Holy crap

At the beginning of this year I started following Adam Smith’s blog. He’s also a Giants fan/collector and it’s fun to see what he turns up, but the main reason I started following was because I was morbidly curious how he was going to deal with a massive purchase of cards that he’d made.

I can’t imagine requiring multiple trips in a pickup to move a collection of cards but to be frank, digging through such a collection that does really appealing. It’s all the other stuff about storing and sorting and cataloging and everything that’s discouraging. Far better to live vicariously through someone else (or their collection) than figure out how to do it myself.

Anyway, it took Adam exactly a week to put out a call for help in the form of disposing of cards by sending them to other people and then, a week and a half later, an offer to send out a big box of cards of your favorite team.

I didn’t respond to either of those posts at first since my needs didn’t quite match up with his first post* and since Adam was a Giants collector he didn’t list the Giants as a team option. I also totally missed the fine print where he said he had a ton of Giants duplicates. Then people started posting about the boxes they’d been getting and for some reason I reread the post and realized I should send him an email.

*Also, as a relatively new follower I didn’t want to look like one of those guys who’s in it just for the free stuff.

Anyway I sent the email months ago but between the added complexity in putting together a Giants box together, him moving, and me vacationing in California, my box ended up arriving at the end of September.

Holy crap.

I knew to expect a medium-size flat-rate box but hadn’t quite put together how many cards that is. I’d guess maybe a couple thousand? I didn’t make a count beyond noting that there were 53 team bags in the box filled with cards from 1992–2017.

The best thing about this range is that it covers the years I wasn’t collecting in a way that catches me up on the lay of the land over those decades—to the point where I’ve had to drastically update my searchlists. I’ve gotten a hint of this time period with my Stanford project but since that project focused primarily on Topps flagship sets, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg of what was going on from 1995–2016.

There’s no way to do justice to the contents of this box in a single post so I’m going to spread things out over a couple days. I’m also not going to show all the cards I got and will instead break things down by year and show stacks of cards for each set that year.

This first post will cover 1992–1996, a time when I was still collecting cards until  the strike came and sent the hobby into a bit of a tailspin.

1992

As I mentioned in the introduction to my What Was I Thinking post, when I started collecting cards I was only buying packs from four different brands. By 1992 things had gotten out of hand and I was buying packs from over a dozen different brands and trying to chase god know how many inserts from each brand.

There are 27 different releases from 1992 here. Many of the samples—such as Stadium Club, Donruss, Leaf, Pinnacle, and Upper Deck—are near team sets. This is very cool. While I was good about keeping up with team sets in the previous years, the sheer number of releases by this point had overwhelmed me.

I especially like Stadium Club, Leaf, and Pinnacle this year. Stadium Club took a huge step forward from its 1991 release with better photography and production values. Leaf is a set which just clean and simple with that metallic silver border that makes autographs pop.* And Pinnacle is a design I just like. The top card on the pile doesn’t showoff the design well but I had to put that Burkett bowling card on top since it’s awesome.

*There’s a reason I reached for the Leaf Jay Bell last spring.

I always like getting Topps Gold cards form this time. I’m down on colored parallels now but I still like these. The Leaf Black Gold and Gold Rookies cards are also a lot of fun. And there’s a decent amount of oddball stuff in here including Fleer Citgo, Post, and McDonalds cards as well as a fun Monte Irvin set, an Action Packed Willie Mays, and a pair of playing cards.

Also, the 1992 Topps and 1992 Score stacks both have the Mike Felder cards with photos of the same play on them. I just need the Upper Deck to complete the set of them.

And the two stacks of O Pee Chee are especially cool since I never saw those when I was a kid. While not the same level of coolness as all the Spanish-language cards I’ve been blogging about over on SABR, the bilingual French/English backs are still fun and O Pee Chee Premier has some interesting photography stuff going on including that wonderful Darren Lewis photo where he’s using the pine tar rag. Between that card and my card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes I’m tempted to start writing a post about baseball cards depicting the concept of ma(間).

1993

There are eighteen different non-oddball sets from this year. Five of them I never saw (or in the case of Flair, could not afford) when I was a kid so it’s nice to get a good sampling of Stadium Club Team, O Pee Chee, O Pee Chee Premier, Flair, and Upper Deck Fun.

