Baseball formally required all batters to wear helmets in 1970. Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery was the last player to bat in a Major League contest without a helmet in 1979. Then in 1983, it became mandatory for all professional players to use a helmet with at least one earflap, although anyone with Major League service time in 1982 or earlier could opt for a flapless helmet like Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Tim Raines, and several others. Raines would be the last player to use a flapless helmet.
On April 7, 1979 Orioles outfielder Gary Roenicke was hit in the face by a pitch, causing a laceration that required 25 stitches to close. Roenicke returned to the lineup on April 15 at Milwaukee and went 3-3 using a helmet with a modified football facemask attached. Expos outfielder Ellis Valentine had his cheekbone fractured when he was hit by a pitch on May 30, 1980 at St. Louis. Valentine also returned to the lineup donning a similarly designed batting helmet equipped with a sawn-off football facemask. Folks who opened packs of Topps baseball cards in 1981 could find a pair of cards depicting each of these unique batting helmets.
Although no such picture appeared on any cards issued during his playing career, it is generally accepted that the first player to experiment with protective face gear was Dave Parker. Parker sustained facial fractures in a collision at home plate with Mets catcher John Stearns on June 30, 1978. Upon his return to the lineup July 16, Parker experimented with a (downright terrifying) hockey goalie mask and other football facemask designs. Despite his injury, Parker would win the batting title (.334) and be named National League MVP in 1978.
Most recently, Giancarlo Stanton made news when he returned to the Marlins in 2015 using a helmet fitted with a custom facemask that cleverly incorporated a “G” into the protective design. Stanton had been hit in the face by the Brewers’ Mike Fiers on September 11, 2014 resulting in fractures that ended his season. No longer newsworthy, facial protection is now commonplace with an ever-increasing number of MLB players opting for jaw guards incorporated into their batting helmets.
On April 4, 1998 Twins outfielder Otis Nixon coaxed a first-inning walk but was soon forced out at second. During the play at the bag, Royals shortstop Félix Martínez kicked Nixon in the face. Nixon stayed in the game but later learned that he had sustained a fractured jaw. When Nixon returned to the lineup on April 9, he utilized a batting helmet fitted with a full football facemask to protect his jaw and with hopes he would not need to undergo a surgical repair. This unfortunate injury, however, offered Nixon the opportunity to don the widest variety of protective headgear ever depicted on baseball cards by a single player.
Otis Nixon was not eligible to use a flapless helmet because he first appeared in the Major Leagues in 1983; however, here he is while with Cleveland:
Nixon also used a single-flap helmet with the Expos:
As a switch-hitter, Nixon subsequently joined the double-flap helmet trend:
And with his appearance for Minnesota following the broken jaw incident, here is Nixon donning the helmet with protective face gear:
Unlike facial bones, Nixon’s sartorial record appears unbreakable.
Bill Nowlin, “Bob Montgomery,” SABR Bio Project
Paul Lukas, “Giancarlo Stanton’s Mask Not a First,” http://www.ESPN.com, March 4, 2015, accessed April 5, 2021.
“Interference Rule Amended,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 2, 1970.
“Parker returns to lineup and Pirates win pair,” The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), July 17, 1978.
“Quick Kick,” Kansas City Star, April 5, 1998.
Mike Klingaman, “Catching Up With … former Oriole Gary Roenicke,” Baltimore Sun, July 7, 2009.
As we start the 2021 baseball season, Minor League Baseball is now firmly under the control of Major League Baseball. This has already brought about significant change.
A few low-level minor leagues – like my sentimental favorite, the Class A New York-Penn League – have been folded entirely. The others have had their time-honored names stripped from them, rearranged and rebranded with bland, waiting-for-sponsors titles. For instance, the century-plus of heritage behind the International League name has been discarded in favor of “Triple-A East.” Minor-league teams are now “licensed affiliates” who make a point to announce that their schedules have been provided by MLB.
It feels to this lifelong minor-league fan like any vestige of the old MiLB could be ripe for elimination, if it doesn’t make MLB money or burnish the parent organization’s brand in some way.
And one of the purest manifestations of the old MiLB is the trainer’s card.
Big-league sets don’t include trainer’s cards; you don’t find them in St. Louis or Los Angeles. (The best a big-league trainer could typically hope for, card-wise, was to appear as a small, golf-shirted dot on the fringes of the team picture.)
Instead, you find trainer cards in Wausau and Pawtucket, in minor-league card sets, adding bulk to the team set alongside the mascot, the stadium, the general manager, the owner, or occasionally even the chaplain. (He bats and throws righty!)
They’re not tremendously sexy cards, from a design standpoint, and they’re certainly not the most sought-after. If you were to sweep through a minor-league ballpark at the end of Team Set Giveaway Day, you’d probably find at least a couple of trainer cards, cast aside by kids whose solitary interest lies with uniformed on-field personnel.
Still, these cards are a tradition in many minor-league sets. And they serve a purpose, beyond filling out a set. They provide some small token of recognition to men and women whose work is necessary, even crucial, but unglamorous and almost certainly not lucrative.
These people work hard to keep the minor-league armies marching. They deserve these tips of the cap – whether they carry the old-fashioned title of Trainer, or newfangled, health-related handles like Strength and Conditioning Coach or Physical Fitness Coordinator.
