Before I joined SABR I had a post on my own blog which looked at baseball cards and the role they played in developing my visual literacy. Over the past year of watching various Zoom presentations with my kids about the history of cards I’ve found myself realizing that I need to write a similar post about the way baseball cards also track the way that we, as humans developed visual literacy.
Baseball and baseball cards sort of eerily parallel the development and evolution of photography with a number of rough steps starting around the Civil War before finally coalescing in the late 19th Century around something that’s not changed much over the last 125 years. The thing though is that baseball cards are but a thin sliver of this development.
The hobby has a tendency to talk about cards and collecting as if they evolved as part of baseball history. I get it; we collect cards and aren’t photo historians. But I think it’s important to understand how, if anything, cards basically came along for the ride and that their history is less a history of baseball but a lesson on how we learned to use photographs and changed our relationship with celebrity.
A couple years ago I read Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths. It’s a great book about Sojourner Truth and how she supported herself in part by selling cartes de visite. I went into the book expecting history about photographs and what they depict, and how they interact with issues of race, power, and privilege. Instead I came out with an appreciation of how printed images function within our society.
For most of human history, portraits were only accessible to the wealthy. You had to pay an extremely skilled artist to paint you and you only got one piece out of it. With the advent of photography in the mid-19th century things got a lot more accessible. Tintypes and ambrotypes were affordable* to a much wider range of people. However they are still one-off pieces. The negative itself is treated in such a way that it becomes a positive** and there is no way to make prints.
*In this case albumen prints from glass negatives.
Coming back to Sojourner Truth, not only were people collecting cards, notable people like Truth were producing them for sale as well, modifying them to not only be photographs but to include messages.* Card making and collecting is not only a hobby but a business that can support people whose images are in demand.
*In Truth’s case “I sell the shadow to support the substance”
Cartes de visite, stamps, autographs, etc all ended up being stored in albums and shown to visitors in ways that are shockingly familiar to any of us card collectors today. We have pages that are frequently better for preservation but both the concept and practice of the card binder emerged hand in hand with the cards themselves.
It’s impossible for me to look at sets like Old Judge or Goodwin & Company outside the collecting world which existed in this era. When images are currency and the idea of celebrity culture and “set” collection has taken such a strong hold, it’s no surprise that companies started to create cards of their own.
These are photos—cabinet cards actually—which were printed for commercial instead of personal reasons. They depict all kinds of athletes as well as actors, actresses, and other famous people. Yes they’re promotional items. But they clearly were intended to be collected and traded in the same way as the individually-produced cards were.
Cards and photography usage only begins to diverge a bit in the late 19th century when cabinet cards began to die out due to the emergence of amateur photography. At this point other forms of printed images took up the torch since cards and card collecting were firmly entrenched. Manufacturers like Allen & Ginter in the US (and many others abroad) created sports sets including baseball players, billiards shooters, boxers, and pedestrians and non-sports sets depicting animals, flowers, flags, etc. There was plenty of stuff to choose from; if you could imagine a collection there’s a decent chance there’s a set of it out there.*
*Up until World War 2 the world of trading cards was massive and wonderfully varied. This represents over eight decades of card collecting. I’ve been grabbing “pre-war”sets which cover whatever subject matter strikes my interest—from Hollywood to science to travel because they represent how cards became an affordable way to create your own wunderkammer.
One of the things I love most in this hobby is how it remains a direct connection to the way we originally used photographs. Yes I love baseball. But I also love photography and being able to experience how the the world of cartomania still survives today is fantastic.
It’s why I love the non-sport elements of the modern Ginter sets. It’s why things like exhibit cards fascinate me. It’s why I enjoy Jay Publishing, team-issued postcards, and other card-related photopacks which are aren’t necessarily cards. I can see all these different directions that the hobby could have gone in. Different ways of designing sets and releasing cards. Different concepts of who is worth depicting.
It all reaches back to the 19th century when we realized how images are currency. Something people are willing to purchase and save and trade. The history of card collecting depicts baseball. But it embodies how we learned to see and how we learned to use images.
Author’s Note: The SABR Baseball Cards blog is pleased to introduce new SABR member Donna Muscarella, whose interests in baseball, the Negro Leagues, and photography led her to produce a Hinchliffe Stadium baseball card set.
What led to your interest in Hinchliffe Stadium?
I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum during a baseball-themed vacation in 2016. The experience left me feeling a range of emotions—from anger to awe and much in between—but mostly, it left me with a desire to learn more about the Negro Leagues players, owners, and teams.
When the Tip Your Cap campaign associated with the Negro Leagues’ 100th Anniversary started in June 2020, I wanted to have Topps do a small run of twenty custom baseball cards for me. Initially, I planned for the cards to depict me tipping my cap in tribute to the Negro Leagues. That’s a pretty dull card on its own, so I started thinking about places that would complement the theme. With local venues closed, and my feeling uncomfortable traveling during a pandemic, every idea I had about location seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream. I scrapped the plan.
In addition to limited or no access to venues of all kinds, 2020 also brought limited or no access to modern baseball cards (at least, not at prices I felt were reasonable, Project 2020 aside). The lack of product led me to think about other hobby options, and I became enamored with the thought of building a collection of postcards depicting stadiums in which Negro Leagues baseball had been played. The first step in that process was to compose a list of ballparks. Imagine my surprise and jubilation when I discovered that a dedicated Negro Leagues ballpark—not a Major League stadium rented to a Negro League team—was still standing a little more than ten miles from my house!
What made you decide to turn your Hinchliffe photos into a baseball card set?
Once I learned about Hinchliffe, the plan for my Tip Your Cap tribute card was on again. A bigger plan snapped into focus the second Hinchliffe came into sight. There in front of me was a beautiful Larry Doby mural painted on the stadium wall. My vision was to pose in front of the stadium gate, but as soon as I saw the Doby mural, I knew it was the perfect spot for my Tip Your Cap photo. I felt compelled to get that stadium gate onto a card, though. And if I was going to do a card featuring the gate, then why not a small set of cards showcasing Hinchliffe? As I began to walk around the stadium with goosebumps growing on top of goosebumps, I knew it had to be.
Though the write-ups are brief, I learned a lot from the backs of your cards. How much was it a goal of yours to educate collectors?
The idea for the cards was born out of a desire to pay personal tribute to the Negro Leagues during its centennial year and to inspire others to learn more about the Negro Leagues. I was moved by the thought that maybe, just maybe, each person that read the cards might be moved to not only do some research on their own, but also to invite someone else to explore all that the history of the Negro Leagues has to offer. You know, kind of like that shampoo commercial from the 1980s: “I told two friends and they told two friends and so on and so on and…”
The backs of your cards pay homage to 1933 Goudey. What made you choose that style for your card backs?
I thought it would be fun to incorporate some aspects of vintage cards into this set. After all, it showcases a venue that opened to the public in the early 1930s. I chose to model the card backs after the 1933 Goudeys because Hinchliffe Stadium hosted the Colored World Series in 1933. And the rounded font on the card fronts, while not exactly the same, is meant to be reminiscent of the Goudey font. The uncoated front and back surfaces are another vintage attribute I chose.
How did you decide how many cards to include and which cards/pictures to include in your set?
I wanted the card images to tell a story, to give a small sense of what it might have been like to visit Hinchliffe on a game day. The images chosen and the corresponding size of the set grew organically from the elements of the ballpark I was able to photograph from outside the gates that would support that journey.
How did you decide how many sets to make?
Being that I’m a first-time custom-card creator, I wanted to keep the print run small. Fifty was the minimum amount I could order using the card stock I chose, so I went with it. Should there be enough interest in my work, I would consider a larger edition for other sets.
You mentioned that you live very close to Hinchliffe. Do you see yourself traveling someday to other historic baseball sites to take pictures and/or make trading cards?
