You will never see another set of baseball cards like this one. And honestly, we’re lucky this set ever came into existence.
During the baseball card boom of the 1990s, brands like Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, Donruss and scores of other, smaller brands tried to one-up each other with promotions and gimmicks to drive collectors wild and inspire them to gobble up boxes of the new product.
There were holograms (a Denny’s specialty), jersey and autograph inserts that still drive the market, and even ... marbles. The ‘90s, man -- it’s like looking back on a fever dream.
But then there was Pinnacle. The card brand existed for seven short years, but in that time it quickly developed a reputation as one of the best among collectors for its impressive designs, sharp photographs and intriguing inserts.
That leads us to this: The Christie Brinkley Collection. In 1996, Pinnacle reached out to the supermodel, entrepreneur and photographer to shoot her own 16-card subset that popped up once in every 23 packs.
While the idea behind the set makes sense from a marketing standpoint, it was far from a publicity stunt -- they contacted Brinkley because she had already shown the skill and passion for capturing live sports from behind the camera lens.
“When I got asked to do that, I thought, ‘Really?’ Because I’ve always been a big baseball fan. I couldn’t believe my luck,” Brinkley recently told MLB.com. “I had been featured in a couple magazines. My boxing pictures were in Ring Magazine and picked up in newspapers, and some of my auto racing pictures made it into Ampersand. They knew I liked to take pictures.”
It also helped smooth over the spring photoshoots that players tend to approach the same way one does mopping the floor or doing the dishes.
“They knew that the baseball players didn’t like to take these pictures, and [Pinnacle] said, ‘We thought that maybe if we had a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model taking the pictures they might come to get their picture taken,'” Brinkley said.
That proved true.
“I think all of my teammates were pretty jealous I got to do a photoshoot with Christie Brinkley. I’ve never seen all of my teammates show up at any of my other photoshoots,” Chipper Jones said to MLB.com. “I was obviously very young and I’m sure some of my older teammates were like, ‘Why does he get to do it with Christie Brinkley?’”
So, Brinkley traveled down to Florida to shoot the cards before the Indians and Braves met during the spring of ‘96 for a rematch of the previous fall’s World Series.
While Brinkley’s name is what first drew people's attention, it's how she approached the set with a sense of fun and whimsy that is rare to find anywhere in the sports world that helps it stand apart a quarter century later.
Armed with a dreamy sky-blue portrait backdrop, the model came up with images and scenes that would tell the story of each player she photographed.
“She did her homework,” Laurie Goldberg, then the vice president of public relations for Pinnacle Brands said in the July 1996 issue of “Pinnacle” magazine. (Yes, in the ‘90s, baseball card companies had their own baseball card magazines.) “She came up with special setups for every single player and gave us a list of props -- probably the most extensive list of props we’ve ever used before -- for the shoot in Florida.”
The photos ranged from Tom Glavine -- a huge golfer -- using a pitching wedge on the mound, to Ryan Klesko, surfing on the field.
Fred McGriff -- the Crime Dog -- looks ready to open up the sexiest private eye company in existence as he dons a fedora years before they become the cringe-worthy object they are today. Meanwhile, Jason Schmidt looks every bit the confused parent of an overexcited child that every person who has ever spent time with a kid knows all too well:
Some seem strange, and perhaps a little embarrassing almost 25 years later. Carlos Baerga appears with his shirt open like he’s the cover model for a romance novel, with a heart hand-painted on his chest by the supermodel herself.
Still, this was supposed to show that Baerga was the heart and soul of the Cleveland club, and Baerga’s wide smile reveals that he’s having a good time with it -- even if it looks silly and endlessly meme-able today.
Marquis Grissom’s is perhaps one of the goofiest, showing the outfielder pretending to run the bases with a radar gun trained on him. (Though, you could be excused if you thought perhaps it was a hairdryer and they were trying to dry off his legs.)
“I think that they all loved their storylines, whether it was like, 'OK, Marquis, I know you’re famous for running so fast around those bases, so I want to put a speed radar on you,'" Brinkley said. "And he was so cute about it.”
Sure, the photos are silly, but they represent what these players did on the field as fun, visual puns. Because Kenny Lofton was a speedy basestealer, he was shown ... literally stealing bases.
Long before dugout dances and players showing their goofy sides became the norm, Brinkley captured that spirit years before it was GIF-ed and endlessly shared on Twitter.
Photographing the reigning pennant winners meant Brinkley also snapped some of the biggest stars in the game at the outset of their careers.
One of those players was Jim Thome, who was coming off a 25-homer campaign in his first full big league season. The Indians slugger appears wearing a pair of boxing gloves, but the game’s gentle giant looks anything but threatening.
“It was unique, but very cool,” Thome said -- coincidentally having just unearthed an 8x10 print of his card while housecleaning in quarantine.
