When baseball cards become pop art: Inside the Topps 2020 Project

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Thursday, May 21, 2020

The middle part of the 1990s took a major toll on the baseball card industry. All those ambitions of striking it rich off personal collections proved to be grossly overstated. The supply got out of hand, growing too large to keep pace with the anticipated values. There was also an MLB work stoppage and a younger generation that didn't take so fervently to the hobby, forcing companies to fold and sending the industry reeling.

Over the past five years, however, baseball cards have experienced something of a renaissance. Those same kids who begged their parents for rides to weekend card shows throughout the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s were suddenly returning to the hobby, uncovering old boxes and buying new sets from companies that had finally grasped the value of limiting production. The nostalgia factor was real and significant. But one central question beckoned, increasingly more so in a digital era:

How can trading cards become more than nostalgia pieces and actually evolve into something young people gravitate to again?

"That's the thing that constantly comes up, and that's been going on for a good 20 years," Beckett editor and hobby enthusiast Ryan Cracknell said. "That's the tricky part."

Topps, the only company that still has a license with both Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, might have just tapped into something.

Last month, it borrowed an idea from sneaker companies and launched Project 2020, a relatively ambitious undertaking that involves 20 artists all putting their own spin on 20 baseball cards, a yearlong event that will ultimately produce a set of 400. Two cards are posted each weekday for $20. Topps prints the amount sold within the first 48 hours -- one of which is a gold-framed version, inserted at random -- and nothing else.

The company made nearly 315,000 sales for the first 75 cards (not including 20 hand-numbered artist proofs that retail for $200 and go quickly). The set ranges from Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams to George Brett and Dwight Gooden to Derek Jeter and Mike Trout. Street artists, tattoo artists, cubic artists and even jewelry designers are involved. Baseball enthusiasts have jumped all over it, but the project has also appealed to fans of particular artists who can suddenly acquire their work for a modest price.

In a time when the coronavirus pandemic has halted every major sport throughout the country, Project 2020 is introducing baseball cards to an untapped segment of the population.

"The thing that I'm liking most about it is the online chatter every day," Cracknell said. "It's kind of like an event now just to see the cards for the first time, be on Twitter when people are like, 'Oh I like this card,' or, 'Oh, this thing's a piece of crap.' To me, that's what art is -- it evokes a reaction, whether that's positive or negative. If you get a reaction, then you're doing something right. And it's been a long time since I've seen a set or a project evoke a reaction like that."

Below, we identified five cards and told the story of how they were reimagined.

Jump to ... :

Mike Trout| Mark McGwire| Derek Jeter

Roberto Clemente
| Willie Mays

2011 Mike Trout byBen Baller

By the time Ben Baller's Mike Trout card went up for sale on April 29, Project 2020 was beginning to build momentum. The mark of 1,000-2,000-print runs within a 48-hour window was getting surpassed with more regularity; King Saladeen's Derek Jeter had sold nearly 10,000 and Andrew Thiele had topped 13,000 with his version of Trout's 2011 rookie card. Ben Baller, an entrepreneur first and foremost, was starting to grasp the concept a little more clearly. He teased the Trout card on social media, hyped it on his podcast and even offered to buy the gold-framed edition from whoever was lucky enough to get it.

Two hours into the release of Ben Baller's Trout card, Topps' website had already crashed an estimated five times. Roughly 10,000 cards were nonetheless sold within the first 60 minutes. By the end of the two-day sale -- extended by a couple of hours to make up for the early glitches -- Ben Baller had sold a whopping 34,950 iterations.

"I wasn't expecting this," he said. "At all."

Ben Baller, a renowned Los Angeles-based jewelry designer who has built a global following, loves the Dodgers but considers himself a disconnected baseball fan in general. He collected baseball cards as a kid but fell out of the hobby in adolescence. He figured Trout would do well, but he never imagined his card would break the system.

"I obviously know he's a good player," Baller said. "I had zero idea he was at this level. He's massive, you know what I mean? Like, insane."

Baller designed his cards digitally and predictably gave each of them a little bling. But he upped the ante for Trout. On the lower-right corner is an actual $50,000 Los Angeles Angels pendant he once designed for a customer. Baller tracked him down, asked for a high-resolution image with a black background and put it in.

"That lit the match," Baller, 47, said. "That set the spark for the card."

He originally wanted to give Trout grills, but Trout wasn't showing enough of his teeth in the original picture. He thought about giving him a face tattoo but didn't want to disrespect him. The two don't know each other, but Ben Baller imagines Trout being a little more understated than that. He iced out his name and then went about incorporating angel wings, striving for something elegant yet aggressive. He then looked at the card again and thought, "That's not enough."

