Last time I explained why I thought Refractors made the hobby more enjoyable and interesting for several reasons, but those have been around for 20+ years now. What other cool and unique innovations have we seen since then?
After the explosion in the popularity of inserts changed the face of collecting, shifting the focus away from base cards, card companies had to find new ways to grab the interest of collectors. The most recent effect of this competition has been the proliferation of memorabilia and autographed cards, plus one-of-ones of several varieties such as printing plates and SuperFractors.
Still, from the mid-to-late 90s to the early aughts, collectors were treated to some fun, interesting, and sometimes strange innovations in design concepts. To that end, I came up with 12 items from my collection that take a look at the more unorthodox attempts of card companies trying to be unique. Eight of these are inserts, one is a "pack" itself while another is a "box," and the last two are more recent examples of cardboard creativity. Read on and we'll see how familiar people are with some of these memorable (or forgettable) stabs at standing out in the collecting crowd:
Ken Griffey Jr. 2000 Crown Collection In the Cage Net Fusions
Pacific has a few good examples of outside-the-box thinking in its history, such as its Christmas ornament cards, plus Fielder's Choice die-cuts in the shape of a fielding glove. This set, simulating the look of a batting cage, is even MORE out there! You could say the set was a bit of a leap considering the fact that most fans don't really celebrate the practice aspects of their favorite sports. All the same, the combination of die-cutting and the tiny "batting cage" net make for a conversation piece of a card.
Greg Maddux 1998 Pinnacle Mint Brass Coin
While coin collecting is certainly its own hobby, it has sometimes overlapped with ours throughout their shared histories. This 1964 Topps Mantle, for example, featured a full-color photo in a format just about anyone would call a "coin." Pinnacle took the concept a step further in 1997 with its Mint set. Collectors opening packs found these babies in their packs, and finally they could truly say they owned a baseball "coin." Better yet, one version of the accompanying base cards featured a coin-sized hole cut out so collectors could combine the two for an interesting piece. On the higher end of things, rarer versions of the coins were also available: nickel and gold-plated. The set only lasted two years, but these coins still give collectors something to talk about more than 15 years later.
Cal Ripken Jr. 1998 Pinnacle Inside Can
And here we are at the "pack" example I mentioned earlier. Another bold move by Pinnacle, not to mention a set that only existed from 1997-98, Inside eschewed the idea of a traditional pack, be it wax, foil, or other. Instead, your cards arrived shrink-wrapped inside of a collectible CAN. And it literally was a can you had to open with your garden-variety can-opener. When you think about it, the fact that you got to keep the "pack" itself, which was a pretty cool collectible item in its own right, added a nice amount of value to what was otherwise a fairly normal product (ridiculous Stand-Up Guys insert notwithstanding!). These generally seem to have been panned by collectors over the years, but I've accumulated a nice collection of them from the baseball, football, and hockey sets and I still like to take a peek at them from time to time.
Ken Griffey Jr./Babe Ruth 1999 Upper Deck Retro Lunch Box
In keeping with the theme of unique packaging and a two-year existence in the late 90s, 1998 and 1999 Upper Deck made its boxes more collectible than ever: packs arrived in sealed metal lunchboxes! The boxes themselves were often kept hidden so buyers couldn't cherry-pick the best ones, like the Griffey/Ruth above. UD was clearly looking to cater to the nostalgia of many of its older fan base, but I have to imagine everyone got a kick out of the bonus from buying this product, leaving them with an item they could actually use, or display proudly with the rest of their collection. Despite lasting only two years, this concept was easily a winner in my book.
Cal Ripken Jr. 2000 Upper Deck PowerDeck Inserts
While it was still the late 90s, UD tried to be forward-thinking as well. The Internet was nowhere near as prevalent as it is now and people got most of their highlights from TV whenever possible. Then UD tried to make things more interactive for collectors. In 1997 they released a small number of audio-only insert CDs, then upped the ante in 1999 and 2000 with mini disc cards like the Ripken above. Smaller than a standard card but still playable in your CD-ROM drive, these CDs packed in some well-put-together highlight videos and gobs of stats--WAY more than any plain old card could ever hope to give you. And the upside is, even today when they might not be playable on your PC anymore, (I'll admit I haven't tried) they're still as collectible as ever as CD cards. These obviously didn't hit it as big as they could have, and now collectors would scoff at them anyway thanks to the ubiquity of ESPN and YouTube, but I, for one, enjoyed them.
Ivan Rodriguez 2000 Stadium Club Capture the Action Game View (#006/100)
Here's ANOTHER set that made it to its second birthday and then disappeared. A fairly big pull at the time, these cards paralleled the basic version of the insert set by embedding a copy of a slide of the photo used in the creation of the card. The fact that they were limited to just 100 copies made them fairly rare for the time period, too. It was a fun way to give collectors a small peek into the card-creation process. Other sets may have incorporated this concept as well, and others have definitely replicated it since then, but 2000 Stadium Club's is one of the best earlier examples of a fun and fairly original idea.
