Cardboard Crosswalk: 1991-95 Conlon Collection and 1933-34 Goudey

Author’s note: This is the first in what may be a series of “Cardboard Crosswalk” posts comparing cards across sets. Use the Comments to let me know if you’d like to see more articles like this one.

Introduction

A fun exercise when I flip through my Conlon Collection binder is to match up the classic Charles Conlon photographs on the cards with some of the older baseball cards that used the same images. My focus for this article will be the connection between these Conlon cards and the iconic 1933-34 Goudey sets.

While one normally wouldn’t expect cards issued six decades later to help shed light on sets from the 1930s, I hope we’ll see exactly that by the end of the this post. If not, boy was this a lot of work for nothing!

Defining the sets

Though there are numerous Conlon sets, I’m restricting my focus to the consecutively numbered 1430 cards issued from 1991-1995. Aside from occasional banners and badges on the cards, nearly all of them look quite a bit like this Hank Greenberg from the 1995 grouping.

Greenberg.jpg

The 1933 Goudey set, meanwhile, has 240 cards, with the bulk of the set using the “Big League Chewing Gum” banner design of this Rabbit Maranville and just under a third of the cards forgoing the banner, as is the case with this Joe Morrissey card.

design differences

Finally, the 1934 Goudey set follows two main designs with 84 of the 96 cards bearing a blue “Lou Gehrig says” banner and 12 cards from the high number series bearing a red “Chuck Klein says” banner.

34G examples.jpg

Comparing the 1933 Goudey images against the Conlon cards

As Charles Conlon was the preeminent baseball photographer of his day, a great many of the images used in pre-war sets derive from his work. Thirty-five of the 240 cards in the 1933 Goudey set show this directly, starting with the very first card in the set.

Bengough

In some cases, a single Conlon photo supported multiple cards. The most prominent example is the photo shown on card 888 from the Conlon set, which supported Goudey cards 53, 144, and 149 of the Bambino.

Ruth

In case there is any doubt that this photo was the source for the yellow and red Ruth cards above, here is the same photo cropped and resized. Perfect match.

Ruth 2.jpg

The most typical application of the Conlon photos involved the small amount of cropping necessary to adjust for the Goudey proportions, a masking of background elements, and of course colorization. The Bengough cards already shown and the Marty McManus cards below show all three of these modifications.

McManus

While the yellow and red Ruth cards show the most extreme cropping/zooming, several other cards nonetheless employ cropping and zooming beyond the minimal level needed to fit the Goudey dimensions.

Douthit

Lou Gehrig on the decline?

The most unusual alteration to a Conlon photo involves this Lou Gehrig card, of which there are two in the set. Something that had always bothered me with these cards was the sense Gehrig was batting down a hill.

Gehrig.jpg

We will see this is exactly the case by examining card 529 in the Conlon set.

Conlon Gehrig

As the tallness of the original photo was not compatible with the Goudey dimensions, the two simplest modifications, aside from choosing a new photo, would have been to crop or shrink the image. Examples of each approach are shown below.

Gehrig option 1

However, the less aesthetic, more clever option that at least appeals to the ex-mathematician and Pythagoras fanboy in me is to rotate the original image. Sure enough that is exactly what Goudey did. The good news is the card has “more Gehrig” than otherwise; the bad news is we get the “batting down a hill” posture you may never again un-see.

Gehrig rotation

I had a little fun in MS Paint trying to reconstruct what this Gehrig card would have looked like if Goudey hadn’t been so darn clever. I prefer the crop and shrink options considerably over the rotation, though I will put one I like even better at the end of this post.

Triple Gehrig.jpg

Okay, enough of the Gehrig card already? Almost.

In hindsight, even without the Conlon photo, there is a clue on the Gehrig that serious hijinks were afoot. Take a look at the third card again, the real Gehrig. See it yet? Okay, here it is.

Gehrig top

Yep, that’s the tip of Lou’s bat spilling over onto the border. Had this occurred with any of the other 334 cards in the two Goudey sets, we might just assume some sloppiness or artistic license. However, the Gehrig cards provide the only two examples of this, suggesting the unique approach taken with the photo was the likely culprit.

Complete inventory of 1933 Goudey-Conlon pairs

This post would get very, very long if I added pictures of all thirty-five 1933 Goudey-Conlon pairs, but here is the complete crosswalk for the two sets. (Feel free to contact me if you’d like a document that includes all the card images.)

I’ll preface the listing by acknowledging that there are pairs not on this list where the images were close but in my opinion not the same. There is subjectivity in image matching, and it’s possible a different collector might arrive at a slightly different list.

Inventory.JPG

Analysis

There is something in our collector DNA that simply loves putting similar cards side by side, whether the Blue Jays/Rangers Bump Wills cards from 1979 or a seven-year run of Steve Garvey all-star cards.

garvey run

To that end, if all this post does is help you put your 1933 Goudey cards next to their Conlon ancestors (or descendants) or dig up your Garvey cards, then good deal! 

On the other hand, if you’re interested in learning more about the Goudey sets from the Conlon crosswalk, definitely read on! There is only one quick preliminary you’ll need to know first. 

The 1933 Goudey cards were printed on ten different sheets, with each sheet (or sometimes pairs) having its own release schedule. For example, cards from Sheet 1 were released around the beginning of the season, and cards from Sheet 10 were released after the World Series.

Conlon phase-out

Referring back to the inventory of Conlon-Goudey pairs, we can count up the number of Conlon photos per sheet, graph the data, and quickly spot a pattern.

Graph.JPG

Even noting that Conlon had thousands of photographs beyond the 1530 that appeared in the 1991-1995 Conlon Collection, the graph very clearly shows Goudey’s decreasing use of Conlon photos as the year progressed. I believe what we are seeing in the graph is the shift from Charles Conlon to George Burke as the main source of photographs for the set.

Just to reinforce the point that the Conlon Collection cards reflect only a fraction of Conlon’s photography, here is a Tony Lazzeri photo of his that did not appear in the Conlon Collection. Based on the graph, you might presume Tony Lazzeri’s card came from a low-numbered sheet in the Goudey set, and you’d be correct: Sheet 1.

Lazzeri.jpg

And while we’re at it, another Conlon photo not in the Conlon Collection set with a corresponding Goudey card off Sheet 4.

Hornsby

Does this photo make me look younger?

There is another bit of information we can learn about the Goudey set from the Conlon card matches. You may have noticed the Conlon cards pictured in this post all have a year on the front. In most cases the year indicates when the picture was taken, though in some cases it may also/instead indicate the year of a particular feat described on the card. The graph below shows the year distribution of the photos matching the Goudey set.

