Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: Topps’ Photo Retouching Skills

A recent post at Mets Guy in Michigan concentrated on what may be the worst Mets-related baseball card of all time (and perhaps the worst baseball card of all time, period): a Hostess-produced card for Rusty Staub in which the photo retouching is abysmal. I won’t recount the story here; just click on this link and marvel at how horrible it is (and the interesting hypothesis forwarded to explain its hideousness).

The post also touched on a longtime feature of baseball cards: the hastily altered player photo. Back in the days of no Photoshop and longer production schedules, it wasn’t always possible for the baseball card people to get a picture of a player in his new duds if he was traded in the offseason. Or even if he was traded the year before, since back then, most baseball card photos were taken during the previous season. And by my own amateur sleuthing, most of them were taken in either New York or LA. So if were swapped midseason and never made another trip to either coast, there might be no pics of you in your current uni.

69_rusty.jpgFor a good chunk of the 1960s, Topps (the biggest baseball card producer) didn’t much care for verisimiltude. If a player was suddenly traded before the cards were made, they just used a generic, hatless picture, or blacked out his hat entirely, as evidenced by Rusty Staub’s 1969 Topps card (seen to your right). Rusty went from the Astros to the Expos in a very late offseason trade (January 22), and since Montreal had yet to play a game, Topps–rather than find out what the Expos’ uniforms might look like–scraped away the Houston logo on his helmet and called it a day.

Beginning in the early 1970s, Topps either decided this method was not worthy of their standards or hired some very ambitious/anal art directors. Because at this time, they began to document a player’s new home to the best of their abilities–as ham-fisted and transparent as those efforts might appear.

When I was a kid and mired in a baseball card obsession, I bought a whole box of cards from 1977 for like five bucks. Why 1977? Because (a) that’s the year I was born, and (b) it was the first year the Blue Jays and Mariners played, which at the time was the last MLB expansion. This historical fact fascinated me for dumb little kid reasons.

Topps wanted to document the freshman year for those two teams, of course. But since neither had yet taken the field, they had to improvise. In some cases, they did so admirably. In others, not so much.

Even as a young’un, I could tell something was off about some of these cards. I even recognized bad paint jobs on some of these unfortunate players. It was necessary for the aforementioned Toronto and Seattle squads, since this was their inaugural year, but they weren’t the only teams treated to some paintbrushery.

Thumbnail image for 77_bluejays_hartenstein.jpgThis card for the immortal Chuck Hartenstein is typical of the lot. The artist did a halfway decent job of reproducing Toronto’s logo, though s/he overdid it on the blue jay’s light blue head feathers. A little too long there, Rembrandt.

Thumbnail image for 77_bluejays_vuckovich.jpgThis card, for future Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich, shows no signs of the intimidating presence he’d bring to the mound in later years. But it does feature a weirdly small Blue Jays logo, as if the thing shrunk in the wash.

77_mariners_broberg.jpgSeattle, Toronto’s fellow expansion team, had a much simpler logo, but the Topps artists seemed to struggle with such simplicity. Check out Pete Broberg’s hat and its oddly elongated trident handle. Also, check out the suave air surrounding Mr. Broberg. He’s got a Robert Urich quality to him. Fathers of the Pacific Northwest, I hope you remembered to lock up your daughters when Pete came to town!

77_mariners_pagan.jpgTeammate Dave Pagan was not quite as debonair. I don’t know if it’s the lump of chaw in his mouth, or his vague resemblance to Jon Glazer, or his disturbingly chunky, unbalanced Mariners logo.

77_cardinals_caldwell.jpgBut again, it wasn’t just the Mariners and Blue Jays who received this treatment. Check out Mike Caldwell’s altered gear. This is actually a pretty good touch-up, particularly on his uniform collar. But the black outline around the St. Louis logo is a dead giveaway. Also, I’m pretty sure he stole that ‘stache from Goose Gossage.

77_rangers_campaneris.jpgThis Bert Campaneris card isn’t too bad either, but the off-kilter, uneven “T” on his Rangers cap ruins the illlusion.

77_as_helms.jpgThis adjusted pic for Tommy Helms, on the other hand, does not pass muster. You can literally see the brushstrokes on his shirt. And the artist’s attempt to portray shading and sunlight on his helmet failed miserably. An ambitious failure, but a failure nonetheless.

77_gamble.jpgFinally, here’s one that baffles me. Maybe it won’t translate to the web, but when I hold this Oscar Gamble card up to the light, it looks like his Yankee cap has been painted on. This is especially strange because Gamble spent the entire 1976 season with New York, the pic looks like it was taken at Yankee Stadium, and his shirt appears to be real. Did Topps decide his hat wasn’t black enough and darkened it by hand? Or is this just an optical illusion? Any ideas?