As a kid, I was always fascinated with statistics. I’m not talking about money ball type stuff like WAR or OPS; but old school meat and potatoes stats. This could be because when I was growing up, we pretty much had to keep up with our own stats on video games and in fantasy sports because we hadn’t been graced with the advent of the internet or phone apps by the late 80’s. Stats were what set players apart in my card binder and if your average or home run total wasn’t very good, you likely didn’t even make it into the binder at all.
I remember RBI Baseball III being one of the greatest baseball games ever created for a couple of reasons. First, it not only had all of the real teams and players, but it had the championship teams from the 80’s as well. So I could either play with the current version of the “Bash Brothers” or I could go back to the ’89 squad. I could even be the ’84 Tigers or the ’85 Royals if I wanted to. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, it gave us kids our first crack at playing somewhat of a season. It wasn’t a full-fledged 162 game season but it did run you through the league gauntlet and give you a code each time you won and kept up with the teams you had left to play. That was pretty sick innovation for us 13 year olds.
Even though the game provided almost all of the goodness our little minds could take in, it still lacked one very important feature. It didn’t keep stats. So when Darryl Strawberry came up in his first at bat, he had a .277 avg and 37 home runs. When he came up in the 6th game of your “season” run, he had a .277 avg and 37 home runs. The only remedy for that was to keep your own stats. Besides, you wanted to be able to brag to your friends that they couldn’t get Wade Boggs out but you also wanted to back it up with actual proof. So when my friends and I got together for an RBI III marathon, we broke out the notebook and created our own makeshift scorebook. When Boggs was 10 for his first 12 at bats, the trash talk started to fly!
I wish I could get my hands on some of those old notes but they went in the trash can as soon as video games evolved to the point of keeping all of the stats. I’m pretty sure that started with Tecmo Super Bowl in 1991. As soon as the computer started keeping the stats for us, we were done with the Trapper Keeper and we were letting the robots do the work for us. At times, it took away from the game because, in our quest to get 3,000 yards rushing with Bo Jackson, we let Tim Brown’s Health go to “BAD” because we weren’t using him enough. If you are between the ages of 35-45, don’t act for one second like you don’t know what that sentence means.
We kept stats in backyard basketball, front yard baseball, and any yard football back in those days. We kept up with streaks and 0’fer’s and tendencies as much as professional coaches do today but we just did it all manually. The old school stats have fallen by the wayside over the years for the most part and now everything is more complicated. I still think I would rather have a guy that hits .325 up at the plate in a clutch situation than somebody who hits .295 but has a better WAR or whatever fancy stat you want to quote. In my tiny brain, it’s pretty simple; can the guy get on base? Does the guy hit for power or contact? What is a player’s yard per carry or completion percentage? How many points does a player average and what is his shooting percentage? Like I said, meat and potatoes.
We have gotten so detailed about stats today that we are making them up as we go. Did you know that Ronald Acuna hits .435 in day games at home when 2 men are on base and the count is 2-1 and the pitch is between 92-94 MPH when the pitcher’s name starts with a G? Obviously, I made that up. But, did you also know that Patrick Mahomes III became the youngest player by 32 days, 12 hours and 9 minutes to throw a 55-yard touchdown on 3rd down at Heinz Field against the Steelers since Andy Reid became the Chiefs coach? But none of it compares to Lebron James’ ability to put up a triple-double the game after off nights when playing East Central Division teams with at least 1 rookie starter and a mascot with horns! (Look at the teams and there are actually two possibilities!) I think you see where I’m going with this but I could go on if need be.
Anyone who collected cards in the 80’s can tell you by looking at the back of a baseball card whether the player was good or not and they had a fairly limited amount of stat categories by today’s standards. Let’s go back to Darryl Strawberry and his 1986 Topps for a moment.
• Games Played – Not always an indicator of how good the player was but definitely put some numbers in perspective.
• AB – Usually correlated pretty well with Games Played.
• Runs – Our first indicator of a good offensive player was usually found here. The closer you got to the top of the order, the higher this number though, so you had to scale it.
• Hits – Boom! One of the key stats!
• 2B – Not always a crucial stat as these were sometimes indicative of a good average and lower home run rate
• 3B – A very good stat for the speedsters but it really didn’t mean a whole lot for 85% of the league.
• HR – Another key stat here! You had to tie this in with the average though for it to make a difference for players. Rob Deer hit a lot of home runs but he never hit above .252 and only hit above .230 four times in eleven seasons. Straw mashed 29 home runs while hitting .277. For me, I used 25 home runs and .275 average as a cut off for some of my sorting.