Graph 2

The main takeaway, which I suspect many of you already knew, is that the images in the Goudey set are hardly confined to the preceding twelve months as we’ve become accustomed to with modern sets. Instead these photos span an entire decade. Combining this information with the earlier graph yields this (at least approximate) picture of the 1933 set.

  • Began from largely older photos from Conlon
  • Grew through (probably) newer/current photos from Burke

We can also use the wide range of image dates to better understand a distinction between Ruth’s card 181 (greenish one) and the other three Ruth cards in the set.

Two Ruth pics.jpg

If you ever imagined that the “green” Ruth (card 181) looked a lot older than the Ruth on the set’s other three cards, it may be because he is! We know from Conlon card 888 that cards 53, 144, and 149 of Ruth are based on a 1927 photo. Meanwhile, the photograph behind card 181 was most likely taken in 1932 or 1933, a good 5-6 years later in people years or 15-18 years later in Ruth years.

Action too good to be true

I’ll close out the 1933 crosswalk with one last tidbit, again probably not surprising to most collectors: the action shots in the 1933 set are faked!

Dykes.jpg

Ignoring the lack of a catcher and umpire, that Goudey card of Jimmy Dykes sure looks like he just took a mighty swing. Was it a homer? A hard liner into the gap? A searing line drive just over the third baseman’s head? None of the above, of course! It was just a warm-up swing near the dugout.

Very brief look at 1934 Goudey

You may have noticed that I have said nothing about the 1934 Goudey set since the introduction to this post. There is a good reason for that. True, there are three cards from the set that have partners in the Conlon Collection, but…

1934G and Conlon.jpg

All three of these cards (numbers 1, 11, and 14) come from the first of the four 1934 sheets, in which all 24 cards reused images from the 1933 set. In other words, there’s nothing new here.

1933 to 1934.jpg

However, I do at least want to update a graph from the previous section. I’ll use the labels 11-14 for the four sheets that made up the 1934 Goudey set. Even more clearly than before, we can see the phasing out of Conlon images, presumably in favor of Burke.

Graph 3.JPG

Conclusion

I won’t lie. It was a tedious exercise to compare nearly 2000 cards. As I own only a handful of the Goudey cards, I didn’t even get the thrill of laying actual cardboard side-by-side. Still, it was a fun bit of work to compare the sets, and I felt like a successful person every time I found a match. I was also particularly gratified to solve the mystery of the downhill Gehrig.

And finally, here is the the new and improved Gehrig I promised. Just don’t look too closely. I hardly do this for a living!

Newest Gehrig.jpg

 

The revolution will not be televised

Way back in April last year I posted about how a bunch of us were planning on creating our own set of ToppsNOW-inspired cards for our teams. We were all excited and optimistic about embarking on the project although none of us new for sure whether we’d make it all the way through.

I’m happy to report that three of us have completed our sets. Matt Prigge and I finished ours in mid-December—we both decided to wait until after post-season awards had been announced in November before drawing a line under things—and Marc Brubaker just finished his this month.

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Matt stuck with the Rookies App all season. This had the benefit of allowing him to order packs of cards as the season progressed and forced him to stay relatively current. I suspect that the monthly rush of receiving the next batch of produced cards also allowed him to stay on task.

The app has a number of nice templates which Matt customized to make more Brewers-like. He did a great job at mixing an old-school 80s Topps esthetic with a more-1990s photo selection. The results speak for themselves and look fantastic.

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I made my cards in a combination of Photoshop and Indesign. Since I knew I would be away from my computer for a couple months last summer I selected a design that was extremely text-focused and didn’t rely on any image adjustments. I printed everything through MagCloud and then trimmed them to size after the fact.

My design inspiration was obviously 1993 Upper Deck. It fit my text-based needs perfectly while also remaining photo-centric. And it’s a perfect match for the kinds of photos I liked. I tweaked it slightly to be Giants-specific but it’s otherwise as close a copy as I could make with the tools available to me.

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Marc was a late addition to the group between starting late and having a team that went the furthest in the playoffs, he had the most work to do to finish his set. He created all his cards in Photoshop and got them printed locally.

Marc went with 1998 Upper Deck SP as his design inspiration. Marc and I are both photographers so we appreciate the rough filed-negative-carrier sloppy edges and generous white borders which suggest darkroom prints. Marc however improved in SP’s design by rotating and flipping the edge design so the cards don’t look like they’ve been run through a uniform Photoshop action.

Observations and Reflections

Matt and Marc both ended up making cards for every game of the season as well as the post season. I did cards for every Giants win, other highlights I felt needed to be called out, and in the (all too frequent) occasion of being swept, a single card for the series. We all seemed to feel that doing cards for the entire season was both a lot of work and became a bit of a chore and as such, are thinking about whether we want to commit to doing this again.

While we like the idea of ToppsNOW and making cards for an entire season, there are a lot of games where there’s really no good highlight. Or if there is a good highlight, there’s no good photo of it. Plus you have that looming specter of falling behind and having to catch up. Even with focusing just on wins—where there’s always something worth highlighting—I found it hard to keep going.*

*Though this could just be the Giants’ September.

What we all agreed was most rewarding though were the roster cards. We made cards for every guy who appeared in a game. As team collectors I think we all appreciate those cards of the September call-ups who never get proper Topps cards to reflect their appearance in the majors.

I know that we all plan on doing a complete roster again next season as well.

Also, the examples from our sets in this post are all Roster cards. It’s very telling that they are the first cards we all blogged about. Once Matt and Marc blog about their highlights cards I will write a second post which is just focused on examples of the different card designs we all came up with.*

*Highlights, Roster, All-Stars, Award-Winners, Post-Season, Memorials, etc.

Next season

All three of us are planning on doing something like this next season. It’s been a lot of fun to chat, encourage, and share design or photo-selection comments. I don’t know if any of us would have completed the season without the others’ support. Sometimes peer-pressure is a good thing.

We’ve also been discussing consolidating our efforts and making something that’s more like a proper “set” as both a way of coordinating things and encouraging more people to join us. We’re primarily suggesting roster cards—so 54 photos total. Names and positions on the front. Haven’t thought about backs yet but that may be more up to the discretion of each person.*

*Puzzle backs are always an option.

To this point I threw together a quick template which could be offered as an Indesign document or Photoshop template to whoever is interested. I’m serious. Please join us. It’s a ton of fun and there’s nothing like seeing the printed cards in-hand or in pages afterward.

