Sunday, April 26, 2015

Credit where credit is due

Everyone knows this card, I presume. It's a famous card from a period when everyone collected cards. It's probably one of the best cards from the 1993 Topps set, and Topps thought enough of it that it made this card No. 200.

But I have looked at Kirby and his oversized bat repeatedly over the years, and the first thing I think of is not "get a load of that bat" or "what a great card" or anything like that. The thing I think of is the thing I thought of the first time I pulled this card:

"I know I've seen this picture before."

It's actually a picture from a Sports Illustrated shoot -- the 1992 baseball preview edition, to be specific, and the cover photo, to be exact.

My first thought when I noticed the similarity was "how could Topps do that?" I knew the power of Sports Illustrated and how their photos were the most familiar and interesting sports photos in the world. How could Topps just swipe a photo -- a cover photo, at that -- from Sports Illustrated?

Well, as the years went on, I figured out that Topps doesn't exactly produce its own photos, that it makes deals with photographers all the time, and this is probably what happened with the '93 Kirby Puckett photo.

It just seemed so odd to me that it would be a photo that had already appeared all over every living room and doctor's office for more than a year.

But it turns out it's not the only example of the relationship between SI and a card company. Or, make that an SI photographer and a card company.

The person who took the Puckett photo for Sports Illustrated is Ronald C. Modra. Modra is a famous sports photographer who worked for Sports Illustrated for 23 years and his work appeared on more than 70 SI covers. He's photographed just about every sport there is, but he's most famous for his baseball work.

As I was tracking background on the Puckett photo, I noticed that Modra's work has appeared on other baseball cards, too -- ones you know and love.

This card gets a lot of credit for being one of the best photos in the 1991 Topps set. It's a Ronald Modra photo.

It comes from the photo shoot for this cover:

It's not exactly the same photo, but it's from the same shoot. And all you have to do is go to Ronald Modra's site, click on "gallery," click on the "action" tab and go to photo No. 48, and you'll see another Santiago photo in nearly the same pose from that shoot.

Modra put out a book of his photo work, which Sports Illustrated profiled a couple of months ago.

I noticed one of the photos right away.

It's a click away from this card:

And then I saw something familiar in another photo.

It comes from the same shoot as this card:

And this photo, has to be related to this card:

And this photo, connected to this card:

I have to admit, I feel a little bit duped.

I -- and a lot of other collectors -- have been giving Topps (or Donruss) credit for these great photos when we should be crediting the person who took them, Ronald Modra.

How many times have I said "what a great photo -- great job, Topps!" when the picture, or a picture from the same photo shoot, had already appeared in a publication a year or more earlier?

This doesn't mean I wish that these photos didn't appear on cards. Of course, I do. And good for the photographer arranging some sort of deal to get those pictures on cardboard.

But it all goes back to what I thought when I first saw this card:

Aren't you going to explain this?

You just show Kirby Puckett with a giant, Babe Ruth-model, novelty bat and you don't say nothing?

A little blurb on the back would have been so much more helpful. Something like, "This photo was taken during a Sports Illustrated cover photo shoot by photographer Ronald C. Modra."

You know, credit where credit is due.

What I guess I should have been doing all these years is not saying "great photo by Topps (or Donruss)" but "great photo selection by Topps (or Donruss)."

And adding a thank you to Mr. Modra for all those memorable baseball cards.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Road trip math

Three weeks ago, I had to go on a little road trip and I would be out of town for a few days without my cards.

I hate that.

So, fortunately, an envelope showed up in the mail from Dime Box Nick just before I was about to embark, and I threw it in the car with all of the luggage. I knew right then and there that I would be opening that envelope on the way.

Now, before you get all judgy, know that, yes, I did open the envelope while I was driving, but I did it when I was in the middle of such thick traffic that I could have taken up sewing right there behind the wheel. I wasn't going anywhere -- might as well look at some cards.

As I sat there, sifting through cards in the driver's seat, I noticed 20 items. Of those 20 items, I calculated 10 that I needed. "Hey, that's pretty good!" I thought. "Exactly half!" Then I frantically clutched the wheel because we had started moving again.

