If you are not familiar with former major leaguer Elio Chacón welcome to the club. I was not aware that Elio played a total of 228 games in the majors from 1960 to 1962 with the Reds and Mets until very recently.
Topps only issued two mainstream cards of Elio. Card number #543 in 1960 when he was a rookie with the Reds and card number #256 in 1962 when he was with the Mets. The 1962 card is an airbrushed, no cap, Reds photo that features Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in the background. If you do a search on eBay you will also find a 1967 “Venezuelan Topps” card, a Venezuela Sport Gráfico Ovenca card produced in 1970, and a Venezuelan Show card with the same photo Topps used in 1962.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Elio is remembered in Cincinnati for hitting a single off Ralph Terry in Game 2 of the 1961 World Series and then scoring the winning run in the Reds only victory in the Series. In New York, fans remember Elio for getting into a base-brawl with Willie Mays and the “Yo la tengo” incident.
Here is recap of the “Yo la tengo” incident from Elio’s Wikipedia bio. You will also find similar descriptions of the incident in these two books – Richie Ashburn Remembered by Fran Zimniuch – and Richie Ashburn…Why the Hall Not? by Bruce E. Mowday and Jim Donahue.
During the 1962 season, New York Mets center fielder Richie Ashburn and Chacón frequently found themselves colliding in the outfield. When Ashburn went for a catch, he would scream, “I got it! I got it!” only to run into the 160-pound Chacón, who spoke only Spanish. Ashburn learned to yell, “¡La tengo! ¡La tengo!” which is “I’ve got it” in Spanish. In a later game, Ashburn happily saw Chacón backing off. He relaxed, positioned himself to catch the ball, and was instead run over by 200-pound left fielder Frank Thomas, who understood no Spanish and had missed a team meeting that proposed using the words “¡La tengo!” as a way to avoid outfield collisions. After getting up, Thomas asked Ashburn, “What the hell is a Yellow Tango?”. The band, Yo La Tengo, gets its name from this baseball anecdote.
Topps 1963 Richie Ashburn #135 and Topps 1964 Frank Thomas #345
The above story fits in seamlessly with the other hilarious stories from the first year Mets who were managed by Casey Stengel and finished the 1962 season with only 40 wins – but did it actually happen?
Pittsburgh Road Trip
In early July, I went on a road trip from my home near Boston to Pittsburgh. I had planned out a baseball heavy vacation with my two travelling partners – my daughter and her boyfriend. We toured the Clemente Museum, took in a game at PNC Park, snapped pictures in front of the remaining sections of the Forbes Field wall, and pretended we were Smokey Burgess at the site that marks where home plate was at Forbes Field.
Meeting with Frank Thomas
The highlight of my baseball vacation was an in-person meeting with Frank Thomas “The Original One” at his home in Pittsburgh on July 4th. Frank and I have been trading letters back and forth since 2019. We also have had a couple of phone conversations. I told Frank shortly after his 93rd birthday that I was coming to Pittsburgh and would like to see him. He was fine with an in-person meeting. I was expecting the visit to be no more than 20 minutes. My daughter and I had a wonderful time speaking with Frank about his playing days and our families for 90 minutes. He let me record the conversation so I could some of the baseball stories.
My first question was – “Tell me about the Yo la tengo story?”
Frank’s answer – “It never happened. Richie made it up. I couldn’t catch them. Richie played centerfield. I played left field. Chacon played shortstop. I never even came close to them. When he was an announcer in Philadelphia, he made up stories that’s all. Like all great announcers do. All fictitious.”
During our visit Frank mentioned that the Mets called him up and wanted his measurements for a uniform for the Old Timers game on August 27th. “The Original One” is going to be at Citi Field on the 60th anniversary of the 1962 original Mets. I told him I would be there. I already have my tickets.
The formula for Topps Project 70 is a seemingly simple one. An artist, typically from outside the sports card world, chooses a player, chooses a design from among the “70 Years of Topps,” and combines the two, adding in their own artistic style and spin.
The Brittney Palmer card of A-Rod (1980 design) and Jonas Never card of Justin Turner (1982 design) are good examples of the concept in action.
Occasionally, however, an artist adds a third dimension. In the case of DJ Skee, it’s a curated Spotify playlist of music and storytelling. In the case of Alex Pardee, there’s an epic comic book-like plot unfolding, and in the case of Eric Friedensohn, (better known as Efdot), there is that complex but omnipresent realm many collectors only begrudgingly stomach: real life.
We profiled a couple of Efdot’s cards last year when he was part of the Topps Project 2020 lineup. His Jackie Robinson card was influenced by the protests and national reckoning following George Floyd’s senseless murder, and his masked Dwight Gooden card, a nod to the worldwide COVID pandemic, not only made a real doc out of “Doc” but made our “SABR 50 at 50” list as the defining card of 2020.
This year, readers of Apple News were treated to a sneak preview of yet another Efdot card that is meeting the moment.
On May 24 (TODAY!), Topps is releasing the first (but hopefully not only) Josh Gibson card of Project 70, which not only pays tribute to the legendary Negro Leagues slugger but also calls attention to an effort underway to name Baseball’s MVP trophies in Josh’s honor.
The card will only be available thru May 27 at noon ET, after which point no additional cards will be released. (Pro tip: Do NOT show up at 11:59 on the last day. Allow for at least a few minutes of captcha hell before Topps.com lets you complete your purchase.)
There’s a lot to unpack, but let’s start with the choice of Josh Gibson, a player Topps did not initially make available to Project 70 artists. For insights into the card and the story behind it, I checked in with Efdot, the card’s artist, and Sean Gibson, the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, not to mention the great-grandson of the Hall of Fame slugger.
UPDATE: You can also tune in to Beckett Live Presents for a live discussion with Efdot and Sean. (If you miss it, the same link will take you to the recording.)
Jason: Eric, your earlier cards in the set were of Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, Ronald Acuña, and Wade Boggs. What led you to choose Josh Gibson?
Efdot: Leading up to Project70, getting to choose my own players was incredible. I knew I wanted to illustrate a diverse group of both retired and young current players. I had not seen many cards representing Negro League players, and knew they deserved more recognition for their contributions to baseball.
I had done extensive research on Jackie Robinson last year for Project2020 and learned more about the athletes that were forced to play only in Negro Leagues, never making it to the Major Leagues. I dug deeper and got inspired by Josh Gibson’s images, his story and the positive, engaged community around the Josh Gibson Foundation.
Jason: Once you knew you wanted to do a card of Josh, what was the process to make that happen?
Efdot: I worked with my friend, writer/editor Matt Castello, to help me finalize my player selections. Topps told me I could request players outside of the given list. Josh Gibson was at the top of my list for players that I wanted to illustrate, so I asked Topps if they could make it happen. I’m not sure what negotiations happened between Topps and the Josh Gibson Foundation/Estate, but after a few weeks, Topps informed me that I was able to make the first Josh Gibson card for Project70.
Jason: Sean, what did it mean to you to have an artist select Josh Gibson for this project?
Sean Gibson: I’d like to answer here not just for myself but on behalf of the entire Gibson family. Number one, it’s always exciting to see Josh Gibson on a baseball card. In addition, it’s particularly exciting for the card to be done by Efdot. I’m a big fan of his work, and I’ve really enjoyed the cards he’s done in the past. So yes, having a Josh Gibson card from Efdot is very special.
Jason: Eric, you had your choice of designs from seven decades of Topps baseball cards. What motivated you to choose 1972 for this card?
Efdot: I was initially interested in 1972 Topps from a design perspective, because it seemed like it would work well with my style. I found out that the 1972 set’s informal nickname among collectors is “the psychedelic tombstone set,” which is a reference to the design’s outer border and how each picture is presented within an arch.
The way the team name is written across the top of the card, almost looking like a marquee sign shining bright. I recognized the font from comic books and art deco-style buildings that I’ve seen in Midtown Manhattan. (I had also created multiple lettering pieces in the past, referencing this same type style.)
Once I learned that Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame induction happened in 1972, I decided it was the perfect pairing.
Author’s note: The 1972 design also proved fortuitous when Topps let Eric know much more recently that they wanted to add a “chase card” to the Josh Gibson release. Here is “Josh Gibson MVP…In Action!”
Jason: Eric, many of your cards feature small “Easter eggs” that help tell a broader story when found by the collector. On this card, the letters “MVP” are too prominent to qualify as an Easter egg, but there is still a story to them. You’re specifically referencing the Josh Gibson MVP Award campaign that’s underway right now, correct?
