Collector’s Paradise (My Coolio Weekend in Cooperstown)

Yes, Shoebox Treasures, the new baseball card exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, is extraordinary. Yes, I had a lovely talk with Doug McWilliams, the legendary Topps photographer, at Doubleday Field during the Hall of Fame classic. Yes, I’m given special things on the plaque for Shoebox Treasures (and, being named in the Hall of Fame is, in some respects, the same as being in the Hall of Fame, which, taken a step further, is like being a Hall of Famer), but this, and the other things, are not what made this past weekend great.

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Starting on Thursday, when my friend Jimmy arrived from Chicago, the weekend was filled with gatherings of friends/collectors. In my living room, or on my front porch, and at Yastrzemski Sports and Baseball Nostalgia, Jimmy, Mark Armour (the new SABR President and co-founder of the SABR Baseball Cards Committee, Mark Hoyle (Red Sox collector extraordinaire) and Jason Schwartz (one of the new co-chairs of the committee) talked baseball, baseball cards, and our collections. It was incredibly fun, incredibly enlightening, and somewhat rare to be surrounded by so many like-minded people.

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(L to R, Mark A, Tom, Jimmy, me, Mark H. Jason took the pic.)

On Saturday night, Tom Shieber, senior curator at the Hall and key cog in the cards exhibit, joined us and tossed some 1982 Topps packs our way, resulting in a new, exclusive, club of stickered phones.

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As Jimmy and I were walking to Main Street on Sunday to meet the guys for some group baseball card buying, which was enormous fun, with everyone now knowing each other’s interests and pointing out their finds, he asked me for my Mission Statement. He loved that Mark Hoyle had a very specific mission – he collects Red Sox cards. Which kind of Red Sox cards? All of them.

I thought I had a pretty good answer. “I collect complete sets and build sets that are of interest to me.”  Jimmy wasn’t having it.

“But that doesn’t tell an outsider anything in detail about what you collect.”

“I don’t care what someone outside of me thinks about my collection,” said I.

Still, the question refined and reaffirmed where my head has been at lately. I am a collector of complete sets and I do like to build complete sets. Could be a baseball, other sports, non-sports, whatever. I like the sense and order of completion. In fact, that day I managed to put together a complete 10 card set of 1993 Kellogg’s College Greats from the cheapo bins at Yaz Sports, and bought two cards for the 1971 Kellogg’s Football set I’m working on. I was true to my mission statement. (I did buy one baseball thing – a signed index card and TCMA 1960’s card of Juan Pizarro).

Further, my toe-dipping into selling my pre-war cards has gone full blown. Why? They don’t really fit what I collect and have no emotional ties. They’re cool, some way cool, but that’s doesn’t feel like quite enough. Yesterday I began listing them.

Here are some of the ones I’m moving out:

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They’re sweet, and maybe I’ll miss them, but I know if someone wanted to trade a complete 1966 Topps set for a handful of pre-war beauties, I’d make that deal in a heartbeat. A full set that has a direct connection to my early pack buying days for a bunch of random cards?

That’s me, completely.

Reflections on “Shoebox Treasures”

Author’s note: Along with other members of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee, I was in Cooperstown this past weekend for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s “Shoebox Treasures” exhibit. Like a great song or poem, a successful exhibit leaves room for each visitor to develop his own meaning. Here is mine. I encourage each of you to visit and find your own.

When you’re a kid a shoebox can be a lot of things but mostly a safe. In the closet, under the bed, or in some nook a kid imagines a secret, there is a box of his best things. It might start out with some plastic army men or a G.I. Joe, some bottle caps, a few pieces of Halloween candy pilfered from his sister’s trick or treat bag, and some stamps and coins, but as the collection grows all these things give way to the consummate currency of cool: cardboard.

My favorite photograph from the exhibit

The baseball card collection, guarded more closely than eggs to a hen, was all things at once: encyclopedia of all that matters, marker of status, builder of friendships, beginning of plans and dreams, blank canvas, constant muse, and drawbridge to the bigger and better.

Not sure why “improved” is in quotes here!

The luckiest kids were born into cardboard royalty through an older brother or cousin, or–if they really hit the jackpot–their dad. I was not. Though my dad grew up during the Golden Age of Baseball and could have acquired countless cards of of Mays, Aaron, and Mantle, he had neither the interest nor the change to spare. His interests as a young boy were astronomy and dinosaurs. He told me why once. They were the things he could think of as far away as possible, in distance and in time.

