The last of the bubble gum Mona Lisas — In 1953, artists painted masterpieces on baseball cards
A MICKEY MANTLE as intense as The Starry Night. A Satchel Paige with a Mona Lisa expression. An Al Rosen side-glancing like Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Hold your paint brush! Are we really comparing baseball cards to, of all things, classic works of art?
You bet your Ryan rookie card we are! And don’t argue about it or you’ll get tossed faster than you can say “Earl Weaver!”
As the 2023 baseball season gets underway, it’s time to celebrate the 70th birthday of the best-looking baseball cards on the planet — the 274 individually painted player portraits released by the Topps Chewing Gum Co. in 1953.
Sure, the set may contain a few swing-and-a-miss renderings. (Does anyone think the Yogi Berra really looks like Yogi Berra?) But as a collective visual home run, the ‘53 cards are in a ballpark of their own.
A ballpark fit for an art museum.
“I think they are beautiful. They’re like little individual paintings,’’ said Marc Straus, a New York City art gallery owner who collected baseball cards as a kid.
“And it was a little bit after that that they became just boring photographs.’’
Straus is right, and that’s what makes the 1953 Topps set unique: They were the last cards to feature player portraits painted by artists. Photography, which saw limited use by card producers before ‘53, took over for good in 1954.
Before that, artists and illustrators were responsible for creating the images of just about every player going all the way back to the first set in 1886. And those card artists in the first half of the 20th century produced some sweet eye-candy — from Christy Mathewson’s purposeful mound stance on his famous tobacco card issued from 1909 to 1911 to the bat-swinging Babe Ruth Goudey classic of 1933.
But by and large the artists who painted the eye-popping ‘53 set knocked it out of the park. And they connected in the clutch.
At the time, Topps, which issued its first set in 1951 (featuring photographs), was at war with Bowman Gum Co., which was dominating the baseball card market the way the New York Yankees were dominating the American League. From 1949 to 1952, Bowman cards featured artwork of players on smaller-size cards roughly 2⅛ inches by 3⅛ inches.
For its 1953 set, Topps took aim at Bowman’s wheelhouse by issuing larger cards, each measuring 2⅝ inches by 3¾ inches, with painted player portraits — the brainchild of Sy Berger, a Topps executive who is recognized as the father of the modern baseball card.
“Sy Berger ran the sports division. He was a very bright and cultured man. He thought art would really add something special to the overall feel for the card,’’ said baseball historian Marty Appel, who worked at Topps in the 1990s.
(Meanwhile, after four four straight years of artwork, Bowman switched to photographs in 1953.)
The artists commissioned by Topps were given 8-by-10 black-and-white photographs of each player and told what colors to use for the uniforms and caps.
Perhaps most important, they were given creative freedom to accentuate the faces with shadows and decorate the backgrounds with whatever inspired — from bleachers and buildings to cloudy skies and palm trees.
The results were thoughtful and realistic interpretations that captured player likenesses not seen before on a baseball card.
“There's a simplicity to them that is just beautiful. It's literally a set of portrait art,’’ said James Fiorentino, a New Jersey painter and illustrator known for sports art.
“There are some beautiful vintage cards from the other sets,’’ he said, “but there is something I would say that is very classic about the ‘53 cards, some sort of Mona Lisa quality to them.’’
Fiorentino has a personal connection to the set. As a young artist, he was mentored by the late Gerry Dvorak, one of the four or five artists said to have worked on the 1953 set.
Another was Maurice “Moishe” Blumenfeld, who “did the bulk of the cards,’’ Berger once said.
“They used other artists, but their identities have been lost in time, which is unfortunate,’’ said Rich Mueller, editor of Sports Collectors Daily, who appreciates the cards for “the amount of work” that went into creating each one.
In a 1983 interview with a newspaper near his New Jersey hometown, Dvorak said he painted 25 cards and was paid $20 per portrait, about $225 today. (Some hobby articles say he made 50 cards and was paid $25 each.)
Dvorak, who died in 1999, painted about three portraits each weekend while moonlighting from his job at Paramount Studios as an artist on “Popeye” cartoons. (He also worked on “Mr. Magoo,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and “The Flintstones,” to name a few, and dozens of animated television commercials, including the Starkist tuna.)
