Saturday, February 2, 2013

Out from the shadows

Today is the day to talk about shadows. Did the groundhog see his shadow? (Punxsutawney Phil did not). Will there be six more weeks of winter or an early spring? Only the shadow knows.

Baseball is the season to talk about shadows. More than any other major sport, shadows are a factor. Outfielders struggle with them. Batters fear them. TV commentators complain about them even though the network scheduled the game for a time when shadows would wreak the greatest havoc.

But what about shadows on baseball cards? Do we care about shadows on baseball cards?

Well, I do. I write about it all the time.

When I was first collecting baseball cards -- in the mid-to-late 1970s -- shadows were a way of life on baseball cards. Topps had just started experimenting with action photos on its cards in the early '70s, and was quickly finding out how difficult it was to get a clear shot of someone from that far away -- while the sun was shining.

Unlike the portrait shots of the 1950s and 1960s, you got a lot of this. A player far away with a shadow covering the top of his face.

I can imagine there was some trepidation in switching from clear portrait shots to shadow-obscured action photos. For decades, Topps had been the vehicle for getting to know your favorite ballplayer. Want to know what he looked like? Pull out his 1967 baseball card. Look at that smiling face. That's what he looked like.

But actually there was nothing to fear. Speaking as a kid at this time, we LOVED these photos. Action was much more preferable to portrait, posed shots. And, who cares if you couldn't see the guy's eyes. It was COOL that you couldn't see the guy's eyes. It made him seem like a superhero in a baseball uniform.

Some of the most memorable baseball cards from the 1970s feature players with their face obscured by shadows.

All THREE of Rollie Fingers' cards in the 1975 set feature shadows crossing his face. Thanks to that, Fingers was about as bad-ass as you could possibly get at the time.

All through the 1980s, cards continued to feature shadows on the faces of players. What were you going to do? They kept wearing caps when the sun was out.

In the mid-1980s, Donruss issued some sets that were shadow-plagued. There are players in the shadows throughout sets from 1984, 1985, 1986, etc. And the shadows didn't just rest under the bill of a player's cap. Whole players were consumed by shadows.

My theory -- based on nothing and just thought up today -- is that these sets prompted card companies to find a way to remove shadows from players' cards.

During the late 1980s and into the 1990s there are fewer shadows on players' faces. It's not totally eliminated. I'm guessing that would be impossible. But the shadows are lighter, and the faces less obscured (I'm sure photographers could relay why that's so).

But those shadows, they're never going to go away.

Nope, never.


In 2009, Topps put out a terrific base set. But the second series was filled with darkened cards. Players in the shadows everywhere. It didn't look good. The players didn't look bad-ass. They just looked like you couldn't see them.

But it was a great set for shadows. There are lots of instances of the shadow emerging out from the player, like in this picture of Travis Ishikawa (I swear that's Ishikawa; the black shadow on the design is obscuring his name).

This is better than the alternative, I suppose.

In 2010, people complained that Topps did something fishy with the faces of some of the players. Through some computer-enhancement, it appears they lightened the shadow under the cap to highlight the goofy faces players make.

I don't know how much of this is true, but it sure looks like something happened.

I prefer if the photo is natural, even if there are shadows everywhere.

Among my limited sample of 2013 Topps, this is about as drastic of a shadow that I could find on a card. It's very unobstrusive, and I'm sure a lot of collectors are happy about that. Many probably don't even notice the shadowing anymore.

It's certainly not like the old days.

Like everything, that's both good and bad.


  1. My favorite "shadowed" card has to be the '77 Griffey. I didn't much like that one when I first bought it, but I flat-out love it these days.

    I really need to find a copy of that '74 Cey, too.

    On a similar note, I noticed a strange "tinted" shadow variation with Pete Rose's 1987 Leaf and Donruss cards. Topps may not have been the first to do it.

  2. It looks a little like a shadow/highlight filter on the Pavano card. Maybe just a little dodge/burn. I don't know, but it might have looked cooler just having his face in the shadows, but that would mean that the jersey would also have to be in the shadows for it to look consistent.
    I think shadows look cooler though.