I have no difficulty imagining a future in which MLB brings all minor-league card production into a central operation and discards the trainer card. They’ve junked bigger traditions, after all. Plus, trainer cards always have a touch of the podunk about them – and MLB isn’t in the podunk business.
It certainly won’t kill anybody if they do that, but it will be a loss, just as the New York-Penn League is a loss. It will be one less homespun touch, one less glimpse behind the polished facade.
Of course, the pendulum could swing the other way. With interest in cards at an almost absurd high, maybe MLB will want to churn out cardboard on anybody they can think to photograph. Trainers? Groundskeepers? Racing mascots? That self-appointed superfan in face paint who makes an annoyance of himself blowing a vuvuzela and is thisclose to being banned at the beer kiosks? Bring ‘em all on; someone can be convinced to buy.
If we get trainer cards in chrome or refractor style, with multiple color variants, I might just be convinced to love the brave new world.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to shine a light on some notable female baseball card artists, past and present. I make no claim that my list is exhaustive, so please use the Comments area to let me know about the artists I’m missing.
2021 Topps Project 70
Though Topps seems to shy away from regarding it as a sequel, Project 70 follows in the footsteps of the prior year’s Project 2020 while opening up the selection of players and years and increasing the number of participating artists to 51. Notably, five of the artists in Project 70 are women. Here is the Topps bio of each, along with one of the first two cards released by each artist. (Check back soon for a full-length SABR Baseball Cards interview with Lauren Taylor!)
2020 Topps Project 2020
Five female artists out of 51 total may or may not feel like a big number to you, but either way it represents a significant jump from Project 2020, in which Sophia Chang was the lone female creator.
Chang’s cards cracked the coveted 10,000 print run threshold three times, led by Mike Trout at 14,821 and followed closely by Roberto Clemente (12,077) and Willie Mays (10,480).
When Sophia released her debut Project 2020 card, Mariano Rivera, I wondered how many female artists had preceded her. As it turned out, I didn’t have to look back very far.
2019 Montreal Expos
Montreal-based sports artist Josée Tellier, who may well be the world’s biggest Montreal Expos and Andre Dawson fan, created her own set of Expos greats in 2019 to honor the 50th anniversary of the franchise.
While the set was not an official release, her cards spread quickly on social media and became one of the Hobby’s hottest underground releases. Definitely don’t be surprised to see Josée take part in an official Topps product sometime in the future.
2018-present Topps Living Set
The Topps Living Set, which began in 2018 and continues to this day, combines current and former players into a single set based on the 1953 Topps design.
For the first three years of the Living Set, all artwork was done by Japanese artist Mayumi Seto. Beginning this year, Jared Kelley will join the Living Set team and share the artwork duties with Seto.
2016-2018 Various other sets by Topps
As the back of Seto’s 2019 Allen & Ginter card shows, Living Set was not the first baseball card set to feature her artwork.
You can also see her art in at least three other sets: Museum Collection (2016), Transcendent (2018), and Gallery (2018).
2000 Upper Deck
In 2000 the Upper Deck Company, still riding high, held a promotion where collectors could submit their own artwork to be used in the Upper Deck MVP “Draw Your Own Card” subset. Ultimately, 31 cards were chosen, with this Frank Thomas by Joe Dunbar, age 36, leading off the subset. As the card back notes, Mr. Dunbar was one of ten artists in the 15 years and over category.
This particular age category featured three female artists in all: Linda Marcum (age 34), Kat Rhyne (age 23), and Melina Melvin (age 32).
The set’s most notable creator–man, woman, or child–was Alexandra Brunet. At age 6, she was the youngest artist in the set, beating out her brother and a few other 8-year-olds by two years, so there’s that. However, Brunet’s card was particularly noteworthy for reasons wholly unrelated to her age.
Where other artists gravitated toward established MLB stars such as Sosa and McGwire (hey, it was 2000!), Alexandra chose instead to feature…herself (!) as the Yankees first basemanwoman of the future.
In lending her artistry to a baseball card set, Alexandra was also continuing a tradition that began at least 25 years before she was born.
1968 Sports Cards for Collectors
The prehistory of TCMA begins with another four-letter acronym, SCFC: Sports Cards for Collectors. While Hobby pioneer and SABR Jefferson Burdick Award Winner Mike Aronstein was the originator and distributor of the 1968 SCFC set, the artwork fell to two other relatives: Mike’s Uncle Myron and Aunt Margie.
Per Mike’s son Andrew Aronstein, the drawings initialed MSA were done by Myron S. Aronstein, and those initialed MA were done by Margie.
Was Aunt Margie the very first female baseball card artist? Our Hobby has a long history, so just about any time the word “first” is used, it ends up being wrong. What I will say is that Margie Aronstein is the first female card artist that I’m personally aware of. I will also offer that the industry is sufficiently male-dominated that any female card artist–first, last, or anywhere in between–is a pioneer of sorts.
The combination of artists and baseball cards is experiencing quite a boom these days. Congratulations to today’s female artists leading the charge and the past artists who paved the way!
