In which I get insulted by Topps Heritage

With cards only just making their way into retail stores I haven’t been able to procure even a blaster and so I’ve been unable to keep up with my annual dive into the printing weeds. Given the simplicity of the 1973 design I wasn’t expecting to find enough for a post anyway. No obvious things to improve upon or change like 1969/2018’s photography or 1970/2019’s grey borders. No interesting reveals like 1971/2020’s black borders. And no impending trainwrecks like 1972/2021’s typesetting.

I was mainly hoping for clever homages of the best things that 1973 did such as the Jack Brohamer and Mark Belanger pair of cards. I’m hoping the Twitter hive mind will turn up something like that here.

The only cards I got were my Giants team set courtesy of  case break. At first I was extremely satisfied since at an individual card level things looked mostly nice. Some of the usual Heritage photo smoothing and fake trapping shenanigans* but that’s standard with the territory.

*I haven’t really posted about these since I don’t know how to describe them but in short whatever photo processing Topps is doing to make things look older has bothered me for years.

Then I looked closer and realized that of fifteen cards in the base team set, twelve not only use the same background they in fact use the exact same background. This isn’t wholly unexpected since many teams have been posting photo day shots on Twitter than show players posed in front of a green screen. But I also expected a bit more effort from Topps instead of just pasting each player in front of a single stock background image.

I’ve gone ahead and turned my twelve Giants cards into an animated gif that shows how the backgrounds are identical, right down to the exact same cloud formations. I get it. Lead times are short. Creating a complete set is a lot of work. But still this level of templating is the kind of green screen photos that every family attraction used to ambush us with immediately after we entered the front gates.

It offends me professionally as a designer and it disappoints me personally as someone who loves baseball cards. It also shows that Topps is dialing up the worst qualities of their glory days. As much as I like those cards it’s a sad truth that many of them have the same handful of poses in front of the same kind of stadium background.

The difference though is that even with the sameness of location those cards have life to them. There are random dudes in the background. Players are bundled up against the elements. The photographer moves around the stadium so we end up with multiple views of the same place. Heritage instead is completely sterile and once you see how sterile it is you find yourself wishing for the awkwardness of the 1973 George Scott no matter how bad the compositing is.

View-Master Instructional Baseball

For a long time the 1953 Viewmaster set was the only Major League Baseball one I was aware of. Stay on Twitter long enough though and of course people will turn up more. I’ve recently discovered that Viewmaster made other sets in the 1970s and 1980s. Theres’s a 1970 which one is part of an instructional series and features the 1969 Mets. And there are a bunch of 1981 sets from various teams’* Spring Trainings.

*I’ve seen Dodgers, Astros, Phillies, Twins, and Yankees on eBay.

I’m not a completionist and decided to skip the 1981 team-based sets (if a Giants set existed though I’d’ve absolutely behaved differently) but the 1970 Mets se intrigued me. This is partially because it’s older than I am but it also looked to be shot a Shea Stadium so there was potentially a lot more of interest to look at in it. When I found one for under $10 shipped my hand was forced.

I went ahead and made composite scans of the discs this time so you can see both the printing and the images. I didn’t receive the booklet but these don’t look like they were really that instructional either. Anyway, the most fun part of these is scanning and making wiggle gifs so let’s get to those right away.

Disc 1

Pitcher “looks in” for sign from catcher.
The catcher gives the sign to pitcher, Gary Gentry
Grips for fast ball (left) and curve ball (right)
Pitcher winds up for the pitch.
Leg lift helps pitcher bring body and arm forward.
Pitcher’s forward stride is key to good control.
Release of ball on follow-through is up to pitcher.

The first disc demonstrates pitching and features Gary Gentry. Pretty basic instructions but some of the images—such as the catcher giving the signs—were unexpected especially for what works in 3D. I like that this disc is basically a complete sequence of how to throw a pitch and I can totally see how it would have worked as an instructional item.

Between the matchups on the out-of-town scoreboard in and the San Diego on the game-day scoreboard this set appears to have been taken on April 21 or April 22. Both games started around 2:00 pm while the photos look to have been taken in the mid-morning with the sun getting high but still enough in the East to cast a distinct shadow.

Disc 2

Infielder’s stance enables him to field or block ball.
Shortstop takes ball hit on his left and…
…tags second to force out runner from first.
The throw to first must be fast to get double play.
Shortstop play: second baseman to shortstop double play.
Sacrifice bunt gets runner to next base.
Fielder bare-hands bunt for hurried throw.

