Five sheets to the wind with 1981 Donruss

Not long again, fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Mark Del Franco posed three questions about the 1981 Donruss set he was paging in his binder.

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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!)

  1. Yes, an Oakland A’s player shows up at 350.
  2. 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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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…

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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?

Creating Your Own Cards with the Rookies App

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.

Unopened pack of 20 cards.

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.

Photos copied from 1979 Pittsburg 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.

Taken during Pittsburgh Pirates Fantasy Camp in Bradenton, Florida.
Taken at Pittsburgh Pirates Fantasy Camp in Bradenton, Florida.
Taken during Pittsburgh Pirates Fantasy Camp in Bradenton, Florida.
Elroy was one of the former players signing at a card show outside of Pittsburgh. Luckily I had a baseball with me and I asked him to show me how he used to grip the fork ball.
Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz warming up prior to a Spring Training in 2004 against the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field (now LECOM Park)in Bradenton, Florida.
A good friend of mine is a Red Sox season ticket holder and invited me to go with him to the pre-Duck Boat parade World Series celebration inside Fenway Park in 2013. In this photo Big Papi proudly displays his World Series Championship belt while standing on top of the Red Sox dugout. Note the Duck Boat in the background.
In a scheduling fluke that will probably never happen again in my lifetime the Red Sox opening series in 2017 was against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Captured this photo of my favorite current player from my seat near the Red Sox dugout.

Take care and be safe.

Black Ink and Trapping

The third edition of what’s become an annual tradition where I use Topps Heritage as an entree into writing about how cards were, and are printed. In 2018 I looked at differences in the screening patterns and and attempting to fake a 1969-style screen. In 2019 I was struck by Topps replacing a black screen with a spot grey ink. This year with the 1971 design and all those black borders, it’s time to talk about printing solid blacks.

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.

*Magenta and Yellow. Refer to the post about 1985 Fleer and 1990 Topps for more information about this.

**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.

Venezuelan Topps and the Pirates of the Caribbean

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.

Hey, at least the shipping is free!

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.

But first…1952-1958

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.

1959

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.

1960

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.

1962

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!

1964

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.)

1966

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.

1967

We’ll skip this one for now as it’s actually the main focus of the article!

1968

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.”

And finally…1967!

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.

Winter Leaguers

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.

RETIRED GREATS

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:

  • Whitey Ford
  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Al Kaline
  • Roger Maris
  • Tony Oliva
  • Don Drysdale
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ron Santo
  • Frank Robinson
  • Willie Stargell
  • Mickey Mantle

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.

From the author’s Hank Aaron collection

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.

“VEN” diagrams

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.

  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Al Kaline
  • Roger Maris
  • Tony Oliva
  • Don Drysdale
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ron Santo
  • Frank Robinson
  • Willie Stargell
  • Steve Carlton
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Eddie Mathews

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!”

1991 Topps Cracker Jack 4-in-1 panel decoder ring

DR K. Ten Most Wanted

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.

Variations

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.

Population report

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.

Darn it!

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.

  1. The cutters didn’t follow a methodical approach, instead just cutting up sheets willy-nilly to achieve desired results.
  2. 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:

32-21-08-30-33-04
10-07-25-19-22-02
05-34-26-28-29-13
17-06-16-36-27-12
23-35-09-18-20-24
01-14-31-03-11-15

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.

Go figure!

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!

Printing fingerprints

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.

*Previous posts about halftones on this blog look at 2017 Topps releases, 2018 Heritage, and 2019 Flagship and Heritage

**I could write a post just about traditionally-printed screen angles but there’s already a good one on the web.

***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.

*Why yes a previous post starts off with a brief primer on Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black and the standard “process color” inks.

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.

*Compare to stochastic FM screens where the dots are all the same size and it’s frequency/quantity of the dots which changes as colors get lighter or darker. 

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.

*A lot of the heritage designs show how this works

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.

Digital Footprints

A recent post by Jenny Miller about the Topps Bunt app got me thinking about digital cards. I’ve long wanted to see such a post on this blog but I suspect that our membership base is skeptical at best* when it comes to cards that only live in an app.

*And dismissive at worst.

