Splitting Hairs

Last week I Tweeted this:

  • 2001 Upper Deck Decade 1970s. Always liked these. Bought the 75 I needed to complete the set via @Sportlots. Even with postage it was about .25 per card. @SABRbbcards

To which, Rob Neyer replied, “Aren’t you the guy who doesn’t like Heritage?” (I paraphrase.)

Yes, that is me, the guy who doesn’t like Heritage, for reasons stated here. Why do I like Upper Deck’s version of a classic Topps design? It got me thinking.

I’m not anti-nostalgia, which I think people assume goes hand in hand with my disdain for Heritage. Collecting cards is, by definition, a nostalgic enterprise and even buying new packs and sets is an attempt to recreate an old, warm feeling.

What I like about the Upper Deck set is that it isn’t marketing itself as some kind of replica product, updated, which has always been a false claim of any Heritage set. The differences between Heritage and the originals are deep, as I posted about, and mar the effort for me. They don’t feel the same; they come across as less than accurate knockoffs. They’re replicants and their flaws come out.

Upper Deck doesn’t try to mimic the past. Rather the Decade set is an homage, stealing a design as close to 1975 Topps as likely legal. The pictures are nearly all great (some black and white photos negatively affect the overall look) and the set evokes the era nicely.

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The subsets are swell, a mini-history of the ten years. All in all, there’s a lot crammed into a 180 card base set.

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As Tweeted, I had more than half the set and, at .18 per card (pre-postage), it was more than worth my while to finish the whole thing. I got a big stack of cards and a complete set.

I try very hard not be generation based, and avoid at all costs the “everything was better when I was a kid” mentality (it wasn’t). One of the things I enjoy about this Committee, and the Twitter baseball card world, is that collectors younger than I have the same feeling about 1989 Topps as I have about 1971 Topps and that’s as it should be. Cards are like music – what you love as a kid stays your truest love. There’s a reason that John Lennon always preferred Chuck Berry. Lennon was a kid when he first heard him.

And maybe that’s at the root of my Heritage problem. I don’t need to see today’s players framed as if they were players then. Baseball is the only sport whose fans insist that the players of today are lesser than the players of their youth. “Clayton Kershaw isn’t half the pitcher Jim Bunning was. You know Bunning used to throw 300 innings a year?” We’ve all heard variations of this insipid argument. Spare me.

So let today’s players have their own design and let the ‘70’s players have theirs, or something close.

 

There is only one Willie Mays

Here is a card, like most cards, with a story to it. You might expect it’s a story about Willie Mays. In fact, it’s a story about everyone not Willie Mays.

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1959 Topps “Baseball Thrills” #464

At least a few of us remember the play like it was yesterday. The hitter has some power, but the centerfielder chooses to play him shallow. Even before bat meets ball, the fielder knows one of two things is about to happen: extra bases or the greatest catch of his life.

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1961 Nu-Card Scoops #427

He quickly turns and by the time the crack of the bat is heard he is in a dead sprint only stealing a quick glance back to ensure the ball’s trajectory matches the path in his head.

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1993 Upper Deck “Baseball Heroes” #47

Winning a race of man against ball is not an easy thing—the laws of physics might even suggest it’s impossible—but after what feels like he’s run a city block the fielder reaches up with his glove, still with his back to the plate, and somehow snatches the bullet of a baseball from the air. They say seeing is believing, but almost nobody watching even believes what they just witnessed. Of course, the play was not even over.

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1994 Upper Deck “All-Time Heroes” #17

Still in full stride, the fielder brings his glove arm down toward his body where in an event nearly as improbable as the grab itself his right knee hits his right elbow full force and pops the ball from glove to ground.

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I was 16 and had been planning, waiting, and training years for the perfect fly ball—playing everyone shallow to up the odds—and it finally came, for the last and only time of my life. My friend Robert and fate itself had gotten the better of me.

Some of our cards are just cards, but others are memories. This past week I finally picked up a card I’d always wanted. When I opened the envelope I was no longer in my office at my desk. I was at Palisades Park young, fast, free, and for a brief 6-7 seconds the great Willie Howard Mays, that instant before I learned for damn sure there could be only one.

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P.S. In a bit of cardboard clairvoyance, THREE of Willie’s 1954 baseball cards (Bowman, Red Man, Topps) referenced a web gem nearly identical to “The Catch!”

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P.P.S. Fans of the “Say Hey Kid” will also enjoy this set of posts from SABR President Mark Armour.

