Looking at Baseball Cards

While National Geographic is one of main ways I grew up consuming photographs, baseball cards are a close runner up. I never considered them as photos, but in coming back to the hobby, I’m realizing how interesting the photography side of them is and how learning about their history served as a primer on photographic history. Just by looking at the way that the photos have changed over the decades we can see how differently we’ve seen the game.

Being able to recognize within the photos what kind of equipment was used allows us to think about both how the gear has changed and how the gear influences the way we see the world—and the cues we take to determine what age a photo comes from.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of the retro-style card trend. Both in my recent post as well as in two posts on SABR,* I’ve been grappling with what I like, and what I don’t, and why. And a lot of it comes down to photographic technology and technique more than anything else.

*Not Hooked on Heritage and an appropriately-titled response called Hooked on Heritage.

Yes, there’s a lot of printing technology and graphic design to talk about too, but when we’re looking at cards and deciding what we like, we’re talking about photos. When we’re comparing eras, we’re comparing photographic techniques. And when we’re looking at baseball card history, we’re looking at photographic history. Maybe it’s best to start from the beginning.

George Kelly, 1st Base, New York Nationals, from the American Caramels Baseball Players series (E122) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/400151 Goodwin & Company Michael Joseph "$10,000" Kelly, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge and Gypsy Queen Cigarettes, 1887 American, Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1860) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/404613 Buck Ewing, New York, from the series Old Judge Cigarettes http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/400227

In the late 19th century (all three examples here are 1887) the cards were albumen prints of posed studio photos—basically cabinet cards but with baseball players. By being cabinet cards, many of them are larger (4.5×6 inches) than modern baseball cards. Some however, like the Gypsy Queen card here, are closer to carte de visite in size (1.125×3.5 to 2.5×4 inches) and thus, much closer to our concept of the modern baseball card.

These photos are typically posed in the studio—backdrop detail is all over the map—in poses which are still familiar. Little leaguers today take pictures in a batting stance and the throwing motion is a long-standing baseball card staple. Others though—such as the pretend fielding—are wonderfully dated and scream nostalgia. In all cases, the poses have to be positions which can be held for a long-enough time to take the photo. Photography needed a lot of light at the time for stopping action

I was surprised to find one card which was taken outside. It’s nice to see bleachers and get a sense of a possible ballpark but I suspect it’s staged for where the best light is. These are all photographs taken within the limitations of the view camera, its plate processing requirements, and the aforementioned shutter speeds. While such cameras could travel, that was not what they were best at and you risked things blurring when you were outside.

Reading about how people used and traded cabinet cards and cartes de visite of celebrities is eerily familiar to me as a baseball card collector. It’s not just trading personal photos between friends, these cards were souvenirs and mementos to be collected into albums and shown off.

It’s in the ability to produce prints en masse and the celebrity subject matter which distinguishes these from tintypes* and other one-off forms of photography. These early baseball cards highlight that it’s not only a matter of creation or consumption of photographs which is important. The technology for distribution and printmaking** is just as integral a part of our visual literacy.

*Baseball tintypes do exist and that’s not even getting into Tabitha Soren’s work—a book I totally need to buy.

**Which is why it’s important to distinguish between cabinet cards and cartes de visite which functioned as baseball trading cards versus those which were for personal use.

Dave Danforth, Pitcher, St. Louis Americans, from the American Caramel Baseball Players series (E121) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/718249 Wallie Pipp, First Base, New York Americans, from the American Caramel Baseball Players series (E120) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/428994 George Kelly, 1st Base, New York Nationals, from the American Caramels Baseball Players series (E122) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/718360

By the 1920s the poses were all outside and the printing was no longer photographic. Instead of contact printing from the camera negatives, the new cards are photos from large-format cameras* which were then re-photographed and reduced in size for lithographic printing.

*My guess is 4×5 inch sheet film.

The film is larger and more sensitive. The cameras are still cumbersome* but are more portable and capable of faster shutter speeds. As a result the poses can be more dynamic and photos can be taken in the actual stadiums. Larger negatives means that the backgrounds are pretty blurry but we can still make out some park details. There’s not enough to really figure out where the photos were taken—for the most part these appear to be in empty ballparks during special photo sessions—but they’re very clearly in a proper ballpark.

*I love this photo from 1911.

Unless the photo is a headshot, the camera is pretty far away so it can show all of the player. Where before the player and the photographer were clearly working together to get a portrait, these photos feel like the photographer is playing things kind of safe with the action and doesn’t want to waste any shots. Since the cameras only held one sheet of film at a time* photography is still a pretty slow process and I understand being extremely conservative with compositions and timing.

