Friday, February 9, 2018

No love for '88

On my last post, I wondered why Topps has ignored the 30th anniversary of its 1988 design one year after throwing the biggest card nostalgia party in the history of time for the 30th anniversary of its 1987 design.

Last year, it issued an insert set devoted entirely to its 1987 design, along with special shiny hobby pack cards also based on the '87 design.

But this year, in a rather suspicious move, it decided to skip 1988 and instead honor the 35th anniversary of the 1983 design, with the exact same treatment it gave '87 last year, an insert set with a 1983 theme and those shiny hobby things that still look weird.

Meanwhile, the 1988 design has also been left out of the annual Archives brand over the past six years, while the 1980 design and the 1982 design have been used twice each.

Why no love for 1988?

I seem to be one of the few collectors who likes the 1988 design quite a bit. It's clean, quirky, bright and classy. I didn't pay much attention to baseball cards in the late 1980s, but I remember being dismissive of the previous year's design as a blatant 1962 knock-off. I didn't buy any packs.

In 1988, I did buy a pack, just one as I recall.

I still remember the first card I pulled from the wrapper.

Phil Lombardi. I had never heard of him (the ensuing years wouldn't make things any clearer).

I chuckled to myself. "So this is who they're putting in baseball card packs these days," I said in what was probably a beery haze.

But I liked the cards. They were bright, brighter than the previous year, with more space for the photo. I liked the design and the 3-D effect. No, it wasn't enough for me to buy any more cards. I had a new girlfriend, college classes, a job and graduation was on the horizon. But I think that '88 pack sent into motion what would be a baseball card-buying frenzy the following year.

One of my favorite aspects of '88 Topps is how the player image overlaps the team name to create that 3-D effect. Sure, it's goofy by modern standards, but do you think I care about modern standards anymore? It was cool. It will always be cool.

This was such a key aspect of 1988 Topps that it appeared on virtually every card in the set.

There you go. Every page is like that. A bat or an arm or a head obscuring some portion of the team name.

The only cards that are immune from this are the team checklist cards, set checklists, the Turn Back the Clock subset, and the all-star cards.

When I mentioned how Topps was ignoring the 30th anniversary of its '88 set, Jordan from Mint Condition commented that perhaps Topps is unable to produce its '88 design using modern computer techniques.

He mentioned the 1988 font in particular, citing this card:

What a disaster.

This is from the Vintage Legends insert set in 2010 Topps. It is as accurate a tribute to 1988 Topps as my singing the Cher songbook would be a tribute to Cher.

But Topps was able to replicate the font in another card from the Vintage Legends set.

OK, the font still isn't quite right, but it's better than the McCovey.

My wondering on why we haven't seen a tribute to '88 Topps on the scale of the '87 tribute is more related to the 3-D effect.

Perhaps that's too tedious a process in photoshop or whatever computer design program Topps is using?

I don't have any knowledge of computer design or even of old-style prepress printing. I should have at least some knowledge of the old days of printing because at the newspaper, even as recently as the late 1990s, I'd observe the "composing" staff cut and paste images and type to create the newspaper. They were an old, ornery group, with their own union, and woe is you if you tried to do any of their work. So my knowledge of that time period in printing is vague.

However, recently there was a Twitter discussion between two veterans of that period. One, Robby T of the Detroit Tigers Cards and Stuff blog, mentioned the 1988 Topps set specifically and mentioned how much work it would be creating the images for those cards back in the day because there were four different layers to each card (background, team name, player image, player name).

I didn't quite follow his description on how you would go about producing a card like that back then, but here is his explanation from Twitter:

That does sound like a lot of work, and the last part is key: it's still not easy to do on computers.

I'd appreciate any insight into this from people who know how to create effects like this on computers, but I'm wondering if the '88 design is just too work intensive for a company on a modern work schedule with modern deadlines (and producing way more sets than it did in 1988). Or maybe it's modern laziness? I don't know.

There are hints that the 3-D effect in the '88 set has been difficult to create for awhile.

If you go back to the 2003-05 All-Time Fan Favorites sets from Topps, you see some stuff in its 1988 tributes that you never saw in 1988.

This didn't happen in 1988. The player image always cut into the team name. Grace's hat should be obscuring part of the "U" and the "B".

This never happened either. The bat never went behind the team name, it always went over the team name.

Several of the 1988-themed Fan Favorite cards do retain the 3-D look:

So that makes me think that it's not that it can't be done, but maybe it's just too difficult to do.

