Dimensional Baseball Cards

PSST! WANNA SEE MY DIMENSIONAL BASEBALL CARDS?

Challenge

He stood on the dresser over my sock drawer, coiled, ready to strike.

His crisp white uniform was pierced by stabs of red streaking up his leg.

Stan “The Man” Musial stood before me, immortalized in plastic by Hartland, and I was in awe.

I was maybe 4 or 5 (1962-63), and I didn’t know who he was. My brother or someone of that ilk had set him there. I dare not touch him.

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Stan the Man – a vision in plastic!

The memory of that statue is burned into my memory like a first kiss. It was one of my first introductions to the national pastime, and it punched my ticket to a lifetime of hopeless devotion.

The Musial statuette disappeared when a fog bank enveloped our house in San Francisco. When the mist cleared, boxes of baseball cards and comic books filled the room. I recalled seeing sexy ads in those comics for Aurora’s “Great Moments in Sports” models kids could build: there was my hero, Willie Mays, hauling in Vic Wertz’ blast in the ’54 World Series. Johnny Unitas. Jim Brown. Even Gene Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring! I can’t recall why, but I never got one of those models, nor any of the baby boomers on my block (and we had a ton of ‘em). But another long-germinating seed was planted.

Mays

Aurora Glory: Willie robs Vic Wertz!

I forgot about those Hartland statues for about 50 years. Memory kicked in when I went to Cooperstown for my first visit to the Hall of Fame in 2013. The gaggle of Times-Square-on-the-Lake memorabilia shacks offered faded versions of the old Hartland statues at prices best suited for lawyers, doctors, and stockbrokers. There was Musial, trapped inside a case, but sharing time-travel secrets with Willie Mays and Yogi Berra.

Here’s current eBay prices for some of those original Hartlands, including the rarest bird of all, Dick Groat. Prices vary, as some come without the original box (shrug).

Yogi

Musial: $56

Mays: $38

Fox: $40-$115

Drysdale: $150

Banks: $120

Babe: $54-$120

Yogi: $115

Mathews: $120

Aaron: $160

Groat: $1300!

Groat

I found a Groat that sold for $780 at auction, and the selling house claimed it’s rare because Hartland was sold to Revlon Cosmetics in 1964, Groat being the last of the final edition, and they ramped down production. Also, at the time of issue, Hartland statues were experiencing a sharp decline in sales.

After my visit to Cooperstown, a switch was flipped, and a trip to eBay was scheduled.

The heavens parted, and a choir sang. I discovered that reprints of the old figures were available at prices the hoi polloi could appreciate. I did not see any Musials, but Warren Spahn caught my eye, and he was ticketed for a trip to the top shelf in my office. A second surprise discovery was that another outfit was re-producing Hartlands, and I put the snag on an Eddie Mathews. This re-pro was produced in a manner that did not harken to the days of yore as the Spahnie had. Lessons learned.

Spahnie, in residence with tiny Wade Boggs and The Creature.

Spahnie 

Ed Mathews 1988 edition. Sad face.

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Then, Phase II kicked in.

Around 2002, my son had developed a fascination with the Big Unit, Randy Johnson. Strolling through Toys R Us, we ran into a dynamic figurine of him created by McFarland. Randy found a home on Matt’s shelf next to a Formula 1 racer. Then I forgot all about those McFarlanes.

Flash forward to 2011. I was making a film about the Baseball Reliquary, Not Exactly Cooperstown, and I needed a prop figure that looked like Wade Boggs. I trawled eBay and found a Yaz McFarlane that would be a fine stand-in for Boggs. My art director, Greg Jezewski, crafted a fabulous clay mustache onto Yaz and we were good to go. I also needed a catcher and an umpire to stage my scene with Boggs and found the perfect duo: Jason Varitek, in the squat, who came with an ump.

Varitek

Varitek and friend assume the position.

Aaron

Hammerin’ Hank Aaron was also needed to re-create his 714th home run, and the McFarlane not only had a fantastic pose, it looked like the man himself. A call went out to procure a Jackie Robinson figure, and there was #42, sliding into home plate, his cap lying in the dirt.

jackie

Jackie slides into the Baseball Reliquary’s “glorious attic” for my film, Not Exactly Cooperstown.

My eBay safaris had disclosed there were lots of these McFarlane baseball greats in the universe, and full-blown mania set in. Soon the mailman delivered a delightful parade of figures destined for the man-cave.

Gibson

“Hoot” Gibson in residence.

First was a spectacular (and pricey) Bob Gibson in glorious follow through. He would make a swell tandem with Yaz if I ever need to re-create moments from the 1967 World Series.

Kirkland

McFarlane was going for Mays, but we got Willie Kirkland’s face instead.

Willie Mays, my hometown hero, was next, and a bit of a disappointment. He looks more like Carl Mays than Willie. The M&M boys followed as a duet; the poses were great, the resemblance passable. Nolan Ryan’s pose is marvelous: the Express scrunched in wind-up, about to give birth to a heat-seeking missile. I scored a bit of a dinged up Tom Seaver with part of the brim of his cap nicked.

Posey

Buster has gone up in price: now $50!

I don’t go in for many contemporary players, but Buster Posey made the cut with a dynamic pose. I also ended up with a Barry Bonds figure that was acquired before the real mania kicked in.

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Roberto shares a locker with Yaz, swapping batting tips and recipes.

Then there are the jewels in the crown. Roberto Clemente (the priciest of the bunch), which bore a great resemblance to El Magnifico, resplendent in his 1971 double knit Pirates uni. #44, Willie McCovey of my Giants, looks fantastic in his orange jersey and killer sideburns, ready to annihilate a fastball with his whuppin’ stick (a version of Big Mac in his SD Padre uni is also available).

McCovey

Beware of Willie McCovey and his fantastic sideburns!

