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.

Hockey sticks?

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).


  1. I'll admit, I had to look up what dirigibles meant.

  2. I think 81T FB is the top of a flagpole, but it looks more like a microphone to me. Similar to Goudey, it should have a line that reads, "Howard Cosell Says."

  3. This is why you are the best card blogger out there, NO, with all due respect to the many others I am very happy to read every post from. Such a simple idea, but I never thought about this, and now I understand the design trends in the card world in a whole new way.

    I suppose if I were a little older I wouldn't feel this as much...1966-1972 doesn't really have any of that iconography. (I started collecting in 1971, so I only knew the tail end of that.) But it feels right to me, and certainly the baseball itself is such a simple and effective element that it needs to be back on cards some more! I'm trying to think if it's appeared in any of the myriad other sets Topps produces each year (other than on retro designs). Anyone?

    1. The one that sticks out for me is 2000 Finest, just because it's kind of unexpected in Finest. I'm sure there are lots of other examples.

    2. That's an interesting one. Actually, this year's Bowman has a baseball in the corner.

  4. Today's Dodger game reminded me of your Chris Taylor problem last year with Topps. It seemed like Topps made zero effort to put him on a card even though he was a key contributor and instead made countless Cody Bellinger cards..

    This year, it looks like you may go all season without a Dodger Max Mincy card at the expense of countless Walker Buehler cards.

  5. I have to admit I never really considered this. You've inspired a post for me. I hope I get the time to do it this month.

  6. You're right in the fact that that 70s were full of iconic baseball symbols whether it be position cartoons or silhouettes, banners, or baseballs. Those years were the height of Topps' creativity in my mind. When Donruss & Fleer came on board (1981), I would have expected Topps to elevate their game to the next level, but all we got were hockey sticks and baseballs with "TOPPS" printed on them in the corners of cards. In fact, in 1979 it was like Topps knew competition was coming so they put their company name on the cards but the following year, 1980, it was gone. But, in 1981, despite a cool hat concept design, they took up valuable space on the baseball that would have been perfect for the position, forcing them to put both the team and position on the hat graphic. The 1982 design was just terrible, but would have been great for their hockey set. Strange times.

  7. I know you guys are all about the 70's, but on your theme, a tip of the cap (baseball cap that is) to the 1965 Topps set with the great looking pennant and team name and logo on it. Beats anything in the 70's.

  8. I've been so focused on the sea turtle... I never actually took the time to see the baseball diamond on the 2013 Topps card.