Bartleby and the black-outs: Topps 2009.

Now that we've thought about 1980s and a few wretched 1990s Topps cards, with extensive insights from commenters on the previous post, we thought we'd turn for a moment to 2009 Topps series I, the cards numbered to 330. In particular, the black-outs.

Until the arrival of Goodwin Champions in mid-September, which collectors have high hopes about because they are retro, arty, and the autographs are "hard-signed," many baseball card collectors seem to favor Allen & Ginter and Topps base so far in the 2009 collecting year.

The praises of A&G have been sung and Ginti-cuffed by wiser souls than we, so we began contemplating this year's Topps base set, which seems rare among recent trading card releases in that few people in the blogging world have bemoaned its core aesthetic. Pictures: good. Frame: good. Team logo placement: pretty good. No dots: good. Topps logo placement: restrained and acceptable. Overall, Topps base hasn't led to urgent custom redesigns.

The relative strength of the 2009 Topps design stems largely from the fact that the company's graphic artists managed to build cards attractive in an archetypal way...nothing fancy; respectful of tradition; with enough touches and angles to fuel collector interest. One of those touches: the "blacked-out" parallells.

Baseball cards are made with the six-color printing process, but these mainly-black cards must have caused Topps to order thousands of extra gallons of black ink.

The only issue we have with these cards is that the backs are the same as the white base; that's an odd effect, almost an imbalanced one (see sample binder page below). It means we probably shouldn't store them back to back in a binder. And much like 1971 Topps, these will be difficult to get looking sharp and perfect, because the black shows every flaw, ding and smudge more starkly than most cards when you see them up close and personal. These would be good cards to get signed in person, when you can hand the player a silver Sharpie. Otherwise, uh uh.

The text this year must have been written by Bartleby the Topps Statistician because something upbeat and pride-inducing is said about each and every player. The writer may have been guided by the maternal truism, "if you can't say anything nice about someone, then don't say anything at all." So Bartleby, who would prefer not to, avoids saying of John Lackey, for instance, anything negative or even vague. (A neat trick! Try typing "John Lackey" and "terrible" in Google and you'll find plenty of results.) Instead, Bartleby demonstrates again and again the linguistic power of brevity and kindness. For instance, here's the actual John Lackey cardback entry:

"Facing Texas on September 21, 2008, John was the first pitcher since 2002 to strike out seven straight batters against a lineup that included a DH."

Our entire society, overloaded on snark, would benefit from this 'looking on the bright side' approach. For instance, "Facing TMZ on September 21, 2008, Lindsay Lohan became the first media-bruised celebrity since 2006 to not appear passed out drunk in the passenger seat of a vehicle with a backdrop of snow falling."

By comparison, the writeup for, say, Carl Crawford is: "In 2008, Carl became the first player since Ty Cobb and Sherry Magee 97 years ago to amass 300 stolen bases and 75 triples before his 27th birthday."

The restrained Bartleby approach could also be seen as being damned with faint praise, we suppose, but isn't that better than constant self-satisfied smart aleckiness?

There's just a constant positivity about Topps 2009 and perhaps that's why it's been received well. Now we'll seek Series 2 and hope for the same.

Among our favorite cards in Series I (if that's what you call it, anyway, they are the numbers up to 330):

Terry Francona (bottom row, center),

looking for all the world like he's rehearsing his role as Oscar Madison in an Ohio dinner theater production of The Odd Couple;

Ken Griffey, Jr. looking serious and no longer Junior as he acknowledges

both an ovation and his advancing age;

Carl Crawford appearing similar to David Wright,

earnestly doing his job;

Feliz dour, Gardenhire chipper:

Jeff Francoeur remembering the punchline to a joke about the Mets;

Kaz Matsui deftly miming "startled,"

Juan Castro immortalized

by Madame Tussaud;

Eric Gagne triumphant despite all the untoward revelations about him,

just defiantly happy and grizzled;

Reed Johnson leaping into

the blacked-out abyss;

Aaron Harang gaping at his own follow-through,

which gets caught in the Topps logo;

Kosuke Fukodome demonstrating

the un-gloat;

Juan Pierre midair

mon frere;

Zack Greinke needing

a hug; and

Ryan Braun hatless and pensive in a shot

simply like no other in the set so far.

It seems to us as if 2009 Topps base cards were photographed, conceived, designed and packaged by a crew who cared about the outcome. The black-out appearance makes all the cards very different than the originals; and Bartleby the cardback writer's text trivia and restraint add to the simple, elegant effect.


Carl Crawford Cards said...

I'm with you. The black cards are sweet!

Jeremy said...

That's a great post. I lol'd at the K. Matsui caption you wrote. Very funny.

White Sox Cards said...

I love that Kaz has "jazz hands"!

GCA said...

Yeah I was hooked on Series 1 too. Unfortunately, Topps did manage to screw 'em up in series 2 by only including TWO PACKS of them in the blasters instead of filling the whole thing.
Holy O-Pee-Chee hockey update Batman!

gcrl said...

always appreciate a bartleby the scrivener reference. well done.

Dan said...

Let's differentiate, thought: the black-bordered parallels are the regular cards with the black borders only. The black-out parallels, like you have shown here, are Wally World and Tar-jhay exclusives. I also believe the black-border parallels, which are found in the regular hobby shop packs, are serial-numbered.

Word Verification: folegint

(is that a hint to buy more A&G?!!?

dc said...

Good distinction, made now in post.

skoormit said...

Woah, I get a few days behind on my reading and you toss out this gem. What a great review. I love this year's Topps set, and as you know I was a big fan of the blackout parallels. Thanks for summing it up so well, and thanks for the simply sublime captions.