Efdot: Yes. I don’t recall exactly when I found out about the Josh Gibson MVP campaign, but it was something I resonated with immediately. Right away, I had the idea to change that marquee sign to say GIBSON MVP, loud and proud, instead of the team name. I wanted it to line up with the #JG20MVP campaign as a powerful combination of messaging and design.
Josh Gibson is such an important player with a rich and unrecognized history of accomplishment in home runs, batting average, and sheer power that deserves to serve as the standard across the league.
I believe the naming of the MVP award should be given to someone not only who represents the accomplishments in sports through their performance on the field, but also a good role model for young athletes and current players alike.
Jason: Sean, you had a peek at the card early. Tell me what it was like to see your great-grandfather brought to life by Eric’s artwork?
Sean Gibson: When I first saw the card I thought it was amazing. Now the most important part of the card is the lettering that reads “MVP.” When I first spoke with Efdot about the Josh Gibson MVP campaign he was the one who suggested putting MVP right on the card.
After that, I love the colors and the details. I particularly like the glove and how Efdot has the addreess of 2217 Bedford Avenue. For the readers who might not know, 2217 Bedford is the location where Josh first started playing baseball for the Pittsburgh Crawfords sandlot team. The field there is known today as Josh Gibson Field.
Jason: Eric, how does it feel to have created this special card, and what place do you hope it has in the Hobby?
Eric: I knew from the start that working on this card wouldn’t be like any other. I was so grateful for the opportunity to work with the Josh Gibson Foundation and Sean Gibson directly to help me truly understand the importance of Josh’s legacy and to help create a piece of work that will hopefully be used to celebrate that legacy for years to come.
Jason: And finally, Sean, what would it mean to your family and the families of other Negro League legends to have baseball’s MVP trophies renamed for Josh?
Sean Gibson: I would say this. The Hall of Fame is Josh’s biggest accomplishment. That said, I was three years old when Josh was inducted, so I have no recollection of the experience. For the younger generations and the rest of the Gibson family, this would be the most significant accomplishment of our lifetimes with respect to Josh.
Overall, it would be the second greatest accomplishment of Josh’s career, with the Hall of Fame being the first. However, this award would not only honor Josh but acknowledge and recognize the other 3400 men who were denied the chance to play Major League Baseball solely due to the color of their skin. Josh would be carrying all of these players on his shoulders.
Jason: Gentlemen, my genuine thanks to both of you for taking the time to talk to SABR Baseball Cards. Best of luck with the card and of course the MVP campaign! Finally, on a personal note, now that Josh finally has an official MVP card I can stop making my own! (But I probably won’t.)
Christie Brinkley likely was taking selfies long before you. Way back in 1996.
Want proof? Take a look at the back of that year’s Pinnacle Series II baseball card set. In it are 16 limited, random insert cards – one per 23 packs – that feature playful pictures the supermodel-turned-photographer snapped of herself and select members of the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians.
Serious and casual collectors alike may remember the initial popularity of the set and the news that Pinnacle had hired Brinkley. I was a semi-serious collector in those days, and up until a few years ago, I vaguely remembered the cards and the media buzz surrounding, first, the photo shoot, and second, the set’s release in late July of that year. (Sports Illustrated wasn’t so buzzed. More on that later.)
My memory of the card set was jolted about five years ago when a work colleague leaned back in his squeaky office chair and, from his cubicle across the narrow hallway, casually asked, “Hey, Chad. Have I ever shown you this picture of me with Christie Brinkley?”
The pop time for me to launch from my chair and dash to his office was all of 1.3689 seconds. I immediately fixed my eyes on his computer screen, where sure enough, beamed a photo of Christie Brinkley and my co-worker, mild-mannered, soft-spoken John Lucas, who in the 1990s, was the creative manager of design and photography at Pinnacle.
In the photo, Brinkley is wearing white ringer top with thin, navy horizontal stripes and mirrored sunglasses. She, of course, looks flawless with her long blonde locks swept back from her face. Only few are out of place, but even those strays look perfectly placed. If you look closely, you can barely see three of John’s fingers extending around Christie’s waist.
He must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. But, it was only Florida.
John is repping his company well in the shot, wearing a white Pinnacle T-shirt and brand-matching cap. He has Christie’s left arm on his right shoulder, and a smile that brilliantly and brightly encapsulates the moment.
John played it cool because “You had to play it cool,” he told me. “You couldn’t get star struck. You had to come across as a professional. She was very gracious and friendly, just a regular person who was very excited about the opportunity.”
As you can see in the photo, Brinkley and John are standing on an auxiliary field behind West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium. Excited to be there. The ballpark was then the spring training site of the Atlanta Braves. In the distance and over Brinkley’s right shoulder, are the bleachers of the crowded ballpark. The Indians and Braves, the previous season’s World Series combatants, were set to play an exhibition game that day. It was the first meeting since Atlanta took the Fall Classic from the Tribe five months earlier.
“I can’t believe I never showed you this,” John said as I stood in his cubicle peering at the photo on his Mac. I couldn’t believe it either. We had known each other for a year or more at that point and had talked a lot of baseball, but this episode in his life, inexplicably, never came up.
So, or course, I had a ton of questions, and John was happy to answer. I think we both were giddy to talk about baseball and a supermodel we both had eyes on since we were teenagers.
The origin story behind the photo begins with John, whose job at Pinnacle was to guide the design and photography for card products, and his quest to “always be looking to break the repetitive tradition of baseball card photography,” he told me. “I was always striving to come up with photography concepts that would be different, edgy and well-received by our customers.”
Part of the issue with the same-ol’, same-ol’ card designs, at times, was with the players. They often were unreceptive to anything beyond basic concepts and poses. That conundrum came up in a conversation John had with the company’s photography director, Don Heiny, who told John about a time when a woman photographer had been assigned to a card photoshoot and garnered way more cooperation from the male players than had previous male photographers.
It was a valuable chunk of knowledge for John to store away in his memory, and it didn’t take long for the figurative flashbulb to spark about his head and rekindle the thoughtful guidance.
John was a fan of Brinkley, then 42, and he knew that she had an interest in photography from behind the camera.
“Wow,” he thought,” what if we send Christine Brinkley on assignment to spring training as a photographer for Pinnacle? The players would pose any way she asked.”
John took his idea up the ladder in the fall of 1994, sending a memo via fax – “this was pre-email days,” he reminded me – from his office in Connecticut to Pinnacle corporate headquarters in Grand Prairie, Texas.
In his memo to Michael Cleary, who was then Pinnacle’ chief operating officer and chief marketing officer, John relayed his conversation with Heiny about female photographers’ workability with male athletes, and he incorporated those thoughts in his pitch, writing:
“What experienced, female photographer is very well-known, has shot sports photography before (boxing) and is extremely beautiful? Christie Brinkley. Now I know it sounds crazy but think of all the P.R. we could get from this. The obvious stumbling block is first her acceptance and secondly the price. But we’ll never know unless we ask. Please call me with your thoughts. Thank you.”
John faxed the proposal, with the subject line: FUTURE DREAM TEAM SET, to Cleary on November 4, 1994 and then he waited.
“I never heard anything about it,” John recalled, until I asked someone there [in Texas] about it, and they said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s all everyone is talking about.’ I was really happy.”
That, I’m sure, is an understatement.
Nearly a year later, and after the usual back-and-forth negotiations with Brinkley and her representatives, John, his photography director, Heiny, and an assistant left their offices in chilly Connecticut for the warmth and excitement of spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida.
In the planning stage, they selected a group of players from the Braves and Indians as their subjects for this innovative, new card concept. “Both teams had really good and popular players, which made for strong collectable cards,” John told me as I, still astonished, stood in his office, hanging on every word. “At the time, these guys were baseball superstars, and their cards were collectables.”
The original plan had been to photograph six players from each team for a total of 12 cards in the set. However, for whatever reason – John does not recall – four other players were added for a total of 16 cards.
The players were, from the World Series champion Braves: Greg Maddux, Ryan Klesko, David Justice, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, Javier Lopez, Marquis Grissom, and Jason Schmidt. From the American League champion Cleveland Indians were Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jim Thome, Julio Franco and Kenny Lofton.
Once Pinnacle photographers met Brinkley at the spring training site, the shoot ran relatively smoothly. That is often not the case because there are “so many variables,” John said, “when you’re dealing with professional athletes.”
But, John was right in the reasoning behind his idea. “I figured if Christie said, “Hey guys, do this, do that – beyond the normal poses – they would certainly be cooperative and do it. And, they did!”
Well, most everyone.
Teaser alert: Albert Belle was a bit of a challenge.
