April 26, 2012

The Lost Awkwardness of the Combo Card

1964 Topps "Bill's Got It"

The combo card just ain't what it used to be. Used to be, a group of players would stand around on the sidelines either before a game (most often the All-Star Game or during spring training) or during practice, and awkwardly pose with members of their own or another team. Included in every Topps set from 1957 through 1969 (with the exception of 1965), nearly every Fleer set from 1982 on, Upper Deck sets from 1990 to 1993, and random other sets (including 1960 Leaf), combo cards were exciting to receive in a pack, pushing collectors to further idolize players on their favorite teams. The photos were posed, and the titles were usually clumsy alliterations or hackneyed exposition — to entice the collector to flip the card and read the description on the back (see "Bill's Got It," 1964 Topps). The writing was usually terrible, and the connection between the players weak or nonexistent (many writers have highlighted this with great success, including Mike Kenny, our talented and hilarious contributor here at The Baseball Card Blog).

Still, it was something to get a combo card. It showed the manufacturer — and the players themselves — had a playful side, that baseball wasn't all business. We wanted our heroes to take the game as seriously as we did, but we also wanted to know they knew how to joke around. It's this idea — separation of business and pleasure — that made the combo card important to their respective sets.

2007 Topps "Classic Combo"
For Topps, the sets that included combo cards were mostly endless oceans of faces. And once the regular player photo moved off the sidelines and the action shot became de rigueur (around 1970–1972), the posed-combo-card playfulness disappeared. What makes this interesting is that when Topps re-introduced the combo card in its flagship sets beginning in 2006, the manufacturer brought it back as another vehicle for its action photography. The new Topps "Classic Combos" lack the very essence of what made those earlier examples so exciting: the inherent awkwardness of posing for a photograph as a couple or a group.

Collectors' brains are now tuned to action shots—action is all we see on sports cards. But awkwardly posed groups of players, often together for only that one photograph? You rarely see that these days. It seems like everything's scripted; that when not playing, players are ushered from one place to another by people with clipboards and headsets.

1963 Topps (left); 2012 Topps Heritage (right)

This last bit is important for how the combo-card concept has been approached in Topps Heritage sets. The Heritage brand emulates the original vintage Topps sets of the 1950s and 1960s. For combo cards, that means the awkwardness of the posed sideline group. Because of tight schedules or whatever other reason, however, players are hardly ever photographed together for Heritage sets. Instead, their images are layered over each other during production to create the illusion that they posed together. Or—and here it is again—an in-game action shot is used.

2007 Topps Heritage "World Series Batting Foes" - layered images

So to celebrate the lost awkwardness of the combo card, see below for some of my favorites. And make sure to check out The Baseball Card Blog's Facebook page for another combo card I'd like to see.

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