Heritage and the Uncanny Valley

1969 Topps was a rough year as the player boycott plus four expansion teams put Topps in a major bind with the photography. As a result, many of the cards featured photos which had been cropped super tightly to obscure out-of-date photos, featured hatless players, involved unflattering low-angle shots to hide cap logos, or had the logos painted over. This, plus the numerous re-used photos overshadowed what could’ve been a great design.

Needless to say I was a excited to see 2018 Heritage since I expected that the 1969 design would look really nice if done well. The results have mostly confirmed this. Photos aren’t cropped too closely—more three-quarters length portraits instead of neck-up headshots—and are distinct from what we’ve seen in Flagship (though there does appear to be some reuse from previous years of Heritage). They’re also generally taken in better light than Topps took photos in in the 1960s. No more squinting in full sun or dealing with shadows across faces.

Many of the Heritage images use fill flash well and balance things nicely with the ambient light. Where in the mid-80s Topps went a bit overkill on the flash and turned many of the photos into impending thunderstorms, 2018 Heritage features sunny days that look perfect for a day game or sunsets that suggest it will be a wonderful night for a ballgame.

It’s a great demonstration of how good 1969 Topps could’ve looked and really illustrates the promise and appeal of the Heritage line. Topps also did very well this year in using photos which overwhelmingly feature white home uniforms or road grey uniforms. In previous years there have been a lot of colored alternates or spring training tops* which clash with the retro-esthetic of the designs.

*As a Giants collector this has been one of my biggest peeves about Heritage.

I’m also glad that Topps used the smallest possible ® and ™ symbols on the team names. In many of their retro sets (including this year’s 1983 throwbacks), adding those characters throws off the alignment and, to my eye, ruins the design. So kudos to Topps for getting it right here.

Being the type/design nerd I am though there are also a few things going on that really bother me about Heritage. One big one is that Topps chose to use the longest-possible position names—including “Outfielder” instead of “Outfield,” a choice I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a card before. This wouldn’t normally be an issue except that in order to fit the positions into the circle Topps had to compress the font. And even compressed, “Second Baseman” doesn’t fit well.

I have no idea why Topps did this especially since both last year’s Heritage and the original 1969 design use short position indicators like “2nd Base” instead.

I’m also disappointed, but not surprised, that Topps went with “Diamondbacks” instead of “D-Backs” since the extra-long team name pretty much breaks a lot of the 1960s designs. It is indeed cramped on these cards as well but still looks better and is easier to read than previous years’ Heritage.

While I’ve seen a bunch of complaints about changing the color of the Astros dot from light green to dark blue, that doesn’t bother me. I’d actually like to see all the dots updated to better match the team colors. What does bother me is that Topps went with black ink for the position name inside the dark blue dot. This is literally unreadable and an obvious design screwup. I’d love to see the positions in white or orange here instead.

This Gattis card though also takes me into the thing about Heritage that upsets me the most. While Topps has done a great job in updating the design with good photography they’ve also gone ahead and ruined a lot of the effect by post-processing many of the photos with a fake dot pattern which I’m assuming is intended to mimic a traditional halftone screen.

For a few years now Heritage has been printed using stochastic screening.* This results in much cleaner photographic images and generally improves print quality. Or at least it would if Topps didn’t add this silly dot pattern back into the photo. On the fronts of cards it’s especially visible in the skies and I suspect Topps intended it to replicate the vintage look.

*Why yes I do have a post on print screens and what they look like.

For the few of us who would even notice what Topps is doing it’s borderline close to ruining the whole product by sending it into an uncanny valley between looking “authentic” and being a wonderful update which modernizes the design.

This becomes especially apparent on the All-Stars cards. I’ve gone ahead and scanned details from a real 1969 card since it makes the comparison that much more obvious.

Topps, to its credit, has the greyscale background image printed in just black ink.  But the fake halftone effect is extremely obvious and extremely large. You can tell its a fake effect because the dots are all the same size—in a traditional screen the dots change size—plus the scale is completely off.

There’s also an artificially large trap where the black and white photo overlaps the red header graphic. This is also something that was done intentionally as it appears on all the All-Star cards and is way too large to have been introduced by the printing process.

Comparing to the 1969 card shows just how different the screening looks. The fake halftone in 2018 distracts from the image since it’s merely imposed on top of it as a texture. In the 1969, the dots are the image.

You can also see here how much better the modern screening is when Topps doesn’t screw with it. In Trout’s cap you can barely make out any noise from the printing screen and what you can notice looks more like film grain. On the 1969 card Hawk’s hair is full of the halftone rosette pattern.

On the backs of the All-Star cards—and from what I’ve seen, the Deckle Edge inserts—this is even more obvious because Topps only applied the fake screen effect to parts of the image. As a result it stands out even more. The Deckle Edge inserts appear to be very similar to this. Rather than improving on the originals Topps has tried a lazy approach to faking an old-time look.

This is especially frustrating because there was so much potential for those inserts to look amazing compared to the 1969 versions. Just printing black and white photos with a stochastic screen would’ve been a huge improvement. But Topps also could’ve considered making them duotones and getting them even closer to looking like real photographs.

There’s also something else weird going on in many of the Heritage photos. This Porcello is the most egregious of the ones I’ve seen but it’s happening a lot. The photos look like they’ve been printed out of register except that printing on the dot and the edges of the photo are all registered correctly.

In the Porcello example there’s severe magenta fringing on his right ear and elbow. There’s equally-severe yellow fringing around the red details on his jersey. I’m a total loss at guessing what’s going on since the rest of the card doesn’t look out of register.*  However I am crossing my fingers and hoping that this isn’t another attempt to create a retro look through post-processing.

*It almost look like the purple/green chromatic aberration you get from cheap photographic lenses but it’s not that either since the colors are off and chromatic aberration only shows up in the slightly-out-of-focus areas.

I want to like this set. I really do. Aside from all the short print nonsense* Topps is very close to having something wonderful here in updating old designs to show how good they are and how well they work today. Many of the cards in this set are extremely nice with their good photography, full statistics, and easy-to-read backs. The World Series cards with their box scores are fantastic. There’s so much going on that appeals to me.

*I can ignore the parallels and variants but having 20% of the checklist be intentionally short-printed just to create artificial scarcity is something that directly antagonizes me and the way I collect cards.