Read about photographer and SABR member Donna Muscarella and her baseball card set honoring Hinchliffe Stadium
Read about the “Decade Greats” sets issued by megadealer and card producer Renata Galasso
One of the few editorial positions we have on this blog is a very catholic stance toward what counts as a baseball card. We’ve published posts about photos, toys, games, stamps, coins, etcetera, all of which serve to flesh out and describe the way that we collected cards. We’re not interested in being gatekeepers for what cards are. We’re interested in use and how cards relate to our fandom and interest in the game itself.
All that said, the discussion about what constitutes a card is one that comes up periodically on Twitter or on here.* It’s a fun discussion to have since we all have very different ideas** which in turn impact our collections and interests. I enjoy taking part in these discussions but I really love just watching them since the criteria people bring up have turned out to all over the map.
*Probably also in the Facebook group but as I’m no longer part of that website I’m unable to confirm as much.
**Quite similar to the “what constitutes a complete set” discussion we had earlier on this blog.
We all, of course, have significant agreement on what a card is. But there are so many variables where an item can deviate from being a card™ that I found myself creating a taxonomy of card attributes. Looking at cards with these attributes in mind is something I’ve found helps me understand why my gut reacts to different products the way it does.
This post will explain my thinking and hopefully help other people put words to things their guts have already intuited. Again, this is in no way intended to be a gatekeeping thing. We all have different reactions to which attributes we care about and where on the spectrum something stops being a card. But if the Twitter conversations have taught me anything it’s that being our most interesting conversations are when we’re being positive about our definitions rather than negative about someone else’s.
We’ll start with the obvious and discuss the material of the card. Obviously the expectation is that they be made of cardboard. They are called “cards” after all.
But cards have never been limited to just that. From the silks and blankets in the pre-war era to the plastic, metal, and wood releases of the modern era we’ve always had cards that weren’t made of cardboard. We’ve had stamps, stickers (some made of cloth), rub-offs, rub-downs, and decals as well.
Even in the cardboard/paper realm there’s also a discussion with having about the thickness of the paperstock. We’ve had posts on the blog about cards printed on newsprint and cards which are almost a quarter of an inch thick.
In general tobacco-sized to 3.5″×5″ seems to have a consensus as being a card. But what about 5″×7″ or 8.5″×11″? What about minis and micros that are smaller than tobacco cards? What about posters and pin-ups?
A lot of this comes back to storage concerns and the way many of us use binders and binder pages to organize our collections. But it’s more than that too. For most of us, “card” indicates something from the business card to postcard size and anything beyond that becomes something else. Too small and the card starts to feel insignificant. Too large and it becomes something else—a photo, a poster, a flyer.
This is sort of related to size but refers to non-rectangular items like discs and diecuts but also encompasses folders, booklets, and pop-ups as well as coins, poker chips, and buttons. Many of these are binderable. Just as many lose what makes them distinct and interesting as soon as they get bindered.
The items which aren’t binderable at all are especially interesting here. Things like the 1957 Swift Meats diecut paper dolls or those Topps 3-D Baseball Stars from the 1980s are clearly intended to be like cards but do not fit into any standard card storage or presentation systems.
The question of what makes a card a card is more than just the physical description of what it’s made of and what shape it is. What it actually depicts is also important. Yes, picture on the front, stats/bio on the back is the expectation. But there are a lot of cards out there which don’t do this.
We’re not just talking about blank backs either although those are definitely relevant to this category. Backs that are advertising, common designs, or just a player name are all part of this. The same goes with fronts that depict a generic player instead of someone specific.
And for my money, all the more-recent relic, autograph, or online cards with backs that are functionally blank fit in here as well. I’ve seen way too many people refer to them as “half a card” to not mention them.
No images for this section because it’s not something that can really be depicted visually. Traditionally, cards are part of a set and are released in either packs or complete sets. Cards that exist by themselves without the context of a set or the lottery of a pack stray into a grey area. This is something that’s really been pushed into new territory with online releases and the way Topps has in many ways optimized its distribution around selling and creating individual items on demand, but the idea of one-off card releases has been around a long time.
There’s also the discussion here about what connotes a set—both in terms of size and how things are numbered. At what point does a release of cards become a “set”? If something is unnumbered or only has a weird alphanumeric code on the back does that mean that it was intended to be collected by itself?
Why do I bother thinking and categorizing different attributes? Because as I watch the discussions it seems that most of us tolerate a certain amount of variance in one or two categories as long as the others remain “standard.” So let’s dig in.
Let’s start with 1969 Topps Deckle Edge. These are pretty clearly cards but they serve as an example of something that sort of fails one of the categories because the backs are non-existent. But as you move from card size to 5″x7″ to 8″x10″, more and more people switch from treating them as cards to treating them as photos.
Or look at Broders. They’re generally “backless” but they also start to deviate from the expected release method.* They consist of small checklists and were generally not released the same way most cards are. Art cards and customs fit in this area as well. Move up a size in this area and we have things like team photo postcards. Change the paper stock and we end up in Jay Publishing land. At some point things stop being a card for a lot of people**
*There’s also something to be said about the licensing stuff but I’ve not heard anyone claim that Panini or other unlicensed logoless cards aren’t even cards.
**Although we still collect them and cover them on this blog.
The one that’s sort of stumped me in my own collection are the Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball stadium giveaways from the early 1990s. Despite being letter-sized and blank-backed, because they’re cardboard and manufactured by Upper Deck they physically feel more like cards than a lot of the posters that Topps has folded up and inserted in packs over the years.