Upper portion of “Collector’s Corner” area of exhibit

He had no cards for me, just a similar desire to escape. We both grew up in (and ultimately recreated) houses full of conflict: arguments, yelling, fighting, and ultimately divorce. I expected things to improve when my dad moved out, but my mom’s anger never went away. It only found the closest targets. From the outside our house looked solid. It survived earthquakes and a fire. On the inside it was fragile and falling apart, its only stronghold my growing house of cards.

More than 40 pull-out drawers, organized by era, offer a tremendous visual timeline of the Hobby.

The kids I grew up with, I think most of them collected to be closer to their heroes. Far fewer collected to be farther from everything else. As adults, however long our hiatus from the Hobby, I suspect the proportion is greater. Our cards help us start over, feel young again, and shield us from what ails us.

The exhibit included the work of Baseball Card Vandals, Gummy Arts, Tim Carroll, and other artists.

As I made the drive from Cooperstown to Albany for my 6 o’clock flight home, I reflected on the unbelievably great time I had all weekend but also how fantastic it would be to get home, to be back with my fiancee, my son, and our dog. (And yes, to add a few new cards to my binders from the local card shops!)

Getting ready to hit the card shops (L-R): Mark Armour, Harry Hoyle, and Andrew Aronstein

For most of my collecting life, I needed to collect. I don’t anymore. Life is that good finally. But here’s the kicker, brought home 100% at “Shoebox Treasures.” I still love the cards just as much. My shoeboxes are still safes, but now only the cards need protecting. Thanks to the heroes, cardboard and otherwise, who got me here.

Several players were on hand all weekend for the Hall of Fame Classic

I know some of you are a little bummed to reach the end of this post without seeing a bunch of great cards, especially if you missed the Mantle rookie in one of the pics. In fact the exhibit is loaded with great cards, including what’s probably the nicest T206 Wagner in the world. (Before you go checking some pop report, this one has never been graded!) I have too many pictures to share, and I’d rather you just go see the cards for yourself, but I will leave you with this great pairing.

Topps All-Star Rookie trophy supplied by the great Johnny Bench himself!

UNCOMMON COMMON: Ernie Barnes

Author’s note: This is the second post in a series highlighting “common players” with stories far richer than the value of their trading cards. The first post in the series profiled Dave Hoskins and can be found here.

The common understanding of the term “Renaissance Man” is of someone with many talents or areas of knowledge. Ernie Barnes fits this description. Less correct but truer to the origin of the word renaissance would be a man reborn. Ernie Barnes fits this description too.

“Song of Myself”

Raised in segregated Durham, North Carolina, Barnes was chubby, nonathletic, and bullied by his Hillside High School classmates. He mainly kept to himself and drew in his sketchbook to pass the time. Tommy Tucker, a teacher at the school, noticed the drawings and took an interest in Barnes. A bodybuilder, Tucker sold Barnes on the positive impact weightlifting could have on his life. By the time he graduated, Barnes was state champion in the shotput and captain of the football team. He also had scholarship offers to 26 colleges.

“Sunday’s Hero”

At North Carolina College, Ernie Barnes played tackle and center on the football team while majoring in art. As a kid, despite his interest, Barnes was never able to visit the North Carolina Museum of Art. Blacks were not allowed. In college, however, Barnes made a trip to the recently desegregated museum with one of his art classes. The answer when Barnes asked where he could find paintings by Negro artists? “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”

“Friendly Friendship Baptist Church”

Twenty-three years the work of Ernie Barnes would fill this same museum, and today his work hangs in Halls of Fame, top galleries, art museums, and the homes of the art world’s top collectors. If you love Motown and grew before everything was digital, there’s a good chance you even have an Ernie Barnes sitting in your music collection.

“Sugar Shack” painting used for Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album cover

You might even have several!

That’s great, Jason, but what does all this have to do with baseball cards? Well, let me at least bring it back to sports.

“Fast Break”

Barnes was selected in the 8th round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, but his Redskins career lasted only a few minutes. Then the team found out Barnes was black. Two rounds later, the Baltimore Colts called his name but ultimately cut Barnes at the end of training camp. In 1960 Barnes played five games with the Titans of New York, who later became the Jets.