Absolutely! Incorporating baseball into vacations is a tradition that my parents started, and as a fourth-generation baseball fan, I’ve taken it one step further by building many of my travel plans around baseball. My discovery of Hinchliffe has made me want to incorporate even more exploration of baseball history into my travels.
I can walk down an ordinary New York City street or stroll through a nearby park and want to take photos left and right, but put me in the midst of baseball history with my camera and I’m like a kid in a candy store. It’s a pretty safe bet that more historic baseball sites will be visited and captured through my camera lens.
This Hinchliffe trading card project has been invigorating, and I hope to repeat that feeling by creating and releasing more card sets.
Aside from stadiums or places, what other baseball-themed card sets you hope to make?
I would love to do a set or series of sets that incorporate some of my favorite images of players that I’ve captured over the years. But without licensing from at least the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (and Major and Minor League Baseball if I want to include team names and logos), I can’t release those images in bulk, or even in duplicate. I can, however, use those images in one-of-one pieces of art. I have some ideas for combining my photos of players and stadiums with baseball cards to create unique artwork and plan to begin experimenting with them soon.
My next planned project is a companion set to complement my original Hinchliffe cards. The images included in the initial release were taken with a somewhat photojournalistic approach. I wanted to convey the story of fans arriving to the ballpark (the gate on Card 1), purchasing tickets (the ticket windows on Card 2), heading to the seating bowl (the entry area on Card 3), and sitting down to watch the action (the stands on Card 4). The anticipation contained in those moments are precious.
What I’ve found though, is that there is so much more to Hinchliffe! I’ve begun capturing the character of the ballpark with more of an eye for detail. For example, the sphere-topped flagpoles now sit bare against a blue sky—to think how majestic they looked when serving their purpose on a game day! I don’t know what the final composition of the set will be, but plan for it to once again feature my photography and serve as a vehicle to share information about Hinchliffe and its relationship with the Negro Leagues.
Something that makes your set unique versus what I see from many other independent card producers is that you used photos you took yourself rather than found elsewhere. How long have you been a photographer and what got you started?
My parents tell me I was inquisitive almost from birth, and I am also very sentimental. I believe my love of photography stems from a need to explore and a desire to preserve my discoveries. This idea of exploration can take on many forms—for instance, it may involve visiting a new place or examining a familiar subject with a new perspective. The possibilities are endless, especially with photography.
That said, I’ve enjoyed photography since I was a child. My first camera, a 110 point and shoot, was the bonus I received when opening a new savings account. There were other gift options available, but I wanted that camera! When we’d get photos developed from family vacations, it was always easy to tell which rolls were mine. All you had to do was look for the envelopes full of photos of clouds and flowers and animals and unusual takes on buildings or statues…
Do you have any photography tips for our readers interested in taking their own photos of stadiums or other baseball subjects?
Experiment! Digital photography is extremely conducive to it. You can immediately see your captured image and decide if you like what the image conveys or if adjustments are needed. Play with different vantage points, different use of light and shadow, and different fields of view.
Don’t be afraid to get lost in the details. Search for gems hidden in plain sight. It’s easy to be captivated by the sweeping expanse of a ballpark. There is tons of beauty there, and it is worthy of attention. But there also is beauty to be found in the details! Maybe it’s the scrollwork on the aisle seats or the way the sunset is glowing through the lighting panels mounted on top of the stadium or the way a small portion of the stadium’s exterior appears even more majestic when its backdrop is an azure blue sky.
If photographing a stadium on game day, arrive early and go inside as soon as gates open. Take advantage of location and experience opportunities that may exist only in the first forty-five minutes or so after gates open.
As for equipment, sure it’s nice to have a “fancy” camera. I shoot with a DSLR (currently Nikon D500) and a compact camera (currently Canon PowerShot SX730). But if your phone’s camera is the only camera you own, don’t let that stop you from photographic exploration. If you decide you like the photographic adventure enough to invest in a more advanced camera, do so when your financial means allow. Don’t feel like you need to buy the top of the line camera, or even a camera with interchangeable lenses (DSLR or mirrorless) right away.
What’s involved in turning your images and text into an actual baseball card? What parts were “DIY” and what parts did you use outside resources for?
I designed and composed the cards myself. Aside from image selection, I started my design approach with the back of the cards. I was determined to pay homage to 1933 Goudeys, so I wasn’t starting from scratch with my design template. I needed to find fonts and colors that would evoke a Goudey feel. Since I was printing on white stock (to best preserve image colors), I needed to select not only a color for the lettering, but also a background color that would mimic 1933 cardboard. The most challenging part was fitting all of the information I wanted to include onto the tiny backs of those cards!
For the card fronts, I used desktop publishing software to experiment with different design options and color schemes. My experimentation ended when I found the combination that best complimented all of the images I had chosen and paired well with the flip-side design. Once the layout and content were finalized, I converted the “pages” to press-quality PDFs and gave them to a professional shop for printing.
Besides making your own cards, tell us about your favorite baseball cards, either from when you were a kid or present day.
Dave Winfield’s rookie card (1974 Topps #456) always comes to mind when I am asked about favorite cards. My love of this card has nothing to do with the card’s design. It is based solely on a personal experience involving the card.
One Saturday afternoon sometime in the 1980s, I answered the phone and was surprised to hear my dad’s voice on the other end. He and my mom were at the mall. Of course, back then, calls from public places were usually made using pay phones and weren’t made just to shoot the breeze—a call from a pay phone had a distinct purpose. I couldn’t imagine why my dad would be calling from the mall and hoped that everything was alright.
In a very excited voice, Dad told me that Dave Winfield was at the mall for a free (!) autograph signing for another 45 minutes. He told me to grab a Winfield card and get there fast. So I grabbed my Winfield rookie and headed to the mall while my parents held a place in line.
When we got to the front of the line, Mr. Winfield extended his hand to greet us. I shook his hand first and watched my hand and wrist disappear in his. After he shook hands with my parents, I thanked him for being there and told him I would be honored if he would please sign my copy of his rookie card. As I placed it in front of him, he said, “Are you sure you want me to sign this? It’s going to ruin the card.” I exuberantly responded, “No it won’t, and yes please!” He asked again, “You’re sure?” “Absolutely!” He proceeded to sign the card and handed it back to me. I was beaming.
As I was shaking his hand again and offering my gratitude, my dad said, “Oh no! I just realized what shirt you’re wearing.” Mr. Winfield said, “It’s perfect. It’s a Yankees shirt!” “Yes,” my father responded, “but she’s got someone else’s name and number on her back!” As my father put his hands on my shoulders to turn me around, I let out a mortified “Dad!” as only a teenager could. Mr. Winfield laughed. I explained that if I had taken the time to change my shirt, I might have missed meeting him and apologized for the unintentional disrespect I had shown. He was the perfect gentleman. And so Dave Winfield’s 1974 Topps card will always be special to me.
Don Mattingly’s Topps rookie and the 1971 Topps Thurman Munson are also favorites from my younger years (although the Munson predates the start of my collecting by a few years).
In terms of modern cards, I am a fan in general of Topps Allen & Ginter and Heritage, including Heritage Minors, as well as Topps ProDebut. Stadium Club is another favorite because it features such beautiful photography.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some of my favorite artist cards here. Josh Trout’s Jackie Robinson from 2020 Topps Gallery is a beauty, and Efdot’s Mariano Rivera and Blake Jamieson’s Don Mattingly from Project 2020 are also standouts.
I understand you just recently joined SABR. What prompted your decision, and what aspects of membership are you most excited about?
My first non-statistical exposure to SABR came via an event in the late 2000s at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center. I recall fondly the sense of camaraderie amongst the panelists and gallery of attendees. So the first impression was a very good one. Fast-forwarding to 2020, I became more active on social media and found SABR’s contributions from both the master account and several committee accounts to be both interesting and informative.