The next disc features fielding with Bud Harrelson. Unlike Disc 1 this disc doesn’t show a single sequence and instead depicts three or four distinct plays. The photos however are a lot of fun because a bunch of them show the ball in motion and as a result, really really pop as 3D. I especially like the dust clouds that show that the balls were actually being hit to him.

I really really love the fifth image showing Harrelson taking the throw from the second baseman. While the photo quality is technically inferior to the 1953 photos* being able to capture action like this creates a very different 3D experience. The pair of bunting photos is similarly fantastic this way.

*Color is worse and the sharpness of the images is pretty bad too.

The lack of a crisp shadow in this set of photos indicates either a different session or that the weather got a lot worse after the Gentry photos were taken. Sadly no visible scoreboards to help us either.

Disc 3

Batter takes one of three stances—open, closed, or parallel.
Cleon Jones meets the pitch.
Fielder watches fly ball all the way into his glove.
Fielder catches line drive with glove straight up.
Outfielder throws ball to infielder.
Harrelson makes a base hit.
Cleon Jones makes a score.

Probably the least instructive of the discs since it doesn’t include any real sequences but also the most interesting of the three since it includes three images of actual in-game action, all of which work pretty well in 3D. The last image of Cleon Jones scoring is clearly from the April 21 game against the Padres and suggests that the Gary Gentry photos were likely taken the same day before the game.

Jones scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly but the Padres rallied for two runs in the top of the ninth to take the lead. Harrelson did indeed single in this game so there’s a very good chance that his photos were also taken in this game. Where the Gentry photos were taken mid morning under a crisp sun, these are approaching twilight with the stadium lights on even though it’s only 4:30.

The photos  of Jones in the outfield have similar light to the Harrelson photos on disc 2 and the scoreboard there indicates that they were taken before a Pittsburgh game. The out of town scoreboard suggests April 16 as the most-likely date in this case.

It’s interesting to me that Viewmaster used generic shirts or jackets and plain caps for these photos yet was able to use images of actual in-game action which show the Mets trademarks. I’m not well-versed enough in intellectual property law to make a guess as to why this is though.

With the 1953 set, I turned my scans into actual cards and even sent some out TTM. I don’t see myself doing the same with these. Some of this is the photo quality just not being good enough. But there’s a larger issue in this case in how the images weren’t selected to be portraits. Still it’ll be nice to print something out to go with the discs in the binder. I just have to figure out what that might be.

Black Ink and Trapping

The third edition of what’s become an annual tradition where I use Topps Heritage as an entree into writing about how cards were, and are printed. In 2018 I looked at differences in the screening patterns and and attempting to fake a 1969-style screen. In 2019 I was struck by Topps replacing a black screen with a spot grey ink. This year with the 1971 design and all those black borders, it’s time to talk about printing solid blacks.

I’m not going to compare a bunch of cards in this post. Nor am I going to complain about the type changes.* What fascinates me in this year’s Heritage is how differently the black is handled. We’ll just look at these two cards. Heritage Tyler Naquin on the left, a buyback 1971 Ken Harrelson** on the right.

*It’s not the slight differences in font/size/weight that bother me but rather the fact that Topps not only didn’t fix 1971’s kerning problems but proceeded to royally mess up the the word spacing.

**I have very few non-Giants 1971 Topps cards so I chose one that matched a team I got in my solitary pack.

It’s superficially a pretty good match. Slight color differences but those can be attributable to aging or print variances. I noticed some weird stuff going on around the edges of the black areas though which turned out to be pretty interesting.

So let’s zoom in on the edges. Heritage on the left still and 1971 on the right. One of the first things that jumped out at me was that the vertical edges of the black frame were not crisp. To be honest I have no idea why Topps did this. It could just be a mistake where the edges of the artwork were for some reason set to be 50% black and as a result got screened instead of being printed as a solid.

It could also however be an homage to the way that 1971 frequently had a different kind of non-crisp edge around the black border. That little edge of Cyan screening on the top and right side of the white border and white text? It’s what we call in the print shop a bump plate or rich black.

While black is the darkest color of light, with printing you can print other inks with the black ink to make it seem even darker.* In 1971 Topps ran like a 40% Cyan screen under the black borders to make them a bit darker.

