Player Collection Spotlight – Keith Hernandez

The year was 1986. The Mets were on top of the baseball world and, perhaps more importantly, moving their spring training site to Port St. Lucie in short order. WWOR-TV out of Secaucus, NJ would broadcast what seemed like a zillion games over the next few years in that part of Florida. And baseball cards were collected by every kid in the neighborhood. Topps, Donruss, Fleer, packs, boxed sets, oversize cards, mini cards, stickers – someone had them.

How and why Keith Hernandez rather than Gooden or Strawberry or Carter or anyone else? Two reasons: Gooden and Strawberry were too expensive for a 10-year-old, and I kept pulling this Hernandez guy’s cards out of packs. I have a Gooden and a Strawberry player collection, but they are nowhere near as complete as the Hernandez collection. I have plenty of Carter, Orosco, Dykstra, Teufel, Mookie, Darling, Fernandez, McDowell, and everyone else from that Mets team as well as other Mets teams.

Unlike DJ, I lack … discipline, restraint, or whatever you want to call it (perhaps sanity) that allows him to limit himself to Topps cards of his players and team. I want to go on eBay, buy a lot of Jim Gantner cards, and send them to him (DJ, not Gantner) because I can’t imagine not having as many different Hernandez cards as possible. But then I also don’t want to upset his balance and turn him into … me. As a kid I would always try to swap for Hernandez cards with my friends. The first Hernandez rookie I ever owned came via a trade for a handful of football cards. Supposedly there was a Steve Largent rookie in there, but as I didn’t know who he was at the time it didn’t matter to me – I had the 1975 Topps Hernandez and three other guys. Also as a kid, I created my own alphabetical checklist of his cards, flipping through pages of a late 1980s Beckett Almanac scanning sets for his cards. At some point I tossed that out because I had created an electronic list, though I kind of wish I had kept the hand created list to see how close I had gotten to a complete checklist. I never got his autograph during spring training, though a friend of mine did give me an autographed 8×10.

If you want the stats, I have over 1,000 different listed items in Beckett’s database and many more that aren’t listed. The exact number could change by the time this post is public. For his pre-2004 cards I am only missing a handful that are listed in Beckett, some of which I don’t think actually exist. His number of cards exploded in 2004-2005 (he has over 600 cards from those two years alone due to parallels). Staying at home allowed me to scan the items I have, and the Beckett listed items all have front and back pictures (unless it’s a blank back team issue) if you scroll a little down this page to the links at the bottom. I have over 10,000 total Hernandez cards. How do I know? I always thought it would look cool to have the fronts of a single card displayed in all 18-pockets of two pages (back-to-front) in a binder. I have 689 of those pages, including 57 pages of his 1988 Topps card. You can get a sense of what that looks like below. Plus those thousand or so different cards. Plus about two binders of standard sized cards that don’t have 18 copies of a card yet. Plus oversized and mini cards. And extra game-used and autographed cards.

I didn’t do graded cards – until I got a really good deal on a lot. As one might imagine given my lack of restraint, I’ve pretty much climbed that mountain. I’ve grown less interested in the “master set” as listed by PSA because it now includes team picture cards from the 1970s. As someone once wrote here, you need to define a master set for yourself, even if it differs from the definition someone else uses.

While I don’t get too much into custom cards (unless it’s a Heavy J Studios rainbow dazzle purple refractor 1/1), I’m always looking for oddball items that I don’t have. Sometimes it’s an ad or a magazine with Hernandez on the cover or if he’s featured in an interview. Bobbleheads and figurines are also in there, as are drinking cups, posters, cello/rack packs with his cards on top – pretty much anything. I have about 100 ticket stubs from his MLB games, back when ticket stubs were actual stubs. Here’s a display with a variety of items:

Keith Hernandez shelf

With the increasing number of 1/1s and other low-numbered cards I’ve mellowed over the years and don’t worry too much about not getting every card. I’m usually a player in the market, though sometimes I marvel at how much they sell for. I admit that I get slightly annoyed when I make an offer on a card, have it turned down, and then a few days later see it sold for less than I offered. The economist in me doesn’t understand leaving $20 bills lying on the ground.

I don’t dabble much in game-used jerseys or other equipment because I’m not educated enough on those items to have confidence in my purchases. However, I have purchased a number of Topps Vault items. I think the most interesting piece I have is his original Topps contract, with his signature, his dad’s signature (the younger Hernandez was a minor at the time), and Sy Berger’s signature. And the Hernandez authored pop-up book First-Base Hero:

Keith Hernandez contract

It has been a fun endeavor for over 30+ years and somehow I’m always finding something I haven’t seen before (like a 3×5 miniature version of a poster that I just got in a lot last week). I have other player collections, and more different cards of other players (Ripken, Gwynn, and Piazza) but they all have vastly more cards than Hernandez. I have a higher percentage of cards for other players (like Jose Lind – a story for a different day), but Hernandez tends to be a balance of popular enough to be included in some new issues (I’m guessing that appearing on Seinfeld didn’t hurt his popularity – and yes, there is at least one bobblehead commemorating his Seinfeld appearance), but not so popular that he appears in a lot of new issues.

To An Athlete Dying Old

I haven’t wanted to write about Tom Seaver.

One reason is that there have already been great pieces about his meaning to, and effect on, those who loved him. Mark Armour wrote one of the best, right here on this blog. Another reason is that I get too emotional. I participated in a podcast Hillel Kuttler did with several Seaver fans and broke down twice in the few minutes I had.

Still, Seaver is on my mind daily. It’s easy to say the pat things – “He was great!” “He made me a Mets fan,” “I lost a piece of my childhood when I heard he died.” They’re all valid sentiments. None of them capture what he meant to me, and I won’t claim to capture all of it right now.

Certain athletes (and musicians, and actors, and other celebrities) strike deep and make a home in one’s soul. They provide a thru line in your own life story and, if you’re lucky, make you think about things, big things, like how to perceive the sport you love, how to truly appreciate the art of sports and the skill, how to carry yourself with intelligence, courage, humor and self-awareness, remaining true to your very essence, while simultaneously giving of yourself in the public arena. Tom Seaver showed me the way and was a worthy guide, from my beginnings to his end.

