Cheap Thrills, Part 1

As noted previously, I can barely keep up with, much less collect, all the post-career cards of my favorite players. I can’t even say I window shop. However, there are occasions where certain cards unexpectedly but decidedly grab me. Such was the case when I ran across this gem from the 2010 Topps Heritage set.

See, here’s the thing. The 1961 Topps “Baseball Thrills” cards on which this Robinson is based is one of my favorite Topps subsets ever. Flip through this ten-card collection and you’re not just treated to some gorgeous cardboard; you’re also reminded of some of the most amazing feats in baseball history. (Okay, small quibble. I wouldn’t have gone with “GEHRIG BENCHED…” as my headline for his amazing consecutive games streak.)

As for the Topps reboot nearly 40 years later (or nearly 60 years later if I go by when I learned about it), I have to say I am 100% impressed.

Let’s start with the five cards that are more or less clones of the originals, give or take a Heritage watermark and the need to rebrand the National League as N.L.TM on the Hornsby card.

At first I was disappointed to see these spots on the checklist wasted. However, that was before I realized that most pack-openers in 2010 would not have had the originals in their collections and very likely wouldn’t have even seen them before. If we’re looking to tell the story of baseball, circa 1900-1960, it’s hard to imagine doing so without Ruth, Hornsby, Gehrig, Mathewson, and Johnson. Besides, the new versions are a helluva lot cheaper than the old ones, and let’s just acknowledge here that cheap thrills are sure better than none at all!

With three of the other cards in the set, Topps simply filled in other highlights of that time period that would have been right at home in the original set, at least mostly so. I say “mostly” due to the sabermetrically pleasing but nonetheless anachronistic hit total on the Cobb card.

The Mantle card in the 2010 set warrants a special look alongside its 1961 predecessor.

On one hand, one of Mantle’s least satisfying cards (or if you prefer, Griffith Stadium’s best card) is replaced with a Mickey Mantle card that among other things includes a picture of Mickey Mantle. On the other hand, the “new and improved” clashes artistically with the rest of the cards, making it the one card in the 2010 edition I wish Topps had a do-over on.

But the Jackie card? This is utter perfection in my book, so much so that I’ll gladly show it again!

Note: It’s NOT your imagination if that image looks familiar to you. Here it is 60 years earlier.

1950 Bowman Jackie Robinson

Of course, beyond being a great looking card, the Robinson also sets the record straight. A listing of baseball’s greatest achievements (1900-1960 or so) that omits the breaking of the color barrier is an incomplete list indeed. I’m not sure what prompted Topps to omit it in 1961, but my Jackie Robinson collection thanks Topps for at least getting it right in 2010.

That said, neither the original set nor the reboot included what I grew up believing (from books and broadcasts less than independent thought) to be the greatest feat of them all. Rather than send this article on a massive detour, I’ll save that topic for a Part Two.

The Story Behind the Card – "The Hawk" 1968 (Chapter 1)

In case you missed it because of the holidays, the Hall of Fame announced last month that Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, the former major league ballplayer and professional golfer, was selected as the recipient of the 2020 Ford C. Frick Award. The Award is given out annually for excellence in broadcasting.

The flamboyant Harrleson started his broadcasting career with the Boston Red Sox back in 1975. He left the Boston booth after six years and joined the Chicago White Sox broadcasting team in 1981. He was a fixture in the White Sox booth for 33 years. However, those years were not continuous as he did a couple of short stints as the White Sox general manager (end of 1985 to 1986) and then a broadcaster for the Evil Empire (1987). He retired at the end of the 2018 season.

The announcement on December 11th brought back memories of my brief encounter with “The Hawk” back in the summer of 1968.

In August of 1967 a bidding war for the Hawk ensued after he was placed on irrevocable waivers by Charlie “Cheapskate” Finley for calling the impulsive A’s owner “a disgrace to baseball” after Charlie O fired Alvin Dark, the A’s manager. The boneheaded move by Finley turned Hawk into a free agent. After mulling over multiple offers, he agreed to join the Red Sox for $150,000 (he was making $12,000 at the time).

