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The Wacky Side of Baseball Cards

Even if you don’t collect baseball cards, you probably know the basics: Player photo on the front, stats on the back, and maybe some cool collector’s cards or autographs or chips off a game-used bat mixed in to the set. But since 2006, the Topps company has been shaking up what to expect from baseball cards with its Allen & Ginter World’s Champions series.

When you open a Ginter pack, you’ll find standard-sized cards of current players like Mike Trout and Madison Bumgarner, as well as smaller, thinner cards of those players and cards of baseball greats like Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig. But you’ll also pull cards about airplanes, cats, and festivals. Or a card with a Miss America winner or one featuring a famous sports surgeon. You might even get a card that you can redeem for a “baseball card” made of plastic with a preserved spider inside.

“Part of what’s fun about this is, What would make us excited to get on a card?” says Matthew Perrone, Senior Brand Manager at Topps Baseball. “No idea is off the table.”

Seriously. In the 2014 set alone, which is available now, you can find a sets about old stadiums (Fields of Yore), explorers (Into the Unknown), legends (Larger Than Life), rogues (Outlaws, Bandits & All-Around Ne’er Do Wells), birds (Urban Fauna), artists (Where Nature Ends), and dangerous animals (World’s Deadliest Predators). And then there’s The Amateur Osteologist, which allows collectors to redeem special cards for pieces of a rat skeleton. Oh, and we shouldn’t forget DNA Relics, which are cards featuring strands of hair from the heads of Alexander Hamilton and King Edward VIII.

So is this a series of baseball cards or a museum in a box? A bit of both, actually — just like the set that inspired it, “where pretty much anything went,” Perrone says.

Topps’Ginter series is modeled after the original Allen & Ginter cards, which debuted in 1887. That series is considered to be the first set of baseball cards ever produced. But it did more than just feature baseball. The pieces of cardboard had an advertisement on one side and an image of a ball player, boxer, wrestler, bird, or flag from around the world on the other.

“My favorite is called 'The World's Dudes,'” Perrone says. “And they had, like, Neapolitan Dude and Beach Dude and Exercising Dude, and it was just pictures of guys doing stuff.”

From the start, Topps embraced the anything-goes spirit.

The current Ginter sets begin with 10 people in a room spitballing ideas. The team leaves that meeting with a couple sheets of paper loaded with possibilities, and they go off to see what can be included in that year’s collection. 

Every set includes active baseball players as well as all-time greats. But when it comes to non-ball players, the Topps team always starts with champions. Previous sets have included soccer, football, basketball, and wrestling champs. But off-the-wall winners have been included, too, like a Spelling Bee champion, World Air Guitar champion, World Texting Champion, and even a Westminster Dog Show champion. (The dog is Perrone’s personal favorite: he dipped its paw into ink to get its “pawtograph” onto a card.)

But from there, all those other weird and off-the-wall cards are based on what gets the team at Topps excited. That could mean cards about outer space or cards that can be ripped open to find another card inside or a card about a flower printed on special stock that includes seeds so it can be planted to grow that plant. 

Not everything has worked — Perrone wanted to include snowglobe cards, but he says there was no way ensure the water wouldn’t evaporate — but most has. And the results have been some of the oddest and coolest cards ever created. 

“The sky’s the limit here,” Perrone says. “You can do whatever you want. No idea is too wacky.”

topps allen and ginter
SI Kids topps allen and ginter
SI Kids topps allen and ginter