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!

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.

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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.

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Faux Cards

I first started collecting baseball cards, at age 6, in 1967. As I have written elsewhere, this was before I knew anything about the real players and teams. The cards were my baseball school. Although my family was all Red Sox fans, I have no memory of the fabled 1967 season. Did I watch the World Series? I don’t know.

I became a real fan — watching games, following the standings — sometime during the 1968 season. I again collected cards, probably from the start of the season, and gradually learned what was up. The 1968 Red Sox were my first “team”.

Carl Yastrzemski was the big star, the most famous person in New England, but several Yaz teammates had excellent seasons. Ken Harrelson led the league in RBI and Ray Culp and Dick Ellsworth won 16 games each, decades before we learned that those stats were bullshit.

I might not have been bright enough to tell you that my heroes were wearing the uniforms of the Senators, Cubs and Phillies, respectively, and certainly not enough to have told you why. The reason, since you asked, is that all three men were recent acquisitions — the two pitchers joining up in the off-season, and Hawk the previous August. The photo boycott killed whatever chance Harrelson might have had to be donning Hub togs.

All of these guys were sorted with my Red Sox, and when I made batting order and pitching rotations I had to deal with all of this. Honestly, how I didn’t turn to a life of crime is a mystery.

Looking ahead to the 1969 season, baseball had become a full-blown obsession. I bought all the preview magazines I could, and even wrote my own essays about all the Red Sox players that forecast their seasonal statistics. (Spoiler: they were very bullish.)

Because of the MLBPA Topps photo boycott (of which I knew nothing), I still did not get Red Sox photos of my heroes. Topps provided some variety by using a different previous team for two of the three players. Complicating things further, a week into the season Harrelson and Ellsworth were traded to the Indians — Ellsworth’s late-series card reflected this change, so that his Cubs uniform was actually *three* teams ago by the time the card hit the shelves.

Culp remained in Boston for a few years, but Harrelson (an extremely popular player) and Ellsworth never did get a Topps photo showing their Red Sox days. I am not blaming Topps here, just illustrating that this was a frustration that kids used to go through, especially during the 1968-69 years.

As I will always believe you should “play with” your baseball cards, in the same way you should “play” your record collection and not just leave it sitting alphabetically on the shelf, I still keep my cards by team. So this issue remains.

In recent years, a number of people have been creating what I call “faux cards”. The card at the top of this post is a faux 1967 card of Rod Carew.

The late Bob Lemke was one of the first to make these seriously — he called them “Cards That Never Were” — creating fronts and backs and selling them on his web site. I am unaware of anyone today doing faux cards with both a front and a back, although I could be wrong. Today you can find a lot of people selling “front-only” faux cards, with blank backs. There are also a lot of great artists creating electronic versions of the cards, so you can create your own with a good printer and paper cutter.

Here are a few.

I am fairly certain that I would have had a happier childhood, and a happier adulthood for that matter, had I pulled these cards out of my wax packs in 1968.

Of late I have been dabbling in these faux cards, and it has reminded me of why I fell in love with cards in the first place. It wasn’t to find a VG-EX card of someone who played before I was born; it was to find a great photo (with accompanying cartoon/quiz/stats) of Dick Ellsworth, or Julian Javier, or Roy White.

I should mention here that I have certain criteria for what makes a good faux card. These are rules for me, so you can feel free to make your own rules. (Including: they are all bad. You be you.)

  • Players who, for whatever reason, did not have a Topps card that year. When I was creating imaginary games involving the 1968 Oakland Athletics, I got tired of pretending that Reggie Jackson had the flu.
  • Players who were on Topps’s multi-player “rookie cards”, always inadequate but especially when you are one of the key players on the team. This Thurman card would have been badass. I should mention here that I also want the photo to have been taken either during or prior to the relevant season. This faux 1968 card of Bench (which Lemke made) shows a photo from 1969 which is a mistake in my view.
  • When you have a Topps card, but it shows you on the wrong team. This is not Topps’s fault, you got traded too late, but Alex Johnson won the 1970 batting title for the Angels so it is nice to see him in his correct livery.
  • When Topps gave you a card with the right team, but because of a recent trade or franchise move you are shown without your proper uniform.

For me, I don’t really have any need for a 1975 Mickey Mantle card, or the like. I am not passing judgment, it’s just not my thing. Similarly, I don’t need a faux card of Willie Mays in 1970 — Topps already made a perfectly good Mays card, I don’t need a new pose. The vast majority of Topps cards need no improvement.

I realize that most people don’t get the same joy out of using the 1970 Topps cards as a conduit to the 1970 baseball season, that they think of the cards as mere checklists to be completed. And that’s cool. The faux cards that work for me complement the Topps cards, and are a similar nostalgic teleport.