I am most looking forward to meeting new people through SABR and participating in activities with fellow SABR members. I am also excited about the tremendous amount of knowledge that sits with members of SABR and affording myself of opportunities to learn more about the greatest game ever: baseball.
If our readers want to connect with you, what is the best way they can do that?
I’d love to hear from fellow baseball enthusiasts! For longer inquiries or conversations, please email me at TheLensOfDonnaM@gmail.com. I’m also on Twitter and Instagram: @TheLensOfDonnaM.
In the summer of 1985, Pete Rose was inching closer by the day to breaking Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record of 4191. My friends and I made a five-dollar bet, the winner of which would be whomever among the three of us could compile the most different Pete Rose cards by the time he broke the record.
A few years earlier, Kmart issued a small boxed set that reprinted the Topps card for each player who was awarded a league MVP award from 1962 through 1981, in honor of the store’s 20th anniversary. The set was one that had collected dust on card dealers’ tables for years, eschewed by collectors (especially me) who viewed the set as a box of reprint trash.
For purposes of winning a bet, however, the Kmart set was golden (especially in the days when there were not 500 different cards of every star player printed each year). I knew that Rose would have a Kmart card for his 1973 MVP award and was pleasantly surprised to find the set also included a highlight card, which commemorated Rose having eclipsed Stan Musial’s all-time National League hit record on August 10, 1981. These two Rose cards helped push me over the top. That we were betting on Pete Rose at the same time he was betting on baseball is just a fun coincidence.
An unintended consequence of buying the Kmart set, however, was actually enjoying the remainder of the cards. One that struck me in particular was the 1972 Dick (“Rich”) Allen card because it was, quite frankly, a strange profile view so unlike the standard poses and action shots that Topps typically used. I knew this was a real card I needed to have.
The oddity of the photo used on the 1972 card was highlighted when researching the appearance of mustaches on baseball cards, which culminated in this ground-breaking SABR Baseball Cards Committee article. Allen was identified as having been the first ballplayer to appear on a Topps issue sporting a mustache in his 1971 high-number Dodgers card.
As a member of the White Sox in 1972, Allen slashed .308/.420/.603; led the American League with 37 home runs, 113 runs batted in, and 99 walks; and led all of baseball in facial hair with his trademark mustache and pork chop sideburns. Curiously, however, the 1972 Topps card depicts a youthful, clean-shaven Allen. The 1973 issue corrected the incongruity and featured Allen’s hirsute silhouette, still discernible despite his face having been obscured by shadows.
As Tim Jenkins will attest, Topps made a habit in the 1960s and 1970s of using the same photograph of a player across different issues. The 1972 Dick Allen is no exception in that the same photograph was used for his 1970 issue, while Allen was a member of the Cardinals.
Thanks to some airbrush magic, the photo was purposefully vague in its identification of a particular team, but was happily consistent with Cardinal red and the White Sox color scheme of the time.
It appears, however, that this photo was actually taken while Allen was a member of the Phillies. The clean-cut photo of Allen used in 1970 and 1972 also appears to have been used as the basis for the 1965 Topps Embossed Dick Allen card, which would date the photo to 1965, or earlier, and confirms it was used by Topps to depict Allen on three different teams across eight different seasons.
Dick Allen and Pete Rose may never have been teammates but they certainly share a sacred bond as members of the Kmart boxed set.
The 1965 Ernie Banks Topps flagship card featured a profile pose. Similarly, it appears that this same photo was used as the basis for Banks’ 1965 Topps Embossed issue and helps to document that the Topps embossing process included trimming the length of the ballcap’s bill so the image would fit more comfortably onto the more slender card.
In several previous posts (too many for most of you!), I have highlighted Topps’ tendency to recycle photos. The Major League Baseball Players Association boycott of Topps in 1967-68 exacerbated this practice, but earlier examples abound. My latest obsession is focused on the 1960s cards of Juan Marichal.
In either 1960 or 1961, a photo session took place in San Francisco at Candlestick Park, which opened in 1960. The photographer captured three different poses of Marichal. The photos are distinctive due to Juan’s white undershirt.
Since the undergarment does not have a collar, it appears to be a rubberized jacket seen frequently on vintage cards whose photos were taken in spring training. The shirt was designed to help “burn off” fat accumulated over the winter. However, in this instance, the slender Dominican is undoubtedly using it for insulation, to ward off the Arctic like conditions at Candlestick Park. Also, it is a good bet that Marichal was not starting that evening. The white sleeves would have been deceptive to the hitters.
The first use of the white sleeve photos shows up on Juan’s 1962 card. He is shown with his arms above his head. 1963 has Juan in a slightly turned stretch position. The small black and white photo on the 1963 card reuses the 1962 picture.
In 1964, the third pose is used. This straight on shot turns up on Juan’s “Stand Up” card as well. The 1962 image makes a comeback on the Pitching Leaders card, while the 1963 Topps pose is used on the Wheaties Stamp.
Topps was far from done using the photos. The 1964 image turns up on the 1968 checklist as well as Juan’s Bazooka cards from 1965 and 1968. Meanwhile the 1963 Topps pose turns up on the 1967 checklist and 1965 Pitching Leaders card.
We are not done yet. The 1962 photo spans the decades and appears on the 1970 Pitching Leaders card.
Sometime prior to 1965, Topps snapped three additional photos, probably in spring training. Although it is hard to prove definitively, the pictures were probably taken at the same time, due to the mock turtleneck undershirt in all three.
Topps will recycle two of the three portraits. Juan’s partially turned headshot is found on the 1965 card, the 1966 ERA Leaders, the 1967 ERA and Pitching Leaders cards, and the 1967 poster insert. The same image returns on the Deckle Edge insert in 1969.
The second photo, depicting Marichal holding a ball, is used on the 1964 coin insert and the 1966 Bazooka.
The third image may be the best of all. The 1964 “Giant” shows a smiling Juan. I could not find another instance of this one being reused.
Topps put out the recycling again, using a newer photo taken a Candlestick. It is used on the 1967 and 1968 cards, the 1969 Pitching Leaders and the 1969 and 1970 Transogram.
Of course, Juan Marichal is not unique in having reused images. The League Leader cards have many duplicate images of star players. I still find it interesting that an image can show up eight years after it first appeared.
Christie Brinkley likely was taking selfies long before you. Way back in 1996.
Want proof? Take a look at the back of that year’s Pinnacle Series II baseball card set. In it are 16 limited, random insert cards – one per 23 packs – that feature playful pictures the supermodel-turned-photographer snapped of herself and select members of the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians.
Serious and casual collectors alike may remember the initial popularity of the set and the news that Pinnacle had hired Brinkley. I was a semi-serious collector in those days, and up until a few years ago, I vaguely remembered the cards and the media buzz surrounding, first, the photo shoot, and second, the set’s release in late July of that year. (Sports Illustrated wasn’t so buzzed. More on that later.)
My memory of the card set was jolted about five years ago when a work colleague leaned back in his squeaky office chair and, from his cubicle across the narrow hallway, casually asked, “Hey, Chad. Have I ever shown you this picture of me with Christie Brinkley?”
The pop time for me to launch from my chair and dash to his office was all of 1.3689 seconds. I immediately fixed my eyes on his computer screen, where sure enough, beamed a photo of Christie Brinkley and my co-worker, mild-mannered, soft-spoken John Lucas, who in the 1990s, was the creative manager of design and photography at Pinnacle.
In the photo, Brinkley is wearing white ringer top with thin, navy horizontal stripes and mirrored sunglasses. She, of course, looks flawless with her long blonde locks swept back from her face. Only few are out of place, but even those strays look perfectly placed. If you look closely, you can barely see three of John’s fingers extending around Christie’s waist.