John and Brinkley separately brainstormed ideas for poses. Pinnacle gave its model-slash-photographer a bio sheet for each player. She read those and developed concepts. John knew baseball and knew oodles about each of the players. Many of the props used the card photos were his idea, and some came right off the top of his head.
“That fedora Fred McGriff is wearing, that was mine,” said John, who also designed the art for the cards. “And, I took a drill and cut into the baseball,” to give the appearance of teeth marks on the leather. McGriff is holding the ball near his open mouth as if he had just taken a large bite into the leather. The concept for McGriff’s card, No. 6 of 16, was a play on his nickname the Crime Dog, after McGruff, the animated bloodhound who appeared in PSAs in those days and was known to “take a bite out of crime.”
“We did quirky little things to make it interesting,” John recalled.
Marquis Grissom and Kenny Lofton were two of the Major League’s top base stealers at the time, and Brinkley wanted to illustrate that fact on the card. For Lofton, who had stolen 54 bases the year before, she had the speedster pose holding a base in each hand as if he were literally stealing bases. Brinkley posed Grissom, also known for blazing the base paths, in a mock run with a radar gun pointed in his direction. When you look at the card, that’s John’s right hand holding the radar gun.
John was the mastermind behind Braves’ pitcher Tom Glavine’s card. Knowing that Glavine was “a big golfer” John said, as were many of his teammates, they posed him on a pitcher’s mound, in full baseball uniform, with a pitching wedge ready to strike a baseball. “It was almost like he was chipping out of a sand trap,” John said.
Speaking of chipping, or more precisely, Larry “Chipper” Jones in this case, Brinkley proposed the idea to pose the then young ballplayer with his Braves cap on backward, his blue jersey partially untucked and sleeves rolled-up, and thick eye black across his cheeks. He was blowing a bubble as big and round as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The next day, the Greeneville (South Carolina) News published a quote from Jones saying, “All right, I’ve got Christie Brinkley undressing me.”
In addition to the card, Brinkley’s photo of Jones made Beckett Baseball Card Monthly’s June 1996 cover with a big, bold yellow headline that read: “Uptown Boy.” An inset photo shows Christie brushing makeup on Chipper’s nose.
Jones wrote about the experience in his 1997 book “Chipper Jones: Ballplayer,” claiming he had always had a crush on the model – of course, he did; everyone did – and worried about catching grief from Braves’ skipper Bobby Cox, who as Jones wrote “was a stickler for how you wear your uniform… But hey, she did with me as she pleased. What am I going to say?”
Way to take one for the team, Chipper!
On the card’s back, under the words “Christie Brinkley Collection,” is a fashion-editor-style description of the photo concept. It reads:
“Struck by Chipper’s youth, Christie rumpled his shirt, smudged his eye black and stuck a wad of bubble gum in his mouth to get that “sandlot” look.”
Jones and most of the other players we’re willing to play along, just like John had imagined back in his Pinnacle office months earlier when he developed the concept. “Their jaws were on the ground, smiling like little puppy dogs and doing everything she asked,” he recalled.
But, Albert Belle wasn’t having it.
“Christie and I both had concepts for Albert, but he said no to all of them,” John said.
So, they scrambled to find an idea Belle would agree to. John remembered the game in Belle’s then then recent history when the slugger yelled toward the Boston Red Sox dugout and flexed his bicep to show where his home run power originated. “Everyone knew about this, and we wanted to show his jacked biceps,” John said.
Albert’s response to the idea?
“No! I don’t repeat myself,” he said to John and Brinkley.
“Wow, what do we do now,” John recalled her asking.
What do you do when the surly slugger repeatedly rejects your ideas?
Forget the biceps. Tug at the heartstrings.
Perhaps in a moment of tossing her arms in the air in frustration, Brinkley asked Belle if he would hold her 13-month-old son, Jack, on his lap. Belle agreed.
“Albert was very happy to sit there with Christie’s son on his lap,” John told me. “He even cracked a nice, big smile.”
Brinkley snapped a round of photos, and that moment became the card. When the set was released in July, Pinnacle showed off the set to reporters and photographers at New York’s All-Star Café. An Associated Press photo from the event ran in newspapers the next few days showing the supermodel holding an oversized replica of the card depicting Belle with Jack sitting on his lap, both wearing Cleveland caps.
It was a hit!
On the back of Belle’s card, No. 10 in the collection, is Brinkley’s hastily self-snapped photo. It shows Jack, reaching from Albert’s lap, for his Mom. Belle is in the middle of the two, still smiling.
All of the card backs have Brinkley selfies taken with the ballplayers, via a bulky film camera – not a phone, of course. Most are non-descript with Brinkley smiling brightly, snuggled up to, or with her arm around, the ballplayers. The back of Chipper’s card shows Brinkley blowing a bubble, just like her subject. Indians third baseman Jim Thome – known for punching the ball out of the park – is wearing boxing gloves on the front and back of his card.
David Justice’s card back shows the 5’9” Brinkley looking up to the 6’3” slugger who towers above her. On Jason Schmidt’s card, it appears it was he who took the selfie, not Brinkley. Carlos Baerga is shirtless in his photo with the supermodel. He has a red heart painted on his chest because “he was the heart of the Indians,” John recalled.
Everything during the two-day shoot seemed to be working. The players were into it. Brinkley was having a blast. John was enjoying his moment in the sun.
The downside, however, was it took hours before the group could examine the results.
Remember, this was 1996.
“The night in between the two days of shooting, my director of photography, the photographer’s assistant and I had to get in a rental car and drive down to Miami from West Palm Beach to an after-hours photo lab and have them process the film and the pictures,” John told me.
The trip was about an hour and half each way after an exhausting day of work.
“We went down there to process the film of the pictures so we could bring them back and show Christie what they looked like, to make sure she was happy with the results of her work.
She loved the pictures,” John said smiling. “She was very pleased.”
Pinnacle had to be pleased, too, because collectors loved the unique concept. Also, Business Week reported that Brinkley’s ability to persuade the players to pose without demanding fees – some of “which can run up to $10,000 apiece,” the publication wrote – saved Pinnacle a substantial amount of money.
Today, Beckett lists each cards’ value at .50, including the un-numbered card picturing Brinkley sitting on her knees on a beach, topless it appears, holding a book to her chest. But when the cards came out, they were uber popular with collectors. In their “Sports Collectors” column in the Aug. 4, 1996 edition of The Journal News (White Plains, New York), John Kryger and Tom Hartloff quoted individual card values they had received from “one dealer’s price list.”
Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux’s card was valued the most then at $49.95. Behind him was Belle, Chipper Jones and Manny Ramirez at $39.95. The lowest values were $14.95 for Grissom, Schmidt and Julio Franco. As of this writing, you can find the individual cards online with prices usually ranging from .99 for Belle and Klesko to $49.99 for Jones.
But, John, who still has the full set, never has given a thought to the cards’ market value or what they are selling for on eBay. “I never looked at them in that way,” he said. “I’ve always looked at them as an example of quick thinking and my job and role with the company.”
Once the cards were released in July 1996, tons of media coverage focused on their novelty and immediate popularity. There was plethora of coverage from newspapers – many ran AP photos and stories, magazines and even late-night TV even talked about the cards.
It was mostly favorable, and great publicity for Pinnacle, which is what John had planned for his company.
There was, however, one notable exception, even if it was tongue-in-cheek.
In its popular weekly feature, “This Week’s Sign That The Apocalypse is Upon Us,” Sports Illustrated wrote: “Pinnacle, a Texas-based trading-card company, has hired supermodel Christie Brinkley to photograph selected Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians for a soon-to-be-released set of baseball cards.”
SI picked the Brinkley photo shoot that particular week because, well, “Jeez, I don’t have a specific memory of it, Chad,” replied Jack McCullum in an email when I posed that question to him… 23 years after the fact. McCullum and fellow SI writer Richard O’Brien co-edited the section in those days. They “went through dozens and dozens of newspapers, magazines, press releases, etc. to find our weekly Apocalypse,” McCullum wrote.
More than two decades later, John laughed about SI’s witty assertion that his idea was sending civilization toward its doom.
“You can take it a couple of ways,” he said to me over the phone back home in Connecticut, months after our initial conversation. “You can take it like, ‘Wow, they’re really insulting my concept.’ But, you can look it as great publicity, and it was published everywhere, even in a global magazine like Sports Illustrated. Overall, that and the whole experience was pretty amazing.”