At the same time, since they were distributed via stadium giveaway and do not function as part of a set. They’re also functionally distinct from those late-60s, early-70s posters that were issued in packs and formed part of a distinct set.
But I could go on and on. As stated initially, the point of this post isn’t to provide a definitive answer or even an official opinion. Instead I hope that organizing my thoughts about the different ways we evaluate cardness is helpful to other people as I’ve found it to be for my own thinking.
I could not say – Yes – fast enough when a good friend and Red Sox season ticket holder asked me if I wanted to accompany him to a Yankees game on August 18th back in 2013. Not only was this an opportunity to see The Boston Strong team that was helping a city to heal from the marathon bombing tragedy play a key game during a tight division race, but WE WERE GOING TO BE ABLE TO WATCH BATTING PRACTICE ON THE FIELD! The “On The Field” perk was one of the benefits of being a season ticket holder.
I was looking forward to the game for weeks. A Red Sox and Yankees game is always entertaining, no matter what the outcome, and it was going to my only opportunity to see Mariano Rivera on his farewell tour.
Things got even more interesting when Alex Rodriguez on August 5, 2013 returned to the Yankees line up after recovering from hip surgery and a subsequent quad strain. On the same day MLB announced that he would be suspended (pending an appeal) for the entire 2014 season due to his part in the Biogenesis PED scandal. Alex and the Yankee front office were also at war. Alex claiming that the team mishandled his hip injury back in 2012 and the team claiming he violated league rules when he got a second opinion for his quad injury.
Leading up to the August 18th game I read several news stories that Alex was trying to make amends with fans by spending time before games signing autographs.
On game day I came prepared to get signatures of both the Sandman and A-Rod, as well as close up photos of the players. I brought to the park my camera, a baseball, and a number of 2007 Topps cards of Yankee players that were still on the 2013 team.
My friend and I got to the park early and were given wrist bands and escorted through an open gate onto the field. We watched the home-town team take batting practice and then made our way to a choice spot close to the steps of the Yankees dugout. As advertised, A-Rod was one of the first players on the field and he immediately started signing autographs. I handed him my baseball which he signed.
I was also able to get signatures of Robinson Cano and Joe Girardi on the baseball. My friend spotted Brian Cashman coming out of the dugout. I asked Brian if he would sign the baseball. He grabbed the baseball – saw A-Rod’s signature – turned the ball over 180 degrees – and signed on a spot far away from the A-Rod’s autograph.
Due to my own ineptitude, I failed to get the Sandman’s autograph. Mariano was signing before the game, but instead of just handing him the baseball when he was almost directly in front of me, I took too much time fumbling through my 2007 Topps deck trying to find his card and missed my opportunity.
The game was wild. My friend’s seats are in back of the visitor’s dugout. Denzel Washington was in the house and sitting about 10 rows in front of us. Homemade Anti-A-Rod signs were in abundance.
In the second inning Ryan Dempster decided to administer some frontier baseball justice and after two near misses finally plunked A-Rod on a 3-0 pitch on his left elbow pad. Joe Girardi, who after the first near miss was on the top of the dugout steps, raced out to argue with the home plate umpire that Dempster hit A-Rod intentionally. Both benches and bullpens spilled on to the field. It looked like a good old Yankees and Red Sox base-brawl was about to take place. Amazingly, no punches were thrown. Girardi got tossed and Dempster only received a warning.
The incident fired up A-Rod and the Yankees. A-Rod came around to score in the second and then in the 6th inning crushed a 442-foot home run off of Dempster. The Sandman received a standing ovation when he came in from the bullpen in the 9th. He picked up his 36th save of the season as the Yankees defeated the Red Sox 9-6.
Before the game I did manage to get a second autograph of Alex Rodriguez. This time on his 2007 Topps card.
Editor’s note: SABR welcomes newmember Dylan Brennan of the Philadelphia area Connie Mack chapter. You can follow Dylan’s wonderful journey through the Hobby at his Twitter page @cardsstory.
For as long as I can remember baseball and card collecting has been a passion of mine since I ripped my first pack as a kid somewhere around the age or 8 of 9, idolizing legends like Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and so-on. It’s always been more than a hobby to me, it’s been a way of life.
My first two best friends and I would run to the closest store that sold cards, which was a K-Mart about 500 feet from our front doors. Whenever we had some money in our pockets it was like Christmas. We’d all run over there. If we had $7, it all went toward baseball cards. We’d go straight to one of our basements and start ripping through pack after pack hoping for the games biggest stars and some hometown heroes.
It’s funny to think back to these times, when one of my biggest worries was when I could go out and play sports with my buddies and what players I was going to pull in a pack of Topps baseball cards, long before the real world inevitably hit me out of nowhere like a freight train. But what I didn’t know during those 30 seconds of ripping through a pack of cardboard, was that I was starting to form my deepest passions in life: baseball and card collecting.
Ever since those first packs I was hooked on collecting, having added thousands of cards in my childhood. As I got older and started high school, I collected frequently until about junior-senior year when I soon discovered that hanging out in the woods with my buddies and having a few beers was slightly more interesting to me at the time.