“Football Pileup”

Barnes spent the 1961 and 1962 seasons as a San Diego Charger and the following two seasons with the Denver Broncos. Barnes never approached All-Pro status or even started a game, though he picked up the nickname “Big Rembrandt” for the sketches he did during games, including in huddles.

I suspect when you think of football players turned actors, Barnes is not the first to come to mind.

“O.J. Simpson” (1984)

Nonetheless, Barnes acted in numerous television shows and movies, highlighted by his portrayal of Josh Gibson in the 1981 Satchel Paige biopic “Don’t Look Back.”

There is another connection Ernie Barnes has to baseball, one shared with me by Lawrence “Dan” D’Antignan, owner of Chicago’s historic Woodshop, longtime institution and early commercial epicenter of African American art.

As Dan tells it, his wife had made a trip to Los Angeles to meet with Ernie Barnes and discuss the selling of his work when the meeting was interrupted by a woman hoping to show off the work of her teenage son who 100% lived up to the hype.

Perhaps you’ve tasted the back of some of his artwork…

Or been greeted by it at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City…

“Safe at Home” (2005)

There’s also a very good chance you’ve run across his book.

Of course, you didn’t come here to read about Kadir Nelson or even art! You want CARDS! Well, luckily I aim to please.

While an Ernie Barnes painting would easily set you back five figures if not six, it turns out any motivated collector can add an Ernie Barnes to his or her collection for the price of a bad ham sandwich.

As the title to this post suggests, Ernie Barnes, one of the great artists of the 20th century and an absolute icon in the African American art world, is a mere “common player, starting at around $2 on COMC and eBay.

1964 Topps Football card #48

Common though he is in the price guides, Ernie Barnes is the only man on the set’s 176-card checklist certain to remain relevant not just decades but centuries from now. Somewhere in a museum a young visitor will ask the docent where the works by African Americans are kept. And then, long, long after all 11 Hall of Famers in the 1964 Topps set have faded from memory, the visitor will happen upon an Ernie Barnes and neglect the rest of the day’s plans for a brush with greatness.

“Hook Shot” (1971)

Augmented Reality and the Baseball Card

T-Mobile AR package

On a recent visit to the newly-christened T-Mobile Park, home of the Seattle Mariners, game-day hosts passed out packs of baseball cards.  Only, these cards were unlike anything that we may have seen before.  T-Mobile, flexing their technology muscle, has worked to create augmented reality (AR) baseball cards.  The packaging text tells you to download the T-Mobile Tech Experience app, then you are to scan the cards (there are three in the pack) with the app and see the card come to life through this augmented reality technology.

Moose

The first card is the Mariner Moose, the hometown nine’s venerable mascot.  The card depicts the Moose with one hoof (!) in the air, and the other facing the camera.  Under the AR scan, the Moose is dancing around in what appears to be a several second video, akin to something out of the Harry Potter world.  The reverse side features a rather nice biography of the Moose, describing his origins.

TMP

The second card depicts a night time scene of T-Mobile Park overlooking Edgar Martinez Drive facing north, with the roof open.  Under the AR scan, we are treated to a several second fireworks display, with the phrase, “WELCOME TO T-MOBILE PARK” superimposed on the fireworks display.  The reverse side of the card gives you a bit of information on the ballpark, but mainly indicates some to the T-Mobile features fans will experience.

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The third and final card shows what must be a T-Mobile fan truck, where according to the back of the card, you are supposed to visit and use a barcode and scan yourself a chance to win a prize.  The Mariners beat the Boston Red Sox that day, so that was prize enough for me!

Anyway, I got a chance to see AR technology at an art museum last year, which was featured as part of the art exhibition and found it an interesting use of technology.  In doing some initial research on AR, I found a simply-put definition from HowStuffWorks.com: “Augmented reality is the blending of interactive digital elements – like dazzling visual overlays, buzzy haptic feedback, or other sensory projections – into our real-world environments.”

So, that is, when using this app (or AR glasses) you can scan something that is coded with AR to see an interactivity come to life.  It’s pretty cool stuff, especially when you start thinking about its applicability to real baseball cards.  Imagine using AR on your next set of Topps cards and see the images of the ballplayers come to life taking a swing, or throwing a pitch or catching a ball!   The possibilities for such use may be boundless.