MickBabe

Mickey, Hank & the Babe play bridge on Thursdays, BYOB.

Seaver

Tom Seaver hangs out with BB King’s custom Gibson 335 ES.

Some of the squad ended up being sold to recoup production costs: adios to Jackie, Varitek and the umpire.

A deeper dive was now required to see who else existed in the McFarlane baseball figure universe (they do other sports as well) and how much it would cost to indulge.

McFarlane got into the figure biz in the early ‘90s, producing figures of their own intellectual properties after a deal with Mattel fell through. Their first baseball set came out in 2002:

  • Pedro Martinez
  • Ichiro
  • Randy Johnson
  • Shawn Green
  • Ivan Rodriquez
  • Sammy Sosa
  • Albert Pujols
  • Mike Piazza

Gehrig

A total of 33 (!) series have been produced. There’s a sub-set, “The Cooperstown Collection,” featuring legendary players like Ruth, Cobb and Lou Gehrig (there’s even a figure of Gehrig giving his “Luckiest Man” speech). Here’s the gang from the 1st Cooperstown Collection series (2004):

A number of players have multiple versions (or “variants,” which has the player in a different jersey or uniform, e.g., Ruth with the Red Sox and the Yankees). Here’s the priciest, acc. to eBay:

Cobb

Ty Cobb variant ($80)

Christian Yelich ($60)

Roberto Clemente ($60)

Bob Gibson ($50)

Buster Posey ($50)

John Smoltz ($40)

Anthony Rizzo ($38)

Jeff Bagwell ($38)

Rickey Henderson ($35)

Hank Aaron ($35)

It’s irritating to see contemporary players like Yelich commanding more dough than guys like Clemente!

Bargain Basement:

Babe Ruth (!) $1

Scott Kazmir ($1)

Chipper Jones ($6)

Greg Maddux ($8)

I’d like to present my wish list of players, managers, and mascots for the next series:

  • John McGraw
  • Norm Cash (with table leg as bat)
  • Don Mossi (with ears you can size to your liking)
  • Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner
  • Jimmy Piersall (perhaps one of him in mid-breakdown, climbing the backstop   at Fenway)
  • Jim Bouton (Seattle Pilots edition)
  • Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz (pounding the ol’ Budweiser)
  • The San Diego Chicken (aka “The Laurence Olivier of Mascots”)
  • Al Schact
  • Max Patkin
  • Connie Mack

How about an All-Miscreants Team?

  • Hal Chase (infamous scoundrel)
  • Denny McLain (recently referred to as “a bull that carries his own china shop with him”)
  • Cap Anson (virulent racist)
  • Billy Martin (beating up a marshmallow salesman, please)
  • Joe Pepitone (complete with hairdryer and toupee accessories)
  • The Chicago Black Sox
  • Albert Belle

The possibilities are endless! I’d love to see a collection of baseball writers (Grantland Rice, Jim Murray), fans (Hilda Chester), Negro Leaguers (Oscar Charleston, Satchel and Josh Gibson), maverick owners (Bill Veeck, Sr., Bill Veeck, Jr., & Mike Veeck would be a sweet power trio) and lovable oddballs (Eddie Gaedel, Moe Drabowsky, Frank Robinson in Kangaroo Court get-up).

 

Who knew playing with dolls would be so much fun?

 

Links to Hartland and McFarlane goodies!

 

McFarlane Cooperstown Collection:

 

https://www.cardboardconnection.com/mcfarlane-cooperstown-collection-figures-guide

 

Video of the Hartland collection from 1958-1962: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_t5XHcNY-p8

 

Hey! Getcher Managers in Action Baseball Cards Here!

What in the world are they hollering about and pointing at?

We’ll get to that in a moment.

The first set I was introduced to at age six was the Topps 1964 set. Card #413 caught my eye. “Johnny Keane, manager” for the St. Louis Cardinals. Maybe it was the colorful Cards uni or the fact I could see the inside of his hand cupped around his mouth. It’s a terrific piece of flash photography and in a galaxy of it’s own compared to portraits of graying former players leaning against a railing. At least Keane is actually doing some managing for crissakes!

Keane1964

“Hey, Johnson! You’re gonna hit .320 this year, but you’ll be doing it in Altoona!”

The Keane card sent me down a rabbit hole to capture some of my favorite manager cards from the past, along with some new gems I dug up.

Leave it to the hapless Cubs to come up with the hare-brained notion of the “college of coaches,” which started in 1960. After the Wreck of the Hesperus season of 1962, when the Flubbies recorded a super-stinky 59-103 campaign, Philip Wrigley decided a head coach could just as easily drive the ship into the iceberg as the whole gang. Kennedy’s action head coaching cards reveal much about the man and the trauma he suffered.

The ’63 Kennedy pictured is full steam ahead, icebergs be damned. He’s confident in his spring training garb, barking orders to his crew for the fight ahead, “By God, we’ve got Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Lou Brock, Larry Jackson and Dick Ellsworth! The sky’s the limit!” Huzzah! The 1963 Cubs went 82-80, good for 7th place in the NL. Would there be better days ahead?

Kennedy1964

“You guys look like Molly Putz out there! Snap out of it!”

The 1965 Kennedy card says it all. Here is Kennedy, baking under the Arizona sun and his head being driven in his shoulders by the weight of expectations for continued success. He’s holding his hat off his head wondering how in the world he’s supposed to win with 2/3 of his outfield manned by the immortal duo of Billy Cowan and Len Gabrielson (Cowan wasn’t horrible: 19 HR, 50 RBI, 16 doubles, 4 triples in 139 games, but a .268 OBP, BA of .241 and whiffing 25% of the time can be tough on a guy. Cowan also wore the mill stone of “Clubhouse Lawyer” around his neck for much of his career, playing for a total of 6 teams in 8 years). The cavalry was supposed to arrive in the infamous trade that sent the struggling Lou Brock to the Cardinals in exchange for a washed-up and injured Ernie Broglio. It never got there, as Kennedy and his furry flounderers went meekly into that good night with a 76-86 record, in eighth place.

