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How far we've come/how far we've fallen

The other day on Twitter there was some minor discussion about the same photo of Pirates catching prospect Elias Diaz appearing in both Topps Heritage and on a Panini Donruss autographed card. Another Twitter guy rightly explained that this isn't the first time this has happened and offered up the famous example of the same Rod Carew photo being used in 1982 Topps (the in-action card) and 1982 Fleer.

I went a step further and showed the magazine blurb about the Carew card from the old Baseball Cards magazine from the spring of 1982.

Have I mentioned how many times I miss that magazine?

The scan also included a bit of the next article on the right, with the heading "Collectors Say, 'That's All," and that intrigued a couple of people.

In fact, that particular item has been on my mind for awhile as a potential post (I actually addressed the topic once already when I covered that particular edition of the magazine). With what's been going on in new cards lately, I thought I'd discuss it a little more.

Here is the rest of that article after the jump:

If you don't want to read that, here is a brief summation:

The writer is discussing what was then a recent phenomenon of "intentional errors." The 1981 Fleer Graig Nettles card -- which included an error version in which his name on the back was spelled "Craig," -- had been a sensation, with some collectors paying what was then an exorbitant amount of $15 to land the error version. Because of this, the writer says, Fleer in 1982 purposely created errors on the backs of some of its cards to attract more buzz.

The writer is appalled by this, stating:

"Disappointed with the generally poor quality of the photography on Fleer's 1982 cards, hobbyists are even more turned off by what they view as a deliberate attempt to force them into hunting for obscure variations to "complete" a set of 1982 Fleer cards."


Flash forward to 2016 and we have this. And this. Opening Day has variations for crying out loud. We're now at the point where card companies are almost incapable of issuing sets without intentional variations. (And the ones that don't have variations, have parallels). But the thing that concerns me the most is that with the last couple of products that have been released, I have actually heard about and seen the variation cards before I even get to see the base cards -- you know, the ones that make up the set? There is so much noise about variations now that it's pretty obvious that set collectors are dying. And the number of collectors disturbed by the sight of collectors throwing base cards in the garbage at the local card shop is dwindling.

Three points to remember: the variation craze is not new, it's not going away, and it's getting worse. Or getting better, depending on your point of view.

I'm not condemning manufactured variations exactly. I kind of like them. ... OK, I like them a lot.

When I heard in 1982 that the Fleer Al Hrabosky card featured three error variations, I really wanted them all.

The one I own shows Hrabosky's height incorrectly as 5-foot-1, which is the dollar version, and not the rarer "All Hrabosky" version.

How I wanted the "All Hrabosky" card!

But at the time, there was no ebay, and being a paperboy didn't pay much anyway. So I knew I'd never land it and I went back to the main goal at that time -- finding all the Dodgers and completing sets.

That was the objective at the time for most collectors: finding all the cards in the base set. This pursuit of variations was viewed as silliness. You can see the contempt in the magazine writer's words.

I don't know who wrote that article. Bob Lemke was the editor of the magazine, so it could have been him. The article implies that the author talked to a number of collectors and others in the hobby to come up with his statement that collectors were turned off by what Fleer was doing. It's interesting that the first reaction then was "it's a gimmick!" and now it's "how many variations can you find????????"

The article then implied that collectors were "all through" with chasing Fleer errors. That proved to be far from the case, reaching a crescendo with the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken card.

Meanwhile, my attitude is kind of the same as it was back then. There's a good chance I will never own or even know about all of the variations. I'm just happy when one lands in my lap.

Andy of the new blog Ain't Nobody Got Time For Cardboard! (more about the cards he sent in a later post) recently sent me the Joc Pederson variation from last year's Topps:


base card

Pretty cool. You can see how the difference is exciting to a collector. But I rarely include cards like this in my want lists. Not only do I not want to search them out, but I don't expect people to find them for me, and I also don't want to get into the mindset that they need to be included for me to complete the set.

If I get one, "cool," otherwise it's best forgotten.

The underlying disturbing point to this is that thing that veteran collectors have mentioned over and over. Variation cards, as well as parallels and inserts and "hits," are not innocent extras that collectors can choose to chase or ignore, as many say they are. They actually reduce the value of the base set. They reduce in collectors' minds the interesting aspects and the love for the process of completing a base set. Over the last three-plus decades, it's been reduced so much that people are automatically dismissive when you talk about collecting a base set. It's as if you've announced that you've figured out a way to pasteurize milk. Get out of the way, old man! I think I spotted Correa in a throwback!!!!!