*Maybe two if they had backs which could be loaded on both sides.

It’s worth mentioning here that I’m not writing about the classic T206 Tobacco Cards and other releases through the 1950s which consisted of clearly-painted images derived from photographic sources. While these are important parts of baseball card history, the way that the backgrounds can be painted in means that it’s impossible to get a good sense of the photograph itself.

At the same time, it is also important to remember than almost all of the photographs have gone through a painting step to prepare them for printing. These painted-on prints* are fascinating objects in and of themselves in how they reveal a bit of photographic process—especially the cropping that occurs from the original negative—as well as how the printing itself changes the image.

*More info in the Pier 24 Secondhand post.

Uncut sheet, from the Baseball series (R406-1), issued by Bowman Gum Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/416575

By the 1940s it’s clear that we’ve evolved a bit further. Instead of large-format cameras we have medium-format.* So smaller negatives, even faster film,** sharper lenses, faster shutter speeds, and the ability to get closer and interact with the subject a lot more. Roll film enables much more rapid photography and the ability to try a bunch of different things quickly results in better images. Where the 1920s photos all feel kind of distant and safe, these 1940s photos are much more intimate.

*6×6 or 6×7 so 10 or 12 shots of 2¼-inch-wide images.

**but still really slow compared to what we’re used to today.

Tight crops. Even better ability to freeze action while posing. The smaller negatives mean that we have larger depth of field available and can start to make out the details of where the photos are taken. And the fact that there are probably a dozen images to choose from for each player means that what we’re seeing are indeed better photos.

The only thing missing is color but these photos themselves represent the dominant look of baseball cards through the 1960s.

Topps 1950s-1960s

We can clearly see faces and with the color photos we can tell that baseball is a game to be played during the day when the sun is high, the skies are blue, and the light can shine across the subjects for a nice even exposure. There’s not a lot of latitude with slide film but even with professional gear these photos mimic a lot of the advice I’ve seen in photography guides from that time period.

This is an era where every house had a Brownie Hawkeye Flash and slow medium format film was the standard. Backgrounds are busy but still blurred and the main variation in the cards is whether they’re a tightly-cropped headshot or an above-the-waist pose.

Adding to the view and focal depth of these photos is the actual camera placement. Most of the cards feel like they were shot with a waist-level viewfinder. The camera is both pretty low and the players rarely look directly into the lens. This allows for Topps to do a lot of fudging with players who get traded as the hat logos aren’t visible. But it’s also a viewpoint which comes naturally to this kind of camera. As eye-level and through-the-lens gain acceptance, the camera’s point of view creeps higher and players begin to make more and more eye contact with the lens.

1970 Topps

By the 1970s it feels like 35mm has taken over.* In addition to the higher point of view, we have casual shots now which suggest that photographers are a lot more mobile and using photojournalist-style techniques which 35mm is especially well-suited for. We’re also seeing more wide-angle lenses and can really make out a lot of detail in the stadiums. And we’re seeing more obvious uses of photographic flash.

*You can see some of this in the late 1960s but the player boycott marks a pretty clear dividing line in photographic approach which just happens to coincide with the rise to dominance of 35mm cameras.

It’s not just the cameras which have gotten extremely mobile, the flashes have too, and a smaller film format* is more conducive to taking risks and not getting screwed by having to reload so often. There’s often less interaction with the players again as photographers have the ability to work very quickly and get in and out with pictures. But the posed portrait sessions still exist and, with the additional depth of field available** these photos often give us ballpark detail we hadn’t seen previously.

*36 exposures per roll instead of 10 or 12.

**For a given field of view and lens aperture, the smaller the image sensor the larger the depth of field.

1972 Topps

35mm film also meant that action photography was all of a sudden a legitimate possibility. In the early 1970s, these photos were pretty bad. Telephoto lenses at this time were pretty short, pretty slow, and not very sharp.* Autofocus didn’t exist yet so photographers had to be on the top of their game in order to get anything in focus. Plus Topps still required 100 speed film for quality reasons** so you were constantly pushing the limits of your equipment.

*We’re talking about when a 200mm f/4 was standard.

**As per Doug McWilliams.

It’s no wonder that the action cards feel like novelties here. The fact that they exist at all is in many ways more important than the quality of the photograph. Plus, after decades of posed shots, it must’ve felt exciting to see photos of in-game action. There are some gems—I love the 1973 Marichal card—but most of the time we have a generic moment without any emotion and the horrible lighting which comes from trying to get a decent photo of someone wearing a baseball cap in the middle of the day.

Topps 1980s Action

By the early 1980s lens technology and quality had improved to the point where the action shots became more common and no longer felt like novelties. We’re also getting decent zoom and catadioptric lenses* which allow even more options for photographers with both reach and flexibility.