Unfortunately, this was just road trip math and very very sloppy. It turns out I needed just 9 of the cards. The card above is a dupe. Who would have figured one of the silver signature parallels would be a dupe? You know what this means don't you? It means I have seven of the base card Fun Pack Mike Piazza checklist just sitting in the dupes box, when I actually need one of them a binder. This is infuriating.

But still, nine is pretty good coming straight from a dime box unannounced.

So let's see what made the cut and what I was looking at there behind the wheel in the middle of Rochester when I could have been texting.

Probably the fanciest card in the envelope. This is a card that remembers Ramon Martinez's no-hitter. But it's not just a memory, it's a GOLDEN memory. The 1990s and their gold, man.

Wave goodbye to colored parallels in the base set. I am wondering if the colored parallel is just taking a one-year holiday and will return next year. Mr. Maholm, meanwhile, is never returning to the Dodgers. This I know.

The lone non-Dodger need in the envelope. I think a blinded the driver in the next lane over with this card.

Sticker Pedro and Canadian Pedro. Guerrero is a profane laugh riot on Twitter. I love how 50 percent of his tweets are ripping on the Giants. Comical. Pretty much everything I would say, too. Except with a few less f-bombs.

This is a Topps Fusion card, not a Bowman's Best card. What a weird set. There is no way I categorize this correctly in the binders.

Another Hometown Heroes need down with Curtain Call Gibby. Have I mentioned that this needs to be a set every year? What else are you good for, Panini? And don't tell me Donruss.

The road trip count ended with a couple of Eric Karros items.

This "card" may look weird to all of you who aren't Fleer Sports Illustrated aficionados. But that's because it's not really a card ...

... It's a mini-poster!

Of course, we card collectors can't keep it that way. Everything has to be compartmentalized and restricted into a page in a binder.

Yup. I'll be pretending it's a card.

Card companies have us trained so well. Like dogs in the circus.

Last card is one of those unlicensed UltraPro items. This is actually the second of five in the Eric Karros UltraPro set.

He can go with his more unconventional buddies in that set:


You'll be happy to know, I reached my destination in one piece and the cards were intact, too, although they flew through the inside of the card during a couple of hectic traffic situations later (I swear I'm driving in India some days).

I have another road trip coming up soon.

I hope there's another envelope I can bring along.

Those are long trips you know, and you don't expect me to just drive do you?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Night Owl's all-time Topps set countdown (48-45)

I want to have a place for this countdown when it's all done. In the next day or so (again, it's very, very busy so no promises), I hope to create something on the sidebar or a new tab that will give an abbreviated look at the countdown. You can always go to the long-winded posts if you like, but the sidebar feature will allow you to look at all the sets in order quickly.

OK, so far, this countdown has been fairly straightforward. The sets shown I think most expected them to be in those spots.

This begins the period where I shake things up a little -- not necessarily this post, but ones in the future. You'll see an inkling of the shake-up in this particular post, maybe a set you would have ranked higher. But I'm saving some of the "surprises" for later.

The four sets featured here range from the loud-and-annoying to the flat-out boring. But each of the sets have their own small assets -- just not enough of them to keep me awake.

And before I put everyone to sleep myself, here is the latest edition of the countdown:

48. 2010 Topps

If the MLB Network -- the part where ex-jocks yuck it up on the set, shouting without any regard for anyone attempting to learn anything about the game, bellowing like they're back in the locker room -- could be a set, it would be 2010 Topps.

2010 Topps is a LOUD set. It's definitely colorful. It's also bold, big and in your face.

Take a look at the photos used for this set. Here's a sampling of one page:

What do you see?

It's packed with nonstop action. That's what 2010 Topps is -- nonstop action. Players doing. They're throwing pitches, swinging bats, bolting out of the box, leaping against the wall, charging from the dugout.

But it's not just that. I think 2010 Topps might set the record for the most open-mouthed players in a set. There are players yelling and pointing to the sky, jumping up and down and thrusting their fists into the air, slamming teammates on the helmet and patting each other on the back. There is also a great deal of focus on the crowds in the background.

None of this is inherently bad -- who doesn't like a good action shot or players showing emotion? But it's On Every Single Card. Faces contorted, grimacing, grinning madly.

