Blink of an eye

This year I enrolled my sons in the Trenton Thunder’s Boomer’s Kids Club. It’s a great deal. Tickets to eleven games for the three of us plus fun activities and a tshirt* for $45. I knew we wouldn’t be able to make the games in July and August because of summer plans but even just going to the games through June it would be worth it.

*Shirt and activities for kids only.

We’ve now been to seven games this season (six with the kids club plus a Little League fundraiser night) and it’s been awesome. The boys have gotten two shirts, a jersey, a frisbee, and a pennant. They’ve had a chance to throw out the first pitch, walk around the field, be part of a high-five tunnel for the players, and watch The Sandlot on the outfield after a game. We’ve even been tossed five baseballs. Oh yeah and the games have been good. The Thunder are a decent team and it’s been a lot of fun to watch the boys learn the players and really get into following the season.

They’re also completely hooked on the hobby—especially autograph collecting. This is all me and my interests rubbing off on them. They’ve seen me write TTM requests and get cards signed at Trenton Thunder games and they want to join me. So I indulge them.

Not too much. I supply cards and pens (for now) but they have to do the requesting. I’m not going to flag a player down for them or ask on their behalf. I’ll help spot guys but the boys need to learn how to approach players, make the request, and say thank you. We’ve started off pretty simple by just focusing on the Trenton players and visiting coaches. As a result their autograph binders are pretty eclectic.

My youngest’s binder is organized alphabetically by first name. His idea. It’s a wonderfully random bunch of cards.* Seven Thunder players. Five coaches. And one card that Marc Brubaker mailed to him. I find myself wondering how much a first grader even cares about people like Joe Oliver, Brian Harper, or Matt LeCroy. These aren’t guys he knows. Some, like LeCroy, aren’t even guys I’d really talk to them about.** But they’re in the binder and he’s super-excited to show them off.

*Unless you make the Eastern League connection.

**Even though the Frank Robinson story is pretty touching

Can he tell you about the players? Only what he knows by turning the cards over. But he’s into this as a hobby even though he’s, so far, just tagging along with me.

His brother’s binder is pretty similar except that his one TTM return is in there and there are a couple 1991 Topps cards that he pulled from his own binder because he got the set for Christmas last year. As a result he has a bit more of a connection to guys like Harper and Oliver but LeCroy, Mark Johnson, and Mike Rabelo are all ciphers to him.

As the season’s progressed I’ve been questioning what it means to collect autographs of guys you’ve never heard of and second-guessing the importance of what I’ve gotten my kids into. Are they excited only because I’m excited? Am I pushing them to do something that only means something to me?

I jumped into the hobby in 1987. I bailed in 1994. Not a long period of time but it felt like forever. And in a way it was. Not only did those years represent half my lifetime by the time I stopped, they covered most of my years in school—pretty much my entire youth.

Now, 25 years later as a father, I’m seeing things from the other side. What was a lifetime when I was a kid is already flashing by in the blink of an eye. I know I only have a handful of years where my sons will legitimately share my interests. Yes legitimately. At the end of the day I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter why they’re interested in the hobby, the fact that they are and that we’re able to share it is what matters.

My two boys love collecting and everything it entails. Getting cards. Sorting cards.* Re-sorting cards.** Showing me their cards. Asking for new cards. Etc. Etc. It’s great. It reminds me of being a kid and it inspires me to document their adventures so that in a decade or two when they look back at their collection they’ll have my thoughts and memories to go with their memories of those years when the three of us were enjoying baseball together.

*On the floor as God intended.

**One day will be by number, the next by team, the next by last name, the next by first name.

I get to experience what I put my mom through, how patient she was, and how much she enjoyed seeing me get excited by the hobby. She kept a journal which I eventually turned into a book so that we could all have copies. I still enjoy rereading her essays and I’m looking forward to my boys reading them too.

Instead of journalling I’m blogging about our adventures and putting together summaries of events we’ve gone too. Like when we went to the Thunder Open House I took photos of their baseballs and printed out a letter-sized sheet for their binders. I’ll do the same thing with their haul of autographed cards for the season since I know they’ll re-sort them multiple times in the future.

