The best baseball card set of 2021?

This summer I’ve been fortunate to be part of—okay, co-organizer along with Mr. Shake of—the very cool Josh Gibson MVP “Card Art” tournament. The tournament includes more than 70 artists from five countries and was created to help make the case for naming MLB’s (nameless since 2020) MVP trophies after Josh.

Many of this blog’s readers no doubt roll their eyes at the concept of “Card Art” and prefer to stick to “real cards” thank you very much, but here’s the thing. These are real cards. I don’t mean this in any philosophical sense either. The majority of the cards in the tournament are being produced with the support the Josh Gibson Foundation, which not only approves the cards but has provided certificates of authenticity.

Josh Gibson card from Montreal artist Josée Tellier with JGF COA

The result is that Josh Gibson, whose sky-high profile among baseball’s pantheon received a serious boost last week from Baseball-Reference, now has several dozen new, independently produced, licensed trading cards, many of which are downright stunning, to go along with the recent Topps Project 70 offerings from artists Efdot and Chuck Styles.

The tournament, hosted by the Negro Leagues Baseball Marketplace, began May 10 and is expected to run through July 12. The first phase of the tournament consisted of a series of weekly competitions, with weekly winners determined by a combination of Twitter engagement and website voting. (Feel free to follow the tournament at the NLB Marketplace twitter account.)

Ultimately the overall winner will be selected through a Tournament of Champions, itself consisting of two phases. The first will be an NCAA Tournament-like bracket to determine the Final Four. From there, a panel of celebrity judges ranging from MLB All-Star Al Oliver to Dodger EVP Janet Marie Smith to a who’s who panel of top artists and entertainers will crown a champion.

Judges from tournament Arts and Entertainment division

As a participant in the tournament, a practitioner and collector of Card Art, and a super-fan of Josh Gibson, yes, I’m biased, but I tend to think the Josh Gibson MVP Card Art set is hands down the set of the year. One could quibble with whether the 70+ cards truly form a set since every card has a different design and has been produced by a different artist/studio. Additionally, I should note that a few of the cards are not being released in physical form, such as this 1988 Score-inspired, HTML/CSS-generated rainbow from Baseball-Reference savant Adam Darowski, making the full tournament set an impossibility to complete.

For cards that have been made available to collectors, distribution has generally ranged from 10-50 cards per artist, based on agreements between individual artists and the Josh Gibson Foundation. To my knowledge the card with the highest production run, 100, is card #12 from Montreal-based artist Josée Tellier. Notwithstanding print runs of zero, the lowest print runs are attached to various handcrafted 1/1 cards such as this stained glass piece from Indiana artist Joel Hofmann.

…and this original pencil drawing (!) from Manitoba-based artist Robb Scott.

The set’s most recent weekly winner, from accomplished Topps artist Josh Trout, will be another very challenging card for collectors to add. It will only be available as a 1/1 card as part of the 2021 Topps Canvas Collection.

The tournament was open to all interested artists, and some used the Tournament to make their (at least public) debut into the world of Card Art.

“Having a seat at the table of trying to incorporate Negro League history into the baseball mainstream,” is what motivated Arizona-based Roger Nusbaum to join the tournament, citing his participation in the Josh Gibson MVP campaign as “an honor and a purposeful endeavor, a chance to try to achieve something important.”

Forty-Year-Old Versions of our Ten-Year-Old Selves is another relative newcomer “honored to be part of the campaign, even if I’m just playing a tiny part in the grand scheme of it all.”

Other artists, such as SABR member Mike Bryan (aka Obi-Wan Jabroni) of Tallahassee, connected with the Josh Gibson MVP campaign on an even more personal level, cherishing the “opportunity to be involved in such a worthy movement and show my own interracial daughter that for every crazy look she gets when we’re out in public, there is someone willing to stand up and fight for what’s right.”

Mike is far from the only SABR member with a card in the set. Andrew Wooley of Millburg Trading Cards, who was also the official card artist of the late Dick Allen, put out this fantastic card week one.

SABR Chicago member John Racanelli has one of the few cards released through the first seven weeks that is not already sold out. (In case you’re wondering a $10 donation to the Josh Gibson Foundation is all it takes to add this card to your collection, while supplies last.)

That same week of the tournament also featured SABR members Adam Korengold, who paints directly onto existing baseball cards, and Donna Muscarella, who combines cut Allen & Ginter cards with her own original photography.

SABR member and water color artist Michael Lewis (aka Mighty Lark) had an entry back in week three of the tournament.

This will be a big week for the Josh Gibson MVP Card Art set as nearly 20 new cards will drop, setting the table for next week’s Tournament of Champions. Winning the tournament will undoubtedly mean a lot to whichever artist takes home the trophy, but a common theme among the artists is that they are much more teammates than rivals. The real prize, if it happens, will be seeing Josh Gibson’s name on Baseball’s MVP trophies.

“I can be quite competitive, but to be honest, its been nothing but an honor to be a part of this tournament,” says Daniel Kearsey of Sixty-First Street Cards. “I was up against some amazing artists the week I submitted my art. It was so awesome to see everyone’s work. It didn’t matter if I won or lost. What mattered is getting Josh the recognition he deserves.”