At the moment, I am considering taking that faux 1968 Aparicio and putting it in a sleeve with the Topps Aparicio “back” to create the perfect card that this wonderful player deserves. I have not done this yet. I am awaiting the right moment.

Reflections on “Shoebox Treasures”

Author’s note: Along with other members of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee, I was in Cooperstown this past weekend for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s “Shoebox Treasures” exhibit. Like a great song or poem, a successful exhibit leaves room for each visitor to develop his own meaning. Here is mine. I encourage each of you to visit and find your own.

When you’re a kid a shoebox can be a lot of things but mostly a safe. In the closet, under the bed, or in some nook a kid imagines a secret, there is a box of his best things. It might start out with some plastic army men or a G.I. Joe, some bottle caps, a few pieces of Halloween candy pilfered from his sister’s trick or treat bag, and some stamps and coins, but as the collection grows all these things give way to the consummate currency of cool: cardboard.

My favorite photograph from the exhibit

The baseball card collection, guarded more closely than eggs to a hen, was all things at once: encyclopedia of all that matters, marker of status, builder of friendships, beginning of plans and dreams, blank canvas, constant muse, and drawbridge to the bigger and better.

Not sure why “improved” is in quotes here!

The luckiest kids were born into cardboard royalty through an older brother or cousin, or–if they really hit the jackpot–their dad. I was not. Though my dad grew up during the Golden Age of Baseball and could have acquired countless cards of of Mays, Aaron, and Mantle, he had neither the interest nor the change to spare. His interests as a young boy were astronomy and dinosaurs. He told me why once. They were the things he could think of as far away as possible, in distance and in time.

Upper portion of “Collector’s Corner” area of exhibit

He had no cards for me, just a similar desire to escape. We both grew up in (and ultimately recreated) houses full of conflict: arguments, yelling, fighting, and ultimately divorce. I expected things to improve when my dad moved out, but my mom’s anger never went away. It only found the closest targets. From the outside our house looked solid. It survived earthquakes and a fire. On the inside it was fragile and falling apart, its only stronghold my growing house of cards.

More than 40 pull-out drawers, organized by era, offer a tremendous visual timeline of the Hobby.

The kids I grew up with, I think most of them collected to be closer to their heroes. Far fewer collected to be farther from everything else. As adults, however long our hiatus from the Hobby, I suspect the proportion is greater. Our cards help us start over, feel young again, and shield us from what ails us.

The exhibit included the work of Baseball Card Vandals, Gummy Arts, Tim Carroll, and other artists.

As I made the drive from Cooperstown to Albany for my 6 o’clock flight home, I reflected on the unbelievably great time I had all weekend but also how fantastic it would be to get home, to be back with my fiancee, my son, and our dog. (And yes, to add a few new cards to my binders from the local card shops!)

Getting ready to hit the card shops (L-R): Mark Armour, Harry Hoyle, and Andrew Aronstein

For most of my collecting life, I needed to collect. I don’t anymore. Life is that good finally. But here’s the kicker, brought home 100% at “Shoebox Treasures.” I still love the cards just as much. My shoeboxes are still safes, but now only the cards need protecting. Thanks to the heroes, cardboard and otherwise, who got me here.

Several players were on hand all weekend for the Hall of Fame Classic

I know some of you are a little bummed to reach the end of this post without seeing a bunch of great cards, especially if you missed the Mantle rookie in one of the pics. In fact the exhibit is loaded with great cards, including what’s probably the nicest T206 Wagner in the world. (Before you go checking some pop report, this one has never been graded!) I have too many pictures to share, and I’d rather you just go see the cards for yourself, but I will leave you with this great pairing.

Topps All-Star Rookie trophy supplied by the great Johnny Bench himself!

Psst… Hey Kid, You Wanna Make Some Baseball Cards?

Spring has been sprung; Training has commenced and come to a close. Your favorite team has made the last round of cuts and finalized their Opening Day squad and 40-man roster. Well, unless you’re Seattle or Oakland, in which case you’re already two games deep. But never mind that!

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All hail the middle reliever!

The 2019 season is in its nascent stages, and what better time to start making some of your very own baseball cards to commemorate such an occasion? It’s a long season, after all, and you’re going to need something to remember it by. Or perhaps you just want some actual cards of those bench players, swing men, LOOGYs, and the rest of the Taxi Squad. We can kick and scream all we want, but the fact of the matter is that Topps sure as heck isn’t rolling out another Total set.*

* Please, Topps. I’m begging you. You have at least five pointless sets, just give me one with all the dudes.