And you can say, "so what?" and "collect what you want" and "just change the channel if you don't like it," but there's still that pachyderm in the pantry:

If nobody cares about the base product anymore doesn't this lead to an inferior base product?

I think there are enough examples out there over the last 20 years or so to say, "yes, it does."

As a set collector, I don't like that, and I have a hunch that in the long run this is all bad for business. I know it's certainly partly to blame for driving me to vintage. But I'm just one guy. And I don't have access to Topps or Panini's financial records. Nor do I want to.

I just think it's interesting that we've gone from "manipulation of the hobby" to "what would Topps Heritage be without a boatload of variations?"


Adam said…
Preach, brother! Preach!

That being said, I don't mind the action variations in certain sets like Heritage, however this year it's completely out of control. Oh, look ... on this card Mike Zunino didn't do the "I" in his name, on this one he did! No thanks. Opening Day cards do not need variations nor does Topps Flagship. They need to be simple, affordable sets for the budget minded collector, such as myself.
Unknown said…
I just wish opening day didn't use the exact same images as flagship... Makes it useless. I didn't know this when I ordered a team set for last year, found out the hard way. I'm the same with variations, happy to receive them, but won't dare chase them.

Thanks for the shout out!
Tony L. said…
I'm totally on board with this. I think we both commented on The Card Chop's post on the decline and fall of the set collecting empire. Of course, back in the early 1980s, *most* of us were set collectors first with some focus on players or a team. Now, there's no bloody way for anyone to be anything but a "specialist." Trying to be a set collector first and foremost would cause me to go broke, nuts, and get so angry that I'd quit collecting cards again.

By the way, the publishers of Baseball Cards Magazine -- literally my favorite magazine from the 1980s -- was Krausse Publications out of Iola, Wisconsin. One of the most frequent writers was Greg Ambrosius. The same publisher put out Sports Collectors Digest -- which I absolutely craved because it had such a huge "classifieds" section to try to find deals. The downside was that it was printed on cheap newsprint and left almost as much ink on my fingers as it did on the page. I too miss those publications. A lot!
Unknown said…
I collect just that, the base set. If there is an error and a correction I don't seek it out. If it falls in my lap the. It gets included. I still consider the set complete even if I don't have both versions. It's my rules. That's they way it's been since 1982 and that's they way it's still iis. I also do not collect the inserts. If they show up in packs they get included to the set, but otherwise the set is complete once the final base card is obtained. I dismiss all the variations and parallels as gimmicks that I'm not interested in.
Variations: If its a Brave I want it, otherwise if I get one I get one....great. They haven't been a part of my set building requirements, nor will they in the future. Heck, until a year or two ago I never paid any attention, some of my sets may actually contain one or two, who knows. Great topic, great post.
You're preaching to the choir. I'll take what I get but I'm not holding a complete set hostage because of a variation. Or a short print.
JediJeff said…
"what would Topps Heritage be without a boatload of variations?"

Ummmm....easier to complete?
capewood said…
I pretty much agree with you. I'm not much of a set collector and would never consider a variation card as part of a set. The only variation cards I would consider going after would be Phillies or Astros.
Nick said…
I did an Ebay search for 2016 Opening Day the other day and the first single cards that came up were all variations. I do think all these gimmicks are watering down the base sets. I still wonder where all these quote-unquote collectors who actually care about all these variations are hiding. They seem to have deep pockets, wherever they are.

(Also, dibs on "All Hrabosky" as my future band's name.)
Fuji said…
As with most topics in our hobby... I've got mixed emotions on card variations... so I'll just take the easy way out and agree with you and say "I miss Baseball Cards magazine too".
Stubby said…
I think some of the Heritage "error" cards--where they try to recreate the mistakes of the set whose design they're celebrating--are kind of cute. I don't look for them. I don't need them. I don't personally care about them at all. But, if the idea is paying homage, peace be with you, brother, it's all good. Again with Heritage, I'm okay with the short so much as the earlier sets were issued in Series and the last two or three never made it to my neighborhood. Hey, at least I have a shot at these "high numbers"--something I never had as a kid. Action variations. OK. Throwback variations. I get it. The chromes of many colors. Fine (although, in that case, I wish they'd do them for everybody and not just a handful of carefully selected players). Again, I don't need them and I'm not looking for them, but, sure, do what you gotta do. Not as much fun as the coins or posters or scratch-offs or comics that came in every pack in the old days, but whatever floats your boat. Where they lost me was when they got absolutely ridiculous. "Sparkle" variations? Are you kidding me? Yeah, I got software that can do that too, but I wouldn't try to foist it off as something special. Gum stained cards? Now I know you're pulling my leg. I can't imagine them sinking lower than gum stained cards, but they keep trying. And its funny, cuz those suckers will go for big money on eBay, but, if you had actual gum in the packs leaving actual gum stains, everybody would be pissed (well, not we genuine collectors, but those other folks, yeah).