"And then came the final touch, when I felt like I put the card together -- 'I need to put Michael Jackson diamond gloves on him,'" Baller said. "When I put the gloves on there, the entire card came together. I was done. I put it out there on the universe."

Ben Baller (given name: Ben Yang) used to make diamond-encrusted belt buckles for the King of Pop. He initially built his name as a producer for Dr. Dre and later started a jewelry empire from the ground up in 2005, his clientele ultimately growing to include the biggest names in hip-hop -- Nas, Drake, Mac Miller, Snoop Dogg and Kanye West, to name a few. Along the way, Baller has designed sneakers and has collaborated with the NFL. But he had never done anything like this.

"I'm one of the few in this bunch that doesn't technically illustrate art," Baller said. "I don't technically draw art; I make jewelry, so it's kinda different. But I also consider myself an artist and a designer."

1987 Mark McGwire by Blake Jamieson

Blake Jamieson and his father owned every baseball card for every set from 1985 to 1995. The collection swelled to 70,000 trading cards, all of which were boxed in a garage until only recently. And about a dozen of those were Topps' Team USA Mark McGwire from 1985, among the most iconic cards in the industry. Jamieson, now an acclaimed portrait artist, considered it his most cherished piece of memorabilia, but Topps no longer possessed the rights to that likeness. The company instead used McGwire's 1987 rookie card, and Jamieson quickly came up with the idea of blending the two.

He kept the McGwire pose from '87 but enlarged it, then replaced his Oakland Athletics uniform with the red, white and blue jersey and helmet.

"I get goosebumps even thinking about releasing this card and how much this means to me," Jamieson said last week. "I hope that the card just brings more people together and gets people excited about something because there's not a ton to be excited about right now."

Jamieson, heavily influenced by street art and graffiti culture, uses mostly hand-cut stencils and spray paint on an 18-by-24-inch foam board to produce his cards. He initially thought about creating an all-wood background behind McGwire to further emphasize what made the '87 set so distinctive, but he felt the graffiti-style American flag would make a bolder statement.

"Growing up, the '85 Team USA rookie -- his true rookie, in most people's opinion -- was my most prized possession," Jamieson said. "It's so fun to be able to integrate that and still have some tribute to the '87 Topps as far as the pose goes."

Jamieson, 35, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and became a rabid fan of the Bash Brothers. He had A's season tickets behind the third-base dugout and collected every piece of McGwire and Jose Canseco memorabilia he could find. After agreeing to work with Topps, he returned to his parents' house and opened those boxes of cards for the first time in at least 10 years. Others have relayed similar stories.

"My path is not uncommon," Jamieson said. "I've gotten some of our art collectors that have followed my artist collection for a long time and now they're seeing what I do with Topps and they're buying my Topps cards, and then they're messaging me saying, 'Hey, I just found my baseball cards in my garage, and I'm taking a trip down memory lane.' It is bringing a younger, maybe new audience into the hobby. But I think just as importantly, it's taking people that were in the hobby at some point in their life and maybe fell out of it for various reasons and it's getting them back into it."

1993 Derek Jeter byAndrew Thiele

Andrew Thiele grew up in a house full of New York Yankees fans. He began his set with Willie Mays, then Mike Trout, then Sandy Koufax, and so the people back home kept peppering him with the same question: Where's Jeter?

"The personal responsibility is always there," Thiele said, "but it's a little bit higher when your mom is saying, 'Let me see this one.'"

Thiele, who owns a design studio and is widely recognized for his large-scale textured paintings, knew he needed to nail his version of Derek Jeter's 1993 Topps rookie. He came up with a highly involved trading card that resembles a movie poster. Thiele, 39, began by placing an older Jeter behind the baby-faced version Topps originally photographed.

"He was this scrawny kid," Thiele said, "and you watched him become a man in baseball."

Below are images of Jeter's final home game, which ended with a walk-off hit. Up top are snapshots of the Bronx, particularly what one sees when getting off the subway exit for Yankee Stadium.

"I didn't really play around with the city in the other cards; it was more straight baseball," Thiele said. "But I thought it was really important to have some Bronx representation in it, just due to the fact that when he came here, he kind of resurrected the Yankees and he resurrected New York in a certain sense."

Thiele begins with the base of the card in an 11-by-17 printout, then physically adds the other images to create something resembling a collage; the quality of the paper used for the other photos varies depending on how much they'll stand out. Thiele then applies acrylic gels and paints to build texture and bring it all together.

