Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net
Picking up this series after a lengthy delay. I don’t like to write about these without having handled at least one sample of the cards in question. But that’s taken care of now. This will be my fourth post featuring Spanish-language baseball cards released in the United States. Previous posts are:
A couple of years before Pacific’s Spanish-language set, Kellogg’s had two 10-card sets which you could find inserted in boxes of cereal. This set was issues in both English-only and bilingual English-Spanish versions. Neither of those was distributed in my neck of the woods as the Kellogg’s boxes around me had Sportflics-manufactured 3D cards. Presumably the bilingual cards were distributed in more markets that had more Spanish speakers.
Anyway, the 10-card checklist is an interesting mix of big names we still recognize (Clemente, Carew, Cepeda, and Miñoso) and others in the hall of very good who have name recognition for a certain generation of fans or for fans of a certain team. I know Kellogg’s was limited to retired players but I feel like they could’ve done better.
Aside from how Cepeda is pictured with the Cardinals on the card front and the Giants on the back, I’m fascinated about what’s translated and what’s not in the text. Position information: “primera base” is Spanish, “DH” is English, and “BR” and “TR” stand for bats right and throws right.* His birth information: bilingual. Stats though are another mix just like the positions. Años is in Spanish but all the abbreviations are in English.
*Took me a while to figure that out as I briefly thought that BR and TR were somehow representing other positions he played.
The bio text though is basically equivalent between both languages. I enjoy that his nickname gets translated while the “El Birdos” cheer doesn’t have the same effect when the surrounding text is Spanish.
Also, these bios show one of the things I love most about following sports in other languages. Would I have learned the words for “rookie” or “pennant” in school? No. Way. But on a card like this I can learn “novato” and “gallardete.”
I’m not a huge Allen & Ginter guy. I don’t like it as a baseball card set but I do enjoy the way it incorporates and re-incorporates concepts from the early years of trading cards. All those animal, national, flag, etc. inserts and subsets remind me of the wonderful world of pre-war cards where trading cards allowed for people to experience and learn about the rest of the world.
This year Ginter has a Flags of Lost Nations insert set. On the surface this looks like a perfect fit for what Ginter does best. A way to learn about the past and a opportunity to imagine what other ways national borders could’ve turned out. As someone whose family lived in Hawai‘i before it was annexed by the United States* I was pleased to see that there was a Hawai‘i card in the checklist.
*This puts me in the small category of having Chinese ancestors who legally became residents of the United States during the time while the Chinese Exclusion Act was enforced and also puts me in the rare category of having Asian ancestors who never immigrated to the United States.
This is not good. Pre-Dylann Roof you could defensibly claim ignorance about this but now? Yeah. Topps has a full-fledged white supremacist flag on its checklist. I’ve been unable to find an image of the card yet but I know it’s going to be a stomach punch when I do—both in terms of how it represents a country which was founded with explicitly racist intent and how it’s used today as a symbol for how black people are inherently threatening and need to be subdued..
But that’s not all. If you look at the checklist there’s also a Nazi-puppet state on there in the Republic of Salo. I’m certain Topps wouldn’t go anywhere near a Nazi flag but this is pretty damn close.
Part of me hopes that this is merely a function of Topps trying to spread things out across the continents and not doing proper vetting on what these countries stood for. In other words, a horribly unfortunate mistake. But then I look at the text on the back of the Salo card and I’m not so sure. Someone had to research and write that and someone else had to green-light it even with the reference to Hitler.
Is it good to know about these countries? Yes. Absolutely. Are these the kind of things you want people to be collecting and seeking and saving and displaying? I certainly hope not.
I know politics is something we try and avoid on this blog and in this hobby. But flags are political. Countries are political. And when you put out a 25-card set of flags you should absolutely expect for people to look at the list, wonder why you chose the countries you did, and expect you to be aware and responsible for how those flags may still be in use today.
Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of those brand-name famous artists whose work I’m familiar enough with to recognize when I see it in a museum but who I otherwise don’t actually know much about. I only have a sense of him being a “graffiti” artist who transitioned to painting.
