SportKings, Topps Gallery, and Panini Diamond Kings: Sports cards as art

When I was a young sports card collector, I didn’t really “get” the whole Donruss Diamond Kings thing. Diamond Kings was an insert in the Donruss baseball card sets with hand-drawn/painted images of some of the day’s most popular players. I always thought the drawings/paintings looked kinda lame, and the design of the cards was never really up to my standards. I mostly ignored them. No offense, Dick Perez.

Looking back, both through my surviving collection and in the packs of those late 1980s Donruss baseball cards I’ve opened recently, I can still say those old Diamond Kings cards don’t really trip my trigger. Donruss’s current parent company, Panini, is still doing these art style cards, including converting the Diamond Kings inserts into its own set, and creating similar inserts and sets for football (Gridiron Kings) and basketball (Court Kings).

To be quite honest, these newer cards are quite a bit better looking. I have looked at a lot of the modern Kings cards on eBay, and I’ve wanted almost all of them. The art styles are more pleasing to my eye, and there’s more variety in the designs.

But Panini/Donruss aren’t the only ones putting out cards with drawn or painted imagery these days. I’ve mentioned before the excellent Topps Allen & Ginter and Living Set, both with exquisite hand-drawn portraiture. We’ve also talked some about the now-completed Topps Project 2020 art series, and I’ll be writing at some point about the just-started Project 70, which is a very similar project geared toward the 70th anniversary of Topps baseball cards, with famous artists and celebrities from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines creating some very inventive takes on the baseball card format.

This idea of using drawings on sports cards is nothing new, in fact the earliest sports cards were only drawings of their subjects. I decided recently to grab a blaster box each of three fairly different current sports card sets from three different manufacturers that all feature drawn/painted imagery instead of traditional sports photography on their cards — Sage’s SportKings, Topps Gallery, and Panini Diamond Kings — and do a little compare and contrast on the approaches these different sets take to their art.

2018 SAGE SportKings Volume 1

I’ve written a little bit about SAGE before, but to summarize, SAGE is a bit of an outsider trading card company founded by two of the original guys from Upper Deck, and they specialize in offering non-licensed cards with a heavy dose of memorabilia and autographs. SportKings is a very old sports card trading brand that was part of the Goudey chewing gum company back in the 1930s. The small series of cards featured athletes from a wide variety of sports, including many Olympic events. In the late 2000s, a guy named Dr. Brian Price, who had come to prominence in the trading card community, particularly hockey cards, at Parkhurst and Upper Deck in the 1990s, brought the SportKings brand back to life. In 2014, Price signed an agreement to move all the cards he was producing at the time, including SportKings, under the Leaf Trading Cards umbrella. Apparently, though, they didn’t find much value in the brand at Leaf, because SAGE was allowed to start producing SportKings cards in 2018.

The thing about the SportKings sets is they all have looked the same, every year. The design never changes: “SportKings Gum” in a banner at the top, athlete’s name in a black bar at the bottom, little black silhouettes depicting the athlete’s sport along that black bar at the bottom, and pencil/paint portraits of the athletes in the center of the card’s frame. The design harkens back to the original 1930s sets, as well. So what is there to say about this inaugural SAGE effort in the SportKings line?

Design: 2 of 5 – This is as basic a design as you will find in sports cards. It hasn’t changed in 90 years, and it certainly looks like a 90-year-old design. It’s not offensive, per se, but it’s also not what I would call a GOOD design, either. I really struggled over whether this should be a 3 or a 2, but I settled on 2 because I started to think of the sets I have rated 3 previously, alongside other sets I know of that would probably fall in that 3 rating, and it’s clear in my mind that these cards aren’t as attractive as those. Here are a few examples of these cards:

  1. Each pack of four cards comes with one “mini” card, which is roughly an inch shorter than the normal cards. These are a parallel, meaning each of the 75 cards in the base set has a mini version, as well.
  2. They really do feature athletes from a wide variety of sports. Here are pro wrestling legend Shawn Michaels and beach volleyball legend Sinjin Smith, pulled from the same pack. The portraiture and use of color on these cards is actually fairly attractive, though I think they could have probably done more with the name font (is that Arial or something? Definitely looks like a default Microsoft font).
  3. Here are the backs, which are pretty fun to read because you get to learn a lot about random legendary fishermen and powerlifters and other people who are very famous in their own disciplines, but you’ve likely never heard of before.

