Interview with Graig Kreindler

For all the sets Topps releases each year you’d be forgiven for not tracking all of them. However, there is at least one you owe it yourself to see if not have…unless you really, really hate baseball!

The 2019 Topps 150 Years of Baseball “Artist Renditions” set consists of 20 cards, all featuring impossibly beautiful images off the canvas of baseball artist Graig Kreindler. Before jumping into my interview with Graig, let’s back up just a bit.

I first encountered Graig’s work when I ran across his painting “Henry” and just about died. The expression, the uniform, the color, the crowd, the musculature, the shadows, the…everything…was amazing to me. I had seen so many images of Hank Aaron in my life, but none had the hold on me that this one did.

I often wondered how amazing it would be if someday this image or others from Graig could be turned into baseball cards. Apparently I was not alone.

In late 2018 Topps contacted Graig and his agent about the concept of an “artist renditions” set to be released in limited print runs through the Topps website. By April 2019 the cards were a reality, with the first offering, Ty Cobb, selling 1549 copies.

“I had been aware of the business model they were working with, as I had followed their success with Topps Now and the Living Set. It was a little different than what I expected in terms of my first real baseball card project, but I was super excited to work with them in any sense – being a part of that lineage that goes back to my father’s childhood was super appealing to me.”

In case you missed it, Graig’s father was a card collector, but more on that much later.

“In a way, I liken it to comics where you have modern artists and writers handling these current issues of something like Batman, and them being in the same line with the Neal Adamses, Grant Morrisons, Frank Millers and even going as far back as Bob Kane and Bill Finger…it’s like a big family that you’re being asked to join.”

One question I had for Graig was who chose the players to be included in the set, Topps or Graig. This is something that interests me with nearly any baseball set…the hows and whos of arriving at a checklist.

“Topps was in charge of giving me the names of the players they wanted. They had the first 15 or so planned, both with the specific players and when they were to be released. For the last five, they did ask for a little input, but I don’t think that my suggestions were a huge influence in the decision making process. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just think that the players I might have wanted to paint may not have lined up with the players who they thought would be popular among their large fan base.”

While I would have loved to hear that Graig had total license over the project, I have to say Topps did a phenomenal job in selecting the players for Graig to paint. I can also imagine the good people at Topps being a bit irked had Graig decided to go with Lipman Pike or Hans Lobert over, say, Tom Seaver or Ted Williams.

The result is an almost obscenely stacked roster of top shelf baseball talent, so much so that you have to think hard to come up with who didn’t make the cut. (Two Yankees legends absent due to licensing issues were Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.)

While Graig did not develop the checklist, he did choose the photographs that the card images were based on, though Topps provided some input likely aimed at increasing marketability.

“They made it clear to me that each player should be depicted with the team he’s best known for, and preferably on the youngish side of the coin. Combining that with the pool of images that Topps has the license to use via Getty, I was able to find at least 7-8 photographs of each player that I thought would be worthy.”

If you read that last sentence and are thinking PARALLELS, you’re not alone! Graig? Topps? What do you say?

One question I had for Graig was whether choosing an image for a large painting was very different from choosing an image for a baseball card.

“The thought was that if I did an action shot or a stadium panoramic [as many of Graig’s paintings are], it was going to be shrunk down to card size, so a lot of detail would be lost. Rather than risking that, I felt that portraits would be the safest bet. Plus, since I’m sure a lot of the images of these guys are in black and white, having a color representation of their face (and some jersey stuff when applicable) was the most important aspect of the artist rendition in terms of ‘connecting’ with people.”

Time considerations were a factor for Graig also since the project called for Topps to issue a new card roughly every two weeks. This too pointed toward portraits.

Among the portraits I wondered if Graig had any favorites, whether as an artist, a collector, or a fan. Were there any paintings where Graig said, “Wow, I really did a great job with that one!”

“There are certain aspects of each portrait that I really think I nailed. I mean, obviously, I always want the next painting to be the best one, but sometimes there are little spots of each that can shine or stick out to me in some way. And those parts aren’t necessarily visible to others (or even tangible for that matter) but they’re there.”

“As an example, the last painting I did of Lou Brock, the relationship between the bright, warm red of his cap and the cool green and blue hues of the dugout wall was incredibly pleasing. It was something I tried to push a lot in the original painting, playing off of color complements and optical blending. I’m not even sure if that stuff made its way into the final card itself, as a lot of nuance can get lost in the reproduction process, but I was very pleased with how the painting itself came out.”

Look again at that Brock card now. There’s nothing lazy, nothing wasted. Even the parts that immediately hit our eye as “white jersey” or “red cap” aren’t. Anywhere you look on any of these cards there is a glow, texture, and even a personality that emerges.

I wanted to know where this all came from, not just the Artist Renditions set but everything. Did Graig collect cards as a kid? Who were his favorite players? What were his favorite sets? I tried to go light since I knew Graig was preparing for a major exhibition of over 200 of his paintings in Kansas City as part of the Centennial Celebration organized by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

“I did indeed collect as a kid. With my father being a somewhat avid collector in the ’50s up until a bit after I was born (1980), I don’t think my brother or I had a choice NOT to have an interest in baseball cards.”

Okay, I know you’re thinking what I was thinking! Well, here’s the bad news…

“Like most of the people of his generation, his mother threw out the majority of his collection when she deemed him ‘too old’ for it.”

Shoot! But wait, the story’s not quite over…

Author’s rendition of what card maybe looked like

“He was able to save some of his favorites. Included in that batch were mostly Yankees and a smattering of Giants and Dodgers. He managed to keep his ’51 Bowman Mantle, which always had a certain mystique about it, what with it being the rookie card of his favorite player and all. And let’s face it, it was expensive, which to me, as a kid, was extra cool. His example wasn’t even in decent shape or anything, but it still had quite an aura – so even then I was aware that it had some serious sentimental value.”

On one hand Graig’s father’s collection influenced Graig as a collector.

