Flippin’ cards

Notice when you go to sports card shows or card shops that the front of a collectible card is always on display. And when you see sample cards reprinted in price guides, you only see the front of the card. As with old 45 RPM records, the flip side doesn’t get much respect, and that’s a shame because baseball cards, like people, are sometimes more intriguing when viewed from behind.

Of course, there is no reason for a card to even have a flip side. The cards printed on Post cereal boxes had only an A side, but those cards would never be nominated for any graphic design awards. A one-sided card, however, is a tragic waste of space and is to be deplored.

In the pre-internet, pre-Baseball-Reference days, the stats on the back of a card were always a handy reference tool. Some years they would give you a complete rundown on a player’s major league career, other years they would provide just two lines of stats, one for the previous season and one for career totals. The former format certainly provided a thorough overview of a player’s career, but the latter opened up space on the back of the card for cartoons and fun facts.

They generally followed the rule of “If you can’t say anything nice, fake it.” Mediocre players and fringe players presented great challenges when it came to writing material for the flip sides of cards. Generally, the less to be said in favor of a player, the more interesting the backsides were. In that case, the struggle to fill up space is analogous to the broadcasters’ struggle to fill up air time when the home team is behind 15-0 in the fourth inning and the game itself holds little drama. You can’t have too many factoids, asides, and human interest anecdotes when that situation occurs.

For some reason, Topps was the only manufacturer that ever put much effort into the flip sides of its cards. It’s certainly true that Upper Deck and other upscale cards prodded Topps to come up with better graphics on the front of their cards, but for some reason, the other manufacturers pretty much shrugged off the flip sides. Oh, they might offer the career totals of a player or rattle off the usual resume filler, such as:

Finished third in the Broken Spoke League in sacrifice flies in 1980…His.322 average led the Poughkeepsie Pirogies in 1983…Led the Grove City Gophers in GIDP in 1982…Signed by Rays’ scout Aloysius McGreevey as a 22nd round draft pick out of Our Lady of Constant Sorrows College…Went 10 for 13 against left-handers during night games that started after 6:30…Batted .429 on weekdays that start with the letter ‘T’…Chihuahua League MVP in 1981 when he batted .357 for the Tucumcari Gila Monsters.

Most of this stuff you could find out in the team’s media guide and it makes for a pretty dull read, no matter how illustrious a player’s career. But the flip side of Topps baseball cards often revealed factoids about a player that just weren’t available anywhere else. For example, on Terry Harper’s 1987 Topps card (No. 49), we learn that “Terry Attended Real Estate School in Austin.” Since Terry was then a 32-year-old part-time outfielder, one can readily see that he didn’t envision much of a future for himself in baseball. Harper once dislocated his shoulder while waving on a base-runner, so the fragility of his baseball career must have weighed heavily on him.

Topps also deserves plaudits for being the only manufacturer to offer cartoons. Some were clever, some were routine. When a player won some sort of seasonal award, there was a good chance they would include a cartoon of a generic ballplayer with a crown on his head and a caption saying “Eddie won the batting crown, the home run crown, the stolen base crown,” or whatever.

Some flip sides were almost cartoon art galleries. For example, let’s look at a real classic: the back of Wayne Terwilliger’s 1956 Topps New York Giants card (#73). First of all, it’s a revelation to learn that his full name is Willard Wayne Terwilliger. Can’t blame him for going by his middle name. Willard Terwilliger would be a bit of a tongue-twister for an announcer.

Since the back includes only his 1955 stats and career totals, there is room for not one, not two, but three cartoons! One shows a ballplayer catching a fly ball with the caption, “Wayne is a real hustling ballplayer.” A subjective judgment to be sure, but it seems to fall under the category of damning with faint praise. Another cartoon shows a player swabbing his glove with glue and has a caption that reads “He made the fewest errors of any N.L. 2nd baseman in ‘55.” That may be true, but since he batted only 257 times, he was obviously a part-timer, so he had a distinct advantage over the full-timers in the category of errors committed.

Finally, there is a cartoon of a man bunting a ball and yelling “Surprise!” with the caption “Coming to N.Y. last June, he was a Giant sparkplug.” A clever play on words here! “Giant” could be an adjective or it could refer to the name of the team—or both.

Surely, in 1956 consumers expected only cards and gum for their five cents. Clever wordplay was a lagniappe. Topps, however, was more prescient than it realized when it included that cartoon of a bunting ballplayer on the Terwilliger card. Terwilliger published his autobiography 51 years later, and it was called Terwilliger Bunts One!