Josh Gibson card by DINK

As Dom Czepiga (aka DINK), a card artist who has collaborated with Orioles star Trey Mancini puts it, “My vision was for a highly respectful simple yet regal feel befitting one of the best baseball players in the history of the sport. It had to be exceptional as it will take its place in history as part of the campaign to rename the MVP Award the Josh Gibson Memorial MVP Award.”

The card art entry from Atlanta-based pop artist Scott Hodges, produced one of the tournament’s most memorable images, one of Josh the Basher “breaking through the barriers of the past” as a Joker-like Commissioner Landis looks on.

However, the last word on the MVP campaign goes to Sean Gibson, whose hand-signed statement accompanies the back of John Racanelli’s special edition card 1/50. This, more than anything else, is the goal of the set and the tournament.

Reverse of card 1/50 by John Racanelli

Here is the Project #JG20MVP set’s complete checklist of 75 cards, not including SP and SSP variants, along with a pic of the cards I’ve managed to collect so far. (UPDATE: You can now see all 75 cards thanks to this video!)

Card #ArtistRelease Date
1Mr. ShakeMonday, May 10
2Cheaha CardworksTuesday, May 11
3Andrew Woolley / MillburgWednesday, May 12
4Heavy J Studios/JasonThursday, May 13
5LunchmadeFriday May 14th
6Woody’s Cards/ Mike MottoleseMonday, May 17
7zetaw cardsTuesday, May 18
8Ice CatWednesday, May 19
9Matthew BurkeThursday, May 20
10Gummy ArtsFriday, May 21
11Craig LeshenFriday, May 21
12Josée TellierTuesday, May 25
13Monarch RoyaltyTuesday, May 25
14MIghty LarkWednesday, May 26
15Daniel Kearsey / Sixty First StreetWednesday, May 26
16Stockyard CardsThursday, May 27
17Robb ScottFriday, May 28
18Philip WoodwardMonday, May 31
19JabroniMonday, May 31
20Offbeatallstars / BryanTuesday, June 1
21GullD3CardArt- Don GullicksTuesday, June 1
22Tom PaintsWednesday, June 2
23Optimus VoltsWednesday, June 2
24JCP CardsThursday, June 3
25Charles LaBongeFriday, June 4
26Biggens Card ArtFriday, June 4
27The Card CarverMonday, June 7
28MIchael EllingsonMonday, June 7
29RP BaileyTuesday, June 8
30Noah StokesTuesday, June 8
31Mike JamesWednesday, June 9
32Garcia StudiosWednesday, June 9
33JR_WAVYThursday, June 10
34Hit By Pitch CardsThursday, June 10
35Eric Kittelberger/Triple Play DesignFriday, June 11
36Baseball’s Greatest Player PlayoffFriday June 11
37Bullies Card ArtMonday, June 14
38Aaron McIsaacMonday, June 14
39Adam DarowskiTuesday, June 15
40Kevin GreeneTuesday, June 15
41Todd RadomWednesday, June 16
42Kevin GustWednesday, June 16
43DINKThursday, June 17
44Andy BrownThursday, June 17
45Joel HofmannFriday, June 18
46Jamie ThomasFriday, June 18
47Adam KorengoldMonday, June 21
48Josh TroutMonday, June 21
49John RacanelliTuesday, June 22
50Gumstick StudiosTuesday, June 22
51From the Lens of Donna MuscarellaWednesday, June 23
52Southside SharpieWednesday, June 23
53Scott HodgesThursday, June 24
54Roger NusbaumThursday, June 24
55Third Dan ArtFriday, June 25
56Luke the CardistFriday, June 25
57Mr. FMonday, June 28
58Michael AugustineMonday, June 28
59Seth WardMonday, June 28
60Derek PerezMonday, June 28
61Lost Ballparks/Mike KoserTuesday, June 29
6240-Year-Old VersionsTuesday, June 29
63Blender of ZombieTuesday, June 29
64Kevin EspinaWednesday, June 30
65Slayton Evans Wednesday, June 30
66Cheng Sue VangWednesday, June 30
67Bad Boys of Summer Card ArtWednesday, June 30
68McCardThursday, July 1
69Mike GyamfiThursday, July 1
70JengThursday, July 1
71Pixel Hall of FameFriday, July 2
72Sergio SantosFriday, July 2
73JT RaeFriday, July 2
74Jason DrumhellerFriday, July 2
75Anika OrrockFriday, July 2

A “most valuable” Josh Gibson card

The formula for Topps Project 70 is a seemingly simple one. An artist, typically from outside the sports card world, chooses a player, chooses a design from among the “70 Years of Topps,” and combines the two, adding in their own artistic style and spin.

The Brittney Palmer card of A-Rod (1980 design) and Jonas Never card of Justin Turner (1982 design) are good examples of the concept in action.

Occasionally, however, an artist adds a third dimension. In the case of DJ Skee, it’s a curated Spotify playlist of music and storytelling. In the case of Alex Pardee, there’s an epic comic book-like plot unfolding, and in the case of Eric Friedensohn, (better known as Efdot), there is that complex but omnipresent realm many collectors only begrudgingly stomach: real life.

