It’s time to change which stats appear on Topps baseball cards

For generations, baseball cards have carried the "traditional" stats related to Major League Baseball. Today's era, in which advanced analytics have entered into the discussion, prompts a columnist to reconsider which statistics should be displayed .

By

Sports

August 18, 2021 - 8:51 AM

Jim and Steve's Sportscards owner Steve Wilson describes the contents of the 2021 Topps first series baseball cards released on Feb. 10. Trading cards have seen an increase in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic Photo by John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune / TNS

Before retailers opened their box of Topps baseball cards in 1952, they were greeted with a letter. These cards — the ones wrapped in green and red wax paper — “were never offered before” and they “would be cherished through the years by every lover of the great American pastime.”

Trying to separate from Philadelphia-based Bowman, Topps made their cards bigger in ’52 for its second series of baseball cards and used color photographs. It added facsimile signatures to the front of cards and each pack sold for a nickel. The set — which included Mickey Mantle’s rookie — would become iconic.

But it is what the company put on the back of its baseball cards that season that changed not only the trading card industry but also perhaps the way baseball is viewed. It is what truly made the cards, as the letter said, like none before.

Topps added statistics to the back of cards, becoming the first company to do what is now considered an essential element of a baseball card. This is the 70th season that Topps has printed baseball cards with stats on the back. The stat categories it selected in 1952 have influenced the way baseball is consumed.

More than any other sport, baseball is driven by statistics. And the stats Topps printed in 1952 steered the sport’s conversation for decades.

“I can look at the back of a baseball card and tell you if a guy is good or not,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said.

The letter Topps sent to retailers was boastful, but the company was not yet confident enough in its product in 1952 to even put a year on the packaging or the cards. Unsure how the cards would sell, Topps didn’t want to date itself. So the first stat line in the history of trading cards did not say what season the stats were pulled from.

The cards listed 11 statistics for a position player — games, at-bats, runs, hits, home runs, RBIs, batting average, put-outs, assists, errors and fielding average — and provided a pitcher’s games, innings, wins, losses, win percentage, hits, runs, strikeouts, walks, earned runs and ERA.

“I’m sure that we made stats relevant from being on the back of the baseball card,” Topps vice president of global product development Clay Luraschi said. “Stats weren’t easily obtained back then. Baseball cards were kind of a way to have an encyclopedic source of information in your pocket.

“For example, if it’s 1952 and you’re living somewhere in middle America where you’re not even close to a major-league team possibly, now you’re getting Mickey Mantle in full color and with a stat line. At any other time, you’re probably just getting something out of a black-and-white newspaper. Maybe if you’re lucky and you have a TV, you see something. But in that time in 1952, Topps was bringing you as close to the player as any other medium that was around.”

A few seasons ago, a veteran player trying to make the Phillies in spring training told a reporter that the team could simply look at the back of his baseball card if it had any questions about adding him to the roster.

But after 70 seasons, perhaps it’s time to redefine what those stats are. Here’s how we would replace the 11 stats Topps put on the back of cards in 1952.

Bill Mason holds a Ryan Howard baseball card.Photo by Alejandro A. Alvarez / The Philadelphia Inquirer / TNS

HITTERS

Plate appearances (PA):  Forget at-bats, as plate appearances tell a more complete story as they include every time a batter stepped to the plate. At-bats leave out walks, hit by pitches and sacrifice flies.

Walks (BB):  Walks occur almost as frequently now as they did in 1952. Last season, a team averaged 3.51 walks per game. In ’52, the average was 3.36. From 2012 to 2015, teams averaged less than three walks per game but last season’s average was nearly a half-walk more than it was in 2012. Bryce Harper’s 148 walks from 2019 and 2020 were the third-most in baseball.

Related