“Through my father’s stories, I came to ‘know’ Mantle and his teammates in a way that seemed more real to me than the feelings I had with the group of the then-current Yankees (Mattingly, Winfield, Randolph, etc). So while I was getting my first packs of baseball cards (’87 Topps – still LOVE that set), I was even more excited about picking up older cards when I could.”

“I remember being at one of the Gloria Rothstein Westchester shows in the late ’80s and my father paying $4 to get me a 1964 Topps Bobby Richardson. I held it in my hands and was truly amazed. My friends couldn’t understand why I had any interest in a guy they’d never heard of, but there I was, not being able to shut up about that ’61 Yankees infield.”

Interestingly, Graig’s father’s collection also influenced Graig as an artist.

“When I was younger, it’s fair to say that I was inspired to draw ballplayers because of my father’s baseball cards. Looking at it now, I’m sure that seeing those early Bowman and Topps issues with the illustrations must have had some kind of impact on my psyche – something along the lines of, ‘Hey, somebody actually drew and painted these things – they’re not photographs, they’re made by humans. Maybe that’s something I can do.’ I don’t remember actually having any epiphany like that, but I’ve gotta imagine that that is how what I do now all germinated.”

It was also around that time that Graig encountered the work of more contemporary baseball artists.

“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I of course fell in love with the likes of Dick Perez and Christopher Paluso. And both for different reasons. I loved how painterly and expressive Perez was with his colors. And the sleak photorealism of Christopher’s work appealed to me on a craftsman’s level. To this day, I can still remember seeing their stuff for the first time.”

I worked with Graig to track down the first Christopher Paluso piece he remembers seeing, this lithograph of Joe Sewell. (Image source from Heritage Auctions.)

Tracking down Graig’s first recollections of Dick Perez’s work was a foggier matter. He vaguely recalled the 1986 Donruss Diamond Kings subset but was unsure of the player so I’ll just go with my three favorites!

Not wanting to leave anything out I ended my interview with Graig by asking him a question I was really happy I remembered to ask.

“What’s one question you wish I asked but didn’t? And what’s the answer?”

Graig’s answer was a long one that has little to do with baseball cards but is no less essential to the overall story of the cards that inspired this post.

“That’s a tough one! The question, ‘Who is your biggest art influence?’ is always one of my favorites. And that’s mainly because I like giving the man his due. I first met Peter Fiore in 1999 as an undergrad student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I had enrolled in his class – “Painting the Light” I think it was called – not quite knowing what to expect. The description mentioned something about learning how to paint your subjects in believable space by paying attention to light and color, or something to that effect. And the idea appealed to me greatly.”

“Little did I know that that fall, I made the acquaintance of the artist who would forever change the way I thought about painting. Up until then, I was strictly a renderer. I wanted whatever I painted to be realistic to the point where it blended between realism and photorealism. And to me, that meant being able to study edges, values and colors as they appear through photography.”

Source: Peter Fiore’s Facebook cover photo

“Through Peter, I learned that photography was a starting off point, that the world around me had much more to show. I learned how to work with color, and to work with it purposefully. I learned how light shapes the world around me. And this didn’t happen in just that semester. I took a few classes with him while I was in school. After I graduated, we became good friends, and I still consider him one of my favorite people on this planet. I’m always learning from him, be it about painting or light or life, and I can’t think of any teacher or friend who’s influenced my artistic journey as much as he has. For anybody interested, you can see his beautiful landscapes at peterfiore.com.”

Look at Graig’s work again and you can see this. Every detail is there, but there is something more. The players he paints are at the same time lifelike and larger than life. There is a radiance that differs from how our eyes might have seen these men but perfectly matches how our minds see them.

Normally such images are confined to galleries or perhaps just our imaginations, but thanks to Graig and Topps they can also have a place in our collections.

If They Can Make it There

I am currently curating an exhibition at Queens College, in Flushing, which will be on display throughout February and March. While I don’t yet have a title for my little experiment (the show marks the first time I have ever done such a thing), the theme of the event centers on the history of baseball in New York City, from its inception to the present day, told through art and artifacts. I am indebted to a number of individuals who are either loaning me pieces from their private collections, or are submitting original work to help me craft the story I am trying to tell.

The gorgeous artwork of Jesse Loving at Ars Longa

Of course, baseball cards are a part of the event. I have long known that I wanted Jesse Loving, creator of the beautiful Ars Longa cards, to be a part of this. Although he had gone on a bit of a hiatus, he kindly agreed to fire up the engines again and is providing me with roughly 80 cards that cover the game in the Big Apple from William Wheaton and Doc Adams, to Rube Marquard and Casey Stengel, a span of roughly eighty years. I am giddy at the idea of creating a wall of his lush, vibrant images, and eagerly await the arrival of the package.

With one or two exceptions, I was intending for Jesse’s work to be the only cards in the show. There are lots of ways to tell the history of the game that have nothing to do with our favorite hobby and I wanted the beautiful creations of Ars Longa to exist in a vacuum. Then, I learned last week that one of the individuals who was contributing some truly exciting pieces from the 19th Century had decided to withdraw from the exhibition. I had to come up with something to fill the holes on the walls of the gallery left by his exit.

I am not a fine artist, nor do I have a particularly extensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia laying about. So, what to do? While the pieces I lost were from the 19th Century, I actually have some of Jesse’s cards, as well as uniforms and equipment loaned to me by Eric Miklich, that are already assisting me in telling that part of the story. I also have quite a few items that represent the Golden Age of baseball in New York, the halcyon days of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. What the show was really lacking was a nod to the more modern incarnation of the game. The best way for me to benefit my show, and fill the unexpected void, was to focus on that gap.

That’s when it struck me that, while I don’t really have a lot of personal memorabilia at hand, there was a way I could tackle my problem at very little expense. Any exhibit on the history of New York City, (especially one taking place in the most ethnically diverse borough, on a campus that hears over 110 languages spoken every single day) needs to explore the beautiful multiculturalism that makes this City what it is. That was when I came up with my plan, a work I am calling, “If They Can Make it There.”