We profiled a couple of Efdot’s cards last year when he was part of the Topps Project 2020 lineup. His Jackie Robinson card was influenced by the protests and national reckoning following George Floyd’s senseless murder, and his masked Dwight Gooden card, a nod to the worldwide COVID pandemic, not only made a real doc out of “Doc” but made our “SABR 50 at 50” list as the defining card of 2020.

This year, readers of Apple News were treated to a sneak preview of yet another Efdot card that is meeting the moment.

On May 24 (TODAY!), Topps is releasing the first (but hopefully not only) Josh Gibson card of Project 70, which not only pays tribute to the legendary Negro Leagues slugger but also calls attention to an effort underway to name Baseball’s MVP trophies in Josh’s honor.

The card will only be available thru May 27 at noon ET, after which point no additional cards will be released. (Pro tip: Do NOT show up at 11:59 on the last day. Allow for at least a few minutes of captcha hell before Topps.com lets you complete your purchase.)

There’s a lot to unpack, but let’s start with the choice of Josh Gibson, a player Topps did not initially make available to Project 70 artists. For insights into the card and the story behind it, I checked in with Efdot, the card’s artist, and Sean Gibson, the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, not to mention the great-grandson of the Hall of Fame slugger.

UPDATE: You can also tune in to Beckett Live Presents for a live discussion with Efdot and Sean. (If you miss it, the same link will take you to the recording.)

Jason: Eric, your earlier cards in the set were of Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, Ronald Acuña, and Wade Boggs. What led you to choose Josh Gibson?

Efdot: Leading up to Project70, getting to choose my own players was incredible. I knew I wanted to illustrate a diverse group of both retired and young current players. I had not seen many cards representing Negro League players, and knew they deserved more recognition for their contributions to baseball. 

I had done extensive research on Jackie Robinson last year for Project2020 and learned more about the athletes that were forced to play only in Negro Leagues, never making it to the Major Leagues. I dug deeper and got inspired by Josh Gibson’s images, his story and the positive, engaged community around the Josh Gibson Foundation.

Jason: Once you knew you wanted to do a card of Josh, what was the process to make that happen?

Efdot: I worked with my friend, writer/editor Matt Castello, to help me finalize my player selections. Topps told me I could request players outside of the given list. Josh Gibson was at the top of my list for players that I wanted to illustrate, so I asked Topps if they could make it happen. I’m not sure what negotiations happened between Topps and the Josh Gibson Foundation/Estate, but after a few weeks, Topps informed me that I was able to make the first Josh Gibson card for Project70.

Jason: Sean, what did it mean to you to have an artist select Josh Gibson for this project?

Sean Gibson: I’d like to answer here not just for myself but on behalf of the entire Gibson family. Number one, it’s always exciting to see Josh Gibson on a baseball card. In addition, it’s particularly exciting for the card to be done by Efdot. I’m a big fan of his work, and I’ve really enjoyed the cards he’s done in the past. So yes, having a Josh Gibson card from Efdot is very special.

Jason: Eric, you had your choice of designs from seven decades of Topps baseball cards. What motivated you to choose 1972 for this card?

Efdot: I was initially interested in 1972 Topps from a design perspective, because it seemed like it would work well with my style. I found out that the 1972 set’s informal nickname among collectors is “the psychedelic tombstone set,” which is a reference to the design’s outer border and how each picture is presented within an arch. 

The way the team name is written across the top of the card, almost looking like a marquee sign shining bright. I recognized the font from comic books and art deco-style buildings that I’ve seen in Midtown Manhattan. (I had also created multiple lettering pieces in the past, referencing this same type style.)

Once I learned that Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame induction happened in 1972, I decided it was the perfect pairing.

Author’s note: The 1972 design also proved fortuitous when Topps let Eric know much more recently that they wanted to add a “chase card” to the Josh Gibson release. Here is “Josh Gibson MVP…In Action!”

Jason: Eric, many of your cards feature small “Easter eggs” that help tell a broader story when found by the collector. On this card, the letters “MVP” are too prominent to qualify as an Easter egg, but there is still a story to them. You’re specifically referencing the Josh Gibson MVP Award campaign that’s underway right now, correct?

Efdot: Yes. I don’t recall exactly when I found out about the Josh Gibson MVP campaign, but it was something I resonated with immediately. Right away, I had the idea to change that marquee sign to say GIBSON MVP, loud and proud, instead of the team name. I wanted it to line up with the #JG20MVP campaign as a powerful combination of messaging and design.

Josh Gibson is such an important player with a rich and unrecognized history of accomplishment in home runs, batting average, and sheer power that deserves to serve as the standard across the league.

I believe the naming of the MVP award should be given to someone not only who represents the accomplishments in sports through their performance on the field, but also a good role model for young athletes and current players alike.

Jason: Sean, you had a peek at the card early. Tell me what it was like to see your great-grandfather brought to life by Eric’s artwork?

Sean Gibson: When I first saw the card I thought it was amazing. Now the most important part of the card is the lettering that reads “MVP.” When I first spoke with Efdot about the Josh Gibson MVP campaign he was the one who suggested putting MVP right on the card.

