For all the sets Topps releases each year you’d be forgiven for not tracking all of them. However, there is at least one you owe it yourself to see if not have…unless you really, really hate baseball!
The 2019 Topps 150 Years of Baseball “Artist Renditions” set consists of 20 cards, all featuring impossibly beautiful images off the canvas of baseball artist Graig Kreindler. Before jumping into my interview with Graig, let’s back up just a bit.
I first encountered Graig’s work when I ran across his painting “Henry” and just about died. The expression, the uniform, the color, the crowd, the musculature, the shadows, the…everything…was amazing to me. I had seen so many images of Hank Aaron in my life, but none had the hold on me that this one did.
I often wondered how amazing it would be if someday this image or others from Graig could be turned into baseball cards. Apparently I was not alone.
In late 2018 Topps contacted Graig and his agent about the concept of an “artist renditions” set to be released in limited print runs through the Topps website. By April 2019 the cards were a reality, with the first offering, Ty Cobb, selling 1549 copies.
“I had been aware of the business model they were working with, as I had followed their success with Topps Now and the Living Set. It was a little different than what I expected in terms of my first real baseball card project, but I was super excited to work with them in any sense – being a part of that lineage that goes back to my father’s childhood was super appealing to me.”
In case you missed it, Graig’s father was a card collector, but more on that much later.
“In a way, I liken it to comics where you have modern artists and writers handling these current issues of something like Batman, and them being in the same line with the Neal Adamses, Grant Morrisons, Frank Millers and even going as far back as Bob Kane and Bill Finger…it’s like a big family that you’re being asked to join.”
One question I had for Graig was who chose the players to be included in the set, Topps or Graig. This is something that interests me with nearly any baseball set…the hows and whos of arriving at a checklist.
“Topps was in charge of giving me the names of the players they wanted. They had the first 15 or so planned, both with the specific players and when they were to be released. For the last five, they did ask for a little input, but I don’t think that my suggestions were a huge influence in the decision making process. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just think that the players I might have wanted to paint may not have lined up with the players who they thought would be popular among their large fan base.”
While I would have loved to hear that Graig had total license over the project, I have to say Topps did a phenomenal job in selecting the players for Graig to paint. I can also imagine the good people at Topps being a bit irked had Graig decided to go with Lipman Pike or Hans Lobert over, say, Tom Seaver or Ted Williams.
The result is an almost obscenely stacked roster of top shelf baseball talent, so much so that you have to think hard to come up with who didn’t make the cut. (Two Yankees legends absent due to licensing issues were Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.)
Cards #19&20 in the @Topps 20-card @GraigKreindler mini-set. So cool that Graig’s #20 was my boyhood idol and favorite #20, Lou Brock! What a cool way to complete the set!Thanks for sharing your amazing talent, Graig! You’re a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my book! @baseballhall pic.twitter.com/iKtLiyubM1— Pete Scribner (@ScribSports) January 12, 2020
While Graig did not develop the checklist, he did choose the photographs that the card images were based on, though Topps provided some input likely aimed at increasing marketability.
“They made it clear to me that each player should be depicted with the team he’s best known for, and preferably on the youngish side of the coin. Combining that with the pool of images that Topps has the license to use via Getty, I was able to find at least 7-8 photographs of each player that I thought would be worthy.”
If you read that last sentence and are thinking PARALLELS, you’re not alone! Graig? Topps? What do you say?
One question I had for Graig was whether choosing an image for a large painting was very different from choosing an image for a baseball card.
“The thought was that if I did an action shot or a stadium panoramic [as many of Graig’s paintings are], it was going to be shrunk down to card size, so a lot of detail would be lost. Rather than risking that, I felt that portraits would be the safest bet. Plus, since I’m sure a lot of the images of these guys are in black and white, having a color representation of their face (and some jersey stuff when applicable) was the most important aspect of the artist rendition in terms of ‘connecting’ with people.”
Time considerations were a factor for Graig also since the project called for Topps to issue a new card roughly every two weeks. This too pointed toward portraits.
Among the portraits I wondered if Graig had any favorites, whether as an artist, a collector, or a fan. Were there any paintings where Graig said, “Wow, I really did a great job with that one!”
“There are certain aspects of each portrait that I really think I nailed. I mean, obviously, I always want the next painting to be the best one, but sometimes there are little spots of each that can shine or stick out to me in some way. And those parts aren’t necessarily visible to others (or even tangible for that matter) but they’re there.”
“As an example, the last painting I did of Lou Brock, the relationship between the bright, warm red of his cap and the cool green and blue hues of the dugout wall was incredibly pleasing. It was something I tried to push a lot in the original painting, playing off of color complements and optical blending. I’m not even sure if that stuff made its way into the final card itself, as a lot of nuance can get lost in the reproduction process, but I was very pleased with how the painting itself came out.”
Look again at that Brock card now. There’s nothing lazy, nothing wasted. Even the parts that immediately hit our eye as “white jersey” or “red cap” aren’t. Anywhere you look on any of these cards there is a glow, texture, and even a personality that emerges.
