Making Better Cards – Part 1: Better Relic Cards

August 22, 2008 at 9:19 pm | Posted in Making Better Cards | 13 Comments

This is Part 1 of a series of posts with free advice for Topps and Upper Deck about how to improve their baseball cards to make collectors happier, which will in turn help them to achieve their primary goal of making more money.

Relic cards. Memorabilia cards. Game-used cards. Jersey Cards. Or bat cards, glove cards, hat cards, pants cards, batting glove cards, or jock strap cards. No matter what you call them or what’s inside of them, you have to admit that the first time you saw one, you thought they were the greatest thing to happen to baseball cards since, well, cardboard. The idea was revolutionary, and it was very cool. It’s funny how we take these cards for granted now, but think about it, most of us as collectors own pieces of jerseys and other items that were worn and used by some of the biggest stars in the game, and if we’re lucky, some of the greatest stars of all time.

But the reality in today’s hobby is that relic cards have lost a lot of their luster. Although it was thrilling for me when I first bought game-used Don Mattingly cards and when I first pulled cards of other players in packs, now I treat most relic cards with little more respect than commons. And I believe that most collectors have gone through a similar change in attitude over the years. Let’s face it, when you can buy memorabilia cards of All Stars, and in some cases Hall of Famers, for a buck or two on eBay, something seems terribly wrong.

There are many reasons for the lack of interest in today’s relic cards.  One reason is that there are simply too many of them.  They’re too easy to find in packs, not rare enough, and as a result, less desirable to collectors.  A simple conclusion is that relic cards would be better if they were more rare.  But that’s certainly not the only thing that can be improved.

Take a look at this 2008 Triple Threads card of Scott Kazmir, Jake Peavy, and Johan Santana that I recently bought:

The card features “relics” from three of the best pitchers in baseball today.  It’s also a visually appealing card, and it’s numbered to 27 (though with different parallel versions, there are more than 27 cards like this).  So, judging by what we see on the front, the card is great.  Now take a look at the back:


Notice how Topps uses the word “relics”.  They don’t tell us if the “relics” are pieces of a jersey, pants, or heaven forbid, something else.  It’s left to our imagination.  I’m sure that we’d all like to believe that the relics on cards like this are pieces of a jersey, but with all of the single-colored relics that you see on cards, I believe it’s likely that they’re pants.  But Topps knows that “pants cards” would be less popular than “jersey cards” so they decide to be vague and call them “relics”.  We’ll never know what exactly they are.

Now check this out:


Say what?  This statement opens the doors to all kinds of possibilities.  Topps is covering their behinds here.  Notice that Topps doesn’t even assure us that it’s been used in a Major League game.  By saying this, the “relic” could be something that the player wore in spring training, the minor leagues, college, high school, or little league.  And if it was worn in the majors, there’s no guarantee that it was with the player’s current team.  It doesn’t seem like such a great card anymore, does it?

Let’s see if Upper Deck does any better.  This is from the back of a Chipper Jones memorabilia card from 2008 Goudey:

You have received a Chipper Jones Game-Used baseball card.  On the front of this card is a piece of memorabilia that has been certified to us as having been used in an official Major League Baseball game.

Well, that at least makes me feel better than the Topps disclaimer.  At least we know that it was used in an “official Major League Baseball game”.  I suppose it could still have been used in spring training, but that’s at least better than other possibilities.  We still don’t know the season that it was used, or if it’s a jersey or pants.  I’m not sure that I like the “certified to us” wording because it seems like Upper Deck is trying to protect itself if the memorabilia is ever found to be not authentic.  Who exactly is doing the certifying?  Are they not getting the memorabilia directly from MLB or the teams?  If they aren’t, then why not?

Now, let me show you my favorite relic card in my collection.  I bought it about a week and a half ago at a card show.  It’s of the great Willie Mays:

I was able to buy this card for $15.  For a guy who is definitely one of the top 5 players in history, I think that’s a great deal.  The card is from 2002 Topps American Pie.  I’m not familiar with American Pie since I wasn’t collecting in 2002, but if this card is representative of the quality of the set, then it must have been great.  Here’s what I like.  The card clearly states that the relic is from 1973 and the picture on the card is from Mays’ 1973 Topps Card!  It’s brilliantly straightforward.  Granted, a game-used Willie Mays Giants jersey from the 1950s would be even better, but I love the fact that I know exactly what season it was used.  1973 happened to be Mays’ last season, so when I look at the card, I can picture the old, grizzled veteran putting on his uniform for one last chance at glory.  This is much better than having no idea what season it’s from.

