Thursday, August 29, 2013

Who Puts The 'Cyan' In 'Cyanide'?

I loathe sports art. I am not an art-loather by nature; I have a great deal of loatheable art on display in my home, and I loathe none of it – even the stuff my kids didn’t create. However, my kids know better than to create sports art.
And I ought to be clear here: I do not loathe all sports art. I do not loathe Robert Riggs’ depiction of the Max Baer-Primo Carnera fight. I'm also good with Aztec-ball-game art. All other sports art I loathe.
I say that counting at least one sports artist among my friends. Dan does fantastic sports art. If you’re looking for sports art, his is the sports art to have. I have a picture of Bob Wills he painted, and another that served as the cover for a rock-‘n’-roll book I wrote, but I have none of his sports art. Why? Because I loathe sports art.
I loathed my old boss, and naturally, he had sports art in his office. And not only did he have sports art in his office, but he had large sports art. Of golf. Done by LeRoy Neiman.
Of all the loathsome subjects painted by loathsome artists in a loathsome genre owned by a loathsome individual. It would be like Miley Cyrus covering the Plasmatics in an exclusive pressing for Alex Rodriguez.
There is nothing even remotely artistic about Neiman's quasi-impressionistic depictions of the gallery at the Masters, rendered with trowel-like delicacy in the same colors used to create fishing baits.
After my boss graced his wall with this insult to Monet, Picasso, Seurat, and God, he asked me what I thought. “I hate it,” I told him.
“But it’s LeRoy Neiman,” he replied.
“I hate LeRoy Neiman,” I answered.
He gave me the same fish-mouthed look he gave me when I told him I don’t drink coffee and don’t really play golf. And then he put me on double-secret probation for another year and a half.
The main reason I hate sports art is it lets hacks like Neiman thrive by exploiting the exploits of genuine artists – golfing artists, boxing artists, baseball artists, Olympian artists. And also Joe Namath.
At this point, I have to admit I was guilty of stretching the truth when I said the only semi-modern sports art I don’t hate is Riggs’ depiction of Baer-Carnera. I do not hate the 1953 Topps Baseball set because the artist was anonymous (at the time, anyway; the artist, Gerry Dvorak, later became famous for his work, and rightly so). It was an art set because it was more convenient, and likely cheaper, to hire an advertising artist to paint 280 portraits of baseball players than it was to take that many color pictures. It was the antithesis of art for art's sake; no shame in that.
For the same reason I might be convinced that the 1976 Topps Traded card of Tom House with the blob of cranberry mold where his hat should be is also sports art. Maybe. I don’t loathe it, but I’m guessing House disagrees.)
So you can guess my reaction when I was cleaning out a file drawer and a small yellow envelope fell out. Nope; sorry. It wasn’t that kind of small yellow envelope.
Perhaps it would help if I told you that inside the envelope was a series of 1953 Topps ripoff art cards I had never seen before.
Yep. That’s pretty much what I said. And I said it double after I noticed the web address on the back:
As a disinformative URL, ranks only slightly behind It’s also interesting that the company behind GSA, Bill Goff Inc., felt it necessary to describe its sports art as “good” for site visitors who may not be acquainted with sports art, or who might have stumbled upon and seen what appears to be the same thing.
Now, let me drop the snark for a minute and say that the guys who did these portraits, Bill Purdom and James Fiorentino, are 150,000 times the artist I am. In fact, Topps commissioned Purdom and Fiorentino to do these paintings as part of its proprietary ’53 ripoff set, and Topps don’t hire junk as far as sports artists are concerned.
Still, a set of cards done by semi-famous contemporary sports artists pretending to be advertising artists doing cards of modern players in an old-fashioned way simply doesn’t work. It could work in 1953 because there was HD nothing. As a baseball fan, your mental image of a ballplayer was based on grainy black-and-white newspaper photos, snowy black-and-white TV images, the occasional color spread in Sport, and baseball cards. You weren’t exposed and exposed to a player’s face until you felt you could trace every blackhead and tobacco stain.
The reference point is just too fixed for modern players. In 1953 you could look at a painted portrait of Satchel Paige and say,“Yeah; that’s him, I guess.” In this mini-set, you look at the dark, pinched face of Nomar Garciaparra and say,“Man, his ears stick out way too much, and that thing on his nose doesn’t belong, and what’s with the enormous ‘B’ on the cap? Is that like the modern-day scarlet letter?” And so forth.
The typeface is also wrong, which irks me. When we did replica trading cards at Baseball Cards magazine, we basically had a rock and stick, and we still nailed the type styles of everything from 1970 Topps Baseball to Parkhurst hockey. The type faces on these aren’t even close. That’s just plain lazy, and inexcusable.
Finally, it comes down to this: I’m not sure the world needs a set of cards based on a different set of cards based on a different set of cards that consisted not of photographs but of paintings. It’s sports art of sports art of sports art, and have I told you lately how I feel about sports art? I guess I have.
The good news is that these cards, and the contemporary ’53 Topps ripoff set that spawned them, are essentially worthless. They made no one forget, or remember, the originals.
I often acknowledge that this or that collectible is worthless. I don’t often root for something to be worthless. But in the case of sports art, I’m always willing to make an exception. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Wooden It Be Nice