I was lucky to have a long chat with Seaver once at a Hall of Fame cocktail party. After his rookie year, he told me he drove Nancy to Cooperstown to see the Hall. He wanted to show her Mathewson, Johnson, all the greats that he knew about and drove him. He wanted her to see what was so important to him.

All that was to follow his 1967 season. By the time this card came out, late in the summer, he was well on his way to Rookie of the Year, the future so bright, and so long, for him and all of us.

I first came to Cooperstown in the summer of ‘73. By then, six plus years into his career, Tom Seaver was on his way to another Cy Young and another World Series. He had already made his presence felt in my own life. I was almost 11 years old, a Scholastic Book Club Seaver poster in my room, multiple Seaver books already read, my first letter to a player having been sent, to him, after Leron Lee had broken up a no-hitter in 1972, my first autographed picture returned. Neither of us knew what was lurking four years hence, a heart breaking trade that made me shift my entire focus on baseball to the players who played it and liberated me from team-based fandom (which, in all ways, lead to the writing of Split Season). A triumphant 300th win in Yankee Stadium, the first event I ever bought scalped tickets for. Then, for me, a move to Cooperstown and two memorable interactions with him and Nancy.

At the time of my first visit to the Hall, Chick Hafey had recently died and there were flowers on his plaque. I never dreamed I’d see those flowers around Tom. Yet there they are, his life, and ours, whizzing by like a Seaver fastball, with the unpredictable movement of a Seaver slider.

1977 and the Hirsute Hardball Hero

Nothing captured the zeitgeist of the late 1970s better than the mustache—an exceedingly visible symbol of assertive manliness. No collection of cardboard depicted our hirsute hardball heroes better than the 1977 Topps set.

My first flashes of baseball consciousness were as a kindergartener in 1977. My earliest memory of peeling open a pack of baseball cards occurred that season. It was about this time my dad grew an exemplary handlebar mustache. These mustaches were not so fashionable just a handful of years earlier in baseball, however.

92E93188-F4C5-491C-876C-6624F1E45B8B

In 1917, Athletics catcher Wally Schang caused quite a stir when he announced he would wear a mustache—the only one in the major leagues—because it made him “look more dignified and less like a ballplayer when off the field.” When Philadelphia visited the Yankees at the Polo Grounds on April 9, New York teased Schang mercilessly for daring to sport that “bit of shredded wheat” upon his lip. When Schang hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the top of the ninth, his mustache got the star treatment, “Schang’s mustache quivered defiantly as he dashed toward first base. It twitched noticeably as he turned second, and bristled as he rounded third and followed two runners home…never again will the Yankees be so reckless as to kid a guy with a soup strainer under his proboscis. Never again will they tempt the fates that keep watch over three or four misplaced wild hairs.”

F06F9886-C2A5-458E-AF3B-36E3EAE7B908

Schang eventually shaved the mustache in a show of team unity—his clubmates judged the mustache a jinx. The papers eulogized the whisker loss, but the gesture was of no consequence as the Athletics ended the 1917 campaign in the cellar with a dismal 37-81 record. It would be some nineteen years before another player would boldly sport a mustachio.

Outfielder Stanley Bordagaray showed up at Brooklyn Dodgers spring training in 1936 with a mustache he had grown for a cameo role in a film named The Prisoner of Shark Island. As he entered the April 14 season opener as a seventh-inning defensive replacement, his magnificent mustache conjured an “advertisement for bock beer” and sent “feminine hearts fluttering.”

44FDCF66-42A4-40E2-9AAD-2CB05569E823

Bordagaray shaved the mustache shortly thereafter but was apparently beset with regret. He grew it back, sporting a “second-growth” mustache as he pinch ran in the ninth inning at Ebbets Field on May 22. His status as the only mustachioed player did not last, however. It was still newsworthy when Bordagaray shaved his mustache for good sometime in June—at least in Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

By all accounts, Major League Baseball did not see facial hair on a ballplayer again until Dick Allen in 1970. As a member of the Cardinals, Allen’s mustache was documented in the St. Louis Cardinals Picture Pack and Photocard sets. After his postseason trade to the Dodgers, Allen’s facial hair made its first national appearance in Topps’ 1971 high-number series, with card number 650 depicting a smiling, mustachioed Allen—the only card in the set to feature a bewhiskered player. Perhaps this was not surprising considering prevailing attitudes about baseball and facial hair at the time. That summer, an American Legion team from Orlando chose to forfeit after the tournament director ordered eight of the players to get haircuts or shave.

The 1972 set contained roughly five mustaches, including Reggie Jackson, who is often credited, incorrectly, with bringing the mustache back to baseball. Jackson, however, did inspire Athletics owner Charlie Finley to offer a $300 facial hair bonus to the Oakland players who had grown a mustache by his June 18 “Mustache Day” promotion that season.

7236EA8C-0900-4A6B-B461-7A9EA160D741

As the mustache gained more popular acceptance in baseball, the numbers of players sporting mustaches in Topps baseball card sets began to grow wildly. The 1973 set featured 17 bewhiskered players. There were 87 in 1974 and 144 in 1975. The 1976 and 1977 sets saw 195 and 190 mustachioed players, respectively. There were 232 mustaches in 1978 and the decade ended with a downright shaggy 1979 set that included some 259 mustached ballplayers.

Of all these sets, however, 1977 best captured the essence of mustachio and chronicled the finest pogonotrophy of the decade. Here are the best mustaches of 1977 in the Topps set:

Honorable mention: Wayne Garland, #33; Willie Horton, #660; Dave Tomlin #241.

10. John Lowenstein, Topps #393/O-Pee-Chee #175

After the 1976 season, Lowenstein was traded by Cleveland to the Blue Jays. Before the 1977 season, he was traded back to the Indians. [Despite never having appeared in a regular season game for Toronto, his 1977 O-Pee-Chee card shows him in a Blue Jays uniform.] Even if you squint and look at this card, Lowenstein’s mustache is unmistakably prominent. Not sure this is a requisite yardstick—but it is a good start.

9. Rollie Fingers, Topps #523

9E3AF187-EA28-4CCF-9BE1-EA06B603DFFB

Fingers grew his mustache to cash in on Charlie Finley’s “Mustache Day” bonus offer in 1972 and has sported his trademark handlebar ever since. In his first season with the Padres in 1977, Fingers led the league in games, games finished, and saves. And probably mustache wax.