Tony Gwynn 1998 Donruss Preferred Title Waves (#1807/1995)
Die-cutting was hardly new to the hobby by 1998 when Donruss produced these inserts, but the execution of the "title waves" motif means this set merits a place on this list that honors creativity. The most notable feature at first glance is the die-cutting on the card's edge in the shape of waves. But better yet, each card commemorates a certain title, be it an individual accomplishment, like Gwynn's above, or a team award, such as Greg Maddux and the Braves capturing the 1995 World Series crown. And best of all: each insert is serial-numbered to the year that title was achieved. That makes this an attractive and fun set that would be a blast to collect, and I may pursue it this year depending on how I do with my other goals.
Derrek Lee 1998 Flair Showcase Wave of the Future
I wanted to include at least one card that was certainly original but also a faceplant. Fleer tried the "wave" motif as well, but it didn't pull it off as well in producing these cards that are supposed to identify some of the game's rising stars. Each is printing on some sort of clear plastic that encloses a liquid-y gel-like material that supposed to give you the sensation its filled with water. I give Fleer points for trying to be different, but these are just too plain weird to be all that collectible--plus the checklist as seen with 20/20 hindsight is pretty uninspiring, unless you're a big fan of the Rich Butlers and Eli Marreros of the world.
Chipper Jones 1999 Topps Gallery Gallery of Heroes
Sure, it had been done before, such as Donruss' 1996 Studio Stained Glass Stars set, but this is one I actually have on-hand, and of a legendary player, I might add. Again, die-cutting had existed for quite a while, and so had translucent designs, to some degree. Still, sets like this one did a beautiful job of combining the two features into one gorgeous card. How can you look at something like this that marries the attractiveness of stained glass with Atlanta's team colors? These are just an excellent example of what a quality insert could be, especially at a time when many of them were throw-away ideas.
Frank Thomas 1998 Studio Portrait 8x10
Studio had been around for a few years, owning a tradition of cards with classy player shots that lived up to the product's name. Then in 1997, all of a sudden the packs were much larger. The explanation: each pack included one 8x10 blown-up version of a player's base card. They made things even more interesting in that a few of the 8x10s were autographed, plus there were parallel and insert versions of the larger cards as well. But what made these stand out the most besides their obvious size increase was that they were perfect for autographs. Logistically, of course, it was easier to get them signed in-person, but it wasn't out of the realm of possibility to mail one of these to a player instead. Regardless of how you got the signature, these were fantastic items to get signed, and that's a real plus for any autograph collector. The set fizzled out after a couple years, but they've left behind a legacy of an autograph-friendly product.
George Sisler 2010 Topps Update Manufactured Bat Barrel (#11/99)
Let's face it: by the mid-to-late 90s, collectors started getting bored with the usual suspects that were supposed to excite us, especially memorabilia cards. Manufacturers like UD and Topps finally realized this and thus the manurelic was born. In what was surely a financial coup for each company--"You mean we don't have to buy jerseys and bats, we can make 'em up?!"--they started with manufactured team logos and other commemorative patches, then moved onto other items. One of my favorites has been the manufactured bat barrel, and item that appeared in a couple 2010 Topps sets. Not every manufactured item has been a winner in my eyes--I particularly loathed the leather nameplate versions--but these do a nice job of simulating the key part of the bat barrel from the fans' point-of-view: the area that includes the player's name and signature. While not everyone loves these faux relics, they've become popular, which has led to Topps, among others, coming up with a few new ideas (what a concept!) such as pins, coins and even Hall of Fame plaques. They may not be game-used, but that obviously doesn't mean much to the collecting world anymore due to authenticity issues. What does it matter anyway when you get a card that simply looks cool?
Barry Larkin 2005 Sweet Spot Signatures Red Stitch Black Ink auto (#162/175)
Finally, I wanted to close things out with one example of a pretty cool autograph innovation. Back in 2001, Upper Deck surprised the collecting world with one of the most interesting premium autograph designs the world had ever seen: not only were cards signed, but they included signatures on the sweet spot of an actual baseball! Many collectors pursue proper autographed balls as they're very easy to display and can be very attractive in a way that cards sometimes can't. Since then, Sweet Spot has given us something like the best of both worlds thanks to an embedded sweet spot with a sweet signature. Even better, these have led to some fun equivalent cards in the rest of the sports, including autographed manuhelmets in football and signed faux hockey pucks as well. Can anyone collecting today imagine what things would be like without something this cool in 2013? I think you'd be hard-pressed to do so, but that's just my opinion.
So what do YOU think? Any comments on the cards above? Do they bring back memories? (or maybe ones you'd rather forget)? I know I've just scratched the surface of outside-the-box designs, so what else stands out in your minds? Please leave me comments below answering any or all of these questions!