The Back of the Cards - Does Anyone Still Read Them?
March 9, 2010
by William Szczepanek
It was some time last year that Covered in Wrappers from A Cardboard Problem displayed the back of a baseball card of Lou Gehrig, Topps Legends. It’s not an old card, but one of those cards of today of a player from a distant yesterday. The card is a history lesson with a timeline and interesting facts. The player, Lou Gehrig, now can be placed in the history of the time. We think of Gehrig playing in the 1930s, but we don't necessarily think of him from the perspective of the Depression. It got me thinking about the other side of cards and how often I’ve read the backs of baseball cards.
I found that I wasn’t the only person interested in the back of the cards. Joe Posnanski wrote an article outlining all of the variations on the back of Topps cards from 1954 to 2006.
Very little about card backs is ever discussed, but the reverse side can be one of the most interesting aspects of baseball cards. They complete the picture by providing information that people might not know, like what school the player attended or what city they are from. Do we really care about the back of the card today? Would we rather have another picture of the player on the back? Almost all of this information is available online and if it isn't, once it appears in print it soon will be. That's why newspapers are having a hard time. The news in print is usually old by the time it's read. That's also why baseball cards will have a difficult time surviving into the future. It's easier just to get online and Google it. When are they going to catalogue all of the information on the backs of baseball cards?
In the 1950s and 1960s the cards were a veritable encyclopedia of information. Fun facts, funny facts, useful facts, and trivia with which to impress your friends. All catalogued by however you sort your cards. Shoeboxes were the databases of the time.
In today's hyper, multitasking (defined as someone who thinks they can do two things at one time, but can't hear a word you're saying while they are attempting to do them) world of sound bites and tweets it's hard to imagine someone pouring over the backs of baseball cards looking for interesting stuff. Now what do I consider interesting?
Old cards used to mention information about military service. That doesn't happen anymore. Card backs used to mention facts about the off-season work that players toiled at, like driving beer trucks, or working in factories. No player today would be seen driving a truck unless it was an expensive vehicle that they would look good in, and we don't have too many factories left in this country anymore for them to work in, if they needed to. Interesting baseball facts might include things like Dick Stuart's minor league record of 66 home runs for Class A Lincoln, Nebraska.
The cartoons on the back appealed to kids. They made the back of the card more like a small comic book. Some included quizzes about baseball history or baseball rules. Some were facts that make us pause, like Zoilo Versalles, the 5' 10" 150 lb. home run threat.
There is actually a wiki answers page on how to read the back of a baseball card. It forgot the first step, which is to turn it over and begin to read.
The back of the card also includes statistics. I always liked seeing the minor league records for players. It showed what was necessary to move on. Career stats for long time major leaguers were also really good for getting a snapshot of the whole career. That and more can now be found at BaseballReference.com. That's why I can't understand why the last card for a major leaguer isn't more valuable. It has more information about the player than any others. Unfortunately, when a player retires or gets released, a last card is seldom produced, because they are no longer a player. Mickey Mantle was one of these exceptions, but his last card from 1969 is his least valuable. An amazing fact was that baseball statistics were not immediately available in the 1950s and Topps would actually tabulate stats, giving the kids of the time a way to compare players and invent games. Yes, seven and eight year olds actually invented things back then.
The 1962 card of Roger Maris is great because it shows the stats for his record breaking season of 61 home runs and gives a very unique bit of information that he hit a home run in his first at bat in a World Series.
Card manufacturers still spend a lot of time researching the facts that are put on the backs of cards today. Do people still read the backs of cards? Would anyone think of making a game of it?