Baseball isn't like that all the time.

Watch a commercial on the MLB Network and it's like the 2010 Topps set come to life. It's all action and emotion with fans cheering loudly. They want baseball to be a football game.

But baseball is baseball, not football.

Baseball is filled with down time and quiet time. Guys on the bench chewing sunflower seeds. Outfielders waiting for a pitching change. Fans ordering cotton candy. Batters stepping out of the box (well, not so much of that anymore). Baseball is ebb and flow, serenity mixed with the height of excitement.

I like my baseball card set to reflect that. I don't need ACTION ALL THE TIME. I don't need EXCITEMENT ALL THE TIME. I don't need JOCULARITY ALL THE TIME. I can deal with quiet conversation and the thoughtful exchange of ideas. And I can deal with a pitcher looking in for the sign and a first baseman chatting it up with the runner. There's nothing wrong with showing that on a baseball card.

2010 Topps misses that. It is the Bro-tastic set of all sets. It's too full of itself to care about anything that's not going off in its face.

Topps added an extra element to that by making the team names on the front as large as possible. This was perceived as a dig at Upper Deck, who lost its MLB license prior to the sets coming out. That's a rather loud and nasty "ha! ha!" to leave on your card for all of time.

One other drawback to a set that I rather foolishly completed that year. A lot of the photos have an odd, filtered look to them. The faces are artificially lightened in some cases.

And the less said about the rookie cup that debuted and died this year the better.

The good stuff? Well, the backs look nice, with a well-positioned, different picture than the front. The franchise history cards are terrific, with a mix of past greats, stadium landmarks or famous moments.

And, my favorite base set insert of the last 10 years appeared in 2010 Topps. (Still need to land all the Tales cards from the Update set).

Like those jocks you see barking on MLB Network or in the locker room, 2010 Topps has some talent. It's lost in too much loudness, bluster and ego, but if you look at it with the goal of searching for something positive, you'll find it.

Know what I mean, bro?

47. 1966 Topps

Thank goodness for this year's Heritage, or you might have seen 1966 Topps buried in the 50s in this countdown.

Two factors conspired to pull this set up a few spaces. One is the aforementioned 2015 Topps Heritage. There is just something about seeing modern players in a spruced-up old design that keeps me from being mad at the old set.

See what I mean? I don't know what it is, but it makes me suddenly want to buy some 1966 Topps.

The other factor in seeing these cards in a different light was stumbling across a few 1966 cards at a card show last year. They were part of a deal on some vintage sets, and although I didn't know 1966 was included in the stacks of cards, there it was -- ready for me to judge.

OK, position scrawled on the bottom aside, that's not too bad. It's bright and colorful. It's a nice-looking picture.

The downside is Mike Shannon is the best-of-the-best in this set. There are a lot of cap-less people in 1966 Topps, and some of the color schemes are distracting. The yellow-on-red of the Dodgers' cards has bothered me since I was young.

But the most bothersome aspect, for me, is that team-name slash in the upper left. It's in the way. I don't like designs that are "in the way" (see 2008 Topps). Although it's not as obtrusive as other designs (we'll see another violator very soon), it still forced Topps to select certain pictures or move the photo to accommodate that slash that looks lousy anyway. I see a word slash like that and I think something's on sale. It should say "PRICE BUSTER!" or "CHECK THIS OUT!" It shouldn't say "Dodgers" or "Pirates".

The overall design -- a strip across the bottom and a slash at the top -- is as simplistic as anything Topps had done since 1961. This look was quite a comedown from the previous year, 1965 Topps. And I can't help but look at it and think, "try harder."

From the moment I saw the reverse of the Sandy Koufax card in this set, I've enjoyed the backs. The black-on-red type has always looked pretty cool. And extra points for including a cartoon.

1966 Topps doesn't give you a lot, which is why there wasn't much enthusiasm for the 2015 Heritage set. After decades of much more colorful and interesting designs, today's collector wants a little more than what '66 Topps offered.

46. 1958 Topps

Got some news for you, kids. Not every set from the '50s is a great one.

Sure, the subject matter is top-notch. But this is the '50s, we need more than subject matter. Every '50s set has subject matter. If they don't have Campanella, they have Mays.

