“Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal.”
It’s fair to say that by 1996, Topps’ parallel that would be King, the Refractor, was floundering. Sure, cards featuring the print tech in Finest and Bowman’s Best products were pulling in big numbers on the secondary market but the cards were nowhere close to being the hobby heavyweight they becoma in the last decade. For one particularly young collector in the South, Refractors weren’t all that easy to spot unless under the direct and sometimes deadly Florida sun light.
Topps Company did two very important things in 1996, that ultimately would go on to change our hobby of collecting baseball cards forever. The first is the inclusion of pack-inserted, certified autograph in its Bowman flagship. Prospect autographs? That could never work. The second, was a brilliant move to tinker and upgrade its Refractor. This new, “Super” Refractor was given the name “Atomic” and appeared just once in every 48 packs according to the fine print.
Any collector who criticized Refractors for being “too subtle” or even bland could never say that about the Atomic. You’d have to be legally blind or worse to not be floored by these cards and the “Swirl” effect printed on them. Pinnacle Brands had its popular Dufex technology but in one fell swoop, Topps Company raised the bar to a level none of its competitors could ever reach. It’s no surprise that today, none of them even exists in the baseball card market.
The following year, Topps once again changed the look of the Atomic Refractor but brought back its now iconic “Swirl” in its magnificent ’97 Finest release. This is the moment when I realized that the company I had forsaken for so long, in favor of Fleer and Pinnacle, was on its way to rule the hobby once again, whether I liked it or not. In 25 years of Finest Baseball, 1997 was hands down its, um, finest moment.
Fast forward a decade or so. Fleer and Pinnacle are now dead, as a brand and a company. So is Donruss and Leaf. Upper Deck, which had seen much better days, is less than 3 years away from losing its right to produce licensed baseball cards. Meanwhile, Topps Company has reigned supreme thanks to prospect autographs, chrome card stock, Refractors, and most of all, one particular parallel called the “Superfractor”.
Returning to collecting after a ten-year absence can be a daunting, somewhat intimidating task. The world of baseball cards had changed so much since 1998 but I quickly learned that in today’s card market, nothing sold higher and generated more excitement from collectors young and old than the Bowman, Bowman Draft, and/or Bowman Chrome autograph of a rising, up and coming prospect.
Seeing my first Topps Superfractor in person was like seeing an old cousin. I recognized the swirl pattern almost immediately from my younger days of hoarding ’97 Finest. Only these cards were somehow WAY more rare, as they were serial numbered to just one copy. Much like the original Refractors in 1993, I was not impressed and didn’t understand the hype behind these dark and in my opinion, ugly cards.
Since 2007, it’s safe to say that Superfractors have grown in popularity immensely thanks to one Mike Trout. Just this year, his most cherished Superfractor rookie card from 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft sold for an “Atomic”, pun intended, $400,000. Move over, Mickey Mantle. Hate it or not, the 1952 Topps Mantle is overproduced when you compare it to the Trout Superfractor. I guess that’s what Pinnacle meant by “guaranteed scarcity” all those years ago.
“A True King Will Emerge.”
While Bowman may have introduced the swirl pattern to baseball card collectors with Bowman’s Best, a Pinnacle Brands-owned company, Leaf, actually perfected the technology on its first attempt with a now forgotten brand in 1998. The card you see below is insanely rare, much more so than ’96 Best and ’97 Finest’s own swirl cards. Although Topps can lay claim to being the first, clearly, Pinnacle/Leaf did it best.
Unfortunately, both Donruss and Leaf died a quiet death in 1998 thanks to its parent company, Pinnacle Brands, shockingly going out of business. It’s safe to say, when Pinnacle died, it took with it innovation the likes of which we have never been seen again. Today, the world of collecting revolves around game-used relics and certified autographs, plus breakers busting open hundreds of cases at a time in search of special cards. Iconic photography and unique, one of a kind design has taken a back seat.
In this decade, which is quickly coming to an end, Leaf Trading Cards, has begun printing its own version of the Superfractor. The name I most commonly run into on eBay is the ‘Super Prismatic Gold’. Not quite as catchy as Topps’ version, sure, BUT do they carry the prestige of the Superfractor? Not even close. Yes, Leaf produces a popular prospect line but without rights to MLB logos, these cards fall way short, in this collector’s opinion.
In the world of baseball cards, the Super Prismatic Gold is to collectors, as what Go-Bots were to kids in the 80s who wanted nothing more than to play with Optimus Prime and Megatron. They existed in the same universe but warmed shelves of toy stores for many years. The highest, most recent sale I could find on eBay was $326.01 for a 2018 Leaf Metal Draft. Sure, others have sold for more but you get the point.
To an uneducated collector, these wanna-be Superfractors could bring confusion. The truth is, although Topps did it first, Pinnacle Brands’ Leaf certainly hit its stride before Topps in 1998. I doubt highly anyone from the ’98 Leaf team is working in the company today but they have as much right to the swirl as any other company, I suppose. Besides, Leo Fender may have been the first to mass produce the electric guitar first but Les Paul perfected it and is arguably best remembered for it.
This isn’t where the story ends, though, because we now come to Panini America and their ‘Gold Vinyl’ parallel, which is as you guessed … another low-budget Superfractor. In my own opinion, these cards look much better, in hand, than the Leaf “Supers” I’ve seen in person but still also lack MLB logos. Unlike Leaf, however, Panini does make an effort to compete with Topps in the baseball card market.
Tragically, Panini America owns both the rights to Pacific Trading Cards and Pinnacle Brands, which means in some way, they too have a right to the “Swirl” print technology. Like I said, Topps did it first but clearly not first, best. It’s clear to collectors, though, that Topps’ Superfractor is King and the rest are merely pretenders. All you have to do is look at eBay completed sales, hobby chatter on card forums and social media, as well as even in the mainstream press.
My beef with the chase for the swirl comes from my younger days as a collector when innovations were running rampant in our hobby. The year I began collecting, Upper Deck introduced pack-inserted autographs. At 13, I held in my hand the first Chrome Refractor produced by Topps. When I turned 17, again, Upper Deck changed the game with a piece of game-used memorabilia embedded into a baseball card.
Can you imagine what would have become of our hobby if year after year, all companies did was copy each other? That’s what Leaf and Panini did by introducing their own version of the Superfractor. It was an attempt to ride the coattails of Topps Company’s record-setting, swirl pattern introduced over twenty years ago. I guess when it comes to print tech, there is only so much you can do.
You see, the company which prints cards for every card manufacturer, Optigraphics, out of Dallas, Texas, will let you print whatever you’d like with the now iconic swirl. I spoke to them earlier this year for price quote on business cards featuring said swirl, which they called a foil pattern. The representative also informed me that they have over a million different patterns similar to the Superfractor and all are available, in bulk quantities, of course.
So while companies producing unlicensed baseball cards may be be “SOL” regarding the long-term MLB exclusive deal Topps inked again this year, it appears that their high-end print technology is readily available to just about anyone who asks, even a lowly blogger with a slightly unhealthy obsession with Jose Canseco and a long-standing bleeding heart over the loss of Pinnacle Brands in 1998.
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The following individuals assisted me in gathering information for this article: SRUChris of BaseballCardPedia, Chris Gilmore of Freedom CardBoard, hobby writer, Polo Gonzalez, and Pinnacle Brands expert, MJ.