A few years later, I went away to college which to tell the truth, wasn’t really for me. I did about 3 semesters away at school then came home when I was 18 and went straight to work. (Ah, the American dream!) This is about the time I started getting back into collecting. I collected mostly autographs of any and all Hall of Famers, star players, and childhood favorites that I could get my hands on.
I’ve always had a keen interest in vintage cards. It’s a hard thing to explain, as a lot of things that we love can be. But seeing pictures of cards of legends like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson was like a short tour through the Baseball equivalent of the Louvre. I had to have them. And once I started to add some vintage to my collection, I quickly learned what I truly loved to collect.
There’s just something unique about vintage baseball cards. The feel, the smell of old cardboard that strangely enough has been one of my favorite smells in the world. Small pieces of art that have been passed around for 70, 80 or even 100+ years. I think that’s what makes some cards similar to a painting or any work of art.
Art almost always has a story to tell and often, the artist leaves it up to its viewers to interpret their own version of the story in their mind. Baseball cards are like that in a unique way. The feeling of holding a beautiful T206 card in your hand and wondering where that card has been for the last 110 years is what makes it so special. The hands they’ve passed through. The stories they could tell, I could only imagine.
I’ve been lucky enough add a lot of cards this past year that I never thought I would own. I’ve also been able to meet some truly great people along the way. I’m excited for what 2021 brings for my collection and I look forward to meeting more awesome people in the process.
Rather than making it a top-50 list or some other ranking, we decided to go a different direction and treat baseball cards as timeline that they are with a post of 50 cards for 50 years.
Baseball cards aren’t just something to collect. They mark the seasons and document the game as it happens. Looking back at them shows us the history of the game. Who played. What was important. What happened. How we analyzed things. Cards may fall under the category of “ephemera” but the ephemeral nature of what they record is what makes them such an important chronicle of the game.
Our list is not intended to be definitive or authoritative. Both the history of the hobby and the history of the game are way too interesting for each year to be able to be summed up in a single card. Instead we look forward to the discussion and critiques that always follow such lists.
While Jason and Nick are credited with compiling the contents, we wish to thank the multiple other experts who allowed us to pick their brains and challenged our choices.
Christie Brinkley likely was taking selfies long before you. Way back in 1996.
Want proof? Take a look at the back of that year’s Pinnacle Series II baseball card set. In it are 16 limited, random insert cards – one per 23 packs – that feature playful pictures the supermodel-turned-photographer snapped of herself and select members of the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians.
Serious and casual collectors alike may remember the initial popularity of the set and the news that Pinnacle had hired Brinkley. I was a semi-serious collector in those days, and up until a few years ago, I vaguely remembered the cards and the media buzz surrounding, first, the photo shoot, and second, the set’s release in late July of that year. (Sports Illustrated wasn’t so buzzed. More on that later.)
My memory of the card set was jolted about five years ago when a work colleague leaned back in his squeaky office chair and, from his cubicle across the narrow hallway, casually asked, “Hey, Chad. Have I ever shown you this picture of me with Christie Brinkley?”
The pop time for me to launch from my chair and dash to his office was all of 1.3689 seconds. I immediately fixed my eyes on his computer screen, where sure enough, beamed a photo of Christie Brinkley and my co-worker, mild-mannered, soft-spoken John Lucas, who in the 1990s, was the creative manager of design and photography at Pinnacle.
In the photo, Brinkley is wearing white ringer top with thin, navy horizontal stripes and mirrored sunglasses. She, of course, looks flawless with her long blonde locks swept back from her face. Only few are out of place, but even those strays look perfectly placed. If you look closely, you can barely see three of John’s fingers extending around Christie’s waist.
He must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. But, it was only Florida.
John is repping his company well in the shot, wearing a white Pinnacle T-shirt and brand-matching cap. He has Christie’s left arm on his right shoulder, and a smile that brilliantly and brightly encapsulates the moment.
John played it cool because “You had to play it cool,” he told me. “You couldn’t get star struck. You had to come across as a professional. She was very gracious and friendly, just a regular person who was very excited about the opportunity.”
As you can see in the photo, Brinkley and John are standing on an auxiliary field behind West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium. Excited to be there. The ballpark was then the spring training site of the Atlanta Braves. In the distance and over Brinkley’s right shoulder, are the bleachers of the crowded ballpark. The Indians and Braves, the previous season’s World Series combatants, were set to play an exhibition game that day. It was the first meeting since Atlanta took the Fall Classic from the Tribe five months earlier.
“I can’t believe I never showed you this,” John said as I stood in his cubicle peering at the photo on his Mac. I couldn’t believe it either. We had known each other for a year or more at that point and had talked a lot of baseball, but this episode in his life, inexplicably, never came up.
So, or course, I had a ton of questions, and John was happy to answer. I think we both were giddy to talk about baseball and a supermodel we both had eyes on since we were teenagers.
The origin story behind the photo begins with John, whose job at Pinnacle was to guide the design and photography for card products, and his quest to “always be looking to break the repetitive tradition of baseball card photography,” he told me. “I was always striving to come up with photography concepts that would be different, edgy and well-received by our customers.”
Part of the issue with the same-ol’, same-ol’ card designs, at times, was with the players. They often were unreceptive to anything beyond basic concepts and poses. That conundrum came up in a conversation John had with the company’s photography director, Don Heiny, who told John about a time when a woman photographer had been assigned to a card photoshoot and garnered way more cooperation from the male players than had previous male photographers.
