Category Archives: baseball

Atlee

Being mixed race means that I grew up constantly being put into different “what are you?” boxes.* Society likes to sort us and I often describe my maturation in terms of which box I was most-likely to be sorted into—my standard description is along the lines that I was “chinese” when I was in grade school, “mexican” as a teenager, and only became white as an adult. But I was never actually any of those things. I only use those descriptions as shorthand for being aware of how society types me, what triggers that identification, and what behavior I may need to modify for my safety in that situation.

*I’ve written more about my background but my thinking has evolved a bit on that in the past four years.

I preferred to identify myself as not having a box at all. Even though I was lucky to have many mixed-race friends in school I never really thought of them as my group. None of us had identical racial backgrounds and, so while we could discuss a lot of common ground in terms of experiences we shared, we all had very different identities.

It was only in high school when we had stars like Dean Cain and Russell Wong that the idea of a “hapa”* box became feasible. I wasn’t interested but I could see the appeal. There were people like us in mass media and yeah, while they had to play either completely-white or completely-asian roles, at least they sort of existed. By then though I’d also already embraced my non-categoriness and absorbed the idea that I would always have to defer to someone else who was more of whatever part of my identity I was partaking in.

*I’m using “hapa” in this case specifically because of its extremely-limited half-asian/half-white meaning which the multiracial asian community jumped all over in the late 1990s/early 2000s because of the gaping absence of any other term to self-identify as. It’s no longer a term I use to describe any group of people even though I do still use it to self-identify—with family from Hawai‘i, I feel like it does capture some of my specific story. But the fact that it all-too-often loses its Hawaiian context is a big problem. As is the fact that it all-too-often is limited to just asian/white people.

It’s not that being mixed-race means that I’m insufficiently anything. It’s that I’m aware of the limits of my experience of my culture. I know that there’s always more to learn and more family history to uncover. I know that my culture and experience is best described in terms of where my ancestors came from rather than who I am.

Sometimes though I wonder if things could’ve been different. I’ve seen my sons’ friends ask if mixed-race parents like me are the parents of his similarly-mixed-race friends. It’s not just that there’s a cohort of mixed race kids. Many of the parents are also mixed race now and, while kids are still grouping by type—it’s amazing how engrained that idea of what a family unit should look like is—I get the sense that much of my sons’ generation has a much different understanding of how culture works and that there is a benefit to being typed into a box which kind of fits you.

Representation is always good. But it’s more than that. What seems to be a lot of the driving force in this though is that they understand what they might grow up to be like. Which is really where the family-unit typing seems to come into play. Kids learn early on that they’ll grow up to look like their family. A lot of the “what about the kids” panic with mixed race couples stems from the fear that the kids won’t look like their parents. And while that’s bullshit, I have seen that as kids learn how race works really early and that, once that view is in place they see racial differences as overriding any other similarities.

So it‘s a good thing that my sons’ generation is growing up where mixed-race adults are common. I’m kind of jealous. I’m glad I had peers but I can see how different things are to just see what you could look like as a grown up.

It was only in getting back into baseball cards that I realized that there were a couple of years in the late 1980s when my classmates had accurately identified a mixed-race adult for me to look like.

Atlee Hammaker 1983 Topps Atlee Hammaker 1984 Topps All Stars

When I was ~10 everyone started calling me Atlee. I was a Giants fan and I supposedly looked like our pitcher, Atlee Hammaker. He’d been a star, of sorts, a few years earlier but by the time I was a fan injuries had kind of derailed his career. As a result, he’d developed a bit of a reputation as being a headcase—specifically the type of pitcher who’s great when no one’s on base but loses his composure as soon as anyone reaches base.

I hated that nickname and being told that I looked like him—mostly because, in my view, he wasn’t that good. Looking at his stats now gives me a better sense of it. He was in the midst of going from a decent—albeit injury-prone—pitcher to a replacement-level one. A decent career with a few high points—just not the trajectory any kid wants to be associated with.

Getting back into cards though has involved me googling around about players whose cards trigger my memories. In Hammaker’s case, I discovered that he was mixed-race, specifically German/Japanese—very close to the same thing I am. I’d had no idea when I was a kid—no one else did either—but finding that out kind of softened my memories. Rather than seeing his cards and having a visceral “oh god I hated being called Atlee” reaction, I’ve warmed to him and begun to wonder how I would’ve reacted if I’d known as a kid.

Would I have latched on with the same sense of ownership that I latched on to Scott Erickson—who grew up a stone’s through from my house—a few years later? No idea. But I suspect I would’ve been more supportive instead of rolling my eyes each time he got the fidgets when someone got on base.