I get it. This is a cardboard hobby and the idea of something existing only digitally doesn’t feel “real.” At the same time, the experience Jenny describes is closer to the pure ideal of the hobby than much of what’s going on with card releases. She doesn’t have to spend any money. She’s able to look at her collection and acquire new cards anywhere and anytime she has battery life on her phone. There’s no concern about finding a card shop or hoping that the card aisle hasn’t been raided by pack seekers. It sounds like a lot more fun than most of the bellyaching I see about the current state of the hobby on Twitter.

What really got me thinking though were the images Jenny used in her blog post. I’m online-averse in all my media. I prefer CDs/DVDs/BluRay to streaming. I prefer books to Kindle. As interesting as the Topps Bunt app seems it’s just not something that appeals to me…unless I can get the cards out of the app. As much as I’m a luddite, my concerns are actually more about being locked in to a corporate ecosystem and the fact that companies have a bad track record with regard to maintaining these things.

I just don’t trust these apps to last and while I don’t need ALL my cards to last another 20, 30, 40 years it would be nice to know that there’s a possibility of it. Jenny didn’t get her images out of the app (she confirmed with me that she pulled them from Topps’s Twitter feed) but she could have.

My phone (an iPhone8) produces screenshots that are 750×1334 pixels. This translates into 2.5″×4.45″ at 300 DPI. Even if you have to crop off a little of the image to get just the card this is enough data for good-quality printing. Yeah. There’s no reason why you couldn’t roll your own Bunt cards.

As much as it’s weird to me how the Bunt app cards show evidence of wanting to pretend to be physical items with their wrinkles, halftone rosettes, “autographs,” and peeling effects, they are actually something that can be taken into the real world if you wanted to.

Costco wallet-sized prints are 59¢ for four. Even if you didn’t print these, just being able to save them outside of the app gives you a level of flexibility and future-protection that alleviates a lot of my concerns. It also reminds me of a number of other card-related things we’ve covered on this blog where the original objects contain information that is no longer accessible for most collectors.

One of the best things about this hobby is how it’s a near perfect usage of technology—in this case print technology. Cards are the right size to hold and store. They’re durable enough to handle without falling apart immediately. And they don’t require any supplementary technology.

I very much love cards that push the into other technological realms though. They just require some help to be fully enjoyed if the other technology does not age as well as ink on cardboard.

For example, Auravision and Baseball Talk are both wonderful objects but the audio portions of them are tough to access. Record players may be making a comeback but they’ve not been standard in most homes for a long time. Plus you have to punch a hole in the middle of that nice Auravision photo to listen to anything. Similarly, Baseball Talk requires a special player which, even if you have one, is not guaranteed to work anymore since it’s a cheap child’s toy.

But the internet is a wonderful place. The Auravision recordings are up on YouTube. As are the Baseball Talk ones. This means I can have my Baseball Talk cards in my album and pull up the corresponding recordings on the web. Yes there’s always that fear that the recordings will disappear from YouTube but they’re out there, but there are tools out there that will download the audio from a YouTube video and convert it to MP3.

Another thing that YouTube has preserved is things like 2000 Upper Deck Power Deck. Sure you can just shove a baseball card sized mini CD-ROM into a binder page but reading the data is near impossible now. Most computers don’t have optical media trays and the ones that do are usually slot-loading ones that can’t accept non-standard sized or shaped media. So your only option to see what’s on the disc is to go to YouTube and hope it’s been uploaded.

I’ve actually been engaged in my own form of converting a somewhat-inaccesable product into one with digital footprints. I don’t have the toy to view my Viewmaster discs so I’m only able to see them by holding a disc up to light. This isn’t ideal. Scanning them into wiggle gifs produces a better way of seeing them.

I’m also going a step further and scanning the booklet so I can convert each image into a 2.5″ square card with a still image in the front and the booklet on the back. No it’s not the Viewmaster experience but it take the photos into a form that’s more accessible.

Do I expect Bunt to be around in a decade? No way. But I do expect JPGs of the cards to be available someplace. Maybe not all of them, but someone next decade will have an archive of a bunch of them. And I have my fingers crossed that a few cards will even be printed out the way I’m printing out my Viewmaster photos.