Granted, the Fan Favorites set was created 13-to-15 years ago and I know even at the place where I work with our modest computer set-up, we've gone through I don't know how many different computer systems in that time span.

So my guess is the apparent avoidance of the '88 design might be two-pronged:

Maybe the 3-D image is too tough to replicate and maybe the font is too tough to replicate. The dreaded double whammy.

And knowing the blogging jackals out there (I admit I am one), ready to pounce, Topps went straight to 1983, which was easier to deliver.

It's too bad because I want 1988 to get its due. The number of bloggers and other collectors that I have heard who have said the first cards they ever opened were 1987 Topps has to be in the triple digits by now. Yet, I haven't read about one person who started his or her collecting career by opening 1988 Topps.

That doesn't seem possible. (Or maybe this is a reason why Topps skipped 1988?)

But I know 1988 Topps is also well-loved because one of the first card blogs I ever came across was the 1988 Topps blog, which was a daily homage to that set.

I actually don't really need any new insert cards with that design. I have that blog. I have my complete 1988 Topps set. That's plenty.

I just better not see another tribute to 1987 Topps until Heritage comes around in 2036. (Watch, Topps will end the Heritage brand before the 2037 set comes out).


  1. I’ve done templates for all of the teams in the ‘88 Topps set, and now that I’ve made cards in the set, the player image over the team name is a little difficult, but I make mine in MS Paint without bothering to do layers, so I just have to copy the picture I am using, place the template over the picture, cut around a bat, player head, or whatever in he second copied picture, copy it again, and paste it over the original image that is behind the team name, and it will now appear like it is in front of the team name. I’m sure there has got to be a simpler way to use it in Photoshop.
    Maybe Topps just thought everyone was so in love with 1987 that they didn’t want to give them an ‘80’s see rehash again. ‘78 or ‘53 would’ve been a cool choice instead of ‘83.

  2. Great post! I do wish Topps would use the '88 design a lot more (IMO it's one of their three best designs of the '80s) but I didn't realize it was so difficult to replicate.

    Technically I started collecting in 1986 (ugh, what an awful set that was!) but my sports card and memorabilia obsession really took off in '88. At one point I had seen every card so many times I was sick of them..enough time has passed where I feel nostalgic for the set (and players like Phil Lombardi) again.

  3. It's not a terribly difficult set to customize in photoshop, but it does take more effort and time than a lot of other designs, and even then it's tough to edge the player head over perfectly, or get the best font for the full likeness. But I consider myself a simple garage worker compared to the people at Topps, who have to spin inserts out like rolls royces. Not only do theirs have to have the likeness down, but theirs also has to look good. Hence the advantage of blogging on your spare time vs. making a career out of releasing cards.

  4. I thought the '88 set was terrific when I was collecting it (well, the Orioles and a few others) and I am still a fan. It's clean and classic in my eyes. I would have liked the players position included on the front in an unobtrusive way but that's just me looking back with my current preferences.

    I haven't kept track of the sets Topps reprises each year (you really do a good job of that) and I have no idea as to why we haven't seen them use this one but your theory make a lot of sense.

  5. Jeremy, this is exactly how I would do it in Photoshop/InDesign. You'd place the full photo on the bottom layer, place the team name on the next layer above, then another photo above that had silhouetting around the team name. It's not difficult, but certainly time consuming. That's a lot of work for a full set of cards. A handful wouldn't be that bad.

    1. Exactly. Clipping mask each image in Photoshop and then place them twice in Indesign—once using the mask and once without it. Given how much Topps loves to silhouette players against textured backgrounds in all the inserts it's not like they don't have the means/knowhow to do this quickly.

      Anyway now I want to start looking up the 1991-design and 1992-designs from Archives to see if they did the layering effects there too.

      Also, yes, this design has grown on me a ton even though the font treatment (stretching a bold serif font to fit a space) kind of drives me nuts. I suspect that one is hard to get right because Topps may have had to convert a font to a custom design in 1988 and recreating that design (let alone creating new versions for the new teams) puts this set in the same place as 1978 (another design that Topps seems to avoid revisiting because of how the team names are custom lettering).

  6. I'm not interested in current cards, so I have no opinion on what sets Topps should make new versions of. But, I did love the 1988 Topps set at the time. I see the cards now, and they take me straight back to 7th/8th grade.