It’ll always be important to have the biographical breakdown of their collection. As my sons get older, their cards and autographs will increasingly become markers for their memories rather than just objects to collect and hoard. The memories they’re attached to is what makes them special. It’s why I collect and why I hope they keep collecting.

In fact, I’ve been inspired to start doing the same thing for my cards and autographs. I know I’m going to be passing  everything on to my sons. I also know that “all dad’s stuff’ will be nowhere near as memorable as having an introduction to a given collection or set which explains who I was when I got these and why the set was important to me. This is a big project but I’m looking forward to it.

Y’all be cool

Just a quick post saying hello as the new co-head of this committee. Jason and I fully intend to keep things keeping on as they’ve been. This blog has become a wonderful community centered on enjoying, appreciating, and using baseball cards and the positivity around this project is a testament to Mark’s skill as a moderator and guide.

One thing I have been changing though is on the backstage side. The articles and content is great. The organization? Let’s just say there was much to be desired. We had a couple dozen categories which felt like they were from the early early days of the blog. I know I struggled with them a bit as an author and I know I’m not the only one since over half of our posts were “uncategorized.” This was not helping us accomplish Mark’s goal for turning this committee and blog into something more concrete under the aegis of SABR.

So I’ve spent the last couple weeks fixing the categories. Skimming and categorizing the uncategorized posts. Looking at the post counts and thinking about where I can create better, more-focused subcategories. Looking at the content on the entire blog to think about what themes come up again and again. It’s been a lot of work. It’s also been a lot of fun as I reacquaint myself with the past three years of posts. We’ve come a long way and gone to some really interesting places on here.

The result is a massively-revamped category pulldown menu on the sidebar as well as a stand-alone page of all the category information. Yes I’ve added more brands than just Topps. Yes I’ve finally periodized things. And yes I’m probably more excited than I should be about doing this and seeing everything we’ve covered.

It’s been great to go through the categories and read a whole bunch of similar posts. A whole different way of looking at this blog and one step closer to having something that feels more permanent.

Where I’m most excited though is in seeing everything we haven’t covered. All those brands with fewer than 10 posts? That we have so few posts covering 1995–2010? Those are cards I’d love to see in new posts. Am I discouraging other content? Absolutely not. But there are whole worlds of cards out there that we haven’t written about yet and those are the posts I’m looking forward to the most.

Production changes

Yup. I’m overdue for my next post about print screens.* This time it’s 2019 Topps Flagship which caught my eye. When I got my first sample of Flagship this year, one of the first things I noticed was that they used a Traditional line screen instead of a Stochastic FM screen. This is the first time in a long time that Topps has printed Flagship this way so I figured I should go through my binders to see when exactly when it changed.

*Previous posts are a rundown of 2017’s different cards and a look at 2018 Heritage.

It turns out that it’s been just over a decade. The last time Topps printed Flagship traditionally was in 2008. This feels about right since the mid 2000s were when computer-to-plate technology took over the printing world. There were too many variables in the printing process to really do Stochastic screens before then but with computers both generating the plates directly and monitoring ink densities on press, the whole world changed.

I’ve gone ahead and scanned a half-inch swatch from the past dozen years of Flagship just to demonstrate. You can see the rosette pattern that Traditional screening creates in both the 2008 design and the 2019 design. The rest show how Stochastic screening results in a much smoother image.

Does this make a big difference to the card quality? Not really. Topps has been just fine using traditional screens in Stadium Club and that’s as quality a product as it comes in terms of printing.

Rather, this change interests me because it indicates that Topps has changed its production methods.* Either a new printer or something about the print run—scale, price point, etc.—means that the traditional screen is back.

*I’m also intrigued that Topps is printing Black at 15° and Magenta at 45° but the post about print angles is going to wait for another day.

That the mini Flagship cards over the years were printed traditionally points at differing distributions being perhaps a factor. That 2010 Update was printed traditionally despite Flagship being stochastic suggests I’m just reading too much into it. Anyway I found the change interesting.

While I was going through the decades I noticed that Heritage has been back and forth a lot more with this. It switched to Stochastic in 2008—a year before Flagship—went back to Traditional in 2010, then Stochastic in 2011, Traditional from 2012–2014, Stochastic from 2015–2018, and back to Traditional this year. Cropped samples starting from 2006 follow.