Harrelson, the first major leaguer to don a batting glove (it was actually a golf glove), officially joined the Red Sox “Impossible Dream” team on August 28, 1967. The Sox were in a very tight pennant race and needed a big bat and outfield help after the beloved Tony Conigliaro was almost killed by an errant Jack Hamilton fastball on August 18th.

Still have the The Impossible Dream Album.

Hawk Harrelson soared in Boston, and with the fans and media behind him, helped the 1967 team capture the AL flag in what has been called the greatest pennant race in the history of baseball.

In the summer of 1968, the Hawk was in full flight mode and having a spectacular year. One in which he socked a carrier high 35 home runs and led the league in RBIs with 109. The Fenway faithful cheered him on the field, and we dug his Nehru jackets and dune buggy.

Hawk and his Dune Buggy.

The Card and the Story

I briefly met “The Hawk” after a game in the summer of 1968. I was a chartered member of the Hawk fan club and desperately wanted his autograph.

The best place to get autographs after a home game was on the Van Ness Street side of Fenway Park along the chain link fence that outlined the area where the players parked their cars. That summer day the area was jam packed with kids trying to get autographs.

Hawk came out, signed some autographs, got into his car, and left. Determined to come away with his autograph I decided to run after his car and hope that he would have to stop at an intersection. Luckily, he took a right on Jersey Street which meant he would have to stop when he came to Brookline Avenue. I was a pretty fast runner back in ’68 and caught up to the car at the intersection. I tapped on the passenger window which startled the Hawk. He smiled, leaned over and rolled down the window. I asked him to please sign my baseball card. I handed him my 1966 Topps card which featured him as player on the Kansas City A’s and a ballpoint pen. I was embarrassed that I did not have current Red Sox card of him and said – “I am sorry about the card, but it is the only one I have.” He said that was OK and signed my card. I thanked him and he drove off.

Determination does pay off! The autographed 1966 Topps card.

In this excellent post back in 2017, Tim runs down all of the Hawk’s cards and points out that that Topps NEVER issued a card of the “The Hawk” in a Red Sox uniform!

Two weeks into the 1969 season the Red Sox broke my heart and traded the Hawk to the Cleveland Indians. I am still not over it.

Something else you may have missed since it did not get the promotion it deserved is Ken’s very informative and entertaining autobiography titled –Hawk I Did It My Way that was published in 2018. I highly recommend it.

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.

The Whites of Their Eyes

Topps changed the face of baseball card collecting in the early 1950s and became the standard bearer for the hobby.  By the early 1960s, they had expanded the size of the “base set” to more than 500 cards to include nearly all the players, and not just the stars. 

Before the proliferation of baseball magazines in the later 1970s, cable television in the 1980s, and the internet explosion in the 1990s, these cards became the primary window for a young fan falling in love with the game to tie a player’s name to a recognizable face, and maybe even get a glimpse into their personality.

The reason it worked so well was in large part due the photography style.  The photos looked so personal, so intimate, as though they were taken for your own family album.  Each spring into summer, you got a fresh take (or maybe two or three, for stars and league leaders) on what a player looked like, adding dimension to your perception of that player.  With time you got to see a player mature, from baby-faced rookie all the way to aging veteran.

My interest in cards was resurrected in 1985 as a re-capturing of my baseball fandom youth as it has done with countless others.  For a whole new generation of players, even unrecognizable ones, I was provided with a recognizable face.  I jumped back into the hobby with great enthusiasm. Four years earlier, Fleer and Donruss had broken up the Topps stranglehold, which ultimately led to a flood of manufacturer and set options that would follow for more than two decades. But I remained loyal to the Topps base set as the stable rock of the hobby, with its rich history and continuity.

Within a few years, something changed in the nature of the Topps base set, the cornerstone of the hobby.  For many of the players, the intimate photo where I could see into a player’s eyes (and his soul?) was replaced by a photo of him turning a double play, or straining to throw a fastball.  These “in game action” photos actually appeared on some cards as far back as the early 1970s, but they were the rare exception.  During the 1980s they became commonplace.  By the early 1990s they became the rule.  In 2020, they’re essentially all you get in the Topps base set.

