When I was a boy, a friend of my father’s would sometimes come to visit for a few days, and I would excitedly pester him for attention. One of the things I would do is show him my baseball card collection, and we would pore over the pictures of the players. He was indifferent to baseball; instead, he was an artist, and he looked at the poses as models for the human form, commenting on the particular grace and beauty of one photograph or another. I never thought to ask him to draw me a baseball player; I wish I had.
Much later, when he passed away (at a ripe old age), my father and I worked to clean out his studio. We plugged in his old turntable and put on old jazz as we sorted through a life nearly completed. Among the gallery books and the journals and the paintings, the unfinished drawings and half-empty paint supplies, there were dozens of boxes. Some of them contained cards or newspaper clippings, but others were squares cut out of magazines: splashes of color that struck him, or random photographs of forgotten men. Every once in a while, there was a baseball player.
In his honor, I present all baseball card poses, ranked in terms of aesthetic quality.
(PLEASE NOTE: We are dealing in archetypes here. Your love for snake-wearing Glenn Hubbards and deceptive Stacey Pettises are understood and appreciated, but they are not our game on this particular hunt.)
To begin, the pitchers:
20. The pitcher mid-delivery, arm bent back. The worst pose in all of sports cards. If every photograph is some tiny fraction of a person’s essence, then each of these Jeff Reardon homunculi are doomed to spend eternity with their UCLs tearing slowly, until at least the healing flame consumes them and they are freed.
19. The pitcher headshot, with no opinion of the current or historical events of the world. In this case, Bob Sebra is implying that he is as uninterested in you as you surely are of him.
18. The pitcher posing, with comically large glove. That… that is a cartoon oversized glove, right? Or now that you look at it, is it a normal glove? Is his head too small? Is this a perspective thing and Mike Mason is leaning away from the camera?
17. The pitcher headshot, airbrushed. Steve Carlton started six games for the San Francisco Giants, an act so pointless that no one even bothered to photograph him doing it. This is beginning to dawn on him.
16. The pitcher who has begun to recognize but not quite fathom the pointlessness of existence.
15. The pitcher who is pretending to pose before his windup, but who is obviously standing in a random back field. It’s strange, when you think about how much time is spent in each particular position on a pitching mound, that you never see cards depicting pitchers reading the signs; they only do it in cards like these. There’s nothing wrong with this pose, even if the implied falsehood is off-putting.
14. The pitcher who is not really pretending to pose before his windup, smiling at the camera. You can take this in two ways: as an ironic treatment of the genre, in which Storm Davis knows you know he knows that this is all fake, and that our lives are all the lie we pretend to despise. Or, alternately, you can see it as what Storm Davis wishes he could do on the mound, actually smile at the batters before he pitches, identical empty smiles of a man who no longer knows what lying is.
13. The pitcher who is wearing a warmup jacket and, apparently in this case, a scarf. Aesthetically, this is just an artistic statement that takes the silliness of the baseball uniform and adds a whole second layer; it is Bergson’s treatise on humor as the human appearing non-human, here, a healthy man who cannot tolerate the conditions within a baseball stadium.
12. The pitcher receiving the toss back warming up in the bullpen. Okay, maybe it’s just pregame, but in this case, after 700 starts and 21 years, the 43-year-old Carlton finally got banished to the bullpen in 1987. It feels like an artistic statement.
11. The pitcher mid-release, arm bent backwards, side-profile. Not nearly as gruesome as #20, still pretty bad. In this case we can deflect with our knowledge that Phil Niekro is about to throw this ball 40 mph, so the elbow can’t hurt that much.
10. The pitcher pre-release, arm bent upward, side-profile. A fine action shot, but there’s still no symmetry or tension here, just a young man who, if the ball were removed, would look rather ridiculous.
9. The pitcher pre-release, arm bent downward, side-profile. The downward bend of the arm, a more relaxed look, actually instills more suspense into the photo, insinuating a whip-like throw. The effect is undone to some degree by the least impressive leg kick ever documented, to the degree where a child could be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Hesketh is, in fact, falling backwards.
8. The pitcher pre-release, arm three-quarters, front profile. Some good and bad: the pitcher pointing toward the camera feels more immersive, but the effect on the shape of Jeff Reardon is not entirely fortunate. Minus point for the weird wrist-bending glove tuck, plus point for the slight lean, which makes pitching feel more like something that can’t be performed off-handedly.
7. The pitcher pre-release, arm bent downward, side-profile. Essentially a superior version of #9. What sells the Cone card, and makes the pre-release photograph far better than mid-release, is the contrast between Cone’s concentration and the pitchface to come.
6. The pitcher pre-release, arm bent sideways, side-profile. Perhaps the most athletic a pitcher can look in a single frame, leg fully extended, arm held back as if to throw a right cross at a batter’s heart. Non-pinstriped jersey adds to the wrinkling effect, which helps.
5. The pitcher in follow-through, sidearm. Honestly, this card shouldn’t even be ranked; in his powder blues and aviator shades, frozen in his crossfire release, it feels like we should have a separate list for Kent Tekulve, consisting of one Kent Tekulve.