In the long history of professional baseball, there have been men who were born in over fifty countries besides the United States that have made the incredible and unlikely journey to the Major Leagues. While the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have provided an outsized portion of these ballplayers, countries as far-flung as Belize, the Czech Republic and Australia have also chipped in. Many of those foreign-born athletes got their professional starts in New York City. In fact, twenty-one different countries, not counting the U.S. and its territories, have generated players who made their Major League debut with the Yankees or the Mets. My plan to fill in my unexpected vacancy is to honor these men, and what better way to do it than through the beauty of baseball cards.

I am putting together a collection of these itinerant dreamers which will feature each of them in the uniform of either the Yankees or the Mets. Why just those teams and not also the Giants, Dodgers, and the multiple early squads? Two reasons. The first I already mentioned. The goal was to try and examine the impact of the game in the present day. By focusing on just the Yankees and Mets, it reinforces that point by design. The other reason is economics. Now, I can complete this set, mostly, with inexpensive cards from the last thirty or forty years.

Beyond the player appearing in a New York uniform, I decided to lay down a few other guidelines to make this creation have a little more form, and not just be a random mishmash of cards thrown up on the wall. First of all, no reprints. While the exhibition will feature some reproductions (uniforms, mostly), I have been trying to limit their influence all along. No need to further water down this project by including “fake” versions of the cards. Besides, very few of the cards I needed were particularly valuable, so why resort to knock-offs? I also wanted, if at all possible, for the card to have been issued at the time the player was employed by that team.

Jim Cockman’s .105 average may explain why the 1905 season was his lone chance at the big leagues.

This is not always feasible. A number of players who fit this criteria, including cups of coffee like Jim Cockman (born in Canada) and Harry Kingman (China), both of whom made brief appearances with the Yankees years before Jacob Ruppert signed Babe Ruth, never had any card issued, nonetheless one of them wearing the proper uniform. There are even holes for more durable players from recent years, like Stan Javier (Dominican Republic), who enjoyed a seventeen-year career that ended in 2001. During his first big league season, in 1984, he appeared in seven early-season games for the Yankees before being shipped back to Nashville and Columbus for more seasoning. He would later appear on the roster of seven other major league teams, but he never played another game for the Yankees. The Trading Card Database claims he has 289 cards out there, but none of them were issued in 1984 or ’85 featuring Javier in pinstripes.

There are missing pieces of the puzzle for the Mets, too. Utility man José Moreno (Dominican Republic) and shortstop Brian Ostrosser (Canada) never got a card of themselves in blue and orange, at least not while actively playing for the team. I have decided that in their cases, as well as that of Javier, to bend the rules and use one of the cards that came with the sets issued by the NYC-based appliance retailer, The Wiz, in the early nineties. While most of the hundreds who appear in this ubiquitous set were no longer active members of the roster at the time the cards were issued, at least they are dressed properly. I am also considering getting an Aceo Art card of Frank Estrada (Mexico), whose two lifetime plate appearances were insufficient to ever make Topps take notice.

The sets issued by The Wiz were originally released in 15-card sheets.

Most of the collection, though, will be the real deal. There are cards from almost all of the big name publishers of the modern era, including Topps, Bowman, Fleer and Donruss. There will be plenty of Junk Era wax, as well as the slick chromes that have come to represent the current state of the industry. The bulk of the exhibit will include roughly 130 cards (purchased via COMC or already in my collection) that cost me a combined total of $45.76. Most exciting to me, however, is that there will be a small handful of pre-war cards thrown in there, too. I decided to reward my clever thriftiness by investing in some slightly pricier goodies.

Arndt Jorgens played for the Yankees his entire career, serving as Bill Dickey’s backup.

I’ve already picked up a 1934 Goudey Arndt Jorgens (Norway), a 1934-36 Diamond Stars George Selkirk (Canada), and a 1911 T205 Jimmy Austin (United Kingdom). I also have my eye on two T206s, a Jack Quinn (Slovakia) and a Russ Ford (Canada). Assuming the Ebay gods favor me and I get the latter two, they will represent the first cards I’ve owned from that hobby-defining set. These bits of old paper not only give the exhibit a little more gravitas as a whole, but when it’s all over I will have some gems to add to my personal collection.

The exhibit also gives me a chance to show off a little bit of my beloved collection of Cubans who made the leap to the majors. There have been eight Cubans who began their major league career as Yankees, most recently Amauri Sanit in 2011. The Mets have birthed the careers of four citizens of the forbidden island, the most notable of which was Rey Ordoñez. While Ordoñez was famously weak at the plate, rarely hitting more than a single home run in a season, he was a defensive mastermind at shortstop in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when the Amazin’s had one of the most exciting infields in baseball history. His partner in the middle of the diamond, Edgardo Alfonzo (Venezuela), will also be featured.

The players mentioned here really are just the tip of the iceberg. The exhibit will also include some of the brightest stars of today, including Gleyber Torres (Venezuela) and Miguel Andujar (Dominican Republic). Ron Gardenhire (Germany) makes an appearance, as do the Mastuis (Japan), Hideki and the less-successful Kazuo. There is even one Hall of Famer who is featured, buried in the dozens of other more obscure names. The quickest among you will figure out who that is almost instantly. The rest of you, well, I guess you’ll just have to stop by the college and find out. My currently unnamed exhibition opens February 18. I hope to see you there.

Heritage before Heritage

I reached a collecting milestone last week by completing one of my all-time favorite sets. It’s a set that’s off the radar of most collectors (until now!) and has few cards, if any, worth more than a dollar. Its value to me is purely sentimental but still sky high in that it’s the set that started my lifelong love affair with baseball’s all-time greats.

Before getting into the set itself, I’ll start with a card not in it.