I‘ve about had it with list stories. You know: “The 2,500 Most Despicable Reality Shows” or “Five People That Became President” or “Three Signs That It’s Time To Breathe.” Buzzfeed, the Death Star of list stories, calls them “listicles,” and even has a listicle clock showing a different Buzzfeed list every second. Like that’s a good thing.
So instead of doing a story on “The Five Most Annoying People of the Handful O’Landfill Era”[1] I thought I would do a story on one thing, and one thing only: The John Wooden Award Set.
You don’t have to be a follower of anything besides your own nose to know that John Wooden was about as close to a perfect human being as was ever created. He was an athlete, a teacher, a father, a mentor, a friend, a philosopher, a leader, an inspiration, and perhaps the best coach of anything ever. He was religious without being pious, a salesman without being a shill, and moral without being a prude. He was married to the same woman for more than 50 years, and that was about the least remarkable thing about him. As a leader in a segment of a sport where fair play is far less important than an athlete’s chosen brand of jockstrap, John Wooden stands alone.
Needless to say, John Wooden did not adopt a significant position in the sports-collectibles industry.
However, John Wooden did lend his name to at least one award – the award given annually to the nation’s best college-basketball player.
There is a disconnect here, in that John Wooden was not a great college-basketball player in the way that Pete Maravich or Elvin Hayes or Larry Bird was a great basketball player. Coach Wooden was a three-time All-American to be sure, but at a time where being a three-time All-American in basketball was roughly akin to being a three-time All-American in water polo today – a sterling achievement, but not something that would make you say he was one of the best ever.
Handing out a John Wooden Award to the nation’s top college-basketball coach -- now that would be a different story.[2]
Still, John Heisman was not a great college-football player, nor was Golden Spikes a great amateur baseball player.[3] So there is precedent for naming awards given to players after people who weren’t great players – a fact that should give us all hope. (I personally am dying to present the John B. "Sparky" Seals Award to the nation’s best C-level peewee hockey player.)
So the John Wooden Award it is, and the John Wooden Award it has been since 1977, meaning there is ample material for a John Wooden Award card set, even if you happen to be living in 1992 and can’t get “Life Is A Highway” out of your head.
So let’s imagine it is 1992, and “Life Is A Highway” just got done playing and now it’s “To Be With You,” to be shortly followed by “2 Legit 2 Quit” and “Achy Breaky Heart.” There have been 15 winners of the John Wooden Award, and you have all the paperwork in place to make a John Wooden Award card set. What do you do?
If you’re Ken Goldin, you tear up the paperwork and make a 100-card draft-pick set, cram it full of Eric Lindros, Russell Maryland, Brien Taylor, and Larry Johnson autographs, and sell it on QVC.
If you’re Mike Cramer, you make a 500-card set with one card of this year’s winner die-cut 499 different ways, and a checklist.
If you’re Richard McWilliam, you borrow Ken Goldin and Mike Cramer’s cards, color-correct the heck out of them, put Ken Griffey Jr.’s head on Danny Ainge’s body, and forget to send the royalty check.
If you’re David Greenhill, you sell everyone else’s cards at a loss.
And if you’re my brother, you keep demanding that they put Carlton Fisk cards in the set, just so you can pull them out and destroy them.
Fortunately, Little Sun was at the helm, and no one knew more than Little Sun, albeit inadvertently, about making a trading-card set without possibility of financial gain. In this case, Little Sun created a simple set, with one card for each award-winner through Larry Johnson, four cards of Coach Wooden (who deserves a multiple-card salute more than anyone on the planet), a card of the trophy, a card devoted to the president of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, a card devoted to the club (told you this was done without thought of financial gain), and a numbered Certification of Limited Edition[4]. It put everything in a wallet-sized case, with a page for each card. You page through the cards, admire the photos, read about Coach Wooden, and when you’re done, simply set it aside.
There’s nothing flashy about the cards, just a nice photo in an attractive border with player-card backs that state the player's name, position, and college. Say what you want about Little Sun, but they refuse to waste your time, and printer's ink, with triviata about Darrell Griffith. You come away from your few minutes spent with the set understanding all things needful about the award, its recipients, and Coach Wooden.
Sure, there were better sets made during the HOL era. There were more important sets. There were more valuable sets. But there were also many more trashier sets, and contract-obligation sets, and misrepresented sets, and bizarro sets, and sets that sold collectors a big ol’ bill of cardboard goods.
Not this set. The John Wooden Award set delights through its Hoosier simplicity, its adherence to its purpose, and its celebration of what is most important.
I’m guessing Coach Wooden approved.

[1] Ken Goldin, Mike Cramer, Richard McWilliam, David Greenhill, and my brother. Top that, Buzzfeed.
[2] Actually, there is a John Wooden Legends of Coaching Award that no one knows about except you and me. And Mike Krzyzewski.
[3] And Tewaaraton didn’t even play lacrosse at all; go figure.
[4] “Limited” not really being necessary in this case, seeing as Little Sun Made 21,000 sets.