Thursday, July 9, 2020

Problems on the Back

Black Lives Matter.

I said in my previous post that I'd be keeping this blog's focus on baseball. And I am. But we need to talk about how racism applies to baseball cards. Systemic racism is a real thing, and the baseball card industry isn't immune. Nothing really is in America, which is what makes it systemic.

1988 Topps Big #110 Ken Griffey Sr.
There's always plenty of debate about where sets rank among all-time favorites. 1993 Upper Deck comes up a lot. Some like 1965 Topps, others think that 1975 Topps was the high-water mark. 1973 Topps is underappreciated outside this community. Some can enjoy 1991 Fleer despite its retina-searing yellow borders. There are even some 1995 Fleer fans out there. Me, I'm a Stadium Club guy.

But no one ever seems to wax poetic about Topps Big.

It existed for three years, from 1988-1990. Topps cut it to the same dimensions as their early-'50s sets, 3 3/4" x 2 5/8". Non-vintage collectors can find their 1989 Bowman to get an idea of the size. It is too big for 9-pocket pages, so most of us just threw them in a box somewhere until Ultra Pro got around to manufacturing specially-sized 8-pocket pages.

That's Ken Griffey, Sr. on this card from the inaugural Topps Big set. This was a year before his son appeared in the first Upper Deck set and changed the hobby forever. Note that his nameplate just says "Ken Griffey", as his son had yet to surpass his dad's own excellent career, let alone even make his Major League debut.

Please also note that Ken Griffey is Black.

1988 Topps Big #110 Ken Griffey Sr. (Reverse)
I call attention to that because when you look at the card back, none of the cartoons show him as Black. Not Ken pinch hitting in the first panel, not Ken reminding us that he's from the same Pennsylvania town as Stan Musial, and definitely not his son Ken, Jr. holding a trident, although they did get Junior's handedness correct.

It's not an oversight on this one card, nor even an oversight in the 1988 Topps Big set as a whole. It was this way for all three years of Topps Big, the entire run. Everyone is a white guy on the card back. Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Alomar, everyone. Which is, at the very least, inaccurate.

I mentioned this to my girlfriend earlier this week, and she asked, "Was it like that in the 1950s?" I'm not a vintage expert, so I had to think for a moment, but no, it wasn't.

1954 Topps #3 Monte Irvin (Reverse)
This is the back of a 1954 Topps Monte Irvin card, the same card I got at a card show a few years ago from one of my favorite vintage dealers. The dimensions are the same as Topps Big, but even though printing technology was decades behind what was available in the late-'80s, Topps clearly made the effort to show Monte Irvin as a Black man on the back of his own baseball card. It's most obvious in the first and third panels of the Inside Baseball cartoon, and it's clear in the first panel which of these characters is meant to be Irvin and which is meant to be the Indians' third baseman, likely Al Rosen.

Incidentally, the exhibition game in which Monte Irvin injured his ankle as shown in this cartoon was a Spring Training game in Denver. It might have even taken place at Bears Stadium, later known as Mile High Stadium. Spring Training stats from the early 1950s are tricky to come by.

But there he is, right there on the back of a 1954 Topps card. Monte Irvin was just the tenth Black man to play Major League Baseball, and numerous teams had still yet to integrate. Yet 1954 Topps, ten years before the Civil Rights Act, got it right, much more right (infinitely more right?) than the whole run of Topps Big.

Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there.

I had been aware of the racial insensitivity associated with Topps Big for a few years, but it wasn't until I saw a tweet the other day that I was made aware of a pretty glaring problem with 1993 Leaf.

1993 Leaf #387 Terry Pendleton
1993 Leaf is another well-liked set from later in the overproduction era. It was the first Leaf set to include Rockies and Marlins, had a nice amount of gold foil, full-bleed printing, and a design that could reasonably be confused with both 1992 and 1993 Fleer Ultra, now that I think about it. Here's a good photo of another Brave, Terry Pendleton in Wrigley Field, with just the tiniest sliver of a catcher's mitt on the left side.

The card backs on '93 Leaf take a unique approach, including a photo of the player in front of a landmark that's relevant to the team's city. Usually it's the skyline, but there are some alternate backdrops for each team. Bridges, piers, beaches, that sort of thing. The Rockies have a glorious mountain range. The Astros got an oil well. The alternate photo on the Braves' card backs is, well, take a look.