Yet this straddling of wanting to improve the original while simultaneously weighing it down with faked versions of 1969’s production keeps me from fully enjoying it. I’d love an update. And I’d love an all-period-details replicated set which is actually printed with a coarse traditional linescreen. Unfortunately those two goals aren’t compatible and trying to do both means Topps does neither. Did I enjoy my pack? Yes and it was fun seeing these in person for the first time. Do I feel the need to buy another? Not really.

Boston Unions

Much like the Baltimore Unions, Boston’s Union Association entry was one of the league’s more stable. Of the five Union Association clubs that completed their full schedule, only Cincinnati and St. Louis used fewer players than Boston’s 25. The Boston Unions (not the Reds as the history books say) officially joined the Union Association in March 1884, making them the last of the original eight clubs to join the UA. This makes it all the more remarkable that the club finished with a 58-51 record. For comparison, Altoona joined in February and finished a disastrous 6-17 before folding at the end of May.

The efforts to bring Union Association baseball to Boston were led by a triumvirate of Boston baseball legends, George Wright, pitcher Tommy Bond, and first baseman Tim Murnane. Wright’s involvement with the Unions has more or less been forgotten, but it is clear from contemporary accounts that Wright was the driving force behind the Boston Unions. The 33-year-old Murnane, a National Association and National League vet, who last played major league baseball in 1878, was slated to be the club’s first baseman and manager. The veteran pitcher Bond, once the best young pitcher in baseball, but now 4 years removed from his last injury free season. Amazingly pitching 3359 innings by the age of 24 is not good for the arm. Bond is the patron saint of gifted twirlers felled by crippling arm troubles.

Unlike most of the Union Association, Boston fielded its club with promising young players, rather than trying to poach players from established clubs. Thanks to Wright and Murnane’s scouting and a strong amateur baseball scene in the Boston area, the club was filled with young talent. Murnane was the club’s only regular above aged 26, while Bond was the only member of the pitching staff over 25. (As an aside, 19-game-winner James Burke’s birth date remains unknown). Among the talent, future major league regulars included 17-year-old outfielder Mike Slattery, 20-year-old pitcher/outfielder and future Hall of Famer Tommy McCarthy, 22-year-old third baseman John Irwin, and 22-year-old outfielder/pitcher Ed “Cannonball” Crane.

Despite raves from the Boston press, the Unions were not able to overtake the National League’s Red Stockings in the hearts and minds of the Boston faithful and drew poorly. After an opening day crowd of 3000 on April 30, just a few days later on May 5, they drew a crowd reported to be under 100. For a league whose admission prices were 25 cents and who promised a $75 guarantee to the road team, showings like these were a death knell. It seems apparent that George Wright was footing the bill for the team’s expenses. Indeed, Wright’s sporting goods empire, Wright & Ditson, published the official Union Association guide, so he was clearly a booster of the rebel league.

After a promising start, the 28-year-old Bond faltered as the club’s ace earning his release in June. The club landed disgruntled Detroit lefthander Dupee Shaw in mid-July, a coup for the Union Association, which was desperate to pluck major league talent from the rival National League and American Association. Shaw was dominant for the Boston, striking out a staggering 309 batters in 315.2 innings, while posting a 1.77 ERA (good for a 170 ERA+). His 451 strikeouts for the year (including 144 with Detroit) are the fourth best mark of all time.

Despite a dominant hitting season by catcher/outfielder “Cannonball” Ed Crane, the team’s offense was a weak point and prevented them from challenging for a higher position in the standings. Crane batted .285/.308/.451 with 12 home runs (good for second place in the league) and a 152 OPS+ (good for fifth in the league).

The club was dragged down by the poor hitting of Mike Slattery, 23 year old Kid Butler, and Tommy McCarthy. The teenaged Slattery hit just .208/.216/.232 good for a 51 OPS+. Of the 28 UA regulars who qualified for the batting title, Slattery was 28th. Butler, Boston’s left fielder and utility man was even worse, hitting just .169/.206/.227 for a 46 OPS+ in 71 games. Future Baseball Hall of Famer, McCarthy, hit just .215/.237/.244 good for a 62 OPS+ in 53 games. He totalled a -1.0 offensive WAR, -0.3 defensive WAR and put up an 0-7 record in the pitcher’s box, with a 4.82 ERA and a 63 OPS+. This was good for a -1.4 WAR on the mound. So in 53 games, he put up a -2.7 total WAR. All this in what is almost universally regarded as the lowest quality major league in history. (I am not going to comment on the major league credentials of the National Association). McCarthy’s 1884 season has a reasonable case as the worst season by anyone ever. His transformation from unfathomably bad to Hall of Famer has to be one of the most remarkable metamorphoses in baseball history.

The Boston Unions representation in the Old Judge set consists of four players: McCarthy, Slattery, Crane and third baseman John Irwin.

1. Tommy McCarthy

I wrote about McCarthy in the first blog in this series. There are 13 different poses capturing McCarthy’s transformation from struggling youth with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1887 to his burgeoning stardom with the St. Louis Brown Stockings. These 13 poses also include at least 30 variations and are illustrative of how complicated and unwieldy the Old Judge (N172) set is. (As an aside, all images are sourced from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, which despite its vastness is still incomplete, hence the lack of inclusion of every pose for each player I discuss).

 

 

2. Mike “Kangaroo” Slattery

Mike “Kangaroo” Slattery was just 17 years old when he debuted for the Boston Unions in their first ever game on April 17, 1884. He is the youngest major league regular in baseball history, appearing in 106 games for the Unions. At 6 foot 2 and 210 pounds, he was one of the biggest players in the major leagues throughout his career. Unfortunately his athletic never translated into much hitting ability. After his teenage debut, Slattery spent the next few seasons in the minor leagues, before reappearing with the New York Gothams in 1888. He jumped the Players League Giants in 1890 and wrapped up his major league career with stints in Cincinnati and Washington in 1891. His post playing career including surviving a stabbing while trying to stop a shoplifter and a premature death at age 37 in 1904 due to stomach trouble.

Slattery is pictured in six poses with at least 12 known variations.