*A lot of the 1980 cards like the Jack Clark above show the characteristic ringed highlights in the background

As a result, in this time period we have a really good mix of posed vs action vs casual photos. No one variant truly dominates.

Topps 1980s Portraits

What did change in the 1980s though is the portrait lighting. Instead of the Topps standard of “photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the across their face”* we start to see a lot more reliance on flash to create separation between the subject and the background. This gets increasingly obvious in the mid-1980s when many of the photos have backgrounds which have been underexposed by a stop or two.

*Doug McWilliams again.

Even if taken on a bright sunny day, these photos are a lot more moody and stand our as a distinct 1980s look.

In the 1980s and 1990s autofocus lenses became commonplace and film emulsions continue to get faster. Couple that with motor drives and we’re able to get much more reliably good action photos. Lots of film wasted but they blow the 1970s photos out of the water.

It’s not a surprise that companies like Score which had only action shots emerged in the late 1980s. Such a set was impossible even five years earlier but there was finally enough good action photography available.

We’re still not particularly close to the plays though. I suspect that 500mm lenses were still the longest reach anyone had. But that’s good enough for anything in the infield.

2016 Topps Heritage

It took another format change to get us to where we are today. Digital cameras, longer lenses, faster lenses, and smaller sensors have allowed us to get closer than we ever have before. It also means that we‘re able to get “portraits” and casual images from further and further away. These images are both distinct in the tightness of the crops and in how blurred the background is.

We didn’t have the technology to do this before and the super-blurred background is a pretty clear tell—along with super-punchy color both from better printing, being able to shoot in flatter light, and digital imaging tricks—of photographic trends in the past decade. Most baseball games are at night now and cameras are good enough to be able to focus on and freeze action in artificial light now.

One of the reasons why a lot of the Heritage card designs feel weird is that they appear to be shot with the same equipment as the action cards. Digital SLRS. Super-long lenses or professional zoom lenses. We know intuitively what kind of photo to expect from those card designs and when that doesn’t match up our brains kind of freak out.

I’d love to see modern cards shot with medium format film and waist-level viewfinders just to see how that changes things. Or large-format film and view cameras. Or in the studio with props, silly poses, and long exposure times. We’ve a long history of baseball photography and, while computers are wonderful things, there’s still no replicating the way that different equipment allows us to see things differently. For a game which is so steeped in history like baseball it’s important to remember all the aspects of that history and how much of that history is tied to its visual record.

Philadelphia Zoo

Making the most of our membership to the Philadelphia Zoo.

DSC_0062
DSC_0065
DSC_0073
DSC_0093
DSC_0097
DSC_0100
DSC_0114
DSC_0117

Revealing Pictures

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Sheng Qi

Sheng Qi

So I was back in the Princeton Museum and found that when they changed the galleries they hung more photographs related to their Revealing Pictures show. the show itself is the same, but there are more photos in the surrounding galleries which are now part of it. The new photos are almost all by non-white or non-western photographers and completely change—on a good way—my reaction to the show.

Initially I had mixed feelings. I convinced myself to like it but still found a lot of it to emphasize trauma as being the easiest context in which to understand photographs. It’s nice to see photos from the non-western world but a main narrative of poverty or trauma or suffering indulges Western stereotypes about the rest of the world.

The additional photos are much more representative, both in terms of their subject matter and in terms of the contexts they exist within. They’re photographers photographing themselves and their own communities and, while they require us to understand what else is going on, challenge the western gaze in ways that the original set of photos did not.

I especially liked Deana Lawson and Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou here in terms of how their images feel like inside jobs where the connection between the photographer and the subject is one of being a trusted member of the community. Through this trust we’re allowed to learn about the conditions of the photo and that context is an additional educational experience.

Abbodjelou in particular stood out to me because he reminded me of color Keïta or Sibide work. I realized that I hadn’t made the Vlisco connection with Keïta’s work and, while still in awe of the beauty in his photographs, I kind of want to know what color they were now. Also, knowing the stories behind the fabrics in his backdrops makes me appreciate them even more.

A lot of the new photos also reminded me of Ragnar Kjartansson in how they’re both the evidence of performance or conceptual art pieces and photos which are their own works of art by themselves. Sheng Qi and Zhang Huan* stand out here in how their photos both document their performances and make us viscerally react to the concepts once we read about the context.

*Whose work I saw in San José years ago too.