1993 Leaf #387 Terry Pendleton (Reverse)
All these years I never really knew what I was looking at, but this photo behind Pendleton is Stone Mountain in Georgia. As briefly as possible, it's basically a Confederate version of Mount Rushmore, which officially opened 100 years to the day after Lincoln's assassination. Think for a moment about what message that sends. And it also happens to be the backdrop for a Black player's baseball card.

It's not just Pendleton; it's also on Otis Nixon's card, and likely a few others throughout Series 1 and Update, which I haven't completed. I assume no one at Leaf thought much of it, since it's also on Tom Glavine's card. They likely just decided that this was what the Atlanta area had going for it other than the skyline, and peppered it throughout the Braves checklist at random.

But that's the whole problem. It's unlikely that either of these design choices were done maliciously, but that doesn't really matter. They were made nonetheless, whether out of malice or neglect or ignorance. That's the distinction we need to learn to make, between individual acts of bigotry such as John Rocker opening his mouth, and deeper, more systemic instances of racism, such as a Confederate monument on display in Georgia for all to see appearing on a baseball card in the same fashion as a cluster of office buildings or a bridge.

That's how deep it goes. Racism is just so woven into the fabric of the USA that it's literally a backdrop. A landmark. A tourist attraction. And it's so easy to just, not pick up on it. I certainly didn't all these years until it was brought to my attention. The designers at Topps or Leaf certainly didn't. And that's telling, because for far too long we've gotten away with thinking that as long as we're not acting like John Rocker, we're doing OK. We're not. Bigotry and systemic racism are not the same thing, but we've been taught that they are. Thinking they are is what leads to racially insensitive blunders like these cards, and far worse.

It's a lot to take in, I know. I will share a resource that's helped me navigate these waters in recent weeks, and that's season 2 of the Scene on Radio podcast, titled Seeing White. I hope you find it useful.

In any case, maybe think twice before mailing this card off to Terry Pendleton for an autograph.


  1. Wow..that's bad. I think the Topps Big is worse because it had to have been a conscious choice, can't just be careless decision making.

  2. I didn't really think about the Topps Big cartoons as a big deal but you certainly spelled out the reasons why we need to see such cards in a different, critical way.

  3. Great post. It's scary to think that not long ago a baseball card company could put a monument to the Confederacy that was literally financed in part by the Klan and no one would bat an eyelash. All of this shows how deeply racism is baked into our society, and yet many people will say with a straight face that it's a thing of the past.

  4. Excellent post. I never put much thought into these, but there they are clear as day.

  5. The Topps Big cards I found jarring even as a kid. Never thought twice about those Leaf cards though - wow!

  6. A. Great eyes. I wonder how many other collectors noticed Stone Mountain in the background. I wonder if Pendleton, Nixon, or Glavine know.

    B. I didn't learn about Stone Mountain until this year. My buddy who lives in Atlanta filled me in on controversy maybe a month or two ago. Very interesting history lesson for sure.

    1. P.S. I'm a huge fan of Topps Big. Been advocating that run of sets for years now.

    2. I saw a lot of it in repacks when I was a kid, but I haven't acquired any since.

  7. Great post Adam. I had not noticed that background on the leaf card before - very tone deaf. I felt a similar concern about topps using the Mississippi State flag on a card with Dimitri Young a few years ago since the confederate flag is part of their current flag design. It all fit as far as the insert set theme was concerned, but still disturbing. I hope Mississippi does follow up on recent discussions and change the design of their flag.

    1. I hope so too. Seems like those gears are turning, finally.

  8. Wonderful post, Adam. The cards with Stone Mountain should be shocking but considering how deeply embedded racism is in nearly all facets of life, I can't say I'm all that shocked it made it's way into a card set. The cartoon thing does surpise me though and I never thought to look for that. Pretty sad considering hof much time I spend looking at cards. Thanks for opening my eyes to some of the problems that exist in our hobby.

  9. I knew about the "whitewashing" in the Topps Big sets but that Confederate monument in 1993 Leaf is awful, too. I don't think I ever knew what it was when looking though my Leaf cards, and it stinks that an otherwise fantastic set chose such a terrible background landmark.

  10. I collected that 1993 Leaf set back in 1993. I had no idea at the time what Stone Mountain was so never noticed that until seeing this post 27 years later. Its insane they ever thought it was OK to put that on a card.