Why Are Player Cards Not More Like Baseball Cards?

I was just traipsing through the Baseball Prospectus archives this morning when I came across this old Wezen-Ball article from April 2011: “‘Challenge the Yankees,’ the Boardgame.”

I’ve seen this game come up on ebay a couple times over the years and noticed that its value can be pretty high for a vintage boardgame, but never paid too much attention to it.  I assumed it was a Yankee-centric game, and I’m no Yankee fan. 

But Larry Granillo’s article mentions something about the game I’d never noticed before, which is that the cards featured player photos:

The "Challenge the Yankees" Player Cards featured headshots of the game's biggest stars

It brought up the question in my mind: why are baseball player cards not more like baseball cards?

There has been a history of games with photos that hasn’t turned out particularly well.  Strat-o-Matic’s infamous 1997 All Star set is the gold standard for photo-gamecards, but turned out to be a dud of a product.  Whether it was the choice to go with the All-Star rosters (featuring such players as Jose Roado and Justin Thompson) or something else entirely, the game just didn’t sell.  Today, 14 years later, Strat-O-Matic apparently still has this set in stock.  Occasionally you’ll see the set pop up on ebay for $10-15, and at one time the company was clearing them out at $5 for the set.


1997 Strat-o-Matic All Stars 62-card set "featured" such players as Sandy Alomar Jr., Justin Thompson, and Jose Roado

In 2000, APBA released a few different sets in full color, including the Superstars sets (which remind me of Backyard Baseball) aimed at the youngster market.  I have no idea how these sets fared commercially, but I imagine it wasn’t particularly well, since we didn’t see them back again in 2001.


I know those outfielders are supposed to be colliding, but it sure looks like they're hugging.

There have been plenty of instances of baseball cards trying to get into the game market, but that rarely seems to work out.  The original example of this is, of course, 1951 Topps Blue Backs.  This article over at DeansCards.com has a great history of that set, including a fact that I didn’t know: 

As if the design disadvantages of the Topps sets were not bad enough, the taffy that came with the cards turned out to be toxic. The cards were printed with a glossy varnish on them that rubbed off onto the taffy, resulting in a chewy substance that both smelled and tasted like paint. It was said that upon opening the packs of cards, you were almost overcome by the terrible odor.

At that time, the 1951 Topps Red and Blue Back sets were remembered more for the unpleasant odor of the taffy, than the cards themselves. Few card sets ever produced turned out to be such a complete disaster. If the dull and boring look of the 1951 Topps sets didn’t cause the kids to puke, the toxic taffy certainly did.

1951 Topps Blue Backs were the original baseball "card" game

Playing card giants and producers of Pokemon, Dungeons and Dragons, and Magic: the Gathering, Wizards of the Coast attempted to get into the baseball game market in the early part of the last decade, with a baseball-card-like product, MLB Showdown, that lasted for 6 years and multiple print runs.  I never played the game, but it did look like fun and had some more sophisticated rules than some of the other obviously-produced-for-kids games that have been created.

But here’s the thing:  MLB Showdown cards look like baseball cards.  In fact, they are more baseball card than they are game card.  That fact, to me, makes them less attractive as both baseball card and game card.

My favorite card set, aesthetically, that I own is an original 1975 Strat-o-Matic glossy set.  The cards are black-and-white on both sides, no pictures, no logos, just plain, simple text.  The glossy finish is unique to a few mid 70’s Strat-o-Matic sets.  I would love to know why Strat stopped producing sets with the glossy finish.  I haven’t played that set – it is, in fact, the one set that I own that I bought as a collectible instead of as a playing card set.  [I paid $75 for it on ebay, and when it arrived it was missing Pete Rose.  I emailed the seller about it and he offered to refund half my money.  I already had Pete Rose from a 1975 Cincinnati Reds team set I owned – so I still have a complete set that only cost me $37.50!]

I wonder, then, what it is about those of us who practice this hobby that we prefer such spartan adornments on our cards.  Even the big red names on APBA cards seem extraneous to me.  I like cold, hard black numbers.  The beauty of these simple cards is akin to the beauty of the simple box score, I think, and the visceral reaction I get from them is the same.  It’s pleasure like the pleasure of a sunset, of your first view of the field when you walk into a stadium, of the first box scores in the newspaper in spring.


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