Thursday, November 28, 2019

Why are Baseball Cards Rectangles?

Why are baseball cards almost always rectangles? Has anybody ever made a serious effort to answer this question?  Because I think its actually quite an interesting one to consider, but nobody that I can find ever has.

It’s the sort of thing we all take for granted, but there are two possible theories that might explain the dominance of the rectangle:

1) Baseball cards are rectangles because rectangles are the best shape for a baseball card to take.


2) Baseball cards are rectangles not because they are the best shape but simply because back in the 19th century the first makers used that shape for reasons that made sense back then (such as the need to fit the cards into tobacco packages which were rectangular) and everyone just copied that and stuck with it long after the original reason stopped being relevant.    

I raise this arcane question because there is an interesting difference in the history of the Japanese and American hobbies in this respect.  In the US the rectangle has never been seriously challenged as the shape that baseball cards take.  From the 19th century to today it has always been the dominant shape and only the occasional oddball set has strayed from using it.  In Japan on the other hand the rectangle faced some serious challenges from other shapes in the early history of baseball cards and it wasn’t until as late as the 1970s that the rectangle became the dominantly accepted shape.  

This actually suggests pretty strongly that theory 1 above, rectangles are best, is the correct answer since the historical idiosyncrasies of 19th century American card makers likely wouldn’t have affected the decisions of Japanese card makers in the 70s.  

Still though, I thought it would be interesting to consider the history and relative merits of rivals to the rectangle to double check that this actually is the case.  Are rectangles really better for baseball cards?

So in no particular order lets look at the “Big 3” other shapes: Squares, triangles and circles (and also "other" shapes).

1. Squares
Is it really a square though?
The square is the closest relative to the rectangle in the shape family so it makes sense to start with a consideration of them.  The only difference between the two is that the square has four sides of equal length rather than two.

Yet the square has almost never been used in baseball cards, which is weird.  Looking through the PSA Card Facts list of sets between 1886 and present it wasn’t until 1987 that I found a card set that had been made in a square shape – the 1987 Jiffy Pop Discs set (pictured above) – and even that doesn’t count since the cards were intended to be punched out of their square shaped backing and assume their intended shape: circles!

Its almost obsessive the lengths card makers went to avoid making squares.  Clearly from the period of the 1930s to the 1950s a lot were tempted to make square shaped card but could never fully commit to the idea.  The Goudey sets of the 1930s, Playball sets of 1939-1941, Bowman sets from 1948 to 1950 and the Redman Tobacco sets of the 1950s all toyed with card shapes that were very close to being squares but not quite: they always made one side (usually the vertical) longer than the other.  Its almost like they were daring themselves to make a square card, but kept chickening out at the last minute.
Almost a square but not quite
Likewise in Japan I don’t know of any square cards that have been made.  The shape is universally avoided.

Why the dislike for the square?  From a card maker’s perspective they would be just as easy to make as rectangular cards, you just need to line them up on sheets and cut straight lines to produce them.  Maybe it has to do with rectangles being a bit easier to hold in your hand if you have a stack of them.  If you curl your fingers up like you do when clutching a pile of cards, the palm of your hand creates a kind of rectangular spot where a pile of rectangles can easily fit, but a pile of squares would be difficult to accommodate.  

So that is one theory: our human palms did not evolve in a way that favored holding piles of cardboard squares so we decided to avoid using that shape for baseball cards.  This isn’t very convincing by itself though.

A second theory might be that the square is simply so close to the rectangle that it falls into the "uncanny valley".  This is a theory used by robot makers to explain our reactions to the appearance of robots.  A robot that looks nothing like a human (like C3PO) doesn't really bother us.  But we humans find robots that try to look too human revolting.  It seems the fact that a robot looks close, but not quite right, triggers this reaction in our brains.  It creates a bit of a paradox though, the less a robot looks like a human, the more comfortable we are with it.

Maybe the same thing is at work with squares and baseball cards.  We are so accustomed to them being rectangles that if we were to see a square one something in our brain just screams "WRONG" at us and makes us find them a bit unsettling, a feeling we don't have with circles for example because they are further removed from rectangles (like C3PO is further removed from the appearance of a real human).

Not sure if this holds up, but its food for thought anyway.

