April 09, 2006

Card Critic: 2006 Topps Heritage

Any card collector can agree that there is really nothing more exciting than a big find when and where you least expect it. I remember a friend of mine was going through some stuff at a yard sale and came upon a few vintage rookies: Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Reggie Jackson, which he then purchased for a dollar each. That’s a gigantic score right where you least (or maybe most) expect it. I was totally jealous for years about that, even after I was given a box of old books and maps from a family friend and happened to find a perfect copy of the Ozzie Smith rookie (at least NM-MT, 60/40 on the front at the time).

Likewise, there’s nothing more disappointing than having high hopes for a set that doesn’t invoke excitement and could be, in fact, a real dud. 1991 Donruss comes to mind, as does 1991 Fleer…actually almost every set from 1991 fits into this category. That’s why it brings me great pains to say that the Topps Heritage set (with the 1957 design) is a real dud.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not so one-sided in this opinion not to overlook the great Venn-diagram design they’ve got going with the Then & Now insert set. It’s a clean-looking card, upbeat in the way that the original cover of Kerouac’s On The Road is upbeat: kind of jazzy, kind of hip, kind of modern. But Then & Now is an insert set, and as a collector I’m not really buying packs to build the T&N set; it’s the base set that I have to be into.

Topps fails (and failed in the 2005 Heritage set as well) because they are not true enough to the original look of the set. They lucked out that for most of the 1954 set, real photos were used. That’s why the 2003 Heritage set is so utterly fantastic: even though the Heritage cards are smaller today than the original set, you get the impression that you could have opened a 5¢ pack in ’54 and found this card of Alfonso Soriano. The same can be said of the 1955/2004 sets: real photos were used, and truthfully, headshots are hard to screw up. But screw up they did in 2005 and now here in 2006. The 1956 set had a colored pencil look to the images: the cheeks are rosier and the backgrounds look like faithful artist renditions of their photographic counterparts. Its Heritage design counterpart doesn’t employ the same dramatic-line approach and thus loses its credibility. It’s almost like the cards are too clean. I’m also not a fan of denoting anywhere on a card that something is a trademark symbol of Major League Baseball. I get it, but it ruins the overall aesthetic of the card. I would even recommend that Topps removes its own logo from the front of the Heritage cards: die-hard collectors (whom I would guess makes up the core audience for these sets) can recognize the design by just one element of the design. For example, if you showed just the black box and white lettering of a card, any collector worth their salt can tell you it’s from the ’51 Bowman set. We don’t need to be reminded who makes the cards: the designs themselves are the cornerstones of the hobby. Maybe in twenty-two years when they come out with Heritage ’79 then Topps can put their logo on the card fronts and it will make sense.

You’d think that because Topps chose to use real photos in 1957 (as well as move to the modern standard card size) then its Heritage homage would be a smashing success because there would be very little the designers could do to screw it up, right? Well, they manage to find a way.

In 1957 there were basically two front photos: the close-up (of which there are varying degrees) and the pose. In 57 Heritage, there are three basic fronts (from what I’ve seen): the close-up (of which there are varying degrees), the pose and the action shot. Why are there action shots? Frankly, what made the 57 Williams and Mantle cards so iconic (and boring and lousy photos) was that they were posed on the sidelines. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one even posed action shot in the 1957 set. Therefore, to be true to the original design there should not be action shots anywhere in 57 Heritage. Topps has the option of using action shots in the insert sets, and in fact that would make a compelling insert set: the best action shots from the Sporting News from 1957 and 2005.

Let’s look at two pairs of cards for comparison. Starting with the Camilo Pascual from the original 1957 set, the first thing you notice is that the colors are rich; his skin tone looks natural. Also, there is one point of light in the photo: off-frame to the right from the sun. In comparison, this Cliff Floyd from the 57 Heritage set looks like there are a few different sources of light: behind him, to the right of him, and a very strong flash from the photographer’s camera directly in front of him. Floyd looks washed-out (this is really my biggest critique of the 57 Heritage set: there seems to be an aversion to color at Topps HQ; every color from the 57 Heritage base set is washed out. It’s a goddamn shame, too, because with richer color this set would have more credibility in its homage to the original), and his face looks flattened. There’s no depth to the photo. I think the issue of depth could’ve been addressed better if the background was more dynamic. Is that a highway overpass behind Floyd? And who chose to photograph him on an overcast afternoon? One of the great things about the original set was the play between the rich tones of the photos, the colorful typeface for the name, team and position and the clean white border on the front. This dynamic is rendered useless on Floyd’s card (and a lot of others in the 57 Heritage set as well). I mean, does Topps want me to get a migraine from looking at this set? Cause I’m almost there.

