Sunday, June 3, 2018
When baseball cards said what they meant
We are a bit obsessed with being clever these days. Subtlety is key. You can't hammer people over the head with a joke. Every song or illustration must contain 14 different meanings. Each picture must look like something else. Bury that punch line because only a dolt reveals the payoff in the first sentence.
Don't be like 1982 Donruss. A bat and a ball?? Right up front like that? Who does that?
I tweeted out a couple of 1982 Donruss cards the other day and Phungo mentioned that it's been quite awhile since a baseball card set featured baseball iconography -- baseball-specific symbols -- on its cards.
The most recent example is from 2013 Topps when a modified baseball diamond appeared in the lower left corner of each card.
The diamond design, however, was so distorted that I immediately saw a sea turtle in it -- you know, that thing about every drawing having 14 different meanings. And so, "the sea turtle design" was born.
The most recent Topps card set with a baseball-centric design that didn't look something else is the 2011 set.
There's that good, ol' baseball. I'd recognize it anywhere. It really makes the 2011 flagship set move.
It reminds me of the first year that I collected baseball cards, a set that also contained a baseball in the design, and a set that was also smack in the middle of the heyday of baseball cards saying what they meant.
Look at that baseball. There's no doubt in your mind that this is a baseball card. No guessing for the hidden meaning. No hesitating while you try to follow the interpretation. This is all baseball when baseball iconography was king.
That baseball seemed to be such a part of the card in 1975 that the next year when I pulled my first baseball cards out of packs, I wondered where the baseball went.
But the baseball symbols remained as strong as ever in the 1976 set with the individual position drawings.
In fact, this peak period for baseball iconography on baseball cards began in 1973 with another set of position drawings.
1973 Topps began a run of nine straight years in which the flagship set included some sort of baseball symbol on the card.
Here are the pennant flags on 1974 Topps, the first set I ever saw.
The pennant flags reappeared in 1977 and Topps was not afraid to let its baseball symbol freak flag fly. That pennant flag was everywhere.
And so the baseball symbols continues through the 1970s and into the 1980s.
Baseballs, flags and caps. Each year, the baseball design underlined the theme of the card. This was a baseball card. Here it is saying what it means. "This is baseball."
Then 1982 hit.
This set ended Topps' baseball iconography streak. There would never be another streak like it on baseball cards.
Topps has featured baseball symbols on some of its other sets, specifically 1951, 1965 and 2004 (Topps favored team logos over symbols throughout the 1950s). There is also the 1994 set (where the frame represents the outline of home plate) and the 2002 set (with some very curly-cue flags), but we were burying our symbols in subtlety by the 1990s.
The other card companies arrived at the tail end of the baseball-centric design era.
Fleer debuted in 1981 with as obvious of a baseball symbol as there ever was. But after that year, it dropped the symbols in favor of team logos, which basically killed the cartoonish baseballs and bats and flags. Team logos ruled in the 1980s, on Fleer, Donruss and Topps.
Donruss used iconography in 1982 and 1983 as well as in 1987 and probably 1993 (I believe that's a diamond behind the team logo).
Upper Deck debuted in 1989 and kicked off its abstract trip-around-the-bases design that lasted through 1991, and 1992 UD included the traveling baseballs, but Upper Deck dropped the baseball symbolism after that.
Today we're down to one card company and the designs are more likely to resemble steel girders or file folders or dirigibles than items you'd find at a baseball park.
Then again, I'm guessing there is at least one modern ballpark out there that features a water slide.
I suppose that's part of the world in which we live. Nothing can be too literal or too obvious, lest you be accused of being "too on the nose." Everything must be open to interpretation.
Why say what you mean?" some would say. Would you rather be called "the baseball diamond design" or the "sea turtle design"?
I suppose they have a point.
(Note: Topps football followed a similar pattern, using football iconography from 1974-82 -- although I've never figured out what the 1981 design is supposed to be).