2. Triangles

With the exception of some avant garde  insert cards in recent years, I don’t think anybody has ever seriously tried to make a triangular set of baseball cards, either in the US or Japan.  
Technically not a triangle but kind of close
Unlike squares though it’s a lot easier to understand why triangles wouldn’t make good baseball cards.  The image space for the player picture would by necessity be smaller, which would detract from its look.  Producing them would also be more complicated since the sheets wouldn’t lend themselves to being easily cut in straight lines like with rectangular or square cards.  

Storing them would also be a pain.  And you’d probably constantly be poking yourself with the corners when you flipped through a stack of them.

Come to think of it, making triangle baseball cards is such a bad idea we don’t really need to devote any more time discussing it.

3. Circles
The circle in both the US and Japan is really the only shape other than the rectangle that has been used with some frequency for baseball cards over the years.  This is particularly the case in Japan, where in the early years (1930s-1950s) the rectangle and circle were about equally popular as a shape for baseball cards (menko in those days).  It was only in the late 50s that the rectangle started to edge the circle out and not until the 1970s that it really dominated.  In the US the circle never seriously challenged the rectangle for dominance like that, but during the tobacco era in the early 20th century there were several circular sets, and of course more recently in the 1970s and 1980s there were a number of “disc” sets put out by various food makers.  

The circle’s (relative) success is a bit hard to square (ha! shape pun there) with the shape’s virtues as a medium for a baseball card.  Production wise they are way more complicated than rectangular cards, since they have to be punched out of a cardboard sheet rather than just requiring a straight line cut.  Also the sheets are a bit inefficient from a cardboard use perspective, wasting more than rectangular cards do and thus increasing the cost of production a bit.  

The circle’s near dominance in Japan is pretty much entirely explained by the fact that the circle is an ideal shape for playing the game menko, which requires you to throw and try to flip over cards lying on the ground.  American cards were never intended for that purpose, which would have dented the attractiveness of the circle.  Still though, circles are pretty cool.  They roll, for example, which rectangles can’t do.  Maybe kids would have found a use for that function if they had been given the chance?  

Storage wise, circles probably aren’t ideal, but consider this benefit: no corners to ding!  That, of course, wouldn’t have been much of a consideration prior to the 70s, but I wonder if modern collector concerns had dominated back then it might have tipped the hobby into backing circular over rectangular cards.

4. “Other” shapes
Die cut cards were a third category of shapes that cards could take in both the US and Japan, though much more so in Japan in the early days.  These could be in the shape of human figures, or airplanes or pretty much anything.  They pretty much died off in Japan in the early 1950s, much earlier than circles did.  In the US they appeared in a smattering of pre-war designs and the odd novelty or insert set in the modern era, but were never really part of the mainstream.  

Its not hard to see why they never took off.  Production wise they were probably much more expensive and difficult to make.  And while they look cool they have a lot of bits that can get broken off or dinged, which makes storage a nightmare (even for kids who don’t care too much about condition).  


So what makes the rectangle so special?  The answer I think is….nothing special.  Basically the shape is only marginally better than the square or circle as a medium for baseball cards and that small difference, combined with the simple fact that the earliest makers made them rectangles thus establishing an idea that "baseball cards are rectangles" in everyone's mind, was enough to push it over the top.  Rectangles are easy to make, they fit in your hand OK, they aren’t a pain to store.  That’s about it.  A mundane answer to a mundane question I suppose, but one that I think was worth considering nonetheless!

I'm not sure but anyone have any other suggestions for why rectangles have so long dominated the baseball card hobby?


  1. I think it has to do with the natural aspect ratio of a human being which fits better on a rectangle. It seems to be more eye appealing on a rectangular card versus a square or circle. Interesting article and thoughts. Never thought about it.

    1. Oh that is a really good point which I hadn't considered. I guess that is also why postcards and photos are usually rectangular too!

  2. I wish they were still tobacco sized so they wouldn't take nearly as much space as they do now.

    1. Me too, tobacco sized is totally adequate and way easier to store!

    2. I'm with you guys too. Space is one of the reasons I've cut back on collecting this past year.

  3. My first thought was that 1948 Leaf was square, but it was a quarter-inch off from square.

    1. Yeah, I thought about the 48 Leaf set too. Not sure why but around then everyone was making almost square but not quite cards!

    2. We can add...the 1952 Red Man cards are square if the tabs are removed.

    3. I thought about those but wasn't sure if they would count since with the tabs they are 3.5 by 4 inches!!