After that, I love the colors and the details. I particularly like the glove and how Efdot has the addreess of 2217 Bedford Avenue. For the readers who might not know, 2217 Bedford is the location where Josh first started playing baseball for the Pittsburgh Crawfords sandlot team. The field there is known today as Josh Gibson Field.

Jason: Eric, how does it feel to have created this special card, and what place do you hope it has in the Hobby?

Eric: I knew from the start that working on this card wouldn’t be like any other. I was so grateful for the opportunity to work with the Josh Gibson Foundation and Sean Gibson directly to help me truly understand the importance of Josh’s legacy and to help create a piece of work that will hopefully be used to celebrate that legacy for years to come.

Jason: And finally, Sean, what would it mean to your family and the families of other Negro League legends to have baseball’s MVP trophies renamed for Josh?

Sean Gibson: I would say this. The Hall of Fame is Josh’s biggest accomplishment. That said, I was three years old when Josh was inducted, so I have no recollection of the experience. For the younger generations and the rest of the Gibson family, this would be the most significant accomplishment of our lifetimes with respect to Josh.

Overall, it would be the second greatest accomplishment of Josh’s career, with the Hall of Fame being the first. However, this award would not only honor Josh but acknowledge and recognize the other 3400 men who were denied the chance to play Major League Baseball solely due to the color of their skin. Josh would be carrying all of these players on his shoulders.

Jason: Gentlemen, my genuine thanks to both of you for taking the time to talk to SABR Baseball Cards. Best of luck with the card and of course the MVP campaign! Finally, on a personal note, now that Josh finally has an official MVP card I can stop making my own! (But I probably won’t.)

ON THE WEB:

ON SOCIAL

Albert Pujols, next man up!

I had to see it with my own eyes to believe it, but there he was: Albert Pujols in Dodger Blue.

Photo: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Pujols signing, baseball savant Jay Jaffe was quick to point out that Albert was in good company.

Ditto Chris Kamka.

While late to the party, I’ll carry on the theme with the baseball card angle. We’ll blow right past Jackie, Sandy, Pee Wee, and the Duke and focus on the players you don’t normally think of as Dodgers.

THE BROOKLYN ERA

Chief Bender

There’s a great reason you don’t think of Bender as a Dodger. He never was. Yet, here he is in the 1916 Mother’s Bread set representing the Brooklyn National League club!

Without doing a ton of digging, I’m going to assume this is simply an error card. The same set also has Bender (same image) as a Philadelphia Athletic, which would have been equally incorrect. (Bender was a Baltimore Terrapin in 1915 and a Philadelphia Phillie in 1916.)

Roberto Clemente

The Great One, as is well known, never suited up for Brooklyn. Instead he was smartly and fatefully signed by the Pirates after the Dodgers left him unprotected in their farm system.

The 1994 Topps Archives set chose to include Roberto as a “1954 PROSPECT” of the Brooklyn Dodgers, depicting Clemente in a Montreal Royals uniform and aping the 1954 Topps design.

Charlie Gehringer

Okay, now you know there’s something funny going on here. The Mechanical Man as a Dodger? Heavens no! However, the uniform must have looked close enough that someone logged the card this way in Trading Card Database. (And don’t worry. I’ve submitted a correction.)

Still, it may well be that your Albert Pujols Dodgers card looks this jarring 50 years into the future. (Perhaps your Albert Pujols Angels cards will as well!)

Tony Lazzeri

Here’s one thing we know. If a player even spent a minute as a Dodger the 1990 Target Dodgers megaset took note.

In Lazzeri’s case, it was only 14 games, but he did have the highest OBP, SLG, and OPS of his entire career!

Babe Ruth

Lazzeri wasn’t the only member of the Murderers Row to have a Dodger baseball card. The Bambino, who coached for the squad, had several, beginning with this one from the 1962 Topps “Babe Ruth Special” subset.

If my eyes don’t deceive me, the next time Cody Bellinger steps to the plate for the Dodgers (hopefully soon!) his uniform number 35 will take on new significance.

Paul Waner

Thanks to Don Zminda for reminding me in the comments that Big Poison also had some Dodger cardboard.

Vintage collectors will prefer his 1941 Double Play card, shared with the season’s most ill-fated backstop. However, if beauty is what you’re after then this 1973 card will fill you will “Glee.”

Hack Wilson

Perhaps the only thing that could have diminished the thrill of my fellow SABR Chicago member John Racanelli landed his “holy grail” Hack Wilson card was flipping it over to see the team on the back.

Like Pujols, Wilson had his best seasons behind him, though he did knock a total of 38 homers for Brooklyn across 2+ seasons.

THE LOS ANGELES ERA

Dick Allen

This Dick Allen card is better known as the first major release with a mustache since T206 but is more importantly a must in any Dodger collection.

Unlike Pujols (at least we assume!), Allen’s best years weren’t behind him at all when he joined the Dodgers. He would of course win the American League’s MVP award in 1972 as a member of the White Sox, where he would also garner back-to-back Topps All-Star cards in 1974 and 1975.

Jim Bunning

Don’t worry. I didn’t remember this either.

Three wins, one loss, and a respectable 3.36 ERA.

Whitey Ford

Wait, what?! The Chairman of the Board? Yes, if his 1962 Post Cereal (Canadian) issue is to be believed.

