Christie Brinkley’s 1996 Pinnacle set goes ‘beyond presumed sex appeal’

Christie Brinkley likely was taking selfies long before you. Way back in 1996.

Want proof? Take a look at the back of that year’s Pinnacle Series II baseball card set. In it are 16 limited, random insert cards – one per 23 packs – that feature playful pictures the supermodel-turned-photographer snapped of herself and select members of the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians.

Serious and casual collectors alike may remember the initial popularity of the set and the news that Pinnacle had hired Brinkley. I was a semi-serious collector in those days, and up until a few years ago, I vaguely remembered the cards and the media buzz surrounding, first, the photo shoot, and second, the set’s release in late July of that year. (Sports Illustrated wasn’t so buzzed. More on that later.)

My memory of the card set was jolted about five years ago when a work colleague leaned back in his squeaky office chair and, from his cubicle across the narrow hallway, casually asked, “Hey, Chad. Have I ever shown you this picture of me with Christie Brinkley?”

The pop time for me to launch from my chair and dash to his office was all of 1.3689 seconds. I immediately fixed my eyes on his computer screen, where sure enough, beamed a photo of Christie Brinkley and my co-worker, mild-mannered, soft-spoken John Lucas, who in the 1990s, was the creative manager of design and photography at Pinnacle.

Christie Brinkley and John Lucas

In the photo, Brinkley is wearing white ringer top with thin, navy horizontal stripes and mirrored sunglasses. She, of course, looks flawless with her long blonde locks swept back from her face. Only few are out of place, but even those strays look perfectly placed.  If you look closely, you can barely see three of John’s fingers extending around Christie’s waist.

He must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. But, it was only Florida.

John is repping his company well in the shot, wearing a white Pinnacle T-shirt and brand-matching cap. He has Christie’s left arm on his right shoulder, and a smile that brilliantly and brightly encapsulates the moment.

John played it cool because “You had to play it cool,” he told me. “You couldn’t get star struck. You had to come across as a professional. She was very gracious and friendly, just a regular person who was very excited about the opportunity.”

As you can see in the photo, Brinkley and John are standing on an auxiliary field behind West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium. Excited to be there. The ballpark was then the spring training site of the Atlanta Braves. In the distance and over Brinkley’s right shoulder, are the bleachers of the crowded ballpark. The Indians and Braves, the previous season’s World Series combatants, were set to play an exhibition game that day. It was the first meeting since Atlanta took the Fall Classic from the Tribe five months earlier.

“I can’t believe I never showed you this,” John said as I stood in his cubicle peering at the photo on his Mac. I couldn’t believe it either. We had known each other for a year or more at that point and had talked a lot of baseball, but this episode in his life, inexplicably, never came up.

So, or course, I had a ton of questions, and John was happy to answer. I think we both were giddy to talk about baseball and a supermodel we both had eyes on since we were teenagers.

*****

The origin story behind the photo begins with John, whose job at Pinnacle was to guide the design and photography for card products, and his quest to “always be looking to break the repetitive tradition of baseball card photography,” he told me. “I was always striving to come up with photography concepts that would be different, edgy and well-received by our customers.”

Part of the issue with the same-ol’, same-ol’ card designs, at times, was with the players. They often were unreceptive to anything beyond basic concepts and poses. That conundrum came up in a conversation John had with the company’s photography director, Don Heiny, who told John about a time when a woman photographer had been assigned to a card photoshoot and garnered way more cooperation from the male players than had previous male photographers.

It was a valuable chunk of knowledge for John to store away in his memory, and it didn’t take long for the figurative flashbulb to spark about his head and rekindle the thoughtful guidance.

John was a fan of Brinkley, then 42, and he knew that she had an interest in photography from behind the camera.

“Wow,” he thought,” what if we send Christine Brinkley on assignment to spring training as a photographer for Pinnacle? The players would pose any way she asked.”

