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.

Quite the Surprise

Not too long ago my wife surprised me with several shoeboxes of baseball cards.  It seems that her uncle, who is in the antique business, came across a whole bunch of cards at an estate sale, and I was to be the beneficiary!

 

After my initial shock, I quickly went through the boxes, rather greedily I think, and found several thousand cards.  The vast majority included 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1989 Topps and several stacks of 1991 Fleer cards.  Among the piles, were 25 unopened packs of cards from the 1991 Conlon Collection.  Among another box were a bunch 1987 and 1989 Topps cards tucked inside plastic sandwich bags.  And tucked inside the box as well was another plastic sandwich bag with quite the surprise — seven vintage Topps cards, all in excellent to near mint condition. I found:

1959 Andy Pafko (#27)

1959 Vic Wertz (#500)

1960 Minnie Minoso (#365)

1961 Nellie Fox MVP (#477)

1963 Elston Howard (#60)

1964 Jim Perry (#34)

1965 Rocky Colavito (#380)

 

I was a bit stunned, thinking that this plastic bag might have gotten mixed up somehow with other vintage cards of mine, but I knew I didn’t have these cards.  Still, it was odd that these six cards would be mixed in with a bunch of 80s and 90s Topps and Fleer cards.  Being the greedy guy that I am, I sorted through the others boxes again, just to make sure.  Alas, no other vintage cards.  So, I went back to the six and studied them carefully.  Great photos, no ceases, fairly sharp edges.  No stains, just a bit of wear.

 

It’s a mystery to me that whoever’s cards these were, that these vintage cards would be stashed in with the rest of the boxes.  I like mysteries, of course.  I think I might rummage through the boxes, again.  You know, just to make sure!

AM vs FM

In my Topps Archives Snapshots post I had to write about duotones and include a brief note about how printing works in general. I’ve come to realize that this should be a much longer post of its own. I’m not enough of an expert on pre-war cards to cover the way they were printed,* the post-war era where cards are mainly printed with process inks and offset lithography is pretty standard.

*While I can write about photography on old cards, printing is much harder to discuss without being able to actually see the card under a loupe.

CMYK Process

Printing at its basic level involves putting pigment on paper. We’ve standardized to using CMYK process—four different ink colors, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK—in order generate all the other colors. Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow are the official versions of the blue, red, and yellow primary colors we all learned in grade school (black is referred to as K because many people will refer to cyan as “blue”). Any color can be broken into CMY components or separations. Because of the nature of how the inks don’t combine into a true black and how putting three full layers of ink on a piece of paper can cause issues with drying or wrinkling or sticking, we also use a distinct black separation to provide the full contrast and tonal range of the image.

The black separation in particular is also very useful for text as text will be printed in just black ink, often overprinting the other colors so there aren’t any issues with registering it and it’s easy and crisp to read.

This is why when the black separation is missing or damaged we have variations like the 1990 Frank Thomas missing name or the 1982 no-autograph cards. Those are technically print defects which would normally indicate a below-grade card that should’ve been destroyed in the factory. However, due to the nature of how the black separation behaves, they ended up being desirable errors because they only look like printing mistakes to those of us who are print geeks.

The black separation is also one of the common tells of a forged card. It’s very difficult to generate the correct black separation from a scan so black text on forgeries is frequently printed as CMYK instead of just black. The results are often obvious due to the absence of a crisp black edge on the text when you look closely.

Spot colors

Sometimes the card design will use what’s called a spot color in addition to (or instead of) the process colors. Topps’s card backs until 1992 were always printed as spot colors. The silver inks used on early-1990s Leaf are a spot color. The neon orange in the logo on early-1990s Stadium Club is also a spot color. The border colors in a lot of early 2000s Topps cards are spot colors.

Usually spot colors are printed at 100% and used to create a solid color which either can’t be printed with CMYK process (like metallics or fluorescents) or which if printed in CMYK would be hard to keep consistent over multiple print runs (eg 2001 Topps and that grey-green border). Sometimes though they’re used for images and photos. If it’s used by itself the result is called a monotone. If it’s mixed with other colors—typically black—we have a duotone (or tritone, etc. depending on how many inks are being used).

