As for many people in the time of COVID, it was a real struggle to feel a connection with other people when everything shut down. Part of it was the fact that schools, workplaces, stadiums, museums, and so many other spots were closed, but it was also the shock of facing a huge public health crisis at the same time as a social justice crisis, and a political crisis, that created both a desire to connect with people and a fear of being out in the open.
Under that mindset, I joined SABR in June 2020. I had thought of being a member for a while, but the possibility of having found a place where I could share experiences with like-minded people was a very good one. Now that it has been a year, I have been spending some time reflecting on the community and how great it’s been to find new outlets and joys.
One of the first things that I did was become involved with a few committees, and I have Jason Schwartz and the Baseball Card Research Committee to thank for that. I don’t have all my cards from when I first started collecting them in high school, but around the time that I joined SABR, I started taking stock of the handful that I owned and what they meant to me. I visited the grave of Walter Johnson, the great Senators pitcher who is the namesake of my high school. I also listened in on a panel discussion with this committee that looked at the future of baseball cards with Jason, joined by Nick Vossbrink, Micah Johnson, Scott Hodges, and some really talented card artists who were starting to make their mark. This got me thinking about the possibilities of baseball cards as something more than ephemera, but as expressions of popular culture that have their own unique relationship to and comments on the art and culture around them.
This realization began a few months of thinking about that relationship, and doing some research and examining how cards and art are related. I learned that, despite notable examples like the Burdick Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that are in renowned collections, it’s actually rare for cards and other ephemera to be in major curated collections, often because of the sheer volume. (When collector Jefferson Burdick approached the Met to donate his card collection, the museum accepted it only on the condition that he catalogue it himself, which he did over a period of decades.)
I contemplated the original 1952 Topps set that used photorealistic player paintings set with reproduced signatures, a look that is at once timeless and, even seventy years on, innovative; the 1961 design, which uses set of squares of color like Piet Mondrian’s paintings; and the 1972 set, which had a Pop Art theme that has stood the test of time, especially while being reproduced by Topps at least twice since.
I presented what I had learned to the Baltimore Babe Ruth SABR chapter, which became a very illuminating discussion that touched on sets I had never heard of, Japanese baseball cards, which are incredibly colorful and beautiful and distinctly their own, and got me thinking about how to create something new from something old.
And then I started painting again. I say “again” because I took art and photography in high school, and even as an adult often carried sketchbooks, pencils, and watercolors around with me. As the research I had done marinated in my mind, the idea of creating something new — small paintings — from something old — baseball cards that were decades old — took shape.
Around December, I started making paintings, pulling mostly from the Fleer 1991 and Donruss 1988 set that I had picked up a few years ago and that followed me as I moved a few times.
I experimented with my process a little bit and found that if I wanted to create a robust surface to paint on, I needed to start with a one or two layers of gesso. I made paintings that recalled the golden icons that I grew to love while I was studying Russian history and politics at college; others that used fields of contrasting color, often showing a lot of motion; still others that were landscapes during different seasons; and some that didn’t fit neatly within any category.
Over time, I’ve created some special galleries focused on Jewish baseball players; women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League; parents and children in professional baseball; and currently I’m working on a set of the “Black Aces,” Black pitchers who have won at least 20 games in a major league season. You can see many of them on my Section 514 blog, or on my Twitter and Instagram feeds.
I’ve also had the great honor of participating in the just-finished art show and contest led by the Negro Leagues Baseball Marketplace and the Josh Gibson Foundation to draw attention to the effort to rename the baseball MVP award for the great Black catcher who passed away at the age of 35, before he could have broken the color barrier in the major leagues. To be one of 75 card artists contributing their work, exhibited in a virtual gallery and rubbing shoulders with some true giants in this area of art was a singular experience. I’m awed by the amount of creativity in the card art world, and hope to see it continue to develop.
As I write this post in July 2021, things are still very uncertain about when, or if, we will return to a life that is totally normal. It’s a not insignificant blessing, though, to have been able to use the time of COVID to find new ways of creating, based on old things that we love.