Also at the Princeton Museum

While not part of the Revealing Pictures show, the Princeton Museum was also showing off its recent acquisition of Susan Meiselas’s Life of an Image. I blogged about is a few years ago and I’m so happy I got to see it live. I don’t have much to add over my Itinerant Languages post but it is indeed very cool to see a collection which shows how a photo has basically become a meme. We live in a remix culture and the more museums and artists embrace this and bring it into the galleries the better our visual literacy will get.

New Year’s Walk

A walk along the canal path for New Year’s Day.

DSC_0119
DSC_0124
DSC_0127
DSC_0129
DSC_0135
DSC_0142

Junk Wax

When I was a kid I lived off of cheap packs of common baseball cards. I didn’t have the budget for buying old packs* so instead I saved up for the packs of random commons which always seemed to have fallen off the racks at Toys-R-Us. The majority of these packs were 1985 or later but they always had a handful of cards going back to around 1979. It was always exciting to discover which old cards I got—to a 10-year-old kid anything five years old was old—and the idea that I could find a card which was almost as old as I was was especially exciting.

*Old in this case being anything before 1987.

A week or so ago I was at the Dollar Store and I noticed they were selling packs of 30 random baseball cards. Of course I bought one. When I opened it up at home I was surprised and pleased to find that it was just like I remembered.

Almost literally.

Around a fourth (eight of the 30 cards) of the pack were new-to-me post-1994 releases. But the rest were an assortment of cards which I could’ve discovered 25 years ago. Twenty from the peak junk wax era (1986–1992) which made up most of my collecting and two from 1983. I still got excited to find the 1983 cards.

So the next time I was in the area I bought a handful of packs.* They were even better. This time I got cards going back to 1981. How cool is it for a kid, for just a buck, to be able to buy a pack of cards which comes with cards that are over three decades old? I can’t imagine. Anything in the 1960s was basically untouchable for me—my goal as a kid was to have one, just one card from each year. And pre-1960? Forget about it. Not possible. Not even conceivable.**

*What can I say, I’m in a pack-buying mood right now.

*Yes I know this isn’t a fair comparison but from a kid’s point of view there’s something compelling about old that “rare” can’t come close to.

And yeah, seeing all those old cards with their mid-1980s logos and uniforms—especially the old Twins and the elb Expos logos—made me think of and remember all kinds of things.

Giants


It surprised me how the players I liked when I was a kid are the cards I still get excited to see in a pack. Whether it’s a purely-local favorite like Jose Uribe, whose name every Giants fan from the late 80s chanted whenever he made a good play or came up to bat. Or Scott Garrelts, our closer-turned-starter whose almost-no-hitter is still one of the games I remember distinctly 27 years later.

Or the stars of the team who I ended up liking even after they left the Giants. Jeffrey Leonard was The Man when I first became a fan. Our power hitter with the special one-flap-down home run trot and the double-zero jersey who was my first favorite player. I love how you can see in the card that he kept the 00 on the Brewers.

And Will Clark was a rookie the year I first started paying attention but he quickly became The Thrill, the player we all loved and sang Happy Birthday to at spring training. I coveted his jersey when I was a kid. I’m still giddily happy to have a throwback version of it now. And every time I wear it I get comments from other fans my age about how he’s still their favorite player too.

Stanford


I used to look forward to the Stanford Baseball Alumni game every year. I’d collect baseball cards from Stanford alumni and cross my fingers that they’d show up each January. This meant that I also used to be on alert for their cards in every pack or set that I acquired.

It turns out that those instincts are still there. When I came across Mike Aldrete and Al Osuna, I found myself realizing that I was comparing every card against my Stanford Alumni checklist. It’s a pretty random group of names which I’m surprised I still remember.

Mike Aldrete was the first autograph I got in the field. I had no idea what I was doing. Wrong kind of pen, way overawed and nervous, put the card away before the ink dried, etc. etc.  I’ve still got the card somewhere (1987 Topps) and I should dig it up to see if it’s as bad as I remember. I enjoyed that he played for the Giants in addition to being a Stanford guy as it felt like I was killing two birds with one stone by getting his signature.

The Al Osuna rookie card on the other hand reminds me of one of the things I did—and do—love about rookie cards. When getting autographs, especially at Stanford, it was always a treat to have a player’s first baseball card ever. Getting your own card is a tangible sign of having made it to The Show and it was apparent to me how much the players enjoyed seeing them at the alumni game.

Leaf


I totally forgot about these. I didn’t even recognize them at first when I came across them in the packs. I had to let the Leaf name sort of percolate through my brain for a while before I remembered why it was different from the mainline Donruss set.