It was a valuable chunk of knowledge for John to store away in his memory, and it didn’t take long for the figurative flashbulb to spark about his head and rekindle the thoughtful guidance.
John was a fan of Brinkley, then 42, and he knew that she had an interest in photography from behind the camera.
“Wow,” he thought,” what if we send Christine Brinkley on assignment to spring training as a photographer for Pinnacle? The players would pose any way she asked.”
John took his idea up the ladder in the fall of 1994, sending a memo via fax – “this was pre-email days,” he reminded me – from his office in Connecticut to Pinnacle corporate headquarters in Grand Prairie, Texas.
In his memo to Michael Cleary, who was then Pinnacle’ chief operating officer and chief marketing officer, John relayed his conversation with Heiny about female photographers’ workability with male athletes, and he incorporated those thoughts in his pitch, writing:
“What experienced, female photographer is very well-known, has shot sports photography before (boxing) and is extremely beautiful? Christie Brinkley. Now I know it sounds crazy but think of all the P.R. we could get from this. The obvious stumbling block is first her acceptance and secondly the price. But we’ll never know unless we ask. Please call me with your thoughts. Thank you.”
John faxed the proposal, with the subject line: FUTURE DREAM TEAM SET, to Cleary on November 4, 1994 and then he waited.
“I never heard anything about it,” John recalled, until I asked someone there [in Texas] about it, and they said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s all everyone is talking about.’ I was really happy.”
That, I’m sure, is an understatement.
Nearly a year later, and after the usual back-and-forth negotiations with Brinkley and her representatives, John, his photography director, Heiny, and an assistant left their offices in chilly Connecticut for the warmth and excitement of spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida.
In the planning stage, they selected a group of players from the Braves and Indians as their subjects for this innovative, new card concept. “Both teams had really good and popular players, which made for strong collectable cards,” John told me as I, still astonished, stood in his office, hanging on every word. “At the time, these guys were baseball superstars, and their cards were collectables.”
The original plan had been to photograph six players from each team for a total of 12 cards in the set. However, for whatever reason – John does not recall – four other players were added for a total of 16 cards.
The players were, from the World Series champion Braves: Greg Maddux, Ryan Klesko, David Justice, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, Javier Lopez, Marquis Grissom, and Jason Schmidt. From the American League champion Cleveland Indians were Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jim Thome, Julio Franco and Kenny Lofton.
Once Pinnacle photographers met Brinkley at the spring training site, the shoot ran relatively smoothly. That is often not the case because there are “so many variables,” John said, “when you’re dealing with professional athletes.”
But, John was right in the reasoning behind his idea. “I figured if Christie said, “Hey guys, do this, do that – beyond the normal poses – they would certainly be cooperative and do it. And, they did!”
Well, most everyone.
Teaser alert: Albert Belle was a bit of a challenge.
John and Brinkley separately brainstormed ideas for poses. Pinnacle gave its model-slash-photographer a bio sheet for each player. She read those and developed concepts. John knew baseball and knew oodles about each of the players. Many of the props used the card photos were his idea, and some came right off the top of his head.
“That fedora Fred McGriff is wearing, that was mine,” said John, who also designed the art for the cards. “And, I took a drill and cut into the baseball,” to give the appearance of teeth marks on the leather. McGriff is holding the ball near his open mouth as if he had just taken a large bite into the leather. The concept for McGriff’s card, No. 6 of 16, was a play on his nickname the Crime Dog, after McGruff, the animated bloodhound who appeared in PSAs in those days and was known to “take a bite out of crime.”
“We did quirky little things to make it interesting,” John recalled.
Marquis Grissom and Kenny Lofton were two of the Major League’s top base stealers at the time, and Brinkley wanted to illustrate that fact on the card. For Lofton, who had stolen 54 bases the year before, she had the speedster pose holding a base in each hand as if he were literally stealing bases. Brinkley posed Grissom, also known for blazing the base paths, in a mock run with a radar gun pointed in his direction. When you look at the card, that’s John’s right hand holding the radar gun.
John was the mastermind behind Braves’ pitcher Tom Glavine’s card. Knowing that Glavine was “a big golfer” John said, as were many of his teammates, they posed him on a pitcher’s mound, in full baseball uniform, with a pitching wedge ready to strike a baseball. “It was almost like he was chipping out of a sand trap,” John said.
Speaking of chipping, or more precisely, Larry “Chipper” Jones in this case, Brinkley proposed the idea to pose the then young ballplayer with his Braves cap on backward, his blue jersey partially untucked and sleeves rolled-up, and thick eye black across his cheeks. He was blowing a bubble as big and round as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The next day, the Greeneville (South Carolina) News published a quote from Jones saying, “All right, I’ve got Christie Brinkley undressing me.”
In addition to the card, Brinkley’s photo of Jones made Beckett Baseball Card Monthly’s June 1996 cover with a big, bold yellow headline that read: “Uptown Boy.” An inset photo shows Christie brushing makeup on Chipper’s nose.
Jones wrote about the experience in his 1997 book “Chipper Jones: Ballplayer,” claiming he had always had a crush on the model – of course, he did; everyone did – and worried about catching grief from Braves’ skipper Bobby Cox, who as Jones wrote “was a stickler for how you wear your uniform… But hey, she did with me as she pleased. What am I going to say?”