Looking at each year of Heritage is an interesting experience. As someone who’s used to looking at old cards, Heritage’s approach to reproducing the designs shows how different the printing world is now. Where the old designs had pure solid inks,* Heritage is frequently screened. Heritage is also consistently trying to fake the artifacts of old printing—really fat fake traps,** misregistered inks, large halftone rosettes.

*The reds, yellows, greens, blues, and purples are all supposed to be solid. Yes I will eventually have a post about the seven standard easy-to-print colors Topps used for decades.

**Trapping is the small overlap between design elements of differing ink compositions which prevents unsightly gaps from showing up in case of misregistration between the inks when printing.

It’s the treating the halftone as a pattern/texture that annoys me the most. I commented on it last year and was pleased to see that it was gone in Heritage High Numbers. Much to my surprise, Heritage High was printed Traditionally and had disposed of the fake rosette pattern*

*Well except for the Deckle Edge cards that featured a fake halftone pattern while also being printed Traditionally.

This year’s Heritage is printed with a Traditional screen but more excitingly, it’s printed with a spot color. Instead of printing the borders in a 50% black screen, Topps opted to use a solid spot grey ink (I noticed they also did the with the burlap pattern in the 1968 design). This is the kind of change I like to see Topps do with Heritage. Instead of mimicking the look of 50-year-old printing technology, taking a design and printing it as nicely as possible allows us to see how strong the design itself is.

Comparing a crop of 2019 Heritage vs 1970 Topps allows us to see the difference in quality. Heritage, in addition to using a spot grey ink, is also using a much much finer linescreen. It still gives some of that vintage rosette pattern and feeling but it’s also a massive improvement in quality.

This comparison also points out how Topps cut corners in much of the 1970 set by printing the skies as cyan-only. Heritage is much more comfortable with other colored inks giving the sky more depth.

Flipping the cards over on the back though shows one instance where I’m glad that Heritage chose to mimic old printing technology. One of the things I love about the 1970 design is how the trapping and overprinting* on the back feels like it was intended to create a third color beyond the yellow and blue.

*Overprinting is when one ink is printed completely on top of another.

The trap around the card numbers is massive and produces almost a black border. Topps faked this with a slightly-off-center trap that, if it weren’t identical card-to-card, would’ve been perfect. The statistics section of the card is blue text overprinting the yellow and also ends up being darker as a result.

Unfortunately, Heritage chose not to mimic the trapping in the cartoon—part of the 1970 design I loved most. The silver lining to this is that it shows how good Topps’s printer’s tolerances are. I can see the trap and it’s miniscule. In 1970, it feels like Topps chose to have the inks overlap so much that key portions of the cartoon turned black. It’s arguably a bit sloppy but I feel like Topps turned it into a design feature.

Anyway, I didn’t want to turn this into a deep dive into Heritage (though I do have to note that Topps didn’t do the double Latino surnames) and just wanted to highlight a few changes in Topps’s production this year and do a brief history of how they’ve printed cards in previous years.

The revolution will not be televised

Way back in April last year I posted about how a bunch of us were planning on creating our own set of ToppsNOW-inspired cards for our teams. We were all excited and optimistic about embarking on the project although none of us new for sure whether we’d make it all the way through.

I’m happy to report that three of us have completed our sets. Matt Prigge and I finished ours in mid-December—we both decided to wait until after post-season awards had been announced in November before drawing a line under things—and Marc Brubaker just finished his this month.

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Matt stuck with the Rookies App all season. This had the benefit of allowing him to order packs of cards as the season progressed and forced him to stay relatively current. I suspect that the monthly rush of receiving the next batch of produced cards also allowed him to stay on task.

The app has a number of nice templates which Matt customized to make more Brewers-like. He did a great job at mixing an old-school 80s Topps esthetic with a more-1990s photo selection. The results speak for themselves and look fantastic.

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I made my cards in a combination of Photoshop and Indesign. Since I knew I would be away from my computer for a couple months last summer I selected a design that was extremely text-focused and didn’t rely on any image adjustments. I printed everything through MagCloud and then trimmed them to size after the fact.