Card feel: 3 of 5 – These cards are completely matte cardboard, and I’m actually here for it. I wouldn’t mind if more card makers went this route — not with all of their sets, but an occasional throwback or artsy set that’s matte cardstock would be a nice change of pace. Cards are centered and well-cut. The cards come in packs that are made of a foiled paper, which is an interesting choice. One of the packs was actually ripped open slightly when I opened the box, but thankfully none of the cards inside had been damaged. Unremarkable, but solid.

Photography, er, art: 3 of 5 – I’m not an artist, so I’m not here to slag off any of the fine artists featured on these or any other cards, but I know what I like, and I know what I don’t. I can’t pretend there aren’t some goofy-looking drawings in this set, but on the whole, the blend of mostly competently hand-drawn portraits and bold color backgrounds is good. I wouldn’t personally frame any of these, but they’re not unattractive, either.

Fun factor: 2.63 of 5 – I wasn’t expecting a lot from these cards, so the fact that the blaster box came in above 2.5 rating is something of a surprise for me. This rating is derived from my rating each pack I opened on a scale of 0 to 5 based on my excitement about the cards in each pack, then averaging those ratings together. That average was helped by a single 5 rating: A pack whose lone card was a Derek Jeter jersey relic card. Weirdly, the card didn’t feature an illustration of Jeter himself, rather just an image of the back of his jersey hanging as though in a locker, but still: I got a card with a jersey swatch from one of my top five players of all time in this cheap little box of weird drawn cards. Not bad!

Also, if these aren’t licensed by MLB, how/why is there an MLB logo clearly depicted on the back of that jersey? Hmm.

Overall: 2.66 of 5 – These cards are an affordable and somewhat fun change of pace from most modern sets, so if you can find a blaster for $20ish, there are worse ways to spend that kind of money. I wouldn’t spend much more than that, nor would I hunt down a lot of boxes of these, as the sets are pretty small, and they do re-use a lot of the legends from year to year. You could buy a box of any year from 2009 to 2021 and have a similar experience, so get whatever is most available — or features relics/autographs of athletes you have an interest in — if you’re curious.

2020 Topps Gallery baseball

This set of art-based baseball cards from Topps is, weirdly, a Walmart exclusive. Why? I really don’t have any idea, but there it is. As you might expect, I got these off eBay for a good price. I gather Gallery isn’t super popular with the collector crowd, but since it’s a set based on artwork, I wanted to see what it was about. Nine different artists contributed original works of art to the set. I had opened some virtual packs of Gallery on the Topps Bunt app on my phone, and had seen some good players, so I was hopeful my pack opening luck would transfer from there to the real world. Spoiler alert: It mostly didn’t.

Design: 2 of 5 – Given that the focus of the card design is supposed to be the piece of art depicting the player on each card, it’s strange to me that Topps would elect to take up like a fifth of the real estate on the card with a freaking huge player name in gold foil on a decorated black bar. What is the deal with that? Here’s a quick slideshow to show what we’re dealing with here:

