Profiles in Profiles

profile preface

Thumb through a stack of 1964 Topps cards and you’ll see a host of classic Topps poses, whether it’s the manager (or head coach!) barking out instructions…

Pitchers at the top of their wind-ups…

Or unprotected catchers in a crouch.

Profile Prototypes

But there’s one classic Topps pose you won’t see at all until the following year, and even then not until the fifth (Johnson) and seventh (Banks) series…

…not withstanding the shiny pack inserts, which relied 90% on profiles. (If you can’t picture any exceptions, here’s a link to Koufax.)

Side note for vintage collectors like me that bemoan all the “shiny stuff” in the hobby these days. It ain’t so new!

Profligate Profile Proliferation

Fast forward 13 years to my rookie season collecting, and Topps had so much “facial profiling” you’d think Rudy Giuliani was in charge!

Profile Pro forma

For at least two Boston superstars, the side shot had evidently become the pose de rigueur.

Baker’s Recipe

Look carefully at the gallery of 1978 Topps profiles and you’ll notice several, Yaz among them, that go beyond the standard side view and add an upward gaze as well. These “look up there” profiles can be seen as hybrids of standard side-views and the “look up there” front or three-quarter views Topps used on way too many cards in the 1960s and 70s.

For whatever reason, these “look up there” profiles were among my favorite cards as a kid.

SIDELINED SIDE VIEWS

While Topps struck gold with their Baker alchemy, not all their experiments led to success. For example, Topps introduced a “look down there” variation with one player each in 1976 and 1977, but the approach was not carried forward to 1978.

Profile Prehistory

If there’s one thing readers of this blog know well it’s that nothing in baseball cards is truly new. Goudey flirted with the idea in 1933 and Bowman went all the way there in 1948, and I suspect readers can cite many earlier examples.

PROFILE PROGNOSTICATION

It’s hard to imagine profile pics making a big comeback. They seem a bit dull when compared with the kinds of card photos now available.

That isn’t to say that you’ll never see another profile again, and I proffer this Profar as proof.

At some point (2027 if I’m doing this right), Topps will release the Heritage version of 1978 Topps. Though the younger collectors of the future will wonder why so many of the pictures suck, I sure hope to see a ton of “look up there” big sideways heads of the game’s top stars. If that won’t make me feel young again, nothing will. And Oddibe young again, right?

Little Black Rectangles (Or, In the Eye of the Beholder)

In my quest for sets to complete, manageable sets, not too expensive for a one-time purchase, I’ve begun to look, in earnest, at old Topps inserts. I’ve got my share – 1969 Deckle and Decals (see last post), a random assortment of others – but there’s always room for more.

I’d like to grab some 1968 and 1972 posters.

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I don’t have any of them and they’re pretty nice, much nicer than the 1970 posters I do have

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(though not as nice as the 1967 pinups). But, since I have none, will I really put together a set? I’m pretty doubtful. Still, I’ll occasionally look for a lot and, if I do end up snatching some, we’ll see what happens.

What’s been grabbing me are the 1970 and 1971 Topps Scratch-Offs. Why? Not because of looks. These are the most unattractive inserts that Topps ever produced. Ugly little head shots on the front, a centerfold of black rectangles and a back that clearly didn’t take too long to design, all housed on rough cardboard (that’s how I remember them).

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It’s in the remembering that the scratch offs live.  They’re inserts I had, unlike the posters which I never did, so don’t have any feelings about one way or the other. I have a connection to these scratch offs that is real and, though they repulse me in most ways, they attract me in others.

Interestingly, I don’t recall them in 1971 packs, only in 1970. Turns out there is a distinguishing mark to tell the two apart – 1970’s are white inside, 1971’s red.

70-71T-Scratchoffs-backs

Both sets are 24 cards, both should be pretty reasonable to buy unscratched (though a NM 1970 set recently sold for $117.50, way more than I’d consider.)  I’m thinking $65 for 1970, $75-80 for 1971, harder to come by, which is why I don’t remember them.

I’ve also been slightly obsessed with the 1970 Topps Football Glossy inserts, but that’s for another blog.

