Baseball Americana

CdV

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

BBM

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

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

Cabrera

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

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

Topps 3D!

 

As a photography junkie I’ve long been fascinated with the way that three-dimensional imaging has paralleled the history of the medium from the early stereographs through the Viewmaster toys I grew up with (and which my son still played with in his preschool).

That baseball cards have multiple examples in these genre* is fantastic. But it’s the application of lenticular printing to baseball cards in the late 60s with the 1968 Topps 3D release followed by the run of Kelloggs cards starting in 1970 which is particularly awesome.

*Stereographs; Dixie Lids with their stereoviewer; Viewmasters

Between the Kelloggs 3D cards in the 1970s and 1980s Sportflics magic motion cards, I’ve found myself developing a specific weakness to lenticular baseball cards and their low-tech magic.

distracted

Yeah.

I’m not explicitly chasing sets of these but they’ll always turn my head and getting samples of all the different sets* is something I’m enjoying doing. I only have a couple samples of 1970s Kelloggs so far but each and every one is a joy to get and hold and look at.

*Well besides the 1968 Topps 3D sets which is just insanely expensive.

Most of the time I’m able to keep things in-line with my main collecting interests but this is not always the case. For example, last summer Topps released an On Demand 3D set. I normally ignore their on demand offerings since even the nice ones seem to only feature the same handful of teams and players. Plus they rely a ton on design reuse but usually do an even worse job of executing the old designs than Heritage does.

Lenticular 3D though? Of course I bought a pack. I wasn’t expecting to wait quite as long as I did but they finally arrived the week before Thanksgiving.

 

It was awesome. While it would’ve been nice to get some Giants I’m not even upset that I got Cutch as a Yankee. They look great in hand and I’m kind of regretting not buying more than one pack. The only disappointment (and it’s a small disappointment not a major critique) is that the action cards only show two frames of movement.

I haven’t had a ton of experience with lenticular 3D cards and the ones I do have are kind of fragile due to the all-to-common cracking issues caused by aging plastic and differing rates of expansion due to the way paper reacts to ambient humidity and temperature much more than plastic does. So this is the first time I’ve had a chance to take a really good look at them.

 

One obvious note to make compared to the older cards is that the current 3D cards depict action and the 3D effect works really well on pictures where the pose has considerable depth to it. I really like the Carlos Martinez for this reason and even in an animated gif it pops.

I hadn’t thought much about the physics of the lenticular effect before either but making these gifs made me realize that the lenses have to go up and down in order to create the stereo effect. While tilting the card is the only way to get the impression in a gif, the vertical lenses split the image into two. As a result, each eye sees a slightly different picture and your brain assembles the result in 3D.

Which means that I’m surprised and impressed that Topps printed horizontal cards in this set since that means they had to do two distinct print and finishing runs in order to accommodate the two designs.

 

Of course this also means that I’m a little confused by the choice to do action with vertical lenses since every other lenticular action card I have has horizontal lenses and has to be tilted up and down for the effect. From Sportflics to Topps Screenplays, they’re all animated with vertical movement. The current Topps action cards are  the first lenticular action ones I’ve seen that get tilted left/right instead.

As I think about it, tilting up and down for action makes a lot of sense since you don’t want to confuse the eyes with combining two distinct action images into single still image. Which may be why the current action cards feature only two frames. Any more frames and your brain will try and combine adjacent frames into a 3D image instead of seeing things as action.

 

Note: that all the motion holograms I’ve see have been left/right tilt—suggesting that our eyes/brains process them differently than lenticular images. And I guess that makes sense too since holograms are 3D no matter what angle you view them at.

Barajitas estadounidenses: Donruss Super Estrellas

My sixth post featuring Spanish-language baseball cards released in the United States. I didn’t intentionally plan on posting a bunch of these during Hispanic Heritage Month but the timing just worked out that way. Previous posts are:

  1. Introduction and 1978 Topps Zest
  2. 1993–2000 Pacific and Pacific Crown
  3. Other assorted Pacific cards and oddballs
  4. 1991 Kellog’s Leyendas
  5. 1994 Topps and beyond

After Pacific stopped releasing bilingual cards in 2000, Donruss picked up the Spanish-language mantle in 2002. From 2002–2004 Donruss released a small 100–150 card set* of Spanish-only cards.

*Set count depends on whether you think short-printed “base” cards count as the main set.