Kennedy1965

“Good gravy. I’m doomed.”

Perhaps Kennedy could have used the sagacity of the 1963 Keane, who went from managing St. Louie to the Yankees after his Cards whupped the Bronx Bombers in the 1964 World Series? Alas, it was not a good fit, as the aging skipper had zero control over a clubhouse of wild party animals and free spirits like the Mick, Whitey Ford, Pepi, and Jim Bouton. Keane delivered an odious cadaver, finishing 6th, the Yankees’ first losing season in 40 years. When the Yanks barfed on themselves to start the 1966 season, going 4-16, Keane and his barf bag were sent packing.

Keane1965

“What was I thinking? I should’ve stayed in St. Louis with Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, and Ken Boyer.”

Then there is the manager who was also a time traveler: Connie Mack. The 1951 Topps All-Star card pictures Mack resplendent in his suit and tie, and telling us the man was born in 1862. 1862! The guy was alive during the Civil War and managed from 1896-1950. The Mack in the ’51 card is sporting some killer two-toned dress shoes and appears to be ambling his way to the nearest Blue Plate Special.

Mack1951

“Dig my crazy Buster Browns!”

Walter Alston always appeared in my ‘60s baseball cards like an old fart battling weekly brain aneurysms. How wrong I was. Walt was a tough SOB who challenged slug-a-bid players and recalcitrants to fistfights. He’s got his right index finger extended and looks like last night’s crab louie didn’t settle well in his 1962 Bell Brand beauty. He is much more cheerful in his 1972 Peter Max-infused Topps card, smiling the smile of a man who knows retirement isn’t far off.

Alston

Alston1972

Lasorda1983

And who is the man who would be king when Alston rode off into the blue? It’s Tommy Lasorda, who is quite active in his Topps cards of the 80s, gesticulating like a man ordering waiters around at an Italian restaurant. The 1988 Topps shows Lasorda after he’s polished off two deep-dish pizzas, a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, and a carton of chocolate ice cream with some garlic dip on the side. You wouldn’t be able to move either, which is why baseball’s greatest gourmand is pictured seated in a golf cart.

Lasorda1988

“I’d like to order another plate of rigatoni and clams, please.”

I could die and go to Heaven if there was ever a card of the Seattle Pilots’ Joe Schultz in action, or at least hefting a can of Bud in one hand and a liverwurst sammich in the other. We’ll have to settle for this faux 1969 card instead, as Joe looks out to the field wondering why rookie Lou Piniella is such a huge red ass.

Schultz1969

“God help me.”

The Little General, Gene Mauch, used to have a sign on his desk when managing the Phabulous Phillies of 1964, “Isn’t this a beautiful day? Watch some son-of-a-bitch louse it up.” The sardonic hilarity continued when he made the trip to Montreal, as his 1970 Topps card suggests. Left arm extended, Mean Gene is no doubt showing the way out to a failed Expos pitcher.

mauch1970.jpg

“Hey, you! You’re done!”

I was pleased to find not one, but two cards of John McGraw. The Topps 206 from 2002 features a fusty, colorized Muggsy making a point with his right index finger. His 1911 Conlon beauty might be the greatest of manager action cards: cap pulled low, on the field, legs apart, left knee slightly bent; his right arm is extended as if delivering a right cross to Jack Johnson. By Gar, this is a manager worth his salt.

McGrawT206

McGrawConlon

Managers in action baseball cards I would have loved to see that don’t exist (or couldn’t find): Earl Weaver and Billy Martin bench jockeying opponents and tearing into umpires. Oh well, I’ll always have Bob Kennedy.

 

My 50-year chase to complete the 1964 Topps Coin Set

64ToppsBoxCling!

Oh, what a lovely sound.

A special coin just fell out of a 1964 Topps wax pack and into my dreams.

These were the greatest Topps inserts of all time. Color images of baseball heroes leaping off a metallic coin. 120 standard coins, 44 all-star coins. I read in 2014 that “a decent condition set will cost you $500-$1,000.”

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The photography on the standard coins ranges from headshots (no one is capless, btw) to batting stances (Pete Rose, #82, and Hank Aaron, #83, look fabulous). The rear of the coin featured the all-important info such as height, weight, which side a player threw or hit from, along with a brief info nugget. Coin #92 tells us Jim Hickman of the Mets was an ex-Cardinal. Your day is now complete.

206405  KoufaxAS  1964to4

Oh, those all-star coins! The vibrant colors! The simple but perfect graphic design. The sparkling photography. The A.L. coins were blue, the N.L. red. The color printing on the all-star coins was astonishingly brilliant and wears well to this day. The image registration is razor sharp. The beard stubble on Ken Boyer’s face could sand hardwood floors (#145). Roberto Clemente’s arm cocked, hand grasping a baseball, ready to mow someone down at the plate (#150). Chuck Hinton’s glower as he grips the bat (#162). Even the Washington Senators could look badass in this all-star set.

 

I was six years old when my brothers introduced me to baseball cards for the first time. The 1964 set and the accompanying coins planted the seed of a drug that has held me rapt for lo these 53 years.

We didn’t have many of those coins. Some were lost to the ravages of time, neighborhood thieves, and play rooms cleaned by a fastidious mother.

Decades passed. I started going to card shows. Technology evolved. I found people who gave or traded me coins for doubles of my cards. The grace of eBay arrived, backed by a celestial choir. There they were, gobs of the 1964 coins, separate or in lots, with plenty available. The ones in primo condition sold at crazy prices. I’m a possession collector, so I don’t care what condition they’re in, and I buy low.