  1. Here we see a horizontal presentation of a card front. Note how the player name runs vertically up the right side (and in this case, the first name, Max, clashes with the last name on the jersey in the illustration, which is another issue entirely). Well, when you turn this card over, the card back is aligned upside down to the expected orientation given the position of the name on the front. In other words, if I slide this card into a binder page, for instance, I have to choose between the name being upside down on the front of the card, or the back of the card being upside down. WTF? Also, let’s be real: This drawing ain’t great.
  2. Here is the standard card back. I appreciate that the artist is listed for every card — it’s strangely difficult to determine what artists contribute to sports card sets like this sometimes, so I’m glad they all got credit this clearly in this set. I don’t really appreciate the way the text on the back runs all the way out into the drop shadow from the little gold frame. It looks squeezed and smooshed in a way it didn’t have to.
  3. Here’s a better drawing, this one of Jackie Robinson in the Masters short print set. I’ll take a moment here to appreciate the fairly well done marble-looking texture in the card’s border, as well as the almost overdone but not quite overdone gold accents throughout (the name is still too big, though).
  4. This Gavin Lux rookie is part of the Heritage insert set, based on the 1954 Topps design. These are about one every five packs. I’m not in love with how the Gallery logo in the upper left kind of shoves the Dodgers logo and RC rookie card logo out into no-man’s land.
  5. This cool card is part of the Master & Apprentice insert set, and it features Padres legend Tony Gwynn and current Padre-for-life Fernando Tatis Jr. If all the cards looked more like this, I think the set as a whole would be much more attractive (and the designs from previous years of Gallery do look mostly better than the 2020 version, for what it’s worth).

Card feel: 3 of 5 – I wish the cards had a bit more heft to them, considering they’re supposed to be like little works of art. They’re mostly a pretty standard thickness, pretty standard gloss, pretty standard foil, etc. But they’re competently produced, centered, well-cut, and all that good stuff.

Art: 3 of 5 – It’s a mixed bag here, but there are some truly gorgeous cards mixed in with some that I don’t like as much. For instance, I pulled this base Mike Trout card and it’s pretty great:

But that Max Scherzer card in the gallery above, for instance, is a bit of a dog. It looks like an eighth-grader’s year-end art project.

Fun factor: 2.5 of 5 – The first pack in the blaster box is a bonus pack of four “Artist’s Proof” parallel cards. To be frank, the “Artist’s Proof” thing is pretty dumb, both in this set and in the Panini Diamond Kings (as well as other Donruss sets) because it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a foil stamp on the card that says “Artist’s Proof.” It’s not like it’s got registration marks or bleed marks or anything else that would indicate there’s something special and proofy about this card. Anyway, that’s besides the point: The “best” card in that little pack was Matt Kemp, who is a journeyman outfielder near the end of his career. I got three scrubs and Matt Kemp. Not off to a great start.

I was surprised how many scrubby players are in this set. Considering each player’s picture had to be drawn or painted by hand, why devote checklist spots to players like Robel Garcia, a 27-year-old utility infielder who has barely had more than a cup of coffee in the big leagues and was most recently hanging out on the waiver wire, or Zack Littell, a 25-year-old pitcher with a career WAR of 0.1 recently given a non-roster invite by the Giants? I’ve talked some recently in this space about how modern sets with their smaller checklists and smaller packs can still deliver some memorable pack-opening experiences, even with fewer cards. I’ve been having some good times lately opening certain five-card packs, but these four-card Gallery packs just felt too sparse. I felt the absence of that fifth card every time, particularly when players like the ones I mentioned above were one of the four.

Overall: 2.63 of 5 – Kinda stunned that this set scored lower — even if only slightly lower — than SportKings. I think if I’d purchased packs from 2018 or 2019, when the designs seemed much more attractive, I might have had a better experience overall. As is, though, unless you want any of the rookies from this season and can get the box for a little bit of nothing, I’d probably pass on this one.

2020 Panini Diamond Kings

Panini sells separate Kings sets for baseball and basketball, and the football — Gridiron Kings — appear to be an insert in other sets, not standalones. They also have Racing Kings for their NASCAR sets, but I haven’t delved into those yet. I first ordered a blaster box of 2019 Diamond Kings because A. it was super cheap and B. I thought the designs that I’d seen looked cool. I had so much fun opening those packs that I decided I was going to buy a blaster of the 2020 product as well to do a same-year comparison with the 2020 Topps Gallery I’d already bought.

Design: 4 of 5 – There are a LOT of variants, inserts, subsets, parallels and so forth in the 2020 set, to the degree that I think the strong design of the non-base cards pulls up the rating a full point from the solid three I would have given just the base design. The base design is good, as you’ll see in the below slideshow, but it’s the extras that really bring the fun.