And no, I didn’t grow up to look like him. That’s not how any of this works. But as someone who rarely smiles in photos, I am enjoying looking at his cards from the 1980s and being amused at how he never smiles and always has the same deadpan expression on his face. I’d like to think that his special 1984 All Star card is a reflection of his disastrous appearance in 1983 but it’s just the way he always looks.

Polo Grounds

Untitled

A large part of my growing up as a Giants fan involved learning about and embracing the Giant’s New York history. The Giants themselves encourage it. It’s not just that players like Willie Mays were stars in both places or that the 1951 Bobby Thomson home run or 1954 World Series win were two of the few high-water marks we had to hold on to during too many seasons of mediocrity. That the Giants had John McGraw, Christie Mathewson, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, and Carl Hubbell’s numbers retired* meant that the franchise claimed its place as one of the first, founding Major League clubs and wrapped its history up with the history of baseball in general.

*Monte Irvin is a relatively recent addition whose absence used to confuse me when I was little.

So I read about baseball history and mentally highlighted every place where the Giants got mentioned. I delighted in highlights like the 1905 World Series or Carl Hubbell’s 1934 All-Star game. And I felt a some of the shame about things like Merkel’s boner.

It wasn’t just the history either. While I’ve yet to visit 16th and Bryant to see the location of Seals Stadium, I did visit Cheney Stadium in Tacoma fully aware that the seats there were the old Seals Stadium seats. Even as an adult, visiting the location of the Polo Grounds has been on my to-do list since I moved to New Jersey.

After four years I finally got my act together and made the trip. I took the subway to 155th and walked up Edgecombe to the top of the John T Brush Stairway. Just passing the Coogan’s Bluff playground sign and seeing those words representing a real place was kind of a thrill, but standing at the top of the stairs was an experience. Even with the apartments it’s wonderful to get a sense of the geography and think about what it meant to look both down into the stadium and out across the Harlem River toward The Bronx.

DSC_0088

Walking down the stairs isn’t as evocative but it’s fantastic that everything’s restored and looks good. I’m glad it’s not a ruin and is preserved as something that matters. Athletic teams, despite being privately owned, are in many ways part of the public trust and exist as deep-seated tribal identities for their fans. As fans, we get taken advantage of with regard to public stadiums and the fact that our loyalty is a one-way street. And then if/when a team changes stadiums, the old stadium is often destroyed leaving, maybe, a plaque marking the location of home plate.

The stairway does a much better job at anchoring the Polo Grounds in my mind as something that physically existed. I can picture where it was and how it fit in with the land. I don’t have to guess that I’m in the right location nor spend a lot of my visit searching for the plaque.

DSC_0094 DSC_0095

Because of the stairway I had a very good idea where the plaque should be. The hardest thing was finding a way to get to it. You have to cross another road then kind of wind your way downhill into the housing projects while keeping in mind which building, and what side, looked like the proper location of home plate. I had the location about right but the most-direct path was fenced off.

As with walking down the stairway the plaque didn’t move me too much. It’s on the side of a massive tower of apartments and is fenced off so you have to learn to get a proper view. I found it amusing that it claimed the 1904 World Championship given how the Giants snubbed the American League that year. I also like how the Yankees and the Mets are kind of an afterthought.

The plaque, more than anything else, gives the impression that the Giants are no more—something which feels much more in-line with the way that franchise moves exist today. It’s weird, most franchise moves now involve making a break with the past—whether it’s the new location starting history anew or the old location being unable to forgive the pain of losing their team. But it doesn’t feel like this happened with the Giants. Reading about their last game in New York makes it clear that emotions were high—I remember growing up with stories of everything being ripped up and taken home—but many New Yorkers accepted the move and kept rooting for their team.

Untitled

Because I planned to visit The Met later in the day, I wandered back to the subway and transferred to a Manhattan-bound train at the 161st-Yankee Stadium stop. I didn’t know what to expect at this station but I was pleased to find that it was an elevated platform which gave me a view back across the river showing me both the original Yankee Stadium location and the Polo Grounds towers.

I’m familiar with the photos showing how close the stadiums were but seeing the locations from the platform was both a nice reminder and good way to take my leave of the location.

My First Box Break; My First Relic

Continuing from yesterday. I was expecting a package from Peter at Baseball Every Night. I’d sorta-hesitantly joined his box break—I’m new in baseball card twitter and don’t want to be that guy who just takes without having contributed anything. But he convinced me to join and I’m glad I did.