In most cases, he didn’t know who the players were. Popular stars brought to life by his brush of opaque watercolors include Satchel Paige, Eddie Mathews and Red Schoendienst. Some published stories (including his obituary) credit Dvorak with painting the Mantle card, others say he did not.
A widely admired favorite that Dvorak did paint is the card of Paige, the Negro Leagues ace who pitched in the majors after turning 42, even though the pitcher’s first name is spelled incorrectly on the front with two Ls.
“The Paige card is special. It captures something about his personality,’’ Straus said. “It’s a very contemplative picture, almost a little sad.’’
Although the artists were told to paint head-and-shoulder portraits, one memorable deviation was Willie Mays, a rising superstar at the time. He’s depicted in an all-business outfield action pose.
“I am not sure if the legendary Willie Mays had a more unique or better-looking card made from his entire career,’’ said Joe Orlando, executive vice president of sports for Heritage Auctions.
Dvorak admitted he purposely painted plain, solid backgrounds on the Bobby Morgan and Willard Nixon cards, but only because he was pressed for time.
“I figured I could fake it a bit,’’ he told a reporter in 1983. “I was in a hurry on those occasions, but (Topps) told me cut it out.’’
For many card connoisseurs, the ‘53 portraits evoke a range of emotions, and they do so more intensely than any crisply photographed card set.
“Kids eagerly plunked down five cents to rip into fresh packs of '53 Topps, finding individual museum pieces – beautiful, colorful portraits modeled on contemporary photographs of popular baseball players,’’ the card-grading company PSA says on its website.
Some players grin and smile, like Ralph Kiner and Ray Boone, who was given a spring-training background with Florida palm trees. Others look contemplative, a bit sad, even forlorn.
“So many of these gentlemen experienced the Depression, poverty, World War II and Korea,” said collector Steve Pasternack, who belongs to a Facebook group devoted to the 1953 set.
“The wear and tear of an athlete's lifestyle is revealed in the portrait,’’ he said. “Some seem happy, others not so. Kind of like looking at a high school yearbook.”
And whether or not it was the artist’s conscious attempt, the Al Rosen card suggests Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring while Satchel Paige’s expression evokes Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
“When you look at the paintings, they are really bold and colorful and they kind of jump off the card,’’ said Larry Canale, a frequent contributor to the hobby publication Sports Collectors Digest.
Canale has collaborated on books with the late sports photographer Ozzie Sweet, whose baseball images from the 1950s and ‘60s are as iconic as the photographs Charles Conlon took of the game’s stars in the early 1900s. Many of the Sweet and Conlon photographs are considered works of art, a rare accomplishment for sports photographers. Canale considers the artwork on the ‘53 cards just as special.
“A lot of photographers, for whatever reasons they could not all capture that personality, but the artists did with these paintings,’’ Canale said. “The artists did a really stellar job of capturing the faces of these old players.’’
For all its beauty, the ‘53 set has at least one glaring flaw: Missing are several of the era’s superstars. Ted Williams was on his second tour of duty with the Marines while Stan Musial, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges were under exclusive contact with Bowman.
By 1956, after a prolonged legal fight, Topps bought out Bowman, effectively winning what Red Smith called “baseball’s great bubble gum battle.’’
By then, though, Topps was in full transition to using photographs on cards, most likely because a player’s image could be captured by a photographer in a fraction of the time it took for an artist to paint it.
Today, the ‘53 set is not the most sought after Topps issue — that distinction belongs to the 1952 set, largely because it includes the first Topps appearances of Mantle, Mays and Jackie Robinson. But it still commands top dollar in the memorabilia industry.
In February, Heritage Auctions sold a ‘53 set for a tidy $705,000. And over the years, the original artwork used to produce the ‘53 cards has sold at auctions for thousands of dollars.
Compared to other 1953 landmark events still resonating 70 years later — from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the end of the Korean War to the first Burger King (in Jacksonville) and the introduction of the modern speed bump — that year’s Topps baseball cards may warrant a mere asterisk.
But they continue to carry considerable collectibles clout as cardboard heroes in a league of their own.
“Collecting is a visual endeavor and 1953 Topps is as magnetic as it gets from that perspective. In the right condition, these cards possess extraordinary eye appeal,’’ said Heritage Auctions’ Orlando.
Each new baseball season brings a new set of baseball cards. Ultimately, those cards that turn into conduits to the past, visual relics of a bygone era, a piece of baseball’s past many collectors find seducing.