Whatever can be done to remedy such injustice? Well, you can saddle up with us three amigos over here who tackled such a project last year, and make your own cards! With just a small bit of know-how and some photo-editing software, you’ll be well on your way.

First things first—unless you want to go all MS Paint on this, you’ll need some software that will let you edit an image using multiple layers. Now, I’m not saying you have to shell out for Photoshop (although if you wanted to do a temporary Creative Cloud license, you could still do this fairly inexpensively)—you can go out and download GIMP for free. While I haven’t used it, it should fit the bill just fine.

Next, you’ll need a design of some sort. You could whip something up yourself, drawing some inspiration from past sets. Or you could replicate an existing set. Or, if you’re not up for the challenge, you can use the handy template that Nick whipped up at the end of that post* I mentioned. If you’re having trouble, reach out; one of us will be happy to help.

* You did read the post, right?

Next, you’ll need to source photos. If you’re not concerned with game action, then look no further than the Spring Training photo day galleries, which you can find on Zimbio—you can make a very nice Heritage-style set out of those. 😉

Or, keep tabs on the following: Zimbio (most games will have a gallery), your team’s blog, if they have one (the Astros run an excellent one which supplied many photos for my set), and of course, the local paper,* and don’t forget the home team’s paper if it was a road game. Bigger photos are always best—you have more to work with and it will be easier to print.

*as a former journalist—please subscribe to your paper!

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Some quick guidelines: If you’re wanting to print your cards at some point (this is getting long, so I think I’ll make that a separate post), you need to make sure you’re working with a high enough resolution. Basically, you’ll want to set your file for 2.5″×3.5″* and 300 dpi.

*or however large you want the card to come out, if you’re going for an alternate size.

However you go about developing a design, you’ll want to use some layers—a border or background should go at the bottom, text layers (Name, Team Name, Pos, etc) toward the top, and your image in the middle, the meat of your card sandwiched amidst all those lovely condiments.

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Oh, that won’t do.

In your template, you’ll want to make a mask layer for the photo. DON’T PANIC.*  This is not hard, and if you don’t understand it, don’t worry. Essentially, you want to make a shape that occupies the space where the photo should be. When you are making individual cards, you’ll drop your photo into a layer just above this mask, then “clip” the photo to the mask.

*And don’t forget your towel.

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Ah, much better!

What does this accomplish? It means that even if your photo is larger than this area for the image, only stuff in this area will show. Then, just resize and reposition the photo layer accordingly.

Once you’ve got a card designed, do a quick “Save As” and rename it. I recommend saving a .PSD file (which will keep your layers and allow you to make edits), and then saving a .JPG copy as well. Then move on to the next card!*

*Hint: do a “Save As” from your existing card, use the next player’s name, and that becomes your working file.

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I mean, I have to use the NASA font for Astros cards at some point, right?

Don’t feel like you have to have a design already put together. I can guarantee that the more you work with it, the more tinkering you’re likely to do. These things evolve, and your design is likely to go through some changes before you’ve decided you’re satisfied. For the record, I didn’t get my main card design finished until halfway through the season last year.

Also, don’t feel like you have to go nuts and make a card for every game, as I did last season: that was borderline insane and I won’t be doing it again—not unless I’m getting paid to do it, that is (hey Topps, wink wink). But, it can be incredibly rewarding to put together a team set. Or hey, do a custom set of your team’s legends, or make a full team set for that one year that you fell in love with your team for the first time, or when they did that big thing, or whatever! You get the idea.

If you do plan to tackle a project like this, please leave a comment with your name and the team, and perhaps where we can find you for updates. I’d love to see what everyone comes up with. Also, if you get into a jam, or need some assistance getting started, reach out!

The revolution will not be televised

Way back in April last year I posted about how a bunch of us were planning on creating our own set of ToppsNOW-inspired cards for our teams. We were all excited and optimistic about embarking on the project although none of us new for sure whether we’d make it all the way through.

I’m happy to report that three of us have completed our sets. Matt Prigge and I finished ours in mid-December—we both decided to wait until after post-season awards had been announced in November before drawing a line under things—and Marc Brubaker just finished his this month.

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Matt stuck with the Rookies App all season. This had the benefit of allowing him to order packs of cards as the season progressed and forced him to stay relatively current. I suspect that the monthly rush of receiving the next batch of produced cards also allowed him to stay on task.

The app has a number of nice templates which Matt customized to make more Brewers-like. He did a great job at mixing an old-school 80s Topps esthetic with a more-1990s photo selection. The results speak for themselves and look fantastic.

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I made my cards in a combination of Photoshop and Indesign. Since I knew I would be away from my computer for a couple months last summer I selected a design that was extremely text-focused and didn’t rely on any image adjustments. I printed everything through MagCloud and then trimmed them to size after the fact.