John took his idea up the ladder in the fall of 1994, sending a memo via fax – “this was pre-email days,” he reminded me – from his office in Connecticut to Pinnacle corporate headquarters in Grand Prairie, Texas.

In his memo to Michael Cleary, who was then Pinnacle’ chief operating officer and chief marketing officer, John relayed his conversation with Heiny about female photographers’ workability with male athletes, and he incorporated those thoughts in his pitch, writing:

“What experienced, female photographer is very well-known, has shot sports photography before (boxing) and is extremely beautiful? Christie Brinkley. Now I know it sounds crazy but think of all the P.R. we could get from this. The obvious stumbling block is first her acceptance and secondly the price. But we’ll never know unless we ask. Please call me with your thoughts. Thank you.”

John faxed the proposal, with the subject line: FUTURE DREAM TEAM SET, to Cleary on November 4, 1994 and then he waited.

And, waited.

“I never heard anything about it,” John recalled, until I asked someone there [in Texas] about it, and they said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s all everyone is talking about.’ I was really happy.”

That, I’m sure, is an understatement.

Nearly a year later, and after the usual back-and-forth negotiations with Brinkley and her representatives, John, his photography director, Heiny, and an assistant left their offices in chilly Connecticut for the warmth and excitement of spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida.

In the planning stage, they selected a group of players from the Braves and Indians as their subjects for this innovative, new card concept. “Both teams had really good and popular players, which made for strong collectable cards,” John told me as I, still astonished, stood in his office, hanging on every word. “At the time, these guys were baseball superstars, and their cards were collectables.”

The original plan had been to photograph six players from each team for a total of 12 cards in the set. However, for whatever reason – John does not recall – four other players were added for a total of 16 cards.

The players were, from the World Series champion Braves: Greg Maddux, Ryan Klesko, David Justice, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, Javier Lopez, Marquis Grissom, and Jason Schmidt. From the American League champion Cleveland Indians were Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jim Thome, Julio Franco and Kenny Lofton.

Once Pinnacle photographers met Brinkley at the spring training site, the shoot ran relatively smoothly. That is often not the case because there are “so many variables,” John said, “when you’re dealing with professional athletes.”

But, John was right in the reasoning behind his idea. “I figured if Christie said, “Hey guys, do this, do that – beyond the normal poses – they would certainly be cooperative and do it. And, they did!”

Well, most everyone.

Teaser alert: Albert Belle was a bit of a challenge.

John and Brinkley separately brainstormed ideas for poses. Pinnacle gave its model-slash-photographer a bio sheet for each player. She read those and developed concepts. John knew baseball and knew oodles about each of the players. Many of the props used the card photos were his idea, and some came right off the top of his head.

Literally.

“That fedora Fred McGriff is wearing, that was mine,” said John, who also designed the art for the cards. “And, I took a drill and cut into the baseball,” to give the appearance of teeth marks on the leather. McGriff is holding the ball near his open mouth as if he had just taken a large bite into the leather. The concept for McGriff’s card, No. 6 of 16, was a play on his nickname the Crime Dog, after McGruff, the animated bloodhound who appeared in PSAs in those days and was known to “take a bite out of crime.”

“We did quirky little things to make it interesting,” John recalled.

Marquis Grissom and Kenny Lofton were two of the Major League’s top base stealers at the time, and Brinkley wanted to illustrate that fact on the card. For Lofton, who had stolen 54 bases the year before, she had the speedster pose holding a base in each hand as if he were literally stealing bases. Brinkley posed Grissom, also known for blazing the base paths, in a mock run with a radar gun pointed in his direction. When you look at the card, that’s John’s right hand holding the radar gun.

John was the mastermind behind Braves’ pitcher Tom Glavine’s card. Knowing that Glavine was “a big golfer” John said, as were many of his teammates, they posed him on a pitcher’s mound, in full baseball uniform, with a pitching wedge ready to strike a baseball. “It was almost like he was chipping out of a sand trap,” John said.