He must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. But, it was only Florida.
John is repping his company well in the shot, wearing a white Pinnacle T-shirt and brand-matching cap. He has Christie’s left arm on his right shoulder, and a smile that brilliantly and brightly encapsulates the moment.
John played it cool because “You had to play it cool,” he told me. “You couldn’t get star struck. You had to come across as a professional. She was very gracious and friendly, just a regular person who was very excited about the opportunity.”
As you can see in the photo, Brinkley and John are standing on an auxiliary field behind West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium. Excited to be there. The ballpark was then the spring training site of the Atlanta Braves. In the distance and over Brinkley’s right shoulder, are the bleachers of the crowded ballpark. The Indians and Braves, the previous season’s World Series combatants, were set to play an exhibition game that day. It was the first meeting since Atlanta took the Fall Classic from the Tribe five months earlier.
“I can’t believe I never showed you this,” John said as I stood in his cubicle peering at the photo on his Mac. I couldn’t believe it either. We had known each other for a year or more at that point and had talked a lot of baseball, but this episode in his life, inexplicably, never came up.
So, or course, I had a ton of questions, and John was happy to answer. I think we both were giddy to talk about baseball and a supermodel we both had eyes on since we were teenagers.
The origin story behind the photo begins with John, whose job at Pinnacle was to guide the design and photography for card products, and his quest to “always be looking to break the repetitive tradition of baseball card photography,” he told me. “I was always striving to come up with photography concepts that would be different, edgy and well-received by our customers.”
Part of the issue with the same-ol’, same-ol’ card designs, at times, was with the players. They often were unreceptive to anything beyond basic concepts and poses. That conundrum came up in a conversation John had with the company’s photography director, Don Heiny, who told John about a time when a woman photographer had been assigned to a card photoshoot and garnered way more cooperation from the male players than had previous male photographers.
It was a valuable chunk of knowledge for John to store away in his memory, and it didn’t take long for the figurative flashbulb to spark about his head and rekindle the thoughtful guidance.
John was a fan of Brinkley, then 42, and he knew that she had an interest in photography from behind the camera.
“Wow,” he thought,” what if we send Christine Brinkley on assignment to spring training as a photographer for Pinnacle? The players would pose any way she asked.”
John took his idea up the ladder in the fall of 1994, sending a memo via fax – “this was pre-email days,” he reminded me – from his office in Connecticut to Pinnacle corporate headquarters in Grand Prairie, Texas.
In his memo to Michael Cleary, who was then Pinnacle’ chief operating officer and chief marketing officer, John relayed his conversation with Heiny about female photographers’ workability with male athletes, and he incorporated those thoughts in his pitch, writing:
“What experienced, female photographer is very well-known, has shot sports photography before (boxing) and is extremely beautiful? Christie Brinkley. Now I know it sounds crazy but think of all the P.R. we could get from this. The obvious stumbling block is first her acceptance and secondly the price. But we’ll never know unless we ask. Please call me with your thoughts. Thank you.”
John faxed the proposal, with the subject line: FUTURE DREAM TEAM SET, to Cleary on November 4, 1994 and then he waited.
“I never heard anything about it,” John recalled, until I asked someone there [in Texas] about it, and they said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s all everyone is talking about.’ I was really happy.”
That, I’m sure, is an understatement.
Nearly a year later, and after the usual back-and-forth negotiations with Brinkley and her representatives, John, his photography director, Heiny, and an assistant left their offices in chilly Connecticut for the warmth and excitement of spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida.
In the planning stage, they selected a group of players from the Braves and Indians as their subjects for this innovative, new card concept. “Both teams had really good and popular players, which made for strong collectable cards,” John told me as I, still astonished, stood in his office, hanging on every word. “At the time, these guys were baseball superstars, and their cards were collectables.”
The original plan had been to photograph six players from each team for a total of 12 cards in the set. However, for whatever reason – John does not recall – four other players were added for a total of 16 cards.
The players were, from the World Series champion Braves: Greg Maddux, Ryan Klesko, David Justice, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, Javier Lopez, Marquis Grissom, and Jason Schmidt. From the American League champion Cleveland Indians were Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jim Thome, Julio Franco and Kenny Lofton.
Once Pinnacle photographers met Brinkley at the spring training site, the shoot ran relatively smoothly. That is often not the case because there are “so many variables,” John said, “when you’re dealing with professional athletes.”
But, John was right in the reasoning behind his idea. “I figured if Christie said, “Hey guys, do this, do that – beyond the normal poses – they would certainly be cooperative and do it. And, they did!”
Well, most everyone.
Teaser alert: Albert Belle was a bit of a challenge.
John and Brinkley separately brainstormed ideas for poses. Pinnacle gave its model-slash-photographer a bio sheet for each player. She read those and developed concepts. John knew baseball and knew oodles about each of the players. Many of the props used the card photos were his idea, and some came right off the top of his head.
“That fedora Fred McGriff is wearing, that was mine,” said John, who also designed the art for the cards. “And, I took a drill and cut into the baseball,” to give the appearance of teeth marks on the leather. McGriff is holding the ball near his open mouth as if he had just taken a large bite into the leather. The concept for McGriff’s card, No. 6 of 16, was a play on his nickname the Crime Dog, after McGruff, the animated bloodhound who appeared in PSAs in those days and was known to “take a bite out of crime.”
“We did quirky little things to make it interesting,” John recalled.
Marquis Grissom and Kenny Lofton were two of the Major League’s top base stealers at the time, and Brinkley wanted to illustrate that fact on the card. For Lofton, who had stolen 54 bases the year before, she had the speedster pose holding a base in each hand as if he were literally stealing bases. Brinkley posed Grissom, also known for blazing the base paths, in a mock run with a radar gun pointed in his direction. When you look at the card, that’s John’s right hand holding the radar gun.
John was the mastermind behind Braves’ pitcher Tom Glavine’s card. Knowing that Glavine was “a big golfer” John said, as were many of his teammates, they posed him on a pitcher’s mound, in full baseball uniform, with a pitching wedge ready to strike a baseball. “It was almost like he was chipping out of a sand trap,” John said.
Speaking of chipping, or more precisely, Larry “Chipper” Jones in this case, Brinkley proposed the idea to pose the then young ballplayer with his Braves cap on backward, his blue jersey partially untucked and sleeves rolled-up, and thick eye black across his cheeks. He was blowing a bubble as big and round as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The next day, the Greeneville (South Carolina) News published a quote from Jones saying, “All right, I’ve got Christie Brinkley undressing me.”
In addition to the card, Brinkley’s photo of Jones made Beckett Baseball Card Monthly’s June 1996 cover with a big, bold yellow headline that read: “Uptown Boy.” An inset photo shows Christie brushing makeup on Chipper’s nose.
Jones wrote about the experience in his 1997 book “Chipper Jones: Ballplayer,” claiming he had always had a crush on the model – of course, he did; everyone did – and worried about catching grief from Braves’ skipper Bobby Cox, who as Jones wrote “was a stickler for how you wear your uniform… But hey, she did with me as she pleased. What am I going to say?”
Way to take one for the team, Chipper!
On the card’s back, under the words “Christie Brinkley Collection,” is a fashion-editor-style description of the photo concept. It reads:
“Struck by Chipper’s youth, Christie rumpled his shirt, smudged his eye black and stuck a wad of bubble gum in his mouth to get that “sandlot” look.”
Jones and most of the other players we’re willing to play along, just like John had imagined back in his Pinnacle office months earlier when he developed the concept. “Their jaws were on the ground, smiling like little puppy dogs and doing everything she asked,” he recalled.
But, Albert Belle wasn’t having it.
“Christie and I both had concepts for Albert, but he said no to all of them,” John said.