 

 

3. Ed “Cannonball” Crane

Ed “Cannonball” Crane had a very unusual and memorable career as the rare player to appear regularly both at catcher and pitcher. A powerfully built 5’9 and 215 pounds, Crane’s 1884 season was easily his best. Crane’s rookie season was split between catching, where he made a staggering 64 errors in 42 games, and the outfield. He also appeared at first base and on the mound. While his defense was dreadful, he showed tremendous power, hitting 12 home runs and 23 doubles. He also set the record for the longest throw, when he threw a baseball an estimated 405 feet (he did this on several occasions in October of that year), breaking former Cincinnati Red Stocking John Hatfield’s record of 400-402 feet. Crane hit well in limited time with Buffalo and Providence in 1885. A dreadful 1886 season with Washington in which he hit just .171, while also putting up a 1 and 7 record with a 7.20 ERA prompted a return to the minors. Pitching for the International League champion Toronto Maple Leafs, he hit .428 while winning 33 games. He returned to the majors with the New York Giants in 1888, where he pitched 12 games including the first no-hitter in New York Giants’ history, a seven inning affair on September 27 against Washington. The following week, he became the first player ever to strike out four batters in one inning. He made two starts for the Giants in that year’s World Series, going 1 and 1, helping the Giants to a 6 games to 4 win over the St. Louis Brown Stockings.

Crane joined the Giants as they toured the world with the Chicago White Stockings that off-season. Crane, who reportedly was not a drinker, quickly shifted into the life of the party on the tour. Crane dressed in fine clothes and regaling teammates and reporters alike with outlandish stories and song. He consumed wine and liquor at the seemingly endless banquets held for the touring baseballists. He missed several games due to drunkenness and hangovers. His throwing arm remained intact however, as he set an Australian record by throwing a cricket ball 384 feet and 10.5 inches in Melbourne. Somewhere along the way, he was provided with a Japanese monkey by an American sailor. The monkey terrorized passengers on-board, which Crane kept hidden in his coat pocket. At the end of the trip, Crane brought the monkey to New York, where he christened it the Giants’ new mascot.

Despite missing time due to injuries, Crane compiled a 14-11 record in 1889. The Giants won the pennant again. Crane showed flashes of his tremendous potential when he won 4 games for the Giants as they defeated the American Association’s Brooklyn Bridegrooms in that year’s World Series. Crane like most of his Giants’ teammates jumped the Players’ League in 1890. It was this season that Crane’s drinking started to takeover. His weight ballooned and in August he was arrested at a Harlem watering hole under charges of resisting arrest. He finished with a 16-19 record as the Giants’ finished a disappointing third. Crane walked a stunning 208 batters against just 116 strikeouts in 330 innings. Crane’s poor personal habits were singled out as the main cause of the club’s struggles.

Crane joined the King Kelly’s Cincinnati entry in the American Association for 1891. In doing so, he became one of the few players to appear in four different major leagues. Crane pitched well, leading the league with a 2.45 ERA with a 14-14 record, but he was criticized for his poor condition and lack of effort. The club disbanded in August and Crane jumped to the crosstown Red Stockings in the National League, as a replacement for Hall of Famer Old Hoss Radbourn. Crane went 4-8 in 15 starts.

Crane returned to the Giants in 1892, going 16-24 with 189 walks and a 3.80 ERA. His arm was faltering and his major league career ended in 1893 with dismal stints for the Giants and Brooklyn. Crane tried without success to find work as an umpire, appearing as a substitute umpire in five National League games over the next couple of seasons. He bounced around the minor leagues, drinking heavily at every stop. He reportedly committed suicide on September 19, 1896 by overdosing on a chloral hydrate prescription in Rochester, New York. He was just 34. Credit to Brian McKenna for the great SABR biography on Crane.

Crane appears in six different poses in the Old Judge set, capturing his time with both the National League and Players’ League versions of the Giants.

 

 

4. John Irwin

John Irwin lived in the shadow of his older brother Arthur Irwin. The elder Irwin was a star infielder for the Providence Grays, who in 1884 were rampaging towards the National League pennant. The previous year, Irwin was credited with inventing the fielder’s glove. John Irwin had made his major league debut in 1882 playing a single game alongside his older brother for the Worcester Grays. He spent 1883 with Bay City of the Northwestern League and from there joined the Boston Unions as their starting third baseman. Manning the hot corner, the 22 year old Irwin had a respectable rookie season. He was light hitter, but his .234/.260/.319 batting line was good for a 94 OPS+. In the field, his .780 fielding percentage was remarkably .003 points better than the UA league average for third baseman. No word on whether he used his brother’s glove. Despite his strong  blood lines, youth and promise, Irwin returned to the minors for most of the next three seasons, making brief stints in the majors with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1886 and Washington Nationals in 1887. Irwin earned modest playing time for the last-place Nationals in both 1888 and 1889 and then jumped to the Buffalo Bisons of the Players’ League in 1890. The Bisons finished in a distant last place with a record of 36-96. Irwin joined the eventual American Association pennant winning Boston Reds in 1891. The Reds were manager by his older brother Arthur. John played 19 games, but was released in July. I would hate to hear that conversation…Sorry bro, you suck.

From there, John joined the last place Louisville Colonels closing out his major league career with 14 games before being released in August. Irwin appeared for 5 different last place clubs in his major league career. Quite a record considering his career lasted just 322 games. He bounced around numerous minor league clubs until the turn of the century. He passed away at age 72 in 1934 in Boston.

Despite Irwin’s role as a part-timer on a last place club, he is featured in five different poses in the Old Judge set.

Irwin looks into his crystal ball to see what the future holds (last place probably):

 

The Baltimore Unions (not the Monumentals)

In contrast to the fragility of the ill-conceived Altoona Unions, the Baltimore Unions were one of the Union Association’s stronger and more stable franchises. The club was situated as a rival to both the American Association’s Baltimore Orioles and the Eastern League’s Baltimore Monumentals (the Baltimore UA club was exclusively referred to as the Unions, not the Monumentals as currently credited). Under the management of Baltimore baseball mogul, Bill Henderson (whose brother A. H. Henderson was president and principal owner of the UA’s Chicago franchise), they were one of just five UA franchises to complete their full schedule. The Baltimore Unions finished with a 58-47 record, good for fourth place (maybe third, depending on how you want to rate Milwaukee, who played just 12 games).

Despite the club’s relative stability and quality, the roster of the Baltimore Unions is a researcher’s nightmare. 37 different players appeared for Baltimore, including at least 3 whose first name is either unknown or in flux, as well as outfielder, Daniel Sheehan, whose appearance on August 27 is not currently credited. Sheahan played under the alias John Ryan, but is not the John Ryan who pitched for Baltimore that year.

The club lacked pitching depth and so it leaned heavily upon number one starter, 26 year old Bill Sweeney. Sweeney was member of the 1882 Philadelphia Athletics and pitched quite well as the club’s change pitcher. He spent 1883 with Peoria of the Northwestern League and was recruited by Baltimore for the 1884 season. Sweeney pitched very well for Baltimore and was one the league’s top pitchers. He started 60 games, pitched 538 innings and won 40 games. In the process, he shredded his arm and never pitched in the majors again.

