Lou Brock (1939–2020)

Baseball is a game which traditionally (if not stereotypically) is passed down from fathers to sons. My story is a little different. While I certainly have baseball memories shared with my dad, it was primarily my mom who passed the game on to me.

When I was six or seven years old, it was Mom who often threw me ground balls and pop ups in the back yard, just far enough from me that I had to dive to catch them—just like I wanted!

Lou Brock’s Statue Outside Busch Stadium

It was also Mom who took me to games at Busch Stadium in our home town of St. Louis. She had grown up watching the great Cardinals teams of the 60s, and her favorite player was Lou Brock. Naturally, he quickly became mine as well, even though he was, at that time in the late 70s, in the twilight of his career.

When we went to a game, Mom would always pack us lunches, and we’d make sure to get to Busch hours before game time. Seating in the bleachers in those days was done on a first-come, first served basis, and we wanted to make sure we would get to sit in the front row in left field, as close to our idol as possible. No doubt, countless Cardinals fans had done the same over the years, because we all agreed: Lou was the greatest!

While playing at Southern University, he had been discovered by the legendary Buck O’Neil, and signed to a contract with the Chicago Cubs, joining their St. Cloud team in the Class C Northern League. After just one season in the minors, Brock was a September call-up in 1961.

That leads us to the summer of 1962, the summer, coincidentally, portrayed in the movie The Sandlot. I mention this because Lou (kind of) makes an appearance in the film. You see, the kids in the movie were apparently as prescient as they were precocious. When they covered the walls of their treehouse with their favorite baseball cards, they included the rookie card of a certain Cubs outfielder who had yet to accomplish much of anything in the big leagues.

Those kids not only knew their baseball history, they knew their baseball future!

Though the kids from The Sandlot apparently started collecting Lou’s cards right from the beginning of his career, I didn’t get started until much later. Granted, you can’t really blame me—I wouldn’t be born for almost a decade after that rookie card came out! Unfortunately, that meant I couldn’t collect Lou until the end of his Hall of Fame career.

In the years that followed though, I picked up a Brock card here and a Brock card there, either buying them at a card show or during trips to my local baseball card store. I didn’t have a big budget for my collection (still true today!), but I was able to acquire most of Lou’s cards, especially if I wasn’t too picky about them being in perfect condition. Of course, I always wanted to get that Lou Brock rookie card from 1962, and eventually I found one that was in mediocre enough condition that I could actually afford it.

After collecting throughout my childhood, I stayed involved in the hobby for a few years after college, actually thinking at one point that I might pursue a career in the industry. Things went other directions—both in terms of career and collecting—and my cards largely sat boxed in the basement for a couple decades. A few years ago though, I decided to get back into the hobby.

One of the first things I did was bust out my Lou Brock cards, and though I thought I’d already acquired all of Lou’s Topps cards from his playing days, in looking through them, I came to the realization that I was missing two: 1963 & 1967.

I scanned eBay to see if there were any good deals on these cards, and stumbled upon an auction for 1963 cards of a pair of all-time greats who both wore the number 20. I was thrilled to win the auction, and add not only one of the two Brocks that I needed, but also a vintage Frank Robinson!

Perhaps even more typical of Lou than having a bat in his hands though, is him having a smile on his face. Lou ALWAYS seemed to be smiling, even over the last decade of his life as he faced numerous health issues. His warmth and his likeability as a person marked his life just as much as his great ability on the diamond. Sportswriter Tim Kurkijan put it well this past week, writing, “I will remember Lou Brock as one of the kindest, sweetest, gentlest men I have ever met.”

In the wake of his death, the outpouring of tributes on Twitter from players, media and fans alike have echoed Kurkijan’s sentiments:

Lou Brock was one of the finest men I have ever known. Coming into this league as a 21-year-old kid, Lou Brock was one of the first Hall-of-Fame players I had the privilege to meet. He told me I belonged here in the big-leagues. He was always willing to help and to share his unlimited knowledge of hitting and the game of baseball with me as a young player. Most importantly, he showed us all how to live our lives on and off the field with character and integrity. 1975 winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, Lou always understood his role in giving back to his community. He was a Godly man who lead his family with Christian principals and love. He was a dear friend to me. I loved him very much.

—Albert Pujols

Lou Brock was the first person from the @Cardinals organization that I met. I walked into the spring training clubhouse put my stuff down, turn around, and here comes Lou… walking right towards me. He hands me a ball and says, “Will you sign this for me?” I say, “Hi Mr Brock…I think you have that backwards.” He responds, “No I don’t. You’re going to be special and I want your autograph.” Lou always amazed me with how cool and calm and professional he was at all times. He was one of the best encouragers I’ve ever met. He was one of the main ones setting the example for all the Cardinals who came after him in how to play and how to live. I will forever be grateful for the times I got to listen to Mr Lou tell stories in that smooth voice he had. RIP Mr Lou…we love you and will miss you.

—Adam Wainwright

Mr. Brock had amazing baseball talent, but he was a truly great man. Lou was Humble, gracious, gentle & God fearing. He always made time for others. He cared about people. I am blessed to have known him. He will be missed. What a legacy. Prayers for Jackie & family. #RIPLouBrock

—Andy Benes

Deeply saddened by the passing of Lou Brock, one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. Toughest Cardinal ever. And the most gentle human being you’d ever meet. Lou loved people, loved the fans. He is everything you’d want an all-time player to be. I love you, Lou.

—KMOX Radio’s Tom Ackerman

There was a light inside of Lou Brock that brightened every place and space he entered. A light that warmed every person he encountered. Grace. Dignity. Class. Joy. His generosity of spirit touched so many. I’ve never known a finer man. #RIPLou … Long may you run.

—St. Louis sportswriter Bernie Miklasz

Lou Brock was my first favorite ballplayer as a kid. I had several chances to meet him and talk to him in life, and he could not have been more gracious, humble, and kind. A true gentleman and a great Cardinal. This one hits hard. 

—Cardinals fan John Rabe

RIP to one of the best Cardinals ever. A true gentleman and a revolutionary player. The game of baseball is better because of guys like Lou. Met him several times as a kid and I remember he was always smiling. Always. Rest easy to one of my heroes #20

—Cardinals fan RMcardsfan

Given the way that he is remembered by those who knew him well or had even met him, it’s only appropriate that throughout the heart of Lou’s career, he so commonly was pictured smiling.

As I mentioned before, almost Lou’s entire career took place before I started collecting. The first year I actually collected cards was 1978. I was six years old, and I can still remember when my grandfather bought me that first pack. It only makes sense that the ’78 card was the first Lou in my collection.

In 1980, with Brock having retired, Topps didn’t include a base card for him. But card #1 of that year’s set was a “1979 Highlights” card that spotlighted the fact that Lou Brock and Carl Yastrzemski (star left fielders for their respective teams and the two leading hitters from the 1967 World Series) had become the 14th and 15th players to enter the 3,000-Hit Club.

I was actually present at Busch Stadium the day BEFORE Brock would get his milestone hit of Cubs hurler Dennis Lamp. Twenty years later, I would pull off the same accomplishment with Tony Gwynn, missing his 3000th hit by a day as well!

Since Lou’s retirement, card companies have continued to produce Brock cards to the point that the majority of Lou Brock cards produced were probably made AFTER his career. I’ve been working my way through acquiring many of those cards, a few dollars at a time throughout this past year or so.

One of these cards stands out as deserving special notice. Graig Kreindler has for some time been my favorite artist. His portraits of old baseball players do an amazing job of bringing players to life who have long been dead. Recognizing his unique talents, Topps commissioned him to produce 20 portraits for their 150 Years of Baseball series.

Topps released these limited edition cards online one at a time, and I would invariably wait in anxious anticipation every few weeks until the next card was revealed. Imagine my joyful surprise when the 20th and final card ended up being Lou!