Last winter I started seeing writeups about the big show at the Barbican. So I started skimming; those kind of retrospectives—when done right—are an easy way to get a bit more context about an artist and even the reviews of them tend to be pretty educational. In this case, the writeups often mentioned how before he made it big he sold defaced baseball cards outside MoMA for a buck. Interest seriously piqued. I needed to check out the catalog once it arrived at the library.
The baseball cards are part of a larger project called “Anti-Product Baseball Cards” consisting of postcards that Basquiat and Jennifer Stein collaborated on. They’d make a collage consisting of printed material, paste four of them on a letter-sized page, photocopy the page, spraymount the copy to cardboard, then cut it into fourths to create four 4¼”×5½” postcards.
Basquiat was a visual-literacy sponge who remixed everything he saw—from academic “high” art to mass-produced disposable items—into new creations. This feels extremely familiar now since it’s the core competency of the internet but 40 years ago when color photocopying was not only new but expensive* so this kind of remixing had a higher barrier of entry.**
*At a couple of dollars per sheet, Basquiat and Stein would have have to sell 75% of their inventory to break even.
What’s particularly notable about Basquiat is how broad his visual literacy was. folk art, western art, indigenous art, african art, advertising, graffiti, packaging. Everything was fair game.
The Anti-Product Baseball Cards in particular tend to operate more on the pop culture side of things. Basquiat draws from mass-produced art—not exactly vernacular art since it’s being produced by professionals but not at all what people consider Art™—and turns the designs back from being products to art objects.
So we have items that we recognize as being ubiquitous and effectively valueless—e.g. product packaging—turned into something new and distinct. That Baseball Cards are both the subject of many of these postcards and the title of them is especially noteworthy. Unlike other Pop Art which foregrounds design that people don’t think of as art and puts it into a museum space,* Basquiat’s work is still semi-mass-produced and intended to be purchased and traded.
My takeaway is that “trading card” and “baseball card” are often synonymous. Baseball cards are part of our common visual and cultural literacy. Tapping into the ways they’re produced and distributed while messing with all the branding and productization aspects is a way of both asking what it is that we’re collecting and pointing out how familiar we are with them. Outside of the collecting world baseball cards just are. They’re the kind of things everyone recognizes and is aware of but which few people take the time to look at and see. It’s only after someone changes the context and de-productizes them that they get interesting.
If whiting out all identifying information makes these anti-product, the implication is that face, team, and brand information is what makes these “products.” This feels about right to me. These aren’t about Baseball,* they’re about the object, how it’s distributed, and reclaiming the process on a more personal level.
*A point of view which sets them apart from the current crop of baseball card vandals who are having fun but are also very much fans of baseball too.
Basquiat’s art literacy came mostly through books—meaning that he learned via mechanical reproductions of artwork. I love the idea of using mechanical reproduction to transform mechanical reproductions into art themselves.
A note on the “checklist”
Aside from the two images in the catalog I’ve only been able to find one other image of Basquiat and Stein’s cards online. It’s not high enough resolution to inspect properly but it does kind of look like all the cards are from the 1979 Topps set. JOE is Steve Henderson. JERK is Bob Randall. I haven’t combed through the other small images here to figure out the rest.
For me, Topps Now and Upper Deck Documentary are two of the most promising baseball card concepts that I’ve seen in terms of new directions the hobby could take. I love the idea of having one card per game for each team. And I love the idea of using modern printing technology for small print runs and quick product turnarounds. Marrying those two concepts is something I wish Topps Now would do instead of focusing on the usual big market teams and currently-hot stars.
I know I know, the idea of creating up to sixty different cards each day is a significant amount of work. That’s a lot of photos to pick, text to write, designs to compose, proofs to check, etc. etc. with a one-day turnaround. And yes at $10 a pop there’s no way anyone would collect a set of 162 cards for their team.* But the potential is so compelling I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to have such a set growing as the season grows with a photo of each highlight.
