Cards in the Time of COVID

As for many people in the time of COVID, it was a real struggle to feel a connection with other people when everything shut down. Part of it was the fact that schools, workplaces, stadiums, museums, and so many other spots were closed, but it was also the shock of facing a huge public health crisis at the same time as a social justice crisis, and a political crisis, that created both a desire to connect with people and a fear of being out in the open.

Under that mindset, I joined SABR in June 2020. I had thought of being a member for a while, but the possibility of having found a place where I could share experiences with like-minded people was a very good one. Now that it has been a year, I have been spending some time reflecting on the community and how great it’s been to find new outlets and joys.

One of the first things that I did was become involved with a few committees, and I have Jason Schwartz and the Baseball Card Research Committee to thank for that. I don’t have all my cards from when I first started collecting them in high school, but around the time that I joined SABR, I started taking stock of the handful that I owned and what they meant to me. I visited the grave of Walter Johnson, the great Senators pitcher who is the namesake of my high school. I also listened in on a panel discussion with this committee that looked at the future of baseball cards with Jason, joined by Nick Vossbrink, Micah Johnson, Scott Hodges, and some really talented card artists who were starting to make their mark. This got me thinking about the possibilities of baseball cards as something more than ephemera, but as expressions of popular culture that have their own unique relationship to and comments on the art and culture around them.

This realization began a few months of thinking about that relationship, and doing some research and examining how cards and art are related. I learned that, despite notable examples like the Burdick Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that are in renowned collections, it’s actually rare for cards and other ephemera to be in major curated collections, often because of the sheer volume. (When collector Jefferson Burdick approached the Met to donate his card collection, the museum accepted it only on the condition that he catalogue it himself, which he did over a period of decades.)

I contemplated the original 1952 Topps set that used photorealistic player paintings set with reproduced signatures, a look that is at once timeless and, even seventy years on, innovative; the 1961 design, which uses set of squares of color like Piet Mondrian’s paintings; and the 1972 set, which had a Pop Art theme that has stood the test of time, especially while being reproduced by Topps at least twice since.

I presented what I had learned to the Baltimore Babe Ruth SABR chapter, which became a very illuminating discussion that touched on sets I had never heard of, Japanese baseball cards, which are incredibly colorful and beautiful and distinctly their own, and got me thinking about how to create something new from something old.

And then I started painting again. I say “again” because I took art and photography in high school, and even as an adult often carried sketchbooks, pencils, and watercolors around with me. As the research I had done marinated in my mind, the idea of creating something new — small paintings — from something old — baseball cards that were decades old — took shape.

Around December, I started making paintings, pulling mostly from the Fleer 1991 and Donruss 1988 set that I had picked up a few years ago and that followed me as I moved a few times. 

I experimented with my process a little bit and found that if I wanted to create a robust surface to paint on, I needed to start with a one or two layers of gesso. I made paintings that recalled the golden icons that I grew to love while I was studying Russian history and politics at college; others that used fields of contrasting color, often showing a lot of motion; still others that were landscapes during different seasons; and some that didn’t fit neatly within any category.

Over time, I’ve created some special galleries focused on Jewish baseball players; women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League; parents and children in professional baseball; and currently I’m working on a set of the “Black Aces,” Black pitchers who have won at least 20 games in a major league season. You can see many of them on my Section 514 blog, or on my Twitter and Instagram feeds.

I’ve also had the great honor of participating in the just-finished art show and contest led by the Negro Leagues Baseball Marketplace and the Josh Gibson Foundation to draw attention to the effort to rename the baseball MVP award for the great Black catcher who passed away at the age of 35, before he could have broken the color barrier in the major leagues. To be one of 75 card artists contributing their work, exhibited in a virtual gallery and rubbing shoulders with some true giants in this area of art was a singular experience. I’m awed by the amount of creativity in the card art world, and hope to see it continue to develop.

As I write this post in July 2021, things are still very uncertain about when, or if, we will return to a life that is totally normal. It’s a not insignificant blessing, though, to have been able to use the time of COVID to find new ways of creating, based on old things that we love.

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

Images as Currency

Before I joined SABR I had a post on my own blog which looked at baseball cards and the role they played in developing my visual literacy. Over the past year of watching various Zoom presentations with my kids about the history of cards I’ve found myself realizing that I need to write a similar post about the way baseball cards also track the way that we, as humans developed visual literacy.