After two years of killer sets (you can lump '55 Topps in there if you like to make it three years, although I've never been crazy about it), Topps removed the backgrounds, cut out the players -- some more successfully than others -- and crammed them into 2 1/2-by-3 1/2-inch cardboard, again some more successfully than others.

I don't like many sets that lack backgrounds. I need grass and dirt in my cardboard diet. And 1956 Topps and 1957 Topps are filled with the glory and splendor that is a baseball field. BUT THERE IS NO BASEBALL FIELD IN 1958 TOPPS!!!!

This is a tragedy.

Sure, the combo cards feature real pictures with real backgrounds, but that's just not enough.

You might think it odd that someone who loves color as much as I do would have so many problems with 1958 Topps, but the color doesn't overcome the issues I have with this set. For one, virtually all of the Dodgers have yellow backgrounds. Yellow! Do you know how much I've made fun of 1991 Fleer for being yellow? Not cool, Topps, not cool.

Then there is the weird combination of giant heads and full-body poses.

Topps could barely get Clem Labine's chin in the card. But in other cards, you can see the players' feet.

That, coupled with the scrapbook feel of this set, leads to a very uneven collection of cards. And then you have mistakes like this:

I'd like to say that this is the only example of a batter missing his bat in this set, but it's not. Someone went crazy with the scissors.

Topps was still in its childhood years in 1958, so something like this is to be expected. But the thing is, they produced some of their greatest sets in their infancy, and then followed that with something that looks like they cut out of magazines and pasted on construction paper.

Maybe that's the charm of this set, but it doesn't do it for me.

I do like some of the color choices for the backgrounds, just because they represent the '50s so well -- seafoam green and salmon pink, those are great cards.

Also, although most of the poses are lame and the set is full of head shots, '58 Topps can produce some terrific ones. Like so:

Wish there was more of that.

Also, before I forget, the All-Star cards in 1958 Topps -- the ones where bright yellow stars shower down on the player featured -- are terrific.

The back adds a couple of interesting comic aspects. One is the card number, which is featured on the face of a cartoon baseball head. The other is the comic is squeezed between the bio and the stats. It's different, although a little jumbled (it doesn't help that most of the cartoon figures in '58 Topps are the "big galoot" type.

In short, I think '58 Topps gets more credit than it deserves because it's a set from the '50s. Some of my opinion may be a matter of taste, but I say '58 ain't so great.

45. 1969 Topps

I am glad I didn't collect 1969 Topps as a kid.

I know people who did don't feel that way, and that's fine, but '69 Topps is such a handicapped set that I looked at it with pity the first time I saw it as a kid. What's with all the blacked-out caps? And don't the other guys own any caps?

It was all I saw. And I didn't even know about the behind-the-scenes players' union issues, which forced 1969 Topps to reuse pictures from 1968 or dig into its archives for photos that were often three, four or five years old. The set is filled with outdated photos! That ain't good. Every time I see the 1969 Hank Aaron card, which looks just like the 1968 Hank Aaron card, I get sad. As for the blacked-out caps, well, 1969 was forced to deal with baseball expansion, too.

Also, this is another set where design infringes on the photo. In this case, it's the player name and position ball in the upper left or right.

Because of this ball, Topps often shifted the player's image over to the left or the right. Jim Lonborg, for example, is left-justified to avoid the pink ball looming in the sky. This might not be the greatest example because the shifting allows us to see the wonderful Gilbert's Gin ad, but there are many, many other cards like this, which I've written about in the past.

Despite all of the above, some nifty cards sneaked into 1969 Topps.

I have always loved this card.

If done right -- player centered, with a current picture, and a cap on his head with the logo in full view -- '69 Topps presents some wonderful-looking cards on par with other "clean" sets like 1967 Topps.

I don't mind the pink at all. That's one of the best Topps backs of the 1960s right there. Love the large cartoon.

Also, these are phenomenal. If there was ever an excuse to collect manager cards only, this is it.

1969 Topps isn't to blame for many of its issues -- you can only do so much when you can't get current photos of the players and the major leagues is expanding by four teams -- but final appearance is all I'm judging here.

