Around the time I started my journey of re-discovery in the world of sports cards in fall of 2020, I was talking to my best friend since childhood, Casey, about collecting. He’s been a lifelong collector of a lot of things: comic books, Magic: The Gathering cards, books, toys, video games, movies, and even sports cards for a brief time in our childhood. We often talk about collecting, and our philosophies behind why we collect things. We’re both drawn to things that are a little odd, a little offbeat in some way, and as I was telling him about my rekindled fervor for sports cards, he said something along the lines of “I wish you’d started collecting earlier, I often see Allen & Ginter cards at the store and think about you. I would have probably bought you some for a birthday or something by now.”
Ah yes, Allen & Ginter. The odd, offbeat jewel in the Topps crown. A&G includes baseball players, singers, bloggers, authors, monsters, farm implements, minerals … it’s a set of collecting cards quite unlike any other. Even before I started collecting again, I’d heard about Allen & Ginter, a brand that Topps had resurrected from the earliest days of tobacco cards to create sets featuring chase cards with strands of George Washington’s hair, to recall one memorable insert I’d heard about in past years. But since I’d started collecting again, I’d not explored that set myself.
To be honest, I’m not sure what I was waiting for. Everything I’d read about these sets made me like them more. I watched a video of someone opening a box of the 2020 product, and I was pretty impressed by the variety of cards I was seeing. I decided I would probably buy some of the 2021 set, whenever it comes out, but for reasons unknown, I didn’t push myself to buy any of the 2020 cards.
For Christmas, though, Casey surprised me with an entire hobby box of 2020 Allen & Ginter. An entire hobby box! I was thinking I’d buy myself a booster box or two, but here I was with 24 packs of these crazy cards to open, which I planned to do with Casey over Facebook video chat.
As we were planning our call and I was exploring the logistics of videoing myself opening cards (not as easy as you might first think), Casey made a joke about how he was hoping I’d get a card with R.L. Stine’s shirt on it. R.L. Stine is the famous author of the long-running kids’ spooky book series “Goosebumps.” At the time, I just thought he was making up a random card with a random person, and I laughed. The randomness of the people and things portrayed on these cards was something we often laughed about, so it didn’t even occur to me that he was talking about an actual card in the set. “Yeah, maybe I’ll get a piece of the shirt with a mustard stain on it.”
But here’s the thing: not only is there actually an R.L. Stine “relic” card in this set, which Casey must have known, I PULLED IT.
We laughed our asses completely off. I pulled the only specific card either of us mentioned before the cellophane was even off the box. No mustard stain, but there it was. And I also got the base R.L. Stine card, to boot.
Overall, this was a fun, interesting, puzzling, and overall engaging box of cards to open. I don’t normally open boxes all in one sitting, but this held my attention through all 24 packs. Let’s take a look at what I found inside, other than a scrap of an author’s shirt.
Players new and old
The bread and butter of the Allen & Ginter sets is baseball players. Topps is fairly selective about who they choose to depict as far as players in this set, so this isn’t a situation where you’re going to find the Mets’ third-string catcher on a card. There’s a good selection of rookies along with some of the more productive and noteworthy players in the major leagues. I will admit, however, because I haven’t followed baseball as closely the last several years as I did as a kid, there were plenty of players in these packs that made me scratch my head and tell Casey “uhh, I don’t know this guy.”
The design is pretty plain, but it allows the gorgeous paintings of each player to be the highlight of the card. In addition to the top players of today, there’s a healthy lineup of legendary players stretching back to the early days of professional baseball, and forward to players who’ve only recently retired.
There are also a few subsets dedicated to baseballers: Longball Lore highlights noted homerun hitters through the years, Field Generals is devoted to the top catchers in history, and A Debut to Remember cards focus on the memorable first games of certain noteworthy players. I appreciate that these have a bit more design variety.
Speaking of design, there’s one design element I can’t quite figure out: Some of the cards have a flat gray/beige border, and some have a more marbled/textured look to the border, as seen below.
I’ve read some reviews of this set and can’t figure out why certain cards get that treatment and others don’t. Neither of them seem particularly rare (the base cards I got seem to be about two-thirds flat and the other third textured). While it would have made some sense that the old players get the textured look and the modern players get the flat look, as you can see here with two second-basemen from the same era, that’s not the case.
Writers, actors, bloggers, minerals, skyscrapers and … chickens
Beyond the baseball players, though, is a rich tapestry of strangeness that taps into my love of the offbeat. Why would the world’s most storied trading card manufacturer make a subset about things you find on a farm? And yet, here we are:
Pretty strange, right? But it cracked me up each time I revealed one of these cards. Imagine sliding that bale of hay card into the sleeve of a binder page, or better yet, into a toploader for safekeeping. It’s funny! Cards should be fun sometimes! Here’s a slideshow with a few other examples of what was going on in this box:
- The Reach for the Sky set highlights the world’s tallest and most famous skyscrapers in these beautiful paintings. Nothing other than the name of the building competes with the card-front image, and the back features nifty facts about the buildings, including their height.