My design inspiration was obviously 1993 Upper Deck. It fit my text-based needs perfectly while also remaining photo-centric. And it’s a perfect match for the kinds of photos I liked. I tweaked it slightly to be Giants-specific but it’s otherwise as close a copy as I could make with the tools available to me.

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Marc was a late addition to the group between starting late and having a team that went the furthest in the playoffs, he had the most work to do to finish his set. He created all his cards in Photoshop and got them printed locally.

Marc went with 1998 Upper Deck SP as his design inspiration. Marc and I are both photographers so we appreciate the rough filed-negative-carrier sloppy edges and generous white borders which suggest darkroom prints. Marc however improved in SP’s design by rotating and flipping the edge design so the cards don’t look like they’ve been run through a uniform Photoshop action.

Observations and Reflections

Matt and Marc both ended up making cards for every game of the season as well as the post season. I did cards for every Giants win, other highlights I felt needed to be called out, and in the (all too frequent) occasion of being swept, a single card for the series. We all seemed to feel that doing cards for the entire season was both a lot of work and became a bit of a chore and as such, are thinking about whether we want to commit to doing this again.

While we like the idea of ToppsNOW and making cards for an entire season, there are a lot of games where there’s really no good highlight. Or if there is a good highlight, there’s no good photo of it. Plus you have that looming specter of falling behind and having to catch up. Even with focusing just on wins—where there’s always something worth highlighting—I found it hard to keep going.*

*Though this could just be the Giants’ September.

What we all agreed was most rewarding though were the roster cards. We made cards for every guy who appeared in a game. As team collectors I think we all appreciate those cards of the September call-ups who never get proper Topps cards to reflect their appearance in the majors.

I know that we all plan on doing a complete roster again next season as well.

Also, the examples from our sets in this post are all Roster cards. It’s very telling that they are the first cards we all blogged about. Once Matt and Marc blog about their highlights cards I will write a second post which is just focused on examples of the different card designs we all came up with.*

*Highlights, Roster, All-Stars, Award-Winners, Post-Season, Memorials, etc.

Next season

All three of us are planning on doing something like this next season. It’s been a lot of fun to chat, encourage, and share design or photo-selection comments. I don’t know if any of us would have completed the season without the others’ support. Sometimes peer-pressure is a good thing.

We’ve also been discussing consolidating our efforts and making something that’s more like a proper “set” as both a way of coordinating things and encouraging more people to join us. We’re primarily suggesting roster cards—so 54 photos total. Names and positions on the front. Haven’t thought about backs yet but that may be more up to the discretion of each person.*

*Puzzle backs are always an option.

To this point I threw together a quick template which could be offered as an Indesign document or Photoshop template to whoever is interested. I’m serious. Please join us. It’s a ton of fun and there’s nothing like seeing the printed cards in-hand or in pages afterward.

One of My Favorite Things

As a child who grew up in the heyday of Topps Traded, Donruss Traded, Fleer Update, Score Rookies and Traded, and Upper Deck Extended, the idea that companies would issue cards whenever players changed teams was something I just took for granted. I didn’t even have to wait for the following year, odds were that I could find multiple updated cards the same season of the team change.

This kind of thing didn’t exist in previous decades. As I’ve gotten into vintage cards, especially in the lower grade realm where my budget lies, I’ve started running into evidence of how differently kids in the previous generation collected cards. Mark’s touched a bit on this in how he kept his cards sorted based on current team and it shouldn’t surprise me at all that the generation of kids that truly used cards versus storing them would take things into their own hands and modify cards to keep them current.

I don’t seek out these modified cards but they’re quietly becoming one of my favorite things to encounter when I thumb through a pile of low-grade vintage. In addition to just being fun reminders of how different collecting used to be, they serve as indications of the player’s future beyond the back information.

dsc_0038

The first such card in my collection was this 1958 Willie Kirkland. As a player about whom I was wholly unfamiliar, seeing the two corrected teams encouraged me to actually look up his career information.

I was kind of shocked to see that the previous owner had updated this card twice over 7 seasons to reflect his 1961 move to Cleveland and his 1964 move to Baltimore. I was also a little confused that the owner updated the Baltimore affiliation at the beginning of 1964 but didn’t update it again that summer when Kirkland moved to the Senators.