The anonymous Topps people who designed this card really outdid themselves. What can you say when you are assigned to write about the likes of Wayne Terwilliger, a part-time player with a .237 lifetime batting average at that point in his career? After all, if he’s good-field, no-hit and full-time, at least he might have a Gold Glove award or two to crow about. But part-timers aren’t accorded such recognition, even if they are good glove men. Somehow Topps managed to come up with an informative, entertaining flip side.

Now let’s consider the case of Rafael Belliard on card No. 9T in the 1991 Topps update set. We learn that “His nickname is ‘Pac Man.’ His favorite types of meals include Chinese food and pizza.” A quick glance at the card reveals that Belliard was then a nine-year veteran. Is that the best they can do for him after all that time? Unfortunately, further study reveals that he had but 229 hits in that span and a lifetime batting average of .218, so, yeah, maybe that is the best they can do for him.

Sometimes a pertinent piece of information actually turns up. For example, Jim Bullinger’s 1993 Topps card, No. 101, informs us that “Jim became the tenth pitcher in major league history to belt a home run in his first at-bat at St. Louis, 6-8-92.” Great! Never knew that about Bullinger; actually, never knew anything about Bullinger. Now I have a factoid to distinguish him in my memory. It would be nice to know who the other nine pitchers were, but sometimes space doesn’t permit such revelations.

Another informative card is Gene Larkin’s 1987 entry (No. 60T) in the Topps update set. The flip side informs us that “Gene is a graduate of Columbia University. At Columbia he batted .450 as a senior 3rd baseman and broke all of Lou Gehrig’s school records.” Now that’s worth knowing about! Who knew that anyone other than Cal Ripken bested Lou Gehrig?

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At other times the information is totally irrelevant, as in Jim Kern’s 1981 Topps card (#197), which informs us that he “often wears a black, wide-brimmed Amish hat.” Or how about Greg Brock’s 1987 (No. 9T) update card on Topps: “Greg once earned himself the free use of a car for a year by recording a hole-in-one in golf match.”

Success in non-baseball athletic endeavors is noteworthy, but so is academic success. On Carlos Peña’s 1999 Topps rookie card (No. T46), it says that while at Northeastern University “he compiled a 3.3 GPA as an engineering major.” On Pat Combs’ 1992 Topps card (No. 456), we learn that “Pat had 3.8 grade average at Baylor University in 1988.” I suspect there are no cards out there informing us that such-and-such players flunked out or forfeited their scholarships for low grades.

Another college man, Rick Cerone, is a 1976 graduate of Seton Hall—where he was a member of the fencing team, according to card No. 119 of the 1989 Topps oversized set. Fencing, eh? Well, you don a mask and a chest protector…footwork is important…yeah, I can see how that might help a catcher, so thanks for sharing.

The Cerone card also says “Rick derives enjoyment from photography.” Curious word choice. Most of the time it’s something along the lines of “Rick likes to take pictures in his spare time” or “Rick is a talented amateur photographer.” But “derives enjoyment”? Well, somebody at Topps derives enjoyment from using the verb “derive” because on Jim Lindeman’s 1987 Topps update card, we learn that “Jim derives enjoyment from saltwater fishing.” And on José Guzman’s 1987 Topps card (No. 363), we learn that “Jose derives relaxation from listening to music.” Maybe “derive” enjoyed an unwarranted popularity in the late 1980s. If so, it passed me by completely.

Of course, learning to read between the lines is as essential when reading the back of a baseball card as it is when reading The New York Times. For example, let’s consider two Russell Branyan cards from 2003. On the Upper Deck MVP card (No. 57), it says, “When Branyan connects on a pitch, there’s a good chance it will leave the ball park.” Sounds like a compliment, right? Then on his Topps card (No. 610), we learn that “Russell’s all-or-nothing approach has given him an obscure record. Among players with at least 1,000 Career ABs + BBs, his percentage of those appearances (53.3%) that resulted in home runs, walks or strikeouts is history’s highest.”

Wow! Branyan is baseball’s best! Or is he? Essentially, both cards are saying Branyan strikes out too much (e.g., 76 strikeouts in 193 at bats, 132 strikeouts in 315 at bats), but they won’t come out and say that.

Every now and then the prose almost takes wing. For example, on Wally Backman’s card (No. 8T) in the Score update set of 1991, we learn that the 10-year veteran returned to the National League after one year with the Minnesota Twins. After he signed with the Pirates, he “was his old hard-nosed, pesky, get-your-uniform-dirty self once again.”

