diagram.
First here are the three players represented in both the Winter League (1-138) and the MLB (189-338) portions of the checklist. Probably not coincidentally, the three players are all Venezuelan-born and were assigned to the first three cards in the MLB subset (i.e., 189-191).
Next up are an uncle and nephew who are both Winter Leaguers (coaches, anyways) and retired greats.
Collectors in Peoria, Illinois, may wonder how either Carrasquel managed to join the hallowed list of retired greats otherwise populated by the likes of Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige. In fact, Alejandro was the first Venezuelan to play MLB, and Alfonso was the first Venezuelan MLB all-star.
Now that we’ve made it through the VEN diagram of the full Venezuelan set, we can now compare each part of that set to the (real) 1967 Topps set. The first VEN diagram I’ll look at compares the Retirado portion of the Venezuelan issue with the full U.S. set.
If you were paying attention just a few minutes ago, you already know the player in the overlap is Whitey Ford, so I won’t rehash any old explanations. I’ll just note that another good candidate would have been Gil Hodges, who had a manager card in the 1967 Topps set and at least in my book would have fit every definition of a retired great.
The next VEN diagram compares the Winter League portion of the Venezuelan issue with the full U.S. set. From previous work, we already expect to see Davalillo, Tovar, and Aparicio within the overlap, but these three players represent just one-seventh of the total number.
Here is a complete list of all 21 overlappers. As you can see, nearly half were confined to multi-player rookie cards in the Topps set but now had solo cards they could show off to their families and friends.
And while the money wasn’t as good in Winter Ball, at least you got to wear your hat on your baseball card and have your uniform match your team!
The final Venezuelan subset to compare against the 1967 Topps (U.S.) set is the collection of 150 pirated Topps cards at the very end. A VEN diagram here would be dull since all 150 of the cards are drawn from the U.S. set. Therefore, what I’ll do instead is show how the U.S. versions of these 150 cards match up with the U.S. checklist.
As the barely readable plot shows, the 150 cards came from all areas of the Topps checklist, including the dozen already noted from the final series.
Postscript: North of the border
As a guy who gets paid by the word, even if my rate is $0.00 per word, I’ll do anything to make my articles longer. (Editor’s note: Even adding superfluous editor’s notes when he’s not even the editor!) In this case that means the one last comparison nobody would have presumed relevant (and probably still won’t even once I’ve presented it).
While Topps most likely had no hand at all in the 1967 Venezuelan set, aside from having their images ripped off, it’s not like Topps was ignoring the rest of the world. As had been the tradition for the previous two years, Topps once again issued an O-Pee-Chee set up in Canada.
Much in line with how the (true) Topps Venezuelan sets went, this 196-card set simply mimicked cards 1-196 from the U.S. set and would be indistinguishable (at least to me) from their American neighbors if not for the “Printed in Canada” line at the bottom of each card’s reverse.
What this means is that multiple players had cards from not one or two but THREE different countries in 1967, even if for most players the variation from card to card to card was fairly uninteresting. (And yes, this was true in 1966 and 1968 as well, bu my focus here is on 1967.)
To support your internationally diverse collecting interests I now bring you my final VEN diagram, one that will allow you to triple up on the cards of some of your favorite players. Among the 49 three-country sensations are these star players.
Aparicio collectors, it should be noted, can score the four-point play by adding his Winter League card to their binders also. (Ditto, Vic Davalillo.) And of course Ford collectors just miss the cut but can still rep all three countries by “settling for” his Retirado card as the Venezuelan piece of the trio.
Of course I know some of you will not be satisfied even with a three-country collection and are demanding four! Well, good news! I’ve also crosswalked the 1967 U.S., Venezuelan, and Canadian sets with the 1967 Kabaya-Leaf cards out of Japan, and I did manage to find a single hit…as long as you’re okay with the “Japanese Mickey Mantle!”
One of the coolest cards on my Dr. K “Ten Most Wanted” list as of last week was his 1991 Topps Cracker Jack 4-in-1 panel. (And please get in touch if you can help with any of the others!)
As a student of the master, I try hard not to pay more than a buck or two for any of the cards in my Gooden collection, but I finally bit the bullet and threw real money at this Cracker Jack panel.
I was particularly swayed by Doc’s co-stars, three of my favorite players of the era: Tony Gwynn, Eric Davis, and Ken Griffey, Jr.