*As an aside, what price point would such a set be something worthwhile? Even $1/card feels high when thought of as a set.
The Rookies App has a bunch of different templates that just drop photos into. You can add text to the pre-defined text fields and change some of the colors. But otherwise it’s pretty limited. It is a lot of fun and I’ve played with it a bit for photos of my sons in Little League but for a set like this where the text on the back is kind of important, I suspect that the app might get frustrating since you’re stuck entering all the text on your iPhone.
Matt’s doing a modified documentary set of just highlights. But he’s also doing a complete roster of everyone who appears for the Brewers this season. He’s sourcing highlight photos for the highlights but he’s not limiting himself to this season for the roster images. I like this idea very much since not every game is a highlight and that sometimes there will be multiple highlights in a single game. Also not all players will have their own highlights but it’s nice for everyone to have a card in a set like this.
A bunch of us on Baseball Card Twitter have been inspired to try our own version of this project. Battlin’ Bucs has been doing a set of Pirates cards using his own design inspired by the 1961 Topps World Series subset. He’s taken what’s already a notable subset for Pirates fans and tweaked the colors to be even more Pirates-appropriate.
Battlin’ Bucs is only doing single-sided cards so the fact that this design allows for so much text is a big plus. I suspect that he’s also doing these in a Photoshop template and modifying each layer in his template where appropriate before saving everything as a JPG. He’s also going for a full 162-card set (with fingers crossed for more).
Meanwhile I’ve been inspired by 1993 Upper Deck and am doing a set of highlights and a complete roster like what Matt’s doing. I’m creating these in Indesign since I’m too much a text geek to do everything in Photoshop. This is definitely more work that using the Rookies App but it fits my preferences better.
It’s definitely been an interesting start to the season and has changed the way I’m reading game writeups since I’m now on the lookout for good photos from each game. I’m trying to only use photos of the players from this season as well (I’m missing only a few despite the newness of the season) but we’ll see if I can stick to this.
The thing about doing all these on my own is that I had to design the backs as well. This was the hardest part of the entire project. I’m pretty satisfied with a line score and one-paragraph writeup. And the Giants even had a 14-inning game to stress test my template to the limit of what it can handle.
By doing fronts and backs I’ve pretty much committed to printing these out. I’m not sure how I’ll be doing that but I’ll probably start with cheap 4″×6″ photo prints that I glue together since that’ll run me 20¢ a card max. If that doesn’t work I’ll figure out something else.
I’m looking forward to seeing how these projects progress over the summer. My fingers are crossed that more bloggers and card twitter people join us since an end-of-season round up of everyone’s sets will be cool to see.
And if anyone else in this community wants to join us but needs help getting started, don’t hesitate to ask. The more the merrier. We don’t need to rely on a company to make the cool yearbook sets that we all see as the promise and potential of Topps Now, we can do it ourselves.
Where the previous post covered Pacific’s “flagship” Spanish-language sets, this post will touch on some of their other Spanish-language sets. This isn’t meant to be a definitive list but rather a recognition that Pacific had other, smaller sets—general release, inserts, oddballs, etc.—which were also aimed at a Spanish-speaking market. These are what I’ve encountered so far and I know there are many more issues out there.
From what I can tell the 1997 Gems of the Diamond is a 200-count insert set for a 150-count base set—in this case Pacific Prisms. In 1994 Prisms were the insert set but from 1995–1997 Pacific Prisms was a 144-card set with all kinds of crazy stuff going on on the fronts and a sentence in Spanish about the players on the backs. In 1999 the mark returned but as an English-language set.
In many ways the Gems of the Diamond insert set is more interesting from a Spanish-language point of view since it includes a lot more text about the players. The copy on this Bonds card interests me because it feels like it was written in English first and then translated to Spanish since it uses evocative words like “smacked” and “tallied” in English while in Spanish it just repeats “conectó” (literally, connected) when describing his home run hitting.