Despite strong performances by future major league stars Yank Robinson and Emmett Seery, Baltimore had one of the league’s worst offenses. The biggest culprit was the club’s starting centrefielder, 39 year old Ned Cuthbert. Cuthbert appeared in the National Association’s inaugural season way back in 1871 and he is perhaps best known as the player-manager of the 1882 St. Louis Brown Stockings (thus making him the first manager in Cardinals franchise history). Some sources have him as an influential force in getting Chris von der Ahe involved in baseball. But by 1884, Cuthbert was a poor choice to playing centre field. He hit a meager .202, he compiled a staggering -1.6 WAR in 44 games.

But you’re not here to learn about the roster minutia of the Baltimore Unions, you’re here for Old Judge.

Of the 37 Baltimore Unions, a total of five appeared in the Old Judge set: Yank Robinson, Emmett Seery, Jumbo Schoeneck, Dick Phelan, and Gid Gardner. So let’s learn more about these folks.

1. William H. “Yank” Robinson

Yank Robinson made his major league debut as a 22 year old shortstop, playing 11 games for the Detroit Wolverines before washing out. As a 24 year old in 1884, he did what he did best, draw walks. His modest total of 37 led the league. Keep in mind that Union Association rules meant it took seven balls to draw a walk. Robinson put up a 123 OPS+, while playing 5 different positions including both catcher and pitcher. Thanks to his versatility, which included 75 innings of league average pitching, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called him the Union Association’s best all-around player. Robinson would join the St. Louis Brown Stockings in 1885 and serve as a vital cog in the club’s burgeoning dynasty. He led the league in walks in both 1888 and 1889 (setting major league records both years with 116 and 118 respectively), despite paltry batting averages of .231 and .208. He finished up his career with Washington in 1892, hitting just .179. Sadly, he died in 1894 at age 34 of tuberculosis, just over two years after playing his last major league game.

Robinson is pictured during his salad days with the St. Louis Brown Stockings. As a star player for one of the best teams in baseball, it is no surprise that he is pictured in six different poses in the Old Judge set.

A “sliding” Yank Robinson:

Goodwin & Company William H. “Yank” Robinson, Shortstop, St. Louis Browns, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888 American, Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1562) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/403865
Goodwin & Company
William H. “Yank” Robinson, Shortstop, St. Louis Browns, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1563)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/403866
Goodwin & Company
William H. “Yank” Robinson, Shortstop, St. Louis Browns, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1561)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/403864
Goodwin & Company
William H. “Yank” Robinson, Shortstop, St. Louis Browns, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1564)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/403867

2. Emmett Seery

John Emmett Seery was a 23 year old left fielder for the Baltimore Unions in 1884. He was the club’s best hitter by far, posting a 142 OPS+ on the strength of a .313/.342/.411 batting line. He joined the UA champion St. Louis Maroons when they joined the National League in 1885. Seasons like Seery’s 1885 are good evidence of the disparity of play between the two leagues. In 59 games with St. Louis, he hit just .162/.220/.208. His time with the Maroons was highlighted by a brawl with his teammate, the tumultuous pitcher Charlie Sweeney. Despite his struggles with the Maroons, Seery soldiered on and became a solid major league player. His greatest strengths were his power, speed and walk rate. The Detroit Free Press wrote of his patient approach: [He was] a good enough waiter to preside at a restaurant. His strongest season was probably his 1889 season with Indianapolis where he hit .314/.401/.454 with eight home runs. He also stole over 40 bases three times, with a high of 80 in 1888 (good for second in the National League). After his career ended in 1892, he became the proprietor of a thriving orange grove in Florida. He died in Saranac Lake, New York in 1930.

Seery is pictured in four different poses during his time in 1887 with the Indianapolis Hoosiers.

Seery looking like the coolest man alive in my new favorite Old Judge:

 

 

3. Louis W. “Jumbo” Schoeneck

“Jumbo” Schoeneck was a giant for the time. At 6 foot 2, 223 pounds, he towered over most of the players in his day. Schoeneck was a 22 year old rookie first baseman in 1884. He started the season with the Chicago Unions, where he was one of the league’s strongest hitters, hitting .317/.332/.404 in 90 games. The Chicago club moved to Pittsburgh in late August and then folded on September 19. Reports in the Baltimore papers suggested that both Baltimore and Pittsburgh were under the same management (as mentioned before the Henderson brothers headed up the two clubs). When the Pittsburgh club disbanded, Baltimore signed eight players from the club including Schoeneck. In 16 games with Baltimore, Schoeneck struggled, hitting just .250. He bounced around the minor leagues for the next couple of years, before getting a couple of stints with the Indianapolis Hoosiers in 1888 and 1889. His National League career consisted of 64 games in which hit .237/.283/.260. Nonetheless, he appears in four different poses (with at least 15 known variations) from his time with the Hoosiers and the Western Association’s Chicago Maroons in 1888. He died in his native Chicago in 1930.

Schoeneck demonstrating his bocce form:

 

 

4. Gid Gardner

In a lot of ways, Franklin Washington “Gid” Gardner is the stereotypical uncouth ballplayer of the 1880’s. Amidst various suspensions for drunkenness, fights, and arrests for assaulting women and frequenting brothels, Gardner managed to forge a 12 year professional career, split among 8 different major league squads and at least 11 minor league clubs. Despite his tumultuous personal life, he was a versatile player, who appeared at six different positions in his career. His 1884 season is typical, as he began the season with the American Association’s Baltimore Orioles. After assaulting a prostitute at a brothel in St. Louis, he was put in jail and then suspended by Orioles’ manager Billy Barnie. He jumped to the Chicago Unions. When the Unions folded and merged with the Baltimore Unions, Gardner was not among the players signed. Nonetheless, Gardner found his way into one game with the Unions on September 23. Gardner was back with the Orioles in 1885 and was with Indianapolis in 1887. He was traded to Washington for baseball’s first triple crown winner Paul Hines, where he appeared in 1 game and then was traded to Philadelphia for Cupid Childs, where he appeared in another game. Amazingly, he is pictured in 3 different poses in the 1888 Old Judge set with both Washington and Philadelphia. Gardner’s pro career ended in 1891 and he bounced around local Boston semi-pro teams, never finding stable employment or transitioning to civilian life. He died in 1914. Check out Charlie Bevis’ nice SABR bio for more on Gardner’s “exploits.”