You may recognize this as the 1960 Leaf card of Brooks Robinson. The first time I saw it 10-year-old-me took the glow around Robinson’s head for a halo and suspected only I could see it. (UPDATE: Rob Neyer also saw the halo!)

To other collectors (but not our own Jeff Katz) the set is perhaps a bit more boring, despite the fact that it has to be the most exciting set ever to come with marbles instead of gum! (And did I mention the packs had cards of “Your Favorite Major League Star?”)

Marbles aside, we are looking at a black and white set produced long past the era of black and white sets, whether to you the Grayscale Age of Baseball Cards was the 1920s or the 1880s. “Your Favorite Major League Player” notwithstanding, the Leaf checklist strikes many collectors as lackluster, with the Human Vacuum Cleaner and Duke Snider perhaps the only top shelf Hall of Famers.

Various articles note design similarities between the 1960 Leaf set and its predecessor 11 years prior. My own opinion is that the two sets aren’t that close, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.

I chose Elmer Valo to compare these sets because his placement in the 1960 set comes with a little bit of a story. As reported in the May 4, 1949, Boston Globe, Valo was one of six ballplayers to sue Leaf for using their likeness in the 1949 set. The fact that he found himself back on the checklist in 1960 says something about the ability to forgive or forget, whether on the part of Leaf, Valo, or both.

Now fast forward to 1977 and one of the nation’s best known mail order dealers is planning a set of 45 cards as her very first entrée into the card making business. The next 10+ years would see her company produce dozens more sets including…

A 1983 tribute to the 1969 Seattle Pilots…

A 1984 “Art Card Series” featuring acclaimed baseball artist Ron Lewis of Negro Leagues postcard fame…

And six single-player sets from 1984-86 of several big name ballplayers and cult leaders! (Wait, that’s Pete Rose? Are you sure?)

While these later sets drew on new designs, the last few of which just scream 1980s, her very first set, much like Topps Heritage does today, mimicked a set from the past. T206? Nope! 1933 Goudey? Nope! 1952 Topps? Nope again. As you’ve no doubt guessed already, that set was 1960 Leaf!

Here is card #5, Roy Campanella, from Renata Galasso’s debut set, “Decade Greats,” featuring top stars from the 1950s.

Perhaps Ms. Galasso had a sentimental attachment to 1960 Leaf or maybe she just held a special admiration for her fellow challengers of the Topps monopoly. More than likely, her reasons for copying the Leaf set were more pedestrian. Black and white was cheaper than color, and it would have been tough to get too close to Topps without getting even closer to their lawyers. Finally, a collection of 1950s players made more sense in a decade-capping 1960 set than, for example, 1922 American Caramel.

Particularly for her rookie offering, Renata Galasso did a fantastic job capturing the look and feel of the 1960 set. Put the cards side-by-side and you’ll spot some differences, most notably the missing halo, but to paraphrase Maya Angelou the cards are much more alike than unalike.

As the small print on the back of the Campanella card shows, Renata Galasso received an assist from Mike Aronstein’s company, TCMA, which had already been making its own cards since 1972.

The 45-card set was evidently popular enough to engender a sequel two years later, this time numbered 46-90. While you might have expected this continuation set to focus on the 1960s, TCMA had already beat Galasso to the punch the year before with a stunning color issue (left) reminiscent of 1953 Bowman (right) in yet another case of Heritage before Heritage.

TCMA had similarly put out a 1930s set five years earlier, but the half decade gap left enough breathing room for Galasso to put her own “1960 Leaf” touch on the decade.

Where I had previously seen sharp photos of Aaron, Mays, Mantle, and other 1950s stars in my reading books, this 1930s set was the first time I had ever seen such vivid images of earlier stars. To a certain extent, Galasso’s set transformed these 1930s heroes from cartoon characters into men, which somehow made their records and feats all the more impressive. As the card footer shows, TCMA was again a partner in the effort.

Renata Galasso extended her set once again the following year, issuing Series Three in 1980. This time her decade of choice was the 1920s. This was around the time I started taking the bus to card shows, and the Galasso cards were a frequent purchase for me out of bargain bins. While I regret turning down a T206 Cobb for $14, I have no regrets about scooping this one up for a dime.

Once again, TCMA was in the mix, and once again the cards looked fantastic. In my view, all they needed was stats on the back instead of that humongous logo and they would have been perfect.

Series Four, numbered 136-180, came the very next year and featured stars of the 1910s. You don’t even have to look at the rest of the checklist to know the key card in this series is the Cobb, with its iconic Conlon photo.

In a move that foreshadowed the later work of SABR, you’ll notice that Cobb’s hit total was reduced between his 1980 and 1981 card backs. I’ll also credit Galasso (or TCMA) with splurging for a brand new bio where other card makers might have simply recycled the back from the previous series.

The Decade Greats set, now up to 225 cards, would continue in 1983 with a 45-card series, sometimes numbered 181-223 (plus two unnumbered cards), commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1933 All-Star Game.

I say “sometimes numbered” because the same 45 cards are also numbered 1-43 (plus two unnumbered), reflecting either a clever marketing move to co-brand this series as a standalone or just an oops by someone who forgot numbers 1-180 were already spoken for.

On top of that, the sequencing of the 43 numbered cards comes in the exact opposite order of their 181-223 counterparts. For example, here is my version of the Hubbell card, numbered 16 instead of 208, which of course is the 16th number counting backward from 223.

Card footers no longer mention TCMA, which I take to mean Renata Galasso was either producing these cards solo or experimenting with new vendors. Perhaps connected to the absence of TCMA, the quality of the cards drops off some with centering/miscut issues and minor typos being the main culprits.

The sixth and final series was released in 1984 and commemorated highlights and records. One of my favorite cards in the set provides a much sharper image of Jackie Robinson than his 1948 Sport Thrills card, even as both cards drew from the same George Burke photo.