4. The pitcher in follow-through. The maximum grace in any pitcher pose: energy spent, balanced delicately on a single foot, surveying the product of his labor. A man at peace.
3. The Dan Quisenberry. Like the Tekulve, except the opposite; one feels the human desire to place Dan Quisenberry within the world, insert him into his rightful place among his peers. Everything about Quisenberry is a glass of lemonade on a hot summer day.
2. The giant in waiting. The upward angle, the shadows playing over the eyes like a climactic scene in a western, an expression of determination but not concern. The pose of a veteran, a man just barely greater than himself: a man who can be defeated, but also must be.
1. The windup, high leg kick. The idealized pitching form, the archetypal statue: perfectly balanced, fully coiled, ready to strike. The twisted back, the surreptitious glance toward the opponent: it all foretells incipient battle, evokes the memories of cheering and bloodlust.
Next, the hitters.
20. The ballplayer whose face is out of view. This is seriously the primary purpose of the baseball card, and it seems like poor Tony Gwynn was always being captured while looking the other way.
19. The ballplayer staring directly into the camera. It’s as if Benito Santiago is trying to remember how baseball players act, realizing that he is a baseball player and therefore however he acts is how a baseball player acts, then the camera clicks before he can do anything.
18. The baseball player who has finished stretching and has been told he is not in the lineup that day.
17. The ballplayer who is getting ready to catch a large barrel, or perhaps a visibly agitated four year old.
16. The ballplayer running. The thing about running is that it’s an act of motion, and the thing about photographs is that they are the opposite of motion. No one looks good photographed while running, let alone large men in full powder-blue clothing.
15. The ballplayer sliding. This actually looks worse, but there is something kinesthetic that redeems it: in rare baseball form, people are hitting each other. They are alive.
14. The baseball player using a weak ankle kick. Not the most graceful, even with the left arm raised like a fencer, but Street Fighter and MMA fans know that you can’t use fierce attacks all the time: sometimes you have to soften them up.
13. The ballplayer posing with the bat. Basis of all little league photos, we’re reaching average here, although the cap means that no one is fooled. There’s no tension, no honesty. Cal Ripken is lying to you. Bonus points if the line of the bat is parallel to the bicep; Cal fails here, as well.
12. The ballplayer posing with the bat who has just seen a good pal from college. That smile is definitely not a lie. Randy Ready honestly wants to know what you’ve been up to, man.
11. The ballplayer at rest, wistfully. This is the idealized form of the non-action pose: the candid, peaceful smile, the symmetry of the lines in the forearms, the unhurried state of youth, California afternoons and beer and women, sunlight and distant music, the insinuation of potential energy.
10. The ballplayer fielding casually. Points docked for fielding with the helmet on, which unless you’re John Olerud makes you just as fake as ol’ Ripken up there.
9. The ballplayer casually stretching, while making flirtatious eye contact with the adult film star off-camera. This pose is available for Steve Garvey only.
8. The ballplayer awaiting the pitch. The most common action shot. In this case, stance is key; an angled bat, and a more tense stance, are more visually pleasing than a casual, straight-up pose like Mattingly’s. Obviously, Rickey Henderson > Phil Plantier.
7. The ballplayer in follow-through, both hands on bat. Not that Pete Rose had many amazing hits by 1986, but this is not a pose that insinuates excitement in the events following. The bat is straight up, the look far from intense. This is a 3 unassisted.
6. The ballplayer in follow-through, bat held out to clothesline opponents. This is the “3-D” that cards were trying to get into at the time.
5. The ballplayer in follow-through, both hands on bat, also being Tom Herr. Bat is in a good angle, face looks taut: this is probably a double. But it’s Tom Herr, so that’s the best you’re going to get.
4. The ballplayer in the on-deck circle. It’s a guy standing around. But it’s baseball, true baseball.
3. The ballplayer in follow-through, both hands on bat, fly ball. Pretty close to perfect form on Barry’s rookie card: the symbolic look skyward, the tension in the wrinkles of his jersey as he twists, the feet and legs almost perfectly symmetrical.
2. The ballplayer in the air. In this photograph, Khalifa looks like the greatest man to have ever lived. Bonus points for strong position of off arm.
1. The ballplayer in follow-through, bat released. It’s strange to think that the greatest baseball card ever created would be of Wally Joyner, and yet here we are: a purely kinetic moment that looks natural in pause, because it takes place at the exact moment of happening. The open, outstretched hand. The shadows playing on the jersey. The parallel lines of the legs, enhanced by the striping. The colors almost perfectly matched by the name box below. This is it: the perfect card. And you can own it for five cents.
You may disagree with these opinions, and that is fine. I too disagree with them. I find it impossible to separate the beauty of the physical from the beauty of the productive. I struggle to separate ideas from things. Backman has clearly scored a run, while Bonds has popped it up to shallow center. And yet it’s good to step back now and again, to see the world as artists and children see it, a zoetrope of colors and abstractions. Sometimes you have to look at a pitch, a fraction of a pitch, and not worry about where the ball goes. It’s a virtue of the baseball card, I think.