Duotones can either look like tinted black and white images or they can look truly black and white with more depth and contrast. Each ink you add allows for additional levels of depth and contrast in the resulting photos.

The downside with spot colors is that each one you use requires a special setup on the press. Process inks are standard and you can go from one job to the next pretty easily. Spot inks? You have to set up another print station before running the job and thoroughly clean it up before you can move on to the next one.

Screening

Which brings us to screening. While the rise of spot inks through the 1990s and 2000s is noteworthy, one of the biggest changes in recent years has been that the pattern of dots used to print the cards has changed. I did a quick loupe at my cards and found that until 2008 traditional screening was pretty universal.

Traditional screening involves lines of dots which create a pattern called a rosette on the printed page. Since the size of each dot is what changes the color traditional screens are also called AM (Amplitude Modulation just like on the radio).

After 2008, Topps increasingly used Stochastic screening. Stochastic screening is unpatterned small dots where the number of dots changes the darkness of the color. Yup this is also called FM (Frequency Modulation) screening. Because it’s only really doable with computer-generated printing plates there’s a reason it only started showing up en masse in the late 2000s.

FM screening results in images which look more like photographs and are less prone to showing misregistration. It allows printers to use less ink and is generally a higher-quality result. The downside? It does weird things (to my eye) in graphic elements like lines or solid blocks of color because the random dots are more visible there.

Anyway, I’d made the assumption that by now Topps was printing everything with FM screens. Then, when I was looking at some of my cards with a loupe* I discovered I was wrong and went down the rabbit hole of louping ALL of my 2017 Topps cards.

*I was curious how they were printing the black and white cards as well as some of the monotone-looking parallels.

Since that rabbit hole was too good for me to keep to myself, here it is on blog form for everyone else to enjoy too. My apologies for the fact that these are almost all Giants cards but it’s what I collect and most of these products are not interesting to me outside of those cards.

Flagship

Flagship

Flagship_PoseyScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

We’ll start with flagship since I always refer to it as the card of record. This crop shows exactly what to expect from FM screening. Lots of random dots which are all the same size. No crisp edge on the graphic elements.

You can see the distinct CMYK dots in the mix here and how what looks like a neutral grey color in in fact made up of multiple different colors.

Opening Day

OD

OD_BeltScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Opening day is exactly like Flagship. I considered excluding it from this post but I realized I should include it once I saw Chrome. Anyway in this crop you can tell how not even the white section of the design is completely without printing.

Chrome

Chrome

Chrome_BeltScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

This surprised me. A lot. I found myself wondering is the chrome paper couldn’t be printed with FM screening. Anyway, the crop is from about the same portion of the card as the crop of Opening Day and demonstrates how different the dot pattern is.

You can see the halftone rosettes and how crisp the edge of the graphic is here. You can also see how regular the ink pattern is in the graphic elements. And you can see how the dots change size depending on the darkness of the image.

Heritage

Heritage

Heritage_CrawfordScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

That Topps uses FM screens for Heritage is one of the reasons why I thought they were using it everywhere. The rosette pattern is part of the look of old printing. It’s what we expect to see and there’s something comfortable about it. Topps even recognizes this and has been adding it back in to the Heritage photos. That grid in the sky is designed to look like a halftone rosette and be part of the retro feel of this set. Rather than being a rosette though in the crop you can see it’s just denser clusters of cyan dots.

Archives

Archives

Archives_BeltScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Topps isn’t faking the rosette pattern here but you can still see how different FM screening is in the solids. On the original 1960 cards most of the bright colors are solid and won’t show any dots. The red for example should be 100% magenta + 100% yellow and as a result look totally smooth. You won’t see any random blue or black dots in it.

Similarly the 1960 design would be a traditional black-only screen for the small photo. With the FM screen however you can see that it consists of the other process colors too.

Allen & Ginter

AG

AG_PenceScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Where Heritage and Archives are copying cards from the 1960s, Ginter is aping a look from over a century ago. Those cards predate the standard CMYK process colors and were often printed in many more inks.

That they also predate traditional screening and are artifacts that many of us are not entirely familiar with gives Topps a bit more leeway here. The oval graphic and the text are not in the crop but neither of them are printed in solid ink the way they would’ve been a century ago. I chose instead to crop a section which shows how the blue ink splash in the background  has a pattern which is meant to look like engraving lines in it.