As with the fifth series, quality falls short of the first four series. Look closely at the Robinson card, and you’ll see the name and caption are poorly centered relative to his portrait. This proves to be the case for the majority of the cards. This final series also includes a “BILL MAZEROWSKI” UER and the awkward Koufax caption “PITCHES 4TH NO HITTERS.”

There are also some really bad looking photos, especially compared to the earlier cards. For example, compare the elegant Mays from Series One to the practically reptilian Mantle of Series Six.

Finally, there is notable drift from the original 1960 Leaf design that inspired the set. Photos now are more squared off, the big letters have gotten smaller, and the small letters have gotten bigger. The resemblance is still there though perhaps more amateur.

The final two series are the hardest to find, a sign of declining production and sales. That no Series Seven or Eight was ever produced affirms the reduced interest in sets of this kind. We had reached the mid-1980s after all. Collectors now preferred future Hall of Famers to actual Hall of Famers, but why not! What could King Carl do to make his cards go up in value? Certainly not win 400 games like Dwight Gooden would!

Even where some collectors still wanted old-time stars for pocket change, there was no shortage of color offerings to choose from, including a gorgeous Dick Perez collaboration from Donruss in 1983 and various other Perez-Steele offerings that had gained popularity with autograph hounds.

Regardless of its flaws, its waning popularity, and its uselessness in funding my retirement (I just picked up the “tough” Series Five for $0.99 plus shipping), the 270-card “Decade Greats” set, also called “Glossy Greats,” will always be a favorite of mine.

It is a set that might have seemed lazy at the time, an unimaginative reboot of a set from two decades earlier. What we didn’t know then is just how ahead of its time that was…Heritage before Heritage if you ask me!

Extra for experts

The 1977-84 Renata Galasso Decade Greats set is a relatively early example of “Heritage before Heritage,” but it’s certainly not the only example or even the first. Go back six years and Allstate Insurance (of course!) put together a small set evoking the 1933 Goudey design. Here is the Ted Williams card from the set.

One could perhaps even consider the 1955 Topps Double Header issue a reboot of the 1911 Mecca Double Folders (T201) design, even as the cards differ in many ways visually.

There is also enough similarity across many tobacco issues that perhaps one could regard just about any of the sets Heritage-style remake of some other from a couple years earlier, though I would argue here that this is less about paying homage and more about paying less!

I’m curious what your examples are of early Heritage before Heritage. Ideally the visual match would be strong and the difference between the sets would be a good decade or more. Let me know in the Comments, either here or on Twitter.

2010 Tristar Obak: The History of Baseball in a Card Set

Have you ever flipped open a baseball card binder and saw a Henry Heinz card next to a Roy Hofheinz on the same nine-pocket sheet?

If not, allow me to introduce you to the 2010 Tristar Obak History of Baseball set.

As a baseball fan/researcher, one thing I believe is that every player in MLB history is the answer to at least one trivia question. It’s my goal (however unachievable it is) to find that piece of trivia for every player. As a card collector, I dream of having at least one card of every player ever.

Certainly, I’ll most likely never own a card of George Noftsker of the 1884 Altoona Mountain City club of the Union Association, and it’s equally doubtful that a cardboard issue of 1876 Chicago White Stocking rightfielder Oscar Bielaski will ever end up in my possession. Regardless, it would be great to fill that never ending binder as much as possible.

It’s that dream that compelled me one night to enter the name Louis Sockalexis into the search field on eBay. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was reading a book on him at the time; I do own a biography on him and have read it a few times. Maybe that’s it. Maybe not. But regardless, I stumbled across a 2010 Obak Tristar Sockalexis card! Naturally, after looking at the names in the set I was intrigued enough to purchase the set right away.

This set is an homage to the original Obak sets from 1909-11. Those originals were inserted into Obak cigarette packages. They feature players primarily from the Pacific Coast League and were 1 ½” by 2 5/8” in size, much like the infamous t206 set. These were later classified as T212. If you ever were curious about where those Letter-Number classifications originated, look no further than card 66 in the 2010 Tristar Obak set! Because that card is of Jefferson Burdick, the man who created the American Card Catalog.

In any event, the 2010 Tristar Obak set is the more traditional card size (although there are mini parallel inserts), and as an unlicensed product there are no logos or team names on them. These cards are very quirky and are probably an acquired taste. But I love them for two main reasons.

The look

They’re very simple. White border with blue letters at the bottom. Last name in larger print followed by a brief description in smaller print. And by description, it varies. Some descriptions are teams, some are a brief reason why the depicted person is in the set in the first place.

Most of the images used of the people on the cards are black & white (as many of them are from the 19th century and early 20th century). And those backgrounds! Bright, colorful scenery! Tommie Aaron stretching to receive a throw over a bright yellow sunset? Absolutely. David Clyde going into his windup over a cloudy purple backdrop? Yes, please! Maurice Van Robays in front of a barn? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes, they’re a bit gaudy, but I think they’re damn charming… and fun!

The subjects

What I like perhaps the most about this set is that it makes me flip over the cards to figure out why they’re in the set! And in some cases, to find out exactly who these people are.

The set is divided up into several subsets: History in the Making (top minor league prospects), History’s Greatest Legends (baseball greats), Heroes and Legends (players known for various feats or tall tales), #1 Overall Draft Picks, Minor Leagues Best, MiLB Players of the Year, Can You Believe (players with amazing stories), Game Changers (innovators in baseball and beyond), Future Stars, Multi-Sport, Pop Icons, Historic Names, Pacific Coast League, and U.S. Presidents.

Highlighting the Historic Names subset are two cards of Sherry Magee of T206 Rushmore fame, though the Obak set’s Magie variation brings much less today on the open market than its predecessor from a century earlier.

The cards at the end of the set are all over the place. Card number 106, for example, is pro wrestler Hulk Hogan.

What steals the show for me is the Game Changers subset. By far the largest chunk of the set. Where else can the founders of Coke & Pepsi be on the same team? 