*The other benefit of printing a bump plate is that it smooths out the black coverage so that instead a non-white color peeks though if the black is run light in a spot.

At high magnifications this screen peeks out from under the Black if there’s a slight misregistration between the Black and Cyan inks. It’s possible that this misregistration is something Topps was trying to emulate with the fuzzy black edges.

Anyway, I’ve seen a couple wonderfully out of register 1971 Topps cards that show the bump plate in even more detail. In both of these cards the Cyan is shifted left so far that a huge cyan strip is printed down the righthand side of the picture area. It’s a bit hard to see on the Purdin card but it extends directly below the “r” in “pitcher.” It is super obvious in the Perez card.

While running a bump plate allows you to not have to print the black as heavy as running without one, a design like 1971’s still results in the printer printing the black ink pretty thick. This puts some stress on the photos since black ink there is supposed to be somewhat subtle and only be used to punch a bit of shadow detail.

Which means that another thing Topps did in 1971 was reduce the amount of black ink used in the pictures. This is most apparent in the Senators card since Topps reused the photo in 1972 but re-did the separations with a lot more black details. Most of the shadow detail in the player faces is absent in the 1971 card. It’s all there in 1972.

Next, let’s zoom in on the red and green text. Heritage is still on the left, 1971 on the right. The different colors of red are an example of printing variances. Red is composed of two solid inks* and the absence of any screening in the red text shows that Topps ran them as solids.** The differences in the green though are related to the screening. 1971 has more Cyan and so the slightly darker green is accurate.

*Magenta and Yellow. Refer to the post about 1985 Fleer and 1990 Topps for more information about this.

**Note the Cyan bump screen on the edges of “ken” in the 1971 card.

The fuzzy vertical edges show up in the “INDIANS” but what I want to call attention to here is the weird white edge to the Heritage lettering. One white edge is on the left side of every character in “tyler” and the other is on the right side of the characters in “INDIANS.”*

*A bit harder to see due to the fuzziness of that transition.

Those white edges suggest that Topps isn’t trapping the text. In printing, a trap is small overlap between two differently-colored sections so that in case of any misregistration, no paper shows through. This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy except for the fact that 1971’s traps are huge.

I’ve gone ahead and re-levelled my Ken Harrelson image so that the traps are highlighted. The red halo around his name and the green halo around “INDIANS” show the overlap of the Black ink with the colored inks.

Normally you’re not supposed to be able to see the traps with your eye unless you zoom way in but in 1971’s case, because of the heavy black borders, Topps played it safe and made giant traps since the black would cover them anyway.*

*Printing Black on top of the other colors, aka “overprinting” is pretty standard and is how all the facsimile autographs are printed. 

I’m not sure why Topps would’ve run the text untrapped on purpose but it kind of looks like it was a choice. Yes a lot of printers default to running small text untrapped* but in a design like this there’s no reason to make that choice plus the team name is larger than what the defaults would be.

*Trapping small text, especially between two different colors, can create an outline effect since with small text the trap thickness can be similar to the thickness of the letterforms.

Anyway it’s time to look at the backs. I was worried for a bit that Topps would try to fake a halftone like they did in 2018 but thankfully the player headshot is a traditional lien screen. It’s a much much much finer screen than Topps ran in 1971 but the dot pattern is the same.*

*I’m tempted to hypothesize that the oddly slick/shiny feel that the backs of the Heritage cards have is due to Topps printing a line screen which is too fine for regular uncoated stock to hold. Uncoated stock soaks up ink and needs a coarser screen  so that the white portions of the screen are large enough to not plug up with ink.

More interestingly, Topps is printing a light Black screen across the entire card back. It’s not enough that the paper is brownish, Topps is applying a faint texture to it to give it even more of an old feel. This is something that Topps is doing on the front of the cards as well* and shows that there’s a vested interest in these cards feeling “old” in addition to just using the old designs.

*The first zoomed in image of Heritage shows a faint yellow screen in the ostensibly white areas of the card.

Wiggle Wiggle

If I said that for under $20 you could purchase a small set from 1953 which was one-third Hall of Famers and included a bunch of other big names from the time, I’d expect to be met with skepticism. Cards from 1953 aren’t generally cheap so a set like this is bound to come with a catch.

In this case, the catch is that the set is actually three Viewmaster discs. I’ve mentioned these before and have always had them in the back of my mind since 3D cards are one of my weaknesses. I don’t have a Viewmaster* but I don’t care, these are just fun objects to have.