As is the case with many panel-based sets there were in fact multiple panel variations featuring different player combinations.
It didn’t seem to take co-chair Nick more than a minute to figure out that there was something very not random about these player combinations. And sure enough, they all point to a larger sheet with exactly this neighborhood around Gooden.
Before going too much further into sheets or panels I should pause and provide more background on the individual cards themselves.
Like the regular cards but smaller
The 1991 Topps flagship set had the era-typical 792 cards and nearly as many spin-offs as Happy Days. Think Topps Desert Shield for example. Two of them featured tiny cards: the 792-card Micro set and the 72-card Cracker Jack set that itself was divided into a Series One and Series Two, each numbered 1-36. The Cracker Jacks are occasionally referred to as Micro cards with different backs, but this isn’t quite correct since card size differs as well.
Speaking of backs, here is what the Cracker Jack card backs look like. Series One is on the left, and Series two is on the right.
Apart from the different colors used, you’ll notice the second card also has “2nd Series” in the top left corner whereas the first card does not indicate any series at all. This suggests Cracker Jack (or Borden for you corporate types) originally planned only a single series of 36 cards and then added another due to the popularity of the initial offering. The star power of the first series checklist vs the second also seems to point in this direction.
The popularity of the promotion is borne out by a highly informative (if occasionally inaccurate) business article on the Borden-Topps partnership that even includes sales figures for each series:
Series One: 75 million boxes
Series Two: 60 million boxes
Based on the size of the set, this translates into about 2.1 million of each first series card and 1.7 million of each second series card. Back in 1991 we would regard this as “limited edition” with the second serious “extra scarce.”
SOURCE OF 4-in-1 PANELS
Though I’m sure the truth is out there, I can find no definitive documentation on the source of the 4-in-1 panels. Theories I’ve run across include–
Distributed to dealers or show attendees as promos
“Handmade” from full sheets of 1991 Topps Cracker Jack
Part of a mail-in offer
I’ll regard the first two as most viable at the moment. Mail-in seems less likely since Cracker Jack already had an offer in place for mini-binders.
I’ll offer one other very weak clue that works against both the mail-in and promo theories: the size of the borders.
On the left is an actual 4-in-1 panel. You’ll notice the interior borders are about twice the thickness of the outside borders. The card really doesn’t look bad, but I would think if you were designing the card intentionally as a 4-in-1 you might even out the borders to achieve a cleaner look. (And yes, I did say “very weak” clue.)
Regardless, the most fun option is to assume the four-in-one panels were produced on the secondary market from uncut sheets. Of course when I say “fun,” I don’t mean “normal people fun.” I mean mathematically fun!
Anyway you slice it
For the moment let’s assume that uncut sheets simply cycle through the 36 cards in the set over and over again in the same order until the end of the sheet is reached. Let’s also assume that our sheet cutter doesn’t just cut any old 2 x 2 array from the sheet but proceeds methodically from the beginning of the sheet and works his way left to right, up to down. Finally, let’s assume cards are sequenced in numerical order.
Here is what this might look like for a sheet that is 18 cards across and 10 cards down the side. What you’ll notice, as in the highlighted blocks of 5-6-23-24 panels, is that there are no variations produced by the method. If card 5 were Dwight Gooden for example, he would always have the same three co-stars.
Without breaking out any fancy number theory, you might correctly surmise that the rather ho-hum result has something to do with the sheet repeating every two rows, which only happens because we conveniently matched the number of columns to exactly half the set length.
Now let’s run the same cut against a sheet that’s only 16 cards across. It stands to reason that at least something more interesting should happen here. Sure enough, the new configuration produces two Gooden panels: 5-6-21-22 and 25-26-5-6.
While two variations is nice, it’s not four. If you think about it, one of the things limiting our variations here is that we always see 6 paired with 5, which is another way of saying we never see 4 paired with 5. (Alternatively, we can say that 5 is always on the left and never on the right.)
So long as we have an even number of columns, this sort of thing will always be true. Therefore, our only hope at hitting four variations would seem to be having an odd number of columns. The example below uses 15 and sure enough pairs 4 with 5 some of the time. Unfortunately, we still failed to reach the theoretical maximum of four variations.
Is it possible we just got unlucky with our odd number? Maybe so. Let’s try this one more time and go with lucky 13.
Alas, we remain stuck at only two variations. Is it possible that there’s simply no solution involving methodical cuts and that achieving more variations will require something more like this?
