Illustration by Beatrice Sala

Toward the end of my call with New York artist Blake Jamieson, I could hear the unmistakable rattling of a spray can ball bearing, followed by a serpentarium’s worth of hisses. Jamieson was cranking out a last-minute portrait of some friends who were coming over for a dinner party later that night, and our conversation about his work with a life-changing client had extended long enough that he was calculating how much time the paint had to dry. 

Jamieson thrives on tight deadlines, which is why that client, the Topps Card Company, called him on the eve of the mid-May Major League debut of one of baseball’s top prospects, Jarred Kelenic. Topps needed a baseball card of the Seattle Mariners outfielder, stat.

“Topps hit me up, saying, ‘Hey, Jarred is getting called up. If you can finish a card by tomorrow, you can do his first rookie card,’” Jameison said. “That was a late night.”

Blake Jamieson’s design for a Topps Jared Kelenic card. | Image courtesy of Topps

After working with Topps to secure rights to a Getty Images photograph of the nascent Mariner, Jamieson printed a 30-inch-by-40-inch version and went to town on it with his exacto knife, creating a set of stencil layers that he bathed in spray paint, photographed, and refined in Photoshop. The all-night frenzy produced a card that debuted on May 17 as part of Topps’ Project70 program, a set of cards that puts artists, designers, and illustrators front and center in a way that usually only the ballplayers are. 

The 70 part of the Project70 title alludes to the 70-year history of Topps baseball cards (a history that suddenly has an end date after news broke that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association will end its contract with Topps and partner with the sports merchandising company Fanatics on trading cards). Ever since some late-1800s tobacco execs decided to put portraits of famous people on the blank cards inserted in flimsy cigarette packs to stiffen them, baseball cards have been a designed endeavor. Someone had to decide to bathe the background of the T206 Honus Wagner lithograph in Pittsburg Pirate gold. Someone made the decision to wrap chunks of gum and 1948 Bowman picture cards in white packaging with the words PLAY and BALL printed across them in alternating blue and red.  

The blueprint for modern trading cards was designed in 1952 on a Brooklyn apartment kitchen table by Topps’ Sy Berger and Woody Gelman (who also co-created Bazooka Joe and Mars Attacks for Topps). The 1952 Topps Baseball set featured colorized portraits of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, and other mid century players with their names and signatures on a marquee of sorts surrounded by stars. On the back of the cards was a grid of statistics — a design feature that’s still present on cards today. 

Card designs by Keith Shore. | Images courtesy of Topps

A year later, a new collection hit the shops — a hand-painted collection of cards  revered among collectors for its artistic qualities. Finding information about the people who painted these early sets, however, is about as challenging as coming across an unopened pack of cards from that era. Bob Wechsler, author of The Jewish Baseball Card Book, gave it a go. While the book focused on Jewish baseball players, Wechsler said he wanted to give credit to the Jewish architects of the first modern baseball cards. 

Wechsler found a 2007 Sports Collector’s Digest interview with Berger (who died in 2014), in which the artist talked about creating the 1952 set and improving upon it in future years. “I designed the first cards, and I told Woody Gelman, ‘This is what I want,’ and Woody would sketch it,” Berger said in the interview. “That’s the way we worked. That was probably the first eight or nine years, and then we got professional designers. I designed that 1953 card and was instrumental in getting the painting done. We had a guy doing those paintings a mile-a-minute. A little off-the-wall guy named Moishe. He did the bulk of the cards.”

Moishe, Wechsler found out after consulting with another writer named Dan Bloom, was an artist named Maurice Blumenfeld. Artist Gerry Dvorak later laid claim to about 50 paintings from the 274-card set. In the 1950s, it was rare to know the names of baseball card artists. Though the artists were vital to the production, the players (and perhaps to a greater extent, the gum flavor) likely drove most kids’ purchasing decisions. While baseball cards gravitated toward photography as the ’50s wore on, artists began to get their due on other Topps trading cards. “Interestingly, in the ’60s with Mars Attacks and Wacky Packages and then continuing through to the ’80s, we did work with some really noteworthy designers and illustrators,” said Jeff Heckman, who leads the Project70 effort at Topps. “Art Spiegelman was involved. John Pound was one of the famous GPK (Garbage Pail Kids) artists.”

This artistic lineage has informed Topps’ Project70 program, and the shockingly successful Project2020 series that preceded it. Released last year, Project2020 gave 20 artists creative license to go nuts with 20 of the most iconic cards Topps has produced. Both programs were Topps’ attempt to breathe new life into the medium and ignite interest in trading cards from a potential customer base that hasn’t historically been interested in the hobby.

Fifty-one artists, including most of the Project2020 alums, are showcased in the Project70 program, and they encompass a wide range of styles and specialties. Alex Pardee illustrates “Brightmares,” reimagining stars like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. with monstrous characteristics. Sophia Chang’s adventurous typography transports players into comic book realms. While there are a handful of participants like Snoop Dogg, Action Bronson, and filmmaker New York Nico, most of the artists are illustrators by trade who have been encouraged to apply their style to Topps’ products. 