There’s one last story I’d like to share that isn’t really card-related. A couple decades ago when I was working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Lou rented a van from us. I knew he was going to be coming in, so I when I came to work that morning, I brought a red Sharpie and the newspaper I had kept from when he stole his record setting 893rd base. When I asked him to add his autograph to it, his eyes lit up, that familiar smile spread across his face, and he acted as if I was doing him a favor by having him sign it. He genuinely got a kick out of the fact that I had held onto the paper all those years. I ended up meeting with him a couple other times as well, and each time he was nicer than the last.

I’ve heard it said that as an adult, you should never meet your childhood ideals because they’ll only disappoint you. Whoever it was that said that obviously didn’t have the same childhood idol I did. Rest in peace, Base Burglar.

Everything must be considered

Likewise, there is a vocal group of collectors who seek, nay DEMAND, perfection from Topps when it comes to retro sets such as Heritage and Archives. Any deviation from these unwritten rules results in an outcry in the blogosphere, Twitter and the various forums.

Cardboard Jones

I planned to respond to this as a comment but in hashing things out on Twitter realized that it deserved to be a blogpost. First off. I’m not feeling attacked by the statement nor do I even disagree with it. Expecting things like Archives and Heritage to match the originals is the most boring of positions to have. But as someone who frequently comments and calls out where Topps deviates in the retro set typsetting and designs I feel like I need to clarify when and why I do so.

When I approach a retro set it’s impossible for me not to notice changes. My mindset though isn’t “these changes are crap.” Instead I’m asking myself why Topps made them.

One of the chief mantras from my design classes was that “everything should be considered.” In other words, every part of the design should be a conscious choice with a reason behind it. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t leave things to chance, just that you needed to be as aware, if not moreso, of what you weren’t designing.

When it comes to the retro sets, too many of the choices feel like Topps has decided to copy the old design but couldn’t be bothered to do it right. When I cringe at a font choice or shake my head at a color selection it doesn’t reflect that I want the design to be perfect, it reflects that on that card, Topps feels like it’s trying to recreate the card and is doing it badly.

Let’s take a look at the 2020 Archives Luis Robert. In this case, the font used for Robert’s name is super small. 1974 used condensed fonts for long names* but for most names the font matches the font used to the city and position. As a result the font looks off compared to the other fonts on the card** and the space for his name looks super empty because these cards weren’t designed to have a big white space on the bottom.

* If this were a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. card then the font would be fine.

**Lucky for Topps the condensed font is also in use for “White Sox” else this would look even weirder.

There’s a reason I often refer to the uncanny valley when I critique retro designs. Changes like Robert’s font feel unconsidered and suggest a lack of awareness about how the original design works. The result is something that’s just close enough to the originals to feel incredibly wrong.

I don’t expect Topps to match the originals. I want them to make considered choices about how to honor the philosophy behind the original designs while updating them to the modern game and modern printing.

For example, sticking with the Robert card, 1974 is noteworthy as the first set where Topps tried to use team colors in the design. In 1974 the White Sox’s dominant color was red and as a result, the 1974 design used red.* In 2020, the Sox are a grey and black team and for me, updating the 1974 design to use those colors is the kind of change that I would treat as a considered choice.**

*That Topps stuck with red is yet another push toward reading these cards as remakes instead of updates and justifies critiquing the font choices along those lines. At the same time, that Topps apparently changed the colors on a lot of the cards in this set—e.g Giants in green, Pirates in red, Orioles in white—suggests that my initial reaction to the Robert was maybe giving Topps too much credit for trying to reproduce the original design. No I still have no idea what possessed them to make the Willie McCovey Giants card green and yellow and the overall reaction is still that Topps didn’t think about what they were doing.

**Along these lines, if Topps had had the lead time and creativity to do “Buffalo, Amer’n Lea” cards for the Blue Jays I would’ve been out stalking blasters of Archives at my local Target.

Topps has made considered changes like these before. Going back to my post about 2019 Heritage provides a great example. Where 1970 Topps (on the left) use a 50% black screen for the grey border, 2019 Heritage (on the right) uses a custom grey ink printed at 100%.

I don’t remember anyone complaining about this. I wouldn’t expect anyone to complain about this. Why? Because the change is the kind of thing that involves looking at the old design and consciously improving upon it. It’s not trying to recreate something, rather it’s showing the strength of the original design and how it would be produced today.

If Topps changed the retro set fonts to give the design a little more character* I wouldn’t complain. Same if they took the random colors of the 1960s and made them more team-specific.**

*A reliance on fonts such as Helvetica and Univers throughout most of the Topps’s history means changes like using Gotham in the 1981 design in 2018 Archives is something I was cool with.

**Something they did with some teams like the Astros in 2018 Heritage.

What I want to see is that the changes have a clear and obvious point. Changes that look intentional rather than accidental. Changes that indicate that Topps has truly considered the design and thought about what it’s doing with it.

Misery Loves Company

Now that Beckett has published a short post about this I’m sort of obliged to write a longer version detailing the Al Kaline debacle.

I don’t chase shortprints but I enjoy looking through them every new release. Very often the photographs there are more interesting and remind me of the variety that we saw in the 1990s. Plus the old players are always an interesting reflection of the kinds of players who still resonate today.

When Series 2 dropped, I did my usual look through. The Andrew McCutchen is awesome but what stopped me was the Al Kaline. I’m looking for good/interesting photos in the short prints. I’m not expecting to see a photo showing the wrong player.

Yup. That’s not Kaline in the photo. How do I know? Because I made this exact mistake with this exact photo only nine months earlier.

I enjoy writing Through the Mail autograph requests but I also refuse to send things through the mail which I don’t want to risk losing—say, for example, a vintage card of Al Kaline. Even though he was such a great signer (typically turning things around under 20 days and often closer to 10) I just refuse to tempt fate with the USPS like that. Instead I created a custom card by searching around around the web for photos I liked and dropping them into a template I had created.

Last November I sent a couple custom cards off to Al with a note asking him to keep the extras and hoping he enjoyed them. A week and a half later they came back to me. I was not expecting the result.

Gulp.

At first I was mortified. This is the most embarrassing kind of mistake to make when autograph hunting. Then I double-checked Getty* and confirmed that I’d done my homework. Did I make a mistake. Yes. But it wasn’t through either lack of caring or lack of effort on my part. I hadn’t just grabbed a photo, I’d made sure that multiple places including a somewhat authoritative source had identified the player.

*Note: As of July 17, 2020 Getty has corrected its database to reflect that the photo is actually of Don Demeter.

At this point I became much more comfortable with the humor of the situation. Did I trust Kaline over Getty? Absolutely. So I tossed it onto Twitter so people could laugh at both me and Getty while also hoping that the hive mind could identify who the mystery player was.

Many people—including many Tigers fans—confirmed that they’d always thought this was Kaline as well. Only after realizing that it wasn’t him did the hive mind quickly nominate Don Demeter. Similar build and swing. Same time period. He certainly seemed like the most-likely suspect.

Thankfully, Demeter is great responding to autograph requests as well. I acquired a card of him, wrote a letter explaining the screw up, included one of the customs, and asked him if he could confirm that the photo was indeed him.

While getting the card signed was fun, this was one of the rare autograph returns where the autograph request was always going to be less important than the response to my question. Much to my pleasure and satisfaction, Demeter answered my question and confirmed that it was him.

His response was actually this sketch. It’s pretty conclusive to me and makes a fantastic companion piece to the Kaline and Demeter cards in my autograph binder. I just wish there were a way to submit this to Getty so they can update their database.

As a custom card maker, it’s always somewhat flattering to see Topps select a photo that I’ve already used on a custom. In this case though, as soon as I saw the Kaline short print I started laughing. I recognized the photo instantly and knew exactly what had happened. While I’ve already made peace with my mistake, seeing someone else fall for the same thing just makes me feel even better about it.

While I’m sad that this is sort of a RIP Kaline card for Topps, I’m glad that he didn’t have to deal with being asked to sign it. I would however be thrilled to see someone ask Don Demeter to sign it. That would be awesome.