So, they scrambled to find an idea Belle would agree to. John remembered the game in Belle’s then then recent history when the slugger yelled toward the Boston Red Sox dugout and flexed his bicep to show where his home run power originated. “Everyone knew about this, and we wanted to show his jacked biceps,” John said.
Albert’s response to the idea?
“No! I don’t repeat myself,” he said to John and Brinkley.
“Wow, what do we do now,” John recalled her asking.
What do you do when the surly slugger repeatedly rejects your ideas?
Forget the biceps. Tug at the heartstrings.
Perhaps in a moment of tossing her arms in the air in frustration, Brinkley asked Belle if he would hold her 13-month-old son, Jack, on his lap. Belle agreed.
“Albert was very happy to sit there with Christie’s son on his lap,” John told me. “He even cracked a nice, big smile.”
Brinkley snapped a round of photos, and that moment became the card. When the set was released in July, Pinnacle showed off the set to reporters and photographers at New York’s All-Star Café. An Associated Press photo from the event ran in newspapers the next few days showing the supermodel holding an oversized replica of the card depicting Belle with Jack sitting on his lap, both wearing Cleveland caps.
It was a hit!
On the back of Belle’s card, No. 10 in the collection, is Brinkley’s hastily self-snapped photo. It shows Jack, reaching from Albert’s lap, for his Mom. Belle is in the middle of the two, still smiling.
All of the card backs have Brinkley selfies taken with the ballplayers, via a bulky film camera – not a phone, of course. Most are non-descript with Brinkley smiling brightly, snuggled up to, or with her arm around, the ballplayers. The back of Chipper’s card shows Brinkley blowing a bubble, just like her subject. Indians third baseman Jim Thome – known for punching the ball out of the park – is wearing boxing gloves on the front and back of his card.
David Justice’s card back shows the 5’9” Brinkley looking up to the 6’3” slugger who towers above her. On Jason Schmidt’s card, it appears it was he who took the selfie, not Brinkley. Carlos Baerga is shirtless in his photo with the supermodel. He has a red heart painted on his chest because “he was the heart of the Indians,” John recalled.
Everything during the two-day shoot seemed to be working. The players were into it. Brinkley was having a blast. John was enjoying his moment in the sun.
The downside, however, was it took hours before the group could examine the results.
Remember, this was 1996.
“The night in between the two days of shooting, my director of photography, the photographer’s assistant and I had to get in a rental car and drive down to Miami from West Palm Beach to an after-hours photo lab and have them process the film and the pictures,” John told me.
The trip was about an hour and half each way after an exhausting day of work.
“We went down there to process the film of the pictures so we could bring them back and show Christie what they looked like, to make sure she was happy with the results of her work.
She loved the pictures,” John said smiling. “She was very pleased.”
Pinnacle had to be pleased, too, because collectors loved the unique concept. Also, Business Week reported that Brinkley’s ability to persuade the players to pose without demanding fees – some of “which can run up to $10,000 apiece,” the publication wrote – saved Pinnacle a substantial amount of money.
Today, Beckett lists each cards’ value at .50, including the un-numbered card picturing Brinkley sitting on her knees on a beach, topless it appears, holding a book to her chest. But when the cards came out, they were uber popular with collectors. In their “Sports Collectors” column in the Aug. 4, 1996 edition of The Journal News (White Plains, New York), John Kryger and Tom Hartloff quoted individual card values they had received from “one dealer’s price list.”
Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux’s card was valued the most then at $49.95. Behind him was Belle, Chipper Jones and Manny Ramirez at $39.95. The lowest values were $14.95 for Grissom, Schmidt and Julio Franco. As of this writing, you can find the individual cards online with prices usually ranging from .99 for Belle and Klesko to $49.99 for Jones.
But, John, who still has the full set, never has given a thought to the cards’ market value or what they are selling for on eBay. “I never looked at them in that way,” he said. “I’ve always looked at them as an example of quick thinking and my job and role with the company.”
Once the cards were released in July 1996, tons of media coverage focused on their novelty and immediate popularity. There was plethora of coverage from newspapers – many ran AP photos and stories, magazines and even late-night TV even talked about the cards.
It was mostly favorable, and great publicity for Pinnacle, which is what John had planned for his company.
There was, however, one notable exception, even if it was tongue-in-cheek.
In its popular weekly feature, “This Week’s Sign That The Apocalypse is Upon Us,” Sports Illustrated wrote: “Pinnacle, a Texas-based trading-card company, has hired supermodel Christie Brinkley to photograph selected Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians for a soon-to-be-released set of baseball cards.”
SI picked the Brinkley photo shoot that particular week because, well, “Jeez, I don’t have a specific memory of it, Chad,” replied Jack McCullum in an email when I posed that question to him… 23 years after the fact. McCullum and fellow SI writer Richard O’Brien co-edited the section in those days. They “went through dozens and dozens of newspapers, magazines, press releases, etc. to find our weekly Apocalypse,” McCullum wrote.
More than two decades later, John laughed about SI’s witty assertion that his idea was sending civilization toward its doom.
“You can take it a couple of ways,” he said to me over the phone back home in Connecticut, months after our initial conversation. “You can take it like, ‘Wow, they’re really insulting my concept.’ But, you can look it as great publicity, and it was published everywhere, even in a global magazine like Sports Illustrated. Overall, that and the whole experience was pretty amazing.”
USA Today thought so, too. It gave the card concept its stamp of approval in its April 16, 1996 edition, writing “Thumbs-up: To a seemingly hokey idea that also is practical. Christie Brinkley will appear on some Pinnacle baseball cards coming in July. But she had a function beyond presumed sex appeal. In actually shooting the cards’ photos (including ones of herself), Brinkley got players to strike off-beat poses. Cleveland’s Albert Belle posed with Brinkley’s baby boy. Says Pinnacle’s Laurie Goldberg, “there wasn’t much chance of getting some of these guys with a regular photographer.”
Four more words needed to be added at the end of Goldberg’s quote to complete the sentiment:
I attended just one game at “old” Yankee Stadium, before the extensive remodel shut it down for two years. That game was on Sunday, June 7, 1970, notable because it was Bat Day. (The above photo is from that game, according to website from which I borrowed it.) I grew up two hours away, in Connecticut, and Bat Day was the major draw for a few busloads of local families that my father’s company organized. I was 9 years old, and what I most remember about the game (a 4-3 White Sox win in 12 innings) is the majesty of the Stadium (when compared with Fenway Park, the only other venue I had experienced), and the crowd: 65,880, the largest baseball gathering I will likely ever witness.
This all came to mind a few days ago when Lindy McDaniel passed away. McDaniel pitched for 21 years and was one of the great relief pitchers of his time, a time when relievers were deployed much differently than they are today. In my 1970 game, he pitched the final 5 innings, allowing just the single run in the 12th to lose. There were only four pitchers used in the game, in fact: Fritz Peterson (7 innings) and McDaniel (5) for the Yankees; Tommy John (9) and Wilbur Wood (3) for the White Sox.
I recall being struck by how hard McDaniel was throwing. Granted, this was my second live game, and the other three pitchers in the game were crafty southpaws. But I vividly recall the crack of Thurman Munson’s mitt, remarked upon by the children of Southeastern Connecticut.
Anyhow, after McDaniel’s death, my Twitter feed lit up (as per the depressing 2020 custom) with old baseball cards. One of the best McDaniel cards is from 1971 Topps.
I have owned this card for 49 years, but when I looked it over I was struck by the large crowd, coming at a time with the Yankees did not draw well. And it hit me: this *might* be the very game I attended. There is not much to go on–McDaniel pitched 28 games at Yankee Stadium, likely half during the day. The best evidence is the crowd–the Yankees averaged around 12,000 fans per game, and rarely saw a crowd like this down the left field line. So, it’s possible.