Baseball Americana

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Over Thanksgiving I took a trip to go see the Baseball Americana exhibition at the Library of Congress. It’s a single gallery, doable in an hour, and I highly recommend visiting if you’re in DC before it closes. While I’ve already written about the general show on my own blog, for the purposes of this committee I feel like it’s worth highlighting the specific role baseball cards play in the exhibition.

Being part of the Library of Congress means that ephemera like cards are emphasized a lot more than equipment and artifacts. One of the key points this show makes is not only has baseball existed for 150 years years, it’s been recognizable that entire time; the existence of baseball cards—the earliest being a carte de visite from 1865 — is a key feature of this consistency. As long as we’ve had a game, we’ve been making pieces of cardboard featuring players’ pictures and trading and collecting the results.

Does a modern card (well, 1994 Bowman) with 4-color offset lithography, gloss UV, and foilstamping compare at all to a 130-year-old Goodwin & Co single-color uncoated photographic print? Not at all from a production point of view but seeing them next to each other in the same case and even my 6-year-old recognizes them as part and parcel of the same concept. Heck, even some of the poses are exactly the same.

The show continues with a display of a number of cards of stars of the pre-integration period. These are wonderful to see (and lust over) but the emphasis of this part of the exhibition is in who’s playing baseball and the cards are contrasted with photos of African-American ballplayers.

The clear takeaway to me is that while cards have always existed, their role in defining who real ballplayers are cannot be ignored. Seeing who we’ve chosen to make cards of is a powerful statement about who counts and who doesn’t in the sport.* I half-jokingly refer to Topps Flagship as the “card of record” but there’s a kernel of truth in there. Cards chronicle the history of the game and collecting them connects us to that history.

*Note, my takeaway isn’t just a race thing. When we see collectors express concerns about companies only focusing on rookies or stars or large-market teams it’s because of the way that cards function as a record of who matters.

Cards were my entrée into baseball history. They served a similar function for my kids. As much as my eldest hits Wikipedia, Baseball-Reference, and Retrosheet on the iPad, cards are why he knows who he knows and what sustain his interest and connection to the sport.

BBM

Later on, a sample of Japanese cards shows how the sport has transcended the United States and become more global. This is exactly right and, while I haven’t gotten into international cards,* I can’t deny that it’s really interesting to see how an American thing goes global and how baseball cards end up fitting into other country’s card-collecting traditions.

*My forays into Spanish-language issues are more of a language-based interest.

Cabrera

The only miss card-wise for me is that in the section that shows the increase of statistics in both scouting and the appreciation of the game. There’s a comparison of card backs and the nature of the statistical information that we’ve felt is appropriate over the years. Unfortunately we don’t actually get to see the backs and they’re merely described to us.

Plus there’s so much more that could be here. I would’ve loved to see a comparison of backs drawing a line from T205’s slashline of G/AVG/Fielding to the traditional slash lines of the 1960s, the whole range of proto-SABRmetric backs in the 1990s, and finally today’s inclusion of stats like WAR that I can’t even explain to my kids how to calculate. It’s not just that stats exist, it’s what stats we care about and how that impacts our understanding of the game.

What do Baseball Cards Want?

There was a bit of an interesting discussion/freak out on card twitter this week over a restored T206 Honus Wagner card. Restoring in this case involves cleaning the card front and back, replacing the trimmed borders with material from other T206 cards, and filling in missing pigments.

Predictably and understandably, many collectors were appalled and outraged at this. We, as a group, tend to treat our cards as items whose aging must be arrested. We lock them away inside increasingly-secure plastic holders and handle them with kid gloves on the rare occasions that we look at them.* The idea of modifying a card by accident—let alone on purpose—is anathema to the collecting ethos and immediately makes people suspect malicious intent or ignorance.

*One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this SABR group is how frequently it champions the use of cards. Sorting and re-resorting things. Changing the contest in which they’re displayed, etc. etc.

So there were lots of reactions about how this is destroying the card. Or how it was no longer worth anything. Or how it was setting up the opportunity for someone to defraud an unsuspecting buyer.

My reaction though was one of excitement as this represents one of those occasions when baseball cards cross over into the art world. The issue of art restorations is one that’s fascinated me for a long time; the first thing I did was re-read Rebecca Mead’s wonderful New Yorker piece, remind myself of all the different ways that we’ve both “preserved” and “restored” items in the past, and think about what it means for us to have invested so much money and/or emotional weight in small pieces of printed cardboard.

