Breadth and depth.
It’s the best way I can describe the evolution of the baseball card brand lineup from what we knew and loved it to be in the 90s to what it is now—an “A or B” environment lacking much diversity among options.
Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Score, Upper Deck, Leaf, Pinnacle—I used to love walking into the card store and being greeted by the many different boxes and packs available, each with their own flair, style, and “hook.”
Now, if you’re lucky enough to know where to buy baseball cards these days (because let’s face it, local card shops are few and far between), and have made a trip recently, it’s a completely different feel, right?
Sure there are still plenty of options, but it’s kind of like eating Lay’s potato chips—do I really need cheddar bacon mac & cheese flavored chips?
Meaning, here you have plain Topps, and over here is prettier Topps, followed by really expensive Topps; oh, and here is plain Topps again but shinier, and so on.
I’d much rather have the option to choose from a handful of brands who are giving me their core offerings; their best lineup of a few standard products than two brands that are now forced to keep coming up with new product lines to attract interest.
Anyway, it might sound like I think today’s collecting world is all bad, but it’s not all bad. It’s quite good actually, and I enjoy collecting; just think it could be better with more variety. On the other hand, we’ve already been through that option, and it obviously didn’t work, so maybe it’s just me who needs to move on.
I digress, and that’s enough. I really just wanted to take some time to walk down memory lane, summarizing what the baseball card brand landscape used to look like, and then dive into where that jaunt leads us today.
List of Baseball Card Brands
Let’s face it…Topps is the baseball card brand; the king of the castle. The early entrant and supplier of the greatest cards in history, the survivor of the great cardboard crash of the 90s, and now the sole holder of MLB rights and logos.
If you think of your favorite player, their most valuable card is most likely from Topps. If you think of your dad’s favorite player, their most valuable card is most likely from Topps.
Topps was first introduced with its series of red and blue backs all the way back in 1951, and acquired Bowman in 1955.
What it was yesterday: Topps has and will always be the classic baseball card brand, and will forever be idolized given the fact that the best to ever play the game had their careers immortalized on Topps cardboard.
What it is today: Topps is still going strong, and is one of two major baseball card brands, and the exclusive MLB license holder.
Signature Cards: Where do you even begin. Name a hall of famer and I’ll show you a handful of signature Topps cards. If you were forced to choose a few? 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan RC, 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle RC, 2011 Mike Trout Topps Update RC, among many others.
Perhaps the only baseball card brand named after an actual baseball term of feature? But seriously, while the Upper Deck baseball run was short, it managed to capture one of the most iconic cards in trading card history, and card #1 of its very first set produced no less in the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. The last licensed Upper Deck release was 2010.
What it was yesterday: Upper Deck really burst onto the scene in 1989, with higher quality photos and card stock than what was currently in the market, along with its flashy trademark hologram on the back of each card, AND being the first baseball card brand to introduce randomly-inserted autograph cards, like these.
What it is today: Even though Upper Deck’s last full feature licensed baseball card release was all the way back in 2010, you can still find Upper Deck baseball cards in its Goodwin sets. (The pictured “Color Splash” Shohei Ohtani was a recent, popular chase).
Upper Deck has also made headway in the “e-pack” business, allowing consumers to purchase packs of cards online and pull real, physical cards that can be mailed out.
Signature Cards: As mentioned, the 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. is the brand’s most iconic card. Other notables include the 1993 Upper Deck SP Derek Jeter RC, original signature cards like the 1994 Upper Deck dual autograph card of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mickey Mantle.
Ok, I guess I lied, as “score” could also be a baseball feature, and thus, like Upper Deck, is an aptly named baseball card brand.
Anyway, when you think Score, you think bold colors, or at least I do thinking back to their first release in 1988 of purples, oranges, and more. Score released baseball cards all the way up to 1998, until its parent company, Pinnacle went out of business.
What it was yesterday: I’d say more of a “little brother” to Pinnacle? Sure there were some cool cards here and there that I’ll mention below, but I wouldn’t say Score really had much of a chance compared to the other baseball card brands around at the time.
What it is today: Pretty much the same? Score doesn’t seem to be missed like Pinnacle is missed, and if you really wanted a fix, you can jump over to Football and grab a few packs, as Score is still producing pictures of the pigskin.
Signature Cards: The more I think about it, while nothing of tremendous value compared to the other brands mentioned, Score was the producer of a few iconic cards, namely the 1990 Score set featuring a black and white Bo Jackson mean mugging with a baseball bat and shoulder pads.