USA Today thought so, too. It gave the card concept its stamp of approval in its April 16, 1996 edition, writing “Thumbs-up: To a seemingly hokey idea that also is practical. Christie Brinkley will appear on some Pinnacle baseball cards coming in July. But she had a function beyond presumed sex appeal. In actually shooting the cards’ photos (including ones of herself), Brinkley got players to strike off-beat poses. Cleveland’s Albert Belle posed with Brinkley’s baby boy. Says Pinnacle’s Laurie Goldberg, “there wasn’t much chance of getting some of these guys with a regular photographer.”
Four more words needed to be added at the end of Goldberg’s quote to complete the sentiment:
I first encountered Graig’s work when I ran across his painting “Henry” and just about died. The expression, the uniform, the color, the crowd, the musculature, the shadows, the…everything…was amazing to me. I had seen so many images of Hank Aaron in my life, but none had the hold on me that this one did.
I often wondered how amazing it would be if someday this image or others from Graig could be turned into baseball cards. Apparently I was not alone.
In late 2018 Topps contacted Graig and his agent about the concept of an “artist renditions” set to be released in limited print runs through the Topps website. By April 2019 the cards were a reality, with the first offering, Ty Cobb, selling 1549 copies.
“I had been aware of the business model they were working with, as I had followed their success with Topps Now and the Living Set. It was a little different than what I expected in terms of my first real baseball card project, but I was super excited to work with them in any sense – being a part of that lineage that goes back to my father’s childhood was super appealing to me.”
In case you missed it, Graig’s father was a card collector, but more on that much later.
“In a way, I liken it to comics where you have modern artists and writers handling these current issues of something like Batman, and them being in the same line with the Neal Adamses, Grant Morrisons, Frank Millers and even going as far back as Bob Kane and Bill Finger…it’s like a big family that you’re being asked to join.”
One question I had for Graig was who chose the players to be included in the set, Topps or Graig. This is something that interests me with nearly any baseball set…the hows and whos of arriving at a checklist.
“Topps was in charge of giving me the names of the players they wanted. They had the first 15 or so planned, both with the specific players and when they were to be released. For the last five, they did ask for a little input, but I don’t think that my suggestions were a huge influence in the decision making process. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just think that the players I might have wanted to paint may not have lined up with the players who they thought would be popular among their large fan base.”
While I would have loved to hear that Graig had total license over the project, I have to say Topps did a phenomenal job in selecting the players for Graig to paint. I can also imagine the good people at Topps being a bit irked had Graig decided to go with Lipman Pike or Hans Lobert over, say, Tom Seaver or Ted Williams.
The result is an almost obscenely stacked roster of top shelf baseball talent, so much so that you have to think hard to come up with who didn’t make the cut. (Two Yankees legends absent due to licensing issues were Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.)
Cards #19&20 in the @Topps 20-card @GraigKreindler mini-set. So cool that Graig’s #20 was my boyhood idol and favorite #20, Lou Brock! What a cool way to complete the set!Thanks for sharing your amazing talent, Graig! You’re a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my book! @baseballhallpic.twitter.com/iKtLiyubM1
While Graig did not develop the checklist, he did choose the photographs that the card images were based on, though Topps provided some input likely aimed at increasing marketability.
“They made it clear to me that each player should be depicted with the team he’s best known for, and preferably on the youngish side of the coin. Combining that with the pool of images that Topps has the license to use via Getty, I was able to find at least 7-8 photographs of each player that I thought would be worthy.”
If you read that last sentence and are thinking PARALLELS, you’re not alone! Graig? Topps? What do you say?
One question I had for Graig was whether choosing an image for a large painting was very different from choosing an image for a baseball card.
“The thought was that if I did an action shot or a stadium panoramic [as many of Graig’s paintings are], it was going to be shrunk down to card size, so a lot of detail would be lost. Rather than risking that, I felt that portraits would be the safest bet. Plus, since I’m sure a lot of the images of these guys are in black and white, having a color representation of their face (and some jersey stuff when applicable) was the most important aspect of the artist rendition in terms of ‘connecting’ with people.”
Time considerations were a factor for Graig also since the project called for Topps to issue a new card roughly every two weeks. This too pointed toward portraits.
Among the portraits I wondered if Graig had any favorites, whether as an artist, a collector, or a fan. Were there any paintings where Graig said, “Wow, I really did a great job with that one!”
“There are certain aspects of each portrait that I really think I nailed. I mean, obviously, I always want the next painting to be the best one, but sometimes there are little spots of each that can shine or stick out to me in some way. And those parts aren’t necessarily visible to others (or even tangible for that matter) but they’re there.”
“As an example, the last painting I did of Lou Brock, the relationship between the bright, warm red of his cap and the cool green and blue hues of the dugout wall was incredibly pleasing. It was something I tried to push a lot in the original painting, playing off of color complements and optical blending. I’m not even sure if that stuff made its way into the final card itself, as a lot of nuance can get lost in the reproduction process, but I was very pleased with how the painting itself came out.”
Look again at that Brock card now. There’s nothing lazy, nothing wasted. Even the parts that immediately hit our eye as “white jersey” or “red cap” aren’t. Anywhere you look on any of these cards there is a glow, texture, and even a personality that emerges.
I wanted to know where this all came from, not just the Artist Renditions set but everything. Did Graig collect cards as a kid? Who were his favorite players? What were his favorite sets? I tried to go light since I knew Graig was preparing for a major exhibition of over 200 of his paintings in Kansas City as part of the Centennial Celebration organized by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
“I did indeed collect as a kid. With my father being a somewhat avid collector in the ’50s up until a bit after I was born (1980), I don’t think my brother or I had a choice NOT to have an interest in baseball cards.”
Okay, I know you’re thinking what I was thinking! Well, here’s the bad news…
“Like most of the people of his generation, his mother threw out the majority of his collection when she deemed him ‘too old’ for it.”
Shoot! But wait, the story’s not quite over…
“He was able to save some of his favorites. Included in that batch were mostly Yankees and a smattering of Giants and Dodgers. He managed to keep his ’51 Bowman Mantle, which always had a certain mystique about it, what with it being the rookie card of his favorite player and all. And let’s face it, it was expensive, which to me, as a kid, was extra cool. His example wasn’t even in decent shape or anything, but it still had quite an aura – so even then I was aware that it had some serious sentimental value.”
On one hand Graig’s father’s collection influenced Graig as a collector.
“Through my father’s stories, I came to ‘know’ Mantle and his teammates in a way that seemed more real to me than the feelings I had with the group of the then-current Yankees (Mattingly, Winfield, Randolph, etc). So while I was getting my first packs of baseball cards (’87 Topps – still LOVE that set), I was even more excited about picking up older cards when I could.”
“I remember being at one of the Gloria Rothstein Westchester shows in the late ’80s and my father paying $4 to get me a 1964 Topps Bobby Richardson. I held it in my hands and was truly amazed. My friends couldn’t understand why I had any interest in a guy they’d never heard of, but there I was, not being able to shut up about that ’61 Yankees infield.”
Interestingly, Graig’s father’s collection also influenced Graig as an artist.
“When I was younger, it’s fair to say that I was inspired to draw ballplayers because of my father’s baseball cards. Looking at it now, I’m sure that seeing those early Bowman and Topps issues with the illustrations must have had some kind of impact on my psyche – something along the lines of, ‘Hey, somebody actually drew and painted these things – they’re not photographs, they’re made by humans. Maybe that’s something I can do.’ I don’t remember actually having any epiphany like that, but I’ve gotta imagine that that is how what I do now all germinated.”
It was also around that time that Graig encountered the work of more contemporary baseball artists.
“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I of course fell in love with the likes of Dick Perez and Christopher Paluso. And both for different reasons. I loved how painterly and expressive Perez was with his colors. And the sleak photorealism of Christopher’s work appealed to me on a craftsman’s level. To this day, I can still remember seeing their stuff for the first time.”
I worked with Graig to track down the first Christopher Paluso piece he remembers seeing, this lithograph of Joe Sewell. (Image source from Heritage Auctions.)
Tracking down Graig’s first recollections of Dick Perez’s work was a foggier matter. He vaguely recalled the 1986 Donruss Diamond Kings subset but was unsure of the player so I’ll just go with my three favorites!
Not wanting to leave anything out I ended my interview with Graig by asking him a question I was really happy I remembered to ask.
“What’s one question you wish I asked but didn’t? And what’s the answer?”
Graig’s answer was a long one that has little to do with baseball cards but is no less essential to the overall story of the cards that inspired this post.
