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A History of Dumb Baseball Cards, Vol. 2

The youth are a continual problem in society. They listen to music created by autonomous computers and Canadians, eat cereal comprised entirely of marshmallow, and are occasionally sulky about the incomprehensibly massive national debt they will inherit without representation. They giggle uncontrollably upon hearing the word “fart” and play card games with rules based on statistics far more complicated than anything found on this fair site. Surely, any attempt to understand such creatures is tantamount to madness.

Woe betide, then, the baseball card company whose profits are linked directly to these whimsical beasts. At least, they were until the early 1990s, when the price of a pack of baseball cards tripled in three years and children were crowded out of the market by “investors” and post-philatelists. Sensing a demographic issue, the marketing gurus at Topps and other baseball card companies found a solution: “Kids Cards”, which would appeal to the young soul of the consumer and bring them back into the collectible fold.

In order to appeal to kids, though, you have to know something about kids. Having produced a product for these kids for upwards of forty years, what did baseball card companies know about their market base? The sum total:

1. Kids read comics.
2. Kids like bright colors.
3. Kids hate symmetry. It’s so boring.
4. Kids like trivia. (?)

Armed with this knowledge, three companies released youth-oriented baseball cards in 1992 and 1993: the Donruss Triple Play Set, the Topps Kids set, and the Upper Deck Fun Pack set.

Topps, whose marketing data seems to have been culled from the Lil’ Rascals era, features oversized fonts and backgrounds that look someone tried to replicate Skybox basketball cards with finger paint. On the back is a pastel-colored cartoon, often featuring oversized bats to subtly represent that player’s hitting prowess. But the best thing by far about Topps Kids was their decision to take random players and stick their heads on massive superhero-type bodies. Twenty years later, a glance at a Barry Bonds card is less a fun diversion and more of a grim prediction of the future of the sport.

God forbid, then, that Donruss should release the more subdued product of 1992. The Triple Play set was relatively benign, their only concessions to youth being a tilted front photograph and a harrowing, baleful red-to-yellow color scheme. The set included legitimately good subsets, like boyhood photos and three-panel “action” shots. Perhaps Triple Play’s only flaw was its fun facts, which for some reason were printed in bold, all-caps size 18 font. On the back of Dave Magadan’s card, for example, it reads: DID YOU KNOW THAT NO METS’ PLAYER HAS EVER HIT 40 HOME RUNS IN A SEASON? It’s unclear whether this is meant to make Magadan’s four home runs in 1991 seem better or worse.

A year later, the Upper Deck company joined the fray. Upper Deck was a younger, fresher company that old Grandpa Topps. Knowing that the kids were into the Nirvana and the Boyz in Process of Becoming Men, their cards reflected this by coating the borders with the fluorescent neon colors of the 1980s. This, along with the fake confetti and heavy diagonal lines, makes the set look more like a Trapper Keeper than a baseball card. The backs contain the usual trivia question/cartoon combination, but strangely, the joke in the cartoon is often based on the answer of the hidden answer to the trivia question. Robin Yount, depicted striking his 3,000th hit, is saying “Ya shoula stayed in Baltimore!” because it came off of Cleveland Indians pitcher and former Oriole Jose Mesa. Yount’s vindictiveness towards Mesa is never really made clear, revealing a woeful lack of character development on the part of the writers.

The set’s one redeeming feature: glow-in-the-dark stickers. Easily the most fun thing about any of these cards.

Despite the pretty colors and the lower prices, “kids” cards were all but dead by the mid-1990s. It’s almost as if trying too hard doesn’t appeal to kids, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Baseball card companies went back to raising prices and whispering promises of untold riches to middle-aged men; a generation stopped collecting cards, and the industry is now basically dead. So it goes.