- The Digging Deep cards are devoted to describing different gemstones and minerals. Apparently, Casey was telling me, there are variants of these cards that have a tiny nugget of the card’s subject encased in a little plastic bubble.
- The pop culture/non-player cards included in each year’s Allen & Ginter set are apparently nominated and voted on by fans, so you end up with some pretty odd ones, including a plethora of baseball writers and bloggers (none of which are pictured here), and a handful of reality TV stars (also not pictured here). I chose these cards more or less at random, though you know I had to show you the other R.L. Stine, and I noticed the one on the right depicts Justine Siegal, who made history as the major leagues’ first female coach. Comedian Nick Thune is a dude favorite, so it sorta makes sense a bunch of dudes would nominate and vote him in.
The tiny bois (and one big boi)
One of the more famous aspects of the Allen & Ginter set is the inclusion, one per pack, of tobacco-sized mini cards. Tobacco cards are named as such because, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the early days of sports cards, they were originally slipped into the packaging of old-timey cigarette packs, and in fact were designed to give the packs a bit of structure so they wouldn’t crush in people’s pockets and destroy the smokes inside (these were the days before flip-top boxes). These cards, though, have nothing to do with tobacco other than being the same size as those old cards: 3.7 cm × 6.7 cm.
These cards feature a whole lot of parallels and variants, and feature a few special subsets beyond what is represented in the normal-sized cards. As you can see in the picture above, I found some of the Where Monsters Live cards, which name places monsters like to hide in popular culture, such as under the bed, in the closet, or under the sea. There are other sets in the mini cards, but I didn’t get any of those, so who cares? That Ozzie Albies card above is an example of the black border variant of the minis. Some also have different stuff on the back, like they’re missing the card number (intentionally) or they just say “Allen & Ginter, Brooklyn N.Y.” instead of showing any statistics. I guess that makes those cards more rare and sought-after, but I must admit I have a hard time getting too excited over card back variants.
Each hobby box also has an oversized box loader card, which comes alone in a giant foil pack wrapper. There are autograph versions of these and other variants, but I just got one of the normal ones: This postcard-sized picture of Brewers slugger Christian Yelich.
I placed it next to a normal-sized baseball card so you can see the difference. I found sleeves for tobacco-sized cards, but finding something to put this card in for protection is VERY ANNOYING, FRIENDS. There are 5×7 toploaders that this would fit in (they’re made for collectible postcards), but they only come in packs of 25, and I definitely don’t need 25. I wound up buying a pack of 5×7 thin cellophane baggies that fit this monstrosity, but I can also put normal cards in, wrapping it around twice, when I go to package them for shipping when I sell a card online.
Two more special cards
Each hobby box promises three “hits,” though I don’t think the box uses that terminology anywhere. You’re supposed to get three cards that are autographs, relics, original art cards, “book cards” (cards that fold open like a book to display an autograph and/or relic) or special rip cards, which are cards that you can either keep intact or roll the dice, so to speak, rip the card open, and find out what mini tobacco cards are inside. I’m kind of glad I didn’t get a rip card, because I would have been torn – pun very much intended – about whether to rip it or not. Anyway, in my box, the R.L. Stine shirt card was one of the three, and here are the other two:
Neither card knocks my socks off, to be fair, but they’re pretty interesting. First, the autograph by Tampa Bay Ray Brandon Lowe. This version, in blue ink (it appears he signs his name “Blue,” which is a funny coincidence) with a bronze-colored frame, is the most common form of the autograph card in this set. But even still, it’s kind of a wonder: It’s a super glossy, almost glassy card that encases the autograph itself, which is on a mini card. Pretty cool. The Luis Severino relic card is much more by the book as far as these things go, with a small shred of, in this case, a road jersey pasted in between the layers of a thicker-than-normal card. The fussy perfectionist in me is a bit annoyed that there’s a loose thread on this jersey swatch. I may take a tiny scissors and snip that: Not like it’s going to hurt the value.