It was always exciting to find a random Canadian penny or quarter. It was just as exciting to find a random Canadian baseball card. That Donruss had a parallel Leaf edition of their cards was a little weird* in the same way that Dreyers/Edys and Oroweat/Arnold still kind of weirds me out. But I loved the dual-language backs and the idea that there were “foreign” cards which featured the same players I was collecting.

*This got weirder when Leaf became Donruss’s upmarket card brand.

Also, while I know Topps had the O-Pee-Chee Canadian cards I can’t recall ever running across them. Part of me feels like I must have encountered one of them at some point. But even with the prodding of the Leaf cards nothing comes to mind. Maybe Leaf was more common in California? Or maybe, because I collected Topps sets I wasn’t as tuned in checking for the O-Pee-Chee logo.

Dave Magadan


Sometimes a single card triggers a lot of memories. The Dave Magadan Future Stars card is one of the first cards I specifically remember getting. I’m pretty sure it’s because of that Future Stars label which I must have taken at face value in a “Look mom he’s going to be a star!” kind of way. But I remember pulling it out of  the pack and treating it as something special.

Looking at the card now and I suspect that a lot of the appeal was also in how the card itself is representative of the best of Topps photography. It’s not necessarily a great photo, but it’s the kind of photo that makes a great baseball card. Decent light, bright sunny day, a sense of the location where the photo was taken, and a clear view of the player’s face.

What‘s funniest now is that despite this card being something that caught my attention as a young collector, I paid literally no attention to the rest of Magadan’s career. Yes he never became a star but he did have a decent career—sixteen seasons, an MVP vote in his best year—even if he never became an established starter.

Turn back the clock and team leaders

I’d totally forgotten about these too. The Team Leaders cards are like the Future Stars cards in how I remember enjoying finding them. I still like them from a nostalgia point of view but the cards themselves are a horrible mashup of design elements.

The Team Leaders card also reminded me of the Topps Minis—another set I’d completely forgotten—which used the same design to feature the individual team leaders.

The Turn Back the Clock cards though I never liked. Yes it was nice to see the old cards, but having baseball cards with pictures of baseball cards on them still confuses me. Pairing 1962 with 1987 at least looks sort of okay, but most of the times the designs clash horribly and the weird drop shadow on the card and the T is just awful.

Topps backs


I always preferred the backs of Topps cards to the other brands. It’s not just that all the major league stats were on there, Topps was very generous in including minor league stats. It was rare to come across a card with fewer than five seasons on the back and in addition to finding cards with the oldest stat lines, I also just compared stats and learned about where minor league affiliates were located.

Of all the statistics though I remember being most infatuated with Game-winning RBIs. It’s an admittedly awful stat* but the apparent simplicity of it combined with the way that Topps always listed them in their own line at the bottom of the table made it the stat I compared the most between cards.

*I’m not alone in wondering why hasn’t its awfulness destroyed our trust of pitching Win-Loss records.

It’s such a compelling thing. Who won the most games? Who’s won the most games in a career?

As a kid, where “you lost the game” is the ultimate post-game insult, the idea that you could quantify those things suggests a magic wand to settle all playground arguments forever.

Donruss backs


Donruss’s backs also had full stat lines but the fact that they always looked the same meant that I ended up kind of ignoring them. The bright colors are nice and I can certainly appreciate not messing with a functional layout.* But being able to recognize what year a card is just by the back design is important. I don’t like having to check a stat line or copyright date and with Donruss that’s what you had to do.

*Not that Topps’s different designs really changed anything either during these years.

Fleer backs


Fleer kind of split the difference between Topps and Donruss. The vertical bars which highlight important stats were Fleer’s trademark look and I appreciate the way that they kept the bars consistent between pitching and batting stats. I’m a little sad that Fleer no longer exists since I’d be curious how they would have changed this look to deal with things like OPS and WAR which have become more important than traditional stats.*

*One thing I neglected to mention in my previous post was how the current Topps backs have OPS and WHIP and WAR on them and it’s nice to see how the statistics on baseball cards have evolved. 

And new things


About a third of the cards were completely new to me. New designs, new sets, new players, new everything. It’s been two dozen years since I stopped collecting and, for everything that feels the same, there’s a whole lot which has changed as well. Most of the new cards are the ones which came out after I stopped collecting. But I was pleasantly surprised to find some cards from my era which I had never seen before

The Swell Baseball Greats cards are one example of this. I didn’t recognize the set. I’d never heard of the set. I didn’t even know about the brand of gum. Looking at the checklist for this set I’m even more confused. It’s a decent list of all-time greats but some of the inclusions—such as the two cards I got—are just bizarre.