1964 All-Star coins (Santo, Spahn, Killebrew, B Robinson)

In 2012, I put my hand on a rock and proclaimed I’d reclaim this special part of my childhood. I wanted every coin in the set. And, no, I did not need the error/variation coins of Chuck Hinton (#162A), and Wayne Causey (#161A)—Topps mistakenly made them as NL all-stars (I have no idea how many were made before corrected, nor do I care).

The first eBay pile came from a lady that found a bucket of coins in her attic, some partially corroded by moisture. Fine! Bring it! More lots followed, and I went down the checklist, ticking off stragglers.

64 coin p1578

64 coin p2579

By 2014, I only needed 8 to complete the set. The last coin I needed, #100, Al Kaline, taunted me. I would not pay a king’s ransom for it. I finally saw it on eBay for a very reasonable price, and Nirvana was achieved!

al kaline #100

I must admit to a moment of sadness when I’d finally completed the set. The chase was over. The thrill of the hunt was gone. But I finally had them all and could move on to the next phase: obtaining the sleeved pages, final presentation, and endless ogling.

I take the magical binder out once in a while to luxuriate in the glow of my metallic beauties. I close my eyes, and it’s 1964. Triples go to die in Willie Mays’ glove. Frank Howard is still on the Dodgers, and Billy O’Dell still has that weird thing on his upper lip.

I have my doubles in a beat-up baggie that I sometimes bring to baseball-related meetings and conferences to give to others I know will enjoy them. I recently had lunch with Rich Kee, former photographer for the Dodgers in the 70s and 80s. I offered him any coin from the stack of doubles. No dummy he, Rich snapped up coin #106, Sandy Koufax. Who knows? Maybe if you’re nice to me, I’ll slip you one the next time I see you!

1964-topps-coins-mantle

Dr. Zaius, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Thou – The Greatest Villains in Cinema History

Joan Crawford wielding an enormous wooden coat hanger. Blofeld stroking his fluffy white cat. “Blue Velvet’s” Frank Booth reaching out to touch Camilo Pascual on the AL Pitching Leaders card. You can almost hear him say, “Hi, neighbor!”

I love movie villains and the 1964 Topps, and thought it would be fun to combine the two to create a themed set. The Yankees and Dodgers are two of the most reviled teams, so they collectively house this rogues gallery.

Roll Call!

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Freddy

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Blofeld

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Role reversals would be interesting. The devout Bobby Richardson as Hannibal Lecter. Jim Bouton as the Wicked Witch of the West (instead of ending up in Munchkin Land, it could be the Pilots’ locker room, with Joe Schultz as the Mayor). Good ol’ Doug Camilli terrorizing teens in their dreams with a demonic catcher’s glove.

A few years back, Terry Cannon of the Baseball Reliquary invited me to share some of these as part of his “Son of Cardboard Fetish” exhibit at a local Los Angeles library. Suddenly, there was controversy. The librarian, a big baseball fan himself, scotched the inclusion of these villain cards in the exhibit. He deemed them too scary for soccer moms and their kiddies. Poor “Baby” Jane Hudson and Henry F. Potter would have to wait for their moment in the limelight.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed at Sports Collector’s Digest, who printed some of the cards for everyone to enjoy in their national publication. I do worry about those soccer moms, though.

Dream a Little Dream: the Day I Became a Baseball Card Manufacturer

Baseball cards weren’t just a part of my childhood, they were the defining object of my childhood, along with superhero comic books from Marvel and DC. But the cards were more important to me than anything else: they were my passport to baseball.

In the 1968 Mel Brooks film, The Producers, one of the characters, Franz Leibkind, expresses his joy at the realization of one of his life’s goals, “Oh, day of days! Oh, dream of dreams!…” Last week I repeated that incantation when I put my hand on a rock a decided I would produce a set of my own baseball cards.

Why? I thought it would be a fun way to promote my latest baseball documentary project, The Sweet Spot: A Treasury of Baseball Stories. The Sweet Spot is the first streaming TV channel dedicated to baseball to launch on multiple streaming outlets (you can find it on Roku, Vimeo on Demand, and, very soon, on Amazon Prime); it features our signature original documentary series, which features people from across the baseball spectrum to take the pulse of the national pastime in the 21st century. Players, coaches, bat boys, artists, fans, actors, authors, umpires, etc. share their baseball stories…it’s kind of a cross between The Glory of Their Times Meets Studs Terkel’s’ Working.

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The conceit was to feature some of the subjects I’d interviewed on cards with sexy graphic design on the front and a mini-bio on the back. I had some interesting subjects to choose from: Mudcat Grant, Dodgers superfan Emma Amaya, Topps photographer Doug McWilliams, pioneer Justine Siegal, umpire Perry Barber, and official scorekeeper Ed Munson (the “Iron Man” of scorers, who went 2,003 games without missing a game).

I’ve been collecting cards since 1965 and enjoy keeping many cards from the 1950s up until today. I have some strong opinions on my favorite Topps designs (1959, 1965, 1972), as well as many horrible designs (the 1981 set comes to mind) that resemble a dog’s breakfast. This card’s design had to reflect a vintage, nostalgic feeling, promote our brand, and feature The Sweet Spot logo.

As a producer who’s worked with world-class graphic designers and artists much of my career, I knew exactly how to get this job done, but there was a wrinkle. The designer I like to work with is not built for speed, and I needed to get the card designed and printed in 7-8 days in time for a presentation I was making about the project on SABR Day. I turned to Upwork.com to hire a freelance designer. I hire freelancers all the time, but this was a new and different method. I posted the scope of work, noting “being a baseball fan is helpful”, and got ten quick replies. A couple designers were fans, and the one I hired had been designing for over 20 years and had his own card collection.

unnamed-1I prepared reference/inspiration images of some of my favorite Topps designs from my youth: the woodies of ’62, the dual image fronts of ’63, and the wondrous Peter Max-infused ‘72s. We met daily to hammer out thumbnail designs for the front and back, starting with the front. I wanted to make sure we tied in the colors of the logo into the design, and how can you go wrong with the good ol’ red, white and blue? I love bunting seen in the post-season, so we integrated that notion into the design via a banner atop the card.