Chrome, Finest, Reversed Printing, and Opaque Whites

Last December fellow print geek @robbyt86 tweeted an astute observation about someone else’s printing plate rainbow when he noticed that the rainbow consisted of both regular and Chrome cards and that the Chrome cards were printed in reverse. The top two printing plate cards in the image are regular paper printed right-reading (as can be seen in the jersey logo and number). The bottom two are Chrome printed wrong-reading.

This got me thinking and I hypothesized that Chrome was printed in reverse on clear plastic and then fused to the foilboard. This would explain the difference in the printing plates as well as the mix of foil and non-foil finishes. Opaque white ink isn’t usually the best thing to print on top of but this technique would lay it down last, on top of the other inks, which is a perfect use for it.

The more I thought about this the more I realized that this was also probably how Finest was made in the mid-1990s* and that I wanted to do some digging to confirm whether or not this was indeed the case.

*and that there was a decent chance that the protective coating on Finest is still on the clear layer of these Chrome/Finest cards today only it’s getting peeled off after printing but before packing.

So I decided to soak one of my excess Chrome cards to see what I could find out. I selected a 2015 Topps Chrome Hunter Strickland for this since I had gotten tired of him after the 2018 broken hand debacle. 2015 is a good design for this since the colored border meant there was, presumably, some opaque white right there on the edge.

Soaking went well. Card came apart as expected except for the surprise Tide Pod marks inside the card stock. After cleaning everything up I was left with just the front of the card and a literal foil backing.

The next step for me was to start sanding each side to confirm what side the ink was on and see if I could find a way to remove just the foil. This didn’t work super well but I did confirm that the ink is indeed printed on the inside layer of the plastic. You can make out the scuff marks on Strickland’s face and how they stay on the surface of the card rather than removing any ink. Compare this to where I sanded on the back by the Giants logo. The foil and image both start to disappear—especially along the edge.

So I was stuck both because Chrome is impossible to scan and because I hadn’t really produced anything interesting. And then Artiezillante commented on my previous post where I dove into the patent archive. I’ll just reproduce it in full here as well.

So in addition to cards I have a fairly extensive collection of wrappers from the 1980s-today because you never know when you’re going to need to go to the wrapper to answer a question. On the 1997 Finest Series 1 and 2 wrappers they have the following language:

Topps Finest is a registered trademark of The Topps Company, Inc.
SGW US Patent #4933218, #5082703, #5106126, Chromium (R), Holochrome (R), #5223357, Skin Protector TM, ClearChrome (R), Pat. Pending

I don’t have a 1996 Finest wrapper, but I do have one from 1995 and none of that language is there. The 1998 Finest wrapper is nearly impossible to read (the wrapper is clear so the print on the back gets jumbled with the design on the front) but it also mentions US & Foreign patents for Chromium, Holochrome, Skin Protector, and ClearChrome, though there are no patent numbers. The earliest Topps Chrome wrapper I have is from 2002 and it has the same language as the 1998 Finest wrapper.

This was fantastic and turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Patents 5082703, 5106126, and 5223357 in particular describe exactly what’s going on with Finest and Chrome.

Patent 5082703 describes the clear layer,* how it’s printed on the back side, and how the thickness of the ink printed can be changed so as to create textural effects. The pictures in the patent show a generic image in Figure 1 with Figures 2, 3, 4, and 7 representing different cross sections with the clear layer always being labelled 12 and the different ink layers on the back being shown in profile.

*Patent 4933218 that Topps also mentions is an earlier version of 5082703.

Patent 5106126 meanwhile covers the opaque masking of portions of the printed image so that multiple finishes are available after a metallic layer is added to the piece. More specifically it builds on printing on a clear substrate (what the previous patent covers) by depositing an opaque layer behind select portions of the image before layering reflective/metallic material on the back of the entire piece. This results in some portions of the printed piece having a metallic sheen and other pieces being dull and paper-like.

One key point here is that metallic layer is laminated or sprayed on to the substrate. This is not how cards are produced so the key takeaway here is the custom opaque ink sections.*

*Compare this to the custom foil stamping detailed in Upper Deck’s hologram card patent I mention in my previous post

The last patent, number 5223357, covers the assembly of the cards. The patent specifies holographic film but the key takeaway for me is that it discusses adhering together two distinct sheets—the clear layer (labelled 12) and the metallic/holographic layer (labelled 14)—rather than the single sheet that the other two patents discuss.

