Featured Cards: 2013 Panini America’s Pastime #256, Jonathan Pettibone; 2013 Panini Cooperstown Cooperstown Signatures #HOF-JIM, Jim Bunning; 2013 Select #215, Steven Lerud; 2013 Panini America’s National Pastime Pastime Signatures #MS, Mike Schmidt
I completely understand why other collectors choose to stay away from the partially-licensed Panini and Leaf sets. Aside from the fact that all of us prefer to see the team logos and insignia, the efforts required to digitally remove both them and easily identifiable stadium/field structures from the cards result in a rather limited array of photograph types. In-action cards (other than ones taken mid-swing or mid-pitch) are nearly impossible, and the frequent decision to crop out the player’s hat from the photo gives the cards a somewhat odd look in the same way that capless photos do. It’s not their fault, but these issues means that Panini and Leaf sets just don’t look like proper baseball cards. In fact, until last year, I really didn’t feel much need to add any of them to my collection. Oh, a few trickled in, but there was no concerted effort on my part to add them.
That changed in 2013. Panini, in particular, started to release sets that showed that they were serious about designing good-looking sets that stayed within the restraints imposed upon them by MLB’s refusal to license its insignia and trademarks to anyone other than Topps. True, the cards still suffer from the flaws I previously enumerated, but they certainly look a lot better than the sets that Donruss and Leaf have issued over the past few years. Just as importantly, though, Panini has positioned itself as a major force in the autographed card arena. I would go so far as to say that if you’re refusing to collect Panini cards because of the lack of an MLB license, then you are missing out on some awesome Phillies autograph cards.
In my opinion, Panini issued two of the best Phillies autograph cards of 2013: the John Kruk & Carlos Ruiz dual-autograph card from Panini America’s Pastime and the surprise Tony Pérez card in Coooperstown Baseball. However it didn’t stop there. They issued the first, and almost certainly only, Steven Lerud Phillies autograph card, a large number of Larry Bowa autograph cards (remember, he had only one prior to 2013), a large number of additional John Kruk autograph cards that all used different photos — something Topps needs to work much, much harder on — and a decent array of cards that didn’t use autograph stickers. Although, to be fair to Topps, Panini did make far more liberal use of stickers, and that should be held against them.
When I looked at the final counts of 2013 autograph cards I added to my collection, I was surprised to discover that I possessed only two fewer Panini cards than Topps cards. Actually, this is technically an undercount as I am awaiting delivery on two additional Panini autograph cards that will bring the two companies even. This is in spite of the fact that Panini issued roughly half the number of sets released by Topps. I’m also willing to bet that the amount I spent on the Panini autographs was significantly less than the amount I spent on the Topps autographs — though I didn’t keep any real records that would let me conclusively answer that question.
My point is that if you love collecting Phillies autograph cards, then you shouldn’t just dismiss the Panini sets just because they lack an MLB license. Yes, some of the sets are nowhere near as appealing as Topps issues, but in addition to some of the things I’ve already highlighted, without them I wouldn’t have the number of John Kruk, Carlos Ruiz, Larry Bowa, Cliff Lee, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton or Mike Schmidt that I currently own. Panini isn’t for everyone — and they certainly do need to engage in some better quality control — but I view their presence in the hobby as an absolute plus.