The Card Collectors Beginners Guide Part 1 by Matt Gilman

Written by Matt Gilman

Greetings Fellow Collectors!

I decided to create a new series to help new collectors and/or returning collectors navigate the hobby of sport card collecting. I remember back in 1999, when I took a two year hiatus from the hobby, how much things changed in just two years and how I wished I had guidance back then to help me.  It took a very long time to get reacquainted with the new terminology and aspects of collecting in just that short lost time. I can’t imagine how tough it would be try join in on the hobby now or come back after a good amount of time away with so many new things happening in the hobby today.

So with this series, I hope to cover all aspects of collecting and collecting terminology.  I will do my best to break down what a base card is, what an insert is, what a parallel is , what a short print is, what a jersey card is, what an autograph card is, what binders are, what card pages are, top loaders, penny sleeves, etc, etc, etc, are. The basics of the basics. This series is based on my opinions and what I have learned with experiences over the years with collecting. I have been in the hobby for 24+ years. We all experience the hobby differently and all have our own thoughts on different aspects of the hobby. These are mine.

Today we will take a look at the most basic card parts.

To me, collecting sport cards is like building a house. You have many layers to build especially when it comes to a product.

First, there is a foundation. Every product has its foundation. In sport cards or even non sport cards, it’s called the base or as some will name it, the common cards.  Meaning, these are the cards you will find most often. I am taking a deeper look at two products today in my example to help guide you and show you what base and common cards are. There will be a couple other examples as well to help cover even more ground.

Keep in mind even though I am showing off mainly baseball cards for this post, these tips are here to cover all sports.  Just like how all houses are built the same way from the ground up.

The first product is 2018 Topps Big League Baseball that was just released not long ago. This is a very basic product with a deep checklist, which means there are a lot of players included like legends, rookies and stars of today. But, this is a good simple product with which to do my explaining with.

Here is a Jeff Bagwell card. Jeff was someone I watched play in the 90’s, so, some of you younger collectors may not know who he is, but he would be a part of the legends in this card set. This is what a base/common card looks like in 2018 Topps Big League.  These are the cards you would find the most commonly in the product.  Usually base cards are pretty simple in design (more info on that in the next few paragraphs) . Like I said, it’s the foundation. It’s the main part of the card product with everything else being bigger and brighter built around it.

Usually there’s a given number of base cards from numbers 1-100,1-200, 1-300 or even 1-400 plus, which makes up the overall base card set.  How can you tell that Bagwell is a part of the base card set you may ask? Well it’s because of his card number.  Let’s flip the card over to view it,

Jeff is card #345 in the basic set of 400 cards. You usually can find the numbering at the top back corner of the card or right at the top on the back. If it was an insert or parallel card, something we will discuss in the next post, they might have an added Letter or numbering such as L-345.

Here is another example of a legendary player in the base card set with this Hank Aaron

And here is one of a player of today in the set in #AllRise Aaron Judge.

Most base cards are plain like the one above, but there are some products that add shine or foil and some chrome feel to their base cards.

For example, these are cards from 2017 in Elite (Odell Beckham Jr) and Phoenix (Michael Strahan). Though they have more added appeal with the rainbow foil, they are still base cards.

Back of these cards

Some companies add chrome texture to their cards. This example of Larry Donnell is from Panini Prizm.

This is the card back to that Donnell

A couple of the companies even hire artists to do a project of designing their base cards. Brands like Origins, Topps Gallery and Topps Fire (below of Odell Beckham Jr) are done that way.

Back of the card

Some of these may look like unique, fun base cards, But nothing will top the creativity and great looking base cards of the late 90’s. I will just give a couple examples of my favorites..

This Roger Clemens card is from 1998 in a product called Ex2001. These cards were printed on a plastic surface otherwise known as acetate.

Back of the card. This card number shows us that it’s a base card.

Another creative base set in the late 90’s were these base cards that included a hologram (3D image) and were die cut, which means the shape of the card was no longer rectangular. This Greg Maddux card is a 1996 Upper Deck Spx base card.

Here is the back of the Maddux card. As you can see, the plain numbering stays consistent with a base card.

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These types of base cards add more appeal for some collectors who may want to be more enticed to collect in the entire set. We don’t see as many of the fun late 90’s designed cards today and that’s part of the reason I am personally going back to collect them. I do wish sometimes they would revive cards like this, but I have seen some companies attempt a few and the comebacks have fallen way short of the original. Just like with movies, nothing beats an original.

