It's January. The Hall of Fame vote is complete, the journalists are back asleep in their hollowed trees, and your baseball team of choice isn't going to make another major move this offseason. There's no better time to introduce the Inaugural and Only Bad Baseball Card Tournament, in which you, the Internet Superconsciousness, will determine the worst-designed card of the modern era. Over the next three weeks we'll engage in a 32-card, single-elimination duel via the Power of Democracy.
Please note that for this exercise, we are judging the art direction of the cards themselves, and not the aesthetic merits of the faces and bodies featured. The internet is rife with Don Mossi and Wally Moon jokes, and needs no more. Besides, calling people ugly, even millionaire athlete corporate-personas, is kind of a nasty business. Let’s be better than that. Let’s hate things, not people.
All 32 cards were selected carefully by the Lookout Landing staff, based on the following guidelines:
1. The card must date from the Seattle baseball lifespan. Because it’s a Mariners site, but more because it’s not really fair comparing the products of 2014 to those of 1957, unless it’s a reference to McCarthyism. Those are always good.
2. The card must be nationally distributed and sold in legal establishments. We all love a good Brady-Anderson-with-Dog or a Nolan-Ryan-in-Photoshopped-Hat, but if we were to debate the merits of every single bootleg card and Purina issue, we would be lost. Consensus requires arbitrary cutoffs. We apologize.
3. Ugliness is a subjective term. Our lives ruled by subjectivity. The whole of human conflict, the unhappiness that besets us, are based on the relative differences in taste between ourselves and the people around us. The irritation you feel at a perceived mis-ranking is actually the feeling of being alive.
Without further ado, round one of the first bracket: the ones that tried too hard. Note that voting ends at 9:00 PM PST.
#1: 1996 Metal Universe vs. #8: 1997 Pacific Crown Royale
Metal Universe is an angry satire of baseball cards, somewhat undercut by the fact that it, too, is a baseball card. It's a 2.5" by 3.5" Kafka novel. Drunk on the power of foil and stirred by the rage so often directed in that era against machines, the designers of this set decided to adorn their cards with random and eerily hostile illustrations, each a painful reflection on the soul of an individual employee of the Fleer Trading Card Company.
Pacific Crown has lesser ambitions. When the nomadic tribes of ancient history first decided to settle down, they were driven by three social forces: animal husbandry, the immutable beauty of symmetry, and the capitalization of proper nouns. The combination of these latter two have driven Grammar Scientists to labor for millennia in an attempt to create an aesthetically pleasing way to make the last letter of a word or phrase the same size as the first. As of 1997, they were obviously still unsuccessful.
#4: 1992 Topps Kids vs. #5: 1992 Triple Play
The kids are so fickle, what with their Dark Souls and their Kidz Bop and their Anime Pogs and their hobby being taken away by balding fortysomething investors. Topps, in an attempt to lure them back, decided to hand-draw each player as happy versions of Frank Castle on uppers. Instead, the set failed, the cards are worthless, and the only benefit of the exercise was creating amazing pre-satire.
Donruss had its own strategy for winning over the youth: create a shoddy, slightly less expensive product, with the knowledge that kids are super poor. Adorned with cutting-room floor photos, seasickness photo angles, and a font that would have fit in an NES cutscene, Triple Play never shook that "Friday Afternoon Brainstorming Meeting" vibe. But it’s the laser-to-the-retina color scheme that lodges it in our hearts forever, like bad cholesterol.
#3: 1997 Circa vs. #6: 1999 Skybox Thunder
Various cards have attempted to utilize a player's last name in the design, with varying levels of subtlety (in this case: none). The problem is the same you see with jerseys: It works great with short, unique names like Cano and Ripken, and is a humongous mistake when you get to Smith or Saltalamacchia. And that doesn't even get us started on the backgrounds, which make the viewer want to discover a time machine to go back and murder William Henry Perkin.
Ten years after Skybox taught us that basketballs could glow and computers were a force for evil in this world, the company went back to basics, by superimposing each player over a photographer's dropcloth and throwing random baseball-ish clip art across the top of the card. Unforatuntely, nothing aesthetically can match the cringeworthy flavor text on the back, and that's a shame. A sample, randomly chosen, of former Phillies first baseman Rico Brogna:
"You’re so good Brogna … Before long, the President’s gonna phone ya … at the Series … Congrats, he’ll say, your game is straight jiggy.
...Rico Brogna played two more years. He never made the postseason.
#2: 1995 Fleer vs. #7: 1991 Donruss
The 1995 Fleer set actually bears six different designs, based on the player's division: all six are insults to good, decent folk. They share two commonalities: one, they transform each player into a harrowing, ghoulish caricature whose familiar wrongness saps the sanity of its victim like a shoggoth. Two: it puts the player's vital statistics on the front of the card, which is pretty much the dumbest thing ever. 1995 Fleer is not just a photonegative of the players it depicts, but of all goodness, decency, and hope in this world.
In 1991 Donruss we see a decade tired of pink and teal, yet still trying to retain the attention-seeking energy and excitement of a base-ten iteration gone by. The electric lime green seems to be designed to draw the eye away from the player and to the borders themselves, almost begging the viewer to wonder how great an entire wall like this might look. "What, you want to hide the fact that you collect baseball cards?" Donruss seems to ask. "Everyone else is off memorizing the lyrics to Ice Ice Baby. You’re going to be amazed how overrated being cool this particular year will turn out."
Thanks for participating. Be sure to check back tomorrow, when we continue with the most criminally boring cards of the past 35 years.