Getting a batch of over a dozen Giants cards in the mail is always fun. And I’m still a bit in awe of the print quality of modern cards. Yes I agree with the complaints about the TV-style graphics and the over-cropped ACTIONACTIONACTION photographs. But at a pure technical level these even blow the original Stadium Clubs out of the water.

It’s nice to get a bunch of long-time franchise favorites. Cain’s been scuffling for a while but when I see his cards I’m still reminded of the first half of this decade. Pence is basically the team mascot now. And I don’t need to say anything about Posey. When I grew up I loved Will Clark. Posey has been the same kind of a guy since his rookie year.

A few other key names, some of whom I’m only just getting used to. It’s been a weird season so far and I’ve had a hard time keeping track of how far off the rails we’ve gotten. I can’t catch a lot of the late games on the East Coast so it’s nice to get photos to match the names.

Also, the Nunez card is a great example of both how the horizontal format works well and how it fails in this particular design template. Sometimes the action just has to be displayed horizontally and a sliding picture is one such play. At the same time, the weird fade-out Topps is doing at the bottom of the cards gets super distracting and noticeable here. Rather than being a fade it looks like the entire photo’s been deleted—only badly.

And some people who I’ve just not heard of. This is both exciting and also a reflection of how this year has been going. We’re doing so badly that it seems like we should just be churning through the complete 40-man roster looking for players who might stick.

Anyway, very nice variety in the break and the kind of team set which, as a team set collector, leaves me feeling super satisfied. It’s important to have some stars but it’s also great to have a good cross-section of the entire team. This break does that perfectly.

Peter also threw in a couple Series 1s thrown in as a bonus. I didn’t get any Giants in my first packs so it was nice to get them this way instead. Thanks Peter, this was a lot of fun and I need to put together a thank you package to send your way in return.

My First Relic


The good news is that I “won” the break. That’s also the bad news. I’m kind of sheepish about this since I’m not big on chase cards and feel like the prize is wasted on me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to have gotten a relic card. It’s just that my reasons aren’t what Topps is going for.

When I was drifting out of the hobby in the early 90s, relic cards were only beginning to appear. I was intrigued by them then but the idea of chase cards also directly contributed to my disillusionment.* At this point I can’t see myself ever actively acquiring one so getting one from a lucky pack or box break is the only way I’d ever own one.**

*I just found all my 1994 cards. I never bothered to put them in albums at all and, once the strike occurred, they just ended up in a shoebox.

**This is true with most chase cards. The only ones I can see myself acquiring are the printing plate ones which I’m interested in from a purely craft point of view.

It’s certainly an interesting object. I knew they were thicker than the average card but I never realized exactly how thick.* But aside from the cleverness in how it’s made there’s little in this that I find appealing. The patch is a small square of cream CoolBase and there’s literally nothing else of interest on the card. The photo is nice enough—especially if you’re into the cut-out player look—and I enjoy the spot UV coating. But that’s about it. There’s not even anything interesting on the back.

*What the hell do you do with these, just keep them in the toploader and find a box to store the toploader in?

And without the card itself having any interesting information, I’m left holding a small square of fabric and thinking whether I’d be excited about such a thing if it didn’t have the cardboard frame around it.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be.

I understand the point of these relics but they’re not for me. At a certain point the small square of cut fabric becomes too abstracted from any emotional meaning. It’s explicitly not from any specific game. And there’s no context to suggest that it’s even from an actual jersey—for all I can tell it’s from a bolt of fabric.* I have to take Topps’s word for it.

*The relic cards which include cuts of patches or numbering are better in this regard.

Holding this card in my hand left me feeling underwhelmed and disappointed about what the hobby has turned into. That pack searching for this kind of card is a thing makes me sad. That hobby packs cost more per-card than retail packs because of this kind of thing makes me sad.

Still, I’m happy to have gotten a relic card because I had no idea how I would react to actually owning one. I did enjoy looking it over and really examining it and thinking about how it’s constructed as a product. I also enjoyed thinking through my reactions to it and trying to figure out why . I even plan to keep it so I can remember why it’s not for me. It’s a rare thing for card to evoke that many different thoughts and emotions.

An unexpected bubble mailer

Okay this is fun. I returned from vacation last week and found two bubble mailers waiting for me. Yes, one was in New Jersey while the other was in California, but it’s still an exciting thing to find waiting—especially when one of the mailers was unexpected.

Before I left for vacation I sent CommishBob a couple cards to help him with his 1970 set build. My current collection focus* has been pretty efficient so far. What duplicates I do have are typically junk wax from my childhood collection. But for whatever reason I’d accumulated a bunch of Giants dupes from 1970—including two that Bob needed. So I sent them out and, once I learned that they arrived okay, kind of forgot about the whole thing figuring that some day an envelope would arrive with a couple early-70s Giants cards that I needed.

