One of the fun things about digging back into old sports cards is the learning I’m doing. I’m learning about/remembering players from my youth, discovering cards of current-day general managers and coaches who used to play (sometimes in relative obscurity as benchwarmers). I’m having fun digging back into the history of championships, MVPs, record-setters, and other outstanding performances, some of which have been eclipsed in recent years.
I’m also learning A LOT about the trading card industry, and the musical chairs merry-go-round that has happened as regards ownership of different brands over the last 30 years. If I made a chart showing the brands’ relationships since 1990, it would look like one of those crazy conspiracy theory boards with circles and red string everywhere.
One of the swirly-whirlier brands I’ve come across so far is Score. Like Donruss, Score wasn’t a go-to brand for me usually, but I found more Score baseball and football in my collection than I had Donruss from those days. Plus I’ve now learned that Pinnacle and Select, two other brands that I collected a decent amount of in the mid-1990s, were produced by the same company as Score.
In the beginning, there was Sportflics
In 1986, a company called Optigraphics started producing “motion” or lenticular printed cards that would show different images depending on the angle you hold the cards. Like this:
Their first set of baseball cards was called Sportflics and it came out that same year. I happen to have a couple later examples of Sportflics cards in my collection, including this Barry Bonds card from later in the 1990s.
They apparently found success pretty quickly, because within two years, they changed their name to Score and started producing “normal” sets of cards in addition to the Sportflics sets.
The colors of Score
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a lot of card manufacturers were really playing around with color, creating colorful borders on card fronts and incorporating team colors at times. For those first few Score sets, color took center stage, as it did on these early baseball cards.
In order of appearance in the slideshow above:
- This pack of 1988 Score, the first baseball set, came out of the wrapper in this order, like a rainbow of ’80s baseball goodness. Nowadays, each of these different colors would mean something — it would indicate a card’s scarcity and value — but at this time, there appeared to be no rhyme or reason as to which cards were given what color border, at least as far as I could tell.
- The backs of the 1988 Score baseball cards are remarkable for a number of reasons. First, the full-color player photo on the back was a bit of a watershed moment for the industry. Fleer had apparently tried it on a set they’d done earlier in the 1980s, but this set seemed to open the floodgates on a new wave of more sophisticated and colorful printing on card backs across the industry. The other thing is that absolute WALL of text on these cards. It’s really amazing stuff, here’s a quick excerpt from that Galarraga card:
“Andres, a friendly sort who hits line drives with lots of pop, is called ‘Cat’ by his teammates for his grace in pouncing on everything hit in the vicinity of first base. He became one of the N.L.’s better hitters and a prime force in the Expos’ surprise showing in 1987 when he batted .371 in the month of May and ranked high in average all season long. Andres started out with a blaze in ’86, his rookie season, and was leading the league with a .415 average after his first month. Then he tailed off and in early July tore cartilage in his right knee.”
That’s just the first half! This is like the Duluth Trading catalog of card backs, just an incredible amount of exposition. They’re a lot of fun.
- The 1991 Score baseball also used different border colors on its cards, but not the full rainbow range of hues it did in 1988. The design itself is kind of generic to my eye, with a drop cap first initial of the player’s name serving as the “visual interest” component. Yawn.
- A closer look at the 1991 card fronts. The front of the packs advertised high-quality photography, but I’m just not seeing it.
- The 1991 card backs continued with the full-color portrait treatment (an even bigger, nicer photo than before) and a LOT of words about the players.
- These “Rifleman” and “K-Man” inserts are at least kinda cool, the Rifleman designation for position players who throw hard (I already had the Bo Jackson card from that subset) and K-Man for pitchers who throw hard, presumably leading to strikeouts.
The 1990 Score football set had a similar feel:
Lots of color here, I would say DECENT photography, and the nice big portraits on the backs. Note how the back of that Thurman Thomas card (slide 3) is way offcenter, but the front (visible on slide 2) doesn’t appear to be. That’s pretty strange.
At the Pinnacle (and Select, too)
Until I started research for this post, I hadn’t realized that the makers of Score also made the more premium Pinnacle and mid-grade Select sets that I was a fan of during my earlier collecting years. These cards were packed with foil and shiny/glittery textures, some of which are an awful lot like the premium cards of today.
- These Pinnacle baseball cards are all from the mid-90s (the Maddux is from ’95, the other two from ’96), and they all look like they could be inserts in a modern-day Panini set (and Panini is where the Score/Select brand now lives, so it’s fitting). That Maddux card, in particular, has a very advanced wavy texture to its foil layer.
- Same deal with this Warren Moon insert card, which has a sort of lenticular effect without the motion, just adding texture and depth to the image. Some of the surface is starting to fleck and speckle on this card, though, which I attribute to the foil printing technology not being quite where it is today.
- I picked these two Select football cards from the ’95 season to show how handsome the sets were. The Rice on the left is a base card with nice gold highlights, and the Curtis Martin rookie on the right is part of the “Certified Edition” set. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if that was Joe Burrow on the front of that card instead of Curtis Martin, it would look right at home in the latest NFL sets.
And speaking of the latest sets:
The latest Score
I purchased a couple jumbo packs of the 2020 Score NFL product to see how they look, and I was pleasantly surprised, though in retrospect maybe I shouldn’t have been, now that I’ve remembered how solid these cards always were growing up.
- Each Value Pack comes with 40 cards, and I got these for about $10 a piece, which places this squarely in the “budget” range of current sports card offerings.
- Hey, what do you know? The cards are still colorful! Nowadays the colors are dictated by the team of the player on the front, which I personally like quite a bit. There’s room for a team color border on three sides and a full white border all the way around. My one complaint would be that the photos aren’t QUITE as big as I’d like them to be, but otherwise, the design and photography are very solid.
- The backs carry on the tradition of the large player photo/portrait, though they’ve toned down the excessive amounts of text from the old sets. I like the inclusion of a fun fact about each player, very old school and fun (I’m with you, DeAndre: honey is great on pizza).
- The Game Face inserts are fine, if not a little confusing. Are those supposed to be constellations in the background?
- The Next Level Stats cards are a cool idea, with key stats to illustrate why a given player is such a badass. Here you can also get a glimpse of the red parallel set, too (the Lamar Jackson card, where the white border is simply substituted for a red one).
- The Deep Dive inserts are also fine.
- In the grand tradition of multi-player cards, the 3D subset highlights defensive leaders from selected teams.
- The In the Zone subset seems … superfluous. What Zone are we talking about here, the red zone? The card backs offer no context. Pretty boring design, too.
- And finally, a couple of rookie cards, one in the red parallel. I like the Panini-style “RC” badge the company uses. It’s standard across the sets of the Panini Universe, so each time you see it, regardless of the set, you know you’ve got a rookie card, and it’s small enough that it doesn’t mess with the aesthetics of the card at all.
While Panini is still using the Score and Select brands across several sports (and Select still stands for a higher-quality card than the entry-level Score), they don’t appear to be using the Pinnacle brand, which is perhaps a missed opportunity. At this point collectors understand the vast majority of the cards on offer at any given time are produced by Panini, and they do indeed produce a vast number of sets under a panoply of different names and brands, it does seem like the Pinnacle name would appeal to some of the collectors from my era who remember those cards as being quite appealing. They still use the NBA Hoops brand, which is a cool nod to ’90s kids like me, so why not Pinnacle?
I can’t say I’ll be in the market for any more packs of modern Score or Select product, mainly due to the price, but I do occasionally see singles from those sets that catch my eye. Let me know if you have a favorite Score set from the junk wax era, and maybe I’ll scout around for some on eBay to open. Until next time, keep your corners sharp.