Speaking of chipping, or more precisely, Larry “Chipper” Jones in this case, Brinkley proposed the idea to pose the then young ballplayer with his Braves cap on backward, his blue jersey partially untucked and sleeves rolled-up, and thick eye black across his cheeks. He was blowing a bubble as big and round as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

The next day, the Greeneville (South Carolina) News published a quote from Jones saying, “All right, I’ve got Christie Brinkley undressing me.”

In addition to the card, Brinkley’s photo of Jones made Beckett Baseball Card Monthly’s June 1996 cover with a big, bold yellow headline that read: “Uptown Boy.” An inset photo shows Christie brushing makeup on Chipper’s nose.

Jones wrote about the experience in his 1997 book “Chipper Jones: Ballplayer,” claiming he had always had a crush on the model – of course, he did; everyone did – and worried about catching grief from Braves’ skipper Bobby Cox, who as Jones wrote “was a stickler for how you wear your uniform… But hey, she did with me as she pleased. What am I going to say?”

Way to take one for the team, Chipper!

On the card’s back, under the words “Christie Brinkley Collection,” is a fashion-editor-style description of the photo concept. It reads:

“Struck by Chipper’s youth, Christie rumpled his shirt, smudged his eye black and stuck a wad of bubble gum in his mouth to get that “sandlot” look.”

Jones and most of the other players we’re willing to play along, just like John had imagined back in his Pinnacle office months earlier when he developed the concept. “Their jaws were on the ground, smiling like little puppy dogs and doing everything she asked,” he recalled.

But, Albert Belle wasn’t having it.

Surprised?

“Christie and I both had concepts for Albert, but he said no to all of them,” John said.

So, they scrambled to find an idea Belle would agree to. John remembered the game in Belle’s then then recent history when the slugger yelled toward the Boston Red Sox dugout and flexed his bicep to show where his home run power originated. “Everyone knew about this, and we wanted to show his jacked biceps,” John said.

Albert’s response to the idea?

“No! I don’t repeat myself,” he said to John and Brinkley.

“Wow, what do we do now,” John recalled her asking.

What do you do when the surly slugger repeatedly rejects your ideas?

Forget the biceps. Tug at the heartstrings.

Perhaps in a moment of tossing her arms in the air in frustration, Brinkley asked Belle if he would hold her 13-month-old son, Jack, on his lap. Belle agreed.

“Albert was very happy to sit there with Christie’s son on his lap,” John told me. “He even cracked a nice, big smile.”

Brinkley snapped a round of photos, and that moment became the card. When the set was released in July, Pinnacle showed off the set to reporters and photographers at New York’s All-Star Café. An Associated Press photo from the event ran in newspapers the next few days showing the supermodel holding an oversized replica of the card depicting Belle with Jack sitting on his lap, both wearing Cleveland caps.

It was a hit!

On the back of Belle’s card, No. 10 in the collection, is Brinkley’s hastily self-snapped photo. It shows Jack, reaching from Albert’s lap, for his Mom. Belle is in the middle of the two, still smiling.

All of the card backs have Brinkley selfies taken with the ballplayers, via a bulky film camera – not a phone, of course. Most are non-descript with Brinkley smiling brightly, snuggled up to, or with her arm around, the ballplayers. The back of Chipper’s card shows Brinkley blowing a bubble, just like her subject. Indians third baseman Jim Thome – known for punching the ball out of the park – is wearing boxing gloves on the front and back of his card.

David Justice’s card back shows the 5’9” Brinkley looking up to the 6’3” slugger who towers above her. On Jason Schmidt’s card, it appears it was he who took the selfie, not Brinkley. Carlos Baerga is shirtless in his photo with the supermodel. He has a red heart painted on his chest because “he was the heart of the Indians,” John recalled.

Everything during the two-day shoot seemed to be working. The players were into it. Brinkley was having a blast. John was enjoying his moment in the sun.