“That’s a tough one! The question, ‘Who is your biggest art influence?’ is always one of my favorites. And that’s mainly because I like giving the man his due. I first met Peter Fiore in 1999 as an undergrad student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I had enrolled in his class – “Painting the Light” I think it was called – not quite knowing what to expect. The description mentioned something about learning how to paint your subjects in believable space by paying attention to light and color, or something to that effect. And the idea appealed to me greatly.”
“Little did I know that that fall, I made the acquaintance of the artist who would forever change the way I thought about painting. Up until then, I was strictly a renderer. I wanted whatever I painted to be realistic to the point where it blended between realism and photorealism. And to me, that meant being able to study edges, values and colors as they appear through photography.”
“Through Peter, I learned that photography was a starting off point, that the world around me had much more to show. I learned how to work with color, and to work with it purposefully. I learned how light shapes the world around me. And this didn’t happen in just that semester. I took a few classes with him while I was in school. After I graduated, we became good friends, and I still consider him one of my favorite people on this planet. I’m always learning from him, be it about painting or light or life, and I can’t think of any teacher or friend who’s influenced my artistic journey as much as he has. For anybody interested, you can see his beautiful landscapes at peterfiore.com.”
Look at Graig’s work again and you can see this. Every detail is there, but there is something more. The players he paints are at the same time lifelike and larger than life. There is a radiance that differs from how our eyes might have seen these men but perfectly matches how our minds see them.
Normally such images are confined to galleries or perhaps just our imaginations, but thanks to Graig and Topps they can also have a place in our collections.
In this edition of “Covering the Bases” we are discussing the 1989 Topps All-Star Rookie cup card dedicated to outfielder Dave Gallagher.
The chief reason I chose to cover Gallagher here is that he recently discussed his Topps All-Star Rookie Cup on Twitter – spoiler alert, I was a little bummed with his feedback.
1989 Topps #156
Lets open by discussing the card which is Gallagher’s Topps debut. A couple of observations:
1) This appears to be a Spring Training shot – note the chain link fence and treeline beyond Gallagher’s left shoulder.
2) In 1988 Chicago sported their uniform numbers on the front of the left pant leg, It is mostly obscured by the “White Sox” script on the card but you can still make out what is the top of Gallagher’s #17 here.
3) Gallagher is apparently holding some sort of BP bat. At first I thought Gallagher was using a bat sleeve – but 1988 seems sort of early historically. Looking closer I think what we are dealing with here is Bat Tape. I am guessing that the idea is to extend the life of a BP bat, perhaps the tape also acts as a visual cue to help a batter to target the sweet spot.
1988 Topps All-Star Rookie Cup
Of course the reason team Phungo took an interest in this card is that it falls under the umbrella of our obsession with Topps All-Star Rookie Cards. This past September SABR Member Brian Frank had posted via twitter a snapshot of the card on Gallagher’s 59th birthday. Gallagher acknowledged the posting noting the day is also his Wedding Anniversary. I later jumped on the thread posing the following question:
I wanted to hear that Dave Gallagher was a big fan of baseball cards, has a collection that he considers very special and that getting a Trophy from Topps Chewing Gum Co was the highlight of his playing career.
Well, that wasn’t the answer I received. Gallagher’s reply was sobering and quite prudent.
As a Topps All-Star Rookie Cup obsessive I was momentarily crushed. But it makes sense, I am sure there have been several dozen trophies that a player like Dave Gallagher has accumulated in a 20 year professional career. Keeping them all likely borders on hoarding. And his point of maintaining a separation of career and home also seems wise.
More Gallagher Cards
While researching Dave Gallagher cards I came across his 1989 Topps Big card
1989 Topps Big #310 Dave Gallagher
Which is a fine card but what really interested me was something on the back
1989 Topps Big #310 Dave Gallagher (b-side)
Check out the middle panel on the cartoon. It is not a Baseball Card Patent but Dave Gallagher does have a Baseball related Patent. His invention is known as the “Stride Tutor” or according to the Patent Office “Apparatus for improving the hitting technique of baseball players.” It is essentially a set of foot cuffs (with a longer plastic chain) that are designed to train a batter to make a consistent stride in their swing. The device was written up in a 1989 Sports Illustrated article.
Gallagher’s patent application is pretty interesting citing SIX Hall of Famers: Johnny Bench, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan, and Joe Torre plus Pete Rose and Hitting Guru Charlie Lau.
There you have it, Covering all the Bases on a single (well two) Topps card leads you to the US Patent Office and Joe DiMaggio.
In the world of sports and pop culture there are stars, heroes, and models—and then there are superstars, superheroes, and supermodels. Similarly, the baseball card collecting world has both collectors and super collectors.
I used to think I had a pretty sweet collection of Wade Boggs cards, but oh how does my Boggs binder pale in comparison to the astonishing collections of Richard Davis and John Reichard, undisputed Olympians of Wade Boggs super collectors. In the spirit of fake Bill Murray’s sentimentality above, I shall be your Cavia porcellus, here merely for reference.
Richard Davis (45) is a physician assistant from the Joliet, Illinois area and was introduced to the Chicago Cubs as a young boy. Some of his earliest childhood memories include watching Bill Buckner and the 1982 Cubs on WGN with his 82-year-old great-grandmother. Not unlike the author, his love affair with the Cubs—and first broken heart—began with the 1984 team. Davis has been hooked on baseball ever since.
On Christmas morning 1985, Davis received a card collector’s kit containing an unopened 1983 Donruss pack, in which a Wade Boggs rookie card was fortuitously found. He knew it was a “hot” card and was thrilled to have it, despite not really knowing much about Boggs at that point. He began to follow Boggs’ career and collected all the Boggs items he could find. In fact, Davis has now accumulated over 200 copies of that Donruss rookie and is closing in on a staggering 600 copies of Boggs’ 1983 Topps rookie card.
John Reichard (47) is a loan officer from central Pennsylvania whose love affair with baseball coincided with the launch of his Little League career in 1978. Despite growing up far from Fenway Park, he rooted for the Red Sox because his mom was originally from Massachusetts. He was first turned on to card collecting when hunting for the infamous 1979 Topps Bump Wills (Blue Jays) error card became a bit of a sensation. His first collecting focus was on building sets, but as new manufacturers inundated the industry, trying to piece together all the issues simply became too daunting.
Because Reichard was already a Red Sox fan, Wade Boggs was an easy choice when he shifted his focus to collecting cards of a certain player. Not only was Boggs a phenomenal player, but there was already a good variety of different cards to collect. Reichard picked up a 1998 Topps Gold Label Class 2 One to One Red 1/1 card and was off to the races. Enamored (rightly so) with the 1984 Topps Boggs, Reichard has now amassed over 1000 copies of the card.
As for me—if anyone is still interested in my tale of mundane—the 1980s Cubs and Red Sox had such parallel, curse-hardened fandoms such that I was naturally drawn to Boston baseball as I sought an American League team to follow. Wade Boggs was a lefty batter (like me!) who hammered balls off the Green Monster (just like I dreamed of doing!). When Topps first italicized the league leaders on the backs of its 1986 base cards, Boggs’ incredible 1985 campaign (240 hits and a .368 batting average) just came to life. It was impossible not to idolize him.
For measuring stick purposes, my collection includes a lone Donruss rookie card, two 1983 Topps copies (one signed), a handful of 1984 Topps, and over nine copies of his 1985 Topps!
Author’s Boggs rookie cards
Look at all of those 1985 Topps Boggs cards
If we must count, however, John Reichard has nearly 10,000 total Wade Boggs cards, including 4900 different cards—enough to stuff a monster box. He has 165 1/1s and over 500 serial numbered cards numbered between 2 and 10, along with over 700 autographed cards.
Among his favorite cards are a 2014 Topps Triple Threads handprint jumbo relic and autograph card (numbered 6/10), a 1992 Donruss Super Diamond Kings, and a 2012 Topps Tier One Bat Knob 1/1 card. His memorabilia collection includes a game-used Red Sox bat from the early 1990s, a pair of game-used Yankees batting gloves, a game-used Red Sox batting glove, and a pair of game-used Yankees cleats, along with a number of signed jerseys and bats.
2014 Topps handprint jumbo relic 6/10
1992 Donruss Super Diamond Kings
Reichard’s loaded bat rack
Richard Davis’s collection is so massive, he can only estimate the number of Boggs cards he has—knowing that it runs well into the thousands. At his last count he had over 550 autographed items. He recently added his 30th copy of Boggs’ 1981 TCMA Pawtucket Red Sox issue. Showing about 75% of his collection in his very own “Boggs Tavern,” Davis has another seven storage bins full of items that he has not yet displayed.