In the course of current events

For the most part baseball cards reflect last year. Last year’s stats, last year’s teams, last year’s highlights, last year’s posteseason, last year’s leaders, etc. Yes this has never been exclusively the case with multiple series releases in the past making things complicated and dedicated traded and update sets in more recent years which exist to explicitly address the last-year’s-information issue.* But speaking in a general way, I’ve never expected my cards to be current.

*Later-season releases like O Pee Chee also fit in this category.

This season-long delay makes it easy for cards to avoid commenting on current, or even semi-current, events. The closest I can think of are the memorial cards in 1964 which mention events that happened the year they were issued. Compare those to how ToppsNOW avoided mentioning Tyler Skaggs despite the emotion of the no hitter just last year and it’s clear to me that I shouldn’t expect Topps, or any other company, to change things up.*

*The Stephen Piscotty card from 2018 may be the only exception to this.

That Topps includes Flashback inserts in its Heritage sets that describe noteworthy events that happened in the original set year has me thinking about what would happen if Topps chose to address even just events that happened in the past year. What kind of events might Topps choose and how would it deal with politically charged news?*

*The closest Topps has come to this was by releasing a Heritage Flashback card of the Voting Rights Act the year after the Supreme Court gutted it.

Enter Project 2020. The massive amount of engagement, interest, and speculation that has accompanied the emergence of Artist Cards as a viable collecting medium has driven most of the commentary. Recently though two cards from Efdot Studio have caught my eye for a completely different reason.

His JaKCie Robinson card dropped mid-June in the midst of the first wave of the Black Lives Matter protests precipitated by the George Floyd murder. It’s a hell of a card with a lot of great stuff going on but what struck me first was that small Justice sign in the top right corner.

Major League Baseball has a tendency to trot Jackie out as a defensive measure against any racial critiques. As if retiring his number league-wide and having a special Jackie Robinson Day each season somehow makes up for ever-decreasing numbers of African American players and a near-absence of African American coaches and front office executives.

Efdot’s card is a reminder that Jackie’s struggle is still ongoing. Things weren’t solved 73 years ago and it took a horrific murder for many white players to recognize what their black teammates have been trying to tell them. The Kansas City Monarchs logo meanwhile is a reminder of how while Jackie represents the integration of MLB on the field, he also represents the destruction of the Negro Leagues.

I’m honestly shocked that Topps published it. Yes we’ve been getting all kinds of corporate messaging (including from Topps) decrying injustice but I remain skeptical about any company taking a real stand. It’s just not the corporate way where trying to both-sides an issue and remain centrist/ignorant is the “best” way to not offend anyone.

One of the coolest things about digital art and (and digital cards) is that you can get stuff like this timelapse of many of the different ideas that Efdot had. Including a couple that didn’t make the cut such as the MLB/BLM which he eventually replaced with “Justice.” As much as  the final card captures the moment and takes Topps into areas it doesn’t usually go, it’s also interesting to see that things could’ve gone further.

Efdot actually says that he and Topps pulled back because they didn’t want to commercialize “Black Lives Matter.”* I understand this but also feel like it represents a missed opportunity. It’s a good thing to not want to piggy back on a movement like this for profit. It’s a bad thing if that instinct results in behavior which is indistinguishable from not caring.

*Something that may also explain Topps’s choice regarding Tyler Skaggs last year.

Would it be more work to find a non-profit to steer the money into? Absolutely. But that would be a much more meaningful statement.

A couple weeks later Efdot did it again. This time with a fantastic Dr. K card where Gooden is wearing a facemask. As with the Jackie card there’s a ton of wonderful small details but the mask steals the show. We’re three months into a pandemic crisis that shows no sign of letting up partly because many people refuse to follow the most basic of advice that doctors insist on.

Wear a mask. Listen to doctors. Protect each other.

Are those things explicit in the card? No. That would be boring. But the mask; that Gooden is named as “Dr. K;” that he’s not only a New York player but that the Mets play in Queens, the hardest-hit borough of the hardest-hit city (so far) in the US; that there’s a detail of the Unisphere which is explicitly about global interdependence and is located in a place literally (and yes coincidentally) named Corona Park. Everything works together here and the message is clear.

Wear a mask. Listen to doctors. Protect each other.

I’m not surprised Topps published this one. As a New York company this would be a lot more personal to everyone at Topps Headquarters.* It still represents a willingness to wade in on not only current, but still-ongoing events that I don’t expect from Topps. Plus there are enough other corporations out there whose first step was to try and both-sides mask wearing.

*I am surprised we haven’t seen collectible facemasks but that’s another post for another day.

When you partner with artists you open yourself up to them commenting on things beyond the simple subject matter in the prompt you’ve given them. The best Project 2020 cards start with the card but explore who the player is, what he represents, and our associations with him and his team.

Jackie Robinson was a long-overdue first step, not the solution, and we still need to fight his fight today. Dwight Gooden is a Queens legend and we can learn a lot from what Queens and New York went through last March.

Stay safe out there and don’t just be a spectator in the fight for justice.

Digital Marketplace

Last December I wrote a post about Topps Bunt, digital cards, and the ways that cards can exist in both digital and physical forms. It was very much from my point of view as a digital skeptic who distrusts the way that digital items are locked into proprietary software and rely on corporate maintenance to exist.

It’s one thing to sink a bunch of money into physical cards. If Topps dies, I still have the cards. Whereas with digital cards we have no idea what will happen in a decade. Will Topps be around? Will it be supporting the app still? Will it be maintaining a server where all that stuff exists on the web? None of us knows and that’s a leap of faith I’m unwilling to make.

At the same time, events in the hobby the past couple months have had reevaluating my thoughts on this. Yes this is related to Project 2020. No it’s not about the cards or even the values they had. Rather it’s about the way they were being bought and sold online.

It was wild to watch and I’ve never seen something where card prices were behaving like a stock ticker and people were buying and selling faster than the the shipping could keep up. While there’s been a market for digital only cards, I sort of ignored it until realized how many people are totally willing to flip cards without ever really having them in their possession.

In the same vein of things, I’ve been seeing discussions about flipping on COMC and can’t help but see that universe as also being digital cards. The same thing is going on there. There’s a big marketplace for buying and selling cards that you never physically own.

Yes, people point out that the cards on COMC are literally there and you can always request a shipment. But from where I sit this is remarkably close to how money used to work back when it was backed by a physical standard—something we abandoned almost a century ago.

I know I know. Cards aren’t money. But as we move into purely digital currencies and purely digital cards, I can’t help but wonder about if the upcoming generation will treat these things differently. I’m already seeing reports of blockchain-backed digital transactions of digital collectibles. I suspect such things will only increase in the upcoming years.

This is the kind of thing that likely freaks out a lot of us. Especially in this nostalgia-focused hobby. One of the only editorial points of view that Jason and I enforce is to focus on usage rather than value on here, this trend toward a digital-only marketplace for cards is one that has me asking myself what it means to actually use a digital card. I certainly hope that the usage is not only for flipping on a digital marketplace.

Some of those questions have already been answered in the Topps Bunt post where, refreshingly, the digital marketplace can serve as a pure version of card collecting where people can just have fun acquiring, trading, and set building. But those digital collections also feel incredibly ephemeral, focused on new items with no long tail or ability to deep dive into the past.

I don’t want digital cards to be emulating physical ones. I’d love to see them do things that physical cards can’t do. But I’d also like to see them be something that can be collected and shared across generations. At the end of the day what makes cards interesting to most of us here is the story they tell about baseball and our connection to the game, not the story about how much money we spent or the profits we made.

The first HOF baseball card for every team (part one)

Author’s note: All teams noted refer to their most recent MLB incarnation. For example, the San Diego Padres here are the MLB team and do not include cards/players from the PCL franchise of the same name.

This post celebrates a set of cards largely off the radar to most collectors but historic nonetheless, and it begins with an ambiguous question. What was the first baseball card to depict a Hall of Famer for each of baseball’s current and historic franchises?

Huh?

To help clarify, I’ll start with a couple of teams featured on SABR Baseball Cards Twitter.

