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A History of Dumb Baseball Cards

Of course, they were never your first choice. Maybe they were all that the store carried; maybe it was the only Gregg Jefferies you didn’t have yet. Maybe you had time to kill in the drug store while your mom looked at cosmetics, and so you sat cross-legged on the floor, pressing down the cellophane on each pack so that you could read the name on the bottom card. (Was that a Ricky Jordan rookie or a Ron Jones?) No matter the reason, sooner or later, a few Score baseball cards found their way into your collection.

Score probably didn’t deserve the scorn it inevitably received. The quality of the cardstock was better than Donruss, the photography was better than Fleer, and the backs had about ten times as much information as Upper Deck. But despite a bold graphic design at its inception, and about two dozen Bo Jackson cards in its 1990 set, the collectors never developed an attachment to the latecomer. By 1991, Score was already becoming a forgotten brand.

Ultimately, Score’s legacy, its gift to the hobby, is a dubious one: the rise of the subset.

Score didn’t invent the subset, of course. Highlight cards, record breakers and the like have been around since time immemorial; Topps had its Turn Back the Clock series, Donruss its Diamond Kings. Score lacked the history to lean on for a staple brand, and lacked the patience to create them. Instead, they had tasted the fruit of Bo Jackson and saw that it was good, and by 1991 had developed half a dozen subsets to fill out their overcrowded, 893-card regular issue.

The subset is, economically speaking, a reasonable solution to an age-old baseball card conundrum: what do you do with commons? Nobody likes to open a pack of baseball cards and get nothing but Steve Buecheles and Jerry Don Gleatons. But if you take all those guys out and include only the stars, the excitement of landing a Ruben Sierra wears off. Score’s answer: keep the scrubs, but include different versions of the stars to increase the odds of finding a familiar face in a pack. It seems good in theory, but the erosion still takes place: all those secondary cards lose value, and devalue the name of the player they depict along with them. Scarcity is a harsh mistress.

The other problem with subsets is that they’re often pretty dumb. Not all, mind you; highlight and record breaker cards are important, and might actually be the only reason to have baseball cards today. The stats you can find everywhere; baseball cards should commemorate a year, rather than a player, and should stand as a photo album of that season’s highs, lows, and quirks. But after you get those out of the way, how do you squeeze another Jose Canseco into your set?

Score went with two choices. The “Master Blaster” subset and its pitching and defense equivalents framed players against space-age laser lighting similar to what you had as a backdrop to your fifth-grade school pictures. Their “Dream Team” subset, an even stranger choice, employed black-and-white photographs of famous players in an artistic style, sometimes, holding apples, sometimes sans clothing. The Dream Team set was particularly wonderful and bizarre: you had your shirtless Jose Canseco with brewing storm clouds behind him. You had Doug Jones staring into flickering flames leaping from one of his 84mph fastballs. You had Roberto Alomar unable to stand upright.

These subsets, which eliminate statistics in favor of a paragraph or two of filler text on the back, are nothing more than the final projects of a community college graphic design class. As the insert craze exploded, this trend grew worse and worse, with the design being the reason for the card, and the player on it an afterthought. After all, shiny!

But what’s sad is that some of these ridiculous subsets offered a real opportunity to create interesting cards. The “Rifleman” subset examines the best arms in baseball, a subject rarely talked about and never quantified. Rather than say, “Shawon Dunston has a super strong arm y’all”, Score could have clocked his fastball, or at least throw up some defensive statistics that never make the cut on an average card. How about a subset devoted to caught stealing rates? Outfield assists? All-Star vote totals? Some of them may be silly numbers, but they’d be new numbers. Something interesting to look at and talk about. An actual reason to have a card.

In the end, style triumphs over substance, and America got the baseball card it deserved. And it was of Bo Jackson.