8. Bill Greif, Topps #112/O-Pee-Chee #243

Bill Greif’s exemplary horseshoe and crap-eating grin belied the challenges of his personal life. As a healthy 27-year-old, Greif left baseball before the Expos broke camp in order to focus on his child’s medical condition. He never appeared for the Expos or any other team in 1977 and a brief comeback attempt in 1978 fizzled at Tidewater.

7. Bill Buckner, Topps #27

E3C78AAA-1400-476B-A376-84F9979E7FA3

Despite being pictured on a Dodgers card, Buckner has been traded to the Cubs in January. Subjectively, this card would have ranked much higher if Billy Buck was shown in a Cubs uniform – he was my first favorite player ever. Regardless, the hypnotic draw of his mustache is enough to render the card’s uncomfortably askew background imperceptible. (Seriously, did you just have to take another look?)

6. Phil Garner, Topps #261/O-Pee-Chee #34

Composition is everything with this card—a profile shot that allows one to fully appreciate Garner’s prodigious whisker depth. Even half of this walrus mustache is enough to demand more. Having been traded to the Pirates before the 1977 season, Garner’s O-Pee-Chee card features an alternate photograph with probably one of the most perfectly lit mustaches ever.

5. George Hendrick, Topps #330/O-Pee-Chee #218

Hendrick is utterly regal while donning a satin warm-up jacket, crisp visor, and horseshoe mustachio. Hendrick posted his career year by bWAR (5.8) in 1977 as a member of the Padres. His O-Pee-Chee cardboard is unusual in that the airbrush artist used the visor as the basis for Hendrick’s Padres “cap,” resulting in an oddly squat crown.

4. Al Hrabosky, Topps #495

43C3FE26-FAD1-4E0C-9B41-6DBE1ADA43E5

Deemed the “Mad Hungarian,” Hrabosky’s demonstrative mound demeanor was only accentuated by his impressive whiskers. Bonus points in this card for the pillbox hat, too. Hrabosky is the only player in Major League history whose last name started with “Hr” to surrender a home run.

3. Ramon Hernandez, Topps #95/1968 Topps #382 

Hernandez appeared in just six games for the 1977 Cubs before he was shipped off to Boston. His time in Chicago is certainly best remembered for his most gentlemanly walrus. [Hernandez looked decidedly different on his 1968 Topps Cubs card.]

2. Dennis Leonard, Topps #75

BB4B8E54-28E1-40D0-8887-F83BF94FEA29

There’s a new sheriff in town. Looking as though he just stepped of the set of a Western soundstage, Leonard led the league with 20 wins in 1977, the first of three times he would win 20 or more. And how could you not love a guy with two first names or two last names or one of each?

1. Luis Tiant, Topps #258

10FFB6FC-F456-4C6C-8499-3CB7F8AA39D4

This is a stunner that has only gotten better with age. Amid his twisty windup, Tiant faced fully away from the batter. As he turned back, batters were mesmerized by his reemerging horseshoe mustache. Tiant is one of only 22 pitchers to amass 2400 strikeouts and post a career ERA of 3.30 or less. (All but Roger Clemens, Max Scherzer, and Sam McDowell from that list are in the Hall of Fame.) Tiant belongs there. Until then, he is a charter member of the Baseball Mustache Hall of Fame and caretaker of the best mustache in the 1977 Topps baseball card set.

Overall, my favorite mustache in 1977 belonged to my dad. But there were some other great ones out there, too.

Notes:

Counting mustaches was a surprisingly hairy task. Topps cards of the 1970s often used photos of dubious quality and odd perspectives that made identifying mustachioed players challenging. Additionally, shadows sometimes created potentially illusory mustaches. Judgment calls were made, especially when no conclusive determination was possible with the assistance of magnification.

For this exercise, only single-player/manager cards were counted. I did not include action cards, leaders, highlights, multiple-player rookie cards, or cards from any other subsets.

I was not able to find any baseball cards of Wally Schang or Frenchy Bordagaray in which they were depicted with a mustache.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com
http://www.retrosheet.org
http://www.tcdb.com
• King, Norm. “Frenchy Bordagaray,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/frenchy-bordagaray/, accessed July 14, 2020.
• Wolf, Gregory H. “Bill Greif,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bill-greif/, accessed July 14, 2020.
• Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 31, 1917, 17.
• Photo of Schang, Buffalo Courier, May 24, 1917, 10.
• “Schang Wears Mustache, Only One in the Majors,” The Washington Post, May 28, 1917, 6.
• “Induce Schang to Remove Mustache but Team Loses,” Buffalo Evening News, June 21, 1917, 18.
• Hughes, Ed, “Since Bordagaray Intends Sporting a ‘Soup Strainer’!,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 9, 1936, 18.
• McLemore, Henry, “Some Odds and Ends as Dodgers were Taking their First Beating,” The Brooklyn Citizen, April 15, 1936, 6.
• Brietz, Eddie, “Sports Roundup,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 15, 1936, 17.
• Photo of Bordagaray, Detroit Free Press, April 19, 1936, 48.
• Diamond Dust, Daily News (New York, New York), May 23, 1936, 240.
• The Lincoln Star (Lincoln, Nebraska) June 19, 1936, 16.
• “In Hair Dispute: A Team Cuts Itself,” The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) August 10, 1971, 22.

The Journey to Authenticate My Wooden Number is Over!

“Until another example, with some very solid provenance/history, surfaces that is made of wood to compare yours to I would think it a bit difficult for anyone to state with certainty that it was used in Forbes Field.”

Hunt Auctions – from email dated October 29, 2019

1961 Topps Card #312

I stated at the end of my blog post on March 1st that I had hit the pause button on my journey to try and authenticate the wood number 2 that was supposedly from Forbes Field that my son had given me as a gift for my birthday last October. 

With the arrival in late April of an issue of Sports Collector’s Digest I hit the play button again. In that issue was a Man Cave article that mentioned Stadia dealer Richie Aurigemma, who has an impressive inventory of seats, signs, railings, and other artifacts from past and current ballparks for sale.

I emailed Richie and received a reply back that he concurred with the other people that had weighed in so far that he had never seen a wooden scoreboard number from Forbes Field.