“It’s like viewing art or architecture from a time long gone,’’ Orlando said. “Certain card issues have the ability to transport the viewer like a tiny cardboard time machine. The 1953 Topps set is one of them.’’
OK, enough gushing. Let’s hear from some critics.
We invited a few heavy-hitters and rising stars from the Palm Beach-area art world to take some swings at the ‘53 cards. Here’s what they said.
Paul Fisher Gallery in West Palm Beach
“I have never been to a baseball game,’’ Fisher said as he looked over an assortment of ‘53 cards brought to his West Palm Beach studio the other day. “I look at this (Johnny Mize) and it's just like a Hollywood pose with no story. There's nothing there.’’
Fisher looked at a Christy Mathewson card, showing the pitcher in the set position on the mound, and said, “I look at this and I see a man who’s composed and intense and thinking about what he’s going to do next. This is like David staring at Goliath.This is a narrative. This is a frozen moment.’’
Picking up a ‘53 Jackie Robinson card, Fisher said, “The artwork is very good but it's not artwork. It's an illustration. It’s a glamor shot. (The Mathewson card) is artwork.’’
Born and raised in Belgium, Strosberg drew a parallel to another form of art from the era of the ‘53 cards – Cold War propaganda art.
“The cards look like painted photographs, with backgrounds simplified to focus on the subjects, very much like ancient religious icons. The colors remain very neutral. It somewhat reminds me of Soviet Communist propaganda posters representing workers as heroes,’’ said Strosberg, who studied art history.
“The style is overall very uniform, homogenous and there is no segregation in style whether the player is black or white. Knowing that these were painted in 1953, this is pleasant to see,’’ he said.
As for the technique, he said, “It’s almost like the artists applied a red ochre semi transparent wash (maybe gouache or opaque watercolor) over monochromatic faces to give them more life. I don’t think the illustrators were allowed too much freedom as far as expressions. The subjects have to look good and smile. There is little drama on these cards. It seems like they reflect a happy ‘golden’ era in American society just like Norman Rockwell’s work from that same time.’’
“The baseball cards were beautifully rendered portraits,’’ he said.
The use of paint on the '53 cards brought back memories of rare examples of artwork incorporated on Topps cards not by design but as quick fixes.
In the 1970s, Topps infamously airbrushed color onto cards for Greg Minton, Mike Paxton and Greg Jones because the only photographs the company had for those players were black-and-whites. Many fans online have noted a “creepy” appearance to those cards.
And if a player was traded in the off-season with no time for a new photograph to be taken, Topps artists simply painted the colors of the player’s new team over the hat of his old team.
“I remember when Reggie Jackson went from the A’s to the Yankees and they had to paint his helmet and jersey before the season's cards were produced,’’ Stoveland said.
An infamous example is Willie McCovey’s 1974 card after he was traded from the San Francisco Giants to the San Diego Padres.
Palm Beach artist, critic and curator
As a kid, Helander played shortstop at the legendary Chandler Baseball Camp in Oklahoma. His baseball career didn’t go far and he wound up becoming a prominent Palm Beach County artist whose work is featured in more than 50 museum collections around the United States.
Looking at an assortment of ‘53 cards, he noted “a distinctive artistic aroma to the cards. … The portraits have a pleasing common denominator of a head and shoulders composition. All the faces have a blemish free complexion … a bit romanized,’’ which is “the advantage of an interpretive brush stroke as opposed to a doctored photograph.’’
He added, “Now it's hard to find a baseball card that has true aesthetic merit because it's basically a photograph that's been printed.’’
Torrence’s immediate observation: The 1953 cards define baseball’s Golden Era in the same way a John Singer Sargent portrait defines the Victorian Gilded Age.
“The painted portrait cards convey a sense of nostalgia and more accurately capture the essence of baseball than a photograph does,’’ he said.
“We all have mentally created the smells and sounds of the game, hot dogs and the crack of the bat. A painted portrait does much of the same visually. It captures a moment in time, freezes it, with the warmth of the human touch.’’
He also noted how the ‘53 cards, issued just before the color television began to rise in popularity, brought the players to life for children who collected them.
“These baseball cards define a time when illustration was at its pinnacle,’’ he said.
(Cover illustration background photo by Phil Goodwin via Unsplash.com.)
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in South Florida. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.