Still, the annotations suggest the wonderful concept of a child so enamored by baseball that all their cards are updated each season to reflect current teams. It’s not enough to just sort them to be in the correct teams, the cards themselves have to track the transactions.

dsc_0039

My 1964 Jose Pagan is an interesting case where rather than updating the team only the position has been changed. As a Giants fan, I don’t associate Pagan with Third Base at all (for good reason since he only played around 20 games there compared to close to 500 at shortstop). But he did switch to playing a lot more at Third when he was traded to the Pirates in 1965.

That the team name isn’t updated makes me wonder if this card was instead used for some other purpose. I’m imagining a game of some sort where kids would create a lineup out of cards they owned.

dsc_0040

The last of these cards I’ve come across is probably the best one in that it captures the 1966 Orlando Cepeda trade on a 1966 card. This is one transaction and career trajectory I was very familiar with. Yes I know that trading Cepeda sort of unleashed McCovey but it still pains me to be reminded that the Giants had to let him go.

I see this being an annotation done in 1966 so as to make that year’s set correct. Cepeda was traded in May and this is card number 132. Topps had no chance. And I’m sure Mark has this card paged with the Cardinals too.

As I stated previously, I’m not actively seeking these out. I just love coming across them and will totally set them aside when I do.

Barajitas estadounidenses: Bowman International

My seventh post featuring Spanish-language baseball cards released in the United States. Previous posts are:

  1. Introduction and 1978 Topps Zest
  2. 1993–2000 Pacific and Pacific Crown
  3. Other assorted Pacific cards and oddballs
  4. 1991 Kellogg’s Leyendas
  5. 1994 Topps and beyond
  6. Donruss Super Estrellas

I have to be honest, I thought I was done with these posts unless someone were to create a new Spanish Language set. But the wonderful thing about this hobby is that there’s always, always, more to discover. Which means I was quite pleased to learn that 1998 and 1999 Bowman International not only highlighted where a player was from but also included localized backs.

These aren’t one-off parallels but rather a complete set which includes a number of Spanish-language backs—including for players from Puerto Rico who are technically not international players. I haven’t gone on a deep dive looking at the Spanish language text on multiple cards and the stats on these are pretty thin (although Cuadrangulares, Carreras Impulsadas, and Promedio suggest that things are translated fully rather than using the more Spanglish terms like Jonron). Oh, and the #PonleAcento action on González is always nice to see too.

What did jump out at me is that height and weight are in meters and kilograms instead of feet and pounds. None of the previous cards I’ve featured in this series have made this translation but it makes sense here since this set is less about being aimed at the Spanish-speaking market in the United States and more about presenting international backs.

Which means that the set contains cards in other languages too. While at first I was interested in only the Spanish-language cards, I couldn’t help myself and began searching for other languages.

Japanese was the obvious next language to look for and I was pleased to find many on the checklist. I’m not going to comment at all on the language usage anymore since I can’t read them but I do have to highlight how Topps changed the units on the Kanji cards from meters to centimeters.

Also, using a non-Roman font is an impressive commitment for just a few cards in a set. Graceful language switching is something that really only became common with MacOSX and Opentype fonts which could contain a full complement of unicode characters. Neither of these were around in the late 1990s.

Designwise though I’m a bit sad that Yoshii’s Kanji signature is printed sideways.  Yes I know this is how he signed his Topps contract. But given that vertical space I’d like to think he’d’ve wanted the characters to be stacked vertically instead.

Skipping around since there’s no reason to provide exemplars for every language for every year. We also have Korean cards. In the 1999 design, even the name on the front is localized so you have to recognize Jung Bong’s photo or signature.

I’ve really nothing more to add here on top of what I said about Japanese except to note that I find Hangul to be one of the most brilliant things humanity has ever invented and it’s fun to have a US card which features it.

The Ntema Ndungidi card though is fantastic. There are so many good things going on with it. Topps didn’t go with the colonial language and print this in French. Nor did it select the obvious “name an ‘African’ language” choice and go with Swahili. Instead we’ve got something that stumps Google Translate but which appears to be some kind of Bantu—probably Lingala. I love it.

