Before professional collectors turned them into investment strategies, baseball cards were meant to be carried in back pockets—not plastic protectors. Cards from this vintage era—from the 1950s to the late ’70s—have an aesthetic language all their own, and the variations among them make for an amusing stroll through this backwoods of design history.
For instance, back in the day, cards were typically produced using pictures taken during the previous season, so when a player changed teams during the winter, the card companies had a limited number of options for the new season’s card, none of them good. They could knowingly print a card of the player with his former team’s uniform, but this was an unpopular choice. In some cases, the publishers chose to use the outdated picture but indicate on the front that the player had switched teams, which sometimes resulted in a playful adaptation of the basic card design. For instance, I love the imposing “TRADED” stamp that Topps put on some of its 1972 cards. Poor Jim Fregosi (above, right) looks like he’s been sent to the dockworkers’ union.
The real awkwardness, though, was when the card companies hired artists to paint new uniforms on the players who had switched teams. Nothing against the artists—I’m sure they had to contend with a frantic deadline—but the renderings were often less than convincing. The “traded” conundrum did yield one truly awesome card, though: This 1976 Oscar Gamble (above, left, obviously), complete with the cheesy headline pun, brushed-in pinstripes, and negative space-swallowing afro.
What happened when a whole team was traded? In 1974, the San Diego Padres hinted about moving the franchise to Washington, D.C. Although they never pulled the trigger on the deal, Topps had already put that year’s series into production, indicating that Padre players were now on the yet-to-be-named “Washington, National League” team. Even more anachronistic was how common the color pink (above) was in sports card design. The color’s disappearance coincides roughly with the time that those ten-gallon drums of bodybuilding supplement powder first hit the market. I never had a problem with this shade; after all, the archenemy of taste and good hygiene was the petrified stick of bubble gum included in every baseball-card pack. But these days, when cards come with Lexus vouchers and Brooks Brothers cuff links, green and silver are more often identified with the sport.
Then there was the photography. Mug shots were nice, but the real thrill was seeing an action photo that perfectly captured a player’s home-run swing or pitching form. I always loved this 1977 Carlton Fisk (above, right), with the Red Sox catcher vaulting over home plate like an arch, the moment before a home-plate collision. Perhaps the worst action photo I can remember is this 1973 Reggie Jackson (center) before Reggie became, you know, Reggie. But I don’t even know if it’s Reggie Jackson or a photo of an A’s fan fleeing an East Bay tattoo parlor. Whoever it is, it looks like he’s in a fair amount of pain. A player today wouldn’t let a card like this see the light of day. It’s not what they call a “brand enhancer.”
Lou Piniella’s photo (left), on the other hand, is epic. Piniella looks like he is mouthing his own nickname: “Sweet Louuuuu.” You should logically see the catcher somewhere in the picture, but where is he? He is brilliantly absent. Lou is alone in the center of the Roman Coliseum, twisting triumphantly after felling the minotaur with his golden Louisville Slugger. This is better classified as a 1672 Bernini, not a 1974 Topps.
Action photos should (naturally) capture action scenes, not staged portraits. Back in the ’80s, when cards were becoming increasingly popular, Fleer and Donruss attempted to compete with longtime market leader Topps by creating full collections of their own. Unfortunately, the cards were marred by substandard, out-of-focus photography. Perhaps in the rush to get these cards to print, the photographers forgot to remove the diffusion filters from their lenses. Then again, with certain players, the “fade-to-obscurity” lens may have been intentional.
It’s not his photograph that’s making Hoyt Wilhelm look melancholy. It’s his typeface. The mixed-case serif font on this 1958 Topps card (above, right) screams “textbook,” not “SportsCenter.” One company, however, did learn a valuable lesson about featuring too much innovation in its card designs. Bowman was the industry leader in the early 1950s until Topps emerged as an enormously popular competitor. It’s fun to imagine the “Embrace the future!” memos from Bowman executives that resulted in this wood-grain “TV set” design of the company’s 1955 cards (left). This was truly forward-thinking, since color television sets were hardly a household item. Another piece of innovation? Bowman also issued 31 individual umpire cards, the first mainstream company to do so. It was bought out by Topps the following year.
Drew Dernavich is a cartoonist and contributor to Print. In 2006, he was given the National Cartoonists Society’s “Reuben Award” as the country’s best gag cartoonist, and he is featured in Volumes 1 and 2 of the cartoon anthology The Rejection Collection (Simon Spotlight Entertainment). He is a co-originator of the New Yorker’s humor blog, The Cartoon Lounge. Visit his blog and follow him on Twitter @drewdernavich.
Drew and Josh Wilker, author of Cardboard Gods, elaborate on baseball card design over on our blog, Imprint.