I had mentioned Heinz, and since I’m from Chicago I make sure his card is nowhere near Harry Stevens’ card, as he’s widely known as the catering wizard who introduced hot dogs to baseball games.

There’s a card of John Sherman, whose Act does not apply to baseball. (Editor’s note: stay tuned.) And Frederick Thayer, who is largely given credit for inventing the catcher’s mask.

Jim Bouton has a card, but neither his MLB career with the Yankees nor Ball Four is mentioned on the back of the card. Instead, he shares this card with Robert Nelson, his teammate with the Portland Mavericks of the Northwest League because they created Big League Chew bubble gum!

That’s just a sampling of 2010 Tristar Obak. I have yet to get my hands on the 2009 or 2011 editions. Those 2011s are particularly enticing; I love collecting cards of 19th century players, and since I can’t afford those 1887 Allen & Ginters, these will have to do.

Old Hoss Radbourn, Lee Richmond, Joe Start, Doug Allison, Ross Barnes (even if the image on the card isn’t Barnes) and even Bob Addy (!?!) make the 2011 checklist, but that one will be particularly pricey.

…Because card 88 is some guy named Trout.

SABR Black Sox Symposium trading cards

At the Memorial Day Weekend Baseball Cards Research Committee meetup in Cooperstown, I was lucky enough to meet the great Mike Noren in person. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell his artwork is probably familiar to you.

Mike, whose work now hangs at on the walls of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, is the artist behind the wildly popular “Gummy Arts” trading cards posted daily to Twitter and (if you’re lucky) available in packs online.

I recently saw that Mike had begun putting together a new W514-style set commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Black Sox Scandal.

With the SABR Black Sox Scandal Centennial Symposium coming to town here in Chicago I wondered if there might be a way I could put some of these cards into the hands of attendees. Thinking there might be a good 30-40 SABR members and guests on hand for the event, I thought “Hmm, maybe.” Then I checked with conference organizer Jacob Pomrenke and got the bad-news-for-me-good-news-for-everyone-else that he expected more than 200 attendees!

Never mind, right? It’s not like I could ever imagine Mike’s being willing to put together this many cards! (He cuts every card himself, including the rounded corners.)

Well, what do you know! And thank you, Mike! Sure enough, the first two hundred guests on hand Saturday morning will be able to pick up an envelope with five cards from the full set of 19.

Here is the checklist for the complete unnumbered set of 19 cards.

I can’t thank Mike enough for making his cards available in such large numbers to SABR for this once-in-a-century event, and I hope the Symposium guests will enjoy these cards as much as I do.

I have a bad feeling that after printing and cutting more than a thousand cards Mike will never want to make, much less see, one of these cards again. Nonetheless, I encourage readers to follow @gummyarts on Twitter just in case Mike decides to make additional cards or sets available to the public. If not, get in touch with your friends who made it to Chicago. In the spirit of the Black Sox, they might not be above taking bribes to help you complete your set!

Picture perfect postcards

One of the most aesthetically pleasing sets in my collection is the 1991 “Living Legends” Negro League postcards.  The set was produced by Capital Cards in conjunction with the Negro League Baseball Players Association and features the impressive artwork of Ron Lewis, who produced several art sets in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The numbered cards measure 3-1/2” x 5-1/4” and were distributed in a 30-card boxed sets.  Supposedly, 10,000 sets were produced.  Mr. Lewis traveled the card show circuit to sell his wares.  Dealers such as Larry Fritsch must have purchased in bulk, since the sets are currently available for under $30.

The backs have typical postcard markings, players’ names and brief biography.  Mr. Lewis’ signature adorns the bottom, and the set’s specific number out of the 10,000 is shown on the right.

The depicted players will be very familiar to those steeped in Negro League history.  However, some are not household names.  For example, Verlan “Lefty” Mathis was a Memphis pitcher, seen here in this wonderful Red Sox uniform.  This study of Newark Eagle Max Manning is truly spectacular, as well.

Upon viewing the set for the first time in years, I discovered Jehosie Heard had a card.  I became familiar with him when I explored the first cards of the Baltimore Orioles.  The artist may have used the 1954 Topps card or the original photo as a model for Jehosie on the Birmingham Black Barons.

Another name that stands out is Lyman Bostock, Sr., the father of the late ‘70s Twins and Angels outfielder of with the same name.  Of course, Lyman, Jr., was shot and killed at the height of his career in 1978. Father and son were estranged, due to the younger Lyman’s belief that his father abandoned him.  I was unaware of Bostock, Sr., until obtaining this set.  He had a long Negro Leagues career stretching from 1938 to 1954.

Ron Lewis included a pair of brothers, Garnett and Lonnie Blair, who both played for the Homestead Grays.  The Pittsburgh-based club also called Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., home.

Catchers depicted wearing the “tools of ignorance’ are always a treat.  Bill Cash and Josh Johnson are no exception.

In addition to the lesser known players, Mr. Lewis produced cards for the famous too.  Examples include National Baseball Hall of Fame members Leon Day, Monte Irvin, Buck Leonard and Ray Dandridge.  Another well-known player, “Double Duty” Radcliffe, is part of the set.

The 60 years since the last Negro League game was played means that most of the players depicted have passed away. As of this writing, the immortal Willie Mays is still amongst the living.

In closing, I encourage you to add the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City to your baseball bucket list.  I was there in 2005 and enjoyed every minute.  Plus, Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue is a few blocks away on Brooklyn Avenue. After stuffing yourself, head down Brooklyn to the former site of Municipal Stadium.

Editor’s note: Card 24 in the set is often listed as Hall of Fame catcher, Josh Gibson. In fact, the card depicts his son, Josh Gibson, Jr.

Detroit’s heroes go wild!

Periodically, I have added commemorative team sets to my collection.  The sets may mark a championship year or other noteworthy occurrence, famous or infamous.  Additionally, sets are issued to celebrate an anniversary year or a players’ reunion.  For example, I did a blog post on cards given to attendees of a banquet honoring the 1969 Senators.   Although this may prompt some of you to cancel your SABR membership, I will post additional pieces on commemorative sets from time-to-time.