The other weird thing about these is that they’re fully-licensed. I collected my fair share of cards which felt like these except someone had airbrushed out the team logos because of licensing reasons. I’d probably like these more if they were like that. Those oddball non-licensed cards are one of the most fun parts of this hobby since they hearken back to the way that cards used to be packaged with food and other product.

Topps


I don’t have a lot to say here on top of my previous post except to admit that I’m kind of shocked at how few of these designs do anything for me. Laying them out like this allows me to see the progression toward all action all the time. Some of the most-recent designs are disturbingly close to looking like HDR photographs* too which suggests that Topps has been trying to pump up the intensity in every aspect.

*2015 is especially egregious here.

I can also see that there was a period where Topps really lost its way and I didn’t miss much at all in terms of card design. If most the 1980s—or, well arguably, 1973–1993 with a few exceptions like 1975, 1986, 1987, and 1990—are mostly conservative and trend toward boring, 1994–2010 is mostly a disaster of “I have a computer and glossy finishes and foil stamping but no discipline.”

Yes I like some of the designs in there but on the whole it’s like Topps lost faith in the product and kept trying to distinguish itself in some way. The post-2010 sets* are mostly better so that’s some degree of comfort.

*Except 2015.

It was interesting to see how, once Topps went to white card stock and glossier finishes, that the Stadium Club cards no longer felt as upmarket. The full-bleed photos are still nice but other than that there was nothing distinct about them. Meanwhile there was one Topps Total card which felt like the old-school cards of my youth but I don’t understand the point of that set at all.

Upper Deck


Oh man. I loved Upper Deck as a kid. Great designs. Great photos. Nice coated white card stock. Everything an upmarket set should be. I wish I could’ve afforded more of them.

Looking at the newer Upper Deck cards was super disappointing. All the nice photos have been ruined with computer graphics and effects and, while each card on an individual level still looks kind of cool, as a set they all look kind of the same and generic. Also, from what I can tell on Google, Upper Deck went all-in on the relic card bullshit* to the point where it feels like the regular cards are packaging waste for the special cards.

*The act of cutting up uniforms or equipment for inclusion in a baseball card offends me on multiple levels.

While I’d normally call those special cards inserts, in this case it’s clear that you just paid a ton of money for a pack, always got something “special,” and discarded the rest of the regular cards. Looking into those checklists reveals a bunch of 200-card sets consisting of a mix of stars and rookies. Such a set feels optimized for collector interest, but mine completely evaporated after looking at a bunch of similar checklists where the only difference is what special cards they came packaged with.

Bowman


Speaking of sets of stars and rookies, I’m not sure I get the idea of any of the Bowman sets. I remember when Topps relaunched the brand and it became the ROOKIESROOKIESROOKIES set. I’ll even admit to kind of liking them at the time. Now though? It looks a lot like Upper Deck’s offerings where there are now a bunch of small 200-card sets which feature the same players over and over again with just different designs.

And I think that’s probably my biggest problem with these sets. I’ve come to like the common cards and recognize that not only is it impossible to get rid of them, dropping 75% of the cards in a set order to get rid of most of the commons results in an awful set.

As a fan it’s not just the star players we like. Every fan I know forms attachments to minor players on their team. Heck, I even started this post by being happy to get random Giants or Stanford players. A set is so much richer by including the complete 25-man roster rather than just the starters or stars.*

*That late-1990s Topps are only ~500 cards and include only a dozen or so players per team makes me very glad I wasn’t collecting during those years.

Fake retro


Which brings me to the fake retro cards. I will readily admit that I would’ve loved these as a kid. But now? Oof. I can’t help but see these as an indictment on the modern card designs.

The Fleer Tradition, Bowman Heritage, and Topps Heritage cards aren’t awful. They at least recognize that it’s not just the card designs which are retro and that, in the age where the base sets are all action photos, posing the players traditionally is just as important. These three designs are also not particularly dated—more generic than anything else—which helps make their updates work acceptably well.

The Fleer and Bowman cards though could still use better uniforms. One of the reasons to reuse the simpler, older designs is because they appeal to baseball’s sense of tradition and nostalgia. The dark batting-pracitice uniforms and the way that colored polyester tends to shine totally ruins the nostalgia effect.

The Topps Heritage card on the other hand—even with a Reds jersey that doesn’t look at all like the vests which the Reds wore in 1966—looks really good because the jersey is traditionally-designed. That there’s no spot for the team logo means that this card design is also a lot more likely to work for all teams.* The only problems are the ® symbol after the REDS,** the Topps Heritage branding,*** and that stupid RC badge.**** And those are all enough to bother me.

*Logo design is one of those areas where super-slick new logos don’t work that well on old-fashioned card designs.