“People always ask, ‘Who do you feel responsible to?’ If a collector comes in and says, ‘I want to have a piece fixed this way,’ do you do it as the collector wants it, or as the artist wants it? I always say we are responsible to the art work, not to the artist or to the collector.”

—Christian Scheidemann

Centering the discussion on the card itself allows me to really think about what restoring does and what it means to restore a card. I proceeded to jump down a rabbit hole and read posts about when museums have chosen to restore objects.* When they haven’t.** Plus discussions about how restoration is really a commitment to having to maintain the artwork over the course of its lifetime.***

*MoMA’s restoration of a Jackson Pollock is interesting in how it addresses previous restoration efforts as well as emphasizing the fact that the restoration is not intended to make the painting new but rather let it show its age while taking care of it and stabilizing the artwork.

**I found myself thinking especially about Cleveland’s bombed (literally) copy of The Thinker here.

***SFMOMA’s post about its “unconventional” approach to Barry McGee’s work is a great read.

In everything I read it was clear that restoring artwork is about balancing the immediate health of the item with its long-term prospects while keeping it “true” to itself. Restoring an old item so it looks brand new is not the point. It should appear old and reflect its history without looking like it’s going to fall apart.

Interventions should also be obvious without being distracting. The goal is to make it clear that things have been mended yet foreground the original piece. This is a delicate balance and is the reason why the restoration cannot be thought of as one-off fix. The item will continue to age along with the restoration and there’s no way for anyone to know for sure how their relationship will work in another 50 years.

All this makes a lot of sense for me when it comes to trying to preserve an item that’s been kept in reasonably good condition. It’s less relevant for items which are heavily damaged—such as the T206 Wagner in question. Sure, the question of being true to the item still remains. But which truth? The item as it was originally or the item as it’s become today?

Comic books have already ventured into this territory with restoration companies bragging about the level of restoration they can accomplish. The restored Wagner is very much in a similar vein. As much as I appreciate that it wasn’t restored to look pack-fresh and instead still looks like the century-old card that it is, something about doing that much addition just doesn’t sit right with me. The damage is part of the history of the card and obscuring that feels dishonest.

I found myself returning to a post The Getty made about how to display a collection of vase fragments since it points at a middle way of restoring a piece. While representing a much more extreme example of damage, the final restoration suggests the finished original while also being clear about what’s original and what’s new.

*The Getty’s post has more detail but lacks the side-by-side comparison that the Tumblr post has.

This approach is one that I feel would work great for damaged baseball cards where instead of rebuilding the trimmed areas and missing pigment so things look perfect, the restored areas were called out by using neutral pigments or a slightly-differently-toned paper. We would still be able to appreciate the card in its complete state while also being able to see how the original was altered over the years.

On the other hand, all the cleaning and soaking to remove dirt and accreted material—specifically the paper glued to the back—is something I’m still struggling with. Much of that material contains a lot of information about how the card has been used over the years and I hate to get rid of it. It’s good to know how it had been displayed before (in this case, pasted into an album) and be reminded that every generation’s best practices will likely give a subsequent generation hives.

There’s also always the risk of removing too much material. There’s a long history of over-cleaning objects in art world.* Even in sportsland the Hall of Fame just recently underwent a massive restoration project on its Conlon photos which, while it cleans up the photos, completely obliterated the history of how those photos had been used in print.

*Sometimes by accident. Other times, such as with removing all the paint from Greek and Roman sculptures, on purpose.

Do I know how I’d want to restore a damaged card like the Wagner? Of course not. Nor do I fully trust anyone with a single concrete answer as to the best solution. The discussion and thought experiment about how different approaches could help or hurt our understanding though is one which I’ve enjoyed and hope to see continue in the comments here.

The Andy Warhol Triple Play “Pete Rose” (1985) Extra Innings

Last month I gave a presentation titled “The Andy Warhol Triple Play” at the SABR48 conference in Pittsburgh. The name refers to the three major baseball artworks that Warhol painted during his prolific career.

Most importantly for members and fans of this blog the idea to research this topic began with a baseball card.

Or more accurately a silkscreen based off of a baseball card design.

When I saw this image the geography synapses somehow connected Warhol to Pittsburgh and continued to SABR48 which was held at the home of the Pirates. I then vaguely recalled seeing “Tom Seaver” (1977) at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown a few years prior and started wondering about Warhol & Baseball.