Montreal Expos

When most collectors imagine an early Montreal Expos card of a Hall of Famer, good chance they picture this.

However, this didn’t become an Expos card of a Hall of Famer until 2003 when Carter made the Hall. What I’m looking for here is the first time a collector could hold up an Expos card and say, “Hey, this guy’s in the Hall of Fame!” and this would have been 23 years earlier when Expos legend Edwin “Duke” Snider headed to Cooperstown.

At that time, there was only this single card depicting Snider in his Expos colors, his coach card from the 1976 SSPC set. (Yes, I’m ignoring team cards and team issued photos here.)

This Snider card remained the only Expos baseball card of a Hall of Famer until Larry Doby made the Hall in 1998, conferring HOF status on this Topps/OPC card from 1973.

San Diego PadreS

Continuing through the 1969 expansion teams, the answer is once again a subject better known for his tenure on other teams. When you think Billy Herman, you probably think of the ten-time all-star second baseman and baseball cards like this, if not his 1950s and 60s coach/manager cards with the Dodgers and Red Sox.

But the first time a young Padres collector could put a Hall of Famer in his pocket to take to school was in 1978, thanks to this Family Fun Center card of the Friars batting coach. As the back of the card notes, Herman got the call from New York in 1975, making this card a HOFer card the moment it was issued.

Kansas City Royals

It’s hard to think of Royals Hall of Famers and not instantly (or exclusively!) think of George Brett, who made the Hall in 1999. However, that didn’t mean Royals collectors had no Hall of Famers in their collections until then.

Eight years earlier, well traveled hurler Gaylord Perry made the Hall, thereby promoting several of his 1984 cards to Hall of Fame status. The Fleer set alone had three, including one with Brett, to go with two highlights cards from Topps.

Six years before Perry, in 1985, Hoyt Wilhelm’s plaque went up in Cooperstown. Like Perry, Wilhelm had pitched for seemingly every team. Unlike Perry, his cardboard legacy with the Royals was quite thin, paper thin to be exact. In fact the knuckleballer’s only card came courtesy of the 1969 Topps Stamps set. (UPDATE: Per Tim Jenkins, Wilhelm was also a Royal in the Deckle Edge set that same year.)

Of course the prior year another Royal saw his plaque go up. The Killer became a Hall of Famer in 1984, elevating his 1976 SSPC card with Kansas City to HOF status.

In reality, however, Royals collections were well stocked with Hall of Famer cards well before 1984, thank to Bob Lemon’s induction in 1976 and his early 1970s Topps and O-Pee-Chee manager cards.

Seattle Pilots

The final 1969 expansion team was the Seattle Pilots. As the team existed for only a single season and wasn’t exactly stocked with talent, there is not a single Pilots card of a Hall of Famer. This Ichiro retro card from 2010 may be as close as the Pilots ever come.

UPDATE: Thank you to David Bender for alerting us to this 1992 Leaf Studio Heritage card of Class of 2014 Hall of Famer Paul Molitor decked out in Seattle Pilots gear. If only!

Milwaukee Brewers

Following the 1969 season, Bud stole the Pilots and renamed them the Milwaukee Brewers. Unlike the other three teams covered thus far, the first Hall of Fame Brewers card is very likely the one you would have guessed.

In 1982, Hank Aaron became the first Brewer to enter the Hall. Among his many Brewers cards, 1975-76 and post-career, we’ll go with card #660 from 1975 Topps.

Texas Rangers

With the new locale and nickname in 1972, I’ll distinguish the Rangers from their not very long and not at all storied history as the (new) Washington Senators. If we don’t see Rangers on the jersey or a “T” on the cap, it doesn’t count.

Unless it’s Teddy Ballgame, in which case an airbrushed cap, psychedelic team lettering, and satin collar is all we need!

Seattle Mariners

Major League Baseball returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1977 with the arrival of the Seattle Mariners. For the first 14 years of their existence the Ms had no Hall of Fame baseball cards. That changed when Gaylord Perry entered the Hall in 1991. Perry has dozens of cards with Seattle, but his earliest comes from the 1982 Topps Traded set.

Toronto Blue Jays

1977 also marked the first year of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise. McCarthy postcards issued that same year included 1972 inductee Early Wynn and 1986 inductee Bobby Doerr.

However, my focus in this article is on “true” baseball cards, a notion we often note around here could be a whole series of posts in itself. With this stricter criterion in mind, Jays collectors would need to wait two more decades for a card of a Hall of Famer.

With Phil Niekro’s induction in 1997, his lone Toronto card (1988 Classic) became the inaugural Hall of Famer baseball card in Blue Jay collections and it would remain the only such card for more than a decade until Rickey Henderson’s 2009 induction.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies, who began play in 1993, famously had a total of zero Hall of Famers until the recent election of Larry Walker to the Class of 2020. Not surprisingly then, Walker provides (or will provide, if you want to be technical) Rox collectors with their first ever Rockies HOF card.

Walker, of course, has over a billion different Rockies cards (okay, not quite), but I’ll feature his 1995 Topps Traded and Upper Deck cards as among the many from his first year with the squad.

Florida/Miami Marlins

Entering the league the same year as the Rockies, the Marlins can boast baseball cards of numerous Hall of Famers and may even add another if the new Jeter/Topps collaboration extends into the dismal GM chapter of his career. The first time Marlins collectors could know the joy of a Hall of Famer in their midst was thanks to the 2002 Topps set, which included a manager card (okay, eight different-ish ones) of recent inductee Tony Perez (HOF 2000).

Arizona Diamondbacks

The D-Backs joined the National League in 1998, and have so far had two Hall of Famers on their roster: Roberto Alomar (2011) and Randy Johnson (2015). Their first HOF card is therefore of Alomar, and you can take your pick from nearly 200 of them, all from 2004.

UPDATE: Am thankful for our terrific readers, including fellow SABR Baseball Cards author Artie Zillante, for turning up this nugget from the 2002 Keebler Arizona Diamondbacks set. If you’re good with the shared real estate, then Yount (HOF 1999) definitely nudges Robbie Alomar aside.

Tampa Bay Rays

The team formerly known as the Devil Rays entered the American League in 1998 with the instant star power of Fred McGriff and Wade Boggs, quickly followed the next year by Jose Canseco. Of the three, Boggs (2005) is the only one in Cooperstown, hence the man responsible for the first Devil Ray HOF cards. He has too many cards to count in the various 1998 sets, but here are two.

Washington nationals

With the change in both geography and nickname, I’ll treat the Nationals franchise as distinct from its Expos ancestry and just treat it as if the Nats were a brand new team that appeared out of nowhere to start the 2005 season. While the Nats may claim Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Walter Johnson, and even Josh Gibson in their Ring of Honor, I’m starting the franchise with Ryan Zimmerman.

Regardless, Nats fans didn’t have to wait before adding a HOF card to their collections. All they had to do was get lucky opening packs that year.

Houston Astros/Colt .45s

Having looked at baseball’s newest franchises from 1969 forward, we’re now ready to go in reverse. First up are the Houston Astros, who entered the National League in 1962 as the Colt .45s.

Of the future Hall of Famers (Nellie Fox, Eddie Mathews, Robin Roberts, Joe Morgan) lurking in 1960s Astros sets, the first to make the Hall was Roberts in 1976. Another Astro, Yogi Berra, made the Hall four years earlier but his first Astros cards didn’t come until much later. Therefore, Roberts it is!

New York Mets

The Rajah had been a Hall of Famer for 20 years when he joined the Mets as their third base coach in 1962. However, there was no immediate cardboard to herald his arrival. The closest we come is a 1966 James Elder postcard.

Baseball card purists (emphasis on “card”) may prefer this 1962 Topps card of Casey Stengel, which gained Hall of Fame status upon the Old Perfessor’s 1966 induction. Not the airbrushing department’s best work, but perhaps it was part and parcel for the altogether woeful season Mets fans endured that season.

los angeles/california/anaheim angels

Too many official name changes to keep track of here, but you know who I mean. The Halos joined the American League in 1961, the same year MLB adopted the 162-game schedule. Their wait on a HOF baseball card was decidedly longer than that of Mets fans. It was not until Frank Robinson made the Hall in 1982 that Angels collectors could add a HOF card to their binders.