In 1998 the Gems of the Diamond set became an insert for Pacific’s Invincible line. This was the same deal as Prisms where the insert set outnumbered the base cards.* It looks like Invincible took over from Prisms since the invincible line ran from 1998–2000 and featured a different flavor of over-the-top designs.
*While not the point of this post I’m beginning to wonder when an insert set stops being something I can conceive of as an “insert.”
Less biographic text this year and there are now stats on the back. Stats are in English which really stands out when the text references them in Spanish.
While I don’t have any of those tricked-out Prism cards I do have some Invincible cards. This one from 1999 has a weird translucent circle which features the player headshot so you can see him in mirror-image on the card back. Or maybe the point is you can hold the card up to the light and get a bit of a slide effect. I don’t know.
I don’t have much to note on the Spanish language usage here except to point out that the positions are in English. It’s weird, in many ways Prism and Invincible are both cards lines which would be better served by not having any text on the backs and just embracing themselves as two-sided graphic design. The only reason to have text on many of these is so you know which side is the front.
Be still my beating heart. In 1998 Pacific partnered with Nestlé on an oddball set. I’ve been unable to find out much about how the set was released but it’s a pretty good checklist featuring twenty Latino stars.
Five of the cards are a distinct design and function as something like inserts. The fronts don’t scan well because of all the foil but they’re distinct among all the cards I’ve seen in having bilingual position information. This is a pretty regular feature on Pacific’s backs but is a lot of information to include on the fronts. Sadly the team names are the English version as I would’ve loved to have had a Vigilantes card instead of a Rangers card.
The backs meanwhile continue to feature English-language stats. Given the size of the type being used for the statistic categories this is kind of a disappointing use of space and it would’ve been fun to see bilingual stats here too.
The other fifteen cards are what I guess you’d call the base design. No position information on these fronts and the same huge English-language stats on the back. I do appreciate how the smaller, italic font is used for English though. Still readable but very clear these are primarily for the Spanish-language market.
1969 Topps was a rough year as the player boycott plus four expansion teams put Topps in a major bind with the photography. As a result, many of the cards featured photos which had been cropped super tightly to obscure out-of-date photos, featured hatless players, involved unflattering low-angle shots to hide cap logos, or had the logos painted over. This, plus the numerous re-used photos overshadowed what could’ve been a great design.
Needless to say I was a excited to see 2018 Heritage since I expected that the 1969 design would look really nice if done well. The results have mostly confirmed this. Photos aren’t cropped too closely—more three-quarters length portraits instead of neck-up headshots—and are distinct from what we’ve seen in Flagship (though there does appear to be some reuse from previous years of Heritage). They’re also generally taken in better light than Topps took photos in in the 1960s. No more squinting in full sun or dealing with shadows across faces.
Many of the Heritage images use fill flash well and balance things nicely with the ambient light. Where in the mid-80s Topps went a bit overkill on the flash and turned many of the photos into impending thunderstorms, 2018 Heritage features sunny days that look perfect for a day game or sunsets that suggest it will be a wonderful night for a ballgame.
It’s a great demonstration of how good 1969 Topps could’ve looked and really illustrates the promise and appeal of the Heritage line. Topps also did very well this year in using photos which overwhelmingly feature white home uniforms or road grey uniforms. In previous years there have been a lot of colored alternates or spring training tops* which clash with the retro-esthetic of the designs.
*As a Giants collector this has been one of my biggest peeves about Heritage.
I’m also glad that Topps used the smallest possible ® and ™ symbols on the team names. In many of their retro sets (including this year’s 1983 throwbacks), adding those characters throws off the alignment and, to my eye, ruins the design. So kudos to Topps for getting it right here.
Being the type/design nerd I am though there are also a few things going on that really bother me about Heritage. One big one is that Topps chose to use the longest-possible position names—including “Outfielder” instead of “Outfield,” a choice I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a card before. This wouldn’t normally be an issue except that in order to fit the positions into the circle Topps had to compress the font. And even compressed, “Second Baseman” doesn’t fit well.