Things were looking bleak, but then on May 3rd someone wrote a comment on my March 1st blog that they had seen a wooden number 9 from Forbes Field and that it was in the Baseball Hall of Fame!

The person who commented also added that he thought the wooden numbers were used on the “Next Game Here” sign that was adjacent to the larger scoreboard during the 1969 and 1970 seasons. He also included a link to a photo the included the “Next Game Here” sign.

Next Game Here sign at Forbes Field

I emailed the Research Department of the Baseball Hall of Fame on May 4th (HOF was closed at the time due to the pandemic) and they confirmed that they indeed did have a wooden scoreboard number 9 from Forbes Field and that it was still on display.

I also posted an inquiry on the Forbes Field Facebook page to see if anyone had information on the “Next Game Here” sign. Someone did reply that they have a wooden sign that reads JUNE on one side and AUG. on the other side, and also posted a photo that was probably taken in 1963 of the Scoreboard – see photo below. At the bottom of the scoreboard is a “Next Game Here” area. From the photo it looks like wooden numbers were used earlier than 1969 as well. I identified the players and coach from the Dodgers in the photo and have included their names.

Left to Right – Joe Becker (Pitching Coach), Ron Perranoski, and Larry Sherry

The Baseball Hall of Fame has recently opened and a friend of mine took his family there over the 4th of July weekend. He took photos of the wooden number 9 that they have on display in the Sacred Ground exhibit area and it does match up well with my number 2. He eyeballed the dimensions of the number on display and again these are consistent with my number.

Number 9 Photos are from HOF. Number 2 Photo is my wooden number.

It has been 9 months since I received my birthday present and I can now say with a very high degree of certainty that it is an authentic number from Forbes Field. I would not be able to make that statement without the help from a number who not only took the time to respond to a stranger on a baseball journey, but in many cases also did additional research to help me with my quest.

A shout out and thank you to all the following people and organizations for their help – Hunt Auctions, The Pittsburgh Pirates, Len Martin (the unofficial Forbes Field historian who has written books on Forbes Field and Fenway Park), Frank Thomas “The Original”, the co-chairs of the SABR Ballparks Research Committee, Richie Aurigemma, Matt (who commented on my blog), members of the Forbes Field Facebook page (who commented on my post), the Manager of Reference Services at the Baseball Hall of Fame and my friend who took the number 9 photos.

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.

Cards for a Cause

I admit it. Even in the best of times I sometimes wonder if I spend far too many hours and dollars assembling stacks of cardboard with baseball men on them. Now add the chaos we find ourselves in today, and it’s even harder to deny the futility of this Hobby other than as an escape. That said, sometimes all that keeps us sane is the occasional break from reality. Better occasional than permanent, right?

I spent the first couple weeks of the pandemic mentally and emotionally checked out from card collecting. I didn’t buy anything, I didn’t write about anything, and I didn’t even miss anything. Two weeks of experiencing life a little bit more like the other adults around me. (Not you guys, of course. The other adults!) Two weeks was all it lasted, but I think it changed me nonetheless.

Meanwhile some cool things were happening around the Hobby.

An anathema to many collectors, I genuinely enjoyed some of the creative work being done as part of Topps Project 2020. I even threw down $20 on one of the Dwight Gooden cards, making it the third or fourth most expensive card in my Dr. K collection of more than 700 cards the day I bought it. Bizarrely the price would hit $3500 just two months later, making it (while the mania lasted) the third most valuable thing I owned behind only my house and car.

Perhaps influenced by Project 2020, an artist-collector I followed on Twitter began something called the #MakeCardsMoarBetter project and invited other collectors to join. Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt find the two changes I made to Hank Aaron’s 1969 Topps card. (My completed sheet is here for anyone interested.)

Image

More renowned baseball card artists like Mark Mosley and Gypsy Oak were also putting together their own Project 2020 inspired creations, and don’t even get me started on these guys!

In contrast with the usual “doing nothing” brought on by the pandemic, here were collectors doing things with cards: being creative, having fun, and building community.

Then George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police.

Cards, hobbies, and fun itself all became a form of privilege, with escape being the ultimate privilege. Still, that’s not to say cards had no place.

Image

Artist Scott Hodges went on a giveaway rampage to spread some positivity into the Hobby community…

Image

…and Mike Noren, also known as Gummy Arts, put the original artwork behind his 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates All-Black Lineup set on eBay with all proceeds going to Black Lives Matter. (UPDATE: These same cards are now on their way to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum!)

Again I was seeing collectors doing something and it made me wonder what I was doing.

Scissors, school glue, glitter paper, and a Wade Boggs rookie later, I’d managed to raise $45 for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum with a card I made.

Image

Now I’m cutting up old Dave Parker and Kirk Gibson cards to raise money for Parkinson’s Disease research. (Team Cobra currently leads Team Gibby $25 to nothing, but I’m hoping eventually to raise at least $125 for each of their foundations.)

I’ve also had fun practicing on some other cards that I was able to find happy homes for across the Hobby community. There’s even a registry for this kind of thing now!

At the end of the day, I still love the old stuff: my Aaron collection, my Brooklyn team sets, my Campy collection. What’s different now is that I also love some other stuff: making and giving.

There was a time I’d look at my stack of 500 Kirk Gibson cards and think, “Not enough.” Then I hit that point in collecting where I’d look at the same stack and think, “Too many.” Now I’m at the point where I’d at least like to think each one of those cards, by itself worth maybe a nickel and already owned in spades by all the other Gibson collectors out there, could turn into something special for someone. Ditto Dale Murphy, Steve Garvey, Eric Davis, Doc Gooden, and all those other guys I have stacks and stacks of to this day.

If so, I wouldn’t be the first guy out there turning junk wax into gold. I wouldn’t even be the second. Or the third! And God knows I wouldn’t be the guy making the most money off trimmed cards. All I can hope for is to be the guy having the most fun with it and at least in some small way making a difference in this goddamn crazy world of ours.

UPDATE: I have a website now for the work I’m doing. Enjoy!

The Big Sadowski

“This is a very complicated case Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous.”

In the 1960s, the dudes who ripped wax had to abide by one rule of acquisition, your odds of pulling a Sadowski were very high. The best approach was to remain calm and mellow while adding the cards to the duplicate pile.