His favorite item is probably a three-foot tall bobblehead autographed by Wade Boggs. Only 26 were made and Boggs, himself, confirmed that this was the only one he had ever signed. The strangest items Davis owns are pairs of shower shoes—both Red Sox and Yankees’ versions—used and autographed. Davis’s mission is simple, “If Wade’s likeness or image is on it then I want it.”
Behind the bar
At the bottom of the stairs
You may think that these mega collectors are bitter rivals, locked in an eternal struggle to outbid each other. Turns out, however, that John and Richard have become great friends who work together to help find items for each other. In fact, Reichard and Davis run joint Twitter and Facebook accounts to showcase their collections. On the Twitter account, they post a new Boggs card every day—chronologically by year of issue. Having missed only a day or two since November 2014, the Twitter posts are only up to 1996. Reichard expects that they can continue unabated for “another eight years without having to post a duplicate.”
I met Wade Boggs at a card show in the late 1980s and I have no recollection, whatsoever, of the encounter other than being starstruck as he signed by 8×10. That photo and a signed ball I later received a gift comprise the Wade Boggs items on display in my basement mancave:
The museum-quality displays constructed by Davis and Reichard, on the other hand, are simply mind boggling.
Davis and Reichard have each met Boggs several times and he now knows them by name. Wade Boggs even knows Davis’s son by name, “the little kid collector and fan inside cannot help but get giddy over this fact.” Boggs follows both their personal and joint Twitter accounts. For Davis, this is the pinnacle of super collecting.
Whether serious or not, Boggs has told Davis he would like to see Boggs Tavern for himself. “The bar fridge will be stocked with Miller Lites if he does.” Reichard invited Boggs to his wedding, but Wade politely declined—despite a stuffed chicken breast entrée—since he was going to be in Alaska celebrating his birthday at the time.
Both Reichard and Davis average two to three Boggs “mail days” per week. Reichard suffers “withdrawal if he goes more than three days without something” new arriving. Davis is still looking for a game used fielder’s glove. Reichard is on the lookout for a home Red Sox jersey and game worn cap. Luckily, their wives are supportive—if not fully understanding of the passion.
Richard Davis’s pipe dream is for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to open a wing dedicated to baseball super collectors, where perhaps he could get a plaque in the “Hall of Collectors” alongside John Reichard and other Boggs super collectors Kevin McInnis, David Boggs (no relation), John Hall, Jeremy Weikel, Robert Howell, Nathan Flemming, James Miles and Chris Thrane.
While my pedestrian Wade Boggs collection will never measure up to those of super collectors Richard Davis or John Reichard, at least I have two items I know they do not have!
Author’s c. 1987 freshman English class poem
Author’s c. 1988 drawing, complete with snazzy 1980s graphics
*Footnote: I cannot draw feet.
Interviews with John Reichard and Richard Davis.
Photos courtesy of John Reichard, Richard Davis and author.
“Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” — Donald Hall, “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons”
Though its checklist boasts only 64 cards, the 1953 Bowman black and white set connects fathers and sons like no other. This much is clear from the very first card, but that’s only the beginning.
Like their color counterparts from the same year, the Bowman black-and-whites have no names or other markings on the front, so you may not immediately recognize the player. Ditto for cards 10, 30, 34, 52, 56, and 59. Either way, here they are.
You may not be able to identify all the players, but I guarantee these two men would recognize their sons, Duane Pillette (bottom right) and Dick Sisler (top left).
And certainly these three men would recognize their fathers: Gus Bell (first card in set), Roy Smalley (bottom middle), and Ebba St. Claire (top right).
And no doubt these two men would recognize their famous fathers-in-law: Walker Cooper (top middle) and Ralph Branca (bottom left).
“Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.” — Donald Hall
Another father, James Stork, Sr., had a connection to this set, but he was not a big league baseball player. He was a nine-year-old kid in 1953, his first of many years as a card collector and a magical time for the hobby and the sport.
Ralph Kiner was coming off seven straight National League home run crowns. Mickey Mantle was picking up where Joe DiMaggio (if not Babe Ruth) had left off in New York. And a new source of talent, black players, was taking the game to new heights.
On store shelves Topps was back with its second major baseball release. (I’m not counting the pre-1952 stuff.) Reflecting the influx of black talent, here are cards 1, 2, and 3 in the classic 1953 Topps set.
Meanwhile, in their two-series color offering, Bowman offered young gum chewers what many collectors today consider the most beautiful card set ever produced. I am in love with too many of the cards to even want to choose, but here are the three I have in my personal collection: Monte Irvin, Stan Musial, and Minnie Minoso.
Finally, while a bit lower on the radar for most collectors, Bowman finished the year with its black and white issue, presumed to be a lower-budget (and renumbered) third series continuation of the color issue.
With all these card sets to choose from, the young James Stork, Sr., made the best choice of all. He collected all three! And then he did something most collectors of the era did not do. He kept his cards! Bravo, Mr. Stork.
Fast forward 45 years to 1998. James Stork, Sr., now in his fifties, was at his local card shop to make a purchase. It was a 1953 Bowman black and white he still needed for his collection. As the card shop landed more and more of the Bowman black and whites over the years, the owner would call Mr. Stork who would come in and buy any cards he still needed.
James Stork, Sr., passed away in January of 2010 from cancer of the esophagus. He did not complete his set. Another collector did.
I was able to interview the younger Mr. Stork about the cards and memories that went along with completing his father’s set. Here are some of the stories attached to the collection.
JASON: How long have you been a collector?
“I started collecting in 1980 at the age of 5. My dad brought home a box of Topps. He opened the packs, I got the gum. Fair trade in the day. The very first card I remember was 1980 Topps Ben Oglivie. I was hooked from there on out.”
JASON: How did your father get into baseball cards?
“My dad grew up on a farm in rural VA, and baseball was something that he and his friends would play all the time. When my grandfather would go to town my dad would go with him and my grandfather would get my dad a pack or two for a nickel a piece I think is what my dad said.”
JASON: Do you know which cards were your dad’s favorites?
“My dad loved Nellie Fox and Billy Martin. Out of all of his cards, I think he cherished those the most. Probably because my dad was short like them, and he loved how passionate Billy Martin was. He also loved his Mantle and Mays cards.”
JASON: What is a favorite memory of your dad as an adult collecting cards?
“My dad loved his old cards, and when I brought home a Beckett in 1989 my dad found out his cards were worth something, he was blown away. I remember going with him to a local card shop and getting card holders for them. He loved showing them off to anyone and everyone who would listen.”
JASON: Are there cards you and your dad collected together?
“Dad and I would always get the Topps set each year when it came out. We have 1978-2009 from when he was alive, and now I have them through 2018. One day they will be my son’s.
JASON: How about a favorite baseball memory involving the two of you?
“I lived in a small town in Virginia after college, which was the same town that Tracy Stallard lived in. So for Christmas one year, I wanted to get a card autographed for my dad from Tracy. I went to his house and this giant of a man answered the door. I politely told Mr. Stallard who I was and what I was doing there, and he then invited me into his house and told me he had something even better. He signed a poster to my dad with him on the mound and Maris in the background after number 61. I gave that and the card to my dad for Christmas and he was over the moon thrilled. He had it professionally framed and hung in his house.
About 2 years later, my dad found out he had cancer, literally right after he retired. I was thinking to myself, what can I do for him to keep up his spirits as he fought this while I lived 4 hours away. I found a site that had through-the-mail autograph addresses, and I began to write almost on a daily basis. I never told my dad about it.
About a week later I got a call from my dad, he was so excited, he got letters from Stan Musial, Bobby Doerr and Robin Roberts in the same day’s mail. I filled him in on what I was doing for him, from that day on, for the next 4 years, if I wasn’t at home visiting him, I was on the phone with him, asking who he got in the mail that day. I would also ask the players about their career, and what they did after baseball. He loved getting those letters in the mail and reading what they would answer. I have those letters now, and they are my pride and joy besides my dad’s cards in my collection.”
Here, take this for a second.
JASON: Besides the 1953 Bowman black and whites, do you plan to complete any other sets from your father’s collection?
“Dad was also about halfway through the 1958 and 1959 Topps sets, just from his buying packs as a kid. These weren’t sets he was working on completing as an adult. When I got his cards from my mom after he passed, I started working on the 1959 set, and I am just 28 cards away from being done. Hoping to be done by Jan 2020. I will work on the 1958 set sometime, but I may wait until my son is a little older so he and I can do it together.”
I led off this post with the teaser that the 1953 Bowman black and white set connected fathers to sons like no other. You probably thought I was talking about these guys.