The good news is we have our four variations. The bad news is we end up with a lot more waste.
Is there a Methodical solution?
Let’s take one more quick look at the actual Gooden panels that started this post. In case you missed it the first time, notice that Doc finds himself in a different quadrant on each of the panels. For example, he’s in the upper left position on the Gooden-Boggs-Griffey-McGwire panel, and he’s in the upper right position on the Gwynn-Gooden-Davis-Griffey panel.
Under our assumptions about how uncut sheets should be constructed, the problem of a methodical cut yielding four variations is equivalent to the problem of a methodical cut putting Doc in each of the four panel quadrants.
Looking back at our earlier examples, we can see that our first time through Doc was only in the upper left, which is why we had only a single variation. The next time, Doc was upper left and lower left only. Finally, in our last two methodical efforts, Doc was only upper left or lower right.
What would our sheet need to look like for Doc to end up in all four panel quadrants? We can attempt to solve the problem by examining one quadrant at a time, starting with the upper left quadrant.
For card 5 to end up in an upper left position, we need two things to happen.
5 needs to be in an odd numbered row since these rows correspond to upper halves of panels.
5 needs to be in an odd numbered column since these columns correspond to left sides of panels.
It was an otherwise boring example, but you can check these properties against the first table we looked at.
What we need then is a formula or rule that helps us determine which rows and columns 5 will end up in based on the number of columns in the sheet. WARNING: This part will get a little complicated and mathy. Feel free to skip to the section titled “DARN IT!” if the math gets too distasteful for you.
Let’s assume our sheet is N cards across and has M rows of cards. Then somewhat generally our sheet looks like this. Almost.
I say almost because we haven’t yet accounted for our numbering restarting every time we reach 36. For example, when N = 18 and M = 10, we don’t want to see our sheet numbered 1-180. Exactly as in our first example, we want to see our sheet numbered 1-36 five times in a row.
A mathematical trick that will get us what we need is called modulus (or sometimes “clock arithmetic”). In this case, we just need to replace each sheet entry with its equivalent, modulo 36. (Technically, this still isn’t quite right since it would replace 36 with 0, but we can simply keep that oddity in our back pocket for now.)
Therefore, our new generalized sheet looks like this:
Now that doesn’t look awful, does it? Okay fine, don’t answer that! And of course, I’m about to make things even a little more complicated since I can’t do a heckuva lot with all those dot-dot-dots taking up most of the sheet. I’d rather have variables, even if it means going from two letters (M and N) to four.
For example, if I am in row j and column k, I want to be able to say the number in that spot is [(j – 1)*N + k] mod 36. That way, if I want to know if the card is of Dr. K, I just need to check to see if [(j – 1)*N + k] mod 36 = 5! Simple, right?
Now let’s go back to the two conditions necessary for Dr. K to occupy an upper left panel position: odd row and odd column, which algebraically just means j and k are odd.
Of course (!) when j and k are odd, then [(j – 1)*N + k] is also odd regardless of the value on N, so there is at least hope we will have solutions for correctly chosen values of j and k no matter the width of the sheet.
What about if we want Doc to appear in the upper right, which I’ll note we have not yet seen in any of our examples? The conditions for this are–
5 needs to be in an odd numbered row since these rows correspond to upper halves of panels.
5 needs to be in an even numbered column since these columns correspond to right sides of panels.
Algebraically then, we know j is odd but k is now even. Going back to our complicated looking expression, that makes [(j – 1)*N + k] even no matter what value of N we choose, and this guarantees we will never have [(j – 1)*N + k] mod 36 = 5.
In case your eyes are glazing over, this means Doc will never end up in the desired position, which in turn means we will never get our four variations no matter what size sheet we go with. We could still look at the two lower quadrants but after suffering such a fatal setback one might justly wonder what the point would be.
Well imagine that! No matter what size we make our sheet, there’s no way to arrive at four Doc variations following a methodical cutting strategy. Two is as good as it gets. And yet, I started this article by showing you four actual examples. So what gives?
There are really only two options, assuming we’re still in the “panels produced from uncut sheets” camp.
The cutters didn’t follow a methodical approach, instead just cutting up sheets willy-nilly to achieve desired results.
The sheets didn’t follow the same rules we did.
The first option is hard for me to swallow, but the second one is equally baffling. Yes, one could imagine laying out the sheets so that we didn’t simply have the complete set repeated over and over. For example, we might imagine the insertion of a double-prints within the set.
