Baseball card collections evolved in 2020 as pandemic pause inspired creativity, charity, reflectionDecember 21, 2020
Derek Harlan, like most sports fans across the country, watched every single spellbinding second of the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” this spring. By the time ESPN’s landmark series started airing in May, the coronavirus pandemic had gripped the nation and people were only leaving their houses for the essentials.
Spurred by the Bulls nostalgia — he grew up in Southern Illinois as a huge Jordan fan — Harlan couldn’t resist looking around on eBay to see what Jordan memorabilia and cards might be available, only to find the ship had already sailed on anything reasonably priced. The good/bad thing about surfing eBay is the suggested items, the ones that send you down into potentially expensive rabbit holes.
One of the suggested items that popped up on Harlan’s screen was Expos-related, and he clicked. Up came an Andre Dawson card in those glorious Montreal team colors. He clicked again. More Dawson cards. More clicks. More suggestions. More temptations. More ideas.
Harlan was raised as a Cardinals fan in Mount Vernon, Mo., about an hour east of St. Louis, and he still lives in nearby Centralia, but his Expos connection is strong. One of his good friends from Mount Vernon, Alex Wellmaker, was an Expos fan, though nobody really knows how that affinity started in a region where pretty much everyone is either a Cardinals or Cubs loyalist.
Wellmaker took his own life in 2015.
“It shook all of us up. No one really knew what to think about it,” Harlan said. “He was always just quirky, silly Alex with us. I struggled with it for a long time. I’m a high school guidance counselor now, and I deal with kids all the time who are dealing with things. And here a good friend of mine was obviously struggling and I didn’t even realize it. I beat myself up for a while with everything.”
Because of Wellmaker’s influence — and because that Expos logo is legendary and awesome — Harlan had purchased a couple of Expos hats and shirts over the years.
But during the pandemic, a time when a break from the normal routine naturally led to introspection, Harlan decided to build a collection in honor of his friend. Dawson was one of Wellmaker’s favorite Expos players, so Harlan set out on a quest to collect every primary mainstream card of Dawson in an Expos uniform — not All-Stars or other subsets — graded a perfect 10 by one of the grading services. The 1981 Topps card was his first purchase, followed by the 1984 Topps.
It’s a collection still in progress. Dawson played for the Expos from 1976 to 1986, and the early cards — 1977-79 — are pricey. And trying to find a PSA 10 card of any player from the 1986 Topps set, with that black border up top, is damn near impossible. But as with most worthwhile quests, the journey is the best part.
“I found myself, as I was looking for them, thinking, ‘Alex, man, throw me a PSA 10 1986 Topps Andre Dawson, if you don’t mind,’” he said with a laugh. “It was somewhat therapeutic, and that’s how it grew.”
The two became friends though a fantasy baseball league that started in 1991, the Mount Vernon Rotisserie League. That first year, they kept stats by hand, using info from The Sporting News and Baseball Weekly. They added an NBA league in 1992 and an NFL league in 1993. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch even wrote a piece on the group at the time.
The baseball and football leagues are still going strong, nearly three decades later. (Writer’s note: I was in those two MVRL leagues for close to a decade starting in 1998, joining through a mutual friend, so I know both Derek and Alex.)
Harlan is a three-time MVRL baseball champ and a two-time football champ; the bonds of friendship created by the group are the most enduring part, though. And this collection helps keep Harlan connected with a friend who isn’t at the draft anymore.
“Every morning and night,” Harlan said, “I type in ‘PSA 10 Andre Dawson’ and I see if there’s anything new on there, and every time I do that, I think of Alex. So at least two times a day, I think of Alex. It’s been good for me.”
Inspiration and creation in a year of uncertainty
The trading card hobby grew at incredible rates during 2020, as people stayed home during the pandemic and used newfound free time to rediscover their childhood love of collecting.
But not everybody dove headfirst into nostalgia, buying ridiculous amounts of unopened Junk Wax packs (yeah, that’s me), or took the investment route of purchasing the cards of only premium players across sports, such as Patrick Mahomes, Mike Trout or Giannis Antetokounmpo, or restarted some other standard-ish collection.
The pandemic also inspired charity in the hobby. Creativity was reignited. The hobby inspired introspection and it inspired action. I’ve been lucky to see dozens and dozens of examples of these unique and creative collections — almost all deeply personal, like Harlan’s Dawson assemblage — started during the pandemic, and I’m going to share some of those with you.
Tony Frye, the founder of @HeroHabit, decided to collect one A’s card from each Topps flagship set — the primary Topps set of the year, not offshoots like Stadium Club, Finest or Gypsy Queen. Frye, who grew up a diehard A’s fan, is up to 65 of the 69 sets. “I’m trying to find cards that either showcased a lot of the uniform of the era or of the Oakland coliseum before Mt. Davis ruined it.”
