May 12, 2011
The Back of Your Baseball Cards
For many of us, the introduction to baseball statistics came not through reading magazines (or Baseball Prospectus) or watching games on television, but through our favorite childhood hobby, baseball cards. When you're a card collector as a kid, you're constantly handling your cards, memorizing the faces and poses on the front, and poring over the numbers on the back. Brilliant players like Barry Bonds or Mike Schmidt are obvious even to seven year old kids when compared to the more pedestrian players that make up the bulk of the set.
Thinking about baseball statistics one day, it occurred to me that fans who have trouble with advanced stats generally do so because they're hung up on the more traditional stats, the "back of the baseball card" stats. If you're first taste of statistics are from your baseball cards, and your baseball cards only tell you things like home runs, runs batted in, and batting average, maybe the resistance to advanced stats is understandable. I thought it might be informative, therefore, to take a look at the backs of baseball cards over the years and see exactly what stats have been offered. Did they change much in the past? Have they adapted to the new stats world of today?
Beginning in 1952, when Topps came onto the scene, I looked at the back of cards for position players for every regular set published (this includes Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Score, and Upper Deck). The stats offered on the backs of these cards are shown on the "cards" below (organized by manufacturer and decade). I offer a few thoughts on the trends as well. (Click on the images to see them full-size.)
1950s - 1970s
When today's sportswriters talk about their youth, these are the years they're talking about. Everyone from Jackie Robinson to Joe Morgan and beyond are in these sets. And, as you can see, the stats were mostly decided early on. After a few years of Topps offering some traditional fielding stats (assists, errors, fielding percentage), the offensive stats took over. Walks, stolen bases, and strikeouts were not a part of these, though (except for 1970, when walks and total bases were shown). Hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, and batting average were pretty much all you got for 30 years. This no doubt reflects how people talked about ballplayers at the time.
Topps was the only manufacturer for thirty years (save for 1963). In 1981, the monopoly was finally broken and Fleer and Donruss showed up. Topps was finally forced into a bit of competition, and it actually bled over some into the backs of cards. Stolen bases, walks, strikeouts, and slugging percentage made their appearances finally. Donruss and Fleer offered similar stats. I was surprised to see that on-base percentage wasn't included on these cards. I certainly knew what it was as a kid, but I have no idea how I learned about it if it wasn't from the 1989 Topps set.
In 1988, Score joined the fray, but everyone was blown out of the water with 1989's Upper Deck. The hobby exploded and all of sudden there were thousands of special sets and other fancy cards being offered every year. It's about this time that I (and thousands of others) stopped collecting cards. Statistics-wise, the cards stayed the same until the mid-1990s, when certain manufacturers started struggling. Score added on-base percentage for the first time in 1993. Fleer joined in with OBP in 1996, which was also about the time Score added total bases and started splitting certain stats up by lefty/righty. Topps, throughout it all, kept the stats the same as 1981. Score stopped making cards after the 1998 season. Fleer and Donruss both took two year breaks at the end of the decade as well.
As the competition thinned from the disappearance of Donruss and Score (and eventually Fleer), the changes began to disappear again. The only significant change was from Topps. In 2004, after 23 seasons of identical card backs, Topps added one more column: OPS. Some cards had published both OBP and SLG before, but no other manufacturer printed OPS. And now that Topps is the exclusive licensee of Major League Baseball again, they remain the only manufacturer with OPS.
In the end, I was surprised to see just how stable the backs of baseball cards have been over the last sixty years. There are certainly shifts in stats on occasion, but they don't happen often, and they're usually smaller than you'd expect. I do appreciate the options that the lesser manufacturers offered in the late-1990s, early-2000s, but it was obviously too-little-too-late for them (the hideous card designs didn't help). OPS has made it to Topps now, though, which is pretty much the definition of "mainstream". Too bad we have to wait ten years before we know if it made any difference to tomorrow's stat-heads. It can't hurt.