Gipsy Queen

GQ

GQ_SamardzijaScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

I’ve not much to say about Gipsy Queen except to point out how the FM screen makes up the graphic elements. The lack of a crisp edge really bothers me although with thin curly elements like these a traditional screen isn’t the best choice either. Ideally these would be in their own spot color but that’s a lot more setup than I’d expect from Topps.

Bunt

Bunt

Bunt_BeltScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

Another with traditional screening, I was not surprised to see it in a low-end product. The orange panel in this crop really shows off exactly why we call traditional screens “line screens.” The patterns of dots are all set in a grid, each color at a 30° difference from the others (yellow is 15° off) so as to minimize moiré. It’s these 30° angles which create the rosette pattern.

Bunt_Blue

Bunt_Blue_CrawfordScreening: Traditional
Colors: Cyan, Black, spot blue tritone

The Bunt blue parallels are very interesting. I think they‘re tritones. I also think that Topps is using two of the process colors and only adding one new color to the mix. But it’s hard to tell for sure.

I can see that the black dots are at a distinct angle from the blue dots. And I think there are two distinct shades of blue in this image. Anyway this is an example of what non-process inks look like up close.

Stadium Club

SC

SC_SpanScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

I was surprised to se that Stadium Club uses a traditional screen since it’s supposed to be the photo-centric product. That it still looks great shows how little a difference this stuff can make to the naked eye.

Still that Stadium Club might have have looked even better with FM screening is something to wonder about.

SC_Sepia

SC_Sepia_SpanScreening: Stochastic
Colors: Spot Sepia monotone

The Sepia Parallels though are printed completely differently. Compare this to the crop of Bunt and it’s worlds different. The FM screen here makes the sepia parallels look a bit more photograph-like than they would if they were printed in a traditional monotone. And the way that Topps has gone with a lower-contrast look means that the single ink isn’t limiting.

SC_Grey

SC_WilliamsScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

One more Stadium Club note. There are a number of “black and white” cards in the set. None of the are actually black and white. As is visible in the crop they’re all printed in all four colors and have been carefully balanced so the results look neutral.

Archives Snapshots

TAS_C

TAS_BaergaScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

As with Stadium Club, it’s a bit disappointing to see these printed traditionally. Although as a more nastlagia-feeling product the line screens here aren’t out of place. Also, with the crisper graphics, even while they’re small, the traditional screens are preferable. I still wish it were easy to do FM screens for the photos only and let traditional screens do the rest of the graphics.

TAS_BW

TAS_GlasnowScreening: Traditional
Colors: Black and grey duotone

And a proper duotone. Where Bunt is heavily tinted and the black and white Stadium Clubs are really just process, the Archives Snapshots black and white cards are printed with black and a neutral grey ink. This gives the images a much-better tonal range of good shadows and highlight detail while still maintaining midtones and contrast.

The crop is indeed in color. I chose this particular section because you can make out the distinct screens by the angles of the dots. Other sections are more interesting under a loupe but on screen it’s nearly impossible to see the different inks.

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.

That Championship Season (Sort of)

program

It may seem odd to commemorate the one decent season of a dismal franchise with a card set. But Washington Senators (1961-1971 version) fans, of a certain age, fondly remember 1969; the only winning season in the expansion team’s history.

Joe D 38 Goudey

In 1998, a Senators reunion was held to celebrate the storied season. Attendees at the reunion breakfast received uncut sheets of cards featuring caricatures of the players. The individual cards were reminiscent of the 1938 Goudey “Heads-Up” (like the DiMaggio above).

The 1998 cards were produced by legendary card dealer Larry Fitsch. He cut card stock into 2 ½ x 2 7/8 inch cards and packaged them as a set of 28. In addition to statistics and trivia on the backs, there is a commentary by radio personality Phil Wood. I purchased a set in the early 2000s.

The second incarnation of the Washington Senators began in 1961 in conjunction with Calvin Griffith moving the first Senators team (1901-1960) to Minnesota. Pressure from Congress to keep the “national pastime” in the nation’s capital compelled the American League to create the expansion Senators with nothing but an off-season separating the tenures of the two teams.