I say this because Upper Deck tried to revive my two favorite base card set series of the 90’s, the ones above, and both failed to reach the status of the original.

This Ben Roethlisberger was supposed to be a remake of the 1996 Spx Greg Maddux above, but, instead was missing the key component. No hologram. How can you have a design like this and miss out on the most important part??!!

The second example as you see is the same design as the Clemens above and yes, the acetate is still there but if you put both cards side by side, the design doesn’t quite hold up to the original and even the acetate is a bit thinner.

I think when companies try to bring something back, all of us collectors who are nostalgic and expect it to be the same as before just end up being disappointed in the end. Just look at the Ducktales remake for us cartoon fans. Terrible.

Let’s get back to the 2018 Topps Big League set, they don’t have any base cards that look like the ones I just discussed, but they do have what 95% of base sets do include, which is the Rookie Cards. They go along with the veteran players and legends of the past in this set.  Rookie cards can be easily defined in the base set because they contain the RC logo. RC stands for Rookie Card. It’s the same way for every sport.

Here is a closer look at the logo you will be looking for in a rookie card. This example is from a football card rookie.

Rookie cards will also include the base card numbering like the Jeff Bagwell above.

Some products, like 2018 Topps Big League include something called a subset. A subset includes different looking cards but is still a part of the main base set. They will still have the same type of numbering on the back of the card like the Bagwell above and may include titles like Stat Kings (below), League Leaders, BallPark Landmarks (below) Teammates, Team Cards,  Etc.

Here are a couple examples of those,

That ends our look at 2018 Topps Big League base set and breakdown.  This set was intended for young collectors or newbies with its simplicity.

The other product I wanted to take a look at was 2018 Bowman Platinum because there is a minor complicated part to it that isn’t comparable 2018 Topps Big League. This is a part that took me awhile to notice when I started buying products like it and, if you are new to the hobby, it may be unnoticed by yourself as well.

Here is a look at the Base Card design for 2018 Bowman Platinum. A much different look than the Big League. But, as I said above, base cards come in many looks.

The 2018 Bowman Platinum base set also includes Rookie Cards like the 2018 Topps Big League set. Most base sets do but there are few that don’t.

However, any brand name with Bowman in it, includes Prospect Cards. Prospects are players who have not quite reached rookie card status, which means most of the time they haven’t played in the majors yet or haven’t  played much in the majors or they may have been called up to play just before the product was made so they still didn’t make the rookie card cut.

Topps produces these player’s cards before they are true rookie cards. This in itself is a confusing topic. Some people consider prospect cards to be rookie cards but others consider them a separate entity.  In my opinion, they are not rookie cards. They don’t have the rookie card logo and without that, they don’t categorize that way in my collection at least. I consider them as they are called Prospect Cards.  My biggest issue with prospect cards is that the same player can have up to 3 or  4 of them before they get a true rookie card. It makes baseball card collecting so hard sometimes. In the other major sports, there  are only straight-up rookie cards with the logo which is great because it leads to no confusion.

Let’s look at the design for these prospect cards. One would think they would be in the base card set.

Just check it out side by side with the Devers rookie example.  You must be assuming by now, yup, I need to chase these prospect cards as well for the base card set.

Well you don’t need to.

When you flip the two cards over, you will see otherwise. The Devers you see has a number 2 at the top meaning that’s apart of the base card set. The Acuna on the other hand, has a TOP-2 which means this is NOT apart of the base card set and instead is a Top Prospect set of it’s own.

See where it can be confusing? Same design but are treated differently.

You will find these types of cards in regular Bowman as well. Just look at this 2016 Bowman Kris Bryant which is apart of the base set

And now this 2016 Bowman Dansby Swanson which is apart of it’s own Prospect Set. Just remember to always look at the backs of the cards and the numbering. They are your biggest guide.

Despite the little Bowman hiccups in telling the difference between prospect and base, base cards are pretty simple to define and tell. If you buy a pack of cards and there are 10 cards in the pack, odds have it you will find 8 or 9 of those as base/common cards.

I hope today’s post was helpful to you and especially for the newbie and returning collectors. Maybe it even helped out some of the veteran ones as well. The next post we will focus in-depth on parallels and inserts you can find.

Let me know in comments your thoughts on this series and if you think it will be helpful and which breakdown you are looking forward to the most.

Til next time, keep collecting!


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