Baseball and baseball cards sort of eerily parallel the development and evolution of photography with a number of rough steps starting around the Civil War before finally coalescing in the late 19th Century around something that’s not changed much over the last 125 years. The thing though is that baseball cards are but a thin sliver of this development.

The hobby has a tendency to talk about cards and collecting as if they evolved as part of baseball history. I get it; we collect cards and aren’t photo historians. But I think it’s important to understand how, if anything, cards basically came along for the ride and that their history is less a history of baseball but a lesson on how we learned to use photographs and changed our relationship with celebrity.

A couple years ago I read Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths. It’s a great book about Sojourner Truth and how she supported herself in part by selling cartes de visite. I went into the book expecting history about photographs and what they depict, and how they interact with issues of race, power, and privilege. Instead I came out with an appreciation of how printed images function within our society.

For most of human history, portraits were only accessible to the wealthy. You had to pay an extremely skilled artist to paint you and you only got one piece out of it. With the advent of photography in the mid-19th century things got a lot more accessible. Tintypes and ambrotypes were affordable* to a much wider range of people. However they are still one-off pieces. The negative itself is treated in such a way that it becomes a positive** and there is no way to make prints.

*25¢ to $2.50 during the Civil War years. So not cheap but something many soldiers or freedmen were able to acquire.

**Watching one develop is as close to seeing real magic as anyone could ever hope to see.

Napoleon III & Empress Eugenie

The next step, making prints from negatives,* opened up the age of photography as we truly know it. Rather than an image being a singular piece, prints could be made and disseminated all over the world. These quickly became cartes de visite and, later, cabinet cards. Cartes de visite are literally visiting cards but took off as soon as they began to be used as celebrity—at first royal—portaits. the resulting phenomena became known as cartomania and became a serious thing both abroad and in the United States.

*In this case albumen prints from glass negatives.

Coming back to Sojourner Truth, not only were people collecting cards, notable people like Truth were producing them for sale as well, modifying them to not only be photographs but to include messages.* Card making and collecting is not only a hobby but a business that can support people whose images are in demand.

*In Truth’s case “I sell the shadow to support the substance”

Grigsby points out that in parallel with cartomania, autograph collecting also saw a massive surge in interest during the Victorian Era as the idea of collecting expanded to include all manner of people. She also makes an amazing connection to the rise of printed, national currency following the National Bank Act and how said currency is also heavily image based. The rise of postal systems and stamps starting from 1840 to the point where we had to create an international standard in 1874 is also worth mentioning here. Stamps were immediately collected and are another way that images became currency.

Cartes de visite, stamps, autographs, etc all ended up being stored in albums and shown to visitors in ways that are shockingly familiar to any of us card collectors today. We have pages that are frequently better for preservation but both the concept and practice of the card binder emerged hand in hand with the cards themselves.

It’s impossible for me to look at sets like Old Judge or Goodwin & Company outside the collecting world which existed in this era. When images are currency and the idea of celebrity culture and “set” collection has taken such a strong hold, it’s no surprise that companies started to create cards of their own.

These are photos—cabinet cards actually—which were printed for commercial instead of personal reasons. They depict all kinds of athletes as well as actors, actresses, and other famous people. Yes they’re promotional items. But they clearly were intended to be collected and traded in the same way as the individually-produced cards were.

Cards and photography usage only begins to diverge a bit in the late 19th century when cabinet cards began to die out due to the emergence of amateur photography. At this point other forms of printed images took up the torch since cards and card collecting were firmly entrenched. Manufacturers like Allen & Ginter in the US (and many others abroad) created sports sets including baseball players, billiards shooters, boxers, and pedestrians and non-sports sets depicting animals, flowers, flags, etc. There was plenty of stuff to choose from; if you could imagine a collection there’s a decent chance there’s a set of it out there.*

*Up until World War 2 the world of trading cards was massive and wonderfully varied. This represents over eight decades of card collecting. I’ve been grabbing “pre-war”sets which cover whatever subject matter strikes my interest—from Hollywood to science to travel because they represent how cards became an affordable way to create your own wunderkammer.

One of the things I love most in this hobby is how it remains a direct connection to the way we originally used photographs. Yes I love baseball. But I also love photography and being able to experience how the the world of cartomania still survives today is fantastic.