Prior to the 1963 Season, infield prospect Bob Sadowski rolled like a tumbling tumbleweed from the White Sox of Chicago to the City of Angels, where he joined the Los Angeles Angels of Chavez Ravine.  Topps thought enough of his potential to float his head on a 1962 Rookie Parade card (him and three other guys).  When Bob the infielder showed up for spring training, he discovered that the Halos had another Sadowski on the roster.

Catcher Ed Sadowski was selected from the Red Sox organization in the expansion draft prior to the 1961 season.  Ed’s weak stick marked his destiny as a backup catcher.  He hung on with the Angels in that capacity through 1963, at which point Ed was ordered to stay out of Malibu.

Ed did not receive a solo card after 1963, but was teamed with Bob “Buck” Rogers on the “Angels Backstops” combo card in 1964.

One could hazard a guess that Ed was taken aback by the presence of the new infielder, Bob Sadowski, since he had a younger brother named Bob who was working his way up as a pitcher in the Braves chain. (How ya gonna keep em down on the farm once they’ve seen Karl Hungus?!)

Bob Sadowski the pitcher (the other Bob Sadowski) was called up to Milwaukee in 1963 resulting in two Bob Sadowskis being active on major league rosters.  You can imagine their first meeting—”Okay sir, you’re a Sadowski, I’m a Sadowski. That’s terrific, but I’m very busy, as I can imagine you are. What can I do for you sir?”

Brother Bob had enough stuff to hang with the Braves through 1965 before he was peddled to Boston, where in 1966 he traded his spikes in for a pair of bowling shoes. Strong men also cry.

But, my friends, this is not the end of the Sadowski saga.  In 1961, Topps issued a card for the third Sadowski brother, Ted. (Ahh, separate incidents). The Twins prospect received the rookie “star” on his one and only card.  Not exactly a lightweight, Dude. Like his brother Bob, Ted was a thrower of rocks.  He made 43 appearances with the Senators/Twins between 1960 and 1962.

Incidentally, on May 27, 1962 (the day after Shabbos) Ted faced Bob the infielder (no relation) in a league game (Smokey) between the Twins and White Sox.  This Sadowski showdown resulted in Bob collecting two singles with two RBI in two plate appearances.  Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes… well, he eats you. And sometimes the bear’s name is Bob Sadowski, who would henceforth be referred to by all other Sadowskis as His Dudeness (or Duder, or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing).

If you are still with me, you are undoubtedly hoping I will wrap it up soon. “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” For I happen to know there was another little Sadowski on the way.

Jim Sadowski, nephew of the three Sadowski brothers, surfaces with the Pirates in 1974, pitching in four games before returning to the minors.  Topps did not issue a card for Jim, but we got some leads about a  publicity still and a Venezuelan Winter League sticker that exist. We’ve been working in shifts to find them.

The non-related Bob hung on in the minor leagues though 1969, which netted him a Seattle Angels popcorn card in 1966. “Did you ever hear of the Seattle Angels? That was me… and twenty four other guys.”

And finally, like a rug can really tie a room together, I will wrap a bow on this post by showing you a page I have from a San Francisco Seals autograph book signed by Ed Sadowski. With that, I bid you farewell. I’m going to go see if they got any of that good sarsaparilla.

Editor’s note: Thanks to guest editor, good friend, and Big Lebowski scholar, Russ, for his help with this piece. He’s a good man…and thorough.

Hero Decks

I have 12 decks of playing cards that I’ll never use.

They’re called Hero Decks, and they first came out around 2005, as far as I can tell.

These are regular 52-card decks of playing cards (plus “jokers”) that feature caricatures of famous people – whether it’s famous figures from history or politicians or musicians or athletes.

I collect the baseball decks, and they’re done by city. They are advertised as such (Boston Baseball Heroes, Philadelphia Baseball Heroes) I’m assuming due to licensing issues. The Milwaukee deck features both Braves & Brewers greats, and the Los Angeles & Brooklyn deck features Dodgers greats across all eras. The San Francisco deck sticks to only San Francisco Giants. There are separate Chicago decks (North Side & South Side) as well as separate decks for New York  (Yankees & Mets).

I bought my first deck (the White Sox deck) at a Borders bookstore probably in the late 2000s (I miss Borders) and shortly after I picked up the Cubs deck and the Milwaukee deck. One of the decks had a mail in offer for a free deck and I added the Yankees. In 2013 I worked a series of Cubs broadcasts in Pittsburgh and while visiting the Pittsburgh Sports Museum I found the Pittsburgh deck. I purchased a few on eBay (Philadelphia, St. Louis & LA/Brooklyn) and one on Amazon (Cleveland), and I also make a habit of buying a deck when I visit our friend the Mayor in Cooperstown (they sell Hero Decks at the Hall of Fame!), as I have picked up Cincinnati, Boston & San Francisco each of the last three trips I have made.

I absolutely love them. Not only do I enjoy the artwork (I dabble in drawing in my free time – I may soon do a post of the baseball cards I draw*), but it’s sort of like one massive baseball card set since they all look similar, except for a slight difference in style in the earlier decks. Those earlier decks (like the Jackie Robinson card shown below from the Los Angeles & Brooklyn deck) feature a larger player image, the name of the player, position and years with the team. The later decks (see Dick Allen card) give you a brief factoid about the players.

Editor’s note: YES PLEASE!! (HIS ARTWORK IS INCREDIBLE!)

Luckily for me, my two favorite players to collect are featured in multiple decks!

Whenever possible, the numbers on the cards correspond to the positions played. And the four suits are divided up among eras, as best as could be done.

The Aces are, well, aces!

The Kings are generally reserved for the hardest hitters. Particularly the Kings of Clubs, or at least it seems that way.

The 10 is used as a spot for the best players who didn’t crack the starting 2-9 slots. The Jacks & Queens are usually reserved for the rest of the outstanding pitchers.

…but other times are simply used like the 10 for other top players.

Since not all teams are the same strength, I think it’s cool to see some players crack the decks who you wouldn’t expect.

One thing I am excited to see with each deck I open are who the “jokers” are. It’s a wild card spot for…

Managers…

Owners…

And even Broadcasters! I love that; otherwise there would be no cards of Harry Kalas, Marty Brennaman, Jack Brickhouse & Jon Miller in my collection!