Robinson’s first Angels “card” is from the hard-to-find 1972 Topps Candy Lid test issue, and is much like the 1962 Stengel in that Frank appears as an Angel in name only.

Rather than rectify the wardrobe malfunction the next year, Topps may have actually made things worse with its 1973 release.

His 1973 photocard aside, it was not until 1974 that Angel fans (and Rodin fans!) truly had a Robby card they could be proud of.

Washington Senators II

These are the Senators, 1961-1971, not to be confused with the Senators, 1901-1960, which means there will be no Walter Johnson cards to consider. As was the case with the Rangers team they became, their first HOF card was Ted Williams.

Minnesota Twins

Just as the new Senators started up in D.C., the old Senators headed to the Minnesota and became the Twins. The star of the team at that time also (in 1984 upon induction) gave Twins fans their first Hall of Fame baseball card.

baltimore orioles

The team formerly known as the St. Louis Browns began play in 1954 and would not have an eventual Hall of Famer on a baseball card until 1957 when they added three to the cardboard lineup.

1957 Topps #230 George Kell Front1957 Topps #328 Brooks Robinson Front1957 Topps #59 Dick Williams Front

However, it was not until 1983 that even the first of these men received his call from Cooperstown. First Orioles HOF baseball card honors instead went to Robin Roberts who made the Hall in 1976 and had cards with Baltimore as early as 1963.

what’s left?

My focus in this article has been on expansion teams or franchise moves that ditched both the city and the nickname. As such I skipped over the Oakland A’s, Kansas City A’s, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the like. All told, that leaves me with 16 modern-era franchises left to cover in a future article.

Unlike the cards identified in this article, where any one of them could be had in good shape for less than $10, the cards in the next article would be a bit more difficult to collect, with pre-war cards of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Babe Ruth representing nine of the sixteen teams.

My Card Collections

All of my collections

I started collecting baseball cards in the late 1970s. The earliest cards I remember having were Brewers from the 1979 Topps set. Unfortunately, though I have obtained them again, I did not hold on to those cards. The card that has been in my possession the longest is a 1980 Jerry Augustine card. And I still remember the first “old” card I got, a 1974 Bill Parsons that I received in a trade in about 1985.

1980 Jerry Augustine and 1974 Bill Parsons

In the 1980s, I bought wax packs, usually Topps, though I did get ‘82 and ‘83 Donruss and ‘85 Fleer. I remember opening the packs and sorting and resorting the cards. Sometimes I sorted them by team, sometimes by position, sometimes by making teams of my favorite players. By the time I was in high school, I started to focus on a collection. I decided that I wanted to collect all of the Topps Brewer cards.

Hunt For Brewer Cards

1979 Milwaukee Brewers

When I started this collection, Topps had four main sets: Main, Traded, Tiffany, and Traded Tiffany. The two Tiffany sets were almost identical to the other two, except they had a higher quality print. I decided to limit my collection to the Main and Traded sets. I also decided to include the ’69 and ’70 Seattle Pilots.

1969 Seattle Pilots

At the time, the only way to get older cards was to go to a card shop or a card show. I spent many Saturdays at card shows rifling through boxes of older sets looking for Brewers that I did not have. I always brought my notebook that had all of the players that I knew were in each set, helped tremendously by the Topps Baseball Cards of the Milwaukee Brewers picture book that was a giveaway at one of the Brewer games. I still remember the TV commercial for that, with broadcaster Mike Hegan having his 1976 card pointed out.

1976 Mike Hegan

It took me close to 20 years to complete the set. Now I make two or three orders a year to collect the Series 1, Series 2, and Update sets. Currently, I am only missing one of the 2019 Keston Huira Update cards (#150). I will pick that up when I get the Series 2 cards this summer.

Collecting The Faves

Jim Gantner

Right around the time I started to get close to completing my Brewer collection, I started to collect cards of my favorite players. I stuck with Topps Main and Update (or Traded) sets. The first players I collected were Ozzie Smith, Jim Gantner, Pudge Rodriguez, and Brooks Robinson.

Of those players, the only cards that I’m missing are of Robinson. I still need his ‘57 rookie card, his ‘67 main card, and a ‘67 checklist that has his picture on it. I have two of each of the Gantner cards, one for my Brewer collection and one for my player collection.

Brooks Robinson

I have since added three other players. I have a complete set of Jonathon Lucroy and Gary Carter, adding to the former when a new card comes out. The other player that I collect is Jose Altuve. I am only missing his 2011 Update rookie card. I’m not sure if I will continue collecting Altuve in light of the cheating scandal.

Gotta Love The Team Portraits

My most recent collection is Topps team portrait cards. They were some of my favorites when I first started collecting. Topps had them almost every year from 1956 through 1981, and then from 2001 through 2007. For some reason, they did not have them in 1969, and some teams were not represented in 1968. Houston had a card in 1963, but did not have another until 1970, when they were renamed from the Colt .45s to the Astros.

1956 Team Cards

The team cards are my favorite to collect right now. All of my other collections are either complete, I’m missing some expensive cards, or are just getting the current cards. The team cards still involve the hunt, trying to find as many as possible in one shop to save on shipping. In all, there are 729 team portrait cards, and I have almost half of them.

Paging Through The Boys Of Summer

There are currently 2,097 cards in my collections, which are currently housed in four binders. I only order cards two or three times a year, but each time I pull out all of the binders and go through them.

1980 Team Cards

Usually, that brings me back to summers spent riding my bike to the store to buy packs of cards. Sometimes it reminds me of a particular Brewer memory. And sometimes I remember being seven years old in the back yard, pretending to play a game with a lineup made up of the names on the back of the team cards.

Set Building – Recent Master Sets

Jim Osborne recently wrote a great post about set collecting, with a focus on building vintage sets. For newer products, acquiring a base set, which I’ll define as not including shortprints or inserts, is not all that difficult. If you want a 2019 Topps set without any bells and whistles, they are relatively easy to find.

I have dabbled in master set building since about 2000. I think the first one I tried to complete was 2000 Skybox Dominion. Why that product? The card shop kept getting boxes and they were not that expensive. The inserts were interesting to me. There are some rare inserts like the Eye on October Warp Tek cards numbered to the player’s uniform number – those are white whales. There are two Jeters – I’ve never seen either of them, yet I’ve seen all three A-Rods for sale at some point in time.

Defining “master set”

Two of Jim’s main points – educate yourself and know your budget – are just as applicable here. I will not go into depth on those points beyond stating that you may want a slightly flexible budget, and I’ll explain why later. I will start with:

Define what “master set” means to you. It is a hobby – it is supposed to be fun. Look at your budget and determine the cards that you will use to comprise a master set. I have been building master sets of Topps Opening Day for a while now. I got hooked because, like Skybox Dominion, boxes of Opening Day are not that expensive, and you usually get a complete set or fairly close with one box. When I first started around 2006-2007 there were no relic cards, no shortprinted cards, and the autographs were of players like Toby Hall and Johnny Estrada with a Matt Kemp every now and then. Earlier years did have autographs like Hank Aaron and Wade Boggs, and 2005 had some game-used cards. But they were fairly simple to put together (even though I’m still missing a handful of cards – that happens when you decide to build a master set of a product after it has been on store shelves for a while), and the autographs were not the usual suspects. Opening Day is a fun product, meant for kids, and the inserts are fun.

In 2013 Opening Day introduced shortprinted cards and a more expansive autograph checklist. In 2014 relics came back. In 2020 there are now numbered dirt relic cards with autographs. If I can pick one of those up for a good price I do, but I do not include them in my master set list that I am actively looking to fill because the prices can be extraordinarily high. Nearly every product has 1/1 printing plates – again, I’ll pick those up if I like the price for that player but trying to put together a 200 card set of one-of-ones (or one-of-fours if you mix and match colors) seems more frustrating than fun to me, so my master set list doesn’t include those cards.