The existing AL teams provided a poor-quality player pool for the expansion draft, resulting in four straight 100 loss seasons. Over the span of eight years, the Nats averaged 96 losses never finishing higher than 6th in the 10-team league.

Williams

Before the 1969 season the sports gods smiled on the downtrodden Washington fans by providing a savior so legendary that his nickname evokes the sport itself: “Teddy Ballgame.” Senators owner Bob Short needed a big name to get the fans excited, so he convinced Ted Williams to put down his rod-and-reel and manage the club.

Bosman

Epstein

Brinkman

Ted did inherit a few good pieces. In addition to hulking, super-slugger Frank Howard, the Senators had two good starting pitchers in Dick Bosman and Joe Coleman as well as bullpen stalwarts Darrell Knowles and Casey Cox. Del Unser and Mike Epstein were promising youngsters, while Eddie Brinkman and Ken McMullen anchored the left side of the infield.

Howard

The enthusiasm surrounding Williams’ dugout presence rubbed off on the players. The club overachieved by posting a winning season with 86 victories. They still finished 23 games behind the division champion Orioles; nevertheless, fans were hopeful for the future.

Of course, the success was not sustainable. The club resumed its losing ways and followed the same script as the original Senators by moving to Texas in 1972.

Valentine

French

So, if you are dying to relive the glory year of Jim French, Bernie Allen, Tim Cullen, Fred Valentine and Dick Billings, the set is still available. http://www.fritschcards.com

 

Sources:

Baseball-Reference

Larry Fritsch Cards: 1969 Heads-Up Senators product page

Trading Card Data Base

“Ipsa scientia potestas est” (or, How to Help a Friend By Knowing About Cards)

The first time I considered cards as things to keep, not to throw out, was early 1972. I started buying old cards through dealers advertised in The Sporting News and had a mild epiphany – if I’m buying old cards why would I throw out my new ones? Thus a collection, and a collector, was born.

It was too late to salvage pre-1971s, but as the decade progressed I accumulated bunches of what I’d once had, though not nearly in as nice condition. As my friends aged out of the hobby, I dug in and, with a reputation for knowing about cards and their value (no one I knew but me had price guides and sales lists), I managed to set up a little cottage business. For use of my services, which included inventorying, collating and pricing out their collections, I would receive whatever number of cards I needed as compensation. It was a great deal for me. Not sure it meant squat to the recipients. I would visit their houses, leave with a giant box of cards, and perilously ride my bike home, hands holding cards, not handlebars. It’s remarkable that I never took a major, card-dispersing, fall.

m1FOBx7JaskTawJJqiGlCpw

My friend Gabe is moving from Cooperstown out west and, as part of his farewell tour, he was the featured speaker at our local SABR meeting on Saturday. As we worked on setting that meeting up, the conversation turned to 1969 Topps.  Gabe knew I was working on finishing that set, and upgrading those crappy mid-70’s acquisitions, and mentioned he’d put together a mediocre set of  his own. I was welcome to see if I could find any I needed.

We have a tradition in Cooperstown that, after our SABR meeting, we head out for pizza for a post-game recap and talk. Gabe took out his box of cards while we chatted and, quite cavalierly, tossed a card on the table. Lucky for him he avoided Diet Coke drops and pizza grease. I picked up the card and held it out to him.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

I was more dumbstruck than I should have been, but clearly a little taken aback.

“This is a Mantle white letter variation. You can definitely get a couple of hundred bucks for this.”

s-l300

We talked about how to sell it, listing on eBay with good scans. Gabe put the card away carefully (not carefully enough for my taste!) and, when I got home, I searched sold listings and sent him the information.

I went through his cards and found 39 that were big improvements for me.  In the box was a second year Nolan Ryan, slightly worse than I’m looking for, but easily worth $30-50. All told, even with pulling the Mantle and Ryan, Gabe’s got a substantial partial set in overall VG condition, with three other white letter variations (including Willie McCovey). All in all he’s likely to get $400-500 for the batch.

It felt great helping him out on this and brought me back, way back, to a time when the only way to find out what your cards were worth was trusting some 12-year-old kid who was eager to schlep your cards home just to reclaim the cards he’d thrown out only a few years earlier.

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.