First up is a 1988 set issued by Domino’s Pizza that commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Tigers 1968 World Series Championship.  Most of you remember that Detroit bested St. Louis in a classic seven-game series.  This World Series resonates with me since it is the first that I remember watching on TV.

All the photos in the 28-card set are black and white.  Many of the shots are unfamiliar to me, which was part of the appeal-along with being cheap.  All the unnumbered cards have a synopsis of the season printed on the back along with the players’ 1968 regular season and World Series stats. 

The cards were given away at Tiger Stadium during an “Old Timers” game featuring the ’68 Tigers players.  It is possible that they were also available at Domino’s locations.  Perhaps a Tiger fan in my vast readership remembers.

Of course, I must include the cards of Ray Oyler and Wayne Comer.  Both players were selected in the expansion draft by the Seattle Pilots after the World Series.  You may recall that the light hitting Oyler was benched in the World Series, with outfielder Mickey Stanley moving into the shortstop slot.  Both Comer and Oyler have memorable turns in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.

Two Tigers icons-Willie Horton and “Swingin’” Gates Brown-are caught “in action.”  Willie was the big offensive force for the “Motor City Kitties” in 1968.

Speaking of icons, casual fan may not remember that Hall-of-Fame member, Eddie Mathews, closed out his career in a limited role with the Tigers in 1968.

The other Hall-of-Famer in the set is, of course, Al Kaline.  The all-time great is honored with two cards.  Ironically in Al’s only championship season, he suffered a broken arm after being hit by a Lew Krausse pitch, missing three months.

1968 was the “Year of the Pitcher” and Denny McLain was instrumental in creating this designation.  Fueled by endless bottles of Pepsi, Denny won an astonishing 31 games on his way to the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.

Another great Tiger hurler who came up big in the World Series was Mickey Lolich.  The portly “twirler” won three games in the World Series, including a decisive seventh game victory over Bob Gibson.

Although the Tigers rarely made errors in ’68, there are two error cards in this set.  Pitcher Pat Dobson has a version with the photo showing Jon Warden (card on right).  Additionally, leadoff man Dick McAualiffe has a version that leaves off the “e” from the end of his name.

I will end my Motown meanderings now, since I’m sure you are wishing that I was “looooong gone!”  Plus, I need to go to the Tiger Stadium concession stand and redeem this Domino’s coupon.

Angel in Cooperstown

Induction Weekend in Cooperstown is the best. If you’ve never been here for it, work on it! Before I moved to Cooperstown I’d never been to Induction. Now, I’d never miss it.

From Friday to Monday, there are events, vendors, signings, player sightings, a baseball fans dream. (Where else can you see Tony Oliva walking down the street, unaccosted?). On Saturday, Main Street is closed and becomes the best baseball block party in the country.

Last month, I worked the Cooperstown Rotary Club tent, selling raffles for an autographed baseball. I loved doing that, standing on Main St., gabbing about baseball with people who do and don’t know me. I have a very small level of fame, so I do get to meet some social media pals in real life. This year, I had an expected treat.

Three men stopped by the tent and one, Angel Colon, was a gift. He’s involved with SABR in Puerto Rico and we talked at length. Angel is involved in many things – using different braches from various trees felled during the devastating hurricane and turning them into baseball bats, creating a book about major leaguers who have played in Puerto Rico –

but the one that grabbed me the most, and fits our little world, is the 40 card set he created of Puerto Rican


League stars.

With work from the great Gary Cieradkowski, the set is tobacco card sized and portrays Major, Negro and Puerto Rican legends. It’s spectacular. The more we talked about the cards, the book, baseball, and Puerto Rico, the more I realized that Angel needed a bigger audience.

The next day, a few hours after Induction, is our annual Cliff Kachline Chapter meeting. It’s our biggest of the year, bringing in SABR members from all over the country. We had a huge lineup – Jane Leavy, Erik Sherman, Jay Jaffe and….me. I was going to talk about Friends of Doubleday, the 501c3 (I’m President) which raises money for Doubleday Field improvements (contact me for more info. There’s cool stuff happening) and the coming Doubleday renovations. It seemed clear to me that Angel was more interesting. I asked him to speak in my place and, though he’d never spoken to a group in public, he accepted. Of course, he killed.

67094884_2433509430028916_5066973725992157184_n

On top of this, Angel gifted me a copy of the SABR Puerto Rico book and, to my shock and joy, the complete card set! It’s a wondrous series of cards and you should get one too.  Angel’s contact info is here. Reach out. You won’t regret it.

68258231_10217569825431916_340702275074785280_n

The Grand TCMA Decade Sets (Some of them anyway)

Followers of this blog and our Facebook and Twitter accounts have been a bit TCMA obsessed since several of us gathered in Cooperstown for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s Shoebox Treasures exhibit in May. A chance run in with Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA founder Mike, touched off a bit of TCMA frenzy. (I’ve known Andrew and Mike for a few years, so I’m glad others in our card world are getting to know them).

My own recent TCMA interests have circled around the big baseball decades sets (and the football, basketball and hockey sets). Not all of them, actually, only the 1950’s and 1960’s sets. These are all beautiful, simple cards, with magnificent photos, as you’d expect. I picked up the entire 1950’s set at Baseball Nostalgia in Cooperstown (where else?), which started over 40 years ago as the TCMA flagship store.

66751490_10217310746955116_8040902441446670336_n

The cards are wonderful, the checklist is wide ranging and they look wonderful signed. Released in 1979, the 291 card set is a must have.

66221691_10217310745915090_4174718176036126720_n

With that set safely acquired, I marched forward to get both 1960’s sets, but was warned at Baseball Nostalgia that they’re harder to find than the ‘50’s set, and pricier. This proved to be true. The first set, released in 1978 with 293 cards was easier to spot, but I didn’t want to buy that series without the more difficult second series attached. (I learned this lesson when I picked up a cheap TCMA football base set and still find myself struggling to get the 12 card update at a reasonable price. I’d have been better off waiting to buy both sets.)