Way to take one for the team, Chipper!
On the card’s back, under the words “Christie Brinkley Collection,” is a fashion-editor-style description of the photo concept. It reads:
“Struck by Chipper’s youth, Christie rumpled his shirt, smudged his eye black and stuck a wad of bubble gum in his mouth to get that “sandlot” look.”
Jones and most of the other players we’re willing to play along, just like John had imagined back in his Pinnacle office months earlier when he developed the concept. “Their jaws were on the ground, smiling like little puppy dogs and doing everything she asked,” he recalled.
But, Albert Belle wasn’t having it.
“Christie and I both had concepts for Albert, but he said no to all of them,” John said.
So, they scrambled to find an idea Belle would agree to. John remembered the game in Belle’s then then recent history when the slugger yelled toward the Boston Red Sox dugout and flexed his bicep to show where his home run power originated. “Everyone knew about this, and we wanted to show his jacked biceps,” John said.
Albert’s response to the idea?
“No! I don’t repeat myself,” he said to John and Brinkley.
“Wow, what do we do now,” John recalled her asking.
What do you do when the surly slugger repeatedly rejects your ideas?
Forget the biceps. Tug at the heartstrings.
Perhaps in a moment of tossing her arms in the air in frustration, Brinkley asked Belle if he would hold her 13-month-old son, Jack, on his lap. Belle agreed.
“Albert was very happy to sit there with Christie’s son on his lap,” John told me. “He even cracked a nice, big smile.”
Brinkley snapped a round of photos, and that moment became the card. When the set was released in July, Pinnacle showed off the set to reporters and photographers at New York’s All-Star Café. An Associated Press photo from the event ran in newspapers the next few days showing the supermodel holding an oversized replica of the card depicting Belle with Jack sitting on his lap, both wearing Cleveland caps.
It was a hit!
On the back of Belle’s card, No. 10 in the collection, is Brinkley’s hastily self-snapped photo. It shows Jack, reaching from Albert’s lap, for his Mom. Belle is in the middle of the two, still smiling.
All of the card backs have Brinkley selfies taken with the ballplayers, via a bulky film camera – not a phone, of course. Most are non-descript with Brinkley smiling brightly, snuggled up to, or with her arm around, the ballplayers. The back of Chipper’s card shows Brinkley blowing a bubble, just like her subject. Indians third baseman Jim Thome – known for punching the ball out of the park – is wearing boxing gloves on the front and back of his card.
David Justice’s card back shows the 5’9” Brinkley looking up to the 6’3” slugger who towers above her. On Jason Schmidt’s card, it appears it was he who took the selfie, not Brinkley. Carlos Baerga is shirtless in his photo with the supermodel. He has a red heart painted on his chest because “he was the heart of the Indians,” John recalled.
Everything during the two-day shoot seemed to be working. The players were into it. Brinkley was having a blast. John was enjoying his moment in the sun.
The downside, however, was it took hours before the group could examine the results.
Remember, this was 1996.
“The night in between the two days of shooting, my director of photography, the photographer’s assistant and I had to get in a rental car and drive down to Miami from West Palm Beach to an after-hours photo lab and have them process the film and the pictures,” John told me.
The trip was about an hour and half each way after an exhausting day of work.
“We went down there to process the film of the pictures so we could bring them back and show Christie what they looked like, to make sure she was happy with the results of her work.
She loved the pictures,” John said smiling. “She was very pleased.”
Pinnacle had to be pleased, too, because collectors loved the unique concept. Also, Business Week reported that Brinkley’s ability to persuade the players to pose without demanding fees – some of “which can run up to $10,000 apiece,” the publication wrote – saved Pinnacle a substantial amount of money.
Today, Beckett lists each cards’ value at .50, including the un-numbered card picturing Brinkley sitting on her knees on a beach, topless it appears, holding a book to her chest. But when the cards came out, they were uber popular with collectors. In their “Sports Collectors” column in the Aug. 4, 1996 edition of The Journal News (White Plains, New York), John Kryger and Tom Hartloff quoted individual card values they had received from “one dealer’s price list.”
Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux’s card was valued the most then at $49.95. Behind him was Belle, Chipper Jones and Manny Ramirez at $39.95. The lowest values were $14.95 for Grissom, Schmidt and Julio Franco. As of this writing, you can find the individual cards online with prices usually ranging from .99 for Belle and Klesko to $49.99 for Jones.
But, John, who still has the full set, never has given a thought to the cards’ market value or what they are selling for on eBay. “I never looked at them in that way,” he said. “I’ve always looked at them as an example of quick thinking and my job and role with the company.”
Once the cards were released in July 1996, tons of media coverage focused on their novelty and immediate popularity. There was plethora of coverage from newspapers – many ran AP photos and stories, magazines and even late-night TV even talked about the cards.
It was mostly favorable, and great publicity for Pinnacle, which is what John had planned for his company.
There was, however, one notable exception, even if it was tongue-in-cheek.
In its popular weekly feature, “This Week’s Sign That The Apocalypse is Upon Us,” Sports Illustrated wrote: “Pinnacle, a Texas-based trading-card company, has hired supermodel Christie Brinkley to photograph selected Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians for a soon-to-be-released set of baseball cards.”
