1993: The Last Great Year for Basic Baseball Cards?

Featured Cards: 1993 Bowman #104, Kevin Stocker; 1993 O-Pee-Chee #169, Dave Hollins; 1993 Donruss #224, Mickey Morandini; 1993 Fleer #100, Darren Daulton; 1993 Score #289, Bob Ayrault; 1993 Topps #585, Ricky Jordan; 1993 Upper Deck #267, Wes Chamberlain; 1993 Pacific #240, Terry Mulholland

I’m going to sound like something of a curmudgeon, but I’ll just put it right out in front: 1993 was the last great year for basic baseball card design (and no, this has nothing to do with the ’93 Phillies). This is a huge deal because by 1993, I was 21 years old and these were not the sets of my youth — the type for which a significant percentage of collectors feel the most nostalgia. By then, I shifted all of my collecting efforts into assembling a Phillies-only collection, and outside of those acquisitions I saw very little else. In fact, back when these cards appeared in ’93 I don’t think I was thinking that much at all about the design of those cards in comparison to what came before and after.

However, this part summer an old friend gave me his baseball card collection, which was overwhelmingly comprised of ’90s and early ’00s issues. As I sorted through and cataloged them, I gained a whole new appreciation for the 1993 Donruss, Fleer, Score, Topps and Upper Deck base sets. The overriding reason was simple: collectively, they were the last gasp of the basic baseball card design as we knew it. That was the last year we saw a large array of clean, traditional borders, no foil stamping or special finishes (other than a basic gloss applied to both the front and the back), very few parallels, and sets large enough to portray the entire starting lineup, starting rotation, and a handful of relievers & reserves. It also simultaneously, somewhat paradoxically, marked the first time that all the major manufacturers, in unison, finally designed proper full-color backs. Not all the sets were good ones — there were certainly a couple designs that were lacking. However, as a group, they did provided a strong presentation of card design before full-bleed photos, high-gloss, foil stamping, foil printing, oodles of parallels and SPs went rampant throughout the hobby. Here’s a quick review of the base sets that year.

1993 Donruss

Simple design on the front, but it’s the back that made this a wonderful departure for Donruss. Donruss went full color on the backs in 1992, but despite the addition of a portrait photo, the backs were still basically recognizable as a variation on the ones Donruss produced for the previous 10 years. However, back of the ’93 sets was a real change for Donruss. True, they still only gave five years of stats, but the portrait layout and larger photo represented the first truly new Donruss backside layout since the 1982 set. Unfortunately (from a traditional perspective), this set was also the last time that Donruss would issue base cards using traditional borders of any color until 2001.

1993 Fleer

Fleer embraced proper, full-color backs in ’91, and it’s ’92 set was actually better than this one. The gray borders make the set look somewhat dingy, and I really would’ve loved to see what they would have looked like with white borders and a simple, thin black frame around the photo and the team name/player/position line. However, like Donruss, Fleer kept the design simple and clean, and while the poster-like font and presentation on the back of the card bordered on overkill, they did a nice job of incorporating an action photo onto the back of the card. In ’94 Fleer would produce arguably their best set ever, but some tasteful, judicious foil stamping placed it outside the realm of traditional design, and they wouldn’t release a traditional-style set again until the release of 2000 Fleer Tradition.

1993 Score

Although all the major base sets employed a very simple design, this set was almost certainly the least inspired and most boring of the major base sets in ’93 (the very stolid font used on the front of the card certainly didn’t help). Score was at the forefront of full-color backs bearing pictures back in ’88 and as was the case with Fleer, their massive, 893-card ’92 set was actually much better. In fact, the only Score set worse than this one is the 1990 issue. To their credit, despite embracing parallels and modern card design elements in their other offerings, the Score flagship set continued to employ solely traditionally design elements right up through the demise of the company in 1998.

1993 Topps

Although Topps finally issued cards bearing full-color backs in ’92, it was really done half-assed. The backs did not contain pictures of the players, and Topps did not apply any kind of gloss finish to the backs. That changed with its ’93 release. However, the design of the card was somewhat schizophrenic; the relatively simple front design (which inexplicably did not include the player’s position) was offset by a much-busier back design that doesn’t readily appear to use any of the same design elements. Nonetheless, the total effect made it one of the better Topps flagship issues of the decade. Sadly, the ’94 set marked the last time Topps did not make use of foil stamping on the base set. Nowadays, Topps’s retro sets (Heritage, Allen & Ginter & Gypsy Queen) are the only place you can find them employing solely traditional design methods, but even then Topps has to muck the sets up with SPs and parallels out the wazoo. Interestingly, although Topps arguably started the practice of parallels in ’92 and were the only ones to issue a parallel with their base set in ’93, the company didn’t fully embrace parallels the same way their competitors did later in the decade.