I quickly found that Kristin Spangenberg of the Cincinnati Art Museum had previously curated an exhibit of Warhol’s baseball art in 2015 to coincide with the city hosting the MLB All-Star Game. It tuned out there was a third Warhol painting simply titled “Baseball”. All of the sudden I had an idea: Three Baseball Paintings + Andy Warhol = Andy Warhol’s Triple Play.

I have chronicled each of the pieces separately on my own blog Phungo. Here are links to the related pieces

Extra Innings

Twenty minutes may seem like a long time to talk about anything but when it comes to baseball most of us can drone on for hours. This was the case with the Andy Warhol baseball paintings and myself. I ended up cutting about 100 slides down to a few dozen, and I had to race to get through those.

When this happens something inevitably has to get dumped. This includes some very good stuff – after doing the research and living with the subject for a while it is similar to seeing a favorite player get released.

I am referring to this leftover information as “Extra Innings”. I have written columns on these missed subjects over at Phungo. So far postings have discussed the original photo Andy Warhol used for “Pete Rose”, A few of Andy’s Tom Seaver Polaroids, and the various flavors of the “Tom Seaver” portrait.

For various reasons I ended up purging the best Pete Rose anecdote.

Originally there was supposed to be a Pete Rose sitting, similar to what Andy Warhol did with Tom Seaver. Unfortunately in 1985 both Andy and Pete were pretty busy – and to be honest, I don’t think Rose was much of a sitter.

Warhol agreed to do the portrait from a series of photographs.

Andy got the pictures and he was perplexed. He called Carl Solway, the man who had commissioned the artwork with a question:

“In some photos he has the bat on his left shoulder and in some photos he has the bat on his right shoulder, and I am wondering why that is,”

Solway told Warhol “It’s because he’s a switch-hitter”

What happened next was described by SI scrbe Kostya Kennedy in “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma

When Carl Solway related the story to me he mentioned that after finding out that “Switch-Hitter” was a baseball term the artist became significantly more interested in the project.

Kostya Kennedy used this story to promote his book in various forums and you can see him discuss the anecdote on Seth Meyers show if you have hulu.

#WarholBaseball

I plan to do more Extra Innings postings in the future. Most of the columns will appear at Phungo, but I expect to author the trading card related items here. From time to time I will Tweet items under #WarholBaseball.

Acknowledgements

I have always had a significant fear of public speaking – I am perfectly comfortable in a social setting, but yeah never had a desire to speak in front of a roomful of people … until I joined SABR and saw some great presentations.

I then realized I wanted to contribute something to the community.

I would like to thank the Connie Mack Chapter for putting up with my various presentations over the last couple of years, they got to see the raw minor league me. Also I would like to thank the facilitators at the SABR conference. In my case it was Bob Sproule, these folks are great for calming the nerves of any novice presenters like myself.

If you’re a true amateur as I am, I recommend trying out a Speech/Communications group. I joined Toastmasters in advance of going to Pittsburgh. I only went to perhaps a dozen meetings prior to going to #SABR48 but the experience was very valuable.

Sources and Links

Andy Warhol Index at Phungo

Pete Rose: An American Dilemma – Kostya Kennedy

Carl Solway: e-Mail interview

CityBeat – various issues

Cincinnati Art Museum

#SABR48 Warhol Triple-Play audio

#SABR48 Warhol Triple-Play slides

Spring 2019: (Sort of) Mark Your Calendars

National-Baseball-Hall-of-Fame0-f989cee95056a36_f989d01c-5056-a36a-0708e425a78aa7b7There is nothing like a visit to Cooperstown, New York, on a nice spring weekend. I have not been in a few years — thinking … gosh, its been since 2013 — because I live a few plane rides away and I have kids and a job and stuff like that. Cooperstown is a fine relaxing town fit for a cold beer, walking around and about, window shopping and immersing yourself in the history of baseball. Little known fact: The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is there.

The Museum is a wonderful place, as many (most?) of you know. But next spring it will become even more wonderful.

For next spring is when the Baseball Hall of Fame will be unveiling this.

The page I link above was set up as a fund-raiser, but a few days ago I was told that the goal has been met and the permanent exhibit will open in 2019. They are aiming for Memorial Day weekend, when the summer season (and extended hours) kick in, but officially they are only saying “Spring 2019.”