On the 1999 Topps card for Frank Thomas, we learn that “Frank can wield a lethal club—or kill you softly.”

The 1990 Mitch Williams Score card notes “This ‘fireman’ doesn’t wear red suspenders. Rather, he goes to ‘blazes’ in pinstriped doubleknits with a red ‘C’ on his cap.”

So don’t let anyone tell you that those creative writing classes are a waste of time!

At times, it seems the writer is almost setting himself up to eat his words. For example, on the Jay Gibbons card in the 2001 Donruss Rookie Cards series (No. R49), the writer describes Gibbons as “A left-hander who can bring rain with his swing.” Considering how Gibbons’ career has progressed since then, the obvious rejoinder would have to include some wisecrack pertaining to drizzle or drought.

When a writer has absolutely no idea what to say about a player, the standard fallback is to mention his family. For example, Paul Assenmacher’s Topps card (No. 319) in 1993 reveals that “Paul and his wife have 3 children: Jason, Candace and Lindsay.” Assenmacher was an eight-year veteran with a respectable ERA of 3.44, but perhaps he was too consistent for his own good, and there wasn’t much to say about his performance so they turned to his family. Maybe there should be room in the stats for sperm count.

Surprisingly, Vince Coleman gets the same treatment in the Topps 1991 update set, No. 23T: “Vince and his wife have two sons, Maurice and Lance.” I imagine the decision to insert this snippet on Coleman’s card came about something like this:

COPYWRITER: We’ve got room for one comment on the Coleman card, chief? Any ideas?

SUPERVISOR: The media guide says he’s got two kids.

COPYWRITER: Yeah, but according to his stat sheet, he stole more than 100 bases his first three years with the Cardinals. That’s quite an achievement. Shouldn’t we point that out?

SUPERVISOR (pauses to ponder): Nah, screw it. Let’s go with the wife and kids.

Then there are times when the writer appears to be challenging the proofreader; e.g., Dave Clark’s 1990 Topps card (No. 339), which reveals, “Dave and his wife are the parents of two children: Shantemeki Antrinetti (10-19-83) and Shakia J’nae (9-29-85). The proofreader not only gets to check the names but the birth dates!

The Coleman and Clark cards at least provide the names of their kids. More often than not, a card merely says such-and-such player and his wife have one/two/three children. Sorry, kids, no names for you! Oh, it might be really neat at show and tell to bring in a card with your name on the back of your dad’s card, but, no, we are going to deny you that distinction.

At least the player’s kids have a chance of being named. The player’s wife always remains anonymous. The wife’s name is never revealed, as though major league wives are automatically enrolled in a witness protection program as soon as their spouses get promoted to the Show.

Sometimes a player’s father gets stiffed. Vance Law’s 1984 Fleer card (No. 68), informs us that his “Mother’s name is VaNita, 4 brothers are Veldon, Veryl, Vaughn, and Varlin, while sister’s name is Valynda.” His father, Vern, won 162 games in 16 seasons for the Pirates, yet for some reason, that is not worthy of mention.

But Vern Law isn’t the only dad who got short shrift. For example, on Hal Lanier’s 1970 Topps card (#583), there is a squib saying “Hal has been collecting Topps baseball since he was a boy,” and a cartoon with a boy saying to his father, “Dad, here’s a card of you!” Well, it sure would be nice if they’d told us who his dad was. Well, next year’s (1971) Topps card (No. 589) does just that, informing us that Hal Lanier’s dad was former NL pitcher Max Lanier! So why couldn’t they have told us that in 1970?

Here’s another case of maddeningly incomplete info: Mark Grace’s 1991 Topps card (No. 520), which reads, “Mark made an appearance in a motion picture in 1990.” OK, I give up, which motion picture? Well, God bless Wikipedia, which informs us that the Wrigley Field organist often played “Taking Care of Business” when Grace stepped up to bat because he had a bit part in a movie of the same name. But in the pre-internet days when the card was issued, answering such a question would be a frustrating proposition. Someone at Topps was deriving sadistic satisfaction from dropping incomplete factoids on the baseball card collectors of America.

Providing a glimpse of a player’s off-the-field activities is pretty standard procedure. Another popular approach is to provide a glimpse of a player in his younger days, long before he signed a contract. For example, on Luis Gonzalez’s 2004 Topps card (No. 103), “Luis says he weighed 105 pounds when he played HS ball.” His card stats show he had 1959 hits, 275 homers, and 1,124 RBIs at that point in his major league career. So there’s hope for beanpoles and pipsqueaks!