*San Francisco Giants team sets as I suggested would happen a few months ago. I’ll have to write a proper post about this in the future.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about what would arrive and I’m kind of bummed that my wife* got to open the package instead of me. Thankfully she sent me photos. I’d’ve been happy with just the 1957 Sauer card let alone a 1957 and a 1958 card. As a kid, my oldest cards—aside from the 1917 Zeenuts which I discovered late and belong in their own category—were from 1960. Anything from the 1950s was unfathomable for me. And getting a card from before the Giants moved to San Francisco? Amazing.

*Stuck in New Jersey for work reasons.

But Bob didn’t stop there. There were also three 1959 cards. Aside from the age factor, there’s something about the 1950s designs which are especially evocative for me. Where Topps in the 1960s defined and refined what baseball cards are supposed to look like, the 1950s cards are a little more all over the place.

The best thing is that many of the 1950s designs seem to polarize opinions.* Some people will love a given year; others will hate it; there’s rarely any in-between. 1958 and 1959 are two designs which exemplify this. Some people love the colors. Others hate the small photos.

*Yes there are some gems like 1956 which everyone likes.

I love them as artifacts of their time but I also feel that they need to be left there. I’ve never really liked baseball cards which paint over the photo background with a design—whether it’s a solid color or all that refractor stuff going on today. I like that this particular 1958 reminds me of the Cracker Jacks cards with their red backgrounds. And I appreciate the 1950s-ness of the lettering.

The 1959s are pretty similar. As with the 58s, I can appreciate the colorfulness of them all. And I like the way the font is hinting at what’s to come in the 1960s.* But good lord those photos are small and feel like the secondary photos that Topps would later use.

*Typewise the design evolution from 1958 to 1960 feels very natural.

But wait there’s more. The 1960 rookie is a nice bridge between the 1959 design and the circus colors of the 1960 design. And the 1962 is one of those sets which, as someone who really got started in the hobby in 1987 when Topps had another wood-grain background design, just scratches all my nostalgia buttons. That the Giants went to the World Series this year is a bonus.

And yeah. Super generous from Bob and I have no idea how to properly thank him. It’s very cool to be back to trading cards again. It’s going to be immensely fun to see these all in person.

3D

Baseball team, White Oak Cotton Mills. Greensboro, N. C. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-9912-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 Players of the "Cubs" in dugout before calling of a game of World Series, October, 1929, at Chicago, Ill. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/stereo/item/92508756/

In looking at early photographic baseball cards I found myself wondering whether stereographs should also count as trading cards. I never see them mentioned in baseball card discussions but they fit the bill in terms of being photographs which were intended for mass consumption and trading.

The only difference is that stereograms tend to be about locations or events rather than people. Doing a quick search of large online repositories doesn’t turn up a lot of baseball, just some team photos—such as the one above from 1909—or special events such as the 1929 World Series. And while these are both subjects which come up time and again on baseball cards, they’re always supplements to the set of individual player photos.

Viewmaster

Still, this got me thinking both about 3D photography and 3D baseball cards. If stereograms don’t feel like cards, what about Viewmaster? I didn’t remember any Viewmaster baseball sets but I figured they had to exist. They do. As with the stereograms, this doesn’t feel like a baseball card to me. But it’s closer in how it’s about individual players and, if these were sold cheaply in packs and were a collectible set, could very well have become part of the baseball card collecting world.

Viewmaster rubs a lot of the same nostalgia feels that baseball cards do. It’s a simple concept we all loved as kids—my kids still love it. The only problem is that you need the gadget to see the photos. At least with stereograms you could view the photos in 2D without needing a device. But requiring the 3D viewer and having that viewer limit the experience to a single person viewing a single image at a time means that it’s hard to share and display your collection.

I did some searching for anaglyph baseball cards but found nothing. This surprised me since, even if the cards would look awful, anaglyph 3D and its red/blue glasses is the iconic 3D look even today.

Kelloggs 3-D Super Stars

Instead what we have is lenticular 3D cards. It seems like the first versions were the super-limited-release Topps 3D set in 1968. I’ve not seen these but I have seen the more-common Kellogg’s 3-D Super Stars from the 1970s and 80s. These were always cool even with the cracking and bending issues.