Left: Card design by Ermsy. Middle: Card design by Blake Jamieson. Right: Card design by Blake Jamieson | Images courtesy of Topps

The program is Topps’ attempt to ignite interest in trading cards from a potential customer base that hasn’t historically been interested in the hobby.

Entree into an industry filled with trading card collectors — and the royalty fees their purchases generate — has reshaped business models for artists like Jamieson. A former digital marketer, Jamieson has an unusual knack for identifying business opportunities. After Topps asked him to design a card for Project2020, Jamieson began scouring online card collecting forums and social media accounts. He made an informed decision to place a hedged bet on himself, buying some of his own cards, signing them and selling them on the secondary market. 

“One thing that I figured out really early, is that (collectors) love autographed cards,” said Jamieson, who hired full and part-time staff to help with Topps-related demand and now has a separate website solely for card art. He shared his strategy with other Topps illustrators, some of whom followed suit. “Me and another artist, Tyson Beck, simultaneously launched autographed versions of our Topps cards, and they immediately sold. I couldn’t keep them on the shelf,” Jamieson said. “Everybody that I could get a hold of, I let them know, and some people listened and some people didn’t. And most of the people that listened have bought houses or got studio spaces or expanded their business, which is pretty cool.” 

When Topps executives first conceptualized Project2020, they couldn’t have known how big a boon it would be to the creative set. They were hopeful that working with artists would introduce card collecting to a different audience, while also shaking things up for longtime card collectors. The initial idea was to choose 20 artists with different and unique styles — no prior knowledge about baseball necessary — and let each of them reinterpret 20 of the card company’s most well-known baseball cards. Heckman said Topps knew that this could be potentially polarizing to some traditional trading card collectors. “The reason why we did it was intentional, because we wanted to draw on these artists’ fanbases and this new group of potential collectors that could be attracted to the art that these artists were (creating) for the baseball cards,” he said. 

“Most of the people that listened have bought houses or got studio spaces or expanded their business.”

Starting in spring 2020, Topps began posting two of the Project2020 cards for sale on its site each weekday, leveraging the same “drop” marketing strategy as hypebeast clothing lines. To create a frenzy, Topps gave buyers a finite amount of time to pay $19.95 a pop (or less if purchased in package deals). Topps printed as many as the public demanded, and collectors found out how many of the cards existed only after the window to buy had closed. 

Left: Card design by Blake Jamieson. Middle: Card design by Sophia Chang. Right: Card design by Ermsy | Images courtesy of Topps

While I’m no stranger to baseball card dorkery, I learned about Project2020 the way Heckman theorized — by happening to follow one of the Instagram accounts of one of the artists involved, the Paris-based Ermsy. In late March of 2020, Ermsy — who is known for his pop culture, multiverse melding style — posted an illustration that caught me by surprise. It was Los Angeles Angels’ outfielder Mike Trout. Sort of. It was Trout, in his Angels jersey, drawn on his 2011 Topps rookie card, but his arms were all corkscrewed. Smoke curled out of a sleeve and wrapped around the Angels logo. His head stretched through a few dimensions. It was card No. 4 in the then-infant Project2020 program. “Ermsy’s Trout card was the first one that flipped the industry on its head, because it’s just a baseball card that people were not expecting at all,” Jamieson said.

Heckman said that when he saw the proof for that card, he knew they were onto something. In an email, Ermsy said that he had no expectations for Project2020 when it began, adding that while he was happy to have been asked to participate, his knowledge of baseball was limited to the NES and Neo Geo video games he played growing up. Ermsy wrote on the Trout post that he was taking part in “an awesome project remixing 20 iconic baseball cards.” I liked the post. But I did not buy the card. That would prove to be quite stupid, at least from a financial standpoint. The Ermsy Trout sold 2,911 copies, a number that Heckman said exceeded early modest expectations at Topps. 

“Internally I probably had the highest hopes,” Heckman said. “I was hoping, ‘Could we get a card (to sell) like 10,000 copies in a 48-hour period?’ That would be my dream. But I think internally, we were all like, ‘Hey if we can sell 1,000 or 2,000 cards on average, and you know, maybe some will bump up based on the player or based on the artist, or based on the rendition or popularity. But if we average like 1,000 to 2,000, that’d be good.”

Another thing that started up that spring was the global pandemic. In 2019, when I wrote a story about the Donruss Rated Rookie logo for Eye on Design (if you designed it back in the 1980s, I still want to talk!) and spoke with the creative team at Panini America, another major card company, the trading card industry was on a bit of an upswing. That upswing has, um, accelerated. This February, eBay released a “State of Trading Cards” report, claiming that 4 million more cards were auctioned or sold on the site in 2020 than during 2019. Heckman said that when sports leagues shuttered early on in the pandemic, the trading card industry’s upward swing climbed into overdrive. Card collecting was a hobby that filled a sports void and could be enjoyed in your bubble, one you could take part in entirely from home thanks to all kinds of e-commerce options. (That was good, since Target halted in-store sales following Wisconsin parking lot violence related to trading card scarcity.) The Project2020 artists were quickly swept up in the craze. 