In 1971 Topps used photos from actual games for the first time (on their base player cards), a total of 52 photos taken at either Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium. Why this had not occurred to me in 49 years I cannot say, but a couple of days ago I decided to check out the other Yankees and White Sox “action” cards to see if I could find possible matches for my game.
Of the nine Yankee action cards, four of them clearly show an opponent that is not the White Sox: Thurman Munson (A’s), Gene Michael (Angels), Curt Blefary (A’s), and Jake Gibbs (Indians). Three do not show an opponent: McDaniel, Danny Cater, and Fritz Peterson. And two clearly show the White Sox: Ron Woods and Roy White.
Woods turns out to be the key card in this story, because my June 7 game is the only time he batted against the White Sox during a 1970 day game. Unless this is from a prior year (highly unlikely), I witnessed this plate appearance. What’s more, our seats were on the first base side at ground level up behind the dugout–so this is roughly the angle I had. Bonus clue: someone in crowd (at the far right, just above the dugout) is holding up a bat.
The Roy White card is from the same game–though the angle is slightly different, if you look closely you can see some of the same people in the crowd behind the Chicago dugout. Duane Josephson is behind the mask in both photos.
So that’s two cards from my game. Let’s look at the two White Sox action cards from the 1971 set.
Tommy John pitched just one game in Yankee Stadium that season, so this becomes our third match. This looks to be the same angle as our McDaniel card above (which may or may not be from this game), though (based on the shadowing) perhaps from a couple of hours earlier.
McCraw played first base in three 1970 day games at Yankee Stadium, but the other two games had crowds of 10,000 and 9,000 people; the packed bleachers out in distant centerfield makes it almost certain this is the June 7 game. That makes four cards. (The baserunner looks to be Gene Michael–the Stick had two singles and walk in this game. This photo was likely taken after his ninth inning single; his earlier walk loaded the bases; and his later single was after McCraw had moved to right field.)
For completeness, I will show the two other Yankee action cards (other than McDaniel) that do not show an opponent.
Not much to go on here. The key is whether these crowds look like sell outs, which the blurry background kind of obscures.
I generally do not play the role of card sleuth, which others have done so well. (Example: Ten cards from the same game?) The early 1970s is ripe for this sort of investigation, since Topps did not crop very well in those early action days. This left a lot of clues on the card to help place the game, or even the play.
I find it very satisfactory to discover color photos from a game I attended 50 years ago, the only game I ever saw at the original House that Ruth Built, in a card set I have studied as much as any I have ever owned. (The next time I went to Yankee Stadium was post-remodel, a Tiger game in 1977. I suppose I need to study the 1978 Topps set next?)
As for Lindy McDaniel, who started off this post, I hope he rests in peace, and left the world knowing how much pleasure he gave kids like me all those years ago.
A popular set among collectors, the 1971 Topps baseball card set was truly innovative, offering something a little different on both the front and back sides of the cards. The fronts of the 752-card set—at the time, the biggest ever—featured a black-bordered motif, as exemplified by card No. 100, Pete Rose, and No. 600, Willie Mays.
This was a striking design. But for collectors interested in a card’s condition, the set offered two obvious challenges:
With a black, rather than a white, border, any imperfections on the edges showed up much more clearly than on a traditional white-bordered card
Unless the card was perfectly centered—and good luck finding perfectly-centered cards—there was usually either too much, or too little, of that slim black border on the left or right side of the card
But hey, this was 1971, and who ever thought people would be shelling out big bucks for baseball cards in mint (or near-mint) condition? Give Topps props for changing things up… and that was even more true of their design of the back side of the 1971 set. For the first time since 1962, Topps eschewed the by-now-standard year-by-year stat line for each player, instead providing the numbers for only the previous season, along with the player’s career totals. With more available room, Topps added a headshot of the player. These headshots came in several styles. Sometimes the shot had a little background; like clouds, trees or the stands of a stadium; No. 450, Bob Gibson, is a good example.
The backgrounds could be a little distracting; more effective were headshots with just the sky as a background. A good example is No. 501, Andy Etchebarren, whose “Wolf-man”-inspired eyebrows offer the viewer enough of a distraction.
And finally, some of the “head” shots were exactly that: just the head, ma’am. The results are, well, interesting. To me, the shots of New York mainstays Tommie Agee (No. 310) and Horace Clarke (No. 715), look like a pair of balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
Whatever their quality, the headshots on the backs of the 1971 cards let the collector know what the guy looked like… albeit via a small black-and-white shot of lower quality. Still, this gave Topps the freedom to do some experimenting on the card fronts. For the first time, the 1971 set replaced the standard posed shot on the front of many cards with a photo taken from major league game action. Way cool!
It was a nice innovation, and a number of these “player in action” shot are outstanding.
No. 118, Cookie Rojas, turning a double play, is a beauty. I also love the classic pitching motion of No. 520, Tommy John (better known in the Zminda household as “Johnny Tom”).
There are a number of excellent shots of players at bat. The afore-mentioned Andy Etchebarren swinging the bat is very nice, and No. 360, Jim Fregosi, is even better—a stunning action shot in horizontal format.
You can even do “Compare Batting Stances” with the horizontally-oriented cards of the Yankees’ Roy White (card No. 395) and Ron Woods (No. 514). The shots, pretty obviously taken from the same game, both include catcher Duane Josephson of the White Sox. (Pop quiz question: of this trio, who is the only one who does not yet have a SABR bio? Answer at the end of the article.)
However, Topps was brand-new at this action-shot stuff, and sometimes the photos lacked action, or contained needless distractions. Bob Gibson’s card has both problems. His card front shows him just standing on the mound between pitches, with his image dissolving into the crowd in the background. The action shot of No. 513, Nolan Ryan—in his last season with the Mets before being shunted off to Anaheim in a disastrous trade for Fregosi—also has a distraction problem: the pitching motion is nice, but the billboard in the background makes the card look more like an ad for Royal Crown Cola.
Ryan showed up again—this time as a spectator—on the card front of No. 355, Bud Harrelson. There is some nice activity at second base in the shot, with Harrelson tagging an Astro while the ump and the Mets second baseman look on. However, the action is shown from a distance; the foreground includes the back of Ryan’s uniform number as he watches from the mound. A little cropping (as shown below), and this would have been a much better shot, in my opinion.
But overall the action shots worked very well, and proved to be a hit with collectors. Less successful—on both the front and back sides of the cards—was how Topps dealt with the always-tricky issue of players who switched teams after their card photos had been taken. For the airbrushers, the Old English White Sox logo was a particular challenge. Not surprisingly, they had more success with the small black-and-white shots on the backs of the cards. (It’s also likely that some of the shots on the backs of the cards came from other sources for black-and-white headshots, like team media guides.) For Pat Kelly (No. 413) and future Harry Caray whipping boy Tom Egan (No. 537), Topps neatly avoided having to airbrush the cap of the photo on the front by using a shot looking up at the bill of the player’s cap. No logo to mess with!
For Rick Reichardt (among many others), Topps employed the familiar strategy of showing the player capless.
The airbrusher actually did a pretty fair job with the front of John Purdin’s (No. 748) card. As for Don O’Riley (No. 679)… not so much. Even the photo on the back of O’Riley’s card is pretty bad.
Of course, the White Sox were hardly the only challenge to Topps’ airbrushers. In a few cases, late roster moves left Topps with no time to airbrush logos onto either the front or back sides of the cards—resulting in a number of caps with no team logo at all. Jim Qualls (No. 731), forever immortal (and to some, notorious) as the man who ruined Tom Seaver’s 1969 perfect game bid, was dealt from Montreal to Cincinnati so late (March 31) that the back of his card still identifies him as “the Expos’ only switch-hitter.” For me, the red paint job on the on the front of Qualls’ card brought back memories of Holden Caulfield in his red hunting hat.