The cross-sectional drawings in this patent also distinctly show how the ink is located between the two layers and confirms that my hypothesis about how these cards are assembled is correct.

It also explains why the Chrome printing plates are wrong-reading since, once they’re printed on the the clear substrate, they become right-reading when viewed through the plastic.

When you look at a Chrome card you’re looking at the back of the printing through the clear plastic sheet that it’s been printed on. The non-shiny sections have opaque white ink printed on top of the colored inks (remember you’re looking at the back of the printing). The shiny sections are from a foil sheet that has been glued to the plastic sheet. The rest of the card is regular paper card stock* on which the card backs are printed just like traditional paper cards.

*The plastic/paper dual composition is why Chrome cards tend to curl so much. Paper responds to humidity much more than plastic and so depending on conditions in the Topps plant vs conditions in your home it will expand or contract a little and result in curling.

It Was 47 Years Ago Today (Give or Take)

I’ve been spending a lot of time in 1972 the last week, the first year I completed the full Topps set (and the last year that brand new, very old Mets’ pitching coach Phil Regan had his LAST card as a player.)

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The week began with a little Father’s Day present to myself – a binder and box of sheets. I tend not to put complete baseball sets I already have in binders. I reserve that for sets I’m building. It’s so much easier to put a recently acquired card or two in a binder than pull out a box that is, invariably, in a logistically hard to get place. However, in the interests of maximally efficient storage, a binder for the ‘72s was necessary.

It’s a set I love more for what it reminds me of than how it looks (though I like how it looks). We had moved to the middle of Suffolk County, Long Island (Lake Grove to be exact) in December 1971. It was a hard move to make, going from Brooklyn in 1971 to LI stuck in 1961. By spring and summer of 1972 it was getting better for me, but the baseball cards of that year were my best medicine. I can see myself on the concrete pad outside our front door opening a full box of packs, my greatest youthful extravagance, $2.40 of cobbled together loose change brought much joy.

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Looking at the sets 9-card pages at a time, brought to mind a constant question of mine. Why is the last series so much brighter looking?

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One Twitterer commented that he thought “The later series were much clearer images than many found in the first few. It looks like there is a blue filter on many of the earlier 1972 cards. This photography was done in spring training.” Here’s #130, Bill Freehan.

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Another collector thought, maybe, that Topps used different card stock at the end of the baseball line, as they turned to football. They don’t feel any different, but I don’t know.

It seemed like the 6th series never made it to me (similar to the 1972 3rd Series Football, though less extreme). I bought tons of packs back then, so there’s no reason I can think of why I have only three doubles. I ended up buying the whole series after the season ended and, weirdly, the toughest series is my best condition one.

And, speaking of doubles, I sold 492 cards this morning to a friend who only recently found out I collected cards. As my wife said afterwards, collecting is so intrinsic to who I am, it’s amazing everyone doesn’t know. Funny, you all do, but many people who I know well don’t. That says something about me, though I’m not sure what.

I have been selling cards lately, but there’s something extra nice of getting them to someone who really wants or needs them. My friend now has a nice running start on a set in EX or EXMT condition, and he got to pick from multiples for the card he liked best.

I don’t think almost 10 year old me would have liked parting with those cards, but almost 57 year old me approves.

Production changes

Yup. I’m overdue for my next post about print screens.* This time it’s 2019 Topps Flagship which caught my eye. When I got my first sample of Flagship this year, one of the first things I noticed was that they used a Traditional line screen instead of a Stochastic FM screen. This is the first time in a long time that Topps has printed Flagship this way so I figured I should go through my binders to see when exactly when it changed.

*Previous posts are a rundown of 2017’s different cards and a look at 2018 Heritage.

It turns out that it’s been just over a decade. The last time Topps printed Flagship traditionally was in 2008. This feels about right since the mid 2000s were when computer-to-plate technology took over the printing world. There were too many variables in the printing process to really do Stochastic screens before then but with computers both generating the plates directly and monitoring ink densities on press, the whole world changed.