In the past several months, as this exhibit began to crystallize, Chris Dial, Jeff Katz and I have been discussing a gathering of this committee (open to everyone) the weekend (still TBD) of the Grand Opening. What would this gathering entail? Not sure yet, but we envision speakers and events of some sort.

(One possible hiccup is that we also don’t yet know the dates/place of the SABR convention next summer. Obviously we would prefer that these two events be spaced apart.)

It would great if many of you began to think about setting aside a few days to head to Cooperstown next spring. Let’s face it — you’ve been putting off going to the Hall for a few years/decades, always saying “I’ll go next year.” Well, next year is next year.

Sorry for the lack of specifics. We shall keep you informed. If you have bright ideas, pass them on.

Anti-Product Baseball Cards

Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of those brand-name famous artists whose work I’m familiar enough with to recognize when I see it in a museum but who I otherwise don’t actually know much about. I only have a sense of him being a “graffiti” artist who transitioned to painting.

Last winter I started seeing writeups about the big show at the Barbican. So I started skimming; those kind of retrospectives—when done right—are an easy way to get a bit more context about an artist and even the reviews of them tend to be pretty educational. In this case, the writeups often mentioned how before he made it big he sold defaced baseball cards outside MoMA for a buck. Interest seriously piqued. I needed to check out the catalog once it arrived at the library.

Basquiat_Stein_APBBC

The baseball cards are part of a larger project called “Anti-Product Baseball Cards” consisting of postcards that Basquiat and Jennifer Stein collaborated on. They’d make a collage consisting of printed material, paste four of them on a letter-sized page, photocopy the page, spraymount the copy to cardboard, then cut it into fourths to create four 4¼”×5½” postcards.

Basquiat was a visual-literacy sponge who remixed everything he saw—from academic “high” art to mass-produced disposable items—into new creations. This feels extremely familiar now since it’s the core competency of the internet but 40 years ago when color photocopying was not only new but expensive* so this kind of remixing had a higher barrier of entry.**

*At a couple of dollars per sheet, Basquiat and Stein would have have to sell 75% of their inventory to break even.

**Though it’s worth noting that this is a long-standing thing in photography and there’s no surprise that many of Basquiat’s postcards include photographic material.

What’s particularly notable about Basquiat is how broad his visual literacy was. folk art, western art, indigenous art, african art, advertising, graffiti, packaging. Everything was fair game.

The Anti-Product Baseball Cards in particular tend to operate more on the pop culture side of things. Basquiat draws from mass-produced art—not exactly vernacular art since it’s being produced by professionals but not at all what people consider Art™—and turns the designs back from being products to art objects.

So we have items that we recognize as being ubiquitous and effectively valueless—e.g. product packaging—turned into something new and distinct. That Baseball Cards are both the subject of many of these postcards and the title of them is especially noteworthy. Unlike other Pop Art which foregrounds design that people don’t think of as art and puts it into a museum space,* Basquiat’s work is still semi-mass-produced and intended to be purchased and traded.

*e.g. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.

My takeaway is that “trading card” and “baseball card” are often synonymous. Baseball cards are part of our common visual and cultural literacy. Tapping into the ways they’re produced and distributed while messing with all the branding and productization aspects is a way of both asking what it is that we’re collecting and pointing out how familiar we are with them. Outside of the collecting world baseball cards just are. They’re the kind of things everyone recognizes and is aware of but which few people take the time to look at and see. It’s only after someone changes the context and de-productizes them that they get interesting.

If whiting out all identifying information makes these anti-product, the implication is that face, team, and brand information is what makes these “products.” This feels about right to me. These aren’t about Baseball,* they’re about the object, how it’s distributed, and reclaiming the process on a more personal level.

*A point of view which sets them apart from the current crop of baseball card vandals who are having fun but are also very much fans of baseball too.

Basquiat’s art literacy came mostly through books—meaning that he learned via mechanical reproductions of artwork. I love the idea of using mechanical reproduction to transform mechanical reproductions into art themselves.

A note on the “checklist”

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Aside from the two images in the catalog I’ve only been able to find one other image of Basquiat and Stein’s cards online. It’s not high enough resolution to inspect properly but it does kind of look like all the cards are from the 1979 Topps set. JOE is Steve Henderson. JERK is Bob Randall. I haven’t combed through the other small images here to figure out the rest.