I did a little research to gain some insight into this evolution.  I turned to my Red Sox card collection to get a sample of cards over several decades and classified the photos into a five different categories based on photo style:

Game Action:  As described above, a photo taken during an actual game, usually with the player in motion swinging, pitching, fielding, etc., most often from a distance where the player’s entire body is in the photo

Candid Portrait:  A photo of a player from the shoulders up that is not taken during a formal photo shoot, often taken when the player is in the dugout or on the field outside of actual game action.

Candid Action:  A photo of a player “doing something”, but not in-game action.  Maybe swinging a warmup bat or playing long toss.  The photo is usually taken close enough to see expression in the player’s face.

Posed Portrait:  A photo in the style of what you’d see in a high school yearbook, usually from the shoulders up, or just a “head shot”.  You get the sense the player knows he’s being photographed, even if he’s not looking into the camera.

Posed Action:  A posed photo of player “pretending” to be in action, in a batting stance, mid-swing, winding up to pitch, in a fielding stance, etc.  The player knows his picture is being taken.  It’s usually taken from close enough to see the player’s expression.

My collection starts in 1965, so I used a sample that ran from then until 1999.  Binning it into five-year chunks, the distribution of cards falling into each of the five categories yields the distribution shown below. Even with this relatively small and not-so-random sample, the trend from posed shots to in-game action shots is unmistakable.

I realize many people like action cards.  I understand it’s a matter of taste.  Me?  I get to see action when I watch the games.   When it comes to cards, I’m looking for the personal charm.

Take another look at the three Don Sutton cards above, from 1967, to 1976, to 1985.  You can see an actual person there.  Now let’s take a look back to see how David Ortiz changed over a 10-year span of his illustrious career:

Ugh. David Ortiz is a beloved local hero in Red Sox Nation and loaded with charm. You certainly can’t see it here.

I often hear the retort that Topps provides all this in their Heritage and Archives products.  For that, we’ll need a whole other discussion.  For now, please Topps, put these classic photo styles back in your signature base set, so that the cards won’t get thrown away as mere nuisances in the lottery chase for rare inserts. Bring the base set back to its rightful prominence.  It’s even okay if you include some action cards to keep everybody happy.

Covering the Bases: 1989 Topps #156 Dave Gallagher

In this edition of “Covering the Bases”  we are discussing the 1989 Topps All-Star Rookie cup card dedicated to outfielder Dave Gallagher.

The chief reason I chose to cover Gallagher here is that he recently discussed his Topps All-Star Rookie Cup on Twitter – spoiler alert, I was a little bummed with his feedback.

1989 Topps #156

Lets open by discussing the card which is Gallagher’s Topps debut.  A couple of observations:

1) This appears to be a Spring Training shot – note the chain link fence and treeline beyond Gallagher’s left shoulder.

2) In 1988 Chicago sported their uniform numbers on the front of the left pant leg, It is mostly obscured by the “White Sox” script on the card but you can still make out what is the top of Gallagher’s #17 here.

3) Gallagher is apparently holding some sort of BP bat. At first I thought Gallagher was using a bat sleeve – but 1988 seems sort of early historically. Looking closer I think what we are dealing with here is Bat Tape. I am guessing that the idea is to extend the life of a BP bat, perhaps the tape also acts as a visual cue to help a batter to target the sweet spot.

1988 Topps All-Star Rookie Cup

Of course the reason team Phungo took an interest in this card is that it falls under the umbrella of our obsession with Topps All-Star Rookie Cards. This past September SABR Member Brian Frank had posted via twitter a snapshot of the card on Gallagher’s 59th birthday. Gallagher acknowledged the posting noting the day is also his Wedding Anniversary.  I later jumped on the thread posing the following question:

I wanted to hear that Dave Gallagher was a big fan of baseball cards, has a collection that he considers very special and that getting a Trophy from Topps Chewing Gum Co was the highlight of his playing career.

Well, that wasn’t the answer I received. Gallagher’s reply was sobering and quite prudent.

THROWN OUT!

As a Topps All-Star Rookie Cup obsessive I was momentarily crushed. But it makes sense, I am sure there have been several dozen trophies that a player like Dave Gallagher has accumulated in a 20 year professional career. Keeping them all likely borders on hoarding. And his point of maintaining a separation of career and home also seems wise.