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The Making (Actually, Building) of a Complete Set

It’s a daunting task to start collecting a full vintage set from zero. I only did it once, about 25 years ago or so, an old set of over 200 cards. In those pre-eBay days, it wasn’t quite clear what a complete set really went for in the open market. All you could go on was price guide prices and, since they were usually higher than actual, going for a set from scratch wasn’t necessarily an economic mistake.

It would be now. There’s no way you can put together a vintage set for a better price than buying it straight out, unless you either have a good critical mass of cards to start from or you can trade. Or, and herein lies this post, it’s a small enough set that prices won’t get out of hand.

Until a few months ago, I didn’t have a single 1969 Topps Decal in my collection. Why? Who knows. Never interested me, my 1969s weren’t my original cards from packs so I didn’t have the inserts, and so on. They’re interesting items, small and glossy with plain white paper backgrounds, the photos almost the same as the regular issue cards. They ain’t no Deckle Edges, I can tell you! (By the way, can anyone tell me which series the Deckles were inserted in, and which series had the Decals? I’d like to know that.)

Earlier this year, Mark Armour and I, hot off a huge trade of 1970’s basketball for 1968 and 1969 baseball, bandied about what we may still have to swap. It came down to Hostess, Kellogg’s, Fleer Cloth patches (from me) and other oddballs for some Post Cereal and, when I saw them calling out to me, 1969 Decals.

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I was on my way. From zero to 10, in one swoop, 20% of the way to the end. All I needed was a good, cheap lot, ideally with a bunch of stars. That came my way soon after.

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The nice thing about this lot was that now I had doubles to sell, which I did. Oddly, I couldn’t buy commons for less than $2-2.50 and couldn’t sell them for more than about $1.75. Still, selling extras helped me whittle down my cost (I still have a nice Hoyt Wilhelm, if anyone is interested).  I even sold the backless Pete Rose for over $4 and bought a super nice one for $10.

With Joey Foy now in hand, I’m down to one, Reggie Jackson. I want to pay $10-15, EX or better, but it’s likely to run me $15-20. Weird, because there’s no way there are more of these out there than Reggie’s rookie card, which goes for way more. The Decals are definitely a lowish supply, lower demand kind of issue.

As to the price? I’ll have ended up spending around $150 for the complete set in overall EX (some VGEX, some EXMT, hard to know with Decals) and sold listings show most sets in this condition going for $200-300. Not that I’m selling, but it’s nice to know that, after the dust settles, I ended up with a bargain.

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“Ersatz Irks Katz” OR “Topps Baits Boomers”

Kaline

At the risk of further alienating the esteemed collectors who look askance at the ersatz nature of Topps Heritage, I will examine the 1968 inspired posters found in the 2017 Heritage set. This ties directly to my last post on the original, large posters. Incidentally, Mark Armour noted that I was wrong in asserting that the 9-3/4” X 18-1/8” ’68 posters were Topps largest product. The ’69 team posters have this distinction at 11-1/4” x 19-3/4”.

Harper

The 40 different 2017 Heritage posters were released as “Box Toppers.” There are 20 posters in both the base and high number sets. 50 copies were produced for each poster and randomly placed in Hobby Boxes. Thus, the posters are rare, which is reflected by the current prices on eBay and COMC.

My favorite aspect of this retro release are the vintage players. Twelve prominent players from 50 years ago are found amongst mix of modern stars. Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline and Henry Aaron- who appear in the ’68 set — are reprised in 2017. The 1968 NL Rookie of the Year, Johnny Bench, as well as defending World Champions Lou Brock and Steve Carlton are included as well.

The modern player posters follow the lead of the Heritage cards by mimicking the vintage Topps’ posed, portrait style. The lineup includes many of today’s greats including: Lindor, Cory Seager, Bryce Harper, Joey Votto and Yoenis Cespedes.

Like many of the Heritage inserts and subsets, Topps did not include a poster for each team, as they did in ’68. For instance, my Seattle Mariners got “hosed” again. Obviously, Cano, Cruz and Hernandez are not as worthy of inclusion as players from “back east” or “Tinsel Town.” As Howard Cosell once said: “I’m not bittah.” I’m simply sticking up for “my boys.”

69 Angels Poster

2018 Topps Heritage Hobby Boxes include modern versions of the ’69 team posters. I’ve yet to see a Mariners, but if one appears, I may drink the Topps “nostalgia Kool-Aid.”