But I was really talking about two other guys.
Rest in peace, James Stork, Sr. (1944-2010). Your son is doing you proud!
Author’s note: My thanks to James Stork not only for sharing his time and memories with me for this post but also for completing one of MY sets. A couple months back I received an envelope with the final two cards I needed for my 1986 Topps set. It was from James. Nothing in return was asked or accepted.
I’ve had a few opportunities to be in the Colorado Rockies clubhouse and to ask players about memorabilia they collect. Those who do collect are few and far between, though Mark Reynolds has a pretty extensive Hall of Fame autograph collection.
Pat Neshek, who was acquired this past July by the Rockies from the Philadelphia Phillies for their wild card push, is a bit of a throwback in that regard. He loves collecting baseball cards and autographs. His passion comes across in the manyinterviews he gives on card collecting, how he interacts with his fans on Twitter and his eagerness to autograph any cards he receives. Not only does he collect cards about himself, but he approaches collecting with a professional eye as he cultivates cards that improve his 1970 Topps set which in 2014 was ranked third best in quality in the world. He’s since improved that to the best set in the world. Recently I got the chance to talk to him and ask him about his favorite cards and his collecting beliefs.
Richard Bergstrom (RB): Do you remember the process for getting pictured on your first card?
Pat Neshek (PN): The first card you get is when you are in the minors, when you will get one with your team. It was in 2002 with my first team, the Elizabethon Twins. But my first Topps card was a 2006 Box Topper.
You had to buy a case of cards, then if you opened the case the Box Topper is the one on the top. They weren’t even in pack, but that was my first card. There were 50 different box toppers so your chance of getting it was 1 in 50 so it was really hard to get. They made 600 of my Box Topper and then they made a refractor of that. Twenty-five of those — it was pretty cool that Topps did that but I had to rely on eBay to get those. Once, I actually did buy four cases and I did pull a couple of mine but I didn’t get one of the refractors. Still eBay is a great source.
RB: What’s been your favorite baseball card of yourself?
PN:They made a short print card in 2007. I don’t know what quantity was released but it’s kind of a hard card to find. It was in Topps Heritage. I just don’t see many of them. People send autographs in and I maybe get two or three of them a year in the mail, so it’s pretty rare.
RB: What’s your favorite thing about that Heritage card??
PN: It’s scarcity. I tried to get a print run of them but they never gave it out. Whenever I see them, I usually buy them. You can usually get them for like three, four or five bucks. Sometimes you have to pay eight or nine. But there was like a hundred and ten short prints that year. I just don’t see the card so it’s a card I collect of myself.
RB: So Topps didn’t send you one directly?
PN: No, they never do. That’s the thing. People think we get boxes of them. No, you don’t get any. They’ll give you a check in spring training for $500 bucks for using your image. But no, we don’t get any from them. I have to buy my own usually or people will send them to me and I’ll give them out.
RB: How did you get into collecting?
PN: Like a lot of kids in the 80s, that was the cool thing to do. Then I kind of got away from it. But when I went to college, my roommate, he used to collect autographs a lot at hotels and after Triple A baseball games so I kind of tagged along a few nights and I thought it was really fun so I started getting into it a little bit. A lot of good stories, that’s what I enjoyed the most.
RB: It doesn’t seem like many players collect cards anymore.
PN: It’s weird. Certain guys collect certain things. I know with the Phillies, Howie Kendrick did a lot of bobbleheads from the 60s. A few guys did balls, some guys did jerseys. But not many guys collect. There’s a few guys who do cards. Brad Ziegler does it. Chris Perez did for a little bit. You kind of got to get to know each guy. I think a lot of guys do collect but they just don’t let it be known.
RB: It seems harder to get autographs from players than it used to be.
PN: It does. That’s why I started building a lot of these Topps sets to get signed. I think a lot of these guys are making a lot of money and it’s not worth their time to do a signing for $500 bucks and a lot of guys don’t do their mail so I don’t think it’ll be as easy as it was in the 70s and 80s with the fan interaction.
RB: What are your favorite sets?
PN: I love the old cardboard. I don’t like the new stuff with the gloss. I really like the Topps Heritage design. They’ll take it back 49 years so they’re doing 1968 this year. I’m looking forward to [2019 when] the 1970 set with the gray border comes out. I got the best PSA graded (original 1970 Topps) set in the world. I’ve been doing that for 11 years now. It’s hard. I always look for upgrades but they’re not out there. I’ll look forward to it in two years when they make that Heritage set.
RB: Do you have any favorite statistics on the back of cards?
PN: I liked it when I was a kid a lot because it helped you understand math and you could compute averages and make sure your work was right. The set building you get to know, I was born in 1980 but when I work on my 1970s sets I know a lot of who was on that team that year, where that guy’s been, what kind of hitter he was. And they had really cool cartoons back then. Some of the heritage do have good cartoons this year.
RB: Do you still chew the old gum?
PN: I did buy a box of Garbage Pail, built a really cool set of Garbage Pail Kids like eight years ago. I tried some of that gum… it was disgusting! Yeah, I bought like six boxes so when I got done. I think I put a picture on Twitter. It was pretty nasty. Some of it had brown stains on the gum. If you go back to the cellophane packs from the 1970, that gum is completely white. It can’t get any worse than that. It just turns into this candy cigarette chalk.
RB: When I was a kid, I’d buy packs, then boxes, then I’d skip and just buy the set. How do you collect sets these days?
PN: It depends. Like, if I’m in it, I’ll try to buy some of the boxes just to see what I crack open. It’s hard to pull some real nice stuff in some of those boxes. I’ve come to the point now where I’m relying on eBay and I’ll just wait for that card to come up. There’s a lot of really cool local sets. Especially in the 1950s, the dog food ones. It seems every restaurant had a local team set.
RB: If you could bring back one thing that was done on older baseball cards, what would that be?
PN: I want cardboard. Just real cardboard. I think that would change a lot of stuff for me. Maybe make the printing process not as good as it is. Some cards are off-center so it really makes it tough but fun to find nice gem mint cards. I like the gum in there. They tried that with Topps Heritage a few years ago but I think that’s more of a logistics thing where they try to ship so much and for such a cost that the gum kind of screws everything up. But I’d really like to see the cardboard come back.
You could talk about his 20-plus years setting the gold standard for baseball card photography as a lensman for Topps. Or his incredible collection of ephemera pertaining to the Oakland A’s. Or his friendship with Vida Blue and Willie McCovey. Or his amazing Zee-Nut baseball card collection of Oakland Oaks players from 1911-1939. Or the 11,000 negatives of his non-Topps work he donated to the Hall of Fame.
And you’d still come up short.
Meet Doug McWilliams, chronicler of baseball and American history. The Berkeley, CA, native has been photographing the national pastime since 1950. The trim, bearded 80-year-old (who looks as if he’s in his late 60s) recounted the day he was bitten by the bug in 1948:
“I started listening on the radio to the Oakland Oaks baseball games. They had a little feature on there about the baseball cards they are giving away at Signal Oil and if you stop by your local gas station, they’ll give you a new card. They were in full color. I finally talked my father into taking me to one of the games. He wasn’t a fan of sports at all. We stopped by at a Signal oil gas station and I got a baseball card of a Ray Hamrick, who was a shortstop for the Oaks.
We got to the ballpark. It was evening and I got up to the top of the walkway and looked down on the field. It was all lit up. It looked like it was magic and saw down by the fence, there was Ray Hamrick signing autographs. I borrowed a fountain pen from my dad and ran down there and got him to sign it. I was hooked, hooked more on baseball cards than the game.”
I met Doug at a SABR event earlier this year, where I was presenting my last film about writer Arnold Hano. We happened to be sitting next to each other and introduced ourselves. I’m a baseball card hound since 1964, and I found his story fascinating. My latest project, “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” features people from across the baseball spectrum, and Doug’s story fit the bill for an episode.
My cameraman, Otis, and I spent the better part of the day with Doug at his home, and I was awed by the baseball artifacts, relics and photography he had collected during his lifetime. I interviewed Doug extensively, covering his career shooting for Topps and love of the game.
“I got away from baseball when I was a kid because I went away to college and got married, joined the army, although I was a photographer in the army also. I just didn’t have time for it, but the A’s came to Oakland in 1968 and in 69, they had a picture day. I went down the field with my 35 millimeter Leica and flash bulbs and took pictures of the players as they came by. It reminded me of when I was a kid. I started going to the games and shooting out of the stands and got to know the players. Some of them wanted to buy pictures, too. At that point, I had already been a photographer at the University of California for 10 years almost. I knew I could do well because I’d been doing well. I just kept shooting out of the stands and pretty soon a guy came by, named Jim Mudcat Grant, who I had photographed as a kid probably 15 years before. He remembered me, which totally shocked me. He was with the A’s for a while. I did some pictures for him. He got traded to Pittsburgh and then he came back. The A’s told him to get some new PR pictures. He needed to make an appointment with their photographer.