I wanted to know where this all came from, not just the Artist Renditions set but everything. Did Graig collect cards as a kid? Who were his favorite players? What were his favorite sets? I tried to go light since I knew Graig was preparing for a major exhibition of over 200 of his paintings in Kansas City as part of the Centennial Celebration organized by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
“I did indeed collect as a kid. With my father being a somewhat avid collector in the ’50s up until a bit after I was born (1980), I don’t think my brother or I had a choice NOT to have an interest in baseball cards.”
Okay, I know you’re thinking what I was thinking! Well, here’s the bad news…
“Like most of the people of his generation, his mother threw out the majority of his collection when she deemed him ‘too old’ for it.”
Shoot! But wait, the story’s not quite over…
“He was able to save some of his favorites. Included in that batch were mostly Yankees and a smattering of Giants and Dodgers. He managed to keep his ’51 Bowman Mantle, which always had a certain mystique about it, what with it being the rookie card of his favorite player and all. And let’s face it, it was expensive, which to me, as a kid, was extra cool. His example wasn’t even in decent shape or anything, but it still had quite an aura – so even then I was aware that it had some serious sentimental value.”
On one hand Graig’s father’s collection influenced Graig as a collector.
“Through my father’s stories, I came to ‘know’ Mantle and his teammates in a way that seemed more real to me than the feelings I had with the group of the then-current Yankees (Mattingly, Winfield, Randolph, etc). So while I was getting my first packs of baseball cards (’87 Topps – still LOVE that set), I was even more excited about picking up older cards when I could.”
“I remember being at one of the Gloria Rothstein Westchester shows in the late ’80s and my father paying $4 to get me a 1964 Topps Bobby Richardson. I held it in my hands and was truly amazed. My friends couldn’t understand why I had any interest in a guy they’d never heard of, but there I was, not being able to shut up about that ’61 Yankees infield.”
Interestingly, Graig’s father’s collection also influenced Graig as an artist.
“When I was younger, it’s fair to say that I was inspired to draw ballplayers because of my father’s baseball cards. Looking at it now, I’m sure that seeing those early Bowman and Topps issues with the illustrations must have had some kind of impact on my psyche – something along the lines of, ‘Hey, somebody actually drew and painted these things – they’re not photographs, they’re made by humans. Maybe that’s something I can do.’ I don’t remember actually having any epiphany like that, but I’ve gotta imagine that that is how what I do now all germinated.”
It was also around that time that Graig encountered the work of more contemporary baseball artists.
“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I of course fell in love with the likes of Dick Perez and Christopher Paluso. And both for different reasons. I loved how painterly and expressive Perez was with his colors. And the sleak photorealism of Christopher’s work appealed to me on a craftsman’s level. To this day, I can still remember seeing their stuff for the first time.”
I worked with Graig to track down the first Christopher Paluso piece he remembers seeing, this lithograph of Joe Sewell. (Image source from Heritage Auctions.)
Tracking down Graig’s first recollections of Dick Perez’s work was a foggier matter. He vaguely recalled the 1986 Donruss Diamond Kings subset but was unsure of the player so I’ll just go with my three favorites!
Not wanting to leave anything out I ended my interview with Graig by asking him a question I was really happy I remembered to ask.
“What’s one question you wish I asked but didn’t? And what’s the answer?”
Graig’s answer was a long one that has little to do with baseball cards but is no less essential to the overall story of the cards that inspired this post.
“That’s a tough one! The question, ‘Who is your biggest art influence?’ is always one of my favorites. And that’s mainly because I like giving the man his due. I first met Peter Fiore in 1999 as an undergrad student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I had enrolled in his class – “Painting the Light” I think it was called – not quite knowing what to expect. The description mentioned something about learning how to paint your subjects in believable space by paying attention to light and color, or something to that effect. And the idea appealed to me greatly.”
“Little did I know that that fall, I made the acquaintance of the artist who would forever change the way I thought about painting. Up until then, I was strictly a renderer. I wanted whatever I painted to be realistic to the point where it blended between realism and photorealism. And to me, that meant being able to study edges, values and colors as they appear through photography.”
“Through Peter, I learned that photography was a starting off point, that the world around me had much more to show. I learned how to work with color, and to work with it purposefully. I learned how light shapes the world around me. And this didn’t happen in just that semester. I took a few classes with him while I was in school. After I graduated, we became good friends, and I still consider him one of my favorite people on this planet. I’m always learning from him, be it about painting or light or life, and I can’t think of any teacher or friend who’s influenced my artistic journey as much as he has. For anybody interested, you can see his beautiful landscapes at peterfiore.com.”
Look at Graig’s work again and you can see this. Every detail is there, but there is something more. The players he paints are at the same time lifelike and larger than life. There is a radiance that differs from how our eyes might have seen these men but perfectly matches how our minds see them.
Normally such images are confined to galleries or perhaps just our imaginations, but thanks to Graig and Topps they can also have a place in our collections.