Don’t panic. It was only an error card.

Rickey Henderson

While it seems like Rickey played for just about every team at some point, it sometimes takes cardboard proof to reassure me I wasn’t just imagining him in Dodger Blue.

So thank you, 2003 Fleer Tradition…I think.

Greg Maddux

Buy the time Maddux came to L.A. in 2006, by way of the Cubs, the Dodger faithful may have worried he had little left in the tank.

As his 2006 Upper Deck Season Highlights card reminds us, he could still get outs, tossing six no-hit innings in his first game as a Dodger. The magic didn’t last long though, as he went on to surrender 28 hits over his next three games.

Juan Marichal

Of course the Target Dodgers set was there for it, but we’ll go 1983 ASA instead.

The picture is sure to feel like a dagger to the hearts of Giants fans, but they could of course parry with an equally blasphemous Jackie.

Frank Robinson

Robby may have entered the Hall as an Oriole, but that didn’t stop SSPC from immortalizing him as a Dodger.

Naturally, many other cards include Frank Robinson’s Dodger stint, including his 1973 Topps flagship issue.

Jim Thome

Hall of Famer Jim Thome (or J M H M if your eyes are as bad as mine) had a brief pinch-hitting stint for the Dodgers in 2009, batting 17 times in 17 games with 4 singles.

Still, that cup of coffee was enough to make him one of THREE 600 HR club members Dodgers collectors can claim, along with Babe Ruth and now…

Albert Pujols!

Man, remember when we had to wait a year for this kind of thing!

2021 Heritage Geek Out

I’ve been looking forward to 2021 Heritage for a couple years now. This is partially because 1972 was the first set which stood out as the oldest cards in my childhood collection, but the main reason is because it’s just an incredibly challenging design to reproduce. Up to 1972, Topps’s designs are pretty restrained. Nothing complex is going on with the fonts and even the colorful sets feature solid blocks of color.

1972 though. Hoo boy. Custom type for the team names. Bright and colorful with different-colored borders. I could see the potential for a major trainwreck and I was split between hoping for such a wreck and hoping that Topps instead got it all right.

The reality of course lies between those two extremes. For the most part 2021 Heritage looks about right and the differences aren’t really worth complaining about. Those differences though are however the kind of thing I happen to find really interesting.

So let’s start out just comparing a bunch of 1972 Topps cards with their 2021 Heritage equivalents. Not a whole lot worth noting. Some color differences but most are really just shifts in darkness. Only the change from magenta to red on the Indians and Cubs cards is particularly noteworthy.*

*Side comment here but I’ve yet to see anyone post a tribute to the Billy Cowan card and that seems a massive missed opportunity. I am however not at all surprised that there’s no tribute to the Billy Martin card.

Zooming in though shows the usual interesting (to me at least) comparisons between printing technology in the 1970s and today. Or in the case with most of the Heritage cards, they show how the design workflow is different.

So let’s look at some details. 1972 on the left, 2021 on the right. I’m not going to look at the pairs in order, instead I’m grouping them based on how they differ colorwise.

Or, as is the case with this first group, how they don’t differ. The red, yellow, and greens are all solid. These all feature 100% yellow ink. The red also features 100% magenta and the green features 100% cyan. The difference in color between the two greens is a reflection of how heavy the cyan ink was printed.

In the borders and text sections you can see how the trapping and registration differs between 1972 and 2021. This is especially obvious on the 1972 red card since the black plate is a bit misregistered and doesn’t cover up the transitions between yellow, orange, and red.

And in the white text on the 2021 green card you can just make out the faint yellow screen that Topps printed to warm up the white card stock.

There’s also some weird stuff on a couple of the 2021 cards—a yellow edge in the S on the yellow card and a white edge between the green solid and black hairline—a which suggests that something else is going on. Since this oddness continues in the other examples I’ll wait until the end to address it.

The oranges are also pretty close. Still 100% yellow but now you can see the magenta screen. 2021 Heritage uses a much much finer line screen which could account for some of the color shifting.* The blues are completely different but we’ll cover those later.

*Also the bottom of the S on the Tigers card is yellow instead of white but I think this is just a mistake.

The oddness in the blacks—both the S and the hairline borders—in the 2021 cards continues here. The edges of the black components of the design just aren’t crisp. This is similar to the black edges in 2020 Heritage but has a very different shape in the way that the edge is screened.

The blue cards show the most-serious changes since they’ve gone from being just cyan ink to being a mix of all the inks. In 1972 the dark blue is 100% cyan and the light blue is like 40% cyan. In 2021 you can see multi-color halftone rosettes.*

*These changes can also be seen in the green and blue details on the Angels cards I showed in the previous orange section.

Nothing new to note in the blacks except that to my eyes the edges on the blue are even rougher.

To the last two pairs. Not much to say about Topps changing pink to red except to wonder if they had the same problem printing magenta-only that they had printing cyan-only and in the same way hat the blue cards ended up being a richer blue, maybe the pinks became more reddish until someone decided they should just be all red.

What’s weirder is that the In Action cards do not feature solid inks and instead the Magenta ink is screened. This is the definitive tell of a computer trying to match a target color instead of printing the input color* but the fact it only appears on this one color mix could just be a fluke.