Donald Fandango, an on-air personality at 105.7 The Point in St. Louis for 18 years, decided to attempt a collection of every card for his favorite player, Willie McGee.“Watching him run from first to third with that GLIDE is one of my favorite baseball memories.” He started with McGee’s 1983 rookie cards and is up to 27 total so far. Inspired by the collection, his wife even bought a Willie McGee Cameo video for Christmas, and McGee delivered with a six-minute video. “Best gift of all-time!”
Matt Skulley’s quest is to attempt to collect at least one card for every player who has laced up the skates for — or been drafted by — the Nashville Predators. They’re all Nashville cards, unless they were short-timers who never had a card in a Predators uniform. In that case, any card of the player will do. He’s collected 43.75 percent of the 288 Predators on his list.
Jamie Thomas is a sports artist who has done work for Topps and Upper Deck. He started creating 1/1 hand-painted and drawn cards during the pandemic, and the response has been so overwhelmingly positive that he’s strictly doing commission work until he gets caught up. He’s created custom packaging, a branded hologram and a certificate of authenticity that goes out with every card.
Creating card art for causes
The idea of cutting up a Wade Boggs rookie card would make most baseball card collectors cringe in horror. The 1983 Donruss rookie Jason Schwartz owned, though, wasn’t in mint condition, and it certainly wasn’t graded. In fact, it had a coffee stain along the border. It was, honestly, pretty worthless — relatively speaking — in that condition.
But Schwartz had an idea. He’d been creating custom cards for a couple of months, cutting out his favorite players from the 1980s and ’90s and giving them new life with an assist from various types of glitter paper and other accents. The first upgraded card was a 1981 Fleer Dave Parker, one of his all-time favorites. He’d given a couple away to friends and posted most of his creations to Twitter, becoming part of a card-art community that grew by leaps and bounds during the early months of the pandemic.
He wanted to do more, though.
“With the George Floyd protests, that was a time in 2020 — so much happened this year, it’s hard to believe it’s all in the same year — where I was challenged,” he said. “I was like, ‘OK, Jason. Are you doing anything to make the world a better place, other than potentially complaining on social media about the state of the world? Are you actually doing anything that helps real people?’ The thought I had was that the best way to make a difference in the world isn’t necessarily to go out by yourself but to look at organizations that are already doing good things and help them. That really pushed me to make a lot more cards.”
So he created his custom Boggs rookie, with the help of red, gold and silver glitter paper — he called it a 1/1 “glitterfractor” — and made it available to the highest bidder on Twitter (he’s @HeavvJ28). The catch: The winner had to donate money to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, a landmark baseball institution hit hard by the pandemic-necessitated shutdown.
The Boggs sold for $45, and Schwartz — he’s dubbed his one-man operation Heavy J Studios — hasn’t looked back. To date, he’s helped raise $9,147 that’s been distributed to 23 different museums/causes/events. Schwartz hasn’t actually seen any of that money; the way it works is the buyer donates the money to the cause, takes a screenshot of the confirmation and sends that to Schwartz. Then, Heavy J Studios sends out a package including the card, a certificate of authenticity and a hand-written letter of thanks for the donation.
Most cards on his site have a suggested donation of $30 or $40 to a specific cause. Sometimes, people come to him with causes, and he’s not going to say no. Donated money to a good cause is, well, donated money to a good cause.
This August, Schwartz shifted most of his donations toward the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, S.C. The physical museum building — a must-visit baseball site, I promise — was uprooted and moved in 2019, with plans to reopen in 2020. The pandemic thwarted those plans, and now the hoped-for reopening date is sometime in the spring of 2021. No visitors meant fewer memberships purchased and very little gift-shop revenue, and that was a big problem for the small museum with tremendous future plans.
To date, Heavy J cards have helped raise $1,625 for the museum.
“He isn’t just asking other people to make donations. He matches them a lot,” said Dan Wallach, the executive director of the museum. “He’s purchased a membership and multiple T-shirts from our gift shop, and the gift shops of many other organizations. He is absolutely walking the walk. Jason has been a big part of us surviving 2020, even though our physical location has been closed all year.”
Schwartz has helped raise $3,365 for the Josh Gibson Foundation and almost $1,341 for the Negro Leagues Museum. The Dave Parker Foundation has been given $985 and the Kirk Gibson Foundation has received $591; both are focused on Parkinson’s research and education.