The problem is that even the insertion of a double print doesn’t generate new solutions unless it were only sometimes inserted. (For example, imagine the first instance of the set on the sheet included two card 10s, but none of the other instances did. Possible but weird, right?)
Cheating, PArt ONE
Okay, what the heck. Let’s just look at an uncut sheet, shall we? Perfect, let me just get out my microscope!
Kidding aside, the sheet has everything we needed to know. First off, it’s 20 cards across and 22 rows down for a total of 440 cards, which is enough to hold 12 complete sets with 8 cards left over. We can also (barely) see that the sheet doesn’t even come close to following the logical layout originally assumed and later dismissed. I’ll highlight this by placing a thick red border around every Nolan Ryan card since his card is both easy to spot and card #1 in the set.
Sure enough, there are 12 Ryans, but their appearances on the sheet become more and more irregular as we progress down the sheet. Life gets more sane once we add nine more rectangles.
Each of these 6 x 6 blocks is itself a complete set, always following a consistent sequence. For what it’s worth, that sequence is:
We can further simplify the sheet by making three more rectangles. The upper orange rectangle houses the first two columns of a set, the middle orange rectangle houses the middle two columns, and the bottom orange rectangle houses the last two columns. Collectively they add up to the tenth complete set in the diagram.
All that remains then is to understand the last four rows of the sheet.
Each of the green blocks at the bottom represents the upper four rows of a complete set, which the two yellow rectangles then complete perfectly. Finally, the pink rectangle gives us our eight leftover cards, which match up with what we might call the upper left corner of the set.
That’s all well and good, but of course what we really want to see is whether this sheet layout produces all four Dr. K variations. At least that’s what I’m here for!
One thing we can say without a doubt is that the actual sheet layout is nothing like our original assumptions. With all the cockamamie patchwork we might justifiably exclaim, “Aha! THAT’s the crazy kind of layout you need to get all those variations!”
But guess what?
Cutting the sheet methodically into 2 x 2 panels, we find only all twelve Dr. K panels yield only a single variation (see yellow stars), the exact one I bought.
Cheating, part two
The only thing for me to do was ask the seller, who specializes in oddball cards and has always been a great guy to do business with. While his answer may not hold for all 4-in-1 panels like mine, he let me know, sure enough, that the particular panels in his own inventory came from uncut sheets.
I then asked if he did the cutting personally since I’m still surprised someone would resort to the unorthodox method it would require to produce all variations. He let me know he was not the cutter and had received his rather extensive lot as part of a larger purchase he made.
Perhaps one of my two readers who’s made it this far has direct knowledge in this area, in which case I hope they share that knowledge in the comments. In the meantime, I’m left believing that somebody somewhere wanted variations so badly that they were willing to live with a little waste.
Either that or…
what really happened
So I was thinking about the easiest way to produce all variations for all players with a minimum of waste. Taking Doc as an example, we know he only appears in the upper right quadrant when methodical cutting is applied. However, moving him from top to bottom just requires skipping a row. Similarly, moving him from right to left just requires skipping a column.
Treating the blacked out portion of the sheet below as throwaway, a methodical cutting of the remaining sheet portions will generate a complete master set of all 36 x 4 = 144 panels. I’ve highlighted one of each Gooden panel to illustrated this. (Note also that my black lines could have been just about anywhere and still done the trick. They only requirement is that each quadrant remain large enough to generate a panel of the desired player.)
So yes, I do believe that’s what happened, and the only question that remains for me is whether the cutter planned all this or just stumbled upon it by accident. As for that I’ll offer that many uncut sheets end up with a bad row or two due to creasing. I’ll also offer that bad cuts here and there are possible when chopping up an entire sheet. What this suggests to me is there are at least two ways the original cutter may have unwittingly generated a master set all my math told me was impossible!
For most printed material, the method of printing is the means to the end. As long as the result looks good it doesn’t really matter how things were actually printed. Heck, from a printing point of view, noticing how something was printed is arguably a production failure since the standard processes are intended to make the printer’s hand as invisible as possible.
As a print and design geek though, one of my favorite things are designs that not only do something interesting with the printing but use the printing as a design feature in and of itself. Designs where I not only notice the printing method but which highlight the fingerprints of the printer.