My design inspiration was obviously 1993 Upper Deck. It fit my text-based needs perfectly while also remaining photo-centric. And it’s a perfect match for the kinds of photos I liked. I tweaked it slightly to be Giants-specific but it’s otherwise as close a copy as I could make with the tools available to me.

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Marc was a late addition to the group between starting late and having a team that went the furthest in the playoffs, he had the most work to do to finish his set. He created all his cards in Photoshop and got them printed locally.

Marc went with 1998 Upper Deck SP as his design inspiration. Marc and I are both photographers so we appreciate the rough filed-negative-carrier sloppy edges and generous white borders which suggest darkroom prints. Marc however improved in SP’s design by rotating and flipping the edge design so the cards don’t look like they’ve been run through a uniform Photoshop action.

Observations and Reflections

Matt and Marc both ended up making cards for every game of the season as well as the post season. I did cards for every Giants win, other highlights I felt needed to be called out, and in the (all too frequent) occasion of being swept, a single card for the series. We all seemed to feel that doing cards for the entire season was both a lot of work and became a bit of a chore and as such, are thinking about whether we want to commit to doing this again.

While we like the idea of ToppsNOW and making cards for an entire season, there are a lot of games where there’s really no good highlight. Or if there is a good highlight, there’s no good photo of it. Plus you have that looming specter of falling behind and having to catch up. Even with focusing just on wins—where there’s always something worth highlighting—I found it hard to keep going.*

*Though this could just be the Giants’ September.

What we all agreed was most rewarding though were the roster cards. We made cards for every guy who appeared in a game. As team collectors I think we all appreciate those cards of the September call-ups who never get proper Topps cards to reflect their appearance in the majors.

I know that we all plan on doing a complete roster again next season as well.

Also, the examples from our sets in this post are all Roster cards. It’s very telling that they are the first cards we all blogged about. Once Matt and Marc blog about their highlights cards I will write a second post which is just focused on examples of the different card designs we all came up with.*

*Highlights, Roster, All-Stars, Award-Winners, Post-Season, Memorials, etc.

Next season

All three of us are planning on doing something like this next season. It’s been a lot of fun to chat, encourage, and share design or photo-selection comments. I don’t know if any of us would have completed the season without the others’ support. Sometimes peer-pressure is a good thing.

We’ve also been discussing consolidating our efforts and making something that’s more like a proper “set” as both a way of coordinating things and encouraging more people to join us. We’re primarily suggesting roster cards—so 54 photos total. Names and positions on the front. Haven’t thought about backs yet but that may be more up to the discretion of each person.*

*Puzzle backs are always an option.

To this point I threw together a quick template which could be offered as an Indesign document or Photoshop template to whoever is interested. I’m serious. Please join us. It’s a ton of fun and there’s nothing like seeing the printed cards in-hand or in pages afterward.

Fake News, Alternative Facts

Like all of you, I can instantly identify cards from my prime collecting/pack buying years. For me, that’s 1970-1977. I can more easily name and ID the 1973 Mets than the 2018 Mets. The cards from that era stuck with me, permanently.

When I started seeing “what if” cards, custom jobs made with original templates and period perfect pictures, I did Ritz Brothers burlesque double take. “How could I never have seen this 1978 Ken McMullen? Is my memory going?”

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Nah, all these self-made cardboards are brilliant frauds, one-offs of guys who never got their own card, had to share a multi-player rookie slab, or, unlike some other players, never had a career capping card.

The two guys I follow religiously are Bottomms Cards (@BottommsCards) and Gio/wthballs blog (@wthballs). Their Tweets are a joy.

Gio does a great job with players who, I’m shocked, I’ve never heard of and who never even sniffed their own card. These guys didn’t even get to bunk next to Dave Freisleben in a quartet of rookies.

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The other category Gio does well is the career summary cards. That’s a rare thing. A player had to either retire after his card was issued (1969 Mantle) or die (1973 Clemente) to have his entire career stats on the back of his card, yet a summary card, a tribute of sorts, is a solid idea. Here’s that McMullen card.

Bottomms does cool stuff, but lately he’s been doing something amazing – making “cards” of players where their picture mirrors the generic player icon. So great, in conception and execution. Here are two, but there are others.

I love this genre, which is purest online. I have seen that people sell their custom cards but that’s not my bag. It’s cool to have cards of a unique design for sale, but to sell a faux-1972 Topps card seems wrong. I know one of my friends hates these “cards that never were.” It messes him up. “Wait, do I need this card for my Hall of Fame album? Did I miss this card for my rookie album?” I have no such worries, they’re just cool.