SI picked the Brinkley photo shoot that particular week because, well, “Jeez, I don’t have a specific memory of it, Chad,” replied Jack McCullum in an email when I posed that question to him… 23 years after the fact. McCullum and fellow SI writer Richard O’Brien co-edited the section in those days. They “went through dozens and dozens of newspapers, magazines, press releases, etc. to find our weekly Apocalypse,” McCullum wrote.
More than two decades later, John laughed about SI’s witty assertion that his idea was sending civilization toward its doom.
“You can take it a couple of ways,” he said to me over the phone back home in Connecticut, months after our initial conversation. “You can take it like, ‘Wow, they’re really insulting my concept.’ But, you can look it as great publicity, and it was published everywhere, even in a global magazine like Sports Illustrated. Overall, that and the whole experience was pretty amazing.”
USA Today thought so, too. It gave the card concept its stamp of approval in its April 16, 1996 edition, writing “Thumbs-up: To a seemingly hokey idea that also is practical. Christie Brinkley will appear on some Pinnacle baseball cards coming in July. But she had a function beyond presumed sex appeal. In actually shooting the cards’ photos (including ones of herself), Brinkley got players to strike off-beat poses. Cleveland’s Albert Belle posed with Brinkley’s baby boy. Says Pinnacle’s Laurie Goldberg, “there wasn’t much chance of getting some of these guys with a regular photographer.”
Four more words needed to be added at the end of Goldberg’s quote to complete the sentiment:
My favorite players all share one thing in common: they are all great defensive players. Pudge Rodriguez is one of those, one of the best defensive catchers of all time. He came up with the Rangers in 1991 and went on to to become a 14-time All-Star, 13-time Gold Glove winner (MLB record for catchers), 7-time Silver Slugger, and the AL MVP in 1999 on his way to Cooperstown.
Pudge picked of an MLB record 88 runners in his career, and I was there for one of them in 1998. In the third inning against the Angels, he picked off Phil Nevin at first base. Rodriguez also had an RBI infield single in the first. I was so excited to see one of my heroes have such a good game.
Pudge signed with the Marlins in 2003 and went on to win the World Series that season. Then he went to the Tigers in 2004 and had another trip to the World Series in 2006.
Pudge was traded at the deadline in 2008 from the Tigers to the Yankees. He signed with the Astros before the 2009 season, then was traded back to the Rangers in August of that year. He then signed with the Nationals and finished his career with two years in Washington.
I have 39 cards in my Pudge collection, all of them from the Topps Flagship, Traded, or Update sets. These include All-Star, Gold Glove, and Postseason Highlights.
Most of my favorites show him in his catcher’s gear. I’m a sucker when it comes to cards showing catchers in their gear. I was a catcher when I was in Little League and if I played again I would be behind the plate.
Number one on my list is the 1994 Topps card. It shows him right after he released a throw to second base, with his mask falling to the ground. It highlights his legendary throwing ability.
His 2002 Gold Glove card shows him ready to receive a pitch. He’s wearing the blue Rangers uniform and gear with red trim. I like that color combination better than the all red that the Rangers wore for a while.
His 2009 Update card is excellent. Pudge is shown making a play at the plate with a runner crashing into him. It looks like the runner is getting the raw end of this deal.
Finally, even though there are several more that show Pudge in his gear, his 2005 card shows him standing on second, and it looks like he’s pointing to the scoreboard and showing the Tigers that they are either not out of it yet, or that they have the lead.
I have decided to add Fleer and Donruss to my player collections, so I went from having 100% of the Pudge cards, to having just 57%. Oh well, that’s what happens when you’re a collector, right?
One of the joys of living in Cooperstown is the annual Friends of the Village Library Used Book Sale. Well, sort of annual. The summer sale was called off due to the plague, but the resourceful volunteers at FOVL cobbled together a weeklong sale last week.
There are always cool finds beyond the scads of Danielle Steeles, Sean Hannitys and John Grishams. This is an old community, and ancient books tend to pop up now and then. This is not a diverse community, so I was shocked to see two Spanish language baseball books – La Maquinaria Perfecta, about the 1954-55 Santurce Cangrejeros and Roberto Alomar: Un Pelotero Especial.
My affection for Robbie Alomar is deep. He was always a favorite of mine, but looms large in our family history because, while we awaited the birth of our second son (in January 1993), I was watching the Jays-A’s playoffs while we discussed potential names. By the time Alomar blasted a 9th inning home run off Dennis Eckersley is Game 4 of the ALCS, it was decided – Robbie (officially Robert Samuel). I’ve met Alomar a few times. The first time I told him my son was named for him. He was stunned. (One of my favorite memories was when we met, again, at a Hall of Fame event, and when I went up to him for a photo he said, “I know you.” Validation!)
Back to the book. It a thick, oversized, glossy tribute, with tons of fantastic pictures. One Appendix has a terrific smattering of Alomar cards – official issues, Baseball Cards Magazine custom, Gary Cieradowski art card, minor league cards. It’s a feast that I had to share.
As to Robbie himself, it’s almost required that someone feels compelled to chime in about the spitting incident. Don’t. I don’t know the guy, but he’s been nice every time we’ve met. For him, don’t judge a person at their worst. For you, I wish the same.