There are actually two baseball card designs from my youth which do this. The first is 1985 Fleer. Lots of people love this set for the colorful borders and interesting photography. I admit that I like it for this as well. What is especially interesting to me though are the grey borders. I’ve seen some people call them grey. I’ve seen others call them burlap and compare them to the textured borders on 1983 Fleer or 1968 Topps.
So let’s take a closer look. On the left, 1985 Fleer. On the right, 1970 Topps. Both borders are basically the exact same color: just black ink printed at close to 40%. The only difference? The way the dots are arranged on the paper, specifically the angle of the dots.
Traditionally, when a halftone* is printed by itself it’s printed at a 45° angle.** This minimizes the screen pattern and results in a color that we tend to view as solid and patternless. 1970 Topps’s border is a textbook example of how this works. Zoom in on the photo and, if you can get your brain to not see things as just grey,*** you can see that the rows of dots are at 45° angles and produce somewhat of a checkerboard effect.
***Something my brain has a hard enough time doing since the entire point of the 45° angle/screen is to confuse your brain.
1985 Fleer though is printed at 0°—instead of a checkboard effect we have a clear grid of dots in rows and columns. This creates an effect where many people notice the actual pattern of the dots rather than treating the area as a flat grey color. I was unaware of this as a kid but it’s something I love about the design now. It’s an elegantly simple approach which uses the actual mechanics of printing to produce an effect that didn’t have to be designed.
Another thing worth pointing out about 1985 Fleer is the composition of the colored borders. As you can see in the sample above, there’s no screening pattern at all in the blue. This is because it’s being printed as 100% Cyan (one of the four standard printing inks).* One ink. No screen pattern of dots. No registration to worry about.
The red and green borders are similarly solid. This time though they consist of two inks. Red is 100% Magenta and 100% Yellow while green is 100% Cyan and 100% Yellow.* The three colors we’ve covered so far are some of the simplest colors to print and as a result are colors that come up frequently on baseball card designs.**
*You can see a bit of misregistration in the red border as there’s some Yellow fringing on the bottom edge and Magenta fringing on the top edge of the red elements.
**The other simple colors are the pink (100% Magenta), yellow (100% Yellow), black (100% Black), and dark blue/purple (100% Cyan plus 100% Magenta).
The other three colors show that Fleer’s screen choices were intentional. All three borders here feature a Magenta screen at 45° mixed with either 100% Yellow or 100% Cyan. It’s worth noting here that these screen angles are only being used for the borders too. The photos appear to be printed using the traditional angles.*
*Magenta can be seen at 75° in a couple of the zoomed in images—specifically green-bordered Essien and light-blue-bordered Teufel. And for anyone who didn’t read the link provided earlier, the traditional angles are Cyan 15°, Magenta 75°, Black 45°, and Yellow 0°.
Why am I looking at the screen angles for the solid colors? Two reasons but for now the only important one is that the other set which is about print screens happens to be about colored screens. Once we start looking at this set the screen angles become part of the design.
Yup. Come on down 1990 Topps. I’ve seen this one referred to as the Lichtenstein set since the screens look like the Ben-day dots that dominated comic book shading and which Roy Lichtenstein referenced in his pop art paintings. This is an appropriate name even though 1990 Topps’s design is still a halftone screen rather than Ben-Day dots.
So let’s dig in, starting off with the simplest of the color options in the base set, the light blue gradient. This should look somewhat familiar. Just Cyan ink. A screen angle of 45°. Up close it’s just dots but at arm’s-length it’s still a somewhat smooth gradation from almost white to 100% Cyan.
The crop above is a half-inch square from the middle of the gradient Comparing the sizes of the dots on the top of the crop to the bottom shows how halftone screens work in general and how the gradient effect works specifically. In a halftone, the size of the dot changes as a color gets lighter or darker. Larger dots are darker colors, smaller dots are lighter ones*. In the gradient here as the dots get smaller the color approaches white and as the dots get larger the colors approach turquoise/cyan.
Printing the dots at a super-coarse screen of around 20 lines per inch instead of over 100 allows them to be part of the design while still conveying the color information.
It’s in the mixed colors that things get interesting. The red, orange, and green gradients all involve mixing two inks together. In each of these cases the darker ink (Cyan or Magenta) is printed at 45° while the Yellow is printed at 15°.