I really liked opening this box of cards. I had fun talking and laughing with my best friend as we explored the cards, but even if I’d opened them alone, I would have been pretty entertained by the variety of cards I found. Once I’d opened the last pack, it dawned on us that we hadn’t had a SINGLE duplicate in the entire box. That is frankly incredible. There were a few players I’d found in base and mini size, but that doesn’t count: Those are distinct cards. I’ll run these through my Andrew Taylor Recommends rating rubric to see where they stand among the sets I’ve reviewed so far:
Design: 4 of 5 – Of all the sets I’ve reviewed so far, this one has the greatest amount of variety in card form and design. As I mentioned before, the design of the base set is pretty plain, pretty unobtrusive. It’s obviously inspired by old sets, including former A&G sets, with each card’s subject’s last name (or online handle, in a couple of cases) in a gothic style font at the top of a gorgeous painted portrait. Beyond the base set, though, there’s a lot else to like. The simple design translates very well to the mini cards, and the designs of the inserts and subsets maintain the “ye olde times” feel of the set while injecting fresh design elements and visual interest. The Where Monsters Live cards are totally different from the Digging Deep cards while still managing to maintain a familiarity. If it weren’t for the somewhat uninspired base design, this would be a 5.
Card feel: 5 of 5 – I like shiny cards as much as the next guy, but I really get excited for a nice matte or silk finish on solid card or paper stock, and that preference extends well past the world of sports cards. I love a magazine printed on robust, matte paper, maybe even with a bit of texture. I prefer posters printed on a thin card stock with good grain. That kind of thing just feels quality to me. These cards are mostly somewhere between silk and matte on the finish, and printed on a very solid stock, even at the base level. They’re cut immaculately, seem perfectly centered and registered, feel great in the hand, and did I mention there wasn’t a gosh-darned duplicate in the whole box? I have no notes, Topps.
Photography … or, uh, art: 5 of 5 – Normally I’d be looking for a lot of quality photography in a variety of situations: on-field, action, off-field, candid, posed, portraiture, etc., to make up this rating. Because every piece of art in this set is hand-painted, however, it’s a different story. First of all, the art is all beautiful. Those Reach for the Sky skyscrapers cards scream out for little frames. I can’t find information online about the full lineup of artists who were used for this set, but they’re all extremely talented. Second, I’d normally take points off because all the pictures of people are just posed portraits, so the variety is a bit lacking in that way, but the portraits flat-out work well for the base set. Trying to shoehorn in shots of people at bat or running or trying to field a fly ball wouldn’t work as well. Topps clearly thought this all out, and it works to perfection.
Fun factor: 3.75 of 5 – Since I was opening these all at once live on a video call with my friend, I didn’t do my normal thing I do when I open a box, which is log all the cards in each pack, give each pack a rating of 0 to 5 based on how much I like the cards in each pack, and then average them all together. So this is really more of an estimate – trying not to factor in the fun I had just talking to my friend as I opened the cards – of how each pack would have rated. On a whole, while there were a few packs that didn’t light my face up like a kid on Christmas morning, I don’t remember a single one that left me feeling as flat as the worst packs in a usual box. They all had a variety of things to look at, people to learn about, subsets to marvel over. The chase cards I got didn’t make me jump for joy exactly, though the Stine card certainly provided a good amount of laughs. My guess is most of these packs would have rated in the 3 to 4 range with maybe a couple of 2s and a couple of 5s (like when I pulled my favorite 2020 rookie, Luis Robert). Most boxes are mostly 2s with a decent number of 1s and 3s, the occasional 4, and a very rare 5. This rating of 3.75 is certainly a new high water mark for the blog, and I can’t imagine a box of 24 or more packs rating this high very often. Understand, though, that my first instinct was to mark this a 5 because I did have so much fun with Casey. Realistically, though, not every single pack was a 5, so I had to take a step back. I think this is fair and reflective of what cards I wound up with.
Overall: 4.44 of 5 – This is, by far, the highest rating I’ve ever given a box of cards, and it’s hard to imagine how it could be topped. The fun factor is always going to be the mitigating factor, pulling the overall rating away from that mythical 5, the perfect, flawless, Platonic ideal of a sports set, just because the likelihood of opening nothing but amazing, mind-blowing packs is basically nil. But with this set being so varied and interesting, the fun factor was about as high as it could be without me pulling some incredibly valuable rare card.
As an aside, the process of coming up with this rating did raise an interesting question that I hadn’t quite considered to this point: Let’s say I do pull a $1,000 card from a pack one of these days. In this system, that pack gets a 5 and I move on. But realistically, even if the rest of the cards in a box are garbage (which seems unlikely if I’m pulling a card like that), I’m going to remember that pack of cards and that box far more than any other pack or box I’ve ever rated. What would I do in that instance? I could do a weighted rating of sorts, rating the pack a multiple of 5 but still averaging it in as a single pack, which would boost the box’s rating. Or maybe I just chuck the rating system at that point and say “I got an amazing card from this box and that’s what matters, it’s a 5.” It’s a quandary I’d be glad to have to tackle someday, to say the least!
Thanks to my buddy Casey for the excellent gift and helping set a new standard for the cards I open for this blog!