More Gallagher Cards

While researching Dave Gallagher cards I came across his 1989 Topps Big card

1989 Topps Big #310 Dave Gallagher

Which is a fine card but what really interested me was something on the back

1989 Topps Big #310 Dave Gallagher (b-side)

Check out the middle panel on the cartoon. It is not a Baseball Card Patent but Dave Gallagher does have a Baseball related Patent. His invention is known as the “Stride Tutor” or according to the Patent Office “Apparatus for improving the hitting technique of baseball players.” It is essentially a set of foot cuffs (with a longer plastic chain) that are designed to train a batter to make a consistent stride in their swing. The device was written up in a 1989 Sports Illustrated article.

Gallagher’s patent application is pretty interesting citing SIX Hall of Famers: Johnny Bench, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan, and Joe Torre plus Pete Rose and Hitting Guru Charlie Lau.

There you have it, Covering all the Bases on a single (well two) Topps card leads you to the US Patent Office and Joe DiMaggio.

Sources and Links

Trading Card DB

baseball-ref

Twitter @DaveGallagher22

HERD Chronicles (SABR Brian Frank)

Phungo 1989 Topps All-Star Rookie Cup index

Google Patents

COMC Check Out My Cards

Sports Illustrated (1989 May 22 pg 81)

High Heat Stats

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.

The Middle Ground Between Light and Shadow

I’m a sucker for 3-D cards. Not all (except when it comes to Kellogg’s), but most.  I have, in addition to Kellogg’s, a smattering of Sportflics, Topps inserts and other oddballs. Sometimes the effect works, usually through some weird angle – under an armpit, between a bat and a head. You’ve got to pick your spots.

The 1995 Topps DIII set, 59 cards featuring “infinite depth perception,” held great promise, but, like Everlasting Gobstoppers and The Neverending Story, only delivered the falsest of false advertising. The 59 cards, uber thick with heavy laminate, are a blurry mess with no discernible movement.

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I was going to post a video of the cards in motion, but there’s really no point. Unlike even the worst Sportflics cards, the DIIIs don’t budge.

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Still, I like them. They’re heavy to hold, and, though ineffective, kind of nice.

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The backs are a cube design, though Star Wars scrolls come to mind,

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and the checklist is firmly mid-1990’s, when Orlando Merced and Mike Piazza could make the same set of name players.

DIIIs are not as terrible as the pit of man’s fears, and they may not represent the summit of his knowledge, but you can get a set for around $15, which is a pretty nice zone.

 

Printing fingerprints

For most printed material, the method of printing is the means to the end. As long as the result looks good it doesn’t really matter how things were actually printed. Heck, from a printing point of view, noticing how something was printed is arguably a production failure since the standard processes are intended to make the printer’s hand as invisible as possible.

As a print and design geek though, one of my favorite things are designs that not only do something interesting with the printing but use the printing as a design feature in and of itself. Designs where I not only notice the printing method but which highlight the fingerprints of the printer.

There are actually two baseball card designs from my youth which do this. The first is 1985 Fleer. Lots of people love this set for the colorful borders and interesting photography. I admit that I like it for this as well. What is especially interesting to me though are the grey borders. I’ve seen some people call them grey. I’ve seen others call them burlap and compare them to the textured borders on 1983 Fleer or 1968 Topps.

So let’s take a closer look. On the left, 1985 Fleer. On the right, 1970 Topps. Both borders are basically the exact same color: just black ink printed at close to 40%. The only difference? The way the dots are arranged on the paper, specifically the angle of the dots.

Traditionally, when a halftone* is printed by itself it’s printed at a 45° angle.** This minimizes the screen pattern and results in a color that we tend to view as solid and patternless. 1970 Topps’s border is a textbook example of how this works. Zoom in on the photo and, if you can get your brain to not see things as just grey,*** you can see that the rows of dots are at 45° angles and produce somewhat of a checkerboard effect.

*Previous posts about halftones on this blog look at 2017 Topps releases, 2018 Heritage, and 2019 Flagship and Heritage

**I could write a post just about traditionally-printed screen angles but there’s already a good one on the web.

***Something my brain has a hard enough time doing since the entire point of the 45° angle/screen is to confuse your brain.