Gardner and Miah Murray in a beautifully framed horizontal card:

 

 

5. Dick Phelan

Goodwin & Company
James Dickson “Dick” Phelan, 2nd Base, Des Moines Prohibitionists, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1889
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1801)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/404484

A native of Towanda, Pennsylvania, James Dickson “Dick” Phelan would enjoy a to a long professional career that lasted from 1883 to 1899. In 1884, Phelan was the rookie second baseman for the Baltimore Unions. He was a light hitter and his defensive statistics show him to be somewhat average. In 101 games, he hit .246/.268/.316 and put up -1.4 WAR. Phelan moved on to play a handful of games with the Buffalo Bisons and the St. Louis Maroons in 1885 and then became a minor league staple in multiple leagues. At age 44, he was still plugging away with Dallas/Montgomery in the Southern Association. He settled in the south and passed away in San Antonio in 1931.

He is featured with Des Moines in 1889 in four different poses in Old Judge.

Phelan pictured as the dapperest hipster alive:

Goodwin & Company
James Dickson “Dick” Phelan, 2nd Base, Des Moines Prohibitionists, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1889
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1800)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/404483
Goodwin & Company
James Dickson “Dick” Phelan, 2nd Base, Des Moines Prohibitionists, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1889
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1802)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/404485
Goodwin & Company
James Dickson “Dick” Phelan, 2nd Base, Des Moines Prohibitionists, from the Old Judge series (N172) for Old Judge Cigarettes, 1888–89
American,
Albumen photograph; sheet: 2 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (6.9 x 3.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.215.172.1817)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/404487

 

Old Judge (N172) and the Union Association

I’ve spent the past few months obsessed with the Union Association, baseball’s bastard major league. 

134 years after the Union Association’s single season, the league remains mysterious and enigmatic. Compared to baseball’s other former major league’s, the Union Association’s influence is scant at best.

After all, the National Association of 1871 to 1875 is baseball’s first attempt at a major league and is directly responsible for the creation of the National League. The American Association was formed in 1882. It’s legacy includes marketing baseball to the working class with beer and 25 cent tickets. The AA also gave birth to four of baseball’s greatest franchises: the Cincinnati Reds, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Players League of 1890 attempted to usurp baseball’s power structure and give players control of their careers. The Federal League of 1914-1915 directly led to the establishment of baseball’s anti-trust exemption.

Meanwhile the Union Association has no significant legacy. Esteemed thinkers such as Bill James have suggested that calling the Union Association a major league is a significant mistake.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with baseball cards. Well, one of the fascinating and frustrating aspects of researching the Union Association is the lack of visual documentation of the league’s existence. I’ve found a team photo of the Boston Unions and a few scorecards and advertisements, but otherwise photos or illustrations of Union Association players and uniforms are virtually non-existent.

There are no Union Association baseball cards.

But there is the Old Judge (N172) set. Of the 500+ players featured in the mammoth N172 set, 60 are Union Association alumni. Approximately 277 players appeared in the Union Association in 1884, spread across 13 different franchises that appeared in 14 different cities. So that means roughly 20% or the league’s players were pictured in the Old Judge set and it provides the most comprehensive visual account of the men who played in the UA.

Of those 60 Union Association alumni in the Old Judge set, only a handful were or would become star major league players. I’ll focus on what I deem the top 5 players to appear in the Union Association in this post. In future posts, I will do a team by team breakdown of Old Judge cards featuring UA alums.

1. Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap

Virtually forgotten now, Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap was arguably the best second baseman in baseball in the 1880’s. Hall of Fame second baseman Frank Grant was nicknamed “The Black Dunlap” as a tribute to the strength of his play. Dunlap was a legitimate star and one of the few great players to jump from the National League the Union Association. In each of his first four previous seasons with the Cleveland Blues, he finished in the top ten in position player WAR. As the crown jewel of the UA champion St. Louis Maroons, he led the UA in virtually every offensive category, including a .412/.448/.621 slash line and a 256 OPS+, which is the best non-Barry Bonds OPS+ in major league history. He quickly declined upon his return to the National League due to injuries, but his peak is Hall of Fame worthy and in just 965 career games he totalled 36.8 WAR (I am using baseball-reference for WAR totals).

Dunlap is pictured as captain of the Pittsburg Alleghenys, longingly remembering the 1884 season when he had the whole baseball world in his hands. ca. 1888

2. “Pebbly” Jack Glasscock

“Pebbly” Jack Glasscock was a promising shortstop for the Cleveland Blues and Dunlap’s double play partner. He famously defected from the Blues along with pitcher Jim McCormick and catcher “Fatty” Briody to join the Cincinnati Unions in August 1884. Glasscock hit .419 in 38 games for Cincinnati, as he helped the club to a second place finish. He would enjoy a long career amassing 2041 hits and establishing himself as the game’s premier defensive shortstop. With 61.5 career WAR, he has a strong case for the Hall of Fame and was named by SABR as an Overlooked 19th Century Legend in 2016.

Glasscock is pictured with the now defunct Indianapolis Hoosiers ca. 1887 to 1889, though at least one variation has him in an Indianapolis uni with a hastily added “New York” on his chest, covering his move to the New York Giants in 1890 after the John T. Brush owned Indianapolis Hoosiers folded. Brush purchased the Giants and brought former Hoosiers like Glasscock and Amos Rusie over to the Big Apple.

3. Jim McCormick

Pitcher Jim McCormick was one baseball’s best pitchers in the 1880’s. As the workhorse of the Cleveland Blues from 1879 to 1884, he led the National League in victories and innings pitched twice, while also leading the league in ERA+ and ERA in 1883. Frustrated by a heavy workload and low pay, he joined the aforementioned Glasscock and Briody in defecting from the Blues to the Cincinnati Unions. He would post a sparkling 21-3 record with a UA leading 1.54 ERA in two months of work down the stretch. He joined Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings after the UA folded and had a couple more strong seasons before retiring after the 1887 season. His 265 career wins and 75.2 career WAR are the most of any UA alum and had he pitched for better known club in his peak, he would probably be in the Hall of Fame.

The stout McCormick is pictured in his Chicago White Stockings uniform ca. 1886. This means that the photos for the Old Judge set were taken as early as 1886, though generally were not released until 1887. (He spent 1887 with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, but his Old Judge cards list him without a team, and none of his Old Judge variations capture him in an Alleghenys uni.)