The lenticular effect is less 3D and more more of just a layer of depth in the card. But it’s still a fun technology* which was much more accessible than stereograms or Viewmasters. A whole batch of these cards could be viewed at once by many people and, if in a binder sheet, the entire sheet would have depth rather than each one needing to be looked at individually.**

*As a 1980s kid I grew up with Sportsflics which used lenticular printing as a way to show motion. These were also super cool but belong in their own discussion.

**I also need to flag 1985’s Topps 3-D which are actual textured card surfaces rather than an optical effect and so in my view belong with the various die-cut cards as something distinct from 3D photography.

1992 Upper Deck Denny’s Hologram

By the 1990s hologram technology was no longer the parlor trick it was when that first National Geographic came out with the eagle on the cover.* Where it was initially part of how Upper Deck branded its logo, their Denny’s sets in the early 1990s were entirely holographic cards.

*March 1984. I still remember it blowing my mind and expecting to find something, anything, hidden in the magazine because it couldn’t just be on the cover.

I haven’t looked at mine in two and a half decades but I remember them as being similar to the lenticular cards—not true 3D but rather multiple flat layers which still gave the card depth. I suspect that this is because they couldn’t take a proper holographic image of the player and instead had to use an existing photograph and layer it with other images.

They weren’t as easy to look at as the lenticular cards. There was no real color and your viewing angles were kind of limited. But I still remember them fondly and kind of want to acquire more of these. They’re cheaper on eBay than buying a Grand Slam was 25 years ago.

I also googled around to see if there were any Magic Eye baseball cards but, as opposed to my dissappointment in finding no anaglyphs, I was relieved to find no autostereograms.

Am I doing this right?

So I’ve been on ebay buying baseball cards. It was coming. But I’m trying my hardest not to go too crazy and limit my bids to the $5 range. It’s hard, every week there’s a lot or two that comes up and looks very tempting. But I don’t have the time or space or money to jump on those and besides, I really do need to go and look at my old collection to remember what I have already.

Masanori Murakami 1965 Topps

What I’ve been doing instead is running down specific items of personal interest which I wouldn’t have cared about at all as a kid. For example, Masanori Murakami. He used to be a non-story. There’s one entry about him making his debut in September 1964 in the Giants Diary and while it mentions him being the first Japanese to play in Major League Baseball, it’s mainly an aside. Not a big deal at all. Nor, really, should it have been.

This was all before Hideo Nomo became a sensation in 1995 and opened the pipeline of Japanese talent to the US. Murakami wasn’t just the first Japanese Major League player, he was the only Japanese player. An oddity before we figured out how to deal with translators and not part of any legacy. Post-Nomo? Now he has a legacy and the Giants can claim to have been the first, three decades before anyone else. And as a nikkei Giants fan, this makes me happy.

Learning about Murakami also takes me into learning more about how players move from Japan to the US. I also really enjoyed learning about other Japanese players in the Giants’ farm system during the same era. As someone who’s followed international soccer for a couple decades, it’s interesting to me how different everything is with baseball. As baseball gets increasingly international with professional leagues abroad where the quality is at least as good as American minor leagues it’s going to be very interesting to see how these rules develop.

All this made me curious about whether Murakami had ever appeared on a baseball card. When I found out that he had appeared on only one I felt compelled to track it down. I’m a little sad that he doesn’t get his own card, but the photo is good and the 1965 design is fantastic so I can’t complain.

Marvin Miller 2005 Topps Fan Favorites

I’ve also learned a lot about baseball’s labor history since I was a kid. When I was little I found the contract holdouts and concerns about money to be absurd and frustrating. I eventually came to realize that my sympathies should be with the players even while the strike in 1994 broke me of both my baseball habit and my card-collecting habit.

I was surprised to discover that Topps had made a Marvin Miller card in 2005. I’m even more surprised to learn that it’s part of their Fan Favorites line. This speaks very well of baseball fans since Miller ushered in a lot of things which, on the surface, fans love to complain about.

Still, aside from the moral issues of treating labor fairly, fans have a lot to thank Miller for too. For all the complaints about contracts and mercenaries, the flip side is being able to fantasize about free agent signings and the idea that any player can move to whatever team he wants to play for.

I found it interesting that Topps chose to use its 1970 design for Miller card. Miller had already taken it to Topps with a player boycott in 1967 and 1968 so any of those years could’ve worked. But going with 1970 means that Topps is referencing the Curt Flood issue.

Curt Flood 1969 Topps Curt Flood 1970 Topps Curt Flood 1971 Topps

Which meant that I found myself checking for Curt Flood cards. Specifically for 1969 when he has traded. I couldn’t pass up the 1970 card because of how wrong it is to show him playing for a team that he not only never played for, but which he refused to play for and went to the Supreme Court to avoid playing for. And the 1971 card completes the set since it’s the team he eventually chose to play for.