Baseball Photographer Trading Cards

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This summer when I was in San Francisco I visited SFMOMA and was able to see an exhibition of Mike Mandel’s work. I’ve already blogged about the show in general but his Baseball Photographer Trading Cards are worth their own post here too.

This project sits at the intersection of photography and baseball cards which I love to think about. It’s relevant in terms of our consumption of images and in how we conceive of photographic products. It provokes a lot of questions about value—this is a set of 134 cards which runs $2000–$3000 on Ebay because it’s Art™ rather than a collectible and as such, is worth a lot more to certain people.

We’ve got star photographers who everyone knows, photographers’ photographers who aren’t appreciated as much as they should be, and “common” photographers who’ve kind of been forgotten now. It’s very much a proper baseball card set in this way.

Like I can’t find an Ansel Adams card at all on eBay. Other middle-range important photographers are listed for up to a couple hundred bucks. Commons meanwhile are like twenty dollars. As with baseball card sets the range of desirableness is what makes collecting fun. Without the common cards none of the stars are as exciting to find, chase, or trade for. And among the commons there will always names that someone specifically wants.

That these are mass-produced offset lithography is also cool. Where photography is almost always obsessed with process and image quality, these recognize how the photography that most people consume on a daily basis isn’t in the form of quadtones, fancy-shmancy superfine linescreens, silver-gelatin prints, or archival inkjets. Even as baseball cards have gotten more expensive, they’re still produced at a scale which dwarfs art production. Mandel’s cards, while still produced at a much smaller scale, have the same production characteristics. They don’t feel like art objects. They’re the same cheap cardstock, dodgy printing, and slapdash trimming we’ve come to know and love about mid-1970s Topps production.

They were even packaged with gum.

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This project says a lot about the degree to which baseball and baseball cards are part of the American vernacular. That SFMOMA displayed Mandel’s cards with 1958 Topps cards is especially noteworthy. I’ve not liked that set much* but I now see it in a very different light after this. The 1958 designs when paired with Mandel’s cards serve as a way of highlighting posing tropes. How bats are held. Which pitching motions get photographed. What angle a player tends to look off into the distance.

*I’m not a fan of cards where the backgrounds have been painted out whether with colors like the 1958 design or with crazy graphics like so many special parallel cards are today. And yes, I know that the 1958 design is also a direct connection to the early Crackerjack cards which I do like but I guess I feel like this particular design concept is best left to the pre-WW2 days.

The colored backgrounds work as a way of silhouetting the pose to the point where we recognize the shape and posture as baseball card. These are poses we’ve grown up with and seen since the 19th century. They’re the poses my kids make as soon as they try on their Little League jerseys.

And yes they’re the poses we’re all missing when we look at and complain about the current photography in the Topps Flagship set.

Looking at Mandel’s contact sheets shows how quickly people eased into mimicking those poses. That he’s using a medium format camera helps a lot too. Where by the mid 1970s we were seeing Topps increasingly use 35mm cameras to take more and more unposed photos, these medium format shots require working in the same manner as the posed photography of the 1950s and 1960s—the era which Topps Heritage is trying to evoke and which many of us still treat as the golden age of the hobby.

The card backs meanwhile are really interesting. First, of course they’re numbered (yes there’s also a checklist card so you can keep track of your collection). And of course we’ve got the usual height/weight and where they were born information.

But instead of statistics we have Favorite Camera, Favorite Developer, Favorite Paper, Favorite Film, and Favorite Photographer. I love that Mandel realized that one of the chief purposes of baseball cards is comparing the back of one card to the back of another card. That he created a completely-appropriate set of standard information with which we can compare photographers is wonderful.

But he also left half the card blank for and allowed the subject of the card to write anything—or nothing—in the space. Some of the statements are serious. Others are jokes. Others play with the form itself. This is something that I’ve not seen in baseball cards and makes me wonder what would happen if players were allowed to include something of their own creation on the back.

Maybe it could be a statement to their fans. Maybe a selfie they took on their phone. Maybe a shout out to a personal cause. Lots of possibilities (and possibilities for awfulness whatwith every player having endorsement contracts now) that I’ve been enjoying thinking about. But I suspect the most we’ll ever get in this department are Twitter and Instagram handles since wrangling all that personal information is a logistic headache in terms of acquisition and copyright.