*Back in the days before computer-generated print screens, it wasn’t just easier to print colors as solids, that was how the entire workflow went. For most things you picked the simple screen mix you wanted and what came off the press is what you got. With computers, the process is reversed. The designer picks the final desired color and then the computer decides what physical screen mix will achieve that.

Instead, I need to point out the difference in the black edges between the “In Action” text and the player name since this highlights how differently Topps created each element

If I had to guess I would say that Topps created the design of this set as continuous-tone artwork instead of linework. Continuous tone art consists of individually colored pixels such as you’d have in photographs or other Photoshop creations. They don’t scale well and the transitions between colors often end up being dithered and fuzzy instead of clean and crisp. Linework is also known as vector graphics and consists of shapes—whether simple like a box or complicated like a font—which the computer draws via a formula. Such shapes can be scaled and maintain crisp edges at multiple sizes.

The edges of the blacks in the team names, as well as the way that the ™ and ® symbols are fuzzy, suggests that Topps produced the borders in Photoshop instead of Illustrator.* This isn’t the way I’d want to design these since the flexibility of linework would allow for much better printing in terms of the crispness of the edges, control of the color, and trapping along the color transitions.

*They also provide an example of one of the first things to look for with counterfeited cards. Those kind of fuzzy edges are an obvious sign that something has been scanned and reprinted.

While I’m pretty sure that  Topps produced the artwork  using Photoshop, I’m a bit confused at how they created the text in the team names. While the type in the 22 team names that existed in the 1972 set* looks correct, the type in the eight new names** is a disaster.

*There were 24 teams in 1972 but the Expos became the Nationals and the A’s became the Athletics.

**Six expansion teams plus the Nationals and Athletics.

The arch effect in 1972 is simple vertically-arched lettering.* All the vertical lines are supposed to remain vertical and only the horizontals follow the curve. The 1972 font highlights this by having the engraved lines which should all be parallel. None of the eight new team names are able to do this however.

*For you custom card makers out there, in Illustrator, using “Type On Path” with the “skew” option instead of “rainbow” will do this with zero effort. And yes I’m assuming Topps has the font for this.

The least offensive is the Rays where only the stem of the Y really shows how things are going bad. The others have multiple letters (or in the case of the Marlins and Blue Jays, all of the letters) tilted incorrectly.  On top of this, some letters—all the Es for example—are bizarrely malformed and there’s also the backwards first A in Diamondbacks to contend with.

This all feels like some one tried to warp things in Photoshop and failed miserably and the end result shows off all the worst things about Heritage. A shame since there’s a lot of good stuff going on otherwise and I do like the 1972 design.

Oh and the postseason card is included here because the choice to mix italics into the arched lettering is such a bad choice that it ends up looking like the same kind of warping weirdness that bedevils the team names.

Moving to the backs. Yes there are legitimate problems with the font size Topps used on some of the cards. But that’s a basic choice (or lack of caring) and isn’t that interesting. What I did find interesting is how Topps is printing the backs using 4-color process instead of just black and orange ink and how the actual paper “color” is now a printed design element.

This faked grey card stock thing is why the back colors are different card-to-card. Keeping that kind of color consistent is really hard. A slight deviation in any one of the ink densities throws the whole color slightly warm or cool.

I scanned these two cards together so that the color differences came form the cards and not my scanning. Zooming in shows no discernible difference in the screening so the final color differences are just printing variations. These zooms also show how all three colors (the only black in appears to be in the text and lines) are also present in the orange portions of the design.

This is something I’m used to on Archives but it’s a bit of a disappointment to see shortcuts like this in Heritage. Especially when it results in visibly highlight printing differences in a stack of cards.

Topps All-Star cards by year

My main purpose in writing this very short blog post is to make this spreadsheet available to other collectors, bloggers, and researchers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to know the answer to a simple question like “How many times did Mickey Mantle have an All-Star card?” only to find it a slow process to arrive at the answer.

CLICK HERE FOR TOPPS ALL-STAR SPREADSHEET

Among the kinds of questions you can easily answer with the spreadsheet are–

  • How many times was the Mick a Topps All-Star? (Five: 1958-62)
  • How many Topps All-Star cards have featured Dodgers? (80)
  • Has one team ever had all three All-Star outfielders? (Yes, 1980 Red Sox with Rice, Lynn, and Yastrzemski)
  • Who was the first ever Topps All-Star in the history of the Pilots/Brewers franchise? (Don Money, 1979)
  • Who has the most appearances as a Topps All-Star? (Rod Carew, 13)
  • Which players have 10 or more Topps All-Star cards? (Rod Carew, Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter, George Brett, Carlton Fisk, Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey)

I’ll plan to add the rest of the years soon enough, but in the meantime let me know if you have any special requests or comments around the usability of the selected format.

Thanks, and we’ll look forward to the many Topps All-Star articles that follow!

NOTE 1: If the spreadsheet is in an annoying order when you open it, feel free to sort on the first column (Sort ID) to reset it to chronological order.

NOTE 2: The spreadsheet is being shared as read-only to prevent any accidental introduction of errors. However, if you want to modify it you are able to save an editable copy to your own Google Drive.