Miami Vices and Rocky Mountain Highs

Although most of you have been greatly relieved by the respite from the “first card for new teams” series, I am back to shatter your peace of mind.  This time, I am examining the first cards for the 1993 expansion Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies.

The birth of the two new National League franchises coincided with the era of explosive card production. (The editor doesn’t like the term “junk wax.) (Ed.: In this context, it would have been fine.)  I found 17 different sets-counting updates-containing first cards for the Marlins and Rockies.  It is entirely possible that I missed a set or two.  (Ed: Or ten.) So, if I failed to mention “Lower Deck’s Super-Extreme-Virtuoso-Uber-Isotope of Titanium” set produced by Goudey in an exclusive run of 500,000, I apologize.

 

Donruss and Fleer must have been the first card series issued, since their expansion teams’ cards have photos of the players with their previous clubs.  Sadly, no airbrushing of logos was employed to provide memorable images. Matt Harvey (FL) and Eric Young (CO) are the first cards for their respective new teams. Donruss’ “Diamond Kings” features painted portraits of David Nied (CO) and Nigel Wilson (FL) in their new liveries.

David Nied (CO) and Jack Armstrong (FL) are Fleer’s first offerings.  Nied is pictured on the Braves with a ribbon identifying him as having been “signed by Rockies.” This is considered a variation, since most of the cards have him exclusively on the Braves.  The first card with Rockies on the name plate is Andy Ashby. Jack Armstrong is the first Marlin.  Fleer “Final Edition” has Andy Ashby as the first card of a player in a Rockies’ uniform.  Likewise, Luis Acquino shows up first for Florida.

Probably as a result of a later production date, Bowman provides shots of players in their new uniforms in the base sets.  Rich Renteria (FL) and Mark Thompson (CO) are the first Bowman issues.

 

Topps’ base set and their premium issue, “Stadium Club,” produced inaugural cards of players in new uniforms as well.  Jamie McAndrew (FL) and Mark Thompson (CO) show up first in the base set while Benito Santiago (FL) and Butch Henry (CO) are first in the “snooty” set.

Nigel Wilson (FL) and David Nied (CO) are Upper Deck’s first cards for the infant clubs. Upper Deck also issued cards in the “SP” set.

In order to save your sanity, I will not delve into all the brands.  However, here is a non-exclusive list of other companies that issued Rockies and Marlins:  Pinnacle, Leaf, Score, O-Pee-Chee (base and Premier), Pacific (Spanish), Ultra and Triple Play.

If only first-round expansion picks David Nied and Nigel Wilson had become superstars, I would be rich beyond measure.  Alas, the 2000 cards I have of each now languish in storage.  Another sure bet investment gone wrong.

Erstwhile committee member, Nick Vossbrink, pointed out that both Upper Deck and Bowman produced rookie cards for minor league players Ryan Turner (CO) and Clemente Nunez (FL) in the ’92 sets.  Thus, my shoddy research is laid bare!

A Dream Deferred

I’d go to card shows in the 1980’s and 1990’s and see fathers and sons flipping through the cards, working on building sets together, and dreamed that one day that’d be me, with my boy, crossing out numbers on checklists and sharing the thrill of the hunt, stumbling upon that much-needed bit of cardboard on our way to completion.

It never happened. None of the kids were really into cards. Nate’s hyperlexia/high-functioning autism took his obsessions in directions other than cards. I took Robbie to a big show near O’Hare Airport when he was little, but I don’t think he had much fun. Joey remembers a card show connected to Fan Fest during the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee.  I don’t think that ever happened.

There was a show in Albany this weekend that I planned on going to. I figured it must be pretty good since it was in its 40th year. I asked Joey, who’s been more into baseball lately, if he wanted to go. He did.

It was a fairly small show at the Ramada Plaza, but definitely the kind of show I was looking for. A slave to my want lists, I knew I’d be able to knock off a chunk of my 1968 and 1969 Topps sets. I did – 83 1968’s, over half of what I needed, and 23 1969’s, about one-third of what was left. I also got 16 1956s for $2.25 each.

Joey was a little lost without a goal, but soon dove into the fun and freedom of not having sets to fill. His only mission was to get a Minnie Minoso card. He got a 1961 as I was looking through some sheets and I found a 1958 in a bargain bin (where I also found a 1955 Al Rosen. He wanted a Rosen card too).

There was a big box of cheap inserts, where Joey found game used items, including a Rocco Baldelli patch. Joey loves Rocco Baldelli.

