The Coup of the Keyboard Gods

The Keyboard Gods wear moustaches

The Keyboard Gods wear moustaches

One recent web discovery of mine is the world of customized baseball cards, in which Photoshoppers and baseball card fans create the cards that they want to see, and share them with others. (I’ve even taken a few stabs myself).

As far as I can tell, the lively GooseJoak is the reigning Big Papi of the genre, driving as he has the creation of a totally new set of cards with contributors from all over the place. (Another notable is The Phillies Room and the Chachi Set, overlooked examples in the comments would be fantastic). Not until I began following these original works did I really think about what makes a baseball card great, even when I collected them as a kid. The DIY baseball card movement prizes the novelty of a card, the design, the photography, the humor, and the player stories (often times a handsome new card comes with a summary enjoyment of that player’s recent success and/or failures). And a fine moustachio gets the proper respect. Imagine a card, and that card can exist.

In addition to the original sets, there are scores of tribute cards around, with older card designs doctored up to depict current and recent players, to charming if slightly uncanny effect. Nostalgia gets a ratchet up, as new players–still young, not yet lost to time and entropy like the original occupants of that card’s housing–haunt the old, deeply familiar past designs. It’s like if Brad Pitt popped into Rick’s Place in high definition:

Brad Pitt pops in on Rick's Place

At the core of it, this custom card movement (let’s call it a movement, why not?) is a usurpation of the very traditional power structure represented by very traditional baseball cards. As with everything else in this New World, new media has thrown back the curtain on the supreme unalterable authority of the great and glorious Publisher. By compiling a complete and community-built baseball card set, and altering history and perception by re-purposing old card design, the movement is taking control of childhood, of nostalgia, and of the idea of collecting. Collecting and creating overlap, blurring the lines between buying and being. As The Phillies Room put it, “For the past several years, I’ve created my own Phillies cards. The major card companies no longer produce cards for players like Eric Bruntlett or Clay Condrey, so I took matters into my own hands.” Taking matters into one’s own hands sends marketers to the bathroom with a sour stomach.

[Aside: In the hands of the people, “baseball” cards have traveled to some interesting places. The Big Lebowski sets (master list here) has truly stirred the imagination. In Jeremy’s Custom Cards, a blogger is on an autobiographical journey via self-made trading cards. Cards with non-baseball subjects is hardly a new idea, but as of now there is an absence of the sort of formalized licensing restrictions, and new cards are produced instantly and they spread through a network of producers. When there are no limits between the producer and the consumer, the result is a very charming and anarchical pleasure loop. The Lebowski set in particular commemorates, like baseball cards, those moments when one feels part of a team. The Dude, Walter and Donny are after all the Bad News Bears (someone get to work on that card set, por favor) of marginal early nineties Los Angeles, struggling for survival and triumph not on the baseball field, but in a film noir wasteland.]

As little as I know on the topic, I sense that baseball card companies have been and are still attacking their market–in this attention-deprived modern age–with a GW Bush-style shock and awe approach. From jersey cards to autographs to bat chips to refractor hologram exploding gold-plated limited edition what-have-you, they are going bigger, rarer, and more expensive. Cards are rare as they leave the factory, valuable before anybody’s assessed their worth. Economist I am not, but it sounds to me like the same approach that the villainous sub-primers took to the housing market.

One interesting note that seems to acknowledge the new landscape: eTopps, a service (which I don’t entirely understand) that allows collectors to buy a card online, track its value, and sell it off again, without ever coming into physical contact with it. It seems to veer a little bit towards the cold and calculating (a reason I stopped collecting cards back in the 90s), like buying pork futures or some such. But at the same time any and all paper-based industries in this webby world of ours will need to view their operations in just such a novel manner. (You can have the cards delivered to you, after all…). And there’s also the magical mirage card, the Topps3DLive-something-or-other: when you put it in front of a webcam, a computer generated image pops up onscreen and plays little games.

Creepy dancing toys in the palm of your hand

Creepy dancing toys in the (virtual) palm of your (actual) hand

Josh Wilker of Cardboard Gods has built a tour de force from the creative potential of baseball cards. With his own sort of usurpation, Wilker transforms his cards from an artifact of the player’s life and career and brand, to an artifact of his own emotional life. He reclaims a commercial product as a cultural one. We all do this, I think, but not so often with Wilker’s vehemence and frankness. The lowliest Cardboard Gods–that is to say those with the least commercial value–rise like zeppelins into the summer sky. Wilker’s work casts off the trappings of the market in favor of the flavors of life and of baseball, just like the custom card makers do as they–and only they–crown their Keyboard Gods.

Proceed with caution vis-a-vis the video below. It may drive you away from the traditional baseball card power structure forever. When I bailed on cards back in 1993 or so, I think in my recessed reptile brain I knew that the below apocalyptic dystopia was the inevitable endgame.

2 Responses to “The Coup of the Keyboard Gods”

  • As your card collecting contemporary I must tell you how much I agree with everything you have written here on baseball cards. An interesting thing I realized about baseball cards recently is that they are a snapshot of who’s who in baseball at the time that one quits collecting them (assuming one has stopped). I encourage you to revisit your collection and take note of which players’ cards you prized. You’re sure to get a few laughs out of it.

    Regarding that abomination of a video (at 2:46): “Draft pick #01 redemption.” Since when does Fred Durst collect baseball cards? … and I’m pretty sure that’s a 10.

  • Brad, Fred Durst started collecting about the same time old Hank Azaria up there started wearing his Sportscoat of a Thousand Cards.

    You’re right on about the snapshot idea, literally and figuratively. The card that always embodies my days of card collecting is, randomly, a Leaf Hensley Meulens (the top right in this set here: It seemed like there was one of those in every pack, always so disappointingly familiar and expected. A snapshot of underwhelmed expenditure, I guess, and I’ve saved that card and will for a long time. It has more associative power than my most commercially valuable card.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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