I wish the 1969 card had a better photo. I know that 1969 was hampered as a set because of aforementioned player boycott of Topps so it’s possible that Topps just didn’t have a good photo of Flood on hand. Though given the nature of what happened to Flood, the eyeroll/no fucks given expression is also appropriate. The 1970 and 1971 photos are typical “hide the hat logo in case he changes teams” shots. I like that in 1971 he looks somewhat relieved even though he has about to retire.

It’s a shame how little this side of baseball history gets covered. Ball Four* touched on it but the timing is off in that it occurs before the main conflict and then all the afterwords are more about Bowie Kuhn and Marvin Miller and the concept of how the owners could’ve avoided free agency by being slightly more generous with salaries and meal money.

*Now there’s another theme for card collecting I might run down some day.

And that’s kind of the thing. Flood was objecting to being bought and sold as if he were a piece of property. This wasn’t exactly about free agency—which Flood eventually got by sitting out all of the 1970 season—but it signaled to the players where that fight would have to be fought.

Andy Messersmith 1975 Topps Dave McNally 1975 Topps

So on to Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and the Seitz decision in 1975. The courts turned out not be the best place to fight labor issues but the National Labor Relations Board was. It still amazes me that none of this history is really mentioned anywhere. In soccer, free agency is named after the player who fought for it. In baseball, there’s no similar reference that suggests how things changed to become the way they are today.

Something about the spring-training glow in these photos perfectly complements  the garish card design. We’ve got foliage and palm trees in the background. Process colors being run at 100% by themselves for maximum brightness. These are cards which are very much of their time.

I’ll eventually get 1976 and 1977 Messersmith cards. Unlike with Flood where the card the year after the fight tells part of the story, the 1976 Messersmith card is kind of redundant to the 195 one. His 1977 card though features him with the Braves, the team he signed for as a free agent in 1976.

Looking at Baseball Cards

While National Geographic is one of the main ways I grew up consuming photographs, baseball cards are a close runner up. I never considered them as photos, but in coming back to the hobby, I’m realizing how interesting the photography side of them is and how learning about their history served as a primer on photographic history. Just by looking at the way that the photos have changed over the decades we can see how differently we’ve seen the game.

Being able to recognize within the photos what kind of equipment was used allows us to think about both how the gear has changed and how the gear influences the way we see the world—and the cues we take to determine what age a photo comes from.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of the retro-style card trend. Both in my recent post as well as in two posts on SABR,* I’ve been grappling with what I like, and what I don’t, and why. And a lot of it comes down to photographic technology and technique more than anything else.

*Not Hooked on Heritage and an appropriately-titled response called Hooked on Heritage.

Yes, there’s a lot of printing technology and graphic design to talk about too, but when we’re looking at cards and deciding what we like, we’re talking about photos. When we’re comparing eras, we’re comparing photographic techniques. And when we’re looking at baseball card history, we’re looking at photographic history. Maybe it’s best to start from the beginning.

George Kelly, 1st Base, New York Nationals, from the American Caramels Baseball Players series (E122) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/400151 Goodwin & Company Michael Joseph Buck Ewing, New York, from the series Old Judge Cigarettes http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/400227

In the late 19th century (all three examples here are 1887) the cards were albumen prints of posed studio photos—basically cabinet cards but with baseball players. By being cabinet cards, many of them are larger (4.5×6 inches) than modern baseball cards. Some however, like the Gypsy Queen card here, are closer to carte de visite in size (1.125×3.5 to 2.5×4 inches) and thus, much closer to our concept of the modern baseball card.

These photos are typically posed in the studio—backdrop detail is all over the map—in poses which are still familiar. Little leaguers today take pictures in a batting stance and the throwing motion is a long-standing baseball card staple. Others though—such as the pretend fielding—are wonderfully dated and scream nostalgia. In all cases, the poses have to be positions which can be held for a long-enough time to take the photo. Photography needed a lot of light at the time for stopping action

I was surprised to find one card which was taken outside. It’s nice to see bleachers and get a sense of a possible ballpark but I suspect it’s staged for where the best light is. These are all photographs taken within the limitations of the view camera, its plate processing requirements, and the aforementioned shutter speeds. While such cameras could travel, that was not what they were best at and you risked things blurring when you were outside.

Reading about how people used and traded cabinet cards and cartes de visite of celebrities is eerily familiar to me as a baseball card collector. It’s not just trading personal photos between friends, these cards were souvenirs and mementos to be collected into albums and shown off.