Since this is exclusively in Spanish I have fewer comments to make except to note that comparing the Spanish-language abbreviations across all the cards I’ve covered in this series reveals that there’s no real standard in terms of what each stat means. Some cards say “AVG” while others have “PRO.” Some have “D” and “T” versus “2B” or “3B.” It’s clear that part of being a Spanish-speaking baseball fan is to have a certain flexibility for the multiple names that each statistic has.

Anyway the best example for this flexibility is how on previous cards I’ve featured Home Runs have been abbreviated as HR or called cuadrangulares, in this case Donruss has abbreviated them as JR for “jonrón.”

Donruss’s 2003 offering is much the same as the 2002 one. My same observation about stats applies here. Where Topps has used G and P (ganado and perdido) for wins and losses, Donruss uses V and D (victoria and derrota). All equivalent to words that we use in English (wins, losses, victories, and defeats) but as someone whose understanding of the game came from stats I’m kind of amazed now that stats in English are so standardized.

I think the only thing that comes up as a standard variant in English is SO vs K. And yes this variant exists in Spanish as well where Donruss uses K while Topps used P for strikeouts.

Donruss also had inserts in its sets. Surprise surprise this one is called “Leyendas” as well—making it the third different “Leyendas” set I’ve mentioned in these posts.* The text here feels a bit more like it was written in Spanish rather than translated from English and is an example of “cuadrangulares” being used for home runs. Also of note is that where the other Cepeda Leyendas cards have all mentioned him winning the “MVP,” this one says “Jugador Más Valioso” instead.

*Yes I have an Orlando Cepeda card from each of them.

And in 2004 Donruss mailed it in with a third Spanish-language set the indicates how low a priority this set was for them. Yes, this is a completely different card than the 2003 card. No I wouldn’t fault anyone for thinking they were the same.

To be fair, the checklists between 2003 and 2004 aren’t identical. But there’s also nothing new for me to comment on with the 2004 set.

It’s been 14 years now since the last Spanish-language set. With all the #PonleAcento action and Latino fan outreach in the past couple of years,* I’d love to see a new set come out. A checklist like Pacific’s which focused more on the Latino players would be cool but even a 200-card Topps Latino could be fun at this point. I’d be first in line to get it for my kids to help them with their Spanish lessons. And I’d love to add a few more posts to this series as well.

*Though it’s been impressively difficult to actually find a #PonleAcento shirt available for purchase.

Barajitas estadounidenses: Topps

My fifth post featuring Spanish-language baseball cards released in the United States. Previous posts are:

  1. Introduction and 1978 Topps Zest
  2. 1993–2000 Pacific and Pacific Crown
  3. Other assorted Pacific cards and oddballs
  4. 1991 Kellog’s Leyendas

After Pacific’s 1993 Spanish-langauge release, Topps decided to release its 1994 set in a Spanish-languague version as well. From what I’ve seen, the Topps cards were only released as a set and came with a special 10-card insert set of Topps Leyendas featuring various Latino baseball stars.

First, the Leyendas insert set. The less said about the front design the better but I do like that this is one of the only sets with bilingual fronts. The back though is wonderful. There’s some peak-90s fonts and colors but I love that everything is translated. Compared to Pacific’s preference for English-language statistics this is a wonderful change of pace. Some stats like At Bats, Hits, and Home Runs are (or can be) the same in both languages but most are not.

The base 1994 Spanish cards featured the exact same fronts as the regular ones. Even the Future Stars and Rookies cards are the same. So the only thing worth commenting on is the backs.

As in 1978 and the Leyendas cards, Topps has bilingual statistic headings. Does it make things a little busy? Yes. But it makes these cards that much more accessible to everyone. The only thing that still confuses me is trying to figure out what “JS” translates to for “Games Started.” I’d understand “JE” or “JC” but the only way “JS” makes sense is if “Start” gets borrowed into Spanish.

I also like how Topps uses izquierda in the bats/throws information but switches to zurdo in the bio information. Izquierda is definitely the word I learned in school. Zurdo on the other hand is one I’ve learned through watching and reading about sports.

Anyway this is a solid effort at bilingual cards and makes me wonder what might have been had there been no strike. Would Topps have continued releasing bilingual cards in the following years? It would’ve been very cool if they had.

Instead, from what I’ve been able to tell, we’ve been limited to Spanish-language variants. There have been a few Spanish-language Topps Now cards from the World Baseball Classic which I won’t cover on this blog but Topps has referenced its Venezuelan issues a few times.

While the Topps Heritage Venezuelan variants seem to only focus on print differences between the US-manufactured and Venezuelan-manufactured cards, Topps Lineage in 2011 had a Venezuelan insert set that resulted in Spanish-language versions of the main Lineage cards.