Marv Staehle (No. 663), signed by the Braves on April 3 after being released by Montreal, wound up looking like the guy who filled your tank at the Sunoco station on Route 23.
By 1971, “Rookie star” Archie Reynolds (No. 664), one of a trio of Reynolds rooks on the same card, had already seen brief action in three major league seasons, and he had been a part of the Angels’ organization since mid-1970. So what’s with that painted-on cap, Arch?
Dick Williams (No. 714) is an even bigger curiosity. Williams was named manager of the Oakland Athletics in late January of 1971, and Topps had time to utilize a non-airbrushed shot of Williams in the familiar white cap worn by A’s managers and coaches on the back of his card. So how did Williams wind up in the goofy green cap on the card front?
One final mystery. Topps had no worries about Hank Aaron (No. 400) changing teams… and surely they had more than a few Aaron images to choose from. Yet they somehow chose to use the same photo—nothing special, to be honest—on both sides of Bad Henry’s card.
Ah, but I protesteth too much; despite the occasional slip-ups, this is a wonderful card set. Both the front and back sides of the cards contain interesting innovations… and while the use of action shots is the primary innovation on the front side of the cards, there are some wonderful posed shots as well. Here are a few of my favorites.
Quiz answer: Ron Woods, who would be traded by the Yankees to the Expos in June of 1971 in exchange for former 1969 Mets hero Ron Swoboda, still awaits a SABR bio.
Brace, Conlon, McWilliams, McCarthy. McCarthy? Most card collectors and hardcore baseball fans have heard of, or encountered, the photography of George Brace, Charles Conlon and Doug McWilliams. For some reason, J.D. McCarthy has slipped through the cracks.
He shouldn’t have. McCarthy, from near Detroit, was a top level photographer, clicking away product that players used as postcards to answer fan mail or promote their bowling alleys and pizza parlors (McCarthy entries are scattered throughout the Standard Catalog), and that Topps used on a freelance basis. McCarthy archives had made it through various hands, and the bottom of the collection ended up with Bob Lemke, formerly of Krause Publications and one-time editor of the Standard Catalog. He wrote about it here.
Bob makes the point that the collection went through multiple owners, and, by the time it got to him, had been picked over, the Hall of Famers and big stars had disappeared. Which leads me to this post.
Back in 1986, I was visiting Cooperstown and, of course, Baseball Nostalgia. The shop, co-owned by inaugural Burdick Award Winner Mike Aronstein, was in its old location, at what is now the batting range. I picked up my usual odds and ends, like the current San Francisco Giants yearbook, and this little gem. (I’d always been under the impression that Sports Design Products was an Aronstein company, but Andrew Aronstein assured me it was not.)
I had never heard of McCarthy, and had no idea of what would be contained within this plastic box, but, man, what’s inside was a marvel then, and still is now. It’s a 24-card set, matte-finish (if not matte, non-glossy), with brilliant photos and a simple, 1969 Topps design. SDP clearly had some big plans for the superstar portraits of McCarthy, hoping to get on board the card boom. Seemingly those dreams were never realized.
Here’s the entirety of the set:
An up close look at these two beauts:
(The backs have little to offer, but I know you “card back” guys care.)
While still cheap in price, the McCarthy set is high in aesthetic value. Track one down.
I don’t chase shortprints but I enjoy looking through them every new release. Very often the photographs there are more interesting and remind me of the variety that we saw in the 1990s. Plus the old players are always an interesting reflection of the kinds of players who still resonate today.
When Series 2 dropped, I did my usual look through. The Andrew McCutchen is awesome but what stopped me was the Al Kaline. I’m looking for good/interesting photos in the short prints. I’m not expecting to see a photo showing the wrong player.
Yup. That’s not Kaline in the photo. How do I know? Because I made this exact mistake with this exact photo only nine months earlier.
I enjoy writing Through the Mail autograph requests but I also refuse to send things through the mail which I don’t want to risk losing—say, for example, a vintage card of Al Kaline. Even though he was such a great signer (typically turning things around under 20 days and often closer to 10) I just refuse to tempt fate with the USPS like that. Instead I created a custom card by searching around around the web for photos I liked and dropping them into a template I had created.
Last November I sent a couple custom cards off to Al with a note asking him to keep the extras and hoping he enjoyed them. A week and a half later they came back to me. I was not expecting the result.
At first I was mortified. This is the most embarrassing kind of mistake to make when autograph hunting. Then I double-checked Getty* and confirmed that I’d done my homework. Did I make a mistake. Yes. But it wasn’t through either lack of caring or lack of effort on my part. I hadn’t just grabbed a photo, I’d made sure that multiple places including a somewhat authoritative source had identified the player.
*Note: As of July 17, 2020 Getty has corrected its database to reflect that the photo is actually of Don Demeter.
Many people—including many Tigers fans—confirmed that they’d always thought this was Kaline as well. Only after realizing that it wasn’t him did the hive mind quickly nominate Don Demeter. Similar build and swing. Same time period. He certainly seemed like the most-likely suspect.
Thankfully, Demeter is great responding to autograph requests as well. I acquired a card of him, wrote a letter explaining the screw up, included one of the customs, and asked him if he could confirm that the photo was indeed him.
While getting the card signed was fun, this was one of the rare autograph returns where the autograph request was always going to be less important than the response to my question. Much to my pleasure and satisfaction, Demeter answered my question and confirmed that it was him.
His response was actually this sketch. It’s pretty conclusive to me and makes a fantastic companion piece to the Kaline and Demeter cards in my autograph binder. I just wish there were a way to submit this to Getty so they can update their database.
As a custom card maker, it’s always somewhat flattering to see Topps select a photo that I’ve already used on a custom. In this case though, as soon as I saw the Kaline short print I started laughing. I recognized the photo instantly and knew exactly what had happened. While I’ve already made peace with my mistake, seeing someone else fall for the same thing just makes me feel even better about it.
While I’m sad that this is sort of a RIP Kaline card for Topps, I’m glad that he didn’t have to deal with being asked to sign it. I would however be thrilled to see someone ask Don Demeter to sign it. That would be awesome.
For most of baseball card history there have been two basic types of card designs. Either the photo is placed in a box* or the player is silhouetted onto a background.** Both of these designs are pretty straightforward with their image requirements in that designers only have to think about what is and isn’t shown in the photos.
*Straightforward but none more pure of an example than 1953 Bowman.
**1914 Cracker Jacks, 1949 Bowman, 1958 Topps, and many of the inserts from the 1980s to today.
There’s a third design though which took over cards in the 1990s and has made photo cropping difficult ever since. Rather than putting photos in boxes the trend toward full-bleed cards has created design after design that layers text and other graphic elements on top of the photo itself.
While it’s true that this design took over in the 1990s and was made extremely easy to do by foil stamping, it’s important to realize that its ancestry has been in cards for decades and in fact tended to surface every decade. So let’s go back to one of the first such designs.
Yup. 1957. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as proto-Stadium Club except that the photos themselves are pretty standard Topps photos that you’d expect to see until about 1991 or so. Posed shots showing a player’s upper body, headshots, and a few full-body “action” (at this point still posed) images.
The first thing to point out here is that Topps likes to put the players’ heads as high in the frame that it can. The next thing to look at—specifically in the Kluszewski and Thompson cards—is how Topps deals with the text overlapping the image. Topps likes to crop at players’ waists and at their necklines. In 1957 this is frequently where the top of the text starts but there’s another half inch of image visible under the text.
On the upper-body portraits this extra half inch can give us a little more information about the location of the photo and allow us to see the field and stadiums.
Photographically, these photos were also composed somewhat loose since the image area of the film is huge* and the photographer knew things would be cropped later. This is why in the Gomez card there’s so much grass in the foreground.
*at least 2 and a quarter inches square and quite likely more like 4 inches by 5 inches.