To give a sense of how many insert sets there might be, I’ve used Pete Alonso to illustrate the rarer 2020 Opening Day insert sets as he is in many of them, except for the Mascot Patches (so I’ve used Mr. Met). There are other rare inserts not pictured (autographs, ballpark profile autographs, Canada variations, mascot relics, mascot autographs, and mascot autograph relics). There are 346 inserts in 2020 Topps Opening Day, counting those rare low-numbered autographs; removing them still leaves over 300 inserts.

OpeningDay-Inserts

Once you have educated yourself, determined your budget, and decided what master set means to you there are some additional guidelines I follow. I’m going to channel Tyler Durden here – the first rule of master set building is to get started when the product hits the shelf. The second rule of master set building is … to get started when the product hits the shelf. If you have done your homework and you get started when the product hits the shelf you should be able to get some good deals early on before prices start trending to their equilibrium (buy-it-nows on eBay are more likely to lead to better deals than auctions early on). Knowing how many of an insert set fall to a box or a case is important, as is knowing insert set size. If an insert is a case hit and the set size is 30 and another is also a case hit and the set size is 10 then the cards in that 30 card set are likely going to be harder to find. But beware, as there are times right when the product hits the shelf that cards sell for really high prices. There are deep-pocketed player, team, and master set collectors who will spend money to get rare inserts. I do a lot of searching to find deals early on.

The other reason I recommend starting early is because I see the biggest difference between vintage set collecting and master set building of newer products is that it is amazing how quickly some of the cards dry up. Once they dry up, they can be difficult to find at any price. If you want a 1952 Topps Mantle, they are on eBay. They are reasonably expensive in any condition, but you can at least find them. I can’t find the 2019 Topps Opening Day Dugout Peeks cards I’m missing.  I can find the 5×7 cards in regular (numbered to 49) or gold (numbered to 10) versions all day, but the pack inserts are nearly impossible to find. There is a Lindor on eBay right now. There are none on COMC. There are none on Beckett Marketplace. You might get lucky 6 months later and get the card for a good deal once people have moved on to other projects, but there also might be three people looking for that one card that they haven’t seen for 6 months.

If you decide to collect a master set a few months or years after a product hits the shelves you will need patience and persistence (which may mean years, if ever) to find the card at the right price. The alternative is to have a healthy budget for picking up the cards, as some sellers know that inserts and shortprints do not appear regularly and put high price tags on them.

Jim mentioned looking at previous sales prices, and I agree. I will take it one step further for newer products. Unless someone finds a discrepancy reviewing game logs, Mickey Mantle’s numbers aren’t changing. Unless someone uncovers some unknown secret, Mantle’s life story isn’t changing. With newer products I recommend paying attention to price trends. A player’s performance (on and off the field) affects his card prices, which is a second difference between vintage set building (as the players are mostly retired, at least from active rosters) and master set building of newer sets. That’s why I mentioned a slightly flexible budget – if a player is having a monstrous year, you’ll need some flexibility. If a card started off selling at $30 when the product hit the shelf but has consistently sold in the $40-$50 range recently, it’s unlikely that it will be found for $30 unless you get lucky or want to wait. You can wait for the player to cool off, but then there is the risk that the cards will dry up again. Hot players tend to see their cards listed more often.

Trout-puppydog

As an aside, if the card you need is of Mike Trout you are highly unlikely to get lucky with respect to price, so I recommend having a Mike Trout rule (will you go after his rare cards or not). I got lucky once with Trout (I got the puppy dog card for a really good deal) – I don’t expect it to happen again. Sometimes a Kurt Suzuki insert will cost as much as a Nolan Arenado from the same set; that doesn’t happen with Trout and a few other players. Even his parallel cards are going to cost a few dollars.

Parallels

Parallel-lot

In defining master set, do you consider the parallels to be part of your set and if so where do you draw the line? Do you go after the retail parallels as well or just stick to the hobby parallels? I think parallel set collecting is probably the closest to vintage set collecting. I buy lots like I would for a vintage set and try to sell or trade doubles (or at least I used to) to save on monetary cost. Unlike the base sets, there usually aren’t very many complete parallel sets available, and complete parallel sets are usually expensive, so I recommend buying lots until you get down to a few cards. Like with vintage set building, pay attention to the star cards in the lot. Sometimes you can get a lot for the exact same price as buying the star card individually, which to me makes sense because the extras can always be sold or traded. While that part of set building is similar to vintage sets, a third difference between vintage set and newer product master set building is that condition rarely comes into play with newer cards, unless you are concerned with the difference between a graded 9 and a graded 10. It is unlikely that cards from 2020 have been put in bicycle spokes or carried around in wallets. That also means there is not much room to trade off lower condition to try to get the card for a lower price.

Non-rare inserts

OpengingDay-Mascots

Lastly, there are the “non-rare” insert sets. I have focused more on the rare cards because complete insert sets of the more common inserts, at least for a product like Opening Day, can usually be picked up for a much lower cost than if you were to buy the cards individually. For dealers who crack a case they will usually get multiple complete insert sets of this type. For some bigger insert sets I have used the same approach as I do with parallels in that I buy lots of the inserts until I get down to a few cards, and then pick-up the last few cards individually.

Those are just my thoughts given my experiences building master sets. Mostly I work on products with lower price points, so there may be different strategies with higher-priced products. I welcome others’ thoughts on their experiences.

Convergences

Image

 

Yordan Álvarez is depicted on the Topps 2020 Series One Variation short print card #276 in glorious landscape orientation, like a widescreen Panavision vista of mesas and buttes, the fever dream of John Ford ardently lusting after a sunset into which he might send his hero trotting. Álvarez possesses plenty of swagger, but on this card he does not look heroic. He looks defeated as he makes the long walk back to the dugout, a look of frustration on his face, or possibly anger, eyes cast into the middle distance, his mouth a thin, tight line. And this is not the frontier; it’s a ballpark.

Álvarez made his major league debut for the Houston Astros on June 9th, 2019, and this card was issued in February of 2020, which means the photograph was taken sometime during the latter half of the season. Over his shoulder looms the unmistakable sight of Camden Yards’ B&O warehouse, so he’s in Baltimore. Houston visited the Charm City only once that season, for a three-game set in August, so we can assume the shot was taken on one of those three dates.

Further, Álvarez is not wearing the Astros’ standard road greys, nor is he sporting the orange or navy alternate jerseys Houston has been known to wear. He is instead wearing a throwback uniform – a modern version of the getup the Astros donned from 1982 until ’93, the name ‘Astros’ across the chest in an Arial-like sans-serif font, navy blue over a plain navy star. Above that, things get weird: thick racing stripes of navy-red-orange-gold-orange-red-navy drape the shoulders. This was the toned-down version of their 1970s tequila sunrise uniforms, which we can only guess made sense at the time, but now look like a parodic representation of what that decade felt like if you were tuned in, pharmacologically.

His batting helmet is navy, unlike the bright orange lids those ‘70s Houston teams wore – hunter blaze, we’d call that now, usually worn with a full neck-to-toe camo ensemble, the cap designed to make you clearly human and decidedly not ungulate in the eyes of fellow sportspeople lurking in the bush with long guns and trigger fingers made itchy by hours of inaction.

An odd thing about those ’82-’93 Astros uniforms is that there was no true road version. At home they wore white, and on the road they sported the very same uniform in cream. But Yordan Álvarez, it appears to my eyes, is wearing white. Of all the orthodoxies I hold dear to my heart, this is among the strictest: a ballclub should wear white at home and grey on the road. Ever was it thus, ever thus should it be.

The actual home team was commemorating near-glory. August 9th, 2019, a sultry Friday night in Baltimore, was a celebration of the 1989 “Why Not?!” Orioles, a team of scrap and grit that came close to winning the AL East, heading into the season’s final weekend needing a sweep of the Blue Jays to take the division. The Jays won two of three.

