There has been a lot of talk on the boards recently about game-used cards. Specifically, questions have arisen as to their authenticity and the reasons why many cards picture a player in a uniform other than the one that is featured as a “relic.” As a former employee of a major manufacturer, I feel I can share an inside perspective. I worked at Topps in 2001-2002 as a Database Administration Coordinator, which is a fancy term for statistical data entry for card backs, and then as a Baseball Editor, which means that I set checklists and chose photos (among myriad other jobs). Things have no doubt changed since then, but I can tell you how things worked when I was there.
A card begins with a Brand Manager, who is effectively a money person. They set the parameters of a product, meaning they decide how many base cards, inserts, and chase cards are on the checklist. They also set the budget, and these days that largely revolves around the relic and autograph cards. This person will usually set a checklist for those cards, and they do so based on a rough knowledge of how much a jersey, bat, or autograph of each player costs. They also know that a single jersey will yield about 2000 swatches for cards, while a bat will yield about 1200 usable slices. They can then set the target for ratios of inserts to base cards, which allows them to balance costs versus SMRP. The Brand Manager will then give this information to an Editor.
I received this information for every product that I edited at Topps, and, because they take the most steps to manufacture, my first job for each product was to choose photos for the autograph and relic cards (please keep in mind that this was when ALL Topps cards featured on-card autos – don’t we all long for those days again). I was never privy to the amounts that were to be printed for each card; I was only to construct a checklist in excel and choose photos. Eventually I would edit the sheets of these cards before they went to the printer.
At the same time that I was set to this work, the Brand Manager would contact a purchaser for the needed materials. I only have a very rough idea about purchasers whose job was to procure the game-used material for the relic cards. I cannot speak to the sources of this material (which is certainly a valid concern of many collectors), but there are two points I want to make here:
First, these are only the preliminary steps in a manufacturing process that is more complicated and widespread than most people realize. I had a steady stream of products to edit, but I never communicated with the purchasers of the material, the printers of the cards, the cutters of the material, the manufacturers of the cards, or the people responsible for pack-out (who are all different and usually all in different locations). I had a very clear-cut job to do, and so did they, and the co-ordination of this process for large subject lists of multiple products at a time is more logistically complex than the average collector knows.
Second, for the large majority of game-used cards, the process of setting a checklist and creating a card happens BEFORE the purchasing of the game-used material, and the purchasers of that material are given a tight budget and a short time frame. I personally don’t collect game-used jerseys, but I can easily imagine that finding authentic items of a specific player are not easy to find on short notice. Further, we were certainly more concerned with the player than the team, as the cost of using a player’s likeness was fixed, but we all know that it would be much more cost efficient to buy, say, a jersey that Wade Boggs wore with the Devil Rays than one he wore with the Red Sox.
This is a brief picture of the manufacture of game-used cards. It is not my place or purpose to excuse any manufacturer for anything, but I did want to explain the process from the inside. I think it is very easy (and legitimate) for collectors to ask, “Why can’t Topps do this right?” My answer is that it is harder than one thinks to manufacture these things, and the employees of Topps often have (and are financially obligated to have) a different picture of what constitutes “right” when getting a product out of the door.
I welcome any and all comments or questions. Just send a PM to mighty bombjack.