I also love how Topps typeset his height to be “1,85m” and replaced the decimal point with a comma. Topps also did this in the text where it mentions his batting average but didn’t do it in the statistics.

Another point of interest here is that Ndungidi was born in Zaire—a country which no longer existed in 1999 when this card was printed.* Topps still marked his origin as Zaire on the card front and on the back his birth information says “Ex Zaire (R.D. Congo).”**

*Quick quick history. Zaire ceased to exist in 1997 when the Rawandan war spilled into Zaire and the resulting Congo war forced Mobutu Sese Seko into exile and installed Laurent-Désiré Kabila as the new president.

**Note, his regular Bowman card just says Zaire and appears to be completely unaware that that was out of date.

I’m still looking through the checklists to see if there are any other languages I’m missing. I thought Sidney Ponson would be in Dutch but Topps used English for Aruba. Sadly, none of the Canadian players appear to get French cards nor are their vitals in metric units. Nor does Benny Agbayani’s card feature Pidgin or Hawaiian. But I’m plenty happy with what I’ve found and this was a nice way to expand on the Spanish-language posts I’ve been making on here.

Baseball Americana

CdV

Over Thanksgiving I took a trip to go see the Baseball Americana exhibition at the Library of Congress. It’s a single gallery, doable in an hour, and I highly recommend visiting if you’re in DC before it closes. While I’ve already written about the general show on my own blog, for the purposes of this committee I feel like it’s worth highlighting the specific role baseball cards play in the exhibition.

Being part of the Library of Congress means that ephemera like cards are emphasized a lot more than equipment and artifacts. One of the key points this show makes is not only has baseball existed for 150 years years, it’s been recognizable that entire time; the existence of baseball cards—the earliest being a carte de visite from 1865 — is a key feature of this consistency. As long as we’ve had a game, we’ve been making pieces of cardboard featuring players’ pictures and trading and collecting the results.

Does a modern card (well, 1994 Bowman) with 4-color offset lithography, gloss UV, and foilstamping compare at all to a 130-year-old Goodwin & Co single-color uncoated photographic print? Not at all from a production point of view but seeing them next to each other in the same case and even my 6-year-old recognizes them as part and parcel of the same concept. Heck, even some of the poses are exactly the same.

The show continues with a display of a number of cards of stars of the pre-integration period. These are wonderful to see (and lust over) but the emphasis of this part of the exhibition is in who’s playing baseball and the cards are contrasted with photos of African-American ballplayers.

The clear takeaway to me is that while cards have always existed, their role in defining who real ballplayers are cannot be ignored. Seeing who we’ve chosen to make cards of is a powerful statement about who counts and who doesn’t in the sport.* I half-jokingly refer to Topps Flagship as the “card of record” but there’s a kernel of truth in there. Cards chronicle the history of the game and collecting them connects us to that history.

*Note, my takeaway isn’t just a race thing. When we see collectors express concerns about companies only focusing on rookies or stars or large-market teams it’s because of the way that cards function as a record of who matters.

Cards were my entrée into baseball history. They served a similar function for my kids. As much as my eldest hits Wikipedia, Baseball-Reference, and Retrosheet on the iPad, cards are why he knows who he knows and what sustain his interest and connection to the sport.

BBM

Later on, a sample of Japanese cards shows how the sport has transcended the United States and become more global. This is exactly right and, while I haven’t gotten into international cards,* I can’t deny that it’s really interesting to see how an American thing goes global and how baseball cards end up fitting into other country’s card-collecting traditions.

*My forays into Spanish-language issues are more of a language-based interest.

Cabrera

The only miss card-wise for me is that in the section that shows the increase of statistics in both scouting and the appreciation of the game. There’s a comparison of card backs and the nature of the statistical information that we’ve felt is appropriate over the years. Unfortunately we don’t actually get to see the backs and they’re merely described to us.

Plus there’s so much more that could be here. I would’ve loved to see a comparison of backs drawing a line from T205’s slashline of G/AVG/Fielding to the traditional slash lines of the 1960s, the whole range of proto-SABRmetric backs in the 1990s, and finally today’s inclusion of stats like WAR that I can’t even explain to my kids how to calculate. It’s not just that stats exist, it’s what stats we care about and how that impacts our understanding of the game.