I was also only buying a pack or two of everything else so in many ways this is my first more in-depth experience with things like Bowman where I had no idea that some of the cards were foiled just as part of the base design. I do really like that father/son Bonds card.

Two Fleer oddballs are worth mentioning. The Fruit of the Loom Bill Swift is hilarious as a representation of how baseball cards were literally packaged in everything at that time. And the Atlantic Will Clark is a nice small set of stars where Fleer took the extra effort to change the photos and not just slap a logo on the base design.

I especially love the stack of 1993 Upper Deck. That’s such a great looking set that I basically copied the design for my own set of cards this season.* 1993 Upper Deck Fun meanwhile is a set I don’t remember but kind of love in its garish 90sness. And I also never got one of those Willie Mays Baseball Heroes inserts despite always wanting one as a kid so it’s greta to have one now.

*Note: using a design that’s heavily text-based is a pro move in terms of just having to drop a photo into the template and being able to churn cards out ridiculously fast.

It’s nice to have a page worth of 1993 Triple Play. For a “for kids” set that set has always been an example of how to do it 100% correct. Cheap and fun for kids but not patronizing. There’s a reason it’s kind of a cult favorite among collectors today.

1993 though is also the peak of the first generation of computer-generated card designs. Donruss, Leaf, and Fleer Ultra are all playing with bevelled edges and ray-traced fake stone effects. These were super cool at the time but really show their age now.

1994

Holy moly were there a ton of sets in 1994. I had to make 37 piles for this year. That strike could not have been timed worse for card manufacturing, just look at how many different things the manufacturers were churning out.

Eight different Topps sets (six sets plus two parallel sets). I don’t love the 1994 design but it has its charms. I do however love the Stadium Club design with its peak-grunge Dymo labeler aesthetic which manages to date itself in a way that’s wonderfully of its time without being awful. I have to admit that I don’t understand the Stadium Club Team release unless it was intended as something to get a complete 40-man roster represented.

Six different Donruss releases here. 1994 Donruss is an underrated design as well. I never saw 1994 Triple Play in the wild. I appreciate the design even though the drop shadows on the knocked-out lettering kind of hurts my brain. Leaf still has the ray-traced marble thing going on though.

And five different Fleer samples. 1994 Fleer is a wonderfully simple and elegant design. Ultra is an early adopter of the foil stamping mania that would sweep cards later in the decade. It’s so restrained here that I kind of like it even though it’s hard to read.

Which takes us to the second batch of stacks from 1994. I couldn’t fit Flair in the previous image but this takes us to a sixth Fleer release. I really like 1994 Score but good lord are those cards frequently stuck together and chipped. Pinnacle, while eventually taking a place as an innovator in card design, has some damn nice photography. And that Will Clark Sportflics is designed to break my heart as the magic motion toggles between his Giants cap and his Rangers cap. Yeah. This is technically a Rangers card even though I’m putting it in my Giants binder.

1994 Upper Deck? I’m not a fan. What a weird set with that phantom zone picture in picture and the upside-down text on the horizontal cards. Which is a shame since otherwise this set’s pretty nice. Collector’s Choice though? NICE. Lots of wonderful photography and a good clean simple design that’s just nice to look at. The Silver Signature parallels are wonderful too. Upper Deck Fun this year has a cool gimmick with its pop-up cards too. I have a duplicate so maybe I’ll actually pop one up once I clear off my desk.

And a handful of oddballs and miscellaneous releases. 1994 Pacific I’ve covered before. Classic 5 sport is a set I encounter in repacks but should probably take a proper look at at some point. Love the Post cards. Love the Church’s Chicken even more. And I have to admit that the Ted Williams set just confuses me.

1995

I’m surprised at how many of the 1994 releases I was familiar with. Many of them still serve to remind me of why it was so easy to completely drop the hobby during the strike though. Just way too many things to stay on top of. I’m smarter now and completely willing to just ignore anything I’m not interested in.

Starting with 1995, the rest of the box is a wonderful opportunity to really get to know a lot of the sets I missed. Will I be actively collecting most of these? No way. But as a design and photography junkie as well as a Giants fan I enjoy having a page of samples of everything. And every once in a while a set will grab my interest.

