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.

Topps Archives Snapshots

So I took a punt on Topps Archives Snapshots. As someone who’s into photography I was extremely intrigued by a product which was literally just about the photos. Where Topps Archives and Topps Heritage both feel very much about the designs, Archives Snapshots is a super-basic set which looks like the team-issued postcards and 8×10s from before the days when everything got a corporate sponsor.

I can’t review the set itself since, as a small-run, small-checklist photo-centric thing each card sort deserves its own writeup. So I’ll do that with the cards I got.

TAS_Lindor

My favorite photo of the bunch. I love the wide angle portrait and how this is a variation of a standard baseball pose yet the photographer has managed to make it distinct. It feels comfortable but also different and distinct and that’s a rare combination for a medium like baseball cards.

TAS_Swanson

Pretty standard pose but the sunset light in the background takes this from basic to very nice. Sometimes professional competence is really all you need. Everything is exposed perfectly here both in terms of the right amount of light and the right temperature.

TAS_Judge TAS_Rizzo

These both look more like paintings than photographs. Something about the flatness of the light and the lack of contrast anywhere suggests that these were originally part of photo shoots which were intended for a retro product (the Judge actually appears to be from the same shoot as the photo used on the 2017 Archives Bazooka card).

That these photos are in the archives this way suggests that the processing isn’t being done in post and that instead Topps is setting up a lot of its Heritage photoshoots to look like this. For me it’s more of a look which fits with the 1950s cards which often colorized black and white photos than the late-60s designs in current Heritage.

TAS_Betts TAS_Machado

Comparing these to the previous two photos shows lighting which just feels more natural. Baseball is hard to photograph because the caps cast shadows in faces. Finding a way to properly expose the faces without making the rest of the composition look weird isn’t the easiest thing to do. These cards both do it well.

TAS_Glasnow

Actually a very good black and white conversion. The thing with the black and white parallels is that converting a color image to black and white isn’t that straightforward. It’s very easy to blow the contrast and color mix. It’s nice to see that Topps got this right.

It’s even nicer to see that Topps printed this as a duotone.* It wouldn’t have surprised me at all to see this printed as either black-only or a four-color process mix which ends up looking neutral.** Both of those options are much easier on the printer and would’ve looks just fine to the majority of collectors. Going with the special, second medium grey ink to get better tonal range in the image is a nice commitment to quality.

*Most cards are printed in process (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) inks. Sometimes you’ll have a special spot ink in addition to those. With black and white photos though they’re frequently printed in just black ink. Duotones use a second ink on top of the black to provide a greater range of tones. If the second ink isn’t neutral it will also make the photo have a color tint.

**The black and white 2017 Stadium Club cards are printed this way.

TAS_Langston

My “hit.” I’ve never been a huge fan of the faded out effect Topps uses for autographed cards but I’m pleased that this one is subtle. The photograph itself though could be better. It’s never a good look to have a player squinting into the sun.

TAS_Baerga TAS_Galarraga

Two classic baseball poses which would’ve been at home on 1985 or 1986 Topps for sure. The Galarraga card is my second favorite of the pack. It looks like what a baseball photograph is supposed to look like but has the added benefit of those Expos uniforms and a young Big Cat.

TAS_Mulder

Yeesh. The worst photo of the bunch. By far. If there’s not enough contrast on Judge and Rizzo there’s too much here. The sunlight blows out the details on his leg and we’ve got chromatic aberration all over his cap. If this were properly focused it’d be salvageable but the entire image is blurry too.

TAS_Cey

Photo is fine. Boring but fine. It’d fit right in on any late-1970s Topps design. The scan however is horrid. Just awful. I’ve never seen Newton’s Rings on a baseball card before; I hope I never see them again. Plus the rest of the image is way over-sharpened. There’s weird edge enhancement and haloing around his helmet and on his shoulder.

For all the good that Topps did in the Glasnow black and white photo, this Cey is the polar opposite. I can’t believe someone signed off on this for printing. I really hope this isn’t how Topps is digitizing its archives because it’d be an absolute disgrace to treat all their photos like this.

TAS_Judge_B TAS_Langston_B

And the backs. While this set isn’t about the backs, I appreciate that they’re not an afterthought. These don’t feel like full-stats kind of cards but I’m glad they have lifetime Major League (or Minor League in the case of the rookies) stats along with the short bio. That’s a detail I’d’ve liked to have seen on Topps Bunt.

I’m less keen on the card numbering. Topps is doing this a lot with inserts and hits and it’s increasing weird to me each time I see it. I understand that these aren’t intended to be collected as a set. I also see how having some kind of identifying code makes sense. But treating that stuff as a card number? Silliness.

Lights, Camera, Action!

snider1959

mccormick1962

While baseball cards often depict action, I’ve become interested in the ones which try to depict moving action. In both 1959 and 1962 Topps released a couple of multiple-image cards which showed frame-by-frame action. Some of these were devoted to special plays like Mays’s catch in 1954 but a lot of them feel like their just trying to show action in an age where closely cropped action shots were impossible.

Williams1959_2

Williams1959_1

The 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set also has a number of these cards. I especially like the overhead angle on the batting shot but the 4-panel landscape card is also pretty cool.

ripken1985 schmidt1985

Fleer did much the same again in 1985. This makes sense as there wasn’t any other way to do this and the only major difference between these and their counterparts 23 years earlier is in the quality and sharpness of the photos.* The Fleer cards however do make for interesting comparisons between different hitters and how they swing the bat.

*I’ve asked around on Twitter and the like and no one seems to remember anything similar except for the 1968 Bazooka box panels. Those panels, while relevant to the discussion, aren’t really the same thing.