I allowed a couple of days of design iteration in thumbnail form until I arrived at a direction I liked and then we could dial in the rest. We arrived at the “archway” design inspired by the 1972 Topps set and the text bounding box at the bottom from the 1963 set. I wanted a banner at the top to make the card seem special, sort of like those MVP cards Topps would issue in the sets of the 60s. The card front would proclaim our featured “players” as “Heroes of the Sweet Spot”. There was always something heroic about the presentation of those players in those cards of the 50s and 60s, so that concept seemed a good fit.

A key component to the front of the card was a good photograph of the individual. I felt we had good photos for most of them, and the rest would work well enough. One of our interviewees was Doug McWilliams, with whom I’ve become friends, and Doug was kind enough to allow me to use a fantastic photo he’d taken of Mudcat Grant in 1957 when Mud was on the PCL San Diego Padres. Doug is also in this set of cards, #14 of 15.

I was very pleased with the final design of the front, so we moved on to the back of the card.

unnamed-2Again, we referenced the backs of cards from the 1960s, and I liked the idea of rounded boxes to display the text. While producing a major attraction about the life of Walt Disney for Walt Disney Imagineering, one of Walt’s designers, John Hench (whose first gig was Fantasia) told me the reason Mickey Mouse succeeded over another character of the day, Felix the Cat, was that Mickey had round features, while Felix had points. We went with a red, white, and blue color scheme to make the text pop and tie to the design scheme, tell a story, and sell our brand. The artist, Brian Kruse, came up with the smashing idea of balancing the baseball with the card # with a sphere on the right side of the top featuring a black and white image of our hero. I decided to keep it black and white to simplify the integration of that asset into the overall design.

unnamed-6We had thirteen cards designed, and it was now time to meet with my printer, who has done all manner of work for me over the years–promotional postcards, DVD covers, movie posters, and my business card, which is, of course, a baseball card. Key was finding paper stock that was stiff enough, as I did not have time to do special order cardboard (which likely would have been pricier). I settled on 14 point white paper, and, a couple of days later, voila!

Once the cards were done, I realized that the haste of taking on the task produced the inevitable errors:

  • there were supposed to be 15 cards in the series, but I omitted two of them. I did not adjust the numerical order of the cards, and the set was produced as if cards #6 and #9 are missing.

Official scorer Ed Munson’s “position” on the card from and rear is stated as “scorer” when it should be “official scorer”.

  • There’s a grammar punctuation error on the rear of artist Mark Ulriksen’s card.

I’ll be fixing the Munson and Ulriksen card for the second series, which is due to come out end of March.

Here’s our first series:

#1 – Umpire Perry Barber

#2 – Baseball Pioneer Justine Siegal

#3 – Artist Mark Ulriksen

#4 – Superfan Emma Amaya

#5 – Jim “Mudcat” Grant

#7 –Author Jennifer Ring

#8 – Author and former catcher Jim Campanis, Jr.

#10 – Catcher Jimmy Campanis, Sr.

#11 – Team USA player Lilly Jacobson

#12 – Actor Norm Coleman

#13 – Official Scorer Ed Munson

#14 – Photographer Doug McWilliams

#15 – Producer-Director Jon Leonoudakis

One of my favorite cards features octogenarian thespian Norm Coleman. Norm caught the acting bug late in life after a stellar career as a studio photographer. A life-long baseball fan, he took to Ty Cobb, feeling the Georgia Peach was a complex, misunderstood man, who was being subjected to a mythology that wasn’t accurate in Norm’s eyes. He decided to write a one-man show with Norm portraying Cobb. Years later, Norm has performed the show around the country, including shows at Tigertown, the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum, and the Ty Cobb Museum. When I interviewed Norm, I took his picture inside his home. I thought it would be fun to find an image of a Tiger game or practice circa 1908 and matte that in behind Norm. I found the right image, the artist popped it in, and suddenly Norm is back in 1908! If you look closely, over his right shoulder is a player leaning against a bat, looking a bit like Cobb himself.

unnamed-9Another fave is the card featuring Lilly Jacobson, who was said to have a swing like Will Clark. There she is on the front of her card, drilling a double down the line, adorned in a glorious Team USA uniform. When I met Lilly, she was a polite, bright, unassuming young woman who had traveled the globe playing the game she loved. It was pretty shocking to hear all the guff she had to put up with just to play on teams with boys and men.

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The last card in the set features yours truly. I figured the guy driving the sled should get a card, and I decided to use an action photo taken during the 2016 San Francisco Giants Fantasy Camp at the team’s spring training facility in Scottsdale. It was captured by photographer Andy Kuno during my first relief appearance: 1 IP, 2 Ks, 2 hits, no runs allowed. We won’t mention the other two outings that were grease fires.

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I started sharing the cards on my facebook page and got requests from people to purchase them (you can get one, too, for $20, includes tax and shipping). There are many other folks I’ve interviewed for the project, so there’s going to be a few more series of cards produced at the end of the day.

One of the key pieces that makes this set unique is the number of women featured: out of thirteen cards, almost half are women. A couple of card fiends who like to collect women in baseball cards told me how excited they were to find them. Another fun note is that the set not only features a father and a son (Jim Campanis Sr. and Jr.), it has a mother-daughter connection (author Jennifer Ring and daughter Lilly Jacobson).

I have joined the ranks of those specialty sets that saw the light of day and people are adding them to their personal collections. We sold out the first printing of the first series, and are printing more as demand has increased. The second set will go into production in a few weeks for a release just prior to the start of the 2017 season. It will have fixes to the error cards and introduce a couple of “In Action” cards showing the crew shooting a story for the series. We’re in the midst of adding a product store to our web page at www.thesweetspot.tv, but you can contact me directly if you’d like a set @ jbgreeksf24@gmail.com.