Heavy J Studios — yes, the official name is plural even though there’s just one person and one location — is a labor of love for Schwartz. He sits there at his dining room table in suburban Chicago with his supplies and a pair of scissors he brought home when his office closed for pandemic reasons this spring, and he cuts everything by hand. He used, at one point, a Cricut machine that cut the glitter paper to size for him, but that didn’t last long.
“It’s kind of zen, to sit there with scissors,” Schwartz said. “It’s like Karate Kid, when Daniel and Mr. Miyagi take the little scissors to the banzai. When I take the scissors to the card, it’s really relaxing. It’s a good way to unwind. When I was doing the Cricut, it wasn’t zen anymore. I just felt like I was mass-producing these little rectangles.”
So Schwartz cuts the glitter paper by hand, again. He comes up with unique designs for each card. Some are simple and take less than an hour to put together. Some are more complicated; his creation using the infamous 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken card — you know the one — took nearly 12 hours. The cards sit between a couple of ceramic coasters, under two heavy soup cans, as the glue dries.
“I’m harvesting my Junk Wax collection,” Schwartz said. “And these cards, as much as they meant to me growing up and others my age, the first thing we think of now is that they’re worthless, or how much they used to be worth. So to take a 1985 Donruss Don Mattingly and turn it into a 1-of-1 piece takes this card that used to be so special, but turned worthless through overproduction, and kind of makes it special and rare again. There’s something that’s redemptive about kind of rescuing these guys from baseball-card purgatory, almost giving them their due. A Don Mattingly can be one of someone’s favorite baseball cards again.”
Schwartz isn’t alone with his passions of creating card art and helping others. It’s a bit overwhelming when you look behind the curtain at just how many talented and kind-hearted people have jumped into this area of the hobby. The quality and variety of card art that’s being produced is rather stunning.
“Everybody’s supportive of each other. A lot of us will send our work to the others for free, a lot are using their art to raise money for charity or good causes, helping with medical bills,” Schwartz said. “It’s been an important way to maintain sanity in a crazy year. It’s also just been a way to use our love for baseball cards to feel like we’re making a difference in the world and helping people who need help. So to connect with the most generous, caring, altruistic and creative slice of the hobby has really made me feel at home.”
For an idea of how the community has banded together to help those in need, check out these hashtags on Twitter: #Rippinforthecure, #4LaurensNoggin, #CeliacAwareness. There are lots of other examples to be found with the #CardArt hashtag, too.
“Those are two terrific guys,” Schwartz said. “Love those guys.”
Bryan’s primary area of expertise is Sharpie-altered card art — though he creates other types, too — and his set of choice is 1991 Fleer, the blindingly yellow cards that made SN’s list of the 11 worst sets of the Junk Wax Era. Bryan’s #Project1991 — inspired by Topps’ ground-breaking Project 2020, which lets artists re-imagine iconic Topps cards over the years — is a clever and oft-humorous upgrade for a set that has badly needed an upgrade for a couple of decades. Matt Close (@CardboardHero45) is his #Project1991 tag-team partner.
“I jokingly refer to it as first-grade art projects,” Bryan said of his creations. “I think of it as my passion for doodling combined with my passion for baseball/cards.”
The Project 2020 cards from Topps motivated Bailey, too, as did seeing Heavy J’s work. His first creation was a 1990 Ken Griffey Jr., that he said, looking back, was “very rough.” The middle-school language arts teacher’s current creations are anything but rough, and that improvement is a big part of this journey for the folks in the card-art community. It’s about exploring new avenues, working on a new craft and seeing positive results.
Bailey’s work incorporating old wax packs into his card art is eye-catching. Matthew Lee Rosen (@MatthewLeeRosen), an established baseball-card artist, reached out to Bailey to offer space on his website to promote and share his work, and he’s been contacted for commission work — including a 1984 Topps Dan Marino, using a 1984 Topps wax pack as a background. Safe to say that working on commissioned baseball-card art is not something Bailey would have expected to be doing back when the pandemic started.
“Card art has managed to keep me sane at times,” Bailey said. “It’s not just about the cards that have helped me get through this difficult year, but most importantly the people who continue to support me. In a year of isolation for many, card art has managed to be a project that has given others a companion.”
And, of course, these three aren’t the only folks worth mentioning, so I wanted to provide a partial list of Twitter accounts to follow if you’re interested in learning about the card-art community, as supplied by Schwartz, Bryan and Bailey. You can find many of these artists’ work at Rosen’s site.