You might also remember a shirtless Jose Canseco, also black and white from 1991 Score Dream Team subset. The 1994 Score Boys of Summer insert set was a fun one to chase, trying to track down a young Mike Piazza.
I miss Pinnacle. I’m also obsessed with shiny cards, and Pinnacle brought the shine.
Not around for long, producing it’s first offering in 1992 (remember the Team 2000 set?) and shutting its doors in 1998. In that short window, Pinnacle took risks in offering cards in non-traditional packaging, like those sold in cans with Pinnacle Inside, and others in metal containers with Donruss Preferred (after acquiring Donruss in 1996).
What it was yesterday: Pinnacle design and presentation was top notch, busting out the foils, mirrors, and golds for cards that just absolutely popped in ways you’d never seen in a baseball card pop before. Artists’ Proofs and Printing Plates were cool “pull back the curtain” moments in baseball card history.
What it is today: A memory, sadly. Pinnacle was sold to Playoff which then became to be known as Donruss Playoff, and baseball cards were to be no more.
Signature Cards: This is a tough one. For me personally, it felt like the Museum Collection variations really changed the game, and was the first “wow” moment I remember having as a kid with cards.
The gigantic bubble gum bubble featured in Griffey Jr.’s 1995 Pinnacle card is such an iconic shot, while not exactly high value. 1998 EPIX with its purples, oranges, and emeralds were beautiful, and will always hold a place in my heart given the Ripken EPIX was my first “big pull” as a kid.
Bowman saw its popularity with baseball cards rise in the 1940s, and produced until 1955 until being acquired by Topps in 1956. The Bowman name was then left dormant until 1989, when Topps resurrected the brand with its release of larger than average cards featuring hot rookie Ken Griffey Jr.
What it was yesterday: After re-entering the market in time to produce a rookie card of one of the most electric players – both at the plate and in the field – to ever play the game, the Bowman brand came almost synonymous with “rookie” or “first year card,” dedicating the bulk of its sets to feature up and comers.
What it is today: Much of the same! Bowman Chrome, Draft, and Best all are full of youngsters, giving collectors the chance to chase big name prospects, but to also – almost unknowingly – grab cards of those who aren’t yet on anyone’s radar, but turn out to be part of tomorrow’s cream of the crop (happens every year!).
Signature Cards: Really, a Bowman auto from any one of the most recent up and coming superstars from Pete Alonso to Ronald Acuna to Aaron Judge, and more can all be considered a signature card. The thing is, next year, there will be a new crop of fresh stars, and their autos will be the next hot thing to chase.
So, excluding the last five years of cards for the sake of the efficiency of this blog post, the 1951 Bowman Willie Mays RC is a classic. A 2001 Bowman Chrome Albert Pujols RC auto is also one that stands out from the bunch.
The winner of the strangest baseball card brand journey would have to be Leaf, right? I mean, you can mention Leaf in a room full of collectors, and you’ll get wildly different opinions and memories.
You have the vintage 1948 entry with Jackie Robinson on a bright yellow background, and at a baseball card size much smaller than what we know to be today. Then, you have 1990 Leaf full of rookies that, like Upper Deck at the time, provided a different feel than what collectors were accustomed to. And today’s crowd? Leaf was “relaunched” in 2010, and has taken a much different direction than what the past endeavors would suggest.
What it was yesterday: Sticking with what Leaf was in the early 90s, first-year cards of Frank Thomas, Sammy Sosa, Larry Walker, and others were heavy favorites. Also a lot of similarities to Upper Deck in how the card stock was a different look and feel, and the same goes for the packaging which was a foil rip as opposed to the wax products up until then.
Leaf is also responsible for Studio, a series of “portrait” style photos used on cards rather than your typical action or in-game shots. (And, ahem, these.)
What it is today: Today, Leaf is a shell of its 1948 past or 90’s entry, and rightly so because it’s a completely different company, and the collecting game has changed dramatically. Now with a focus on on up and coming prospects, Leaf Metal, Flash, and Valiant sets bring the flashy and shiny as well as any other card brand does, and gives those collectors who want to own an auto of some of today’s greatest rising stars the chance to do so at a fraction of the normal market price.
Signature Cards: Leaf Gold Rookies were something special, and Leaf Limited was a beautiful set as well. The most iconic card has to be the 1990 Leaf Frank Thomas RC, but we must also make mention of the 1996 Leaf Signature Series, featuring a number of different players, many of who were not stars, but one of whom might be the game’s biggest in Derek Jeter.