In the second comparison, let’s start with the Joe Adcock card from the original set. He looks like he just climbed out of a cigarette ad or at least down out the cab of his tractor-trailer. Now, maybe it’s just that he’s old when this photo was taken…wait a minute…it says on the back that he was born in ’27, so that means he was only 30 when this photo was taken! That’s crazy! He looks like he’s at least old enough to have weathered the Dust Bowl by barnstorming through the Rockies with other players with nicknames like ‘Crazy Legs’ and ‘Red’ in an old jalopy. Anyway, his jaw line is impressive, and his pose is dramatic. The background is recognizable as an actual ballpark, and the colors are deep, rich and warm. The lines are clean and there is no difficulty in telling where he ends and the background begins. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Miguel Cabrera card from the 57 Heritage set.

And that’s another thing that really kills me about this set: there seems to be a fuzzy border separating the player from the background. What gives? Not only are the colors washed-out, the backgrounds almost the same value as the players and the action shots uncalled for, but who the hell made the decision for a weirdly fuzzy yellow border around the player? It makes the set look like an amateur assembled it in his basement. And if that amateur were me, I certainly would not have included that fuzzy border. I also would’ve unearthed an old camera and some old film and taken the photos so that they’d look like those of the original set.

On the backs, Topps has used a darker cardboard for the 57 Heritage set, cutting down on visibility. And because of the legalese fine print, the overall printed space on the back is smaller by at least 1/16th of an inch, which is a pretty big change when space is as limited as on the back of a baseball card.

Dear Topps, can’t you see how mad all of this makes me? You have all this money and the chance to make a great set that collectors will cherish for their whole lives and you don’t care enough to make it great! It’s one gigantic opportunity to waste, and that is just so disappointing.


birdDC said...

Regarding the Adcock/Cabrera cards: I can understand Adcock's classic 50's stance (they all looked wimpy, but that's beside the point...), but what kind of activity would result in Cabrera's pose? Is that how he swings? The only way I can think it makes sense is by mentally replacing Cabrera's bat with some sort of large, heavy sack that he's thrusting over his shoulder...

Anonymous said...

den from ri here. love the site. just looked at my 57's and had a few thoughts. you are right on the in-game shots. some of the rare later series cards did use portraits when no photo was available, no.s 344, 345 for sure. also i wish heritage would use a carboard stock similar to the original year. how choice would it be to pull a thick cardboard varitek.

SK said...

When I was at the card shop a couple weeks ago the clerk attempted to talk me into getting the heritage sets, but something didn't seem right to me. I settled on two packs of regular Topps to quench my child-like baseball card infatuation. Thank you for perfectly articulating all that is wrong with the '06 heritage set. If Topps were to give us an awesome heritage set I would be just about the happiest 22 year-old kid alive, but until that day I'll just have to wait.

Wil @ Baseballtopia said...

Yeah, the '03 Heritage set was great. I almost put together the whole thing. I had been collecting 1959 Topps, my favorite set ever, picking up singles from time-to-time at a local dealer and he showed me the heritage. Several boxes and trades later I was only missing a few cards.

The problem with packs is, once you start opening you can't stop. Then, next thing you know you're saying, "OK, give me another pack." and he's looking to see if he has another box. Then you do the count of shame and realize you've opened 2/3 of a box. Then you just take it for granted and walk in and say, "Gimme a box of..." and sit there an open it in the shop, always opening in the shop.

Then I soured on current cards, they're just missing the "it" factor that old cards have and I slid all my recent cards to my little brothers who are 14 years younger than me (in their early teens) and rightfully into the current cards because they are targeted to them, not us. The kids like us who started collecting on 87 topps and 88 donruss will never connect with these new cards as a whole, IMHO.

topps-heritage-fan said...

I thought 2006 was another great year for Topps Heritage.

Heritage Fan said...

I thought the 2006 set was good, I'm anxious for 2007!

thirdbasecoach said...

I agree, the Heritage set for 1957/2007 is laughable. The 1957 set has some of the best photography (for it's time) and the posed positions are actual photos in actual stadiums, not overlays. I didn't think Adcock looked that old, and it is a good representation of his actual stance, but there are some cards from the time that make the players look like they should be in a retirement home.