• RBI – While I began using 75 RBI as a cutoff, I moved that closer to 100 by the early 90’s. Straw knocked in 79 so he checked off the three major boxes for me; Avg, HR, RBI.
• SB – This was kind of a sneaky stat for the baseball card backs because guys like Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman had astronomical numbers here. But if I found a guy who checked off the above 3 boxes and could swipe 20+ bases as well, I had a marquee binder player. And wouldn’t you know, Strawberry had 26.
• SLG, BB, SO – To be honest, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to these stats because they were usually reflective in other areas. Guys who hit .275 weren’t striking out 150 times and vice versa.
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BASEBALL Sports Board with 11 Die-cut Windows. 22 x 28″ outside frame dimension. Mat is die-cut with Nine Fielder Windows and one for a Manager and one for a Designated Hitter or a team photo. Cards are not included.
Full Disclosure – Topps Flagship, Topps Archives, and Topps Heritage, specifically, still have nice card backs. There may be a couple more that I am forgetting but with the sheer volume of releases in today’s era, the card back is largely overlooked.
Check out this Gleyber Torres Topps Fire. Granted, he is a rookie but even those cards had minor league stats back in the day.
Mike Trout is not a rookie but Allen & Ginter only shows career stats. And on top of that, they aren’t displayed in number format. I don’t like these backs at all!
Gypsy Queen doesn’t show any stats and only has a random fact about the player. There is a ton of wasted space on the back of this card.
Platinum has a few stats but not many. It has the previous years’ stats, the career totals, and a career best line. It even includes that pesky WAR stat.
While Bowman is very much a prospecting set, it also only includes the previous year and career stat lines.
My final example is a card that looks great on the front but again leaves a ton of unused space on the back. 2018 Finest is a beautiful design but I need more than one year of stats!
If I were a kid in 2018, I would not be able to fully grasp a player’s skill level and historical output with baseball cards alone. I would still need Google, Twitter, and Wikipedia to understand their contributions to the league. There is no doubt that this is an often forgotten part of the hobby that needs to make a comeback. The only time I look at card backs now is to try and see if I have a variation or parallel. The “tidbit” information on some of the cards isn’t near as interesting either. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and revisit a box of 1989 Topps Baseball and take a look at what card backs taught us. I’ve reviewed this product before on my blog at www.dubmentality.com and it is one of my favorite throwback sets of all time. It has a lot of meaning to me and I would argue that it was one of Topps’ best designs since the Junk Wax Era began!
Let’s take a look at some card fronts before we really dive in. These Future Stars were highly sought after in 1989. Sheffield was probably the least collected of these three and he had the best career. This Gregg Jefferies was a “retirement card” when I was a kid. Unfortunately, this one was severely miscut.
Here are a couple of #1 Draft Picks that had solid careers. Steve Avery was a fixture in the Braves rotation in the early 90’s. He didn’t quite live up to the hype from his rookie year but he wasn’t bad at all. Jim Abbott was known for his amazing talent to make it to the Major Leagues while missing one of his hands. He had a very unique pitching style but he also had a very good career. He even threw a no-hitter in 1993 for The Evil Empire.
1989 Topps was the home of two rookies that would go on to be no doubt Hall of Famers. These are also what all of the base cards looked like in the set. I love the bubble letters and the simple but classy design. The backs of these cards didn’t reveal very good stats but we all know how these guys turned out.
Ron Gant is my favorite baseball player from when I was a kid. I collected all of the cards I could get my hands on of this future 30-30 player. I also have worn #5 for the last 25 years thanks to Mr. Gant. I was fortunate enough to meet him at a Braves game when he was an analyst and I got a great photo and autograph on his 1988 Score Rookie.
Now, we flip the cards over and start looking at the backs. The first player is a guy that only met one of my arbitrary numbers in 1988, average. However, when you look at the back of the card and see a ton of statistics in italics, you know he led the league in something. As long as it isn’t strikeouts, you pay attention. You can also see that Donny Baseball hit the trifecta (average, home runs, RBI) on multiple occasions. Look at that 1985 season!
Though Inky was a fan favorite, the back of his card reveals the stat that you don’t want to see in italics. He struck out almost as many times as Don Mattingly got hits in his league leading years. He did hit a nice number of home runs but he didn’t do much else to gain a spot in the binder.
Bo Jackson is one player that transcended stats in 1989. He did have a nice home run total but his average and RBI’s were nowhere near where they would soon be. He did compliment his 25 home runs with 27 stolen bases in 1988, showing that he was a freak athlete.