Death & Baseball Cards

The year was 1964. I was six years old.

The black baseball card in my hands contained the haunting image of a somber fellow wearing a Cubs batting helmet.

hubbsfront“In Memoriam — Ken Hubbs”.

He looked so sad. All the other baseball cards I’d seen were bright and colorful, with the players gaily swinging bats, smiling at their good fortune. I turned the Hubbs card over and learned “the private plane he was piloting went down in a snowstorm near Provo, Utah”. I would later learn that Ken Hubbs was deemed a special player: 1962 Rookie of the Year, and the first ROY to win a gold glove. Set a fielding record the same year: 78 consecutive games and 418 chances without making an error. He played in the Little League World Series as a kid, was recruited to play quarterback for Notre Dame and UCLA to shoot hoops for John Wooden. If there ever was an All-American boy, Hubbs fits the profile. He even died trying to conquer his greatest fear.

hubbsbackFor many of us card junkies, we recall the day we held that black shroud in our hands and felt a small hunk of our innocence ripped away. The real world had intruded into the special place where I’d always felt safe, and, for the first time in my young life, felt vulnerable (I was too young to grasp the enormity of the events of November 22, 1963).

And there was more death on the way.

The Houston Colt .45s had a seductive name and logo, even if they weren’t very good. There was something different about the back of the card of one of their pitchers, Jim Umbricht. It said he was 6’4”, 215 pounds and 389-jim-umbrichtwas “one of the NL’s top relievers in ’63…”. The card also contained an epilogue I’d not seen on any other cards, settling under his stats, where lively cartoons usually appeared if you scratched the surface with a coin:

“Jim Umbricht passed away on Wednesday, April 8, 1964.”

What?! Another player died in the same year? Is this some kind of epidemic?

389-jim-umbricht-backThen came the questions that had no answers: why did he die? How did he die? The card didn’t say (Hubbs died 2/13/64, giving time to make the special card). That was more unsettling, not knowing what took the life of one of the NL’s top relievers. In adulthood, I would learn Umbricht was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in his right leg in March of 1963. His comeback from surgery made national headlines and he had arguably his best season pitching in agonizing pain. Dead at age 33, his ashes were spread over the construction site of the Astrodome.(1)

If my technicolor baseball gods were not impervious to the rigors of life on earth, what chance did the rest of us have? Some spend a lifetime looking for such answers.

One of the problems with mythologizing athletes who die young is getting at the truth about that person: who were they, what did they mean to their friends, family and community, and, most importantly to me, what kind of a person were they?

59-174frI decided to spend some time getting to know Ken Hubbs further. I contacted the Ken Hubbs Foundation in Hemet, CA, and spoke with it’s leader, Ron Doty. The Foundation’s mission is to honor athletes selected from high schools in the area, selecting boys and girls “who display not only outstanding athletic abilities on the field of plays, but also achievements in the classroom, community, in leadership and in community service.” I ordered a DVD of the mini-documentary made about Ken during his playing days, “A Glimpse of Greatness”. It lionized Hubbs further, but it shared perspectives of him growing up in the town of Colton as someone who was a leader and roundly admired. Ron told me of the annual ceremony and invited me to attend, which I plan to do as one of the stories for my new baseball documentary series.

I did more reading on updates of the Hubbs story. The guy was like a cross between a saint and Knute Rockne. Didn’t drink or smoke, had to be dragged off not just playing fields, but PRACTICE fields in his never-ending quest for perfection (Alan Iverson, take note). He was a legend unnamedbefore he became pro, with stories of him hitting a half-court shot to end the first half over a rival high school team AND nailing a buzzer-beating jumper to send the game into OT, eventually leading his Colton squad to victory. Another high school story has him breaking his foot before a big football game, stuffing the casted foot into a size 14-shoe and playing the entire game. (2) If I didn’t know better, Ken Hubbs crawled out of a John R. Tunis story.

But there is something about his death that gnaws. Was it the irony of his search for conquering his fear that led to his demise? After taking flying lessons, Hubbs fell in love with it and bought a Cessna 172. Brother Keith recalls watching his Ken make touch-and-go landings in 1963, with his father asking him to talk Hubbs out of flying. He was supposed to fly with Ken and a friend to Provo to play in a charity basketball game, but his schedule changed. The morning of his death, a storm moved in that Hubbs thought he could outrace. It was less than ten degrees and the visibility was terrible when he took off. Hubbs tried to turn back to the airport shortly after taking off, but the die had been cast. He had only 71 hours of flying experience and wasn’t qualified to fly by instruments and lost his bearing. The plane went into a death spiral, crashing into a Utah lake, leaving a ten-foot crater. It took divers two days to recover the bodies. (2)

Right about now is when one starts to hear refrains of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”…”does anyone know where the love of God goes when…”

Hall of Famer Ron Santo was so unsettled by Hubbs’ passing, he had to see a priest. Ken’s brother, Keith, had recurring nightmares so bad he didn’t want to shut his eyes. He had one final dream that snapped him out of it. In that dream, Ken told him, “I want you to stop worrying about me. It was quick and there was no pain. And I’m happy where I’m at.”(2)

Cessnas in the air mingling with snowflakes. A cancer victim blazing a final path of glory. Both spirits refusing to go gently into that dark night. Maybe that is the lessons of the Ken Hubbs’s and Jim Umbrichts’s: play hard, fight through the challenges and maybe then, and only then, we’ll be happy where we’re at.

 

Footnotes:

1 – “Jim Umbricht” – SABR bio project, by Thomas Ayers.