1985 Fleer though is printed at 0°—instead of a checkboard effect we have a clear grid of dots in rows and columns. This creates an effect where many people notice the actual pattern of the dots rather than treating the area as a flat grey color. I was unaware of this as a kid but it’s something I love about the design now. It’s an elegantly simple approach which uses the actual mechanics of printing to produce an effect that didn’t have to be designed.

Another thing worth pointing out about 1985 Fleer is the composition of the colored borders. As you can see in the sample above, there’s no screening pattern at all in the blue. This is because it’s being printed as 100% Cyan (one of the four standard printing inks).* One ink. No screen pattern of dots. No registration to worry about.

*Why yes a previous post starts off with a brief primer on Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black and the standard “process color” inks.

The red and green borders are similarly solid. This time though they consist of two inks. Red is 100% Magenta and 100% Yellow while green is 100% Cyan and 100% Yellow.* The three colors we’ve covered so far are some of the simplest colors to print and as a result are colors that come up frequently on baseball card designs.**

*You can see a bit of misregistration in the red border as there’s some Yellow fringing on the bottom edge and Magenta fringing on the top edge of the red elements.

**The other simple colors are the pink (100% Magenta), yellow (100% Yellow), black (100% Black), and dark blue/purple (100% Cyan plus 100% Magenta).

The other three colors show that Fleer’s screen choices were intentional. All three borders here feature a Magenta screen at 45° mixed with either 100% Yellow or 100% Cyan. It’s worth noting here that these screen angles are only being used for the borders too. The photos appear to be printed using the traditional angles.*

*Magenta can be seen at 75° in a couple of the zoomed in images—specifically green-bordered Essien and light-blue-bordered Teufel. And for anyone who didn’t read the link provided earlier, the traditional angles are Cyan 15°, Magenta 75°, Black 45°, and Yellow 0°.

Why am I looking at the screen angles for the solid colors? Two reasons but for now the only important one is that the other set which is about print screens happens to be about colored screens. Once we start looking at this set the screen angles become part of the design.

Yup. Come on down 1990 Topps. I’ve seen this one referred to as the Lichtenstein set since the screens look like the Ben-day dots that dominated comic book shading and which Roy Lichtenstein referenced in his pop art paintings. This is an appropriate name even though 1990 Topps’s design is still a halftone screen rather than Ben-Day dots.

So let’s dig in, starting off with the simplest of the color options in the base set, the light blue gradient. This should look somewhat familiar. Just Cyan ink. A screen angle of 45°. Up close it’s just dots but at arm’s-length it’s still a somewhat smooth gradation from almost white to 100% Cyan.

The crop above is a half-inch square from the middle of the gradient Comparing the sizes of the dots on the top of the crop to the bottom shows how halftone screens work in general and how the gradient effect works specifically. In a halftone, the size of the dot changes as a color gets lighter or darker. Larger dots are darker colors, smaller dots are lighter ones*. In the gradient here as the dots get smaller the color approaches white and as the dots get larger the colors approach turquoise/cyan.

*Compare to stochastic FM screens where the dots are all the same size and it’s frequency/quantity of the dots which changes as colors get lighter or darker. 

Printing the dots at a super-coarse screen of around 20 lines per inch instead of over 100 allows them to be part of the design while still conveying  the color information.

It’s in the mixed colors that things get interesting. The red, orange, and green gradients all involve mixing two inks together. In each of these cases the darker ink (Cyan or Magenta) is printed at 45° while the Yellow is printed at 15°.

The 30° difference in angle minimizes moiré effects and produces the halftone rosette pattern that we’re used to seeing. In these cases though the yellow is so light that we don’t really see it and even zoomed in it’s very easy to see these as being red or green dots a a 45° angle and not even notice the yellow ink and the fact that it’s also being screened into a gradient.*

*Sharp-eyed readers will also notice that in the orange gradient above (second image) the dark blue stripe is screened at 0° and Mike Scott’s background is Black-only at 45°. These black-only All Stars show voids when they’re from the same press sheet that the famous Frank Thomas no-name “error” is printed on.

The difference in angle is also what keeps this design from looking like Lichtenstein or Ben-day dots. With the yellow in the mix it’s easy to miss the two inks. But with the dark blue and purple cards the screening is much more obvious. These screens involve two similarly-dark inks but Topps chose to print them differently. Above on the left is dark blue which Topps chose to print Cyan is at 45° and Magenta at 75°. On the right is the purple which printed Magenta at 45° and Cyan at 75° instead.