In more recent years, prospects are more likely to be super-sized than underweight—and the card manufacturers are right on top of the situation! A case in point is the 2006 Topps card for Jason Botts, which informs us that “at 6’6″, 245 pounds, Jason is a large human being.” Large, yes, but he doesn’t have a weight problem, as is the case with Terry Tiffee, whose 2003 Topps card (No. 310), informs us that he “tipped the scales at 260 pounds in high school,” then “sweated off 50 pounds” at a Kansas juco.

Then there’s the case of Cory Dunlap’s First Year Bowman card (BDP38) in 2004. The vitals show that Dunlap weighs a solid 205 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame. Then in the “UP CLOSE” section, we learn that Dunlap “emerged as a first-rate prospect after losing 70 pounds.” You can just imagine the editor on this card debating whether to include that old joke about the fat guy who had Dunlap Disease. You know the punchline: His belly done lapped over his belt.

And there are cards that can be embarrassing for other reasons. Johnny Damon’s 1997 Score card (No. 3) describes him as “shy, with a refreshing all-American-boy look.” Do you think his teammates might have ragged him about that? Do you think maybe that played a part in his cultivating a scruffier look when he played for the Red Sox?

Speaking of embarrassing, what about Todd Self’s 2004 Bowman card (No. 187) that informs us he “got locked in a bathroom during a game at Kinston last season, and wasn’t extracted until 20 minutes after the tilt.” Guess you could say his team played selfless baseball that day.

Then there are revelations about behavior that might have been socially acceptable when the card was issued but are less so today. For example, on Larry Dierker’s 1974 Topps card (No. 660), we learn that “Larry likes to smoke cigars.” In our more health-conscious era, I suspect this nugget of information would remain under wraps. Wonder how Luis Tiant would fare in today’s media spotlight.

When it comes to up-close-and-personal info, the 2003 Topps set was a gold mine. Sometimes there are surprising admissions, as on Travis Driskill’s card (No. 107), where he admits, “I’m not even six feet tall and I pitch with glasses on. I don’t think I’m the most intimidating guy.” He’s probably right about that, as his card indicates he took a 10-year odyssey through the minor leagues before he arrived in the majors with the Orioles.

Or there’s Eddie Guardado, No. 9 from the same card set as Driskill, who “dreamed of being a police officer, idolized Muhammad Ali and says he wishes he could have challenged Ted Williams.”

According to card No. 602, as a child, Ryan Drese “attended A’s games regularly, imagining himself as one of the ‘Bash Brothers,’ Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.”

As for Mike DeJean, No. 207, we learn that he has worked as an elk-hunting guide in Colorado during previous off-seasons. He admits, “I have seen maybe two or three outs of the last six World Series because I’m always out hunting.”

In the years to come, there were more startling revelations! Antonio Alfonseca’s 2005 Topps card (No. 177) informs us that his teammates “lovingly call him ‘Pulpo,’ which is Spanish for ‘octopus.’ He acquired that moniker because he has six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.” Well, the stats on the card prove that Alfonseca had a respectable career, but you can’t help but think that an extra digit on the pitching hand should have offered more of an advantage when it came to gripping the ball. Hey, Mordecai Brown had half as many digits and fashioned a Hall-of-Fame career.

Every now and then you encounter a card that tells you something truly unique about a player and his place in baseball history. As an example, I offer Mark Clark’s Topps card No. 112 for the year 2000. On the back of that card, we learn “According to writer Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, Mark is one of seven pitchers in history whose first and last names rhyme. The others: Turk Burke, Ed Head, Still Bill Hill, Bill McGill, Heine Meine and the immortal Cy Pieh.” Now you might never have pondered how many pitchers had first and last names that rhymed—but isn’t it reassuring to know that there are people out there who stay on top of such things? Kudos to Evan Grant for ferreting that info out, and kudos to Topps for preserving it on Mark Clark’s card.

Of course that card is now 12 years old so it’s possible there are now more than seven pitchers on that list. When perusing old cards, there is always the danger that one might absorb a piece of obsolete information and pass it on as gospel. For example, Terry Puhl’s 1990 Score card (No. 473) informs us that “Terry became a trivia item in ‘89 when he played in the most career games by a Canadian-born major leaguer.”

When all was said and done, he had played in 1,531 games, but Larry Walker eventually blew past him, retiring with 1,988 games. I’m guessing Puhl still holds the record for most games played by a native of Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be generating any more baseball cards to trumpet that distinction, unless someone puts out some sort of Astros retro set.

