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On Topps: The State Of The Baseball Card In 2011

I had three collecting passions when I was a kid: comic books, records, and baseball cards. Though perhaps “passion” is too strong a word when it comes to baseball cards, because I never had the resources to become a serious hobbyist. I started out buying packs of Topps because I was a baseball fan, and I’d treat those cards like toys, not valuables, making up my own games, with the cards as pieces. It wasn’t until I was around 10 years old and started hanging out with other card-collectors—the kind whose parents could afford to buy them a complete Topps set each season—that I started taking the hobby more seriously. I bought three-ring binders and plastic sheets to display my best cards and dragged that album to school, where my friends and I would make complicated trades during lunch. During summer vacation, our public library had a weekly card-trading hour, and between meetings I’d beg my folks to take me to weekend flea markets so I could dig.

But like I said, I didn’t have much money. My allowance was a dollar a week until I turned 10, at which point it doubled. So I mainly stuck with new packs of cards or with older cards that were relatively cheap. At one point, I had every Ferguson Jenkins card in the Topps line, all of which I eventually traded for the one moderately impressive item I ever owned: an early-’60s Mickey Mantle. (Immediately after I made that trade, I missed my Jenkinses.) Around the time I became a teenager, Topps’ monopoly on the baseball card business had been broken and new companies entered the market. Soon the prices went up, both for new cards and old. But by then, I was spending more money on records anyway, so I sold my entire collection to a well-to-do neighbor kid for $200.

Since then, I’ve bought the occasional pack for nostalgia’s sake, just to remind myself of what the ritual used to be like. Pulling apart the loosely sealed, envelope-style folds of the wax paper. Blowing on the back of the last card in the pack to try and clear off the traces of powder left behind by the rock-hard stick of gum. Flipping through the cards one at a time, saying, “need it” and “got it,” and cursing a little if the pack contained a team card or a checklist. It was all such a major part of my childhood, left behind in pursuit of other interests.

Then last week I was walking through Target with my kids when they pulled me over to the trading card section so they could check out the Pokémon decks. While I was there, I looked to see what baseball cards they had for sale and bought a few packs, just to see if anything major had changed with my old hobby. Now here I must stress: I haven’t kept up with the trends in trading cards. Some of you who are reading this may be former collectors like me. And some of you may have never bought a pack of cards in your life. But some, I’m sure, are devotees. I apologize in advance to that last group if I’m about to sound like one of those old men who pick up a video-game controller or a comic book and rasps, “Y’know in my day….” I promise that I opened these packs in a spirit of genuine curiosity, not willful ignorance. And here’s what I found:

2011 Topps “Opening Day” Baseball Cards

The front of the package features a photo of World Champion San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim “The Freak” Lincecum, but I was more interested in the back, which includes a list of the odds of finding specific specialty cards in the pack—something I don’t remember seeing when I was a kid. It’s a weird addition, and one that made me feel like I was buying lottery scratch tickets. Inside the pack were 19 regular player cards, each stamped with the “Opening Day” logo, and five specialty cards. The player cards were all “in action” photos (and some apparently heavily airbrushed, judging by some complaints I’ve read on-line) with stats on the back, as has long been traditional, and a brief note of each player’s major-league debut or first opening-day start, in keeping with the theme. As for the specialty items, I got a mascot card (the Astros’ Junction Jack!), a Presidential First Pitch card (George W. Bush, 2005), a Superstar Celebrations card (Buster Posey and Brian Wilson at last year’s World Series), a glow-in-the-dark Stadium Lights card (Troy Tulowitzki), and a Jon Lester card with a code stamped on the back that’s supposed to allow me to download a special “digital pack” at Toppstown.com. I tried to follow the instructions and do just that, but the Toppstown site was kind of impenetrable.