I have no idea why Topps did this especially since both last year’s Heritage and the original 1969 design use short position indicators like “2nd Base” instead.
While I’ve seen a bunch of complaints about changing the color of the Astros dot from light green to dark blue, that doesn’t bother me. I’d actually like to see all the dots updated to better match the team colors. What does bother me is that Topps went with black ink for the position name inside the dark blue dot. This is literally unreadable and an obvious design screwup. I’d love to see the positions in white or orange here instead.
This Gattis card though also takes me into the thing about Heritage that upsets me the most. While Topps has done a great job in updating the design with good photography they’ve also gone ahead and ruined a lot of the effect by post-processing many of the photos with a fake dot pattern which I’m assuming is intended to mimic a traditional halftone screen.
For a few years now Heritage has been printed using stochastic screening.* This results in much cleaner photographic images and generally improves print quality. Or at least it would if Topps didn’t add this silly dot pattern back into the photo. On the fronts of cards it’s especially visible in the skies and I suspect Topps intended it to replicate the vintage look.
For the few of us who would even notice what Topps is doing it’s borderline close to ruining the whole product by sending it into an uncanny valley between looking “authentic” and being a wonderful update which modernizes the design.
This becomes especially apparent on the All-Stars cards. I’ve gone ahead and scanned details from a real 1969 card since it makes the comparison that much more obvious.
Topps, to its credit, has the greyscale background image printed in just black ink. But the fake halftone effect is extremely obvious and extremely large. You can tell its a fake effect because the dots are all the same size—in a traditional screen the dots change size—plus the scale is completely off.
There’s also an artificially large trap where the black and white photo overlaps the red header graphic. This is also something that was done intentionally as it appears on all the All-Star cards and is way too large to have been introduced by the printing process.
Comparing to the 1969 card shows just how different the screening looks. The fake halftone in 2018 distracts from the image since it’s merely imposed on top of it as a texture. In the 1969, the dots are the image.
You can also see here how much better the modern screening is when Topps doesn’t screw with it. In Trout’s cap you can barely make out any noise from the printing screen and what you can notice looks more like film grain. On the 1969 card Hawk’s hair is full of the halftone rosette pattern.
On the backs of the All-Star cards—and from what I’ve seen, the Deckle Edge inserts—this is even more obvious because Topps only applied the fake screen effect to parts of the image. As a result it stands out even more. The Deckle Edge inserts appear to be very similar to this. Rather than improving on the originals Topps has tried a lazy approach to faking an old-time look.
This is especially frustrating because there was so much potential for those inserts to look amazing compared to the 1969 versions. Just printing black and white photos with a stochastic screen would’ve been a huge improvement. But Topps also could’ve considered making them duotones and getting them even closer to looking like real photographs.
There’s also something else weird going on in many of the Heritage photos. This Porcello is the most egregious of the ones I’ve seen but it’s happening a lot. The photos look like they’ve been printed out of register except that printing on the dot and the edges of the photo are all registered correctly.
In the Porcello example there’s severe magenta fringing on his right ear and elbow. There’s equally-severe yellow fringing around the red details on his jersey. I’m a total loss at guessing what’s going on since the rest of the card doesn’t look out of register.* However I am crossing my fingers and hoping that this isn’t another attempt to create a retro look through post-processing.
*It almost look like the purple/green chromatic aberration you get from cheap photographic lenses but it’s not that either since the colors are off and chromatic aberration only shows up in the slightly-out-of-focus areas.
I want to like this set. I really do. Aside from all the short print nonsense* Topps is very close to having something wonderful here in updating old designs to show how good they are and how well they work today. Many of the cards in this set are extremely nice with their good photography, full statistics, and easy-to-read backs. The World Series cards with their box scores are fantastic. There’s so much going on that appeals to me.
*I can ignore the parallels and variants but having 20% of the checklist be intentionally short-printed just to create artificial scarcity is something that directly antagonizes me and the way I collect cards.