**Seriously?

***I understand why this exists but part of the charm of the old card designs is that they aren’t branded.

****Hate, hate, HATE this. There’s no reason for it to be there. At all.

I’d much rather see cards which take the lessons of the older cards with their clean portraits, simple designs, and large photos and create a new set which understands what it is about baseball cards that pulls people into the hobby beyond just collecting rookie cards and short prints.

In other words, do the exact opposite of whatever Topps is doing with the Gypsy Queen cards. Holy. Crap. Those. Are. Awful. I understand the look they’re going for and I’d love to see cards done in a proper old-time style. But good lord it’s like Topps doesn’t trust the old designs at all. Instead of black and white studio photos, we have action photos which have been HDR’d beyond all recognition and then given a pseudo-painted look. Then we have a bunch of graphic design gingerbread trim around it. These are like a bad snapchat filter with too much going on. It’s a shame that these don’t disappear after a few minutes.

randomness

On to the random cards. These are from another set where I don’t understand the checklist but reminded me of TCMA cards which I managed to accumulate as a kid without ever really buying any of them. They just showed up in grab bags like this or as starter-sets in a “my first baseball card binder” kind of way. I never knew what to do with those cards either. I didn’t “like” them because they didn’t feel “real.” But I couldn’t help reading and rereading them either.

I think I like them better now. It is indeed nice to see cards of the old guys. I’m glad that these kinds of sets still exist and that kids are still getting a few “who the hell is this” history lessons in their packs.


I got one post-1992 Donruss card. Good lord what happened? Googling shows that the 1994 strike (and the NHL lockout the same year) kind of crippled the company but wow. That I found more pre-1984 cards than post-1994 cards is kind of an amazing drop off.

I laughed out loud when I found a Wizards of the Coast collectible card game card. I’m not surprised that such a set existed. I am curious how they planned to make that game work. With games like Magic or Pokemon, my understanding is that each new set gets added to the previous years’ sets and you keep building and evolving your deck. With baseball this kind of approach seems impossible.

The Bazooka card also made me laugh. I really hope these came with gum and a proper wax pack. I also remembered realizing that buying Bazooka, collecting the comics, and sending those in for a complete set of Topps baseball cards was a more cost-effective way of getting a complete set than buying packs of cards.


And speaking of Donruss’s disappearance. Fleer is basically non-existent too. a bunch of single cards which hint at a bunch of tiered options* none of which feels like a proper mainline set. Googling here suggests that their merger with Skybox kind of killed the brand.

*Fleer Ultra, Fleer Premium, Fleer Focus, and Fleer Tradition.

And that’s probably the weirdest thing about poking through this grab bag. I grew up with Topps, Donruss, and Fleer as the big three. The idea of a Topps-only world was something I couldn’t imagine as a kid. That we’re back in such a world—even with Topps releasing too many parallel products* now—is taking a bit of getting used to.

*From what I can tell: Topps, Topps Heritage, Topps Archives, Bowman, Gypsy Queen, Allen & Ginter, Topps Tribute, Topps Opening Day, and Topps Now.

I’m glad that with all those sets that Topps has a mainline set of around 700 cards where you have a good chance at getting most of the players on your team. We’re still not back to the mid-70s when you had close to 30 cards on the team checklist but things are better than they were in the late 1990s.

December Backlog

Continuing from November.

DSC_0001
DSC_0108
DSC_0131
DSC_0132
DSC_0135
DSC_0138
DSC_0140
DSC_0144
DSC_0153
DSC_0156

First Packs


Following up from the previous post about baseball cards. A few weeks ago I stuck my nose into a card shop for the first time in decades. I mainly just wanted to poke around and see how things had changed. Or not since it still felt very much the same as the card shops I remembered from my youth. Boxes of packs on the glass countertops. Shelves of wonderful old cards underneath. One case full of whoever the current hot stars are. Another full of local teams.* Higher shelves stuffed and overflowing with god knows what kind of ephemera. And an old guy at the end of the counter working on a collection of cards I can’t imagine ever being able to acquire.**

*Weirdest thing for me is being in Yankees/Mets/Phillies territory.

**Though this is a priorities thing now rather than the financial thing it was in my youth.

I purchased a couple of wax packs* for old time’s sake to relive the experience of opening a pack and seeing who I got. It’s kind of amazing. 25 years later and the feel and smells came rushing back. So what if it was more the feels and smells of the post-wax era. But opening the pack, sliding the cards out, and smelling them** before I even had a chance to look at who I got triggered a rush of sensory memory and nostalgia.

*Are they still called wax packs even though they’ve not been wax since I was collecting?

*Even after working for five years in a print shop, the smell of UV coating—even on a piece of junk mail—invariably reminds me of being a kid and opening a pack of Topps Stadium Clubss.