1993 Upper Deck

Like Score, Upper Deck used full-color on its backs starting with its debut issue in 1989. However, Upper Deck did very little to differentiate the designs on any its releases during the following three years. That changed with its ’93 release. Although it uses a cursive script on the front and the design elements overlap the picture rather than frame it, the design is still basically traditional — especially when compared to Upper Deck’s follow-up release the following year. Like Topps, Upper Deck would never again issue a set under its flagship line that did not employ some sort of foil stamping or special finish. Although, I will gladly argue that the five-year run of its Collector’s Choice brand, which eschewed the foil on the base cards, starting in 1994 actually continued in a traditional manner the legacy of the original Upper Deck brand — without getting stuck in some in the same design rut.

And that’s just the five big flagship sets. In addition to these, as well as the ’93 Bowman and ’93 O-Pee-Chee at the beginning of this post, we had a slew of other sets which eschewed SPs, high-gloss, foil cards, foil stamping, full-bred photography, parallels and all the other bells and whistles that are now considered normal for so many modern issues. Most notably, Pacific debuted that year with a set that looks right in place with all the others sets already covered.

It’s interesting to look back and realize that 1993 marked a real demarcation in the way modern baseball cards are made. We tend to think of iconic sets or the introduction of certain brands as moments where the hobby underwent some sort of shift. There was none of that in ’93. However, what we did see, without anyone realizing it at the time, was one last collective effort to simply produce cards. Yes, there was still a plethora of product and inserts galore, but the sets themselves were much simpler. Looking back at those sets, I realize just how much I miss when cards were issued in the manner demonstrated by the major manufacturers in their flagship brands.

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4 responses to “1993: The Last Great Year for Basic Baseball Cards?

  1. Totally agree. This was the last year until 1999 that I actively collected.

    I missed the late ’90s offerings and wish I hadn’t.

    I like each set made in 1993. Upper Deck is the gold standard from that year and Bowman brings up the rear for their bleeding photography and horrible photo color but I like it for the most part.

    Fleer has the cool backs but the fronts really bring you down.

    Also, the ’93 Leaf and Studio sets were amazing to check out.

    I still think some of the ’93 Studio cards are the best cards ever made just for the sheer beauty of them.

    • I liked the ’93 Leaf and (especially) Studio sets, but in each case I preferred the offerings from ’91 & ’92. I’m just really old-fashioned in my preference for borders and no foil leafing on the cards. :-)

  2. Nice post–it brings back lots of good memories.

    I remember seeing wax boxes of that Donruss set in Valu-City and convincing my brother that we could do well buying and breaking several boxes, at least based on Beckett prices. When we actually tried to sell some of the cards, we found that Valu-City was the smarter one in that transaction. I have boxes of sorted 1993 Donruss cards in my basement.

    IIRC, the Fleer design was used, with a gold border, in a set available at Sunoco and Atlantic gas stations. I bought a lot of gas in an attempt to get those cards (well, probably no ore gas than I would have bought without the set as a premium, but I certainly chose my gas station based on them). I got close but never completed the set, so it’s disheartening to see entire sets going for $2 or $3 on eBay!

    That Pacific set is in Spanish I see. Were Pacific sets always in Spanish? I don’t have many Pacific cards in my collection, if any.

    • I’m sure you knew this, but Fleer did the same thing for Sunoco/Atlantic in ’94. The only difference between the two was that Fleer removed the gold foil for the Sunoco set. Thankfully, as in ’93, they changed the photos for the Sunoco set.

      Fleer also reused the ’93 design for a Fruit of the Loom set. Unfortunately, they also reused the photos from the Fleer set, thus making me rather apathetic towards actually picking them up.

      As for Pacific, the cards were either Spanish only or bilingual for their first few years. It was a stipulation for their license. I don’t know why MLB relaxed the requirement — I kind of liked the fact that non-English Phillies cards existed.

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