From what I hear, the industry is not in the greatest of financial health. Honestly, they haven't been since the bottom fell out of the junk wax market. Mostly, though, its because of all the other choices kids have today, what with computers and video games, etc. A couple of pieces of cardboard that (in their eyes) just lay there can't compete (its like books vs. TV; I think books are better and stimulate imagination while the youth of today thinks books are boring and too much work). Which leaves the card companies struggling to keep everyone who is left at least marginally happy. That includes set collectors, but it also includes the case breakers and the rainbow chasers and player collectors and prospect investors, etc., etc., etc. Since the assorted goals are canyons apart, its no easy feat to not only keep them happy but keep them buying. And you have to know that, one day, there may be no more cards because, at some point, there may be no more collectors (or investors).

I have a friend who collects films...8 millimeter, 16 millimeter, 35 millimeter. I have my hobby. he has his. But his hobby is just about done. They don't make films in that medium anymore and there's no one under 50 who even knows what a real (or "reel") film is. The old collectors are dying off and there are no new collectors or, for that matter, product. Film shows are few and far between because there are neither enough sellers nor enough buyers to make it worthwhile. And, heck, nobody even makes projectors anymore. Better take real good care of the one(s) you've got and pray to the heavens you can find parts if it breaks down.

Every once in a while, I think about that. Then I stop and go back to playing with my cards. Cards are unlikely to disappear within what's left of my lifetime. If they did, there's vintage. I feel sad for the kids of tomorrow. Then again, I feel sad that most of them will never know the joy of 45rpm records or a real honest to goodness pinball machine, either. I remember when milkmen delivered to your home. That doesn't exist anymore. My parents remembered the ice truck deliveries. Those were gone before I was born. Time marches on. Not much I can do about it beyond buying more cards myself (just doing my part).
Brett Alan said…
Me too...but more than that, I miss Baseball Hobby News! I used to pore over those over and over.

As a collector of that era who's mostly out of the hobby, I don't understand the way things work now at all. In my day, you collected CARDS, not parallels and "hits" and all of that. I can see the appeal of those kinds of things as a bonus, but it seems that the tail is now wagging the dog.
GCA said…
I have player and team collections, but I'm still primarily a set collector. I just don't do many more that one or two per sport per year. (baseball & football...used to be hockey too, but not for a few years)
I was just saying on another blog comment that I would love to see a company put out a regular set with maybe one parallel, only a few inserts, and NOTHING ELSE. No shortprints, no scarce variations, no mojo hits. I'll bet if it's nice looking and has most of the popular players, it would sell just as much, if not more, than these other products that are driven by case hits or chase cards etc. My example is 2009 O-Pee-Chee. Did that fail so badly? I liked it, and I see it admired on several blogs.

I will chase insert sets, but will only buy packs until I stop getting more than a third or so cards I still need. I'll trade for the rest. Won't spend money on diminishing returns.
I won't go after the subtle variations or super-short prints because it's too hard to get them. I refuse to pile up multiple base sets while searching for a few SSPs. If I pull one, I'll trade it for a similar SP of my favorite player or teams.
And that's really only with flagship sets. Heritage inserts haven't changed in decades, so most of the time I go for the base set and the errors only, since that's the main point of the product - to mimic the original set. I don't understand Heritage Chrome, because there is no shiny in vintage.

Now I do really like chasing all the error cards from the early 80's thru the junk wax era. Because they're generally really cheap and plentiful. I never really consider them as intentional gimmicks, but more like consequences of inferior technology. But the main thing about these is that they're the opposite of today's gimmicks. There are plenty of them and they aren't expensive. That's why they're fun.