Matthew Burke is @alloystang. He replaces card borders with real wood and raises money for suicide prevention. Josée Tellier (@MissTellier) is an Expos superfan and must-follow. Mike Lewis (@Mighty_Lark) helped raise funds for Birth Roots, a family center in Portland, Maine, that provides parenting and birthing classes for low-income families. And then there are Ben Caraher (@card_mosaics), Scott Hodges (@IamScottHodges), Justin Cousson (@justincousson), Dan Baumfeld (@thirddanart), Mike Noren (@gummyarts), Isaac Coronado (@OptimusVolts), R. Lee Johnson (@SportscardsLjs), Jason Lance (@allerassports), Mike Smith (@MrShakeCardArt), Patrick Bone (@CheahaCardworks), Todd Clark (@lunchmade) and Brian (@bsportscards). Daniel Kearsey is on Instagram at @sixtyfirststreet_tradingcards.
They are all worth your time and attention.
An integration collection
The long-gone Blockbuster Video at the corner of Olive and Shulte in suburban St. Louis was less than a mile from the house where Sandy Weintraub grew up. And when Sandy was there in the mid-1990s, usually with his dad, Ken, and his younger brother, Danny, you can bet one of them had at least one episode (sorry, one inning) of “Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns” in their hands.
Ken had grown up as a sports-obsessed fan in Buffalo, and he made sure his two boys shared his appreciation of sports — especially baseball — and understood how sports fit into the American culture. Ken Burns was often Ken Weintraub’s assistant professor, in a way.
“We probably rented each episode three or four times,” Sandy Weintraub said. “The ones that really resonated with me were about the 1940s and ’50s. My dad grew up in that era, and he loved the ’50s, especially. The Jackie Robinson episode that covers the ’40s, that has always resonated with me.”
A few months into the pandemic, as the first wave of protests swept across the country in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis and an examination of race in America was happening nationwide, Weintraub’s thoughts naturally came back to race and baseball.
“I knew Jackie Robinson’s story, and I knew about Larry Doby being the first black player in the American League, but I really didn’t know the history of how all the teams integrated,” Weintraub said. “So I was thinking about it, and I found a list of the debuts, the first black players starting in 1947.”
And that’s how the idea for his collection was born. Weintraub’s goal was to get one card of each player to break the color barrier for a MLB franchise. Some parameters had to be set; it would have been great to get a card from each player’s first year with the team, but funding a collection that included rookie cards of four Hall of Famers — Robinson, Doby, Ernie Banks and Monte Irvin — wasn’t realistic.
So the challenge was to find a card, whenever possible, of each player wearing the uniform of the team he made his MLB debut with, the team the player was courageous enough to integrate. For a couple of reasons — easier to handle, avoiding knock-offs — Weintraub bought graded cards whenever possible, though he wasn’t holding out for 8s and 9s. Cards in the 3-4-5 range work just fine, for the collection and the budget.
His first purchase: A 1950 Bowman card of Sam Jethroe, who integrated the Boston Braves in 1950 — and led the NL with 35 stolen bases that season and won the Rookie of the Year award. The collection, of course, isn’t just about the cards themselves, but learning the players’ stories along the way.
“Hank Thompson was the first black player on two teams, actually,” Weintraub said. “He was with the St. Louis Browns in 1947. It was Jackie Robinson, then Larry Doby, then Hank Thompson played in July 1947 for the Browns. And then, two years later, in 1949, he and Monte Irvin became the first black players for the Giants, on the same day. He didn’t have a card with the Browns, but he did have one with the Giants.”
For players with long careers, Weintraub — who is the director of the Oregon Law Commission at the University of Oregon School of Law — had his choice of card options. With those players, he tried to get a variety of sets, to round out the collection. For other players, multiple options don’t exist.
Tom Alston, who was the first player to integrate the Cardinals, in 1954, had only one card, a 1955 Bowman. John Kennedy was the first black player to wear a Phillies jersey, playing in five games with two plate appearances in 1957. He didn’t have his own card, but he was in the team picture on the 1958 Topps Phillies team card, so that made the collection.
“The Reds had two on the same day: Chuck Harmon and Nino Escalera,” Weintraub said. “There was no contemporary Nino Escalera card that was ever made, but I did find this bizarre card made in the 1970s. Someone made a set of one-season wonders, and I was able to buy a Nino Escalera.”
The oldest cards in his collection are 1950 Bowman cards of Doby, Thompson and Sam Jethroe. The “newest” is a 1960 Topps card, which speaks volumes about how long it took for every MLB team to integrate.
“The spread of year, the fact that Jackie debuted in 1947 and the Red Sox didn’t integrate until July of 1959, that’s crazy,” Weintraub said. “With Pumpsie Green, who has such a great name.”
And with the recent news that MLB is officially — finally — recognizing the Negro Leagues as a “major league,” this collection becomes just a bit more special.