The downside, however, was it took hours before the group could examine the results.

Remember, this was 1996.

“The night in between the two days of shooting, my director of photography, the photographer’s assistant and I had to get in a rental car and drive down to Miami from West Palm Beach to an after-hours photo lab and have them process the film and the pictures,” John told me.

The trip was about an hour and half each way after an exhausting day of work.

“We went down there to process the film of the pictures so we could bring them back and show Christie what they looked like, to make sure she was happy with the results of her work.

She loved the pictures,” John said smiling. “She was very pleased.”

Pinnacle had to be pleased, too, because collectors loved the unique concept. Also, Business Week reported that Brinkley’s ability to persuade the players to pose without demanding fees – some of “which can run up to $10,000 apiece,” the publication wrote – saved Pinnacle a substantial amount of money.

Today, Beckett lists each cards’ value at .50, including the un-numbered card picturing Brinkley sitting on her knees on a beach, topless it appears, holding a book to her chest. But when the cards came out, they were uber popular with collectors. In their “Sports Collectors” column in the Aug. 4, 1996 edition of The Journal News (White Plains, New York), John Kryger and Tom Hartloff quoted individual card values they had received from “one dealer’s price list.”

Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux’s card was valued the most then at $49.95. Behind him was Belle, Chipper Jones and Manny Ramirez at $39.95. The lowest values were $14.95 for Grissom, Schmidt and Julio Franco. As of this writing, you can find the individual cards online with prices usually ranging from .99 for Belle and Klesko to $49.99 for Jones.

But, John, who still has the full set, never has given a thought to the cards’ market value or what they are selling for on eBay. “I never looked at them in that way,” he said. “I’ve always looked at them as an example of quick thinking and my job and role with the company.”

*****

Once the cards were released in July 1996, tons of media coverage focused on their novelty and immediate popularity. There was plethora of coverage from newspapers – many ran AP photos and stories, magazines and even late-night TV even talked about the cards.

It was mostly favorable, and great publicity for Pinnacle, which is what John had planned for his company.

There was, however, one notable exception, even if it was tongue-in-cheek.

In its popular weekly feature, “This Week’s Sign That The Apocalypse is Upon Us,” Sports Illustrated wrote: “Pinnacle, a Texas-based trading-card company, has hired supermodel Christie Brinkley to photograph selected Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians for a soon-to-be-released set of baseball cards.”

SI picked the Brinkley photo shoot that particular week because, well, “Jeez, I don’t have a specific memory of it, Chad,” replied Jack McCullum in an email when I posed that question to him… 23 years after the fact. McCullum and fellow SI writer Richard O’Brien co-edited the section in those days. They “went through dozens and dozens of newspapers, magazines, press releases, etc. to find our weekly Apocalypse,” McCullum wrote.

More than two decades later, John laughed about SI’s witty assertion that his idea was sending civilization toward its doom.

“You can take it a couple of ways,” he said to me over the phone back home in Connecticut, months after our initial conversation. “You can take it like, ‘Wow, they’re really insulting my concept.’ But, you can look it as great publicity, and it was published everywhere, even in a global magazine like Sports Illustrated. Overall, that and the whole experience was pretty amazing.”

USA Today thought so, too. It gave the card concept its stamp of approval in its April 16, 1996 edition, writing “Thumbs-up: To a seemingly hokey idea that also is practical. Christie Brinkley will appear on some Pinnacle baseball cards coming in July. But she had a function beyond presumed sex appeal. In actually shooting the cards’ photos (including ones of herself), Brinkley got players to strike off-beat poses. Cleveland’s Albert Belle posed with Brinkley’s baby boy. Says Pinnacle’s Laurie Goldberg, “there wasn’t much chance of getting some of these guys with a regular photographer.”

Four more words needed to be added at the end of Goldberg’s quote to complete the sentiment:

Great idea, John Lucas.

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