 

 

 

Cahiers des Cartes

 

The Conlon Project reminded me that despite being in many ways about photography, baseball cards almost never credit the photographer who took the photo. While we can often figure out which cards were shot by the same photographer based on the location, putting a name to that photographer often required putting the pieces together from other media.

We know that Richard Noble’s portrait of Bo Jackson was used in 1990 Score because of his lawsuit against Nike. And we know that Ronald Modra shot the photo of Benito Santiago in 1991 Topps because Sports Illustrated used a different photo from that session on its cover. But there’s no credit on the cards themselves even though anyone can see that they’re above the usual standard of baseball card photography.

Where we did have photographer credits is in the Broder card realm. I don’t just mean Rob Broder’s sets either. There were a number of photographers at this time creating their own unlicensed sets—all of which are known in the hobby as Broder cards.And there are even some licensed photographers like Barry Colla whose sets have the same “Broder” look and feel. On the surface these cards look very similar to each other and remind me of Mother’s Cookies* with their emphasis on the photo and the plain Helvetica text.

*I’ve been led to understand that Colla shot a lot of the Mother’s photos.

Often the photo is more of a function of someone who has access to a telephoto lens and a field-level press pass. It’s nice to see these photos but most of them aren’t anything portfolio-worthy. Sometimes though they’re clearly part of a portrait session and those are much more fun to see. Even if they’re standard baseball poses the portrait session is a more accurate gauge of the photographer’s abilities.

The backs remind me of the backs of mass-produced 8×10 photos. Name and numbering and not much else.* So they’re more like 2.5″×3.5″ photos rather than baseball cards. In many ways this makes them a wonderful artifact of the 1980s/90s freelance photography hustle where self-publishing was a feasible approach amidst the junk wax boom. The Barry Colla cards at least have some more information but the overall design still feels like an afterthought.

*That this is so close to my self-designed backs suggests I shouldn’t give my nine-year-old self such a hard time.

All of these sets—if you can call these packets of a dozen or so cards sets—were very much created to capitalize on whoever was rising on the Beckett hot list. Multiple cards of the same star player. Hot rookies. I’d snark more but it cuts very close to what I’ve seen going on with cards today where Topps is releasing an uncountable number of cards for Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger.

The Conlon cards exist in that same late-80s, early-90s ecosystem as the Broder cards. The earlier releases are very much in the same vein of treating the cards as photographs first and cards second. I very much appreciate how they’re printed as duotones* and it’s charming how the text is an afterthought and no one thought to even provide numbering.

*Yes there’s a post with more information than you ever wanted about printing. And much to my surprise many of the cards Topps released in 2017 are actually duotones or use spot colors for the black and white images.

By the early 90s the set has been redone as proper cards. More stats. More design. Set numbering. A large set count. In many ways they’re not really about the photo anymore.

Which is a shame since one of the things I did as part of the Conlon Project was check out Baseball’s Golden Age from the library. Where the Conlon cards have somewhat generic player information and stats on the backs, the book includes some of Conlon’s stories about photographing the players. These stories—such as Lefty Grove refusing to let Conlon see how he gripped the ball or how in that famous Ty Cobb photo Conlon was more worried about the well being of the third baseman than whether or not he got the shot—are fantastic and suggest another approach that these photographer-based cards could’ve gone.

Thankfully Upper Deck did exactly this in 1993 with its Walter Iooss collection and again in 1996 with its V.J. Lovero collection. These cards are great in how they’re so clearly photo-focused* but also allow us to see how the photographer approaches the game and his subjects.

*Something that mid-1990s Upper Deck excelled at in general.

The Iooss cards are also a wonderful demonstration of what makes Iooss’s work so distinct. The lighting relies on off-camera flash and underexposes the background. But unlike the “every sky must be dark and rainy” look that dominated Topps in 1985 and 1986, the Iooss photos balance the light temperatures well. The skies aren’t that weird grey blue color and the players all have a wonderful warm glow.

And the stories are great. Most of them are interesting—Albert Belle’s refusal to pose and Iooss’s subsequent having to take an action photo stands out—but I like the comparison of Paul Molitor and Will Clark.

Lovero’s photos don‘t have a clearly-defined look the way Iooss’s do. If anything it’s that they have a tendency to be shot extremely tight—similar to Topps’s current approach in Flagship except that I think Lovero shot this way and Topps just crops things this way.