Unfortunately, Lineage’s backs are pretty boring and just feature a biographical paragraph. The translation is fine, if a bit literal, but doesn’t offer much to comment on. Still, it’s nice to see that Topps didn’t completely give up on the market after 1994.

Barajitas estadounidenses: Kellogg’s Leyendas

Picking up this series after a lengthy delay. I don’t like to write about these without having handled at least one sample of the cards in question. But that’s taken care of now. This will be my fourth post featuring Spanish-language baseball cards released in the United States. Previous posts are:

  1. Introduction and 1978 Topps Zest
  2. 1993–2000 Pacific and Pacific Crown
  3. Other assorted Pacific cards and oddballs

A couple of years before Pacific’s Spanish-language set, Kellogg’s had two 10-card sets which you could find inserted in boxes of cereal. This set was issues in both English-only and bilingual English-Spanish versions. Neither of those was distributed in my neck of the woods as the Kellogg’s boxes around me had Sportflics-manufactured 3D cards. Presumably the bilingual cards were distributed in more markets that had more Spanish speakers.

Anyway, the 10-card checklist is an interesting mix of big names we still recognize (Clemente, Carew, Cepeda, and Miñoso) and others in the hall of very good who have name recognition for a certain generation of fans or for fans of a certain team. I know Kellogg’s was limited to retired players but I feel like they could’ve done better.

 


Aside from how Cepeda is pictured with the Cardinals on the card front and the Giants on the back, I’m fascinated about what’s translated and what’s not in the text. Position information: “primera base” is Spanish, “DH” is English, and “BR” and “TR” stand for bats right and throws right.* His birth information: bilingual. Stats though are another mix just like the positions. Años is in Spanish but all the abbreviations are in English.

*Took me a while to figure that out as I briefly thought that BR and TR were somehow representing other positions he played.

The bio text though is basically equivalent between both languages. I enjoy that his nickname gets translated while the “El Birdos” cheer doesn’t have the same effect when the surrounding text is Spanish.

Also, these bios show one of the things I love most about following sports in other languages. Would I have learned the words for “rookie” or “pennant” in school? No. Way. But on a card like this I can learn “novato” and “gallardete.”

Uh oh

I’m not a huge Allen & Ginter guy. I don’t like it as a baseball card set but I do enjoy the way it incorporates and re-incorporates concepts from the early years of trading cards. All those animal, national, flag, etc. inserts and subsets remind me of the wonderful world of pre-war cards where trading cards allowed for people to experience and learn about the rest of the world.

This year Ginter has a Flags of Lost Nations insert set. On the surface this looks like a perfect fit for what Ginter does best. A way to learn about the past and a opportunity to imagine what other ways national borders could’ve turned out. As someone whose family lived in Hawai‘i before it was annexed by the United States* I was pleased to see that there was a Hawai‘i card in the checklist.

*This puts me in the small category of having Chinese ancestors who legally became residents of the United States during the time while the Chinese Exclusion Act was enforced and also puts me in the rare category of having Asian ancestors who never immigrated to the United States.

And then I took a closer look at the checklist.

Rhodesia

Gulp.

This is not good. Pre-Dylann Roof you could defensibly claim ignorance about this but now? Yeah. Topps has a full-fledged white supremacist flag on its checklist. I’ve been unable to find an image of the card yet but I know it’s going to be a stomach punch when I do—both in terms of how it represents a country which was founded with explicitly racist intent and how it’s used today as a symbol for how black people are inherently threatening and need to be subdued..

But that’s not all. If you look at the checklist there’s also a Nazi-puppet state on there in the Republic of Salo. I’m certain Topps wouldn’t go anywhere near a Nazi flag but this is pretty damn close.

SaloPart of me hopes that this is merely a function of Topps trying to spread things out across the continents and not doing proper vetting on what these countries stood for. In other words, a horribly unfortunate mistake. But then I look at the text on the back of the Salo card and I’m not so sure. Someone had to research and write that and someone else had to green-light it even with the reference to Hitler.

Is it good to know about these countries? Yes. Absolutely. Are these the kind of things you want people to be collecting and seeking and saving and displaying? I certainly hope not.

I know politics is something we try and avoid on this blog and in this hobby. But flags are political. Countries are political. And when you put out a 25-card set of flags you should absolutely expect for people to look at the list, wonder why you chose the countries you did, and expect you to be aware and responsible for how those flags may still be in use today.

Anti-Product Baseball Cards

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

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

Basquiat_Stein_APBBC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*e.g. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.

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

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

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

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

A note on the “checklist”

Basquiat_APBBC

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.