1995 shows the same glut of releases and inserts. Print runs appear to be down though since the size of the stacks is smaller. Only Fleer and Score were huge stacks and the fact that those were two of the worst designs this year makes me wonder if those cards are just being passed around since no one wants them in their house.

The Topps Cyberstats parallels are interesting in the way they indicate the future direction of the hobby. Lots of other foilstamping and foil card stock on display here too. It’s kind of amazing that 20 year later and the fancy cards still follow this formula.

The Topps DIII three-dimensional card is probably may favorite in this batch since three-dimensional cards are something I’m interested in. I understand that the set itself is pretty dire but having a sample is great.

Upper Deck is back with another beautiful design. Collector’s Choice is also great. As much as I’m liking the set though I can’t help but wonder how anyone can tell the years apart. Kudos for finding a solid design language but I kind of like the idea of having each year look nothing like the previous year.

Looking through these cards also shows some of the photography tropes of the decade. Players signing autographs. Players wielding cameras. Players with their children. The 90s technology is wonderfully dated as a snapshot of a period when things were amazingly small and portable but not yet pocketable like they are today.

1996

By 1996, while there were still a lot of releases, the decline is evident because the checklists are getting smaller. Where just a few years earlier all the sets were 800 to 1000 cards* things were under 500 now. That stack of Topps cards is a good percentage of the checklist for that year despite being maybe a dozen cards. Same with Upper Deck.

*In this day and age of Topps releasing god knows how many 200–400 card sets, seeing multiple companies release multiple 800+ card sets kind of blew my mind. In addition to just having tons of releases, there were tons of cards required to complete all the sets too.

Collector’s Choice though is still doing the large checklist thing and the photos are often in that semi-candid informal manner where the player is aware of the camera but not in a serious photoshoot.

The Score Mark Leiter is in some ways the most-1990s photo ever with a child AND a video camera. Yes I smiled at the Russ Ortiz 1st Bowman card. Good lord that Matt Williams Pacific Prism all-foil background is wonderfully over the top.

My favorite discovery in this batch are the E-Motion XL cards that have the colored uncoated paper layered on the coated background stock as a frame for the image. Those are extremely fun objects to look at. The feel and handle differently and are a good-looking set which looks like nothing else I’ve seen.

Between those and the uncoated base set, I think I enjoy the way that Fleer was pushing the envelope on what a card could be at this time. I wonder how much of this is a result of feeling the pressure of the industry contracting and how much contributed to Fleer’s eventual demise as a chief competitor to Topps.

One thing to call out here though is how the 1993–1996 years show the increased existence of premium brands. Upper Deck’s existence in 1989 kind of forced everyone else to create premium competition in the following years. By 1992 Topps, Donruss, Fleer, and Score had released, respectively, Stadium Club, Leaf, Ultra, and Pinnacle as more upscale products while also improving the quality of their base products. The cost of base cards went up a ton in the years from 1989 to 1995.

And it didn’t stop there. Super-premium cards like Topps Finest, Leaf Preferred, Fleer Flair, Pinnacle Zenith, Upper Deck SP, etc started to compete at a price point even higher than the already-high premium prices. In many ways the hobby hasn’t looked back from this and we have sets defined primarily on what market segment they’re targeted as and using the trappings of expense—thick card stock, fancy paper surfaces, foiling, stamping, die-cutting, etc.—as a way of signaling that things warrant that price.

I enjoy seeing these premium cards and looking into how they’re made. It’s fun to loupe things and see if they were foiled after printing or printed with an opaque white ink over the foil surface. It’s interesting to check the layers of card stock and try and guess how something was manufactured. But that’s me speaking as an engineer who’s interested in the craft itself. I don’t think collectors collect cards because they‘re made using expensive techniques, the card itself has to be interesting on its own terms.

4 responses to “Holy crap

  1. Lots to comment on… but so little time. Even though Gary Carter will always be an Expo to me… I really like that 1992 OPC Gary Carter tribute card.

  2. Pingback: Arpsmith: The Lean Years | n j w v

  3. Pingback: Merry Christmas from Artie | n j w v

  4. Pingback: Year-end round-up | n j w v

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