The 30° difference in angle minimizes moiré effects and produces the halftone rosette pattern that we’re used to seeing. In these cases though the yellow is so light that we don’t really see it and even zoomed in it’s very easy to see these as being red or green dots a a 45° angle and not even notice the yellow ink and the fact that it’s also being screened into a gradient.*
*Sharp-eyed readers will also notice that in the orange gradient above (second image) the dark blue stripe is screened at 0° and Mike Scott’s background is Black-only at 45°. These black-only All Stars show voids when they’re from the same press sheet that the famous Frank Thomas no-name “error” is printed on.
The difference in angle is also what keeps this design from looking like Lichtenstein or Ben-day dots. With the yellow in the mix it’s easy to miss the two inks. But with the dark blue and purple cards the screening is much more obvious. These screens involve two similarly-dark inks but Topps chose to print them differently. Above on the left is dark blue which Topps chose to print Cyan is at 45° and Magenta at 75°. On the right is the purple which printed Magenta at 45° and Cyan at 75° instead.
Despite one screen being at 45° these two colors look much more halftone-like than the other four colors in the set. There’s a clear mix of colors and the 45° angle is difficult to see. Even though I know it’s there I see these as being more rosette-like.
Compared to other color choices Topps made for this design though the dark blue and purple are pretty restrained. This would change later in 1990 as Topps’s later sets—Topps Traded, the Mini Leaders, and Major League Debut—are all very different from what Flagship is doing.
Topps Traded (photo 1) is a basic red gradient except that unlike Flagship the Yellow isn’t being screened at all and the Magenta is screened at 15°. This is the only design of the nine 1990 designs where there’s a solid ink (Yellow) in the gradient.
Mini Leaders (photo 2) meanwhile feature a gradient from Cyan to Yellow so the mid-point looks green as one ink fades out and another fades in. Where all the other 1990 designs fade from a dark color to a lighter version of that color, this one features essentially two gradients. In the zoomed in image above, the Yellow ink is at 15° and goes from large dots at the top to smaller ones at the bottom. Cyan meanwhile is at 45° and goes from large dots at the bottom to smaller ones at the top.
The last image is the most-interesting sample for me. Major League Debut consists of a four-color gradient. Zooming in on this design shows all kinds of dots. Rather than looking remotely Lichtenstein this is pure halftone all the way down. Black is at 45° like it usually is. As are Cyan at 15° and Magenta at 75°. Yellow meanwhile looks like it’s at 30°—not the 0° I’d expect but slipped in between two of the other screens where it’ll result in the same kind of halftone rosette pattern.
Anyway, despite my not particularly liking the 1990 design even though it’s full of things for me to geek out about, one of the things I do love about it and 1985 Fleer is how they’re extremely hard to replicate with modern technology.
Before computer-based color separations, all the printing elements were assembled manually, stripped together, and then burned onto a printing plate. This allowed different elements to be screened at different frequencies and angles. The photo is screened differently than the borders and it doesn’t matter.
Now, everything is done on the computer and the plate is made using the same screen on all elements. This is generally better in terms of color accuracy and reproducibility but when replicating old designs runs into the issue where things that were formally-solid inks are now being screened.* Or in the case of designs like 1990 Topps, things that used to be screened are now being double screened.
This brings us to the second reason I was looking at screen angles. Modern remakes of these designs are completely different. Zooming in and comparing the Topps Archives version (left) to the dark blue screen of the 1990 design (right) shows how Topps Archives treats the halftone dots as only a pattern. Instead of two coarse Cyan and Magenta screens, there’s a light blue background color and a dark blue dot pattern, both printed with a super-fine stochastic screen. The edges of the dots aren’t crisp and, for me, the design just isn’t the same.
I get it. With today’s technology, doing this kind of thing requires you to go out of your way for an effect that’s intentionally going to make the printing look “worse.” When Fleer reprinted its 1985 design in 2001* it got hit with all kinds of moiré because Fleer couldn’t cope with changing the 0° angle to 45° (what a computer would want to print it at). Computers just don’t do this kind of thing well plus manually making your own screens means you also lose all color controls that your printing process has.
*I do not have this card and refuse to buy it just for this post but if someone supplies a 24oo DPI scan of that card I’ll edit this post to show how badly it was handled.
That’s the shame or replicating these kind of things. No one points to the 1980s and 1990s as a time of being careful about how cards were made. Despite being massively overprinted, it’s clear with sets like these that there was still some thought being paid to the nitty-gritty details of how the ink was actually going on to the paper. And that’s pretty cool to realize.