"It goes through different stages," Thiele said. "You constantly revisit it until you look at it and say, 'There's nothing else I can do to this card.'"

Baseball cards are the first thing Thiele remembers collecting. His mom threw out most of his drawings from childhood but kept his cards with the hope that they would retain value. Thiele grew up in New Jersey but considers himself "a New Yorker to its core." His family couldn't afford to take him to more than a handful of Yankees games growing up, but skipping school to attend the championship parade in the fall of 1996 remains one of his fondest memories.

"I always go back to that parade," Thiele said, "and I think about the celebration and the feeling that was, and I think it was an awesome thing."

1955 Roberto Clemente byMister Cartoon

That "P," that black and gold, has always hit a little differently for Mister Cartoon. His high school mascot in San Pedro, California, was the Pirates. Most of the neighborhood kids wore Pittsburgh Pirates caps for those distinctive P's -- the same caps later worn by the members of Mister Cartoon's car club, Pegasus. So it's no coincidence that the first thing you'll notice about Mister Cartoon's version of Roberto Clemente's 1955 rookie card is that bright yellow, three-dimensional "P" on the right-hand side.

"It was really close to me," Mister Cartoon said. "I wanted to make it powerful, I wanted it to be bold, I wanted you to be able to see it from a distance. And I wanted to zoom in on Roberto's eyes. His eyes -- they tell a lot. You can see his determination, you can see his focus. I wanted to zoom in on that with him, and of course I had to put that rugged pirate in there. That was where I could get off and do my thing. I wanted to also keep the tradition of the original card, keep that vibe so people could identify with it, even if they don't know who I am."

Mister Cartoon, 50, collected Topps baseball cards for parts of the 1970s and '80s, but the hobby fell by the wayside as art became a bigger part of his life. He began as a graffiti artist, moved on to murals, album covers and logos, then made his name with tattoos, many of which are now synonymous with East L.A.'s lowrider culture. His wide-ranging client list includes names such as Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Travis Barker and the late Kobe Bryant; his collaborations range from Vans to T-Mobile.

Mister Cartoon's style is strikingly evident in his Clemente card. You see it in the custom-car pinstriping near the bottom. You see it with the way he wrote out Clemente's name -- in the script font that became known for signaling importance, used for birth certificates and wedding invitations and neighborhood representations.

"It made your 'hood important and strong and masculine," Mister Cartoon said.

Mister Cartoon (given name: Mark Machado) begins with a pencil sketch, outlines in pen and ink and finishes with an airbrush. He got more involved in the sports world seven years ago while helping the Los Angeles Kings revamp their merchandise. When Topps approached him for this project, his childhood, baseball-loving friends were ecstatic. Mister Cartoon zeroed in on the Clemente card from the onset.

"It's funny -- when you get older, you can relive your childhood," he said. "I didn't get that card when I was a kid, but I got one now."

1952 Willie Mays byKing Saladeen

King Saladeen spent about a week putting his Willie Mays card together. Most of that time, though, was spent researching his subject. King Saladeen was hardly exposed to baseball while growing up in Philadelphia's inner city, indicative of a broader issue that Major League Baseball has grappled with through recent decades. He played basketball, touring the country on the AAU circuit, until a car accident at the age of 15 shifted his focus back to art.

For his version of the 1952 Mays card, which represented the first time Topps featured the Giants' legendary center fielder, King Saladeen displayed more of the contemporary abstract style that helped launch his career.

"All of the cards, I just want to add on to them," King Saladeen said. "I'm using the team colors to really make them pop because that original card, you wouldn't really know what the team colors were. It was really vintage, and you couldn't really see his hat much or his jersey. So I just wanted to bring those colors out."

King Saladeen, 35, started by blowing up the card for a 24-by-24 canvas, used paint-based markers and acrylics to create his design, cut up the different elements -- the name, the team logo, the portrait -- and configured the pieces like a puzzle. From there, it went to his digital team for resizing.

King Saladeen (given name: Raheem Saladeen Johnson) didn't know about any baseball players growing up beside Ken Griffey Jr., who transcended his sport in a way others haven't since. Project 2020 has forced him to learn about some of the game's other icons, most notably the African Americans who are now so strikingly absent from the sport. King Saladeen was struck by Mays' athleticism, but also his charisma and his confidence.

He hoped to convey that with his card.

"This just gives me another platform to highlight these guys and what they did for the world beyond baseball," King Saladeen said. "I'm inspired to be able to do these guys. My son doesn't know about any of them. He's 2 years old. And there's a lot of stuff that I didn't know that now I know that I can teach him and put that into the work and just always stay connected to baseball now. This has turned me into an actual fan."