Over the past week, I've reviewed how Bowman, Donruss and Fleer evolved in the 1990s. I'll be getting to Score, Topps and Upper Deck next. Before that however, I want to present my theory of baseball card evolution. A few disclaimers and caveats first.
First, there are a lot of card blogs out there and there have been a lot of posts since I started card blogging in 2008. I haven't read them all. If someone else has already espoused on this theme, I apologize in advance.
Second, we've seen a lot of card designs over the years. There are some things I don't consider to be evolutionary such as: holographic cards, cards with texture (think 1999 Metal), die cut cards, odd-sized cards, cards that open like a book, foil board or dufex printing, etc. I consider these to be gimmicks.
Third, I don't consider cards printed on something other than cardboard, such as plastic, cloth, metal, or wood to be evolutionary. They might be nice, but they're gimmicks as well.
Fourth, I'm not making any value judgements here. If I say a card is higher up the evolutionary scale than another, I'm not saying it is better. There are a lot of design decisions that go into a card. The technical level of the card may not even be the most important.
The first baseball cards were rectangle shaped pieces of cardboard with a player photo on the front and some information about the player on the back. Eventually we got to the current 'standard' size and 'standard' layout with a player photo on the front and player stats on the back. Card stock was generally grey or brown (occasionally white). The card borders (and at this stage, the cards always have borders) could be white, or some other color, or pattern. Pick any card from between 1951 and 1980.
White card stock. When Donruss and Fleer successfully fought the Topps monopoly in 1981, they both took this step, going to white card stock. This stage doesn't have much else to distinguish from Stage 1. Again, border colors may be white or colored. The backs have stats and little more, although some Fleer cards from this era have tiny photos on the back. Think of any Donruss or Fleer card from 1981 through 1992 or so.
Take your Stage 2 card and add a color photo to the back. This is how both Score (in 1988) and Upper Deck (1989) started. Other brands would eventually follow.
Take your Stage 3 card and add gloss to it. There was nothing new about glossy baseball cards. All three main brands in the 1980s had produced either parallel sets (think Topps Tiffany), or specialty sets with gloss. Glossy main stream sets began appearing in the early 1990s. I think 1991 Stadium Club was the first main stream set with gloss but this set started several more stages up the evolutionary ladder. Of the 6 sets I'm tracking, Bowman was the first with gloss, front and back, in 1992.
Now add some foil embossing to the front. Again, Stadium Club was doing this in 1991. Topps started printing gold foil parallel sets in 1992 but by 1995, foil was an integral part of nearly every card design.
The next stage is full bleed printing. This is actually a big technological change in how cards are printed. There is a lot less leeway for printing errors, especially off-center cutting, with this technique. It is typical that Stage 5 cards will include the Stage 3 and 4 techniques as well (that is, these cards will be glossy and have foil). Originally, cards printed this way were considered premium cards but eventually, it became the norm (think Upper Deck from 1995 on).
I had originally planed to stop at Stage 6 but decided that there were two more stages in technological evolution. Stage 7 is very high gloss cards like Topps Finest or Topps Chrome. Another early example would be Flair, a Fleer product from the 1990s. This is 1995 Flair.
Autographed cards and cards with relics are so prevalent today, and there are sets where every card is autographed or has a relic, that I decided to include this as the top level of evolution. Autographed cards began appearing as early as 1994 with relic cards appearing in 2000. Below is a 1994 Phillies Ultra Autograph and a 2000 SP Top Prospects Game Used Bat.
By the discussion above, you might think that I don't believe that there's been any real technological evolution in baseball cards since 2000. That is what I think. There has been some movement toward digital cards, but I'm sorry, a baseball card that you can't actually hold in your hand isn't really a baseball card.
To finish, here is the most technologically evolved card I own. A 2003 Topps Chrome Refractor Record Breakers Relics card.