2011 Topps Heritage

Again, the back of the package details the odds of finding specialty cards, while the front features a picture of Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay and a warning that if I receive a “relic card” in the pack, I’ll only get eight cards overall instead on nine. But I did not get a relic. I also didn’t get such a stellar assortment of players (unlike the Opening Day pack, which was loaded with stars, probably because that series only features 220 players versus the Heritage series’ 425). I loved the design of these cards though, which mimics the 1962 Topps set, complete with wood-grain borders on the front and a little piece of player trivia illustrated with a cartoon on the back.

2010 Topps Allen & Ginter

Where the Heritage series is merely retro, this series is straight-up stone-age, mimicking the style of 19th-century baseball cards—the kind packaged with A&G cigarettes. My pack featured not just modern baseball players in the vintage style, but also a card for Olympic swimmer Summer Sanders and astronomer Galileo Galilei. (Not Galileo’s rookie card though, sadly.)

2010 Tri-Star Obak

These are kind of baffling. It’s another vintage-style set, containing only four cards: in my case, former Brooklyn Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets, original professional ballplayer Jim Creighton, old-time Phillie Sherry Magee, and union leader John Montgomery Ward. Topps has the official MLB license again, so these cards are neither authorized nor endorsed by Major League Baseball. And while they do feature informative summaries of each subject on the back, they don’t have as striking a design as the A&G cards.

Jumbo Pack: 100 Baseball Cards
I bought this because the price was right ($4.99) and the packaging was so nondescript that I had to see what was inside. The wrapper says only that these are “distributed by The Fairfield Company,” and that I should expect “10 Hall of Famer Cards” and, in one out of every four packs, a “Game Used Card.” I got lucky; my pack did contain a game-used card, from Upper Deck’s 2007 line. It’s a thick Andruw Jones card with a small square of fabric embedded—presumably a piece of sock or pant or sweatband that Jones wore. As for the other 99 cards, they were a true grab-bag: some Topps, some Fleer, some Donruss, and even a few Score and Leaf cards. The oldest cards in the pack were from 1981; the most recent was that 2007 Andruw Jones. Most were from the late ’80s, which offered a timely reminder of how Topps has paid homage to its own past before, most notably in ’87 (with the wood-grain frame again) and ’88 (with the retro-style poses and layout).

What fascinates me most about the current old-fashioned look is that it’s clearly aimed at older collectors, not kids. The same could be said of the Opening Day cards. Glow-in-the-dark gimmicks aside, the look of the Opening Day cards is classic, emphasizing the image and not the print. A quick spin through the Internet revealed that the hobby appears to have gone the way of comic books, appealing primarily to longtime customers rather than trying to make new ones. And those longtime customers seem picky about what they expect the big card companies to do.

For example, while reading up on these new sets, I discovered that Upper Deck is planning to bring out “HD video trading cards” in the fall, featuring one full minute of highlights of select NFL players. My first reaction? “Wow, that’s pretty cool. I bet my kids would dig those.” Then I scrolled down to the comment section and read the cards described as, “hideous,” “dumb,” “crap,” “garbage,” and “ridiculous.” “Can we PLEASE not categorize this as a trading card?” one collector pleaded, while another wrote, “No one in their right mind is going to buy these… fortunately for them, their target audience is little kids and sports fans, two groups of people I don’t consider ‘in their right minds.’” (Because the last thing a sports memorabilia company should do is sell their product to children and fans, right?)

I could be misreading the situation, of course. Surely there are more good-natured and enthusiastic collectors out there than snobby ones. And as a casual buyer, I have to admit that I’m glad that there are ties to history built into the current product lines, designed to appeal to hopeless nostalgists like myself.

Still, of all the cards I looked at in my packs and online, I was most heartened by those in the “Topps Attax” line, which are designed to be used in a collectible card game. Even though that product is clearly designed to capitalize on one of the biggest recent pieces of the trading card market, I like it for being targeted to the young. Because if I had it to do over again, I’d have never sold my collection when I was a teenager, and I would’ve never encased the cards in plastic before that. I would’ve kept them all in a shoebox and played with them on the floor, and then when I got too old for that, I would’ve stashed them away and passed them on to my kids to do the same.

Also, I would’ve never chewed the gum. But that’s a whole other subject.