2 – “Fifty Years later, memories of Ken Hubbs still glowing”, 2/13/14 foxsports.com

 

DOUG McWILLIAMS: Baseball Card Photographer, Chronicler of Baseball History

You could talk about his 20-plus years setting the gold standard for baseball card photography as a lensman for Topps. Or his incredible collection of ephemera pertaining to the Oakland A’s. Or his friendship with Vida Blue and Willie McCovey. Or his amazing Zee-Nut baseball card collection of Oakland Oaks players from 1911-1939. Or the 11,000 negatives of his non-Topps work he donated to the Hall of Fame.

And you’d still come up short.

Meet Doug McWilliams, chronicler of baseball and American history. The Berkeley, CA, native has been photographing the national pastime since 1950. The trim, bearded 80-year-old (who looks as if he’s in his late 60s) recounted the day he was bitten by the bug in 1948:

doug-m-pcl-cards“I started listening on the radio to the Oakland Oaks baseball games. They had a little feature on there about the baseball cards they are giving away at Signal Oil and if you stop by your local gas station, they’ll give you a new card. They were in full color. I finally talked my father into taking me to one of the games. He wasn’t a fan of sports at all. We stopped by at a Signal oil gas station and I got a baseball card of a Ray Hamrick, who was a shortstop for the Oaks.

ray-hamrick-card259loWe got to the ballpark. It was evening and I got up to the top of the walkway and looked down on the field. It was all lit up. It looked like it was magic and saw down by the fence, there was Ray Hamrick signing autographs. I borrowed a fountain pen from my dad and ran down there and got him to sign it. I was hooked, hooked more on baseball cards than the game.”

I met Doug at a SABR event earlier this year, where I was presenting my last film about writer Arnold Hano. We happened to be sitting next to each other and introduced ourselves. I’m a baseball card hound since 1964, and I found his story fascinating. My latest project, “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” features people from across the baseball spectrum, and Doug’s story fit the bill for an episode.

My cameraman, Otis, and I spent the better part of the day with Doug at his home, and I was awed by the baseball artifacts, relics and photography he had collected during his lifetime. I interviewed Doug extensively, covering his career shooting for Topps and love of the game.

“I got away from baseball when I was a kid because I went away to college and got married, joined the army, although I was a photographer in the army also. I just didn’t have time for it, but the A’s came to Oakland in 1968 and in 69, they had a picture day. I went down the field with my 35 millimeter Leica and flash bulbs and took pictures of the players as they came by. It reminded me of when I was a kid. I started going to the games and shooting out of the stands and got to know the players. Some of them wanted to buy pictures, too. At that point, I had already been a photographer at the University of California for 10 years almost. I knew I could do well because I’d been doing well. I just kept shooting out of the stands and pretty soon a guy came by, named Jim Mudcat Grant, who I had photographed as a kid probably 15 years before. He remembered me, which totally shocked me. He was with the A’s for a while. I did some pictures for him. He got traded to Pittsburgh and then he came back. The A’s told him to get some new PR pictures. He needed to make an appointment with their photographer.

Mudcat said, “Doug is going to do my pictures for the PR.” They said, “Who?”[laughs] I got my foot on the field for the first time through him. When he posed for me, I got the pictures up to the PR people and they approved them and use them. About that same time, Vida Blue was coming up in the September to show what he could do. He stayed with Mudcat. I did some pictures for Vida for his family. Well, the next year, which I guess was 71, I may have my dates mixed up, but he won the Cy Young and MVP both. He came to me and says, “I need postcards.” I’d been doing photographic postcards in black and white for quite a few of the A’s by that time. He says, “I want color.” I say, ”Well, what do you want a 100 or 200?” I was thinking photographically making them. I made my black and whites photographically. He says, “I get a 100 letters a day, I need lots of them.” The upshot was that I did three different printings for him, about 15,000 color postcards. All of them had my name and address down the center of the postcard back. One of them landed on the desk of Sy Berger at Topps in Brooklyn. Soon, I got a call from him, saying, “We like your work. Would you like to shoot for Topps?” I said, “Well, is the Pope Polish? I think I would.” [chuckling]

dm-topps-pass339loShooting for Topps was a side job for Doug, who spent his days working for UC Berkeley as an industrial photographer. But it was baseball that owned his heart, and every spring Doug would appear in Arizona to create the images that would enrapt children, and later, adults, across America. I asked him about the scope of work for those shoots.

“Take six posed pictures, everybody in full color, shoot 16 rolls at 36 exposure action during the games. The posed pictures were shot on Ektachrome, which is very difficult to shoot. You have to be right on the button or you’re in trouble exposure wise. The action film was in color negative, which is not quite as critical. The big problem early on was that lenses weren’t fast enough. They insisted on using 100 ASA film, which they thought gave better color. Also, I was instructed to photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the across their face and they told me that showed ruggedness and character. I, to myself thought it showed poor lighting. I never shot my own pictures that way. Why not turn the guy around, use flash film, you got the sun, coming from behind to separate him from the background and you get beautiful portraits of people.”

Did he have an assistant to keep track off all the players he shot? No.

“I devised a system where I had a roster sheet. I printed up my own and I’d have [the team name and] little stickers with all the numbers of the players on it. I could get two players per roll of 120 film on the posed shots and I’d pull off the sticker, put it on the roll when I was through and then put a piece of tape around it. Then, I’d send the roll off. It would have like number 3 or number 10. If they keep track of it at the processing place, then they’d know who’s on that roll.”

 “Some of the managers were extremely good to me. John McNamara and Dick Williams in particular … [Williams] managed about four of the teams that I shot in Arizona. He seemed to have been there my whole career. He would come up to me and say, “How’s it going?” He said, “You got everybody?” I’d say, “No I still need to get a few people.” He’d stand right beside me and call men off the field and make sure I got everybody. Occasionally, I’d have the San Diego Padres or the Seattle Mariners team shot by 11 o’clock and the game starts at 1 o’clock or so. Generally, I had to chase them down for hours and hours and come back another day. It was really nice to be helped that way by several of the people who knew me.”