  1. This gorgeous Ken Griffey Jr. card was the first card I saw out of the first pack of the 2020 set I opened. Talk about a great way to start things off. I genuinely can’t tell if these images are photographs manipulated digitally to LOOK like paintings, or whether they’re actually paintings. On the one hand, they seem REALLY consistent, like almost too consistent to be the work of a human artist. On the other hand, even if I found out they’re just digital manipulation, they look fantastic, and there is a degree of artistry that goes into such things, so I wouldn’t be mad about it. These base cards all feature white/”unfinished” areas in the corners to make room for the player name and the set logo (which is a great logo).
  2. Here’s what the card backs look like: Plenty of team color as opposed to the white on the front, plus a box with nothing but flavor text. I ain’t mad at it.
  3. I won’t even begin to touch all the different inserts and such in this review, but I can share the ones I pulled, including this extremely colorful Artist’s Palette Ronald Acuña Jr.
  4. I also pulled this Mookie Betts Gallery of Stars card, which is also mega-colorful. You can see the great care Panini takes to find poses of players that don’t expose the front of their hat/helmet or jersey (where the team logos are, which Panini doesn’t have licenses for).
  5. The George Brett card hails from the 3000 insert set for players who hit 3,000 times in their careers. I wouldn’t have thought to put foil half-circles in the tops of those numerals in the design, but it’s kind of neat. As an aside, I really like the lighting in these images. George looks like he’s glowing a little.
  6. The Frank Thomas kid strikes again! I keep pulling Frank Thomas cards from modern product, like Maverick pulling an ace just when he needs it most, only with cards of a White Sox first basemen most people don’t think about much these days. This is the design for the All Time Diamond Kings inserts, which honor the greatest players who had earned the Diamond Kings designation since its inception in the early 1980s.
  7. In my spreadsheet I use to keep track of cards in my collection, I referred to the couple of these I pulled as “old timey Diamond Kings.” They’re obviously inspired by the legendary Ty Cobb tobacco “T-206” baseball cards produced near the start of the 20th century, and although they don’t seem to be worth a lot, they’re pretty darn cool.
  8. This last image is of three cards from the 2019 Diamond Kings box I opened, just to show you the difference in design. They’re very similar to the 2020 issue, except for the liberal use of team color instead of white on the corners and diffused through the color toning of the image itself. I like how the red of the Ted Williams image seems to “soak in,” saturating the background to a deeper sepia. You’ll also note these cards are borderless, while the 2020 base set features a white border. I like both treatments for different reasons.

Card feel: 4 of 5 – These have an interesting canvas-like texture to them, but also a layer of gloss. There are some “blue frame” special inserts that are more matte, and I think a completely matte finish to the canvassy textured card stock would have been a better match to the general artsy effect they were going for (with foil accents sprinkled in as they are, of course). That said, that’s my sole complaint: These are sturdy, well-colored, well-cut, sharp-looking cards. They don’t feel fragile or particularly prone to dings or corner damage.

Art: 5 of 5 – As I said in the design section, I really don’t care whether these are hand-painted or digitally altered to look like paintings, because they look amazing. I didn’t see a single image in any of the cards I opened from 2019 or 2020 that made me go “meh.” The colors are vibrant, the poses are well-chosen, and each card really does look like a little work of art.

Fun factor: 3.29 of 5 – That first pack, as I mentioned, led off with a Ken Griffey Jr. card. The second card out was a Ronald Acuña Jr. (the base card, not the Artist’s Palette shown above), who is one of the more electrifying players of today. I also pulled a Craig Biggio, that George Brett 3000 card, and a card of early 20th century legend Sam Crawford. These are great players from a span of about 100 years with beautiful card art to boot. Other packs featured such great era collisions as Joe Morgan and Juan Soto, Mookie Betts and Reggie Jackson, and Roger Maris and Frank Thomas. No doubles, either!

Overall: 4.07 of 5 – This is one of the better ratings I’ve ever given a blaster box, but it feels right. I really enjoyed these cards, and these Diamond Kings sets are what I have in mind when I think about sports cards that take an artistic approach. I WANT to put all these cards in binders or toploader cases, even the players I don’t care much about. They’re art, after all.

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