Despite one screen being at 45° these two colors look much more halftone-like than the other four colors in the set. There’s a clear mix of colors and the 45° angle is difficult to see. Even though I know it’s there I see these as being more rosette-like.

Compared to other color choices Topps made for this design though the dark blue and purple are pretty restrained. This would change later in  1990 as Topps’s later sets—Topps Traded, the Mini Leaders, and Major League Debut—are all very different from what Flagship is doing.

Topps Traded (photo 1) is a basic red gradient except that unlike Flagship the Yellow isn’t being screened at all and the Magenta is screened at 15°. This is the only design of the nine 1990 designs where there’s a solid ink (Yellow) in the gradient.

Mini Leaders (photo 2) meanwhile feature a gradient from Cyan to Yellow so the mid-point looks green as one ink fades out and another fades in. Where all the other 1990 designs fade from a dark color to a lighter version of that color, this one features essentially two gradients. In the zoomed in image above, the Yellow ink is at 15° and goes from large dots at the top to smaller ones at the bottom. Cyan meanwhile is at 45° and goes from large dots at the bottom to smaller ones at the top.

The last image is the most-interesting sample for me. Major League Debut consists of a four-color gradient. Zooming in on this design shows all kinds of dots. Rather than looking remotely Lichtenstein this is pure halftone all the way down. Black is at 45° like it usually is. As are Cyan at 15° and Magenta at 75°. Yellow meanwhile looks like it’s at 30°—not the 0° I’d expect but slipped in between two of the other screens where it’ll result in the same kind of halftone rosette pattern.

Anyway, despite my not particularly liking the 1990 design even though it’s full of things for me to geek out about, one of the things I do love about it and 1985 Fleer is how they’re extremely hard to replicate with modern technology.

Before computer-based color separations, all the printing elements were assembled manually, stripped together, and then burned onto a printing plate. This allowed different elements to be screened at different frequencies and angles. The photo is screened differently than the borders and it doesn’t matter.

Now, everything is done on the computer and the plate is made using the same screen on all elements. This is generally better in terms of color accuracy and reproducibility but when replicating old designs runs into the issue where things that were formally-solid inks are now being screened.* Or in the case of designs like 1990 Topps, things that used to be screened are now being double screened.

*A lot of the heritage designs show how this works

This brings us to the second reason I was looking at screen angles. Modern remakes of these designs are completely different. Zooming in and comparing the Topps Archives version (left) to the dark blue screen of the 1990 design (right) shows how Topps Archives treats the halftone dots as only a pattern. Instead of two coarse Cyan and Magenta screens, there’s a light blue background color and a dark blue dot pattern, both printed with a super-fine stochastic screen. The edges of the dots aren’t crisp and, for me, the design just isn’t the same.

I get it. With today’s technology, doing this kind of thing requires you to go out of your way for an effect that’s intentionally going to make the printing look “worse.” When Fleer reprinted its 1985 design in 2001* it got hit with all kinds of moiré because Fleer couldn’t cope with changing the 0° angle to 45° (what a computer would want to print it at). Computers just don’t do this kind of thing well plus manually making your own screens means you also lose all color controls that your printing process has.

*I do not have this card and refuse to buy it just for this post but if someone supplies a 24oo DPI scan of that card I’ll edit this post to show how badly it was handled.

That’s the shame or replicating these kind of things. No one points to the 1980s and 1990s as a time of being careful about how cards were made. Despite being massively overprinted, it’s clear with sets like these that there was still some thought being paid to the nitty-gritty details of how the ink was actually going on to the paper. And that’s pretty cool to realize.

My favorite common

Editor’s note: We normally reject any “Favorite Common” submission featuring a Hall of Famer, kindly of course, but when we saw the condition of the card…well…see for yourself! 🙂 Plus, it’s Pudge’s birthday!

I still have this damn card.

97 or 98 percent of it, at least. Some of it has disintegrated. God knows where that black mark in the lower right edge came from. If you hold it at a certain angle, the creases either look like lightning bolts or rivers on a map.

It’s the first Carlton Fisk card that came into my possession. The first of 2,000 or so (I really need to get an exact count) Carlton Fisk cards in my collection.