Now we flash forward a decade. On a lot of other sets* before this the image frame is knocking off a corner of the photo. This isn’t the same kind of design/photography issue since most of the photos are somewhat centered so there’s rarely something of import in the corners.
*eg. 1962, 1963, and 1965. Plus in 1966 there’s a layering effect in the corner.
1967 though is exactly like 1957 only there’s text at both the top and the bottom of the card now. Topps is doing the same thing as it did in 1957 too except that the players’ heads are now a little lower in the frame so that the names and positions can fit. The waist and neckline croppings though are pretty close to the 1957 croppings.
The net result here is that we get to see a lot more stadium details in many of the cards—giving the set a photographic character which differs from the other 1960s Topps offerings.
The Fuentes card though shows the dangers of this kind of design. Unlike the 1957 Gomez, Fuentes’s feet—and even his glove—are covered by the team name. This isn’t a big problem with a posed “action” photo but becomes much more of an issue when we move into the age of action photography.
I’ll jump to Japan for the 1970s since the Calbee sets of that decade deserve a mention. It’s obviously doing something very similar with extending the photo under the text. At the same time the simplicity of the text almost makes it an absence of design. In a good way.
It might be because I can’t read the text but the way it’s handled encourages me to not see it. Not because it’s not readable. Quite the opposite in fact. The way the text changes from black to white on the Sadaharu Oh card is handled masterfully in how my brain barely notices it. It’s there as information but manages to not take anything away from the photos.
It is worth noting though that the cropping on Oh and Davey Johnson is pretty similar to Topps’s standard cropping. And that third card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes has enough foreground space to give the text plenty of room to be legible.
Toppswise I skipped 1969 since it’s such a photographic nightmare that I don’t feel like it’s a fair to look at the photos. (Offhand though it’s interesting to note that it tends to crop the photos tighter at the bottom than 1967’s or 1957’s designs do.) 1980 is close, super close, to being included but it still feels like more of a corner-based design. Which brings us to 1988.
Not much to note with 1988 except for the layering of the player on top of the team name which is on top of the background. This is a wonderfully subtle bit of design that allows the photos to feel like they’re cropped similarly to the rest of Topps’s cards. Instead of getting more image area the layering doesn’t affect the image too much.
1991 brought us Stadium Club and the beginning of the full-bleed era of cards. Looking at this first set shows both that Topps was being pretty considerate with its cropping and how things would start to break.
Where earlier sets had the benefit of posed photos which could be cropped, as action photography began to be the priority for card companies the room for cropping started to decrease. For every card like Kent Anderson where there’s enough room for the graphics there’s a card like Damon Berryhill where the graphic is starting to intrude into the image.
1992 Stadium Club shows an alternative to just slapping a graphic on the bottom of the card. That Topps moves the graphic depending on where it best fits the photo is fantastic.
It’s also a lot of work since it requires each card to be designed individually. Instead of positioning an image into a template, this design requires the image and graphic to be adjusted until they work together. Find the best cropping, then adjust the graphic. This extra amount of work is probably why this approach hasn’t really been revisited since 1992.
By 1993 the standard operating procedure had been set. This design captures the way most sets ever since have been designed. A basic template, drop the picture in. Don’t worry if the graphic obscures an important part of the photo.
One of my pet peeves in the full-bleed era is when there’s a photo of a play at a base and the graphic obscures the actual play. The Bip Roberts is a textbook example of this. Great play at the plate except the focus of the play is obscured by the Stadium Club logo.
This is a shame since in 1993 Upper Deck showed how to do it right. The layering effect like 1988 Topps at the top allows the image to be cropped nice and tight at the top of the frame. Upper Deck though selected photos and cropped them to have empty space at the bottom.
You wouldn’t crop photos in general this way but as a background for the graphics it works perfectly. It forces the photos to be zoomed out enough that you can see the entire player and get a sense of what he’s doing within the game.
Most of the 1990s and 2000s however look like these. I could’ve pulled a bunch more sets—especially from Pacific and Upper Deck—here but they’re all kind of the same. Big foil graphics that cover up important parts of the photo. Some sort of foil stamping or transparency effect that cuts off the players’ feet.
Instead of cropping loosely like 1993 Upper Deck most of the cards in these decades feel like the photos were cropped before being placed in the graphics.
It’s easy to blame the card companies here but this is also a photography thing. Portrait photographers often find the crop after they take the photo. They use larger-format film and understand that the publication might need to crop to fit a yet-to-be-determined layout. Action photographers though get in tight and capture the best moment. This is great for the photos but not so great with baseball cards.
Baseball is a horizontal sport and there’s no reason to include dead foreground space. The only reason to include that space if you know that you’re shooting for a baseball card design that’s going to need it.
We’ll make a brief stop at 2008 though. This isn’t a transparency or overlay design but it’s doing something similar. Rather than the usual cropping at a corner of the image box, Topps placed its logo in a uvula at the top of the image box. Right where it would normally place the players’ heads.
The result? Very similar to 1967’s effect where the photos get zoomed out a little and you see more background. The problem? These photos are already somewhat small and the change to mostly-action means that in most of them you’re just seeing more blurry crowds.
Fred Lewis is emblematic of the standard cropping. Small player image with lots of wasted space in the upper corners. That the posed photos like the Matt Cain are often bare skies at spring training locations instead of in Major League stadiums makes the added “information” there generally uninteresting.
All of this is a shame since the Tim Lincecum shows that when a selected photo is not impacted by the uvula, not only is the photo area not that small but the design can actually look pretty nice.
Okay. To contemporary cards and Topps’s recent dalliance with full bleed designs in flagship. I’m looking at 2017 here since it’s kind of the worst but 2016 to 2018 all do this. The transparency at the bottom of the cards is huge now. Yes it gets blurred out a bit but the photo information still needs to be there and as a result the cropping has to be even tighter.
As much as Topps was drifting toward in-your-face all-action shots, the actual designs of these cards sot of prevents any other kind of action. They also prioritize action that focuses in the top half of the frame. Any plays at a base gate stomped on by the design and even photos like the Chase Headley which don’t focus low in the frame are pretty much ruined too.
It’s easy to blame the TV graphics in Flagship but even Stadium Club—a set I love—has this same problem. On action photos the name/type often gets in the way of the image (compare Tim Anderson to the 1993 Upper Deck Lou Whitaker) but it’s the otherwise-wonderful wide-angle photos which fare the worst.
As the angle gets wider and the players get smaller, the odds that the text becomes intrusive increase tremendously. On Dexter Fowler’s card he’s the same size as the text and, as great as the photo is, the design of the card ruins it. Same goes with the Jose Berrios where the text is covering the entire mound and the ground fog Topps adds for contrast covers the whole playing field.
Which brings us to 2020 and a design that gets a lot of flak because it features sideways names.* What isn’t mentioned very frequently is how moving the transparency effect to the side of the card results in tremendously better photos and photo cropping.
*I don’t mind the sideways names except that I think they should’ve been rotated 180° so that when paged the horizontal cards don’t end up upside down.
All of a sudden we can see players’ feet again. Images aren’t all as in-your-face. We can have action images at second base where you can actually figure out what’s going on. Instead of cropping out the bottom of an image which a photographer has already framed, this design uses the space the photographers already provide for players to “move into.”*
*In action photography you’re generally trying to give the subject some room to move into the frame.
More importantly, it opens up the possibility for great photos that would never have worked in the previous full-bleed designs. For example, Omar Narvaez’s image is impossible to use in any design that puts transparency at the bottom of the card. Even Stadium Club. But 2020 Topps is flexible enough that it can use a wider variety of images.
I hope Topps learns some lessons from 2020 and that if we’re to see further full-bleed designs that they’ll be done in such a way so as to not get in the way of the images or to take advantage of the Transparency to give us more interesting photos.