Not long after Topps sold the 2,911 Ermsy Mike Trout cards, way, way more than 2,911 people wanted one. The $19.95 retail card took off on the secondary market, and prices still hover around $500 for copies on eBay. Ermsy, who was on Jamieson’s cold call list, said he heeded the advice to sell a handful of autographed Trout cards on his website. “I didn’t announce it, and there they sat for some days without a great deal of interest,” Ermsy wrote. “The following day I woke up and everything had been sold. Everything disappeared. I thought I’d been scammed, or something was wrong with the site; it was unreal. It was at that point that I realized the Project (and particularly that card) was a big deal.”

Keith Shore’s design for Topps’ Pete Alonso card. | Image courtesy of Topps

As attention built for some of the early Project2020 cards, sales increased for the available ones. Heckman nearly got his 10,000-card wish with a King Saladeen Derek Jeter (9,873) that debuted on April 14, 2020, and had it granted a few days later with Andrew Thiele’s version of the Trout card, which sold 13,200 copies. On Memorial Day Weekend 2020, Heckman was hanging out with his family at a park when Topps staff started texting him to ask if he’d checked the sales figures of a Ken Griffey Jr. card illustrated by Keith Shore, an artist whose work was most connected to Mikkeller Brewing promotional material before he signed on for the Topps project. Heckman said he’d look when the work week began, but curiosity got the better of him.

“I got home, and I was like, ‘Whoa,’” he said. The card was on its way to selling an unfathomable 99,177 copies. A few releases after that, a Jamieson Mike Trout sold 74,862 copies. A Joshua Vides Nolan Ryan sold nearly 65,000 and a Ben Baller Derek Jeter cracked 64,000. 

“The business model that I was running before was commission-based, one-to-one sales, so I’d be going out and trying to find people that want to buy my art,” Jamieson said. “They pay me, I make a painting, I send it to them. And then I go find the next person. It’s cool; I’ve gotten to work with a lot of amazing people. But Topps put me on the licensing game where I could paint one thing, and then that art ends up in thousands of homes, or in the case of my Mike Trout card, like 75,000 homes, which is insane.”

Both the players and the backgrounds on Ermsy’s cards at times melt, smoke, bubble, twist, twitch, and stretch apart. Last April, he released a Project70 card that finally made me cave and give Topps my money. It featured the late Dock Ellis, and a drippy interpretation of his fabled 1970 no-hitter on acid. “The final art for that card was actually my second attempt,” Ermsy wrote. “The first was an image of Dock throwing at (Jimi) Hendrix from the opposite point of view. I thought it was okay but could’ve been improved. I was inspired by one of my favorite images by American comic artist Robert Crumb with his ‘Stoned Again’ piece that I’ve referenced many times. I just think it’s perfection.”

The Ermsy Ellis card sold 5,505 copies, a much tamer sales figure than the massive Project2020 stats during the early pandemic trading card Gold Rush. Heckman said that was bound to happen — “printing 99,000 cards is crazy.” Jamieson, one of several artists to produce a Topps set of their own to complement their Project2020 and Project70 work, said he’s less focused on producing cards of the most marketable players and more interested in reimagining bits of baseball history that resonate with the sport’s fans, with whom he’s entered into a years-long social media conversation. His latest card is his take on that time when ex-Mets manager Bobby Valentine got ejected from a game and snuck back into the dugout wearing sunglasses and a fake mustache that he for some reason had lying around in the clubhouse. “The project could have gone way differently, negatively, and I still would have considered it a success because I was able to make it through the pandemic without closing my doors,” he said. 

There are still about 500 Project70 cards yet to be released, and there are a few other artist-involved projects already in the queue. Ermsy said that he’s working on a non-sports set for Topps. (He recently put a Garbage Pail Kid on one of his Project70 cards, for what that’s worth.) On Aug. 20, I emailed Heckman to see if he could comment about the coming split from MLB, and if he knew it was coming when we talked. As of publishing, he hadn’t responded. 

I spoke with Heckman in early August, before news of the Fanatics deal broke. When we talked, Heckman had just returned from the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago, which he said had a different buzz and energy than he’d see in previous years. Money was flying around — a copy of the aforementioned Honus Wagner card that was on display at the convention later sold at auction for $6.6 million. Heckman was in good spirits, and said it was good to see familiar faces and new ones after the pandemic cancelled last year’s convention. I didn’t feel like I was looking at a poker face while we were Zooming, but I also didn’t fathom to ask if Topps was going to lose its licenses to produce baseball cards. When I asked about future partnerships with artists, Heckman said that there were several, and teased a continuation of the Project70 run that would use “new properties and licenses that Topps has” and maybe change the way that the cards go to market. He was looking forward to continuing on in a successful partnership. “At its core, it’s still going to be us partnering with artists and utilizing their creativity on this 2 ½-by-3 ½  [inch] Topps canvas,” he said.