Has Card Numbering Lost All Meaning?

Today, in 2019, what exactly are card numbers there for?

The answer seems obvious, but hear me out… how I relate to card numbers has come to affect how I look at my card collecting goals, and you might find that you are open to a similar change.

There was a time when a checklist wasn’t just a list, it was something of a contract between Topps and “The Youth Of America”. A checklist showed you what you could expect to find in a pack from Topps.

George Brett is card #100. Card #100 is George Brett. Pinky swear.

Yes, there were printing variations and errors back then… 1974 had Washington “Nat’l Lea.”, no-position Jesus Alou, Bob Apodaca’s misspelled name… but none of these violated the sanctity of the checklist. Willie McCovey might be playing in Washington or San Diego, but he was still #250.

Traded cards in 1974 and 1976 only served to reinforce the card numbers – 85T is an updated version of card 85, which is the card number assigned to Mickey Rivers.

Come the 1980’s and yes, some of the errors were a bit questionable, but you’re still maintaining something of a unique identifier aspect to the card numbering… Both Graig and “Craig” Nettles were #87.

Then came the 1990’s… dark times were they, my lad …or lass, as the case may be. Starting with 1997 and continuing for a number of years, flagship Topps had no card #7. Two years later, the first clearly intentional photo variations I was ever aware of was 1999 Pacific; certain star players had either portraits or action shots on the front, but the same card number on the back.  (There may be earlier intentional photo variations, but that Pacific set was the first time I knew of such a thing.)

It’s been downhill from there. Now if card #454 is for Alan Smithee, there could be a “Legend” variation featuring “Iron Balls” McGinty and a rookie variation featuring Jose Novato… And then there’s the “scratching his junk” variation of Smithee, along with the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet parallels, the vintage card stock parallel, the simulated bicycle spoke damage parallel…

On top of this are the short prints, which are numbered as part of the set, but are more rare than some of the so-called “inserts” in the same set. What kind of nonsense is that?

Almost as if to prove my point, the recently-published checklist for 2019 Allen & Ginter shows that it is a 350 card set numbered to 400; this is because there are no cards numbered from 301 to 350.

It gotten so bad that a checklist isn’t worth the PDF it’s printed on!

We like to think of a card number as a unique identifier, but it’s really just a convention that card companies are increasingly likely to futz around with.  There could be one card #7, there could be 49 cards with number 7, there could be NO cards with the number 7.

I’ve had enough of this crap, and I decided that if card companies are going to play fast and loose with what makes up a set, then I can be fast and loose right back at them about what I recognize to be a set.  For example, I generally like this year’s Topps Big League set, but I have little interest in the Award Winners, Highlights and Stat Kings subsets, and since those subsets bring me no joy, I’m ignoring them. Topps says there are no A&G cards from 351 to 400? Well, I say there are no Big League cards from 344 to 400. So there.

Similarly, with Flagship Topps… I enjoy the depth of the checklist, but find the League Leader cards (and Update’s “Home Run Derby” and “All Star” cards) to be largely superfluous. I need only so many Aaron Judge cards.

My general point is that we all tend to think of collecting in narrowly defined ways: People talk of being a player collector, a team collector or a set collector, but there can be something greater than a team collector and less than a set collector.  I hear people complain about the celebrities in Allen & Ginter, so if you want to collect just the baseball guys from Ginter, do it. If you want everybody (or everything – looking at you, “Egg”) *but* the baseball guys, do it. Just the current players from Stadium Club? Just the retro cards from Donruss? Just the inserts from Opening Day? Do it, do it, do it.

I promise you, nobody from one of the Big Four accounting firms is going to come behind you and audit your collection.

Just like you don’t have to listen to Topps or Panini, you don’t have to listen to me. I only want to point out that there’s always options when you’re collecting. You do you… or as the Isley Brothers used to say: It’s your thing, do what you wanna do. I can’t tell you who to sock it to.

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12 thoughts on “Has Card Numbering Lost All Meaning?

  1. Collect what you wanna collect… “do what you wanna do” is solid advice. Personally… I love hearing new, unique ways people collect cards.

  2. Good advice. I think Topps and Panini are intentionally steering people away from collecting sets for whatever reason, especially with most inserts having card numbers like TC-BW. I would be surprised if most base sets still have numbers by 2024. Maybe flagship Topps so they can sell factory sets, but that might be it.

  3. Checklist numbering manipulations are a marketing ploy to steer our attention towards that product. These checklist numbering manipulations are definitely getting more hobby spotlight in hobby articles, sports card forums, blog posts and blog comments, am I right?

  4. I agree with everything you have written except the exclusion of the Topps Big League Award winners – the two Hank Aaron Award cards are fantastic and just those two cards would complete my definition of the set!

  5. The snafu that is this year’s A&G checklist lends evidence to my theory that the people at Topps get their kicks out of confusing us.

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