NOTE 3: From 1997-2002, it became a bit murky whether certain cards should be considered “All-Star” cards since Topps neither used the term “All-Star” nor selected one player per position per league. You may wish to filter some of these years out of your results depending how you view these cards.

NOTE 4: From 2006 onward (aside from 2020 when there was no ASG), Topps awarded an All-Star card to 50+ players, including not only ASG starters and reserves but occasionally players who were replaced on the team.

NOTE 5: The 2020 Topps Update set included an All-Star Game set composed primarily of active players plus some retired greats such as Griffey, Rivera, and Ortiz. I chose not to count these cards since the spirit of the set seems to be past ASG highlights rather than any indicator of All-Star status for the current or prior year. (Recall also that there was no 2020 ASG.)

A minor tradition.

I worry about the trainers.

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.

Girl Power

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!)

Brittney Palmer

Claw Money

Distortedd

Lauren Taylor

Sophia Chang

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).

Linda Marcum

Melina Melvin

Kat Rhyne

Alexandra Brunet

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. However, before we get to the oldest cards I’m aware of, we’ll look at some wonderful postcard series issued from 1988-91.

1988-91 Historic Limited Editions

Some of the most attractive cards of the 1980s and early 1990s came from the brush of Susan Rini. Her artwork was featured in multiple series of limited edition (usually 10,000) postcards from the appropriately named Historic Limited Editions brand. The earliest set I’m aware of is a 1988 set of Brooklyn Dodgers (ultimately the first of four Brooklyn Dodger releases), and other work included the 1961 Yankees, 1969 Mets, and various player sets including Nolan Ryan, Thurman Munson, Roberto Clemente, and Lou Gehrig.

Backing up 20 years more, we come to a set that was not only pioneering in terms of “girl power” but also for its place in the history of one of the Hobby’s great enterprises.

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!

Related:

  • 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

What about Blob?

In case you missed it, SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee co-chair Nick Vossbrink published his “On Thinking about What Makes a Card a Card” piece a couple weeks ago, offering readers and collectors a framework for thinking about cardness.

In the comments I referenced a particular card (or non-card) genre likely unknown to much of our readership, so I thought a full blog post might be a better way to keep up the “what makes a card a card” (WMACAC) conversation.

Last year Topps launched Project 2020, in which twenty renowned artists, typically from the non-sports universe (e.g., fashion, jewelry, street art) put their spin on twenty classic Topps rookie* cards.

Brooklyn-based muralist and artist Eric Friedensohn, better known as Efdot

I put an asterisk because the Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson cards were simply first Topps cards (FTC), the Nolan Ryan was his first solo card, and the McGwire has its own debate surrounding it. One could perhaps quibble over Update set XRCs as well, and of course the Mariano Rivera is a Bowman. Still, you get the idea!

Early cards in the set tended to stay very true to the original RC, as shown by my Tyson Beck card of Dwight Gooden, which was card 12 of the 400 cards that made up the set. Later cards tended to drift a bit more as the artists took greater and greater license. For example, my Efdot Dwight Gooden, which was card 137 overall, retains none of the design elements of the 1985 Topps set but more than makes up for it with its timely tribute to healthcare workers.

One of my favorite cards in the set is the Efdot Sandy Koufax card, which deviates considerably from the layout and design of the original Topps classic but retains enough elements to be clearly derivative. (In general, this was my personal “sweet spot” for the project: very different from the original but not wholly unrelated.)

If we stop here and ask, “Is this a baseball card?” I have to imagine a nearly universal answer of yes. Granted, it might not be a card you collect personally, and it’s clearly not a card from Koufax’s playing career. However, it checks off nearly every category of cardness.

  • Standard baseball card dimensions of 2-1/2″ x 3-1/2″ (though it’s thicker than your typical card at 130 points, or roughly the same thickness of a pack of 1982 Topps)
  • Professional baseball player depicted on the front, along with name, position (it’s there, trust me!), and team
  • Issued by Topps and fully licensed
  • Non-blank back, though no stats are provided. Instead, we get a small write-up of the set itself and the artist who designed the card.

Where baseball cardness gets more interesting is with the collections of art pieces many of the artists issued independently as companion cards to their Topps releases. Unlike their official Project 2020 cards, these cards were neither produced by Topps nor licensed by MLB, MLBPA, or the representatives of any retired players.

As an example, here is Efdot’s Left Arm of Blob, based on a turtle-like Blob character Efdot uses in his murals and other designs.

This companion card has many features suggestive of Sandy Koufax. Among them are the left-handed pitching motion, the stylistic nod to Jewish artist Marc Chagall, and a healthy dose of Dodger Blue, even if non-exact. On the other hand, I don’t think many baseball fans would regard Blob as a dead ringer for Mr. Koufax. Furthermore, there is no name, team, or logo to assist.

If we accept the idea that even a generic baseball player is enough to establish baseball cardness then Left Arm of Blob definitely gets my vote for being a baseball card, even lacking the imprimatur of a card-making goliath like Topps, Upper Deck, or Panini. However, I believe a more fun question to ask is whether Left Arm of Blob is a Sandy Koufax baseball card.

