In 1974, photographer Mike Mandel was a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute. He was considering his summer when baseball came to mind.
Following the Vietnam War photography was finally beginning to be seen as a legitimate art form. Mandel told the Smithsonian, “Photography was always seen as this reproducible medium where you could make tens of thousands of photographs off the same negative.” The war had changed that and Mandel was interested in making a project that commented on the change.
The project was meant to show that while photographers were growing in popularity, finally becoming recognized for their work, that popularity was making them ‘celebrities’ and celebrity keeps people from being accessible.
The irony of photographers suddenly garnering celebrity status made him think about the absurdity of fads and fame. He saw the shift as something wholly American and wanted to express it in a uniquely American way. He decided to combine the idea of celebrity artists and baseball trading cards.
The project was originally named The Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, a collaboration done between Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan. The graduate advisors on the project were Gary Metz and Robert Heinecken. All four men along with Mandel’s then girlfriend and co-pilot on his expedition, Alison Woolpert, were also subjects in the piece.
In 1974 Mandel traveled across the US getting 134 photographers and curators to pose as ball players using equipment from the game and standing in traditional baseball stances. Mike, together with Woolpert, made up the list of photographers from around the country they wanted to shoot.
He started at home approaching Bay Area photographers including Imogen Cunningham.
Getting someone of her reputation to participate opened the doors to many other celebrity photographers including Ansel Adams. Mandel told the Smithsonian that Adams, “thought it was a great idea. He was very congenial and had a good time with it.”
With his life savings of $1,700 ($8,400 today), the 25-year old Grad student and his girlfriend, packed the car and headed on a 14,000 mile cross-country road trip. When he returned home, with 36 states in the rear-view mirror, he published 3,000 copies of each card for a total run of 402,000. According to Mandel’s interview with Sports Illustrated (SI) he followed the guidelines of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubblegum Book in the assembly process, "I wanted them to be authentic so people could trade them just like when they were kids," he said. "I love baseball and I get really sad when I think I wasn't around to see some of the great moments."
Mandel randomly arranged the cards into sorted packs of 10 and bundled them in plastic sleeves. Still, Mandel felt more was needed. Baseball cards just weren’t a complete set without the wonderful smell of stale bubble gum. For that, he turned to Topps Trading Card Company. The top manufacturer of baseball cards was happy to answer his plea for assistance filling his garage with 40,000 pieces of gum (450 lbs./205kg). Mandel hand-inserted one stick of gum into every pack and got them to the art galleries and museums across the country where they sold for $1.00/pack.
Coverage in major publications, including Sports Illustrated (SI) and Newsweek, soon followed. The Christmas issue of SI featured the cards alongside the hottest sellers of the year, including the pet rock. If you couldn’t find them in a museum near you, SI had the distributor’s details, along with the shipping costs (.85cents/pack).
That generated such excitement that soon museums were hosting card trading parties so collectors could try to build up complete sets. After all, what better place for collectors to meet up than in a museum?!
Mandel even got in on the action hosting a card flipping contest at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) where the winner received a carton of 36 packs. In researching this piece, we might have stumbled across those winnings…
There are a few ways to play a card flipping game. One version is closest to the wall, sometimes called scaling. Throwing the cards like you might when skipping a rock or tossing a frisbee, the card that lands closest to the wall wins the toss. If a card is leaning on the wall, then you have a clear winner.
Another version is to flip cards from your hand to the ground like a coin toss where the photo is heads and the stats are tails. Heads up wins the toss and takes all the cards tossed out before that time that landed tails side up.
You can flip against the wall as these gentlemen display. There was even a version played similar to the card game war where the winning was determined based on the border colors of the cards.
PC: Mike Mandel
If you love art and appreciate baseball, then this is the collection you will want to see. Included in the sets are ten European-born photographers including Belgium, Hungary, Finland, Russia and Italy. Some of these people are pretty well-known photographers. Others, such as Liliane De Cock and Cornell Cappa, will go down with the greats from the 20th century right alongside their co-deck colleagues Minor White and Ansel Adams.
Even at that time Adams was a pretty major deal. Mandel was given ten minutes with the man who was already a legend. All the shots were underexposed however and he had to ask for a second session. Mandel recounted the experience for Sports Illustrated in 1975, "I'd fouled up Ansel Adams and I couldn't believe it! I had to tell him. He just said, "We all make mistakes," and two months later I got another 10 minutes."
92-year old Imogen Cunningham was happy to pose for her shot but insisted she did not want to wear an ordinary baseball uniform, “I want to be a Communist. I want to wear a Mao cap,” she told Mandel. Mike told SI that he taught her to throw for the shoot and she picked it up quickly. As with all baseball cards, Cunningham’s came with stats. Her quote? “Apparently do not know enough to quit. 1901 - ”. Cunningham, who was born in 1883, was referencing her 18th year in that quote. She would go on to live one more before it was all said and done.
Slide for more photos
The original cards from the 1970s are now collectors items with full sets selling in the range of $4,000 for 136 cards (134 + 2 set checklist cards). Each card measures 3-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches. Besides asking for the normal stats such as height, weight and hometown, Mandel instructed his subjects to list their favorite camera, developer, paper, film and photographer. Almost every one of them took him literally including a number system only photographers could decipher.
In 2015, Mandel re-released the project as a box set under the name Good 70s. The set is 517 pages and was a limited-edition print of 1,000-pieces. The current price is $100 retail.
Included are: The Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, Myself: Timed Exposures, Seven Never Before Seen Portraits of Edward Weston plus additional unpublished pieces from the original shoots including contact sheets, postcards sent from the road and letters between the photographers.
Mandel boast that, thanks to modern technology, the 2nd edition looks better than the first of those concerned with quality. The reissue also contains a pack of the original cards. The only missing piece in the new version is the gum. Though there is a nostalgic-looking reproduction in the box, it is not edible. Mike did try to get the real deal but, like many childhood things, today it is only available through memory.
The photographer accumulated quite a bit of debt while making his ode to the game. He told Sports Illustrated, "I don't mind, though. I think sports are like art; they are in their highest form when they aren't being commercialized."
Mandel is now a teacher at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 2006 he was invited to participate in the 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, “Of Mice and Men,” in Germany. At the 2009 Art Basel in Switzerland he was also a participant and he has contributed to Photo España, in Madrid as well.
A retrospective of his work is scheduled for 2017 at SFMOMA. Living in Boston today, Mandel was groomed a Giants fan by a loving grandma who gave him a transistor radio and a Giants ball cap when he was 7 years old. The Giants had just arrived from their previous home in NYC and he was hooked on the new team. Being from Los Angeles his pals were Dodgers fans so he was happy to go against the grain.