And the back of the card:


We still don’t know if it’s a jersey or pants, but it’s from a uniform that was worn by Willie freakin’ Mays, so I can’t complain.  Also, I like that we can see both sides of the relic.  That is a good idea for all relic cards.

So in summary, here is what the companies can do better:

  • Tell us what exactly the relic is.  If it’s a jersey, that’s great.  If it’s pants or something else, tell us that.  Yeah, the pants would be less desirable, but doing it this way would make the relic cards that we really want (jerseys) more rare.  We’ll like the cards better if we know exactly what it is that they contain.
  • Only use relics from regular season Major League games.  All Star games or postseason games are fine too.  I could also live with spring training relics if they’re marked as such.  Then in the disclaimer on the back, boldly proclaim that the relic was used in an official Major League baseball game.  Eliminate the vague and ambiguous wording.
  • Be as specific as possible about when the relic was used.  Seriously, you should at least be able to tell us the season.  I know that the same jerseys are used in multiple games, but if you could give us some idea about what month or time period in the season it was used, that would be great.
  • Get the relics directly from MLB and the teams.  Do not buy them from third parties except for a retired player.  That’s the best way to ensure that they are authentic.
  • Don’t be afraid to show both sides of the relic on the card, like the Mays card shown above.  Showing both sides makes the card better.
  • Match the picture on the front of the card to the relic that is in the card.  In other words, use a picture of the player in the type of uniform that you’re putting into the card.  Don’t show a picture of the player wearing a different team’s uniform.  If the relic is from a home uniform, show a picture of the player in a home uniform.  Do the same with road uniforms.

There you go.  If the card companies choose to take my advice, the relic and memorabilia cards that they produce will be much more highly in demand from today’s collectors.


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  1. Of course, it would take editorial effort from the card companies, but matching picture-on-card to relic-in-card is a great idea.

  2. the whole thing is a great idea…

    I would love for this to take root…

  3. Excellent ideas and spot-on analysis of today’s market!

  4. For all that is holy, not every player needs a jersey card. Maybe one per team and more if there is more than one big star per team. Also, how many jersey “sets” do you really need? Parallels are a pain in the kester.

  5. DLP has the best. Check out this post:

  6. DLP always had the best. Check out what brand most of my Dawson cards are. Leaf and Playoff. Not only did they produce the best looking cards, they told you right on the front of the card whether it was jersey, pants, patch, prime, etc. And often times had a picture of the actually jersey the swatch was cut from on the back. Not only that, but almost all of the ones I have are #’d to 100 or less, which is something important I think you left out. Even if you limit production to one or two players per team, that doesn’t matter if each player has 1000 of the eact same gu card.

    Personally, unless it’s a patch, I think all current “relic” cards are basically worthless, and the secondary market prices drive that point home.

  7. Good points about DLP. I only collect baseball cards though, so the quality of their football cards doesn’t really help me. But I do wish that MLB would give them a license again and I am looking forward to the upcoming Donruss Threads baseball product. I have some Don Mattingly relic cards from Donruss/Leaf/Playoff and I agree with Charlie that they are better than what we’re currently seeing from Topps and Upper Deck.

  8. I was just having this same conversation with someone last night. Card companies shouldn’t be vague about these kinds of cards, period. It would be nice to have a relic card you were 100% confident about instead of a thick piece of cardboard with a company behind-covering statement.

  9. I’ll have to double check my collection but I’m almost 100% positive that one of my Ladainian Tomlinson jersey cards actually lists the game it was used for. Something to spend my afternoon researching. Anyhow, I always wondered why card companies never put that piece of information on the card. As a fan it would add to the authenticity of the card.
    The one thing I hate is when the patch doesn’t match the picture. Or worse, if you have a guy like Drew Brees pictured in his Saints uniform but the patch is obviously from his Charger playing days. Can the card companies at least have some sort of quality control?

  10. Great writing Dave. You just made me remember my Fergie Jenkins GU card with the Cubs logo and Wrigley Field on the front of the card.. and oh yeah, a piece of jersey from his Red Sox uniform. Ughh…

  11. Preach it brother! Can I get an AMEN!!

  12. Gotta agree, especially with Patricia’s comment.

    How difficult is it to get the swatch to match the jersey in the picture. Leaf was one of the best at doing this.

    I spoke with a UD rep at the National in AC a couple years ago and he gave me a line of crap about how the player, had to authorize the card so sometimes they don’t match. Yeah, right.

  13. Topps can’t make that guarantee because they’ll put anything in a card. They oversaturate the market so much it’s not even funny.

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