Mass Produced Memories: Why the Card Designs of the 1980s and 90s Will Stick Around

Perhaps it is because we are in the “Show Me” State of Missouri, but conversations in our card shop can often take a very strange turn. Recently, a  gentleman opening some packs of 2014 Topps Baseball became rather agitated with some of the inserts. His disgust revolved around the idea that using the designs from the 1980s and the 1990s was absurd because those cards were ”worthless junk.”
die cut
Now, discussions of Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Craig Biggio, and other such rookie cards aside, not many would take the opposing view regarding the value of baseball cards from what is less-than-affectionately known as the “mass produced” era.  What was interesting to hear expressed was the idea that as those cards sets have little value in an economic sense their designs ought to be relegated to a disaster pile. While listening to the guy go on for a bit I began to consider whether or not those designs are worth revisiting by Topps.

Just last week the information regarding 2014 Bowman Chrome was released and the company announced special inserts that will recall the 1989 Bowman product. Of course, this is nothing new for Topps. Every year the arrival of Topps Heritage Baseball is greatly anticipated. Almost from its inception collectors have gobbled up the modern player cards printed on classic Topps designs. (Frankly, I am getting a little excited for the 1967 design just a couple of years away.)

The card company has frequently experimented with several older card designs as well. Over the past several years there have been baseball card sets with more than a passing nod to the  T205, T206, Turkey Red, and Allen & Ginter brand. These have met with varying levels of success with the exception of the very popular Allen & Ginter offering. Of course, that set may well be driven by the possible big hits, the diverse subject matter, and various contests which coincide with the product.
In 2012 the restart of Topps Archives took the Heritage product approach to a different level. Along with the 1971 and 1980 designs used with current players the company included the familiar 1984 look. The consumer response was very positive. In fact, the product rated so highly with buyers that Topps brought it back in 2013 with more designs directly from the mass-produced era as it used the 1985 and 1990 layouts. Sure, there were some great vintage designs in the product (especially among the inserts and short prints) along with the not-quite-vintage “1982 look” cards, but it was clear that the designs of my customer’s consternation were an important part of the product. And a lot of card collecting consumers seemed to love them.

Frankly, once my buyer had left and I took some time to consider what was said, I began to understand why these designs are important to revisit at this time. Many of the card buyers from the mid-19890s to late 1990s are now beginning to have children of their own. These fathers and mothers may not have much interest in the latest Topps baseball product. Indeed, with growing families many of them do not have the money for high-end products and consider the standard Topps to be a childhood diversion. However, when their young son or daughter decides to pick up a pack of the latest cardboard offering and an insert that looks strangely familiar (say, a 1989 Topps die-cut mini) is found, there is a chance something will stir within the parent. Actually, I have seen that happen.
Sure, that stirring may just be a warm conversation between parent-child. And that is certainly a good thing! But, it may lead to a few more packs purchased. Perhaps the memories and the prospect of sharing something with their children make me these young parents seek to find a local card shop like they used to enjoy and purchase a box. Stranger things have happened, as they once again pursue a hobby enjoy they enjoyed a decade ago or longer some good things could happen between collector and cards or between parent and child. And this is possible because they recognize the design even though the name on the card is someone new.

How can this be a bad thing? Certainly the baseball card hobby is always looking for new collectors. And though we want new collectors who are young people to grow up with this hobby it is always great when “old” collectors come back.

I don’t think my disgruntled friend will necessarily agree with all of this, but that’s okay. Topps Tribute is just around the corner for him.