But the Frank Robinson-led Orioles had taken their fans on such a great ride that thirty years later, in the midst of a miserable 108 loss season, the 2019 O’s dressed up in ’89 uniforms to mark that exciting run, and the Astros played along by wearing period-appropriate (if not geographically consistent) togs, never mind that in 1989 the Astros were a National League club and so, short of a World Series matchup, would never be in Baltimore to play the Birds.

When commemorating what once was, we usually get the details a little bit wrong.

 

*

 

I pulled Series One Variation #276 from a retail pack sometime back in March, and ever since this card has held me in wild fascination. The effect is oversized in relation to my regard for Álvarez; I’m basically indifferent to him. I’ve only ever given Yordan Álvarez—an imposing, Aaron Judge-like presence in the middle of the Astros’ order—a passing thought as an avatar of modern baseball.

But the card is mesmeric, a small object around which gravity bends subtly but perceptibly. This is what the best cards do, I think, whether they’re of our favorite players, or feature some odd quirk or error, or otherwise manage to imprint themselves in the folds of our soft brains and stick there. They carry a series of signals betraying disparate and competing energies, emitting a persistent, high-pitched buzzing.

This one buzzes with questions that zip like unruly voltages. Like: why that uniform? What date? And given that it is clear from his carriage that he has just struck out: is there still room for shame in a post-shame world?

Álvarez’ slow, simmering post-K saunter is anything but exceptional; it’s what he did in over 25% of his plate appearances last season. Historically speaking that’s remarkable, but in the narrow trough of these launch-angle days, it’s par for the course: the average strikeout rate across baseball was 23% in 2019, an astonishing new historical high. Graphed, it resembles a bull market.

When tabulated, collated, filtered, and parsed, the numbers tell us that the Rob Deer approach of Three True Outcomes – i.e., steadfastly refusing to put the ball in play – wins ballgames. It’s a style of baseball condoned by the cubicle-dwellers for whom the ones and zeroes of absolute efficiency trump all aesthetic arguments, because The Datapoints Do Not Lie.

But here’s the friction: despite what the numbers say, the human soul still harbors a strong vestigial dislike of failure, and the one-on-one nature of the hitter-pitcher dialectic makes the called third strike, or the big-swing-and-a-miss look unmistakably like failure. The strikeout elicits micro-scale stirrings of shame. It can’t be helped. Nobody likes to whiff, and Álvarez is no exception, though his debut campaign would suggest an attempt at immersion therapy.

Álvarez’ photo on Series One Variation #276 reflects the unavoidable distaste. His face is captured in a candid moment of naked emotion, a sliver of time tucked beneath the game’s joints and surfaces, when he should no longer be the focus of attention, having ceded it to Carlos Correa, who followed him in the lineup. But the camera found him, and the result is a wonderful photo, with echoes of the great John Dominis shot of Mantle dejectedly throwing his batting helmet while retreating to the Yankee Stadium dugout in 1965.

Anyway, what Álvarez did in 2019 when not striking out was noteworthy: .313, 27 HR, 75 RBI in 369 plate appearances after his early June callup, and a unanimous selection as 2019 American League Rookie of the Year. That trophy was supposed to belong to Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., but Vladito turned in a performance that evinced mortal fallibility and not the demigod we’d been promised, while Álvarez came in and raked. The choice was clear.

 

*

 

The game log informs us that Álvarez singled in the top of the first to score Alex Bregman from second; in the top of the third, Álvarez struck out swinging on Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy’s 1-2 offering; struck out swinging again in the top of the sixth, once more Bundy’s victim, on an 0-2 pitch; in the eighth, deep into the Orioles’ bullpen, Álvarez hit a fly ball to left off Paul Fry that was caught by Anthony Santander for the first out. That was Álvarez’ night: 1 for 4 with a single, an RBI, and two strikeouts. The Astros won 3-2.

The photo in question must be from the first K, in the third inning, because the sky behind Álvarez’ head, over the great brick warehouse, is purplish, heavy-seeming, but not yet dark. At that time of year, in that part of the world, the sun sets shortly after 8:00, and first pitch that night was 7:05. By the time Álvarez struck out for the second time, in the sixth, night had fallen.

 

*

 

The next night the Astros walloped Baltimore 23-2, with Álvarez homering three times, including a grand slam, for a total of seven RBI. But the Yordan Álvarez of Friday night’s third inning strikeout is of greater interest to me. He stands at the nexus of innumerable convergences: strains of information, history, prognosis and apology, wayward currents pinched to a single point in space. He’s an individual upright but unguarded, caught in 1/100th of a second and preserved against a background, that great brick facade vivid but blurred, which suggests that he is stalked by uncertainties. The thick, hazy air of a dog day’s evening makes time’s immateriality evident. Much has come unmoored.

There’s a lot to be said about the Houston Astros circa 2017-19, both about those accusations preserved in Official Accounts and related disciplinary reports, and those many things suspected but unproven. Nobody’s linked Yordan Álvarez’ great rookie season to electronically abetted sign stealing, but the suspicion may follow him anyway, as it will everyone connected to that team during those years. Stains spread.

It’s also possible that you don’t think what Houston is purported to have done constitutes anything but the logical progression of a time-honored baseball tradition. But it feels safe to assert that the Astros are emblematic of those shifting values and practices that make modern baseball feel morally ambiguous. For a hundred years there was, at least, a Right Way to do things, and a Wrong Way. The in-game definition of virtue was skewed and problematic, but it was at least a definition. Now a cold integer logic means fewer stolen bases and fewer manager ejections, and it makes homers feel cheaper by virtue of oversupply. We’ve allowed the old gods to die and replaced them with Win Probability. You might understand why these things have happened, and yet still long for the old structure the way an atheist envies the adherent’s certainty.

Yordan Álvarez is connected to all this, but not implicated. He plays baseball the way he’s been taught and trained to play it, and he does it well, and the rewards are plain. Series One Variation #276 is just a baseball card. But I look at it in something like the narcotized daze of phone hypnosis, this smooth and glossy cardboard rectangle, hints of the mystery with which all such mementos are imbued, images of figures in collision with history, men bound by contracts, time working its silent will. The tracers are barely visible but strangely evident, those countless converging forces, smell of popcorn and beer, close summer nights full of love and torpor, and all our accidental associations.

Editor’s Note: For more of Andrew’s award-winning writing, visit his website. Of particular note is his book of baseball essays, “The Utility of Boredom.”

On cropping and layers

For most of baseball card history there have been two basic types of card designs. Either the photo is placed in a box* or the player is silhouetted onto a background.** Both of these designs are pretty straightforward with their image requirements in that designers only have to think about what is and isn’t shown in the photos.

*Straightforward but none more pure of an example than 1953 Bowman.

**1914 Cracker Jacks, 1949 Bowman, 1958 Topps, and many of the inserts from the 1980s to today.

There’s a third design though which took over cards in the 1990s and has made photo cropping difficult ever since. Rather than putting photos in boxes the trend toward full-bleed cards has created design after design that layers text and other graphic elements on top of the photo itself.

While it’s true that this design took over in the 1990s and was made extremely easy to do by foil stamping, it’s important to realize that its ancestry has been in cards for decades and in fact tended to surface every decade. So let’s go back to one of the first such designs.

Yup. 1957. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as proto-Stadium Club except that the photos themselves are pretty standard Topps photos that you’d expect to see until about 1991 or so. Posed shots showing a player’s upper body, headshots, and a few full-body “action” (at this point still posed) images.

The first thing to point out here is that Topps likes to put the players’ heads as high in the frame that it can. The next thing to look at—specifically in the Kluszewski and Thompson cards—is how Topps deals with the text overlapping the image. Topps likes to crop at players’ waists and at their necklines. In 1957 this is frequently where the top of the text starts but there’s another half inch of image visible under the text.

On the upper-body portraits this extra half inch can give us a little more information about the location of the photo and allow us to see the field and stadiums.