What I like about the Lovero cards is that their backs often get into the technical side of the photography. The Caminiti card talks specifically about how to shoot tight action. There are others that talk about trying different angles for shooting. Reading them you get a real sense of how Lovero approaches photographing baseball action.

His stories about the posed shoots are closer to the Iooss stories except that they’re often about the context of the shoot rather than the player himself. Combined though, both the Lovero and Iooss sets offer a wonderful look at how a professional had to approach sports photography in the 1990s and offer a lot of pointers to anyone who’s interested in shooting sports action now.

Lights, Camera, Action!

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While baseball cards often depict action, I’ve become interested in the ones which try to depict moving action. In both 1959 and 1962 Topps released a couple of multiple-image cards which showed frame-by-frame action. Some of these were devoted to special plays like Mays’s catch in 1954 but a lot of them feel like their just trying to show action in an age where closely cropped action shots were impossible.

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Williams1959_1

The 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set also has a number of these cards. I especially like the overhead angle on the batting shot but the 4-panel landscape card is also pretty cool.

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Fleer did much the same again in 1985. This makes sense as there wasn’t any other way to do this and the only major difference between these and their counterparts 23 years earlier is in the quality and sharpness of the photos.* The Fleer cards however do make for interesting comparisons between different hitters and how they swing the bat.

*I’ve asked around on Twitter and the like and no one seems to remember anything similar except for the 1968 Bazooka box panels. Those panels, while relevant to the discussion, aren’t really the same thing.

Valenzuela_Sportflics

In the late 1980s though Sportflics came on the scene. We’d had lenticular printing on cards before with the Topps 3D and Kelloggs All Stars which used the lenticular effect for three-dimensional purposes. And we’d had other oddballs like the mid-1980s 7/11 discs which used it to flip between multiple images.

Sportflics though realized that this kind of thing could reanimate the still images on the Fleer cards. The resulting three-frame animation of baseball action very quickly became one of my favorite things. Despite being always 🔽 in the Beckett hot list Sportflics was always 🔼 in my heart. I recently showed them to my kids and they thought they were super cool too.

It’s also worth noting that Sportflics realized that it could animate the text as well. One box of text on the card front could display twice as much information and give us a larger picture as a result.

ryan1989 blyleven90

In 1989 Upper Deck came around with some very-cool multiple exposure cards. These were crisper images than what you could see in Sportflics and there was something about the multiple images which told the story of a standard motion—typically pitching—in the way that Doc Edgerton’s photos do where the resulting layered images become their own beautiful thing.

Upper Deck had these for a lot of years and even played with the form a bit with their Deion Sanders card which took the action thing and turned it into a transformation.

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By 1994 other brands had started doing similar multiple exposure cards. Donruss’s Spirit of the Game inserts in 1993 had a bunch of these and Topps flagship went the Upper Deck route and just used this effect on select base cards. Because of my age I tend to see all these as copying Upper Deck but it was also interesting to see the approach get more diverse in the different ways that the multiple exposures were layered.

At the same time Upper Deck launched there was also a product called Flipp Tipps which, while not exactly baseball cards, totally deserves to be mentioned here since they’re collectible flipbooks. Lots of frames and I like the concept of making them somewhat educational as a way of breaking down how Brett Butler bunts or Will Clark swings.

*Copyrighted 1989 but given how they include Kevin Mitchell’s barehanded catch I’m inclined to say they came out in early 1990.

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Sportflics meanwhile found its gimmick to be outdated in the mid-90s once motion holograms were invented. These showed up on Denny’s 1996 Pinnacle Holograms and have the benefit of many more frames to animate motion. Unfortunately they’re even harder to see than that Sportflics. The light has to be perfect and there’s no cue as to what direction you have to tilt the card.

Still, the Ozzie Smith backflip card beyond cool. Instead of being standard baseball action they’ve captured one of Ozzie’s trademarks.  That this set also includes Hideo Nomo’s windup and Gary Sheffield’s menacing swing shows that the designers really thought about which players had distinctive movements which were worthy of motion capture.

Bonds_Instavision

Topps also released its own version of these with Stadium Club instavision in 1997. It’s a smaller hologram but much easier to see. These cards were about specific highlights instead of capturing a general sense of the player.