It’s why I love the non-sport elements of the modern Ginter sets. It’s why things like exhibit cards fascinate me. It’s why I enjoy Jay Publishing, team-issued postcards, and other card-related photopacks which are aren’t necessarily cards. I can see all these different directions that the hobby could have gone in. Different ways of designing sets and releasing cards. Different concepts of who is worth depicting.

It all reaches back to the 19th century when we realized how images are currency. Something people are willing to purchase and save and trade. The history of card collecting depicts baseball. But it embodies how we learned to see and how we learned to use images.

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.

Frank O’Rourke’s Inherent Dignity

I’m not a collector.

           I have a few cards, some that are worth slightly more than the cardboard they’re printed on, and many more that hold a good deal of sentimental value to me and nobody else. But in the context of the readers of this blog, I don’t merit the use of the term. I’ve never completed a set, never paid more than pocket money for a card, never gone to any remarkable lengths to acquire anything rare, or valuable, or particularly noteworthy. I still have all the cards I amassed as a kid, and I buy new hanger packs when I see them, and on the rare occasion that a wax pack drifts into my field of vision, I snap it up. I’ve made a habit of buying packs for my kids, and we make a little ceremony of opening them together. On Opening Day, or the first day of pitchers and catchers reporting, I sneak packs into their school lunches, and they come home and tell me what players they found inside.

           But I haven’t done any of those things I identify as serious collector behavior. I’ve bought maybe a half-dozen cards on eBay, for example, and I haven’t attended a show since I was about fourteen years old. I’ll never own a Mantle, Ruth, Mays, Clemente, or Aaron.

           Baseball cards are, for me, not an investment, and not an abiding obsession, but something adjacent to baseball that I love for that proximity. They remind me of the game. Their look, and feel, and smell are memory triggers, and for that reason I treasure them.

           And yet, with all that said, I recently bought a 1934 Frank O’Rourke card. It’s No. 43 in the Canadian-printed World Wide Gum Co. series, which reused the 1933 Goudey design, updating the salient facts for 1934, and repeating the biographical info on the back in French. In keeping with my longstanding tightfisted ethos, I paid more in shipping than I did for the card itself. It’s ungraded, with soft, smushed corners where crisp, sharp edges should be. There are minor creases. This card is anything but pristine.

            Frank O’Rourke was a nobody. Well, that’s not quite fair. He’s in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, after all. Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1891, he was an infielder who eked out fourteen seasons of big-league ball for Boston’s NL club, the Robins, Senators, Red Sox, Tigers, and Browns. By the time his portrait was rendered for the ’33 Goudey set he’d seen his last major league action, hanging on with the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers. The ’34 card that I now own dates to his single season with the Montreal Royals of the IL. He dropped down a few rungs to the Piedmont League in ’35, then held on for four seasons as a player-manager for the El Dorado (AR) Lions of the class ‘C’ Cotton States League. He later managed one more year in the Gulf Coast League, and in retirement he served as a scout for the Yankees.

            As a big-league player, O’Rourke managed a career bWAR of -2.0 and amassed a .254/.315/.333 slash line, and a .947 combined fielding percentage at third, short, and second (with a handful of games at first, and a couple patrolling the grass). As a minor-league manager he piled up a lifetime record of 551-580 across four levels of pro ball. Add all of that up and you get a slightly below-average baseball long-hauler, which is not to say there was nothing quietly heroic about Frank O’Rourke; longevity requires its own superpowers.

            But unlike some of its in-set brethren, selling this card wouldn’t allow me to pay off the mortgage, or retire to somewhere hot, sandy, and tax-free. Instead, my appreciation for this card is twofold: the first is purely and unapologetically aesthetic; the second is its implicit historical value.

            The Goudey cards are notoriously easy on the eyes, rendered with a stab at artistry that’s not generally present in modern cards. Holding a Goudey next to a 2021 Topps card makes for a stark contrast. The latter assaults with hyper-sharp photography and whizbang graphics that are intended, I can only guess, to suggest futurity, and motion, and, I don’t know, the internet? The Goudeys are Renaissance paintings on discrete panels of olive wood meant to be inlaid in elaborate polyptychs framing alters in out-of-the-way country churches, reverent celebrations of the beauty and purity of God’s favorite game. The backgrounds are solid fields of color—green in O’Rourke’s case, but elsewhere blue (as in Gehrig), yellow (Jimmie Foxx), red (Dazzy Vance). All the better to focus on the player. O’Rourke’s depicted from the chest up, like a Roman bust, in classic baseball togs: a white (or off-white) cap, logo-free, and a matching jersey with sun collar and orange-brown soutache piping. The pose is adapted from a photo of him in a St. Louis Browns uniform, from 1931 at the latest, that the Goudey (or World Wide Gum) people didn’t bother to retouch, though they were clear to indicate that he was, by 1934, a member of the Montreal Royals and thus in the habit of donning a blue-trimmed uniform.