At least Puhl’s info was pertinent to his career. The ultiimate slap in the face is when a player’s card includes factoids that have absolutely nothing to do with the player, e.g., Bill Fahey’s 1976 Topps card (No. 436), which informs us that “John and Philip Reccius of Louisville in 1882 were first set of twin brothers to play major league baseball.” An interesting tidbit, but it’s almost as though they’re saying to Fahey, then a Rangers backup catcher behind Jim Sundberg, that he’s so insignificant they can’t come up with anything to say about him. So they just dropped in something out of left field.

Because they rarely have a chance to distinguish themselves, backup catchers seem to be particularly susceptible to off-the-wall factoids. For example on Kevin Richardson’s First Year Bowman card (No. 252) in 2004, we are informed that Richardson, who hails from Mount Vernon, Wash., is “not to be confused with member of Backstreet Boys, also from Seattle area, of same name.” Sure glad they cleared that up for me. And I’m sure that Backstreet Boys guy is glad the word is out so he won’t have any more baseball cards and Sharpies thrust at him when he’s out in public.

There was a time when the flip sides of baseball cards were hardly worth bothering about. With the explosion of card sets in the late ‘80’s and early 90’s, each manufacturer attempted to outdo the other graphically. The fronts of cards had always been elementary. At a glance, you could take in the player’s name, team, and position. Then the card companies wanted to show off, so we got glossy surfaces (i.e., glare), fancy but hard-to-read type styles—which only get harder and harder to read as one gets older—holograph inserts, and overly complicated layouts. The flip side was not immune to this orgy of graphics, as player photos and snazzy graphics often appeared on the flip side, sometimes leaving little room for the traditional statistics—and sadly no room whatsoever for factoids and cartoons!

Thankfully, this overkill has finally run its course and cards have returned to a cleaner, less cluttered look without going back to the occasional sloppiness of previous decades. In doing so, the Topps Heritage set has brought back retro designs with the cartoons and factoids on the flip side. But there are still problems.

Consider the strange case of Hector Gimenez (2007 Topps, No. 451). Next to a cartoon of a catcher making a play of some sort (catching a popup?) is the caption, “He’s mentioned among the finest defensive catchers.” Well, I guess I’ll just have to take their word for it, since his fielding statistics—for both the 2006 season and his entire minor league career—are absent. “N/A” occupies all the appropriate fields in the fielding chart. And I assume that stands for “Not Available,” as opposed to “Not Applicable.” Clearly, somebody fell down on the job here, and Topps probably figured, what the hell, who cares about minor league catchers’ fielding statistics anyway? They may have a point.

In the same set, card #65 (Cardinals pitcher Chris Narveson), contains a cartoon of what appears to be a politician extending a hand to a ballplayer with a suitcase. The Washington Monument is in the background. The captions state, “He signed with St. Louis in 2000, but was with 2 other teams.” and “The Cardinals got him back in ‘05.” OK, so what’s with the Washington Monument? There was no major league ball in Washington till 2005 when Narveson was with the Cardinals. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis would have been just as easy to draw. How did this slip-up slip by?

In the last few seasons, the flip side revelations have gotten more and more bizarre. Let’s consider Ian Kinsler. On his 2010 Topps Ranger card set (TEX1), “asked what superpower he’d like to possess, Ian answered ‘X-Ray Vision.’” Well, I suppose you could save the club money on radiology bills, but that is a curious response to a curious question. Then on the next year’s team set (TEX3), we learn that “Ian is one of about nine million Americans with ADD.” Needless to say, this is not something one would have seen on a classic Topps card from the 1950s, even if ADD had been in the PDR in the 1950s. Personally, I don’t collect cards to read factoids that sound like excerpts from an Oprah Winfrey interviews or public service announcements.

Despite the changes in design over the years, one of the best writing gigs anyone could ever hope to attain would be to write copy for the flip side of baseball cards. If a writer’s ego demands a byline, he would do well to look elsewhere, but writing for baseball cards would certainly qualify as a dream job for a seamhead. Yeah, Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards look nice on a resume, but working for Topps would be a real feather in your baseball cap.

Sadly, surveys show that reading is on the decline in America, so all that effort put into the flip side of cards may be going to waste. But as long as there are bifocaled geezers for whom the printed word is fundamental if not sacred, the flip sides of baseball cards will always be an integral part of the baseball experience.

And now that I think of it, though I hate to admit it, I kind of miss the gum too.

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Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 47 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.

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