4. Jack Clements

Baseball’s last full-time left-handed catcher and one of the first to adopt a chest protector, Jack Clements was just 19 years old when he made his debut for the Keystones, Philadelphia’s Union Association entry. Despite his youth, he hit .275/.318/.401 with a 146 OPS+ in 41 games for the dismal Keystones. When the Keystones were on the verge of folding in early August, he was sold for $500 to the rival Philadelphia Phillies. The proceeds of the sale settled an outstanding debt for the lumber used to build the Keystones ballpark. Clements would become a key contributor for the strong Phillies clubs of the 1890’s. His .394 average in 1895 remains the all-time record for a catcher. He totalled 32.1 career WAR in 17 seasons and is one of the top catchers of the 19th century.

Clements is pictured with the Phillies, eternally waiting for the pitch to arrive ca. 1887 to 1890.

5. Tommy McCarthy

Tommy McCarthy is also the only Union Association player elected to the Hall of Fame. As a 20 year rookie, he debuted with his hometown Boston Unions as a pitcher and outfielder. He did not enjoy much success at either position, going 0-7 with a 4.82 ERA on the mound and hitting just .215 in 53 games. He has a reasonable case for being the worst regular in the Union Association. He bounced around several major league clubs before establishing himself as a star with the St. Louis Browns. He enjoyed his greatest success alongside Hugh Duffy on the Boston Beaneaters, where the duo was nicknamed “The Heavenly Twins.” McCarthy was credited with inventing the “hit and run” and was acknowledged as one of the most strategic players in the game. His 14.6 WAR is the lowest of any Hall of Famer, though it seems he was elected more his pioneering influence than his on field credentials.

A pre-stardom McCarthy is pictured with the Phillies ca. 1887 committing homicide via tag. He also appears in other variations from his time with the Brown Stockings.

 

Cahiers des Cartes

 

The Conlon Project reminded me that despite being in many ways about photography, baseball cards almost never credit the photographer who took the photo. While we can often figure out which cards were shot by the same photographer based on the location, putting a name to that photographer often required putting the pieces together from other media.

We know that Richard Noble’s portrait of Bo Jackson was used in 1990 Score because of his lawsuit against Nike. And we know that Ronald Modra shot the photo of Benito Santiago in 1991 Topps because Sports Illustrated used a different photo from that session on its cover. But there’s no credit on the cards themselves even though anyone can see that they’re above the usual standard of baseball card photography.

Where we did have photographer credits is in the Broder card realm. I don’t just mean Rob Broder’s sets either. There were a number of photographers at this time creating their own unlicensed sets—all of which are known in the hobby as Broder cards.And there are even some licensed photographers like Barry Colla whose sets have the same “Broder” look and feel. On the surface these cards look very similar to each other and remind me of Mother’s Cookies* with their emphasis on the photo and the plain Helvetica text.

*I’ve been led to understand that Colla shot a lot of the Mother’s photos.

Often the photo is more of a function of someone who has access to a telephoto lens and a field-level press pass. It’s nice to see these photos but most of them aren’t anything portfolio-worthy. Sometimes though they’re clearly part of a portrait session and those are much more fun to see. Even if they’re standard baseball poses the portrait session is a more accurate gauge of the photographer’s abilities.

The backs remind me of the backs of mass-produced 8×10 photos. Name and numbering and not much else.* So they’re more like 2.5″×3.5″ photos rather than baseball cards. In many ways this makes them a wonderful artifact of the 1980s/90s freelance photography hustle where self-publishing was a feasible approach amidst the junk wax boom. The Barry Colla cards at least have some more information but the overall design still feels like an afterthought.

*That this is so close to my self-designed backs suggests I shouldn’t give my nine-year-old self such a hard time.

All of these sets—if you can call these packets of a dozen or so cards sets—were very much created to capitalize on whoever was rising on the Beckett hot list. Multiple cards of the same star player. Hot rookies. I’d snark more but it cuts very close to what I’ve seen going on with cards today where Topps is releasing an uncountable number of cards for Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger.

The Conlon cards exist in that same late-80s, early-90s ecosystem as the Broder cards. The earlier releases are very much in the same vein of treating the cards as photographs first and cards second. I very much appreciate how they’re printed as duotones* and it’s charming how the text is an afterthought and no one thought to even provide numbering.

*Yes there’s a post with more information than you ever wanted about printing. And much to my surprise many of the cards Topps released in 2017 are actually duotones or use spot colors for the black and white images.

By the early 90s the set has been redone as proper cards. More stats. More design. Set numbering. A large set count. In many ways they’re not really about the photo anymore.

Which is a shame since one of the things I did as part of the Conlon Project was check out Baseball’s Golden Age from the library. Where the Conlon cards have somewhat generic player information and stats on the backs, the book includes some of Conlon’s stories about photographing the players. These stories—such as Lefty Grove refusing to let Conlon see how he gripped the ball or how in that famous Ty Cobb photo Conlon was more worried about the well being of the third baseman than whether or not he got the shot—are fantastic and suggest another approach that these photographer-based cards could’ve gone.

Thankfully Upper Deck did exactly this in 1993 with its Walter Iooss collection and again in 1996 with its V.J. Lovero collection. These cards are great in how they’re so clearly photo-focused* but also allow us to see how the photographer approaches the game and his subjects.

*Something that mid-1990s Upper Deck excelled at in general.

The Iooss cards are also a wonderful demonstration of what makes Iooss’s work so distinct. The lighting relies on off-camera flash and underexposes the background. But unlike the “every sky must be dark and rainy” look that dominated Topps in 1985 and 1986, the Iooss photos balance the light temperatures well. The skies aren’t that weird grey blue color and the players all have a wonderful warm glow.

And the stories are great. Most of them are interesting—Albert Belle’s refusal to pose and Iooss’s subsequent having to take an action photo stands out—but I like the comparison of Paul Molitor and Will Clark.

Lovero’s photos don‘t have a clearly-defined look the way Iooss’s do. If anything it’s that they have a tendency to be shot extremely tight—similar to Topps’s current approach in Flagship except that I think Lovero shot this way and Topps just crops things this way.

What I like about the Lovero cards is that their backs often get into the technical side of the photography. The Caminiti card talks specifically about how to shoot tight action. There are others that talk about trying different angles for shooting. Reading them you get a real sense of how Lovero approaches photographing baseball action.

His stories about the posed shoots are closer to the Iooss stories except that they’re often about the context of the shoot rather than the player himself. Combined though, both the Lovero and Iooss sets offer a wonderful look at how a professional had to approach sports photography in the 1990s and offer a lot of pointers to anyone who’s interested in shooting sports action now.