There have been updates to at least a few of the decks, which is exciting. There’s an updated Cubs deck for after they won the World Series; I haven’t tracked that one down yet. It may look strange in my binder. I don’t really want to put in duplicates, so I think I’ll just add the new cards to the Cubs section.

But yes, I know, these are card collector problems. I’ll gladly figure out a solution when the time comes.

Hall of Fame plaque variations

The bronze plaques of the Hall of Famers that hang in the gallery in Cooperstown could be considered the ultimate baseball cards, though obviously no collector (not even Keith Olbermann) can collect them. The closest we can come is by collecting the classic Hall of Fame plaque postcards – a living set (predating the Topps Living Set by several decades) that is augmented each year by the annual class of new Hall of Famers.

A subset of the Hall of Fame plaque postcards that I’ve enjoyed collecting over the years is the variations created when one of the original bronze plaques is replaced by a new, altered plaque (and that new plaque is then reproduced on a postcard).

By my count, at least 17 original plaques have been replaced over the years by altered versions (with changes to the likeness, name or text), including one that’s been changed at least twice, and another that’s been changed at least three times.  This is only an informal survey, based on my examinations of the plaques currently on display in the Hall, photographs from induction ceremonies, my collection of Hall of Fame plaque postcards, and readers’ responses to the original posting of this article (which alerted me to the Ruth, Barrow, Lemon and Fisk variations). I inquired at the Hall of Fame library about (1) any sort of official list of changed plaques and (2) any archived correspondence regarding the when and why of the changes made, but was told (1) that there was no such official list and (2) that any such internal correspondence was not available for public view.

Here’s what I’ve got as of April 2020:

BABE RUTH

As strange as it may sound, what must be the most-read plaque in the Hall and, I’m guessing, the best-selling plaque postcard every year, originally had the wrong year for Ruth’s major league debut — an error that went uncorrected for nearly 70 years! Ruth’s incorrect career span of “1915-1935” on his original plaque was changed to the correct “1914-1935” at some point in late 2005 or 2006.  (Thanks to Jimmy Seidita for pointing out the change in Ruth’s plaque and for the link in his comment below to a 2005 New York Times article about the plaques.)

ED BARROW

The likeness on Ed Barrow’s original plaque was changed sometime between 1954 and 1959 – this is the earliest change in a plaque that I’ve found. Elected by the Veterans’ Committee in late 1953, Barrow was formally inducted (and his original plaque likely made its public debut) at the following summer’s ceremony with the Class of 1954. The original plaque appears on Artvue Type 1 (no bolts) postcards (produced from 1953-1955), but I haven’t been able to find the original on an Artvue Type 2 (produced from 1956-1963), so the change may have happened prior to 1956.  I do have a Hall of Fame guidebook published in July 1959 that shows the replacement plaque.  (Thanks to Adam Penale for pointing out the change in Barrow’s plaque.)

Author’s question: Is there an Artvue Type 2 postcard showing the original Barrow plaque?

Jackie Robinson

Even given the limited space on the plaques for describing an inductee’s achievements, the Hall has made some curious editorial choices over the years when composing the text (Barry Larkin’s plaque fails to mention his 1995 NL MVP award, for example), but no omission was more glaring than the fact that Jackie Robinson’s original plaque made no mention of his integration of the major leagues. His 1962 plaque (left) was replaced in 2008 with an altered version of the text (right) that remedied that situation. There’s a discussion of the change on the Hall’s website.

Bob Feller

It appears that Feller’s plaque has been changed at least three times.  His original plaque from 1962 (top left in the photo below, on an Artvue postcard) was later replaced by a plaque with two changes: a different likeness, and his winning percentage in the last line of text erroneously changed from “P.C..621” to “P.C.,621” (top right, on a Curteichcolor green-back).  That second version was replaced by a third version that had his career years listed as “1936-1956” and maintained the “,621” error (lower left, on a Mike Roberts postcard printed in 1992).  Subsequently, that third version was itself replaced with a new plaque that shows (as the first two versions of his plaque did) his career years as “1936-1941” and “1945-1956” (reflecting the gap in his baseball career due to his military service) and corrects the “,621” to “.621” (lower right, on the current Scenic Art postcard).

Ted Williams

It appears that Teddy Ballgame’s plaque has been changed at least twice. The original plaque that was displayed at his 1966 induction ceremony was subsequently replaced by a plaque bearing a slightly different likeness (on the left in the photo below). That replacement plaque was itself later replaced by a new plaque (on the right) with a drastically different likeness. As to why the changes were made, I note the following from Thomas Boswell in The Washington Post on August 9, 1977: “Ted Williams was so incensed by his nonlikeness that he demanded a new plaque.”

A picture of Williams posing (at his 1966 induction ceremony) with his original plaque can be seen accompanying an article on the Hall’s website.

Author’s question: Was a Hall of Fame postcard produced depicting the original 1966 Ted Williams plaque?

Stan Musial

Musial’s original 1969 plaque was replaced by one with a slightly changed text, including the replacement of “SLUGGING PERCENTAGE 6 YEARS” with “AND WON SEVEN N.L. BATTING TITLES.”

Roberto Clemente

Clemente’s original 1973 plaque was replaced in 2000 in order to reflect the traditional Latin American presentation of his full name (whereby his given last name is followed by his mother’s maiden name). Juan Marichal’s original plaque was replaced to make a similar change (see below). The original Clemente plaque is on display in the kids’ section of the Museum (in the original Hall of Fame library building) – as far as I know, it is the only one of the replaced plaques on public display anywhere (though the Hall’s website says the original Jackie Robinson plaque remains “a part of the Museum’s collections and will be used for educational purposes”).

Warren Spahn

Spahn’s original 1973 plaque was replaced by one showing a corrected career strikeout total of 2,583 in the next-to-last line of the text.

BOB LEMON

Lemon’s original 1976 plaque showed his career years as “1941-1942 AND 1946-1958,” which reflected the gap in his career due to military service in WWII. His original plaque was subsequently replaced with one showing his career years as “1941-1958.” (Thanks to Rick McElvaney for pointing out the change in Lemon’s plaque.)