It’s in the ability to produce prints en masse and the celebrity subject matter which distinguishes these from tintypes* and other one-off forms of photography. These early baseball cards highlight that it’s not only a matter of creation or consumption of photographs which is important. The technology for distribution and printmaking** is just as integral a part of our visual literacy.

*Baseball tintypes do exist and that’s not even getting into Tabitha Soren’s work—a book I totally need to buy.

**Which is why it’s important to distinguish between cabinet cards and cartes de visite which functioned as baseball trading cards versus those which were for personal use.

Dave Danforth, Pitcher, St. Louis Americans, from the American Caramel Baseball Players series (E121) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/718249 Wallie Pipp, First Base, New York Americans, from the American Caramel Baseball Players series (E120) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/428994 George Kelly, 1st Base, New York Nationals, from the American Caramels Baseball Players series (E122) for the American Caramel Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/718360

By the 1920s the poses were all outside and the printing was no longer photographic. Instead of contact printing from the camera negatives, the new cards are photos from large-format cameras* which were then re-photographed and reduced in size for lithographic printing.

*My guess is 4×5 inch sheet film.

The film is larger and more sensitive. The cameras are still cumbersome* but are more portable and capable of faster shutter speeds. As a result the poses can be more dynamic and photos can be taken in the actual stadiums. Larger negatives means that the backgrounds are pretty blurry but we can still make out some park details. There’s not enough to really figure out where the photos were taken—for the most part these appear to be in empty ballparks during special photo sessions—but they’re very clearly in a proper ballpark.

*I love this photo from 1911.

Unless the photo is a headshot, the camera is pretty far away so it can show all of the player. Where before the player and the photographer were clearly working together to get a portrait, these photos feel like the photographer is playing things kind of safe with the action and doesn’t want to waste any shots. Since the cameras only held one sheet of film at a time* photography is still a pretty slow process and I understand being extremely conservative with compositions and timing.

*Maybe two if they had backs which could be loaded on both sides.

It’s worth mentioning here that I’m not writing about the classic T206 Tobacco Cards and other releases through the 1950s which consisted of clearly-painted images derived from photographic sources. While these are important parts of baseball card history, the way that the backgrounds can be painted in means that it’s impossible to get a good sense of the photograph itself.

At the same time, it is also important to remember than almost all of the photographs have gone through a painting step to prepare them for printing. These painted-on prints* are fascinating objects in and of themselves in how they reveal a bit of photographic process—especially the cropping that occurs from the original negative—as well as how the printing itself changes the image.

*More info in the Pier 24 Secondhand post.

Uncut sheet, from the Baseball series (R406-1), issued by Bowman Gum Company http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/416575

By the 1940s it’s clear that we’ve evolved a bit further. Instead of large-format cameras we have medium-format.* So smaller negatives, even faster film,** sharper lenses, faster shutter speeds, and the ability to get closer and interact with the subject a lot more. Roll film enables much more rapid photography and the ability to try a bunch of different things quickly results in better images. Where the 1920s photos all feel kind of distant and safe, these 1940s photos are much more intimate.

*6×6 or 6×7 so 10 or 12 shots of 2¼-inch-wide images.

**but still really slow compared to what we’re used to today.

Tight crops. Even better ability to freeze action while posing. The smaller negatives mean that we have larger depth of field available and can start to make out the details of where the photos are taken. And the fact that there are probably a dozen images to choose from for each player means that what we’re seeing are indeed better photos.

The only thing missing is color but these photos themselves represent the dominant look of baseball cards through the 1960s.

Topps 1950s-1960s

We can clearly see faces and with the color photos we can tell that baseball is a game to be played during the day when the sun is high, the skies are blue, and the light can shine across the subjects for a nice even exposure. There’s not a lot of latitude with slide film but even with professional gear these photos mimic a lot of the advice I’ve seen in photography guides from that time period.

This is an era where every house had a Brownie Hawkeye Flash and slow medium format film was the standard. Backgrounds are busy but still blurred and the main variation in the cards is whether they’re a tightly-cropped headshot or an above-the-waist pose.

Adding to the view and focal depth of these photos is the actual camera placement. Most of the cards feel like they were shot with a waist-level viewfinder. The camera is both pretty low and the players rarely look directly into the lens. This allows for Topps to do a lot of fudging with players who get traded as the hat logos aren’t visible. But it’s also a viewpoint which comes naturally to this kind of camera. As eye-level and through-the-lens gain acceptance, the camera’s point of view creeps higher and players begin to make more and more eye contact with the lens.

