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.

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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.

Plaques and Cards – An Induction 2017 Recap

Induction 2017 is over. It was a great weekend and I could tell you stories about chatting with Tim Raines, joking with Randy Johnson, welcoming back a healthy Rod Carew, sharing a beer with Bill Lee on my front porch and having my son meet Frank Thomas, but I won’t. There will be plenty of names to drop along the way, but let’s talk cards.

It’s a generally held belief that Cooperstown baseball shops are card shops. Not so. Most of the shops are cap, t-shirt, jersey and autograph places. That’s not to say that those don’t have a smattering of cards, but there are only a few stores that are card stores at their core.

The days leading up to, and including, Induction were filled with baseball cards. Some of my houseguest friends are card people, so we took a daily walk to Baseball Nostalgia in the Doubleday Field parking lot. I wasn’t looking for autographed cards, but I never really do. Still, I buy the ones that catch my eye and there are ones that always catch my eye.

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Jimmy, who comes for Induction every year, brought with him an unopened box of 1990 Upper Deck. It was the hit of the weekend. People tore open packs, shouting when they got a Tim Raines, puzzled when they got a Chuck Cary.

On Friday night, after a big Hall party, my wife and I went to a bash put on by some of our Canadian friends. Cooperstown was invaded from the north, but they were the friendliest hordes. The first person I saw when I got to the house was Bill Lee. His wife showed me a bottle of Bill Lee wine, which had the coolest baseball card label. Better yet, the label is his business/baseball card.

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Lee and a bunch of ex-‘Spos were signing for charity on Saturday. After a few seconds with Dennis Boyd, I hovered around my pal Jonah Keri who was signing books and his Allen & Ginter card, which I had to have. Plus, the money went to a good cause. (Explanation of autograph – Jonah says he’s often told this picture makes him look like some Eastern European politico).

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Jay Jaffe was in town signing his new The Cooperstown Casebook. With each book, Jay handed out a card of the book cover. Rookies, a company that makes custom cards, made some for Split Season as well. People really dig them.

The Raines party was on Saturday night and it was a cardboard filled extravaganza. There was a collage of all his cards (Jimmy noted one was missing, a 1996 something or other), there were cards in the goodie bags and, best of all, cookie cards. This is the first card I’ve eaten since gnawing on a 1964 Eddie Bressoud when I was almost 2.

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Lots of cards each and every day and that doesn’t even count some 1933 Tattoo Orbit and 1956 and 1960 Topps that I got in the mail. There’s a big pile on my dresser that sorely needs to be put away.

Oh, did I mention I chatted with Tim Raines, joked with Randy Johnson, welcomed back a healthy Rod Carew, shared a beer with Bill Lee on my front porch and had my son meet Frank Thomas?

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Dead Imitates Art: The Cultural Imagery of Fernando Valenzuela and his 1984 Topps Card

A number of years ago, my father gave me an 8”x 10” painting of Fernando Valenzuela’s 1984 Topps card.  The subject of the painting, however, was depicted as a calavera, a Mexican iconography image celebrating Dia de los Muertos, playing for the “Deaders.”  At the time he presented me with the painting, I was thrilled, of course, but also overwhelmed with other things going on around me.  I placed the painting on one of my shelves housing numerous baseball books and artifacts, and never paid much attention to it over the years.

Recently, among my random baseball card buying sprees, I came across the ’84 Fernando card and remembered, “Oh yeah, the painting.”  So, I went back to the piece and really started to look at it in a new light.  I found a new appreciation for the work not only in the sentiment that this was a gift from my father, who would pass away two years later, but in thinking about the painting as a reflection of my own culture and its place in the history of Chicano pop culture.

What we find is the intersectionality of baseball as art in the form of a baseball card, and the traditional and celebratory imagery of one of the greatest baseball heroes in the Mexican and Chicano community.

In Mexican culture, “calaveras” or skeletons, are ubiquitously depicted in “Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead celebrations, in usually fun and happy scenes.  Dia de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2nd, is a time when we remember our friends and family who has passed on.  We build little altars, and make bits of food and desserts as an offering.  It’s a sacred time in our communities.  Calavera scenes in art portray normal life and everyday activities, just in skeleton form.  It might seem weird, but it’s home to me.

By the time the 1984 season rolled around, Fernando was having a pretty good start to his career.  He was 49-30 with an ERA of 2.55 in 97 starts over three years as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  No one had ever quite seen a pitcher like Valenzuela before.  He was a baby-faced, pudgy kid with a wide smile, who could light up a room and galvanize a community.  As he looked to the heavens before releasing a killer screwball or a commanding curveball you wondered how in the hell he did that.  He just did.  He was Fernando!

In 1981, his first full season, the 20-year-old led the National League in games pitched (25), complete games (11), innings pitched (192.1) and strikeouts (180).  Remarkably, he won Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young Award, the Silver Slugger Award (.250 batting average with 16 hits), and was 5th in MVP voting.  Not to mention, he was an All-Star.  Over the next two years, the Mexican native’s star would continue to rise, as did his popularity.

For kids and families in East Los Angeles, Fernando had reached cult hero status.  There was an incredible sense of pride when he pitched.  It was as if he was pitching on behalf of all Mexicanos and Chicanos in southern California!  That affinity translated into repeated sold out crowds when Valenzuela took the mound at Dodger Stadium in those years.  As with most cult heroes, we must find a way to uniquely capture their essence in a visual medium.  Among the shops on Brooklyn Avenue and Whittier Boulevard in the barrio, Valenzuela’s image was everywhere!  This was pride.  Pride in him, pride in our community, and pride in the Dodgers.

Years later, the calavera representation of one of my baseball heroes came into my possession, thanks to my dad who knew what it would mean to me.  I honor his memory, and the painting created by Joaquin Newman, here in these words.  I hope to continue this discussion in a presentation at SABR47.  Mr. Newman has created similar works with several other ballplayers that I will also showcase this summer.