Great Moments in Awkward Baseball Card Design: A Conversation with Josh Wilker

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In my Ephemera piece for the August issue of Print, I had some fun at the expense of “golden era” baseball card designs, but honestly, it was like picking on your little brother. You give him a hard time because he means something to you. The designs didn’t really matter, because the cards were not meant to be hip or handsome. They were meant to be loved.

So to elaborate on the past and current state of baseball card design, I exchanged emails with Josh Wilker, whose book Cardboard Gods is a terrific coming-of-age memoir told through the prism of 1970s and ’80s baseball cards. Our discussion ranged from the strange logo on Pete Broberg’s cap, whether Jim Rice was too black for Coke, and why 1987 remains the gold standard among true aficionados.

Drew: Baseball cards somehow lost their way in the late 1980s. There are few memorable designs from that era. And then in 1990, the company (Bowman) that had once previously established the high water mark for simple, attractive card design decided to go with this skinny tricolor border, and tiny lettering that looks like an afterthought. I’ve always scratched my head at this. Red, yellow, and green are more appropriate for the Ethiopian soccer team than any North American baseball team. Better yet, the color scheme would be great for a set of Rastafarian All-Stars. Right, Cal?

Josh: The spareness of the design really highlights an unusual feature in the card—the lack of a cap on the subject, which in turn features Cal’s uncharismatically disappearing non-dreadlocked hair. I wasn’t a kid anymore by 1990, but it’s difficult to imagine a kid getting too worked up by this drab effort, which is depressing considering Ripken’s stature at that time.

A lot of the people I talk to about old cardboard are a few years younger than me, which makes some sense, as the biggest boom in baseball card collecting happened in the 1980s, a few years after my 1970s childhood. On several occasions (including in the excellent recent book on the history of baseball cards, Mint Condition, by child of the 1980s Dave Jamieson), these collectors mention that the 1987 set stands out above all others to them. I think the throwback wood-paneling, as seen in Pat Dodson’s card (left), is the key to the set’s hold on collective collector memory, distinctive enough to stand out on first kid’s-eye glance and cheesy enough to grab hold of the swampy section of the consciousness that breeds nostalgia. This particular card augments the wood-paneling’s reach backward through time with a garish nod to splashy newness in the “Future Stars” banner across the bottom. The darkened empty seats in the background do a better job than the banner in actually foretelling Pat Dodson’s future.

Drew: The wood-paneled look is automatically cheesy, but I doubt if we’ve seen the last of it, even today (by the way, Topps is scheduled to release a ‘throwback” set, based on their 1962 wood-paneled design, in 2011).

Advertising and product tie-ins from the 1980s were a lot less savvy than they are today, and so, I suppose, were the collectors. In 1981, when Coke wanted to release a special set of their own, they merely took the Topps cards and stuck the Coca-Cola logo in the corner. Absolutely no effort whatsoever. There was no reason to own these cards if you already had the Topps version. But you know what? I bought them. Every. Single. Time.

Josh: That Coke logo is actually a sign of an advance in terms of the sophistication of baseball cards incorporating and exploiting the possibilities of advertising logos within the cards. I actually just wrote on my blog about a 1975 Don DeMola card that prominently (and accidentally and free of charge) featured a Coca-Cola billboard in the background. Before Topps wised up, they featured this accidental advertising regularly, the product making the most appearances in cards being the giant Brut cologne billboard in Yankee Stadium, where photos of many 1970s cards were shot. But the real question with the two versions of the 1981 Jim Rice card is this: Why has his skin been lightened in the Coke-pushing version? Should this have been a controversy along the lines of the darkening of OJ Simpson in the 1994 Time cover? Was Jim Rice too black for Coca-Cola?

The altering of cards was, to me, endearingly rudimentary in the 1970s, as evidenced by this 1977 Pete Broberg card, which suggests that Topps entrusted the task of accounting for Pete Broberg’s offseason move to an expansion team that did not yet physically exist into the hands of a first-year art student firmly in the grips of the hallucinatory effects of a long afternoon of glue-huffing. The Mariners had not yet taken the field for a game, so ideas about what the uniform and cap should look like were all at best educated guesses, and this guesswork was compounded by the unsteady handiwork evidenced in the shaky lines of the trident M on Broberg’s cap. Best of all, the background also seems to have been altered, making Broberg’s backdrop an unreal netherworld. He seems supremely unphased by it all, and more than a little unreal himself.

Drew: The painted alterations frequently had this airy otherworldly quality, like an atmosphere that wasn’t really connected to the player’s uniform. No wonder he doesn’t feel at home in it.

By way of contrast, if I may fast forward a bit, the card designs of the last ten years or so often feature otherworldly backgrounds, but they are the Blade Runner or Transformers variety, packed with all of the blinged-out holographic wizardry you can fit on a piece of cardboard. These players don’t appear to be playing in stadiums, but on the surface of a platinum Visa card or the chrome dashboard of a Hummer. If you bought these cards in a store, they didn’t come with gum; they came with a slab of Kobe beef. While there is an undeniable eye-candy element to them, there is nothing really innocent or endearing. And this artificiality, unfortunately, is entirely fitting. These major leaguers who saw their childhood baseball heroes treated like gods didn’t grow up wanting to play baseball, they grew up wanting to be gods as well. They’re no longer playing a game. The grass, you could say, is beneath them.

Josh: These juiced-up cards certainly do reflect the trend in popular culture during my lifetime toward ever higher levels of flash and noise and commercialism. I loathe this, for the most part, and am becoming a textbook old crank.

This makes it ironic that the card that I associate with the beginning of my love of baseball cards holds that seminal place in my mind because of its aura of flashy excitement and newness. I’m talking about my Cleon Jones card from 1974, the year I bought my first few packs of cards. The general design of the 1974 cards was simple even in the context of the other designs of that decade—the garish 1972 set a star-spangled vaguely psychedelic marquee, the clunky multicolored 1975 reminiscent of haphazard combinations of a toddler’s blocks, the 1978 set with its scripted lettering like a cover of Dynamite magazine—and this simplicity helped make the action shot in Cleon Jones’ card crackle all the more with dramatic intensity. The majority of cards from my childhood featured wooden posed shots of players standing around in spring training, bored and awkward, bats outstretched or gloves raised. In this current juiced-up era of constant and meaningless attention-deficit-disorder-embracing action, I’ve come to lean on those wax figure poses in a search for something like serenity, like it’s my religion or a certain unidentified strain of mental illness, but when I was a kid the rare action shot, especially the one in Cleon Jones’ card, was what wowed me. It seemed like the electric first moment of an irresistible adventure. I couldn’t help but go along for the ride.

Drew: Even though this was a little before my time, I acquired this card in a swap with a neighbor. I hated the Mets (and it wasn’t even 1986 yet), and I was pretty sure Cleon Jones wasn’t somebody I needed to pay attention to, but I also loved this action picture. I thought that if I was Cleon Jones and all I had to show for my baseball career was this one card, then that would be a pretty cool thing.

Thanks for the chat, Josh. Don’t forget to read Josh’s book, and also check out his Cardboard Gods site for more vintage baseball card goodness!

See the original article in the August issue of Print.