Robin Roberts

I’m curious as to the “why” on this one. Instead of a slight emendation to correct the erroneous reference on Roberts’s original 1976 plaque to his having led the league in shutouts twice (he actually led the league once), the replacement plaque bears a wholesale change to the text, including a new and mysterious reference to his having been “MAJOR LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR, 1952 AND 1955.” Assuming the award being referred to is The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year Award, the information on the replacement plaque is incorrect – Roberts did win that award in 1952, but Duke Snider won it in 1955 (Roberts did win The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year Award in 1952 and 1955).

Editor’s Note: Mr. James Roberts, the youngest son of the Hall of Fame pitcher, reached out to us to explain the reason for the plaque’s update:

“You say it is curious as to ‘why’ on Roberts. On the original it said ‘while usually playing for second division teams.’ He did not like that, he felt his teammates were being disparaged. He requested the change. Now you know why.

Juan Marichal

As with Clemente’s plaque (see above), Marichal’s original plaque was replaced to reflect the traditional Latin American presentation of his full name.

George Davis

The original 1998 plaque for Davis was later replaced to correct the years he served as player manager in the last line of the text, from “1898, 1900 and 1901” to “1895, 1900 and 1901.” The replacement plaque has not been reproduced on a postcard yet – possibly because they still haven’t sold through the original July 1998 print run! Based on how many “Date of Printing July 1998” Davis postcards were available on the rack during my most recent visit to the Hall’s gift shop in October 2019, we may be many years away from a new printing of his postcard (which would presumably show the replacement plaque).

CARLTON FISK

Fisk’s original 2000 plaque was replaced to change his number of games caught (in the second line of the text) from 2,229 to 2,226. (Thanks to Wayne McElreavy for pointing out the change in Fisk’s plaque.)

Pete Hill

Hill’s original 2006 plaque was replaced to correct his first name: “JOSEPH” was changed to “JOHN.”

Bruce Sutter

Sutter’s original 2006 plaque was replaced to correct a typographical error: in the sixth line of the text, “LEAD” was changed to “LED.”

Roberto Alomar

Alomar’s original 2011 plaque was replaced by a new one with a slightly different likeness.

Ron Santo

Santo’s original 2012 plaque was replaced by a new one with a slightly different likeness.

Bullet Rogan – possible future change

The 2019 Hall of Fame Almanac correctly lists Rogan’s full name as “Charles Wilber ‘Joe’ Rogan,” but, as of the time of this writing, his plaque (as well as the Hall of Fame’s website) shows his full name incorrectly as “Wilber Joe Rogan.” I’ve got my eye on this one…

UPDATE (JULY 2020): the Hall of Fame has changed Rogan’s page on the official HOF website to show his name as “Charles Wilber Rogan” — could a corresponding change of his plaque be in the offing? Watch this space!

As mentioned above, this list reflects only my personal, informal survey and is quite possibly incomplete — additional information from readers would be most welcome!

Interview with Graig Kreindler

For all the sets Topps releases each year you’d be forgiven for not tracking all of them. However, there is at least one you owe it yourself to see if not have…unless you really, really hate baseball!

The 2019 Topps 150 Years of Baseball “Artist Renditions” set consists of 20 cards, all featuring impossibly beautiful images off the canvas of baseball artist Graig Kreindler. Before jumping into my interview with Graig, let’s back up just a bit.

I first encountered Graig’s work when I ran across his painting “Henry” and just about died. The expression, the uniform, the color, the crowd, the musculature, the shadows, the…everything…was amazing to me. I had seen so many images of Hank Aaron in my life, but none had the hold on me that this one did.

I often wondered how amazing it would be if someday this image or others from Graig could be turned into baseball cards. Apparently I was not alone.

In late 2018 Topps contacted Graig and his agent about the concept of an “artist renditions” set to be released in limited print runs through the Topps website. By April 2019 the cards were a reality, with the first offering, Ty Cobb, selling 1549 copies.

“I had been aware of the business model they were working with, as I had followed their success with Topps Now and the Living Set. It was a little different than what I expected in terms of my first real baseball card project, but I was super excited to work with them in any sense – being a part of that lineage that goes back to my father’s childhood was super appealing to me.”

In case you missed it, Graig’s father was a card collector, but more on that much later.

“In a way, I liken it to comics where you have modern artists and writers handling these current issues of something like Batman, and them being in the same line with the Neal Adamses, Grant Morrisons, Frank Millers and even going as far back as Bob Kane and Bill Finger…it’s like a big family that you’re being asked to join.”

One question I had for Graig was who chose the players to be included in the set, Topps or Graig. This is something that interests me with nearly any baseball set…the hows and whos of arriving at a checklist.

“Topps was in charge of giving me the names of the players they wanted. They had the first 15 or so planned, both with the specific players and when they were to be released. For the last five, they did ask for a little input, but I don’t think that my suggestions were a huge influence in the decision making process. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just think that the players I might have wanted to paint may not have lined up with the players who they thought would be popular among their large fan base.”

While I would have loved to hear that Graig had total license over the project, I have to say Topps did a phenomenal job in selecting the players for Graig to paint. I can also imagine the good people at Topps being a bit irked had Graig decided to go with Lipman Pike or Hans Lobert over, say, Tom Seaver or Ted Williams.

The result is an almost obscenely stacked roster of top shelf baseball talent, so much so that you have to think hard to come up with who didn’t make the cut. (Two Yankees legends absent due to licensing issues were Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.)

While Graig did not develop the checklist, he did choose the photographs that the card images were based on, though Topps provided some input likely aimed at increasing marketability.

“They made it clear to me that each player should be depicted with the team he’s best known for, and preferably on the youngish side of the coin. Combining that with the pool of images that Topps has the license to use via Getty, I was able to find at least 7-8 photographs of each player that I thought would be worthy.”

If you read that last sentence and are thinking PARALLELS, you’re not alone! Graig? Topps? What do you say?

One question I had for Graig was whether choosing an image for a large painting was very different from choosing an image for a baseball card.

“The thought was that if I did an action shot or a stadium panoramic [as many of Graig’s paintings are], it was going to be shrunk down to card size, so a lot of detail would be lost. Rather than risking that, I felt that portraits would be the safest bet. Plus, since I’m sure a lot of the images of these guys are in black and white, having a color representation of their face (and some jersey stuff when applicable) was the most important aspect of the artist rendition in terms of ‘connecting’ with people.”