Photographically, these photos were also composed somewhat loose since the image area of the film is huge* and the photographer knew things would be cropped later. This is why in the Gomez card there’s so much grass in the foreground.

*at least 2 and a quarter inches square and quite likely more like 4 inches by 5 inches.

Now we flash forward a decade. On a lot of other sets* before this the image frame is knocking off a corner of the photo. This isn’t the same kind of design/photography issue since most of the photos are somewhat centered so there’s rarely something of import in the corners.

*eg. 1962, 1963, and 1965. Plus in 1966 there’s a layering effect in the corner.

1967 though is exactly like 1957 only there’s text at both the top and the bottom of the card now. Topps is doing the same thing as it did in 1957 too except that the players’ heads are now a little lower in the frame so that the names and positions can fit. The waist and neckline croppings though are pretty close to the 1957 croppings.

The net result here is that we get to see a lot more stadium details in many of the cards—giving the set a photographic character which differs from the other 1960s Topps offerings.

The Fuentes card though shows the dangers of this kind of design. Unlike the 1957 Gomez, Fuentes’s feet—and even his glove—are covered by the team name. This isn’t a big problem with a posed “action” photo but becomes much more of an issue when we move into the age of action photography.

I’ll jump to Japan for the 1970s since the Calbee sets of that decade deserve a mention. It’s obviously doing something very similar with extending the photo under the text. At the same time the simplicity of the text almost makes it an absence of design. In a good way.

It might be because I can’t read the text but the way it’s handled encourages me to not see it. Not because it’s not readable. Quite the opposite in fact. The way the text changes from black to white on the Sadaharu Oh card is handled masterfully in how my brain barely notices it. It’s there as information but manages to not take anything away from the photos.

It is worth noting though that the cropping on Oh and Davey Johnson is pretty similar to Topps’s standard cropping. And that third card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes has enough foreground space to give the text plenty of room to be legible.

Toppswise I skipped 1969 since it’s such a photographic nightmare that I don’t feel like it’s a fair to look at the photos. (Offhand though it’s interesting to note that it tends to crop the photos tighter at the bottom than 1967’s or 1957’s designs do.) 1980 is close, super close, to being included but it still feels like more of a corner-based design. Which brings us to 1988.

Not much to note with 1988 except for the layering of the player on top of the team name which is on top of the background. This is a wonderfully subtle bit of design that allows the photos to feel like they’re cropped similarly to the rest of Topps’s cards. Instead of getting more image area the layering doesn’t affect the image too much.

1991 brought us Stadium Club and the beginning of the full-bleed era of cards. Looking at this first set shows both that Topps was being pretty considerate with its cropping and how things would start to break.

Where earlier sets had the benefit of posed photos which could be cropped, as action photography began to be the priority for card companies the room for cropping started to decrease. For every card like Kent Anderson where there’s enough room for the graphics there’s a card like Damon Berryhill where the graphic is starting to intrude into the image.

1992 Stadium Club shows an alternative to just slapping a graphic on the bottom of the card. That Topps moves the graphic depending on where it best fits the photo is fantastic.

It’s also a lot of work since it requires each card to be designed individually. Instead of positioning an image into a template, this design requires the image and graphic to be adjusted until they work together. Find the best cropping, then adjust the graphic. This extra amount of work is probably why this approach hasn’t really been revisited since 1992.

By 1993 the standard operating procedure had been set. This design captures the way most sets ever since have been designed. A basic template, drop the picture in. Don’t worry if the graphic obscures an important part of the photo.

One of my pet peeves in the full-bleed era is when there’s a photo of a play at a base and the graphic obscures the actual play. The Bip Roberts is a textbook example of this. Great play at the plate except the focus of the play is obscured by the Stadium Club logo.

This is a shame since in 1993 Upper Deck showed how to do it right. The layering effect like 1988 Topps at the top allows the image to be cropped nice and tight at the top of the frame. Upper Deck though selected photos and cropped them to have empty space at the bottom.

You wouldn’t crop photos in general this way but as a background for the graphics it works perfectly. It forces the photos to be zoomed out enough that you can see the entire player and get a sense of what he’s doing within the game.

Most of the 1990s and 2000s however look like these. I could’ve pulled a bunch more sets—especially from Pacific and Upper Deck—here but they’re all kind of the same. Big foil graphics that cover up important parts of the photo. Some sort of foil stamping or transparency effect that cuts off the players’ feet.

Instead of cropping loosely like 1993 Upper Deck most of the cards in these decades feel like the photos were cropped before being placed in the graphics.

It’s easy to blame the card companies here but this is also a photography thing. Portrait photographers often find the crop after they take the photo. They use larger-format film and understand that the publication might need to crop to fit a yet-to-be-determined layout. Action photographers though get in tight and capture the best moment. This is great for the photos but not so great with baseball cards.

Baseball is a horizontal sport and there’s no reason to include dead foreground space. The only reason to include that space if you know that you’re shooting for a baseball card design that’s going to need it.

We’ll make a brief stop at 2008 though. This isn’t a transparency or overlay design but it’s doing something similar. Rather than the usual cropping at a corner of the image box, Topps placed its logo in a uvula at the top of the image box. Right where it would normally place the players’ heads.

The result? Very similar to 1967’s effect where the photos get zoomed out  a little and you see more background. The problem? These photos are already somewhat small and the change to mostly-action means that in most of them you’re just seeing more blurry crowds.

Fred Lewis is emblematic of the standard cropping. Small player image with lots of wasted space in the upper corners. That the posed photos like the Matt Cain are often bare skies at spring training locations instead of in Major League stadiums makes the added “information” there generally uninteresting.

All of this is a shame since the Tim Lincecum shows that when a selected photo is not impacted by the uvula, not only is the photo area not that small but the design can actually look pretty nice.

Okay. To contemporary cards and Topps’s recent dalliance with full bleed designs in flagship. I’m looking at 2017 here since it’s kind of the worst but 2016 to 2018 all do this. The transparency at the bottom of the cards is huge now. Yes it gets blurred out a bit but the photo information still needs to be there and as a result the cropping has to be even tighter.

As much as Topps was drifting toward in-your-face all-action shots, the actual designs of these cards sot of prevents any other kind of action. They also prioritize action that focuses in the top half of the frame. Any plays at a base gate stomped on by the design and even photos like the Chase Headley which don’t focus low in the frame are pretty much ruined too.

It’s easy to blame the TV graphics in Flagship but even Stadium Club—a set I love—has this same problem. On action photos the name/type often gets in the way of the image (compare Tim Anderson to the 1993 Upper Deck Lou Whitaker) but it’s the otherwise-wonderful wide-angle photos which fare the worst.

As the angle gets wider and the players get smaller, the odds that the text becomes intrusive increase tremendously. On Dexter Fowler’s card he’s the same size as the text and, as great as the photo is, the design of the card ruins it. Same goes with the Jose Berrios where the text is covering the entire mound and the ground fog Topps adds for contrast covers the whole playing field.

Which brings us to 2020 and a design that gets a lot of flak because it features sideways names.* What isn’t mentioned very frequently is how moving the transparency effect to the side of the card results in tremendously better photos and photo cropping.

*I don’t mind the sideways names except that I think they should’ve been rotated 180° so that when paged the horizontal cards don’t end up upside down.

All of a sudden we can see players’ feet again. Images aren’t all as in-your-face. We can have action images at second base where you can actually figure out what’s going on. Instead of cropping out the bottom of an image which a photographer has already framed, this design uses the space the photographers already provide for players to “move into.”*

*In action photography you’re generally trying to give the subject some room to move into the frame.

More importantly, it opens up the possibility for great photos that would never have worked in the previous full-bleed designs. For example, Omar Narvaez’s image is impossible to use in any design that puts transparency at the bottom of the card. Even Stadium Club. But 2020 Topps is flexible enough that it can use a wider variety of images.

I hope Topps learns some lessons from 2020 and that if we’re to see further full-bleed designs that they’ll be done in such a way so as to not get in the way of the images or to take advantage of the Transparency to give us more interesting photos.