Seconds after buying the spring's first box of baseball cards, I would spread the contents of each pack on a patch of thick grass at my elementary school as a kid. The number of cards being sold in 1988 would cover a whole natural grass infield.
The baseball card market has supported three different brands since 1981, and a fourth, Score, has tried to join the lineup this year. These days, Topps--the brand you bought in fourth grade--has its hands full fulfilling its name.
Between the four companies' main sets and their special card sets, there are over 2500 individual pieces of cardboard to buy. No kid can afford to buy them all, so the fierce competition has created an explosion of color and style. Gone are the cards that had plain lettering under a rectangular photo on a white background. Lone gone is Topps' 1977 set, which had maybe a dozen action photos.
The wildest cards this year come from Fleer (the people who bring you Bazooka gum) and Donruss, the companies that began in 1981 after the courts ruled Topps couldn't monopolize the industry. They've both come a long way. Too far.
Donruss demonstrates once again that it doesn't appreciate the game or the tradition of baseball cards. Cards are such a part of the national pastime because they unify the romance and the science of baseball. A card's front should make the player a hero, and the back should provide all his statistics for those who read box scores every day. Donruss has fallen short on both sides this year.
The background to the player photo is a weird blue art deco pattern that belongs in MOMA, not the AL and NL. At least most of their photos are much more professional than in 1981, when you couldn't tell Dick Tidrow from Dennis Lamp from Captain Caveman because of the Instamatic photos. Unfortunately, their 1988 photo of Kent Hrbek still has all the sharpness of a crayon drawing.
And on the back, Donruss only traces a player's performance back to 1983. That's fine for Chris Bosio, Brewer's reliever, but it's unconscionable for Fred Lynn or Gary Carter (himself an avid card collector).
Fleer goes the opposite direction, including all but a player's Little League stats on the back. It overloaded me for four years (am I supposed to memorize that the Cubs' Scott Sanderson had a 2.68 ERA at West Palm Beach in 1977?), but Fleer has added a bit of Vin Scully on the back for all of us who need help interpreting the numbers.
Last year's Fleer cards color-coded a strike zone to show where batters connected with or pitchers threw a fastball, a breaking ball, and an off-speed pitch. Baseball purists hated it because it was so subjective (ratings were performed by "the Scouts"), but it was corny like baseball ought to be. This year the Fleer color graphic isn't as corny: each player's batting average or ERA is given for day, night, home and away games. These are cards you can sit down with for the Game of the Week.
But the front of the Fleer card isn't as good as it could have been. Fleer was the best overall card last year, but this year's design of scattered blue and red diagonal stripes behind the photo complicates a good idea. The photo itself fades out near the top, so that a player's head sticks out into the background. It's a creative variation on last year's Fleer design, and it could carry the card without the complication of the stripes.
Topps has the second-best set of cards this year, even though their backs are unimpressive and their photos often aren't as sharp as Fleer's. Topps' front is traditional enough to enlist my nostalgia, and though the overall effect is to make the card look like the cover of a cheap sports magazine, at least the player, and not the background, is the center of attention. They're not as good as last year's Topps, but all of this year's crop of cards is generally weaker.
It's a mark of the era that no one puts lighthearted cartoons about the players on the back of the cards anymore, like "Bob enjoys playing guitar in the off-season" or "Jesus once served 18 months in the Dominican Army," Topps used to be masterful at these cartoons. This year, they and Donruss put the player's contract status on the back.
Score, the new kids on the diamond, are the best this year. Their front design is plain, though the background color is either flourescent blue, green, purple, yellow, or red. Every card has a sharp action photo on the front and a color head photo on the back. The effect is amazing.
Their backs are as colorful as a political rally; the stats are printed in color and go back as far as Fleer's cards do. And the prose underneath gives you the smell of a pennant. Of the Oriole's Eddie Murray, Score pontificates, "Eddie is a remarkable power hitter who crushes the ball equally well from both sides of the plate. In 1987, he bounced back from his '86 power shortage with his accustomed big bundle of homers and RBIs." Shakes peare pales.
The only glaring problem with Score and Topps is that their fronts are incomplete. Score doesn't print the team name on the front, and Topps doesn't give the player's field position, the second year in a row they've made that mistake. Both bits of information should be there. Fleer and Donruss effectively put the team logo on the front with the player's name and position.
Score is the biggest story this year in baseball cards. Keeping the four companies separate may be difficult, but a true romantic for the sport will have fun picking and chosing the best individual cards from each set. Topps is available just about everywhere; go to specialty stores if you want to look for any of the other three brands on a crisp spring day.
And finally, if you go in search of non-Topps companies, don't look for bubble gum. I still can't open a pack of baseball cards without salivating, but only Topps is allowed by the courts to carry gum, which is supposedly its trademark in the card market. Fleer offers a team sticker for your lunchbox and Donruss has pieces of a 63-part Stan Musiaal jigsaw puzzle (last year's was Roberto Clemente). I've never been excited enough about the idea to put one of the puzzles together. Score, for all its pluses, includes a worthless card containing trivia that doesn't deserve a card of its own.
But all the companies carry a little piece of America and childhood.