Time considerations were a factor for Graig also since the project called for Topps to issue a new card roughly every two weeks. This too pointed toward portraits.

Among the portraits I wondered if Graig had any favorites, whether as an artist, a collector, or a fan. Were there any paintings where Graig said, “Wow, I really did a great job with that one!”

“There are certain aspects of each portrait that I really think I nailed. I mean, obviously, I always want the next painting to be the best one, but sometimes there are little spots of each that can shine or stick out to me in some way. And those parts aren’t necessarily visible to others (or even tangible for that matter) but they’re there.”

“As an example, the last painting I did of Lou Brock, the relationship between the bright, warm red of his cap and the cool green and blue hues of the dugout wall was incredibly pleasing. It was something I tried to push a lot in the original painting, playing off of color complements and optical blending. I’m not even sure if that stuff made its way into the final card itself, as a lot of nuance can get lost in the reproduction process, but I was very pleased with how the painting itself came out.”

Look again at that Brock card now. There’s nothing lazy, nothing wasted. Even the parts that immediately hit our eye as “white jersey” or “red cap” aren’t. Anywhere you look on any of these cards there is a glow, texture, and even a personality that emerges.

I wanted to know where this all came from, not just the Artist Renditions set but everything. Did Graig collect cards as a kid? Who were his favorite players? What were his favorite sets? I tried to go light since I knew Graig was preparing for a major exhibition of over 200 of his paintings in Kansas City as part of the Centennial Celebration organized by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

“I did indeed collect as a kid. With my father being a somewhat avid collector in the ’50s up until a bit after I was born (1980), I don’t think my brother or I had a choice NOT to have an interest in baseball cards.”

Okay, I know you’re thinking what I was thinking! Well, here’s the bad news…

“Like most of the people of his generation, his mother threw out the majority of his collection when she deemed him ‘too old’ for it.”

Shoot! But wait, the story’s not quite over…

Author’s rendition of what card maybe looked like

“He was able to save some of his favorites. Included in that batch were mostly Yankees and a smattering of Giants and Dodgers. He managed to keep his ’51 Bowman Mantle, which always had a certain mystique about it, what with it being the rookie card of his favorite player and all. And let’s face it, it was expensive, which to me, as a kid, was extra cool. His example wasn’t even in decent shape or anything, but it still had quite an aura – so even then I was aware that it had some serious sentimental value.”

On one hand Graig’s father’s collection influenced Graig as a collector.

“Through my father’s stories, I came to ‘know’ Mantle and his teammates in a way that seemed more real to me than the feelings I had with the group of the then-current Yankees (Mattingly, Winfield, Randolph, etc). So while I was getting my first packs of baseball cards (’87 Topps – still LOVE that set), I was even more excited about picking up older cards when I could.”

“I remember being at one of the Gloria Rothstein Westchester shows in the late ’80s and my father paying $4 to get me a 1964 Topps Bobby Richardson. I held it in my hands and was truly amazed. My friends couldn’t understand why I had any interest in a guy they’d never heard of, but there I was, not being able to shut up about that ’61 Yankees infield.”

Interestingly, Graig’s father’s collection also influenced Graig as an artist.

“When I was younger, it’s fair to say that I was inspired to draw ballplayers because of my father’s baseball cards. Looking at it now, I’m sure that seeing those early Bowman and Topps issues with the illustrations must have had some kind of impact on my psyche – something along the lines of, ‘Hey, somebody actually drew and painted these things – they’re not photographs, they’re made by humans. Maybe that’s something I can do.’ I don’t remember actually having any epiphany like that, but I’ve gotta imagine that that is how what I do now all germinated.”

It was also around that time that Graig encountered the work of more contemporary baseball artists.

“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I of course fell in love with the likes of Dick Perez and Christopher Paluso. And both for different reasons. I loved how painterly and expressive Perez was with his colors. And the sleak photorealism of Christopher’s work appealed to me on a craftsman’s level. To this day, I can still remember seeing their stuff for the first time.”

I worked with Graig to track down the first Christopher Paluso piece he remembers seeing, this lithograph of Joe Sewell. (Image source from Heritage Auctions.)

Tracking down Graig’s first recollections of Dick Perez’s work was a foggier matter. He vaguely recalled the 1986 Donruss Diamond Kings subset but was unsure of the player so I’ll just go with my three favorites!

Not wanting to leave anything out I ended my interview with Graig by asking him a question I was really happy I remembered to ask.

“What’s one question you wish I asked but didn’t? And what’s the answer?”

Graig’s answer was a long one that has little to do with baseball cards but is no less essential to the overall story of the cards that inspired this post.

“That’s a tough one! The question, ‘Who is your biggest art influence?’ is always one of my favorites. And that’s mainly because I like giving the man his due. I first met Peter Fiore in 1999 as an undergrad student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I had enrolled in his class – “Painting the Light” I think it was called – not quite knowing what to expect. The description mentioned something about learning how to paint your subjects in believable space by paying attention to light and color, or something to that effect. And the idea appealed to me greatly.”

“Little did I know that that fall, I made the acquaintance of the artist who would forever change the way I thought about painting. Up until then, I was strictly a renderer. I wanted whatever I painted to be realistic to the point where it blended between realism and photorealism. And to me, that meant being able to study edges, values and colors as they appear through photography.”

Source: Peter Fiore’s Facebook cover photo

“Through Peter, I learned that photography was a starting off point, that the world around me had much more to show. I learned how to work with color, and to work with it purposefully. I learned how light shapes the world around me. And this didn’t happen in just that semester. I took a few classes with him while I was in school. After I graduated, we became good friends, and I still consider him one of my favorite people on this planet. I’m always learning from him, be it about painting or light or life, and I can’t think of any teacher or friend who’s influenced my artistic journey as much as he has. For anybody interested, you can see his beautiful landscapes at peterfiore.com.”

Look at Graig’s work again and you can see this. Every detail is there, but there is something more. The players he paints are at the same time lifelike and larger than life. There is a radiance that differs from how our eyes might have seen these men but perfectly matches how our minds see them.

Normally such images are confined to galleries or perhaps just our imaginations, but thanks to Graig and Topps they can also have a place in our collections.