As for the hobby condition that Stubby talks about up there, I don't consider the primary audience to be kids. It's middle-aged men like us. We're the center of the market and should be the target audience for the companies to please. If our interests are so varied, why aren't the products? Why does every product have to be stuffed with rookies, or reprints, or shiny cards? Cater certain products to certain interests, and others to the other types of collectors. We'll all buy what we like...
Jeremya1um said…
I was too young for the days of the '80's when everyone was either a team of set collector. With that being said, when I first started seriously busting packs in 1992, I just wanted to get cards of my favorite teams and later, my favorite players. You can always just collect what you collect and leave the rest but I think that the next generation of collectors will never know the good times of just having a base set with 3-5 insert sets, maybe a gold parallel set, with no variations or 1 of 1 cards. I think they are driven away from team collecting because of the product that is put out there. If Topps would put out another Total set or make team sets more readily available in multiple products, that would do a lot to change it. Heck, they could produce a set of scrub players that you could only order online and you could only order the players you want. That way they wouldn't be over producing cards that not everyone wants. People who do want them would have to order them online by a certain date, pay Topps, and Topps would produce the number of cards needed, make their profit, and forget all about making the scrub set. That's the only way I see team collectors getting what they want. Set collectors can still buy the complete set but Topps needs to step it up for team collectors.
Anonymous said…
I try not to let the variations, etc. bother me much. I'm a set collector, and I just try to collect what I want because Topps is still making a really cool set in Heritage. Yes there's all this sideshow stuff, but I don't feel like I NEED those things. I like sets and that's my main focus, but I also like getting a Nolan Ryan autograph or the equivalent once every few years. But it does get at me a bit, because all that side stuff has to take away focus from the manufacturer on the base set. In fact, it's not side stuff anymore - the hits and variations are the main focus.

On a separate note, I think this gets a little bit at the OCD of a set collector. It doesn't bother me if there's a card 248-B with a different photo, but I partially understand why it would bother some collectors who think of that as getting all of the set. One thing I'd ask back, though - if the variations were just numbered as a separate insert set - let's call it the "cool photos" - would that make people feel differently? What if they were a separate insert where the border was taken off? I think that would bug alot of set collectors less, which is interesting.
Anonymous said…
"I would love to see a company put out a regular set with maybe one parallel, only a few inserts, and NOTHING ELSE"

-Me too, that's what I think of as an ideal set. But I can understand why we won't see that again. I don't think that would be profitable for any card company to put out there.
CaptKirk42 said…
The HOBBY is dying but the BUSINESS is Thriving. Intentional variations UGH! No wonder I'm more a vintage guy. OH and to all those "collectors" tossing their base away. Either recycle the poor paper/cardboard or SEND THEM TO ME!
GCA said…
Amen! Who knows how many sets remain incomplete because all the mojo hunters stick all their base cards in a box somewhere never to see daylight again. That one Micah Bowie that you need stays on your list for decades while spurned base rots in closets.
I'm just happy to see an early photo of Veterans' Stadium in Philadelphia (before they changed to all-blue seats) on the Hrabosky card.
Bubba said…
I love this post. I will always be a set collector at heart. Variations be damned. I don't mind occasional funky stuff, especially if its only one card (like that Kosuke Fukudome Ginter SSP you just sent me... I'm okay with that). However, I equally can't stand this year's Heritage crap... that's not part of the "set". The SP's are hard enough...
Stubby said…
The people I know who "toss their base cards away" actually do so at their LCS--that's where they do their pack opening, while talking sports. So those base cards aren't truly tossed away. The store keepers get them back. Some sell them as loosies again or use them to build sets they sell, but most of the LCS owners I know give them to kids who are good customers (or occasionally to us older kids) or include them in grab bags. So, in their own way, they're helping the hobby.
Billy Kingsley said…
I loathe intentional variations. I actually recently discovered about a dozen of them in my duplicates box, as I keep the records of my collection based on card number. I probably would never have known if I had not been working on scanning my collection. Realizing the scan and the "duplicate" were different is how I stumbled on most of them.

I love parallels but those are a different animal than variations.
For the most part, I have given up on the SP's. I've decided that if the set contains 3 or less sp's(2008 topps update), I'll try to complete it. More than that, forget it. I tried to get all the variations for 2009 Topps, but eventually gave up. It just became too expensive. I will pursue certain SP's for team sets. But not stupidity like pies in the face.