Good effort against all odds, '69 Topps. That's about all I've got.

Up next: More sets that you think are worse or better than I do.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Silly collector, cards are for kids

I received this card from The Lost Collector a week or two ago. He said Sports Illustrated For Kids arrived unexpectedly when he ordered Sports Illustrated. And, of course, we all know Sports Illustrated For Kids means ... CARDS!!!

This is actually one of my three big beefs with Sports Illustrated.

I shall cover them in order:

1. I have ordered a subscription to Sports Illustrated four or five times in my life. Not once did I get one of the cool free promotional items that SI was always offering on those ubiquitous TV commercials. I didn't get the free football phone or the sneaker phone or the binoculars or any of the video cassette retrospectives. I think once I received a sweatshirt, with "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED" branded on it, so I could look especially doofy. It seems that when I was ready to order Sports Illustrated, that's the exact moment all the free promotions ended.

2. Sports Illustrated just scrapped their photography staff. Yes, you heard that right. The magazine that has "Illustrated" in the title doesn't fully employ photographers anymore. This is baffling, comical, sad and enraging all at the the same time. Sports Illustrated is known for their photography. You'd think they'd put a premium on that job position. But now, all of their photography is done by free-lancers. This is the way of the world, where everyone with a smart phone thinks they just took the Best Picture Ever. But photo journalism is and should be a respected job title. It is a craft that not just anyone can do. But thanks for taking a stand, SI.

3. Why aren't there cards in regular Sports Illustrated? When I first found out that SI was sticking cards in Sports Illustrated for Kids, I was offended. SI -- which has done large stories on the hobby in the past -- is not taking us adult collectors seriously just like mom, your girlfriend and everyone else (full credit: they did publish a few swimsuit model cards for one of their swimsuit issues).

How many collectors have subscribed to Sports Illustrated For Kids just for the cards? I know I thought about it a few times.

I probably would have been more serious if the cards were a bit more substantial. They're perforated and flimsy just like those cards you used to get in Baseball Card Magazine.

But I DO appreciate a brand new 2015 Kershaw for the collection (did they really print at least 401 different cards?)

Sports Illustrated used to be the ultimate career goal for me. I've said a number of times over the years that I would love to write for a sports magazine and Sports Illustrated would be the pinnacle.

That's not much of a goal anymore, due to age and something called the internet. Magazines don't have the same hold on the public that they once did.

Also, this blog allows me to write whatever I want, and as in depth as I want. Sports Illustrated could never do that.

But they do have one thing I want:

The cards.

Still want to try one of those sneaker phones out, too.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

... THIS is the best part

At some point, probably during early high school years, my half-assed dream of playing baseball for a living died between wind sprints.

"Do I really want to be doing this? I can't be doing this. I don't want to be doing this!" was basically the thought process behind the labored breathing.

Not only did I realize that I wasn't good enough to play baseball -- too short and no arm in comparison to my peers -- but I simply didn't have the desire to go through the physical demands of playing a sport on a regular basis. Coach wasn't buying "but, but, but I already run during the game!"

Sadly, I was only good enough and interested enough for the schoolyard.

But so what? I had other interests.

Those interests, unlike baseball, were substantial enough to find a career. I could write, or at least people told me I could. And that led to a career in writing. I could also play music, and although that never led to a career, the combination of the two -- writing and music -- has been the fantasy of my adult life. Baseball was the fantasy of my childhood life, but making music, well, damn, I think I could do that to this day.

This is why, when I think about it, music cards are more in line with my realistic interests than baseball cards. It's just that baseball cards are so much more available.

Several posts ago, I whined about how there weren't any music card sets around these days. That's when Stubby decided I needed some cards. He sent the baseball cards that you saw in the last post, but the best part of the package was definitely the music cards.

Did you see the George Clinton Funkadelic trading card? Do you promise to funk? The whole funk? Definitely the best part.

We'll get to exactly what that wonderful item is in a moment. But first this:

Stubby sent three packs of each. They are the ubiquitous Rock Cards and Pro Set MusiCards from the dawn of the 1990s.

I opened them and I am still weak from the hairspray fumes.

