Behind the Design: 2023 Topps Big League Baseball

Big League’s Bold Design

Date: Apr 1, 2023
Topics: Baseball, Behind the Design, Topps Big League Baseball
Length: 882 Words
Reading Time: ~5 Minutes

These days, it’s easy to get caught up in the investment aspect of card collecting. If you play your cards right (literally), you can make a lot of money in the hobby! 

Every month, it feels like we’re seeing stories about a new record-setting sale price. That’s awesome, of course, but all those headlines about unfathomable amounts of money can distract you from what got most people into the hobby in the first place: baseball cards are cool, and collecting is fun. 

That attitude is at the heart of Topps Big League Baseball. The last set to release before the 2023 MLB season gets into full swing, Big League Baseball is designed to be more energetic and irreverent than more traditional card sets like Series 1. “This set is really focused on the fun side of collecting,” said Topps Brand Manager Aaron Abrams, who oversaw the creation of the set.

We chatted with the design team behind Big League Baseball to learn more about their process and see how these cards came to life.

The Design Details

Abrams and the Topps team designed Big League Baseball to serve as a “Collecting 101” course. It’s the type of card set that a parent could use to show their child the ropes, to teach a new collector why so many people love the hobby.

“It’s kid-friendly, but adults are gonna love it,” Abrams said. “If they grew up in the ’90s like me, that’s the stuff I collected. I loved the art; I loved weirdness — it drew everyone in.”

So how did the team visualize that mandate? For designer Rob Grabe, it was mostly about keeping things open, paring down the base card template with clean lines to maintain focus. He tried not to get hung up on the details, eschewing his various Photoshop effects to let the cards speak for themselves. Ultimately, Grabe felt that designing Big League Baseball was an exercise in nostalgia. 

“I was informed by my childhood collecting,” Grabe said. “I started collecting as a kid, and there was a very specific look then. The designs were simple and colorful.”

Though the 330-card base set was kept clean and simple, the inserts gave the designers a chance to have a lot of fun — and with an entry-level set like this, maybe even more fun than usual. One of Grabe’s favorites is “Gameday Drip,” which he created alongside fellow designer Austin Natowitz. That subset highlights some of the league’s most fashionable players, featuring a design reminiscent of magazines lining the grocery store checkout lane.

A few inserts resulted from collaborations with other artists — Grabe says he’s noticed that Topps is making more of an effort to do that lately. The first collab is “Roll Call Wildstyle,” inspired by the tradition that started in the Yankee Stadium outfield bleachers. Those cards feature graffiti-style art from Rob Provenzano, also known as CES. The second is “Topps Big Leaguers,” which Abrams said alludes to the “Topps Kids” cards of the early ’90s. That insert, designed in collaboration with Toronto-based illustrator Drake Cereal, features colorful caricatures and whimsical images. You’ve got Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts bowling, and there’s Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout fishing for actual trout. 

“She knocked it out of the park, no pun intended,” quipped Abrams.

Grabe says that when Topps works with an outside artist, there’s a bit of back-and-forth to ensure everyone is on the same page. But for the most part, they let the artist do their thing. “We want each artist to be the artist they are and not do what we tell them to do,” said Grabe. “Because if we’re just telling them what to do, then we could have done that ourselves.”

Big League Baseball also includes a few contests — in “Become a Big Leaguer,” collectors vie for the opportunity to be featured in next year’s set, and “Big League Social Media Follow B@ck” program will earn a few lucky winners a social media platform follow from players like Trout and Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman. The follow-back redemptions weren’t part of the initial draft for the set, Grabe said, and that it was added later; the team had to hustle to hit their print dates. But if the subset is well-received, it might appear in other Topps products in the future. Abrams hinted that it might also be part of Series 2

Grabe’s favorite insert, however, is “8-Bit Ballers.” Styled to resemble the video games of yesteryear, he said it was a different sort of challenge to nail that lo-fi aesthetic. Since there are so few lines on those cards, he said, you had to make each one count. But thankfully, he had plenty of practice. 

“I trained my whole childhood in order to make that insert,” Grabe joked. 

No matter where you are in your hobby journey, Big League Baseball has something to be excited about. It might be rediscovering your childhood love of collecting and sharing it with a new generation or finding joy in the hobby for the first time. Abrams, Grabe, and the rest of the Topps team worked hard to build a set that would appeal to novice collectors, so there’s no shortage of fun here.


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