If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the credit card industry has been paid a high compliment from the world of baseball cards.
Donruss Inc., one of the leading trading card manufacturers, has lifted the design of credit cards for a product it began shipping to retailers last week.
In a set called the Studio series, Donruss puts conventional poses of baseball players in the familiar credit card format.
Stars and superstars are portrayed on 50 gold and 25 platinum cards that could easily be mistaken for credit cards. The baseball cards are slightly larger but have similar details: the players' names and vital statistics in embossed characters on the front, black "magnetic stripes" across the back, and signature panels with the players' facsimile autographs.
In contrast to the 75 gold and platinum cards, which are plastic, the remaining 200 Studio cards are of the normal paper, but the look is the same.
Because product differentiation is as much an imperative in the crowded collectibles business as in credit cards, Donruss set out to break the mold. That's what it tries to do every year with the mid-season Studio set - in 1994, the cards showed players in front of their lockers; in 1993 they spotlighted the uniforms.
"Doing something that stands out is one's best chance for success in this business," said Scott Kelly, creative director of Donruss in Lake Forest, Ill., an affiliate of Leaf Inc., the candy company.
Mr. Kelly said Donruss found the more durable nature of plastic particularly unusual and appealing.
"We played around with different ideas, and one thing led to another," he added.
Donruss was also influenced in its choice of design by the big-league baseball strike, which delayed and shortened the current season. "Spring training is when we traditionally take our portraits," said Mr. Kelly. "We knew we had to use existing photography."
The product indicates "how widely credit cards have been accepted into the mainstream," said James Accomando, president of Accomando Consulting Inc. in Fairfield, Conn.
There is irony in this linkage of credit and baseball cards. Major League teams for many years resisted honoring credit cards at their ballparks, dismissing them as a passing fad. Today, cobranded MasterCard or Visa cards are common in all major sports.
Mr. Accomando said Donruss may actually be giving payment cards a promotional boost.
"It will get a younger group interested in credit cards," said Mr. Accomando. "Keep in mind that to kids a baseball card is currency. They trade with them, gamble with them, etc. (The Donruss set) will make a good impression."
But will it sell? Shown a Studio series sample in a New York City hobby store, Michael Gambeski, who has an 8,000-card collection, expressed doubts.
"This isn't inclusive enough to interest me, and I don't think many kids would want to buy it," said Mr. Gambeski, noting that about 500 active players are not in the Studio set. "It won't storm the market by any means."
Jon Lafayette, in the New York Daily News Cards and Collectibles column, wrote, "The last thing fans who already see dollar signs when they look at ballplayers need is a baseball card that looks like a credit card."
Victor Torres, a salesman at Chameleon, a collectibles store in downtown Manhattan, had a different take: "A lot of sets look the same. This will do well because it's so distinctive."
"So many baseball cards that are out there look alike," said Mr. Kelly of Donruss, pointing out that the market has expanded considerably since the days when baseball cards came with chewing gum and cigarettes.
The Studio cards part company with their credit card antecedents in their pricing, which is mid- to upper range by current hobby standards: Packs of five cards each cost $1.10 or $1.49, depending on whether they have a platinum or a gold insert.