The 1981 (yay Split Season!) series 2 has 189 cards, but the problem is that about 1/3 were printed compared to series 1 (according to the Standard Catalog). Whenever that series would appear, it was too pricey for me.

1978tcma

Well, as of last night, my long waiting is over. I got both sets for a good price and they’re on their way! I can’t wait. Like the 1950’s cards, the 1960’s sets have fantastic variety of names, from superstars to non-stars to Jim McKnight.

9103-499619Fr

And they look wonderful signed.

66432076_10217310746675109_2105516904075493376_n

66240235_10217310747195122_4398229279142313984_n

A Trip Down Memory Lane (Field)

With SABR 49 about to unfold in beautiful San Diego, I offer a look at Padres’ cards from the Pacific Coast League era, which ends with the formation of the Major League Padres in 1969.

The original Hollywood Stars moved to San Diego in 1936. The city fathers constructed a wooden ballpark, Lane Field, near the train station on the water front.  From there, the team would move into the Mission Valley in 1958 to play at Westgate Park and, finally, San Diego Stadium in 1968.

According to PCL historian, collector and dealer Mark MacRae, the first set of Padres collectibles were team issued photos in 1947.  However, this set does not show up in the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards.  This publicity photo of manager “Ripper” Collins from 1947 may be an example, but I’m by no means certain.

Two years later, Bowman issues a PCL set in the same format as their MLB cards.  The small, square cards were issued in packs with a total of 32 in the set.  The five Padres players are Xavier Rescigno (pictured), John Jensen, Pete Coscavart, Lee Handley and Tom Seats.  The cards were issued as reprint set in 1987 by the Card Collectors Company.  The reprints are distinguished by wider, white borders.

Bowman wasn’t the only company to issue PCL cards in 1949.  The Hage’s Dairy company begins a three- year run with a 107-card set-with at least 26 different Padres.  This initial set and the subsequent issues are filled with variation cards.  Some players have up to four different poses. They were distributed in boxes of popcorn at Lane Field.  Cards were added or removed when the rosters changed. The 1951 cards come in four different tones: sepia, blue, green and black-and-white.  This set includes Luke Easter, manager Bucky Harris and John Ritchey, who broke the PCL color barrier in 1948.

Incidentally, the Bowman cards used many of the same photographs as Hage’s.  For example, Bowman simply cropped this photo of John Jensen. 

Hage’s comes back in 1950 with a 122-card set that has at least 28 Padres. This time, all the cards are black-and-white. Also, Hage’s ice cream is advertised on the back.  This set has manager Jimmy Reese as well as two variations of Orestes “Minnie” Minoso.  Among other recognizable names are: Al Smith (famous for having beer poured on his head by fan in ’59 World Series), Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, and Tom Tresh’s dad, Mike.

In 1951, Hage’s produces a much reduced 54-card set, with all but 12 of them being Padres. The other cards are comprised of seven Cleveland Indians and five Hollywood Stars. They were printed in the following tints: blue, green, burgundy, gold, gray and sepia.  Harry Malmberg is an example of the many photo variations.  The two cards above are both from 1951.  Some familiar names in this set are Ray Boone, Luke Easter and “Sad” Sam Jones.

Like an ice cream bar left in the warm California sun, Hage’s Dairy cards melted away in 1952, leaving Globe Printing as the card producer for the Padres.  This 18-card, black-and-white set features manager Lefty O’Doul, coach Jimmy Reese, Memo Luna and Herb Gorman.  I’m not sure how the cards were distributed.

1952 is a big PCL card year-due to the introduction of the fabulous Mother’s Cookies set.  The 64-card set was distributed in packages of cookies on the West Coast.  Padres’ manager, Lefty O’Doul, has on a beautiful satin jacket in his photo.  Some of the recognizable players include Memo Luna, “Whitey” Wietlemann and “Red” Embree.

Mother’s Cookies returns with a 63-card set in 1954.  Of the seven Padres in the set, the most interesting is Tom Alston.  He would integrate the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954 after being purchased for $100,000. Unfortunately, mental illness ended his promising career in 1957. Also, Lefty O’Doul is back, and former MLB player Earl Rapp has a card.

I was unable to locate any evidence of Padres cards from 1953-60, but in 1961 the fantastic Union Oil set showed up at West Coast 76 stations. The sepia tone cards measure 3”X 4” and featured 12 Padres. Among the players available are: Herb Score, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Mike Hershberger and Dick Lines.

The Major League Padres arrive in 1969, but cards from the PCL era would emerge in retrospective sets. In 1974, PCL historian and fan, Ed Broder, self-produced a 253-card set, modeled after the Seattle Rainiers popcorn cards. He used players from 1957-58.  There are 31 Padres cards in the set, including future Seattle Pilot, Gary “Ding Dong” Bell, Bob Dipietro, and Jim “Mudcat” Grant.

Another retro set was produced by TCMA in 1975.  The 18-card set has PCL players from the mid-1950s, one of which is Padre Cal McLish. The cards are “tallboy” size-like early 1970s Topps basketball.

In recent years, the late Carl Aldana self-produced several Padres cards in the Mother’s Cookies format.  The players he chose are: Ted Williams, Luke Easter, Max West, Al Smith and Jack Graham.

Please let me know if there are other years that PCL Padres cards were produced or if you have a 1947 team issued photo. 

SABR convention goers will assemble at glitzy Petco Park for a Padres game against the Cardinals. Not too far away, a humbler structure once stood, Lane Field.  Though small and termite infested, it was “big time” to fans in a simpler era with limited entertainment options.

At the game, I plan to buy a box of popcorn to see if a Hage’s Dairy Memo Luna card was magically inserted amongst the kernels.