Sports Cards–Bicycle Spokes Beware!

The trading card has ignored its humble beginnings. Thin, gray stock has been replaced with the latest in printing technology innovations.


The year was 1977. The baseball player in question was Rick Jones, pitcher, Seattle Mariners.

Jones never made a name for himself in the bigs—he was a mere footnote in the expansion era and not even as memorable as Toronto Blue Jays slugger Steve Bowling. But it was Jones’ mug on the front of his 1977 Topps card that arguably hastened a new era in card printing technology. You see, Jones’ image was not a photo but a painting, a poorly-done painting at that, not unlike some of the airbrushed horrors Topps employed during the period.

If a player was traded to another team, Topps would give the player’s hat and sometimes uniform a makeover right atop the image instead of drumming up new artwork.

Sometimes, those photos were flawed as well—players played tricks on the photographers, causing misidentifications and other assorted bloopers, including players posing out of position and, in one case, with his pants’ fly undone. Egads!

None of this mattered, of course, because Topps was the only card manufacturer on the block. The card stock was thin and gray. Some photos were used for several years at a stretch, designs were uninspiring and the printing methodology used in 1957 was the same one employed in 1977. But cards being what they were—the nerdy sports equivalent of its nerdy non-sport brethren (but classier dresser) the comic book—kids were not about to turn their backs because the quality was lacking on many fronts.

Topps lost its monopoly on sports card manufacturing in the courts, which allowed Fleer and Donruss to join the fray in 1981. Score brand followed suit in 1988, but it wasn’t until a year later that the sports card would undergo a stunning metamorphosis.

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