It’s also worth noting that in 1997 Topps also went back to lenticular motion with Screenplays. Unlike Sportflics these had 24 frames of animation. Unfortunately I don’t have one of these available to GIF.

The ultimate action card though has to go to 2000 Upper Deck Powerdeck. Rather than being a motion card this was a baseball-card-sized CD-ROM with effectively a miniature website on it when you inserted it into your computer. Anyway the YouTube video speaks for itself. It’s a neat idea though sadly one which is already obsolete and unviewable while the 1959 Topps Baseball Thrills cards are as interesting as ever.

You Can Put It On The Cardboard…..Yes!

Love him or hate him, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson has been an outsized character in baseball for six decades. From his battles with Charlie Finley in Kansas City to his “mod” wardrobe featuring “Nehru” jackets, he was a distinctive individual within the staid baseball world of the ‘60s. As a player, the Hawk had one exceptional season for Boston during the “Year of the Pitcher” in ’68. Injuries and desire to be a professional golfer prematurely ended his career in ’71. Of course, he would go on to be a broadcaster, most notably with the White Sox. His zealous support for the White Sox grates on many people, creating a love/hate dichotomy.

During Harrelson’s relatively brief career, he had some beautiful cards. The green and gold A’s combo and classic Indians vest uniform created great visual appeal. In addition the Topps photographers captured Hawk in some classic poses. On the flip side, the player boycott resulted in some duds as well. So button up your “Nehru” jacket, “grab some bench” and get ready to view some great cardboard. Mercy!

64 Hawk  65 Hawk

Hawk’s ’64 and ’65 cards are routine spring training shots, but the navy and red accented, vest uniforms-worn briefly by KC in the early ’60s-provides a novelty factor.

66 Hawk

The ’66 card is a personal favorite. The classic first baseman’s “stretch” pose coupled with the green and gold trimmed uniform combines to make a classic. The Yankee fan heckling Hawk during the photo shoot is a great example of backgrounds making cards more interesting.

67 Hawk

Harrelson’s conflicts with A’s owner, Charlie Finley, resulted in Hawk’s departure to Washington during the ’66 Season. Topps’ photographers took multiple shots of Ken in a Senators uniform in 67 spring training and early in the season at Yankee Stadium. The latter resulted in another wonderful card. Hawk looks down at his bat as if assessing its weight and worthiness. Topps often used this shot for “sluggers.”

Charley Finley was notorious for having “trader’s remorse” and would reacquire players he previously jettisoned. Hawk comes back to the A’s in mid-season of ‘67 only to become embroiled in a controversy surrounding Finley’s firing of Manager Al Dark, resulting in his release. After losing Tony Conigliaro the Red Sox need a power bat, so they pick up Hawk for the stretch run and World Series.

68 Hawk

However, the players’ boycott of Topps resulted in Ken never being pictured in a Red Sox uniform.  A “nostril” shot is used in ’68, which clearly defines why Ken was nick-named Hawk. The red piping on the hat is a clear indication of his time with the Senators. His “League Leader” photos are also from his Senators stay.

69 Hawk  69 All Star Hawk

The ’69 regular card and All-Star card has him sans cap with his A’s green and gold uniform.

69 Deckle Hawk

The “deckle edge” also has him on the A’s but with a not too convincing Boston “B” drawn on the cap.

69 decal

Topps reverts back to a Senators photo for the decal insert.

70 Hawk

Much to the consternation of Red Sox fans, Hawk is dealt to the Indians early in ’69, which results in a ’70 card that is truly a wonderful creation. The colorful uniform, Yankee Stadium location and the “two bats on the shoulder” pose all add up to perfection. Note the golf gloves for batting. Hawk is often credited with popularized the use of batting gloves, although others had used them before Ken. Also, Hawk appears to have taped his wrists.

71 Hawk

Since “he gone” from baseball at the end of the season, ’71 marks Ken’s final card  This “candid” shot shows him in mid-laugh under a shock of shaggy hair.

What all these cards have in common is a uniqueness that, in my humble opinion, has been missing from Topps regular issue cards over the past 20 years. The Heritage cards are an improvement, but the staging eliminates oddities in the background.

If you can, track down “Don’t Knock the Hawk” (a novelty song from ’68). And read his BioProject article written by Alexander Edelman.