            The portrait is so classically, absurdly, tragically handsome that if you hold it up to your ear it sings Protestant hymns interspersed with staticky ’30s radio calls of games won with moxie and heart. Even if you aren’t up to speed on his biography, the portrait makes clear that this is a baseball lifer, a man rolled in chalk and infield dirt and baked beneath a thousand midday suns.

            Since I first gazed on O’Rourke’s cardboard face I’ve gone looking for baseball card corollaries, but I came up short until I widened my scope, and then I found Piero della Francesca’s portrait of an Augustinian friar (possibly St. Leonard). Consider the similarities: the subtle intimations of age around the eyes and mouth, the weariness, and yet the slight bemusement, the wry off-center stare. Neither the friar nor Frank are too jaded to enjoy a good joke. Though separated by half a millennium, you get the sense they’d find some common ground. But beneath it all there’s something unmistakably ecclesiastical about both men’s depictions, the not-quite-visible result of a lifetime’s devotion to their respective callings. It’s behind the eyes, I think, or maybe just below the skin. Wherever it is, Piero managed to capture it, as did Elmer E. Crowell, the man responsible for O’Rourke’s likeness.

            The second half of my appreciation for this card has to do with its age: almost ninety years have passed since it was printed. I haven’t handled enough really old cards for the wonder of that to have diminished. Eighty-six years ago someone—a child, a nostalgic adult—bought a pack of gum and out tumbled this card.

            The US domestic GDP was in recovery after the New Deal slammed the brakes on negative growth and pumped cash into the economy. Hitler was chancellor of Germany, already in the process of consolidating his power and assuming the title of Führer. The first camps opened. The Prime Minister of Canada was RB Bennett, a safety match magnate who bungled the response to the Depression but had the foresight to establish the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In China, where my grandfather was a brakeman on a streetcar in Shanghai, tensions with Japan were ratcheting up in the wake of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the uneasy resolution to the “January 28th Incident.” The globe, inexorably, marched toward war.

            In the Bronx, Ruth was in his last season as a Yankee, and Gehrig, five years from retiring in the face of the rapid advance of his illness, was assuming outright leadership of the team. The Gashouse Gang took the Tigers in seven games in that fall’s Series. Detroit’s Mickey Cochrane was voted the AL’s best player, and in Commerce, Oklahoma, zinc miner Mutt Mantle’s kid, named for Cochrane, turned three years old.

            Frank O’Rourke was not directly connected to any of this as he toiled away in Montreal, and his card—a 2-3/8″ by 2-7/8″ piece of thick paper—has nothing whatsoever to do with those events. It was not present for any of them; it was not in all likelihood possessed or handled by any of the players in the aforementioned dramas. But it is for me touched by a temporal proximity, sprinkled with a residue which, though slight, constitutes enough of a reason for me to own it.

            If a Ruth Goudey—or a Sweet Caporal Wagner, or a ’52 Topps Mantle—is the seventh game of the World Series, then my Frank O’Rourke World Wide Gum is a non-consequential Thursday afternoon getaway game played before an announced crowd of twelve thousand. And while I love the screw-tightening intensity of a big game, what I treasure most about baseball is the sweet everydayness of it, the companionship of the radio announcer’s familiar voice for six months, the long, comforting trough of a regular season. And for all the superstars, the game’s lifeblood is its rank and file, guys like O’Rourke, doing the yeoman work of showing up every single day and taking his cuts, scooping up ground balls, and making throws across the diamond from whichever position he’s assigned.

            In that way, this O’Rourke card is perfectly emblematic both of Frank’s life and career, and most of ours. I won’t be in any literal or figurative Hall of Fame, and chances are neither will you. That’s okay. Something as beautiful as this Frank O’Rourke card exists to quietly and stubbornly insist that regardless of that, there’s still a hell of a lot of dignity inherent in our efforts, and the legacies thereof.

Editor’s note: Andrew’s newest book is now available for pre-order. If you can judge a book by it’s cover, this one will not disappoint!

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.

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.)

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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.

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

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…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.

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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!

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!