*This is my mom’s cue to pull one out of storage even though she’s been culling almost all of my childhood stuff.

Just handling the paper envelopes and holding the discs in my hand evokes all kinds of childhood memories. Pulling out the discs, studying the text to see who’s on it, and holding it up to the light to get a glimpse of the images is the same kind of thing I did when I was 6—only my discs were Disney tales or something and not baseball heroes.

Now I may not have a Viewmaster, but I have something better. Since these discs are really just 14 different Kodachrome slides, dropping them into my photo scanner allows me to get an even better view of the photos. So that’s what I did.

I also went ahead and created wiggle “3D” gifs which alternate between the left and right images.* They’re not really 3D but our brains interpret them with depth and they’re a great way to get a flavor of the Viewmaster experience.

*3D photography involves photographing a subject at the same time with two different cameras that are a couple inches apart. This simulates the perspective that each of our eyes have. A 3D viewer then forces each eye to look at a different image and our brains combine the result into a 3D image.

Disc 1

The first disc has two Hall of Famers in Rizzuto and Berra, one should-be Hall of Famer in Miñoso, Al Rosen the year he won the MVP award, and some very good players in Jackie Jensen and Preacher Roe. Even Whitey Lockman had been an All Star in 1952.

I enjoy the variety of poses with Roe’s working the best in 3D of all the images. There’s also a lot of wonderful detail in the background of the Lockman image.

Each disc also comes with a 4-panel fold-out booklet which has a short bio of each player, the last two years of his stats (plus his regular season and World Series totals), and a facsimile signature. Since the full-fold-out is too long for my scanner, I just folded over one panel and scanned the three visible ones.

I really like the booklets. Clean and crisp typesetting with the box around them and a willingness to let the signature overlap the text like in Jensen’s panel. I’m sure I could have found these even cheaper as just the discs but it wouldn’t have been worth the savings.

Disc 2

Disc two is stacked. Four Hall of Famers in Mize, Lemon, Schoendienst, and Irvin plus the 1952 American League MVP in Bobby Shantz. Ferris Fain and Sid Gordon weren’t slouches either.

Aside from the player quality in this disc, the photos capture a couple of great uniforms of teams that no longer exist. Shantz is in his Philadelphia A’s uniform and Gordon is in his Boston Braves uniform.

Looking at the uniforms and seeing the color stirrups makes me realize how vibrant these must have been in 1953. Bowman had only just released the first set of baseball cards using color photographs. These go a step further and are color slides that literally pop off the film.

Not much more to add about the booklets except to note that while Gordon is depicted with Boston the move to Milwaukee had already happened when these were printed.

Disc 3

The last disc is a bit lighter on star power since Campy is the only Hall of Famer but for me it makes up for it by having two Giants legends in Maglie and Thomson.* Vic Wertz is another big name, Woodling was one of those annoying Yankees guys who always came through in the World Series, and Parnell and Hatton were both All Stars.

*Having four Giants out of the 21 players depicted is something I appreciate very much.

I really like Campanella’s pose with the mask in the foreground. Wertz meanwhile is the third image of a team that’s about to cease existing since 1953 was the last year before the Browns moved to Baltimore.

The stadium background in these photos also demonstrate how much flash was used to take these pictures. The photos are all somewhat moody with darkish skies. This helps them pop a lot through the contrast of the light uniforms and the dark backgrounds while also giving them a look that’s different than the typical baseball card image. This look only started to show up on Topps cards in earnest around 1985.*

*Something I covered a bit on my own blog. In short, in the 1980s Topps started to underexpose the background of the portrait and use flash to produce more contrast between the subject and his background. Many 1985 and 1986 Topps cards feature dark skies.

One last look at the booklets and my only comment is that I’m relieved to see that Bobby Thomson’s home run is mentioned.

Are these Cards™? No. But they’re card adjacent and fit in binder pages so I’m counting them. I’m also planning on printing the photos out as 2.5″ square pieces with the relevant back information from the booklets so I can enjoy the images without having to hold the disc up to the light. Who am I kidding, holding the discs is the best part anyway.

Topps 3D!

 

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

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

*Stereographs; Dixie Lids with their stereoviewer; Viewmasters

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

distracted

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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.

ryan1989 blyleven90

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.

lofton1993

Sandberg1994

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.

Smith_Dennys

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.

Bonds_Instavision

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.