  7. I liked the 1988 cards so well that I bought a factory set in 1988. Never paid that much attention to the player image over the team name, but you guys dissected it pretty good. Anybody remember how the top of the player's head popped out of the picture into the white border under the team name in the 64 Topps set? Also hard to replicate.

    1. 64 Topps, 87 Fleer, and 88 Fleer all came up in the discussion. Doing the effect on top of white is much easier by hand than doing it on top of 4-color text (interestingly it's a much similar level of difficulty when doing it by computer). 87 Fleer just meshes with a single color and most of the other times like in 1958 or 1961 where Topps did cut-outs wth photos they put them on simple backgrounds consisting of solid ink as well.

      The amount of work in 1988 was because the effect had to be on all four color plates and because all four plates consisted of screens of parts of both the text and the image. No room for error.

    2. Makes sense. Appreciate the technical details.

  8. Damn. I had no clue that much work went into making my baseball cards.

  9. This almost makes me feel bad for using 88 Topps as packing material. Great post!

    1. Great comment and it serves as a reality check. With maybe a very few exceptions, the only real value of cards from the 80's going forward is discussion value in blogs like this one.

  10. I always thought the 1988 design was simple and classy, and this post makes me appreciate them even more!

  11. This post gave me a deeper appreciation for the 88T set (never took the time to think about the whole 3D effect and the amount of effort it took to create it), but it's still my least favorite Topps design of the 80's.

  12. I can't totally buy the "too difficult on computers" angle. Doing one card at a time, yes. But if you have read the basically horrifying news on "deepfakes" and what that portends for our screen-addicted futures, the way to go to create a set of ~ 700ish baseball cards these days would be to write a basic script and let AI assemble the image+graphic design. I would wager an AI could get the zoom/cropping just exactly perfect - no more hands and feet cut in half for no real reason other than the human doing it has already created thousands of card images in the last 6 months.

    But then if Topps got a hold of that idea maybe they would release 60 sets a year instead of 30.

    In other news, it was already pretty clear (or, ironically, kinda dark) to me that a new editor is in charge of Series 1 this year. But I read on a forum last night that when called out for a repeat image on 2 Mike Trout SP cards in '17 and now in '18 S1, Topps confirmed that 2 different people created the S1/S2 cards between this year and last.

  13. I'll take an optimistic approach to the subject matter:

    ...Because they're saving the 1988 design for 2018 Archives?

    God, I hope so. Not counting on it, but I hope so.

    Posts like this remind me that (to make a 35-year-old 'Thriller' reference) "I'm not like other guys". For me 1988 always has been one of the two best Topps designs of the 1980's. I'm always surprised when people don't show it any love.

    1. If I could go back and edit my comment, I'd make it clearer that I did read the post, Night Owl, I know you feel like I do about 1988, but I wonder "Who are these people who don't like 1988?" and then my question gets answered in comments and such.

      As long as I'm posting again, I'll throw out another production-related conjecture. Maybe the 3-D effect was a pain in 1988 and is a pain now... but perhaps in 1988 the entire card design process was something of a pain in the ass, and it didn't affect the timetable as much to go the extra mile on each card.

  14. Always been a fan of all of the 80s sets for various reasons. And 88 is right up there too as it's such a departure from the previous few years that came before it. I attribute the lack of love for the design by Topps, and it's relatively inability to replicate it for some Archives inserts or what have you, it absolute laziness. This is based on their obnoxious penchant for hokey colored parallels which regurgitate the same image with highly unoriginal, un-inventive differently colored or tinted cards stocks.

  15. 1988 was the second season that I collected cards. From then until sometime in the last year, I thought they were rather “blah.” For whatever reason I’ve come to like the design over the past year. I have a box of rack packs that I’ll open someday and start putting together a set.

  16. 1988 Topps was in fact the first pack I bought as a kid- for that reason, I’m probably not the most impartial of collectors out there, but I’ve always loved the design. I even carried around the school folders for years. I can’t imagine the graphic design element would be enough to keep Topps from making a relatively small insert set- my guess is the second class status has more to do with a lack of iconic rookie cards. Glavine and Caminiti just don’t compare to the rookies in ‘87, or ‘83 for that matter. It gets better if Traded is included, but Alomar, Grace and the Olympians don’t move the needle too much. It’s too bad this isn’t a WBC or Summer Olympics year- there would be some real potential for something based on the USA subset.

  17. stumbled across some cards today. was 88 an homage to 64?

    I think when they want to Topps can get this done

  18. 1988 wasn't exciting, but it was clean and memorable. It was also very easy to reproduce.