Similar to Leaf, many forget that Fleer was a very early player in the baseball card trading game, dating back as early as 1923, but most prominently with its 80-card 1959 set featuring the Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, and then sets in both 1960 and 1961 with their “Baseball Greats” series. After many years of disputes and fighting to get back to producing baseball cards thanks to Topps’ exclusive licensing contract, Fleer began producing again in 1981.
What it was yesterday: While just missing Rickey Henderson’s rookie year, Fleer got back into baseball cards in time to produce RCs of Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, Kirby Puckett, and other Hall of Famers, and was the only company in 1984 to release an RC of Roger Clemens. Fleer would go on to release Fleer Ultra in 1991, and a game-changing Flair set with cards packaged in mini boxes and printed on much thicker card stock.
What it is today: Another memory—Upper Deck acquired Fleer’s naming rights and released Fleer products up until 2007. But don’t expect the name to fade…while not baseball, arguably the most sought after rookie card of all time, in any sport, will be talked about for as long as people are collecting cards, and that is of course Michael Jordan.
Fleer’s popularity also maintains a glimmer thanks to the odd case and circumstances involving the 1990 Fleer Jose Uribe of the San Francisco Giants. The story is for another place and time, and thankfully Beckett and a number of other outlets have penned articles on the card’s absurdity, but the gist of it is that this $.10 card, for whatever reason, has been popping up on eBay and other platforms and selling for hundreds and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Signature Cards: Well, I mean, Billy Ripken, right? Another crazy card story, but this one actually has legs…if you’re reading this, you’re probably already familiar, but Bill Ripken’s 1989 Fleer card captured a very bad (the worst) curse word on his bat’s knob. This led to a number of corrected versions of the card, but the original profanity-laden entry is the most collectable.
If you’ve confused Donruss and Fleer at some point in your collecting life, you’d have good reason to do so. Like Fleer, Donruss jumped back into the baseball card world with its 1981 release, and also like Fleer, was able to gain the right to produce licensed baseball cards thanks to a loophole in the Topps contract, where as long as it wasn’t selling cards with gum, they could proceed (Fleer would sell their cards with stickers, and Donruss with puzzles).
Come to think of it, you’ve probably confused mid-80s Donruss for Leaf, and probably for better reason—Donruss and Leaf merged in 1983, and while Donruss continued to produce cards in the US under the Donruss name, identical cards were produced under the Leaf name in Canada from 1985-1988.
What it was yesterday: Under the Pinnacle umbrella starting in 1996, Donruss produced its last baseball set in 1998…that is until 2001 when Playoff picked up Donruss and produced cards. The final chapter for Donruss came in 2009 when Panini purchased Donruss Playoff and renamed the company Panini America.
What it is today: It still exists! While Donruss is under the greater Panini umbrella, which I’ll touch on next, it’s a far cry from what it was before picked it up again. It’s not good or bad, and everyone has different preferences, it’s just different.
One cool thing is that many of the older Donruss designs have been brought up to speed with today’s technology; a downside of course is that the cards are produced without license, and thus without team logos.
Signature Cards: The Donruss Elite Series insert set seemed to be the first insert set produced with any sort of scarcity, making them sought after and valuable in the day, and still worth a decent amount by 90s cards standards today.
I started with Topps and I’m ending with Panini because really, it mirrors the timeline our brands of baseball cards have taken over the years. It started with Topps – more or less – a bunch of other brands followed, and now Panini is the only brand outside of Topps that is still standing.
What it was yesterday: Really, there isn’t a yesterday, as Panini acquired the Donruss Playoff brand in 2009, and started with baseball cards from there. With that said, Panini hasn’t been afraid to resurrect history, revamping and re-releasing many old Donruss card designs, as mentioned above.
What it is today: Today, it’s Topps (or Bowman) and Panini as the only baseball card brands running. One clear difference is the fact that Topps is operating with MLB license and Panini is not, meaning Panini cards are produced without team names and logos. Some collectors view this as a deal breaker, and will only buy Topps as a result, while other collectors can see past the missing logos, especially given many of Panini’s flashy card designs.
Signature Cards: Honestly, it might be too early to crown any Panini release or card as their “signature” card, or the card you immediately think of when you think of the brand.
That’s not to say the brand doesn’t stand out, and has not been shy about doing things a little differently, from inserting “Panini Points” in place of “hits” to releasing their “First Off the Line” products where a limited quantity of select products are released, oftentimes featuring exclusive offerings.
What does the future hold?
Some collectors yearn for more variety, some like things just as they are. Either way, the industry seems to be in very good shape, as evidenced by appreciating card values, popular digital content streams, celebrity believers, and more.