He also grabbed cards of guys he liked and knew (Felipe Alou and Vida Blue)

or guys who looked cool that he never heard of (Zoilo Versalles and Jose Vidal).

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We talked about Tommie Aaron when Joey stumbled upon a 1969 card of Hank’s brother

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and, like a lot of us, he fell in love with 1971 Topps, especially Lindy McDaniel.

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He also discovered printing errors and now is on a mission to find more Timothy Leary inspired cards like the 1972 Felipe he bought for .50. (If you’ve got cards like this send them to me!).

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The last dealer we stopped at had rows of 1968s and 1969s he was willing to part with for .80 each, including high numbers. I asked Joey if he would help me go through them and he did. It was a bit arduous, but, as we sat side by side, my dream came true.

“Got one,” he’d say as he passed me another card, which led to conversations about Clete Boyer and the playing career of Tony Larussa.

When we were finished I thanked Joey for being such a good sport and helping me realize an old dream.  At first I thought he had more fun at the show than I did, hunting and pecking for neat cards while I slogged through various sheets of paper, but I realize now that I got so much more out of our Saturday afternoon in Albany. If I never get the chance to share another show with Joey, I’m fine. I got to do it once and it was wonderful.

BRJ 46-2: Andres Galarraga Blast – Topps vs Upper Deck

The latest issue of the Baseball Research Journal has an interesting (and….complex) article concerning on a May 31 1997 Grand Slam hit by Andres Galarraga during an 8-4 Rockies victory over the Florida Marlins .

Left: 1998 UD Tape Measure Titans #2 Andres Galarraga

Right: 2015 Topps Update Tape Measure Blasts #TMB2 Andres Galarraga

The Home Run was initially estimated to be 529 feet by the Florida Marlins. However, later Greg Rybarczyk of ESPN’s Home Run Tracker posted an updated estimated distance of “only” 468 feet.

In the BRJ article a panel of authors (Jose L Lopez PhD, Oscar A Lopez PhD, Elizabeth Raven, and Adrian Lopez) set out to determine which of these estimates was correct. They put together a thorough analysis which of course included significant math and physics, and less expectedly factors such as weather, wind and humidity. The Lopez Lopez Raven Lopez team concluded Galarraga’s Home Run travelled approximately 524 feet. The article is a SIGNIFICANTLY more involved – Go Read It!!

Topps vs UD

The length of the blast makes the Home Run one of the longest in MLB history and I have found the event was captured on cardboard at least twice.

UD Tape Measure Titans

The first time was in the 30 card 1998 Upper Deck Tape Measure Titans insert set which included sluggers McGwire, Bonds, Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Sosa, Junior, Manny, Thome, Piazza, A-Rod, Chipper and others.

Upper Deck went with a retro feel for this subset. I like the Tape Measure graphic at the bottom of the screen. UD went with the 529 foot calculation provided by the Marlins and we can see the gauge dropped at the proper point.

Now on to my dislikes, Andres Galarraga hit this Home Run as a member of the Colorado Rockies, during the following off-season he went to Atlanta via free agency. Unfortunately that leaves us with a player in a uni that does not represent the accomplishment. UD Also elected, on a hitting related card, to use a fielding pose.  However for me the most egregious violation is that the “Upper Deck” logo absolutely dwarfs Galarraga’s name.

Topps Tape Measure Blasts

Tape Measure Blasts was a 15 card insert set in 2015 Topps update. Notables in this set include Reggie, Clemente, Ted Williams, Josh Gibson, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Giancarlo, and a Ryan Howard card that should really be in my collection.

The Topps card has the benefit of being produced 17 years after the UD original. By 2015 Galarraga was a retired player. At this point Topps could put the Big Cat in whatever threads they wanted and fortunately he is with the Rockies here. Topps gets bonus points for getting the Marlins stadium of the era, Pro Player, on the card.

Of course the big difference in the cards is that Topps went with ESPN’s figure for the distance.

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The Retro theme carries through to the back of the Upper Deck card (Top) and they did a nice job. This is as solid as some Heritage designs.

The text on the Topps card gives us some good copy on the Home Run including name dropping Hall of Very Good pitcher Kevin Brown.

Phungo Verdict

Despite the Topps card using the discredited distance I prefer their card. Too many things annoy me with the Tape Measure Titans – and I didn’t even mention that I really don’t like that name.

Sources & Links

SABR Baseball Research Journal Fall 2017

Bob Lemke – Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards

Game Dated Cards Index

Baseball-Ref

eBay

MLB

Cahiers des Cartes

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lights, Camera, Action!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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