Ballplayers are usually asked to “‘hold your bat over your left or right shoulder,’” or “‘Get in your left-handed batting stance,’” Thome explained. “This was really cool because it was off the beaten path. It was not something that we all were used to. And to be part of it now all these years later is cool.”
“For a young, early 20s guy, think about it -- anytime a supermodel wants a picture, I think you do it.”
Perhaps the most iconic photo, and one that wound up on the cover of Beckett Magazine, features Jones -- then just 24 years old and coming off his World Series win -- with his sleeves rolled up, his jersey in a messy French tuck, blowing a big bubble.
“She wanted a certain look,” Jones said. “I was the young, cocky punk. So, I had to have my hat on backwards. I had to have my sleeves rolled up and I needed to be blowing a bubble. I had to have eye black on. I’m thinking to myself the whole time, I hope Bobby [Cox] doesn’t come out here and see me with my hat on backwards and my sleeves rolled up and my shirt half untucked.”
(There was also the chance of a further photo series that never came to fruition. Jones said that Brinkley asked him to come to New York for a second photoshoot, but when Pinnacle would only pay for one ticket, his wife put the kibosh on it.)
Still, there were a few issues. The back of the cards were initially supposed to feature the players posing with a life-size cardboard cutout of Brinkley in a bathing suit. But before shooting began, the cutout was damaged. So Brinkley stepped in to take what may be some of history's first selfies (note: that fact may or may not be accurate). It actually works better -- rather than the players posing with a lifeless cardboard cutout, the photos look like a bunch of friends hanging out together, smiling and joking around.
“They’re not the best pictures of me,” Brinkley said with a laugh, “but they’re great pictures of the guys and that’s what they’re all about.”
A few players also proved a bit more difficult. Dave Justice was a little uncomfortable with all the attention. Since Justice was known for being one of the most attractive ballplayers, Brinkley had everyone on set grab megaphones and "compliment him, just say, ‘you’re great, you’re handsome,’” Brinkley said. “We had all of those [noisemakers], and he seemed a little bit embarrassed or shy about all those.”
Greg Maddux was another. He agreed to do the shoot beforehand, but Brinkley's relentless enthusiasm won him over. On the day of the shoot, she raced down the sideline, camera and props in hand, while Maddux warmed up in the bullpen to get him to pose.
“Greg Maddux is the picture-perfect pitcher, so I’m going to put him in a frame and call it a day and take his picture,” was how Brinkley described the photo.
Finally, and least shocking, it was Albert Belle who proved most challenging -- and, in the end, perhaps the most rewarding.
“I think my favorite though was Albert Belle,” Brinkley said. “[Pinnacle] told me Albert Belle never smiles. ‘If you can get Albert Belle to smile, we’ll pay you twice the amount.’ So I thought ‘Oh boy, how am I going to do this?’”
Originally, Brinkley wanted Belle to paint the No. 50 on each of his biceps, commemorating that he was the first player in history to hit 50 home runs and doubles in a single season. He said no.
Next, she wanted him to make a muscle and point to it, as he did against the Red Sox when they checked to see if his bat was corked in the ALDS (and which has since been made into a bobblehead). Again, he said no.
It was looking dire, and Belle was about to leave without his photo being taken, but Brinkley had one more idea up her sleeve. She called on her infant son, Jack.
“So I said, ‘Oh, here, can you just hold my baby for a second?’ I popped him into [Belle’s] arms before he could even answer, and then when I was backing away, my son Jack turned his head to reach me and say 'Mommy!' and the bill of his hat went right into Albert Belle’s face. I was doing a selfie and captured the moment. [Belle] was smiling and I quickly stepped back and the smile was still on his face.”
She snapped the picture -- a true one of a kind -- finding a moment of joy on the face of a slugger who was notorious for never letting his guard down.
“It’s such a great thing to be able to say to my son, ‘Look, you’re on Albert Belle’s lap and you got him to smile when nobody else could.’ To have my son have his own baseball card, as well, was part of the thrill.”
Twenty-five years on, the cards have attained a kind of cult status among card collectors. They look like nothing else that you might see while digging through dusty cardboard boxes or eBay listings, so while they may not fetch the highest prices, they're valued among a certain set of oddities collectors. (That was revealed when I was entangled in multiple bidding wars to purchase these cards while working on the story.) Baseball cards became big business in the '90s, but Brinkley's set is a reminder that these things are supposed to be fun.
“The guys could not have been nicer,” Brinkley remembered. “I just had the best time.”
Jones echoed that. “I had a blast with it. It was probably my most memorable photo shoot of all time.”
Thanks to Mark Bowman for additional reporting. Layouts by Tom Forget / MLB.com
Michael Clair writes for MLB.com. He spends a lot of time thinking about walk-up music and believes stirrup socks are an integral part of every formal outfit.