Valenzuela_Sportflics

In the late 1980s though Sportflics came on the scene. We’d had lenticular printing on cards before with the Topps 3D and Kelloggs All Stars which used the lenticular effect for three-dimensional purposes. And we’d had other oddballs like the mid-1980s 7/11 discs which used it to flip between multiple images.

Sportflics though realized that this kind of thing could reanimate the still images on the Fleer cards. The resulting three-frame animation of baseball action very quickly became one of my favorite things. Despite being always 🔽 in the Beckett hot list Sportflics was always 🔼 in my heart. I recently showed them to my kids and they thought they were super cool too.

It’s also worth noting that Sportflics realized that it could animate the text as well. One box of text on the card front could display twice as much information and give us a larger picture as a result.

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In 1989 Upper Deck came around with some very-cool multiple exposure cards. These were crisper images than what you could see in Sportflics and there was something about the multiple images which told the story of a standard motion—typically pitching—in the way that Doc Edgerton’s photos do where the resulting layered images become their own beautiful thing.

Upper Deck had these for a lot of years and even played with the form a bit with their Deion Sanders card which took the action thing and turned it into a transformation.

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By 1994 other brands had started doing similar multiple exposure cards. Donruss’s Spirit of the Game inserts in 1993 had a bunch of these and Topps flagship went the Upper Deck route and just used this effect on select base cards. Because of my age I tend to see all these as copying Upper Deck but it was also interesting to see the approach get more diverse in the different ways that the multiple exposures were layered.

At the same time Upper Deck launched there was also a product called Flipp Tipps which, while not exactly baseball cards, totally deserves to be mentioned here since they’re collectible flipbooks. Lots of frames and I like the concept of making them somewhat educational as a way of breaking down how Brett Butler bunts or Will Clark swings.

*Copyrighted 1989 but given how they include Kevin Mitchell’s barehanded catch I’m inclined to say they came out in early 1990.

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Sportflics meanwhile found its gimmick to be outdated in the mid-90s once motion holograms were invented. These showed up on Denny’s 1996 Pinnacle Holograms and have the benefit of many more frames to animate motion. Unfortunately they’re even harder to see than that Sportflics. The light has to be perfect and there’s no cue as to what direction you have to tilt the card.

Still, the Ozzie Smith backflip card beyond cool. Instead of being standard baseball action they’ve captured one of Ozzie’s trademarks.  That this set also includes Hideo Nomo’s windup and Gary Sheffield’s menacing swing shows that the designers really thought about which players had distinctive movements which were worthy of motion capture.

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Topps also released its own version of these with Stadium Club instavision in 1997. It’s a smaller hologram but much easier to see. These cards were about specific highlights instead of capturing a general sense of the player.

It’s also worth noting that in 1997 Topps also went back to lenticular motion with Screenplays. Unlike Sportflics these had 24 frames of animation. Unfortunately I don’t have one of these available to GIF.

The ultimate action card though has to go to 2000 Upper Deck Powerdeck. Rather than being a motion card this was a baseball-card-sized CD-ROM with effectively a miniature website on it when you inserted it into your computer. Anyway the YouTube video speaks for itself. It’s a neat idea though sadly one which is already obsolete and unviewable while the 1959 Topps Baseball Thrills cards are as interesting as ever.

SABR47 Sabermetics Panel: 2014 Topps #273 Mark DeRosa.

One of the many highlights of SABR47 in New York was the “MLB Now: The Changing State of Sabermetrics” panel. The discussion was conducted by a good cross section of of panelists which included MLB Network host Brian Kenny as moderator, journalists Joel Sherman and Mike Petriello, and SABR president Vince Gennaro.

The former player on the panel was Mark DeRosa. While he never played for the Phillies DeRosa is notable in Philadelphia for being a Penn alum. While at the university he led the Quakers to Ivy League championships in BOTH baseball and football.

This brings us to DeRosa’s 2014 Topps card.

2014 Topps #273 Mark DeRosa

Mark DeRosa’s final card as an active player tied his MLB career back to his college years at Penn.

You may notice that the card is signed — Mark DeRosa was gracious enough to take the time to autograph memorabilia after the SABR panel. While signing the card he had a funny story related to the photograph.

He took a football with him to each and every one of the eight stops in his major league career. He would bring out the pigskin occasionally during batting practice – sort of a bonding activity with teammates who were interested in tossing a little football.

None of the teams had a problem with the activity until 2013 when the Toronto Blue Jays (led by Manager John Gibbons) confiscated the football. DeRosa said the only time he got to play football as a member of the Blue Jays was the day the picture was taken.

Speaking of the Picture

I found the original image on Getty Images. The photo is credited to Tom Szczerbowski who is also responsible for the photo that is on the 2016 Topps card of Jose Bautista – the Bat flip card.

Topps did one significant piece of photoshopping on the photo before immortalizing it on cardboard….

Mark DeRosa 2013 SEP 01

Topps edited the NFL logo off of the ball. Not sure why, as Topps still had an NFL license in 2014. Perhaps the Topps/NFL agreement was still being developed when the Topps baseball went to print.

There is one other fun fact within the Getty photo info: it tells us that the pass was thrown by teammate Anthony Gose.

Royals @ Blue Jays

Perhaps Gibbons was right to confiscate the football. The Blue Jays lost that days game 5-0 to the Kansas City Royals. Mark DeRosa did not get involved in the game, while Gose went 0-3 with a pair of strikeouts.

Sources and Links

SABR

Sports Collectors Daily

Twitter @Topps

Getty Images

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Baseball Photographer Trading Cards

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

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

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

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

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

They were even packaged with gum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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