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.

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One response to “Junk Wax

  1. Pingback: Looking at Baseball Cards | n j w v

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