I’ve gone ahead and scanned a half-inch swatch from the past dozen years of Flagship just to demonstrate. You can see the rosette pattern that Traditional screening creates in both the 2008 design and the 2019 design. The rest show how Stochastic screening results in a much smoother image.

Does this make a big difference to the card quality? Not really. Topps has been just fine using traditional screens in Stadium Club and that’s as quality a product as it comes in terms of printing.

Rather, this change interests me because it indicates that Topps has changed its production methods.* Either a new printer or something about the print run—scale, price point, etc.—means that the traditional screen is back.

*I’m also intrigued that Topps is printing Black at 15° and Magenta at 45° but the post about print angles is going to wait for another day.

That the mini Flagship cards over the years were printed traditionally points at differing distributions being perhaps a factor. That 2010 Update was printed traditionally despite Flagship being stochastic suggests I’m just reading too much into it. Anyway I found the change interesting.

While I was going through the decades I noticed that Heritage has been back and forth a lot more with this. It switched to Stochastic in 2008—a year before Flagship—went back to Traditional in 2010, then Stochastic in 2011, Traditional from 2012–2014, Stochastic from 2015–2018, and back to Traditional this year. Cropped samples starting from 2006 follow.

Looking at each year of Heritage is an interesting experience. As someone who’s used to looking at old cards, Heritage’s approach to reproducing the designs shows how different the printing world is now. Where the old designs had pure solid inks,* Heritage is frequently screened. Heritage is also consistently trying to fake the artifacts of old printing—really fat fake traps,** misregistered inks, large halftone rosettes.

*The reds, yellows, greens, blues, and purples are all supposed to be solid. Yes I will eventually have a post about the seven standard easy-to-print colors Topps used for decades.

**Trapping is the small overlap between design elements of differing ink compositions which prevents unsightly gaps from showing up in case of misregistration between the inks when printing.

It’s the treating the halftone as a pattern/texture that annoys me the most. I commented on it last year and was pleased to see that it was gone in Heritage High Numbers. Much to my surprise, Heritage High was printed Traditionally and had disposed of the fake rosette pattern*

*Well except for the Deckle Edge cards that featured a fake halftone pattern while also being printed Traditionally.

This year’s Heritage is printed with a Traditional screen but more excitingly, it’s printed with a spot color. Instead of printing the borders in a 50% black screen, Topps opted to use a solid spot grey ink (I noticed they also did the with the burlap pattern in the 1968 design). This is the kind of change I like to see Topps do with Heritage. Instead of mimicking the look of 50-year-old printing technology, taking a design and printing it as nicely as possible allows us to see how strong the design itself is.

Comparing a crop of 2019 Heritage vs 1970 Topps allows us to see the difference in quality. Heritage, in addition to using a spot grey ink, is also using a much much finer linescreen. It still gives some of that vintage rosette pattern and feeling but it’s also a massive improvement in quality.

This comparison also points out how Topps cut corners in much of the 1970 set by printing the skies as cyan-only. Heritage is much more comfortable with other colored inks giving the sky more depth.

Flipping the cards over on the back though shows one instance where I’m glad that Heritage chose to mimic old printing technology. One of the things I love about the 1970 design is how the trapping and overprinting* on the back feels like it was intended to create a third color beyond the yellow and blue.

*Overprinting is when one ink is printed completely on top of another.

The trap around the card numbers is massive and produces almost a black border. Topps faked this with a slightly-off-center trap that, if it weren’t identical card-to-card, would’ve been perfect. The statistics section of the card is blue text overprinting the yellow and also ends up being darker as a result.

Unfortunately, Heritage chose not to mimic the trapping in the cartoon—part of the 1970 design I loved most. The silver lining to this is that it shows how good Topps’s printer’s tolerances are. I can see the trap and it’s miniscule. In 1970, it feels like Topps chose to have the inks overlap so much that key portions of the cartoon turned black. It’s arguably a bit sloppy but I feel like Topps turned it into a design feature.

Anyway, I didn’t want to turn this into a deep dive into Heritage (though I do have to note that Topps didn’t do the double Latino surnames) and just wanted to highlight a few changes in Topps’s production this year and do a brief history of how they’ve printed cards in previous years.