Yet this straddling of wanting to improve the original while simultaneously weighing it down with faked versions of 1969’s production keeps me from fully enjoying it. I’d love an update. And I’d love an all-period-details replicated set which is actually printed with a coarse traditional linescreen. Unfortunately those two goals aren’t compatible and trying to do both means Topps does neither. Did I enjoy my pack? Yes and it was fun seeing these in person for the first time. Do I feel the need to buy another? Not really.
As much as the 1980s is denigrated as the beginning of the decline into junk wax, over production, and, to a certain degree, the ruin of the hobby, it’s also the heyday of the regional oddball. One of the best parts of this hobby is being introduced to new regional oddball sets through people sharing things on twitter, blogs, etc. I’m not one of those people who tries to collect a little bit of everything. Instead I just enjoy seeing how many different sets were out there and the diversity of designs they offered.
In general, baseball cards backs don’t get the respect they deserve from either card companies or collectors. Yes, many of us grew up and learned our stats from there. But many of us also also stored cards back-to-back in binders and only checked backs to confirm whether or not the card was a rookie card.* Card companies meanwhile know that the card fronts are what move the product;** as a result it’s rare to see a back which has been considered seriously.
**This is confirmed by the way modern chase cards have backs which consist of just “congratulations, you’ve found a certified relic/autograph/etc.” and no other useful information.
Oddballs and regionals are frequently extra bad here since the backs often involve branding or demonstrate that the people making the cards have only a passing understanding of what’s supposed to be on a card back.
My jaw hit the floor when I first saw the backs of the Mets Fan Club cards. They’re good-looking backs just in general. Besides being a strong design thought they’re extraordinary both in terms of their ambition and their execution.
First, the ambition. The text is set in a parallelogram-shaped box with a slanted baseline. The angle of the baseline was selected so that the ascenders on the italic font become vertical again. This isn’t straightfoward to do with computers and I can’t imagine doing mechanically by hand. It’s an impressive stunt on its own.
That this text grid is continued into the statistics panel is what blows my mind. Stats are hard enough to do well as it is. Just getting the numbers to align correctly is something that companies frequently mess up.* Doing it on a grid like this? You’ve got to be kidding me. Whoever laid this out was challenging themselves in ways that go far beyond the expectations for the usual baseball card backs.
*One of these days I’ll write a post about typesetting statistics.
That the execution of the backs is as good as it is is a testament to the skill of the designer and typesetter who put these together. There are still a few weird things like how the bold italic font has characters at a slightly different angle than the text font. But everything else including how the Innings-Pitched statistics head is aligned so that the decimals hang is done to near perfection.
And that doesn’t get into other wonderful things like the use of the Mets’s colors as the two spot colors and the way that the Mets logo interacts with the bare paper in the top box. Even the card numbering with the single non-italic font on screened-back orange ink in a circle that fits perfectly into the corner of the box feels intentional and correct.
I do have to point out though that while I applaud the ambition, typesetting multi-year stats ended up being too difficult. Davey Johnson’s card is having problems getting the verticals to line up. This also occurs in the text but it’s especially obvious in the stats where everything bends to the right as you go down the columns.
That this card is not nearly as well-done as the rest shows how much manual work went in to making all eight cards in the set. Each card’s type is set slightly different in a way that never happens with computer typesetting.
I love these because of what they intend to do, how they do it, and even the way they fail. It’s exciting to see designs which are inspired by the text itself—in this case the angle of the italic font. I just never expected to see this kind of thing on a baseball card back and I’m glad baseball card twitter continues to surprise me with things I never knew existed.
[It’s been pointed out that I should have mentioned how these are Topps-designed and manufactured despite not having a Topps copyright slugline. That Topps made these does explain how the designers could get away with being this ambitious. At the same time, that many of Topps’s oddballs in the early 80s consisted of slapping a corporate logo (Coca Cola, Burger King, and Nestle being the examples which come to my mind first) on the base design for the year means I didn’t feel like Topps being the manufacturer explained everything.]