I don't recall opening any Rock Cards back in the day. They were devoted to the heavy rockers of the time, which in 1990 means hair bands.

There is definite repetition and favoritism in this set, which is why I pulled:

Six different AC/DC cards

Five different Slaughter cards

Five different Poison cards

And four different Skid Row cards

It's the usual glam rock assortment from the period: Motley Crue, Winger, Cinderella, plus more hardcore Anthrax and Megadeth, and tributes to the oldies like Grateful Dead.

I like the cards because they're simple and colorful. I'm a little too lighthearted for some of the music, but, yeah, I wish they had cards like this again.

The other packs of cards, I did open back in 1991. Pro Set Musicards covered a wide assortment of music, which is why you got:

Rock and pop rock.

Pop princesses.

Early '90s rap.

And my favorite part of the set, the Legends.

The set numbered and color-coded the cards by genre, which is both helpful and annoying. It'd be nice if it was a random mix of anything.

The part that was a surprise were the famous concert cards.

For whatever reason, I didn't pull any of those back then, but these are great.

The problem with both the Rock Cards and the MusiCards is although they hold great nostalgic value, they're like typical junk wax of the period: they're everywhere.

Which is why I fell in love with the other cards that Stubby sent. Let's see Mr. Clinton again:

This is a promotional card produced by Warner Brothers, apparently sent to radio stations with records that WB wanted stations to play.

The set harks from 1979 and features WB artists of the time. Here is Stubby's take on the set, which he wrote in a comment on my post about my love for music cards:

There WAS such a set. Its out there. And it's "vintage". And by "vintage", I don't mean the 1940s or something like that. I mean "right in your wheelhouse vintage", as in 1979. It included such artists as the B-52s, Chick Corea, Donna Fargo, Sly & The Family Stone, Deodato, The Sanford Townsend Band, Ashford and Simpson, Nicolette Larson, Ry Cooder, Fleetwood Mac, T.G. Sheppard, Pat Metheny, Maureen McGovern, ZZ Top, Jimi Hendrix and on and on and on. And it's got beautiful color borders (not quite '75 Topps beautiful color borders; more like Star Co. color borders). I've never seen a checklist for the full set, though one must exist, so I don't have any idea how many cards are in the set. Nicolette Larson is #75, so there were at least that many. If you look at the names I mentioned, you might be able to figure out the common denominator. They were all Warner Brothers artists of the era. And, somewhat sadly, it was a "promotional only" set. I was working in radio at the time and what WB would do was send a small pack (like the see-through packs you used to get in some food products) with 5 or 10 cards (or however many it was) along with whatever records they were pushing at the time. They were random; it wasn't like the Rock stations only got Rock cards or the Jazz stations only got Jazz artists, etc. And most radio stations did what mine did--Kept the records and tossed the cards right in the garbage.

And there's the card back. Look, there's even baseball analogies in it! (Not all the cards read like that). The cards are numbered, are your typical 2 1/2-by-3 1/2 size, and are about as thick as a 2015 Topps base card, although not slick at all.

These cards are awesome, both because of their rare, vintage quality, but also because of the wide variety of artists and the fact that these people were making music when I was first getting acquainted with what was popular.

That's most of them, not all. They span quite a few genres from funk to Brazilian jazz to country to pop, folk, R&B and, of course, comedy.

And if you don't know the names, you probably know their music (a Lauren Wood song is featured prominently in the movie "Pretty Woman"), which is the point of me collecting music cards like this.

For all of the timeless traits baseball features -- and it's a major reason why I love the game so much -- it's not music. Music has the lasting power to remain long after the baseball memories fade, and music shapes itself into so many situations that baseball can't. It is an everlasting gift to humanity.

Often, when I dream, music plays during the dreams, and when I wake up, it's not a song I have ever heard before. The music is always different. Sometimes, I go downstairs in a sleepy state and force myself to try to play it on my daughter's keyboard.

I don't know how common that is, but that's how in tune with music I am. Songwriting would not be a stretch at all.

That doesn't mean I'm going to chuck baseball card collecting and start songwriting. Not right away anyway.

But I will be looking for more of these cards. Because the older I get, it's music that's in my wheelhouse, not baseball.