Mudcat said, “Doug is going to do my pictures for the PR.” They said, “Who?”[laughs] I got my foot on the field for the first time through him. When he posed for me, I got the pictures up to the PR people and they approved them and use them. About that same time, Vida Blue was coming up in the September to show what he could do. He stayed with Mudcat. I did some pictures for Vida for his family. Well, the next year, which I guess was 71, I may have my dates mixed up, but he won the Cy Young and MVP both. He came to me and says, “I need postcards.” I’d been doing photographic postcards in black and white for quite a few of the A’s by that time. He says, “I want color.” I say, ”Well, what do you want a 100 or 200?” I was thinking photographically making them. I made my black and whites photographically. He says, “I get a 100 letters a day, I need lots of them.” The upshot was that I did three different printings for him, about 15,000 color postcards. All of them had my name and address down the center of the postcard back. One of them landed on the desk of Sy Berger at Topps in Brooklyn. Soon, I got a call from him, saying, “We like your work. Would you like to shoot for Topps?” I said, “Well, is the Pope Polish? I think I would.” [chuckling]
Shooting for Topps was a side job for Doug, who spent his days working for UC Berkeley as an industrial photographer. But it was baseball that owned his heart, and every spring Doug would appear in Arizona to create the images that would enrapt children, and later, adults, across America. I asked him about the scope of work for those shoots.
“Take six posed pictures, everybody in full color, shoot 16 rolls at 36 exposure action during the games. The posed pictures were shot on Ektachrome, which is very difficult to shoot. You have to be right on the button or you’re in trouble exposure wise. The action film was in color negative, which is not quite as critical. The big problem early on was that lenses weren’t fast enough. They insisted on using 100 ASA film, which they thought gave better color. Also, I was instructed to photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the across their face and they told me that showed ruggedness and character. I, to myself thought it showed poor lighting. I never shot my own pictures that way. Why not turn the guy around, use flash film, you got the sun, coming from behind to separate him from the background and you get beautiful portraits of people.”
Did he have an assistant to keep track off all the players he shot? No.
“I devised a system where I had a roster sheet. I printed up my own and I’d have [the team name and] little stickers with all the numbers of the players on it. I could get two players per roll of 120 film on the posed shots and I’d pull off the sticker, put it on the roll when I was through and then put a piece of tape around it. Then, I’d send the roll off. It would have like number 3 or number 10. If they keep track of it at the processing place, then they’d know who’s on that roll.”
“Some of the managers were extremely good to me. John McNamara and Dick Williams in particular … [Williams] managed about four of the teams that I shot in Arizona. He seemed to have been there my whole career. He would come up to me and say, “How’s it going?” He said, “You got everybody?” I’d say, “No I still need to get a few people.” He’d stand right beside me and call men off the field and make sure I got everybody. Occasionally, I’d have the San Diego Padres or the Seattle Mariners team shot by 11 o’clock and the game starts at 1 o’clock or so. Generally, I had to chase them down for hours and hours and come back another day. It was really nice to be helped that way by several of the people who knew me.”
Clearly, this is a bright guy with a strong work ethic. But what was it that made his photography so good?
“Well, I went to professional photo school. I went to a place called Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. I was a commercial illustration major, but we had portraiture also and we got the classical portraiture posing and that’s what I used. You just don’t have a guy stand up and look at you. I mean you give them some angle and angle his head and make it look correct, so he doesn’t have a broken neck. You shoot women one way and men another way just to feature them. I always shot a gray scale and a color chart every time I started because the lab could use that. I never saw other photographers doing that and that’s something I used to do at the University of California when I was shooting there. Quality: that’s the whole name of the game. I insist on having the best quality possible.”
Over the years, Doug formed friendships with some of the players, like Ted Kubiak, Willie McCovey, Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson. If he has a favorite, it might be Vida.
“I met him when he was a young 18-year-old kid and he was very friendly. I enjoyed that. He came to me to have some work done and he got me going as far as a second job. In an area that I just pinched myself that I actually had 24 years in the big leagues, 23 years actually shooting for Topps, but I made a lot of friends and I still have many friends that were baseball players. I keep in touch. I enjoy that.
Doug ended up shooting Vida’s wedding at Candlestick Park, where Willie McCovey was the best man.
“Willie McCovey was a special one. When he retired, he had a thing and had a special all-star game. He had a big get-together at Palace Hotel. He let me bring my son along and so that was fun. I had some pictures of us together, the three of us and I just covered the whole event for him and made a great big picture book for him. That was special. I did a lot of postcards for Willie also, maybe three different times. I loved his Southern drawl and the way he spoke. He would call the house and Mary, my wife just loved talking to him. He always said [lowers voice], “Doug this is McCovey.” You know who he was way before he even said his name.” [chuckles]
I asked Doug if he ever got any oddball requests from ball players.
“I had one fellow who was a pitcher with the A’s and also the Cubs and I think maybe Seattle too, named Jim Todd. He liked photography and he liked my photography and so he would challenge me to do something different each year and pay for it. He had me take a picture of him going through his entire pitching windup, where he changed colored [jerseys] all the way through. Then, I picked out the best ones and had him change from the start to the end of his delivery as his jersey color changed and that was kind of fun. Then, I mounted it in front of a portrait of him that I did and then mounted it on a wood plaque.”
Like all card collectors, I’m interested in error cards. Was Doug ever involved in an error card?
“I had a habit of photographing all the Oakland A’s players when they were in the minors if I could. I happen to have photographed Jeff Cox with Modesto and Vancouver and San Jose, just about everywhere he played. I knew him and he finally got up to the big club, spring training and he was so excited to find out that he might be on a Topps card. That happened several times with the young players and it’s kind of fun. The card came out (1981 Topps #133) and I was so happy to hear about that. I looked at the back and all the statistics were correct and it said Oakland A’s on the front. I looked at the picture and it was Steve McCatty. I don’t think the hobbyists discovered that yet. I had never seen it mentioned, but it was McCatty. It wasn’t Jeff. I felt so bad for him that I made him a custom card — this was before computers — and gave them to him to give to his family and friends.”
I asked if there was a particular set of cards he shot that was meaningful to him.
“I thought when [Topps] came out with the “Stadium Clubs”, those were really well done, attractive. They had full bleed edges and they were on thicker stock and they were glossy, looked good.”
Doug proceeded to take me through his favorite Topps cards from 1983-1993 and some of the stories behind them. [Check out Doug’s episode on “The Sweet Spot” to catch them here for $2.99: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thesweetspot]
I wondered how Doug was perceived by other baseball card photographers, as well as the industry.
“Two years ago, I and two other Topps photographers were inducted into the Cactus League Hall of Fame as photographers for Topps. It was really pretty nice and one of the other photographers was the person who was just starting when I was finishing up [in 1993]. We were in Tucson, shooting the Cleveland Indians and before the game, the posed stuff and action during the game, and it was very hot. This fellow, he kept looking over at me. In his speech at the Hall of Fame induction, he said that he kept looking over at Doug to see if he was ready to go because he was thinking about going back to the hotel and jumping in the swimming pool.” He kept looking over at me and I was still there. Then, the game got over and he says, “Wow, now I can finally head off to the hotel and go swimming.” He looked around and there I was, out on the mound, grabbing players and taking pictures of them. He said, “Now, there’s a baseball card photographer.”
His photo of Bert Blyleven, along with the supporting curatorial text, tells us he was not only a world-class photographer, but a baseball historian of note. His contributions to the game, and baseball history, are immeasurable.
But, there’s a couple of problems for Doug:
“Baseball has become a problem to me because I’m so immersed in it. Photography has become a problem with me because I’m continuously looking at everything and making a picture out of it.”
What’s next for Doug?
I still have 15,000 [negatives] to send [to the Hall of Fame], 35 millimeter and digital and keeps me busy, keeps me alive, keeps me going. I’ve got plenty to do!
[note: I will be presenting Doug’s episode and my project “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” at the Lefty O’Doul Chapter’s SABR Day meeting in San Leandro on January 26, with Doug in attendance).
Doug was not unlike that kid in the neighborhood who had the coolest toys and baseball card collection and who enjoyed sharing them.