Clearly, this is a bright guy with a strong work ethic. But what was it that made his photography so good?

“Well, I went to professional photo school. I went to a place called Brooks Institute doug-shoots-mccovey264loof Photography in Santa Barbara. I was a commercial illustration major, but we had portraiture also and we got the classical portraiture posing and that’s what I used. You just don’t have a guy stand up and look at you. I mean you give them some angle and angle his head and make it look correct, so he doesn’t have a broken neck. You shoot women one way and men another way just to feature them. I always shot a gray scale and a color chart every time I started because the lab could use that. I never saw other photographers doing that and that’s something I used to do at the University of California when I was shooting there. Quality: that’s the whole name of the game. I insist on having the best quality possible.”

reggie-on-deck2-dm114loOver the years, Doug formed friendships with some of the players, like Ted Kubiak, Willie McCovey, Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson. If he has a favorite, it might be Vida.

“I met him when he was a young 18-year-old kid and he was very friendly. I enjoyed that. He came to me to have some work done and he got me going as far as a second job. In an area that I just pinched myself that I actually had 24 years in the big leagues, 23 years actually shooting for Topps, but I made a lot of friends and I still have many friends that were baseball players. I keep in touch. I enjoy that.

Doug ended up shooting Vida’s wedding at Candlestick Park, where Willie McCovey was the best man.

“Willie McCovey was a special one. When he retired, he had a thing and had a special all-star game. He had a big get-together at Palace Hotel. He let me bring my son along and so that was fun. I had some pictures of us together, the three of mccovey-sf-giants-dm164lous and I just covered the whole event for him and made a great big picture book for him. That was special. I did a lot of postcards for Willie also, maybe three different times. I loved his Southern drawl and the way he spoke. He would call the house and Mary, my wife just loved talking to him. He always said [lowers voice], “Doug this is McCovey.” You know who he was way before he even said his name.” [chuckles]

I asked Doug if he ever got any oddball requests from ball players.

“I had one fellow who was a pitcher with the A’s and also the Cubs and I think maybe Seattle too, named Jim Todd. He liked photography and he liked my photography and so he would challenge me to do something different each year and pay for it. He had me take a picture of him going through his entire pitching windup, where he changed colored [jerseys] all the way through. Then, I picked out the best ones and had him change from the start to the end of his delivery as his jersey color changed and that was kind of fun. Then, I mounted it in front of a portrait of him that I did and then mounted it on a wood plaque.”

Like all card collectors, I’m interested in error cards. Was Doug ever involved in an error card?

1981cvox“I had a habit of photographing all the Oakland A’s players when they were in the minors if I could. I happen to have photographed Jeff Cox with Modesto and Vancouver and San Jose, just about everywhere he played. I knew him and he finally got up to the big club, spring training and he was so excited to find out that he might be on a Topps card. That happened several times with the young players and it’s kind of fun. The card came out (1981 Topps #133) and I was so happy to hear about that. I looked at the back and all the statistics were correct and it said Oakland A’s on the front. I looked at the picture and it was Steve McCatty. I don’t think the hobbyists discovered that yet. I had never seen it mentioned, but it was McCatty. It wasn’t Jeff. I felt so bad for him that I made him a custom card — this was before computers — and gave them to him to give to his family and friends.”

I asked if there was a particular set of cards he shot that was meaningful to him.

“I thought when [Topps] came out with the “Stadium Clubs”, those were really well done, attractive. They had full bleed edges and they were on thicker stock and they were glossy, looked good.”

Doug proceeded to take me through his favorite Topps cards from 1983-1993 and some of the stories behind them. [Check out Doug’s episode on “The Sweet Spot” to catch them here for $2.99: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thesweetspot]

I wondered how Doug was perceived by other baseball card photographers, as well as the industry.

“Two years ago, I and two other Topps photographers were inducted into the Cactus League Hall of Fame as photographers for Topps. It was really pretty nice and one of the other photographers was the person who was just starting when I was finishing up [in 1993]. We were in Tucson, shooting the Cleveland Indians and before the game, the posed stuff and action during the game, and it was very hot. This fellow, he kept looking over at me. In his speech at the Hall of Fame induction, he said that he kept looking over at Doug to see if he was ready to go because he was thinking about going back to the hotel and jumping in the swimming pool.” He kept looking over at me and I was still there. Then, the game got over and he says, “Wow, now I can finally head off to the hotel and go swimming.” He looked around and there I was, out on the mound, grabbing players and taking pictures of them. He said, “Now, there’s a baseball card photographer.”

I recently happened on some of Doug’s work as part of the Hall of Fame’s traveling photo exhibit at Dodger Stadium’s current “pop-up museum” [open weekends now through March 5- http://dodgerblue.com/dodgers-pop-up-museum-dodger-stadium-dec-2-vin-scully-items/2016/12/01/%5D

doug-m-hofHis photo of Bert Blyleven, along with the supporting curatorial text, tells us he was not only a world-class photographer, but a baseball historian of note. His contributions to the game, and baseball history, are immeasurable.

But, there’s a couple of problems for Doug:

“Baseball has become a problem to me because I’m so immersed in it. Photography has become a problem with me because I’m continuously looking at everything and making a picture out of it.”

 What’s next for Doug?

I still have 15,000 [negatives] to send [to the Hall of Fame], 35 millimeter and digital and keeps me busy, keeps me alive, keeps me going. I’ve got plenty to do!

 [note: I will be presenting Doug’s episode and my project “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” at the Lefty O’Doul Chapter’s SABR Day meeting in San Leandro on January 26, with Doug in attendance).

Doug was not unlike that kid in the neighborhood who had the coolest toys and baseball card collection and who enjoyed sharing them.