1970 Topps

By the 1970s it feels like 35mm has taken over.* In addition to the higher point of view, we have casual shots now which suggest that photographers are a lot more mobile and using photojournalist-style techniques which 35mm is especially well-suited for. We’re also seeing more wide-angle lenses and can really make out a lot of detail in the stadiums. And we’re seeing more obvious uses of photographic flash.

*You can see some of this in the late 1960s but the player boycott marks a pretty clear dividing line in photographic approach which just happens to coincide with the rise to dominance of 35mm cameras.

It’s not just the cameras which have gotten extremely mobile, the flashes have too, and a smaller film format* is more conducive to taking risks and not getting screwed by having to reload so often. There’s often less interaction with the players again as photographers have the ability to work very quickly and get in and out with pictures. But the posed portrait sessions still exist and, with the additional depth of field available** these photos often give us ballpark detail we hadn’t seen previously.

*36 exposures per roll instead of 10 or 12.

**For a given field of view and lens aperture, the smaller the image sensor the larger the depth of field.

1972 Topps

35mm film also meant that action photography was all of a sudden a legitimate possibility. In the early 1970s, these photos were pretty bad. Telephoto lenses at this time were pretty short, pretty slow, and not very sharp.* Autofocus didn’t exist yet so photographers had to be on the top of their game in order to get anything in focus. Plus Topps still required 100 speed film for quality reasons** so you were constantly pushing the limits of your equipment.

*We’re talking about when a 200mm f/4 was standard.

**As per Doug McWilliams.

It’s no wonder that the action cards feel like novelties here. The fact that they exist at all is in many ways more important than the quality of the photograph. Plus, after decades of posed shots, it must’ve felt exciting to see photos of in-game action. There are some gems—I love the 1973 Marichal card—but most of the time we have a generic moment without any emotion and the horrible lighting which comes from trying to get a decent photo of someone wearing a baseball cap in the middle of the day.

Topps 1980s Action

By the early 1980s lens technology and quality had improved to the point where the action shots became more common and no longer felt like novelties. We’re also getting decent zoom and catadioptric lenses* which allow even more options for photographers with both reach and flexibility.

*A lot of the 1980 cards like the Jack Clark above show the characteristic ringed highlights in the background

As a result, in this time period we have a really good mix of posed vs action vs casual photos. No one variant truly dominates.

Topps 1980s Portraits

What did change in the 1980s though is the portrait lighting. Instead of the Topps standard of “photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the bill across their face”* we start to see a lot more reliance on flash to create separation between the subject and the background. This gets increasingly obvious in the mid-1980s when many of the photos have backgrounds which have been underexposed by a stop or two.

*Doug McWilliams again.

Even if taken on a bright sunny day, these photos are a lot more moody and stand out as a distinct 1980s look.

In the 1980s and 1990s autofocus lenses became commonplace and film emulsions continue to get faster. Couple that with motor drives and we’re able to get much more reliably good action photos. Lots of film wasted but they blow the 1970s photos out of the water.

It’s not a surprise that companies like Score which had only action shots emerged in the late 1980s. Such a set was impossible even five years earlier but there was finally enough good action photography available.

We’re still not particularly close to the plays though. I suspect that 500mm lenses were still the longest reach anyone had. But that’s good enough for anything in the infield.

2016 Topps Heritage

It took another format change to get us to where we are today. Digital cameras, longer lenses, faster lenses, and smaller sensors have allowed us to get closer than we ever have before. It also means that we’re able to get “portraits” and casual images from further and further away. These images are both distinct in the tightness of the crops and in how blurred the background is.

We didn’t have the technology to do this before and the super-blurred background is a pretty clear tell—along with super-punchy color both from better printing, being able to shoot in flatter light, and digital imaging tricks—of photographic trends in the past decade. Most baseball games are at night now and cameras are good enough to be able to focus on and freeze action in artificial light.

One of the reasons why a lot of the Heritage card designs feel weird is that they appear to be shot with the same equipment as the action cards. Digital SLRS. Super-long lenses or professional zoom lenses. We know intuitively what kind of photo to expect from those card designs and when that doesn’t match up our brains kind of freak out.

I’d love to see modern cards shot with medium format film and waist-level viewfinders just to see how that changes things. Or large-format film and view cameras. Or in the studio with props, silly poses, and long exposure times. We’ve a long history of baseball photography and, while computers are wonderful things, there’s still no replicating the way that different equipment allows us to see things differently. For a game which is so steeped in history like baseball it’s important to remember all the aspects of that history and how much of that history is tied to its visual record.