I chose the bare-bones 2017 Topps Series 1 packs which end up being $2 for 10 cards. They also came in bigger packs which cost $13 for 50 cards. Yeah, the math didn’t make sense to me either. But since the big packs are more likely to have a special insert—aka “hot pull”—they cost more. It’s weird, where 60 years ago you bought gum and got baseball cards too, now you’re buying a raffle ticket which happens to come with cards.

The “hot pull” nomenclature wasn’t around when I was a kid but insert-itis was a big reason why I got out of the hobby. It’s dismaying to return and not only find it to still be part of the culture but realize that it’s now the actual driving force of the industry. The only silver lining is that since the pricing is based around the odds of getting an insert, if you don’t care about them you can buy the cheapest packs available.

Thankfully the cards are nice. With their full-bleed images, glossy surfaces, and foil stamping they feel more like the up-market cards which I could barely afford. And the photos. Wow. Well-lit, sharp, detailed action photos unlike anything I’d seen as a kid.

Topps used to be a mix of posed and action shots. But the action shots were never cropped tightly—maybe below the knee on a corner infielder or batter but you usually could see the player’s feet. Now? All action all the time and you’re right up in the middle of it with crops at the knee and arms barely fitting in the frame. Super graphic and definitely reflective of the kind of thing that digital photography is best at.*

*Blowing tons of frames of action in order to find the best single image of the sequence.

At the same time, after the excitement of looking at all the cards settled down, the photos began to rub me the wrong way. Baseball isn’t an immersive sport. It’s about patience and observation where brief moments of action and excitement break the overall rhythm of the ballgame. There’s plenty of time to look around and soak in the environment and having all the cards be ACTION ACTION ACTION doesn’t reflect what I love about the game.

Many of the cards with player portraits allow you to see the stadium. Whether it’s the quiet of batting practice* where the empty stands are just a backdrop or a photo where the photographer has considered how the player should interact with the architecture, I love seeing the parks and being reminded of how wonderful baseball is when it’s experienced live and in-person.

*I used to love getting to games hours early, hanging over the dugout railing for autographs, and watching batting practice after we were all chased out of the box seats. Also, again, my mom was a saint.

And yes, I understand that Topps has other sets which feature posed photos but those don’t appeal to me. I’d much rather see designs inspired by the classic look of baseball cards rather than ones which explicitly copy them.

I also have to admit to loving how Score was all action when it came out. But that kind of photography was new and all the other brands had similar mixes of portraits and action. Now though, between card after card of tight action and the shallow depth of field required to photograph that action, I feel no sense of the game or the place.

Which brings us to the backs of the cards. I’m not impressed. One of the reasons I used to prefer Topps was because it had all of a player’s career stats—often including the minor leagues—on the back. I remember comparing cards, searching for who had the most stats,* and seeing how far back they went. Other companies had only a handful of recent seasons and filled their backs with other stuff that wasn’t consistent card-to-card.

*I used to love Nolan Ryan’s cards for this reason.

Now, Topps’s backs include only a half-dozen seasons and devote the rest of the space to what reads like a PR statement and a giant graphic which prominently lists the player’s twitter and instagram accounts. I don’t dislike the social media stuff being there but it still weirds me out. I find myself wondering how those will age in 25 years—and what 25-year-old gimmicks my kids will ask me about. And if the complete stats were present I’d have no complaints at all.

Besides the lack of stats the only other real complaint I have is the Rookie Card badge. It’s bad enough that the Rookie Card phenomenon is still going strong. But having a special badge for ALL the rookie cards is just rubbing my nose in an aspect of the hobby which ruined it for me as a kid. There’s no legitimate reason for Rookie Cards to be a thing except that collectors have decided that they should be. And the badge, by being slapped on every rookie card, indulges this obsession by marking the cards as being “special.”

Still, despite my curmudgeonly complaints, I’ll continue to grab a pack here and there. After all I didn’t get any Giants players yet.

on inserts


While I don’t care about them, I did get both a Father’s Day and a Mother’s Day card. The way that Major League Baseball has been screwing around with special holiday-themed uniforms has been driving me nuts for a few years. I don’t like messing with alternate uniforms anyway but when they stop including the team colors and end up looking like a youth league where every team has the same home and away shirts? Disaster.

So yeah, seeing the inserts mirror those horrible made me shake my head. Still yay Kris Bryant. And at least the Father’s Day insert is interesting in how it screwed with my brain. At first I thought they’d screwed up and missed one of the printing plates. I’ve seen too many pulls off the press where Black or Magenta is missing and this looked just like that.