While the answer is likely no on a technical level, I have always been of the mindset that the collector is always right. As such, I do consider Left Arm of Blob a welcome addition to my Sandy Koufax collection, primarily for two reasons. First, the card is clearly Koufax-inspired (or at least Koufax card-inspired). Second, the card was specifically designed to go right next to the real Sandy.

I know many collectors these days who prefer not to decide such matters for themselves but prefer to see how the Hobby establishment opines. For example, will we see Left Arm of Blob in PSA’s Koufax “super set” or as an entry on Trading Card Database’s Koufax pages? And before you say, “No chance!” to the former, here is a Babe Ruth card from PSA’s Bambino master set, batting righty no less!

Though there is precedent for nearly everything new in the Hobby, I’ll offer that the idea of a companion card is at least new enough in today’s consciousness to preclude consensus. However, many of this year’s Topps Project 70 artists are producing and distributing companion cards, meaning we will soon have a much larger sample size on which to equivocate. We will also be forced to reckon with companions as “a thing” rather than some flukey one-off that only happened in the weirdest year of our lives.

In the grander scheme, what we do know is that Left Arm of Blob is simply one of many novel card-ish objects that will continue to defy or at least challenge classification as the Hobby evolves into the future. Whatever boundaries we establish, save none at all, will be pushed for at least as long as imagination and innovation continue to assert a place in the Hobby. Any fuzziness and inconvenience that arise should be considered far better than the alternative!

On thinking about what makes a card a card

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.

Material

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.

Size

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.

Form

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.

Content

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.

Release

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?

Case Studies

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.

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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.

Art Market

We don’t talk a lot about value and sales prices on this blog. This is by design. Neither Jason nor I (nor Mark nor Chris) are interested in that stuff too much and we all agree that the primary interest of this committee is in card usage. Yes value maters when it comes to putting together a collection or knowing what to expect to pay. But none of us are in this committee to talk about how we’ve made (or lost) money on cards.

At the same time, when the market goes up and new money comes in, the results affect all of us. The past year in the hobby has been wild enough to result in numerous articles over the past year about the exploding market for sports cards. Most of these are nothing new to anyone who’s been collecting for more than a couple years. At their best they serve as decent primers to anyone who hasn’t thought about cards in decades. At their worst they end up being lazy analogies comparing card prices to index funds. Almost all of them mess up some key facts, such as calling the 1952 Topps Mantle his rookie card.

I read them because sometimes there’s something interesting. Usually I’m disappointed or frustrated but a recent article in the New York Times caught my eye because it made an explicit connection to the art market.

“This is the art of the future for sports enthusiasts who have money and don’t want to buy art,” Davis said. “Pretty much everything I collect now is because I think it is a good investment and because I like the player. The common thread is, I think it will be a good investment. It’s part of the fun.”

I’ve been making this point on Twitter for a while. While many people like to think of sports cards as analogous to stocks, it’s been clear to me that the better analogy is to the art market. From the way serial-numbered cards are basically art editioning to restoration issues and catalogue raisonné issues, the hobby has been moving in a direction which takes it out of the realm that most of us grew up in.

Becoming more like the art market means that extremely rich people are buying things as part of a portfolio. Some of them might be fans. Many of them though just like the idea. But the products they’re buying and selling are going to be products that the rest of us never see in person.

Most worrisome is the likelihood that the market will be manipulated as these investors seek to prop up the values of their cards. This kind of stuff is pretty common in the art world and, despite being a Potemkin Village, seems to skirt right by the press coverage which focuses just on the latest record-setting auction price.*

*It’s also worth watching the developing Non-Fungible Token art world here.

What the two dealers were apparently attempting to do was thread the needle on the two lesser Warhols. To bid high—as much as the consignor was hoping to get—might serve to prop up values for the Warhol market at large, but would be expensive and make the paintings that much more difficult to sell down the road.

Sure this might be fun for some people. But the fun is in the making money, not the medium which enables these flips.

The thing about the art market is that many museums have let the art investor/collectors drive the business. Some museums make a big deal showing one person’s collection. Often these feature a piece from all the prescribed big names and do nothing but allow for the owner to enhance the prestige of their collection. Other museums are basically showcases for a specific collection.

I don’t inherently dislike this but it’s important to realize that the immense platform we give the expensive stuff is only a sliver of the whole picture. As baseball cards move toward this territory it’s important for us all to remember that the art market side of things has pretty much nothing to do with the way we collect and that the focus on the expensive stuff tends to remove the hand of the curator.

In art, the museum curators are in charge of what museums display, illuminating why they’re on display, and considering how they interact with other items in the same gallery. There’s no similar position in trading card world. Instead, each of us is wears that hat and our collections are our personal curatorial projects.

The expensive 1:1 stuff is not only unattainable, it’s a distraction. It makes the focus just about value and turns a lot of heads. A collection of “these are expensive cards” is ultimately as boring as an art museum which only talks about how much the paintings are worth. There’s so much more interesting stuff to do with cards. There are so many more interesting ways to collect.

Pick themes. Tell stories. Run down a rabbit hole of weird stuff that interests only you.

Use your cards. Look at them. Share them. Display them. Talk about them.

Remember that this is a personal hobby.