Some players had long enough careers that you had to sit down and read their cards like a book. Dave Winfield hit the key stats several times throughout the years and was still doing it in 1988. Winfield had a huge career!
Wade Boggs got some attention above in the RBI III discussion but the back of his 1989 Topps shows just how studly he was. The HR category was never huge but he killed the average category and racked up the hits as well. He had 100+ runs scored in every season after the partial season of his rookie year.
Tony Gwynn is another well known hitter from the Junk Wax Era. He hit a whopping .370 in 1987 with 218 hits and 119 runs score. He wasn’t a home run hitter but he was deceptively fast for his size. He was 5’11, 200 lbs and swiping 56 bases in 1987. Gwynn was such an amazing talent!
Barry Bonds was a very solid baseball player even before he entered the steroid conversation. In 1988, he was a mere 185 lbs and he hit .283 with 24 home runs and 17 stolen bases. He also did not strike out a ton either. I often wonder what kind of career Bonds would have ended up with if he had avoided all of the extra-curricular allegations. I imagine it would have been Hall of Fame worthy.
Ah, the gum stained back! Bonds’ teammate Bobby Bonilla had his own layers of drama later in his career but for different reasons. He was on track to be a binder guy for years to come. He was flirting with the trifecta in 1988 with a .274 avg, 24 home runs, and 100 RBI. If he had one more home run, he would have also had a .275+ average! I had a soft spot for Bobby Bo, which is saying a lot because I didn’t have many soft spots for Pirates during this time period.
Glenn Davis was a player that flirted with the trifecta in 1988 as well but his average was typically well below the .275 cutoff. This particular year, he only missed RBI’s by 1 and average by .004 points. He did have an MVP in 1989 Donruss that made him binder material though.
Joe Carter almost had identical numbers to Glenn Davis and was more consistent from year to year. He went on to have another few great years that would include a World Championship in Toronto. Joe Carter was a very steady baseball player throughout his career.
Andres Gallaraga was the rare (almost) trifecta while leading the league in strikeouts. He hit .302 with 29 bombs and 92 RBI but struck out a whopping 153 times! How many people led the league in both hits and strikeouts during the same season? He was truly all or nothing in 1988! You don’t get this kind of insight on the backs of cards in 2018 for the most part.
Stats could sometimes get you in trouble too as a collector. You needed more of a track record with some players. Mark Gubicza entered his 5th season with the Royals as a .500 pitcher with a 4.00 ERA. He proceeded to go 20-8 with a 2.70 ERA in 1988, which was near the top of the pitching categories. He hadn’t come close to those numbers in the past and we should have known better. He did have a decent career but 1988 was his best year.
That’s enough stats for this post. Let’s learn something about a few players that we otherwise wouldn’t have known without card backs! Glenn Hubbard was a wrestler in high school and Doug Sisk was a consideration for the 1976 US Olympic Rifle Team. I don’t know enough about Doug Sisk to comment on his secondary sport but I do know that Glenn Hubbard had the look of a WCW wrestler in the late 80’s!
Did you know that Jose Oquendo played all 9 positions for the Cardinals in 1988? I did know that Buster Posey did it in one game at Florida State but I was unaware that there were Major Leaguer’s pulling off that feat in the late 80’s.
There really isn’t a whole lot to say about this one except Greg Mathews sounds like the life of the clubhouse with his backgammon and chess passions. I get the surfing but back packing?
One of the more fun tidbits can be found on the back of the Carmelo Martinez card. I was familiar with Carmelo in 1989 but it appears he had a relatively unknown cousin that was toiling around the minor leagues for the Mariners. I wonder how Edgar’s career wound up.
Card backs are fun and they are certainly informative. We have always quoted stats of our favorite players to try and persuade others on why they were the best. Card backs and RBI III helped us tremendously with that issue in the late 80’s. I enjoyed some of the random information just as much as the stats on the back of some cards. The 1987 Topps Von Hayes mentions that he was a star in Little League. I have always found that to be one of the funniest but most unnecessary comments on the back of a baseball card. I have a laundry list of why the 80’s and early 90’s were the best time of my life and card backs fit squarely on that list. I just don’t want us to forget about those days as collectors. That is what I am really doing with most of my posts. I want to keep the good times at the forefront. We owe a lot to the Junk Wax Era and I think it deserves the respect and attention I try to give it.
Are there any card backs that you remember from the good old days?
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In the 1960s and 70s the backs of baseball cards were how we learned about players and the history of baseball.
It’s too bad that for most of the hobby it’s about the “hits,” and not enjoying each card in the pack.
Good job Dub.