Carlton Fisk is my all-time favorite player. This card had something to do with that. Did anyone wear catcher’s gear with such authority? No. Nobody ever looked better with the chest protector and backwards helmet. Carlton Fisk was the best. Still is. Has a cool name. Wore number 72! Who the hell wore 72?

He was a star player on my favorite team. His cards had several lines of stats on the back. His career went back to the 1960s! I was fascinated by cards with many lines of stats. So many that they had to make the print smaller.

The 1983 White Sox are my all-time favorite team. Even if I don’t remember anything about the games of that season. But you see, that doesn’t matter.

I had a plush “Ribbie.” And a hat signed by “Roobarb” (and Rudy Law).

And a pin that says “Winnin’ Ugly.”

And White Sox Pizza Hut placemats (okay, those were from 1984).

And the 1983 White Sox Yearbook.

And a bunch of 1983 Topps* White Sox cards. My mom says I learned to read with these cards – at age three.

Including this 1983 Carlton Fisk All-Star #393.

I have at least 20 additional copies of this card (including the O-Pee Chee version). But I will never get rid of this card. If I were to send it in to PSA to get graded, they’d suspect me of pulling a prank (or laugh at me, or both), but there is no card in my collection with more nostalgic value.

*The greatest card set ever produced

My Favorite Common – A Fam-A-Lee Connection

The recent posts about Favorite Commons sparked my interest in contributing to this blog.

My favorite common is just about any card of Steve Nicosia in a Pirates uniform.

1980 Topps – Number 519

However, if I had to pick just one it would be his 1982 Fleer card pictured below.

1982 Fleer – Number 488

In this Spring Training shot, the photographer pressed the shutter button at just the right time to capture Steve blowing a bubble that covers the lower half of his face. Steve is also wearing the – I luv em – you hate em – black and yellow uniforms complete with the Pill Box ball cap.

In the 1973 amateur draft, Pittsburgh selected Steve in the first round and he went straight from North Miami Beach High School to A ball with the Charleston Pirates.

1979 was Steve’s official rookie year and he was a key member of the World Champs batting .288 primarily against left-handed pitchers in 70 regular season games while sharing the starting catcher duties with Ed Ott.

Steve started 4 games in the 1979 World Series. He was only 1 for 16 at the plate but made some key defensive plays and was masterful at calling pitches in Game 5. He was behind the plate for the last out of Game 7 and can be seen at the end of the game throwing some hay makers at a fan who tried to steal his face mask.

During his additional time with the Pirates (1980 -August of 1983) he platooned with Ott and then was a backup to Tony Pena who was brought up in 1981.

He was traded to the Giants late in the season in 1983 and played another year in San Francisco before finishing his career with the Expos and then the Blue Jays in 1985.

Being a diehard Pirates fan, a card of Steve in another uniform just doesn’t look right to me.

1985 Topps Traded – Number 87T

A Fam-A-Lee Connection

During Steve’s time at North Miami Beach High School my uncle was his baseball coach (my uncle was also a biology teacher). It was a nugget of information that stuck in my head from a conversation over a few beers with my uncle back in the late 1970’s.

In 2009 I was spectator at the Pirates Fantasy Camp in Bradenton, Florida and noticed that Steve was one of the alumni Pirates who was coaching and playing against the campers. I waited for the right moment and leaned over the fence and told him that my uncle, Sam Viviano, was his baseball coach in high school. He immediately smiled and asked me how my uncle was doing. He mentioned that he had not spoken to him in a long time. I told him that I would be back to tomorrow and put him in touch with my uncle on a cell phone call.

I arrived early the next day and got my uncle on the phone first and then called out to Steve. He came over and I handed the cell phone to him and told him my uncle was on the line. Steve shouted, “Coach Viv” and then proceeded to walk around the field for the next 20 minutes smiling as he conversed with my uncle.

I called my uncle back after the call and he told me how great it was to catch up with Steve and how surprised he was that I remembered that he coached Steve in high school.

Steve Nicosia owned Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton hitting .339 against him in 60 at bats. My uncle was Steve Carlton’s biology teacher in high school (my uncle was not the baseball coach at the time).

Topps 1973 – Number 300