The folksy, hand-drawn cards by Gummy Arts

Some of the most fun and popular cards out there are made with color pencils and are cut out by hand

February 6th, 2021
Tom Forget /

You would think that baseball cards would be a dying industry, or at least be on their last legs -- their last dog-eared corner. After all, with smartphones and the internet, you can pull up a photo of your favorite player faster than you could ever flip through a binder of carefully organized cards. You can see players in motion with highlight reels in stunning hi-definition -- so what is the appeal of an image on a simple piece of cardboard?

But with people trapped in their homes for the last year because of the pandemic, baseball cards reached heights not seen since the 1990s speculation-fueled boom. Highly sought-after cards continued to break auction records, and sales numbers at Topps -- the name in baseball cards -- were the highest they had been in the last decade.

And there are still many more people and artists out there, outside the official card industry, that treat baseball cards like the pieces of handheld pop art they are. Heavy J takes a collage approach, using a hefty dose of colored glitter to create something brand new. Pat Riot takes old Topps cards and "re-faces" them.

And then there's Mike Noren, better known as Gummy Arts to his devoted following within the nebulous online community best known as Baseball Twitter. Armed with his mechanical pencil, colored pencils and scissors, Noren has created some untold thousands of cards that are whimsical, funny, and add up to a kind of alternate reality that exists online and in the hands of his devoted fans.

It started, like so many things do, as a joke he and friends shared while drinking together at local Chicago bars. The group would talk about the players who belonged in "Cecil Cooperstown" -- the kind of players who made a significant impact on their teams and the game of baseball, but who never approached the heights necessary to gain entrance into the Hall of Fame.

"When I started drawing baseball cards, I basically set out to create a collection of 'Cecil Cooperstown' where I would research the greatest baseball players outside of the Hall of Fame," Noren said. "And that's how I started down the road of drawing a whole bunch of baseball players. It's branched off in different directions since then. I draw a lot of Hall of Famers, I draw a lot of historical figures, pop culture figures, whatever."

That's part of the appeal of Noren's sets, where he can imagine ballplayers in brand new ways. That's perhaps best exemplified by his "at home" series that he drew at the start of the pandemic, showing ballplayers doing their on-field activities while quarantined inside their homes. There's Mike Trout swinging his bat in the kitchen, Yoán Moncada making sure to wash his hands vigorously, and the infamous Billy Ripken card whose bat knob message changed from something definitely not-fit-to-print to the helpful message, "Stay home."

Then there are the pop culture figures, who never received cards to begin with. Regan MacNeil, the pea-soup-spewing, spider-walking-possessed child in "The Exorcist" has a card. The viral election numbers whiz Steve Kornacki and his khakis have a card. Noren's favorite bands get the classic rookie card treatment with all the members lined up on one small piece of cardboard.

"I feel like the whole collection is pretty representative of my taste and experience in sports and pop culture," Noren said. "You can probably look at my Instagram and have a good sense of my tastes."

He's also filling a want that many didn't realize they had, as baseball cards give people something they can hold onto and attach to their memories.

"I automatically know what year Rickey Henderson started because I can remember his 1980 Topps rookie card," Noren said. "And it's just a fun way of documenting baseball events that other realms don't really have like with music or movies. I mean, there's not a souvenir to document what happened in 1977 music."

Unless you have a Gummy Arts card, of course.

Still, not everything he draws deserves an inner-circle place either in Noren's life or as a member of the loosely organized "Cecil Cooperstown."

"I don't want to say that each drawing is necessarily bestowing some honor on anybody," Noren said. "I did a 'Magnum PI' card a while back, and I was happy to draw it and and I'm happy with the way turned it out, but to be honest, I can't remember the last time I watched 'Magnum PI.' I can't say if it was good or not," he says with a laugh.

The cards have been a big enough success that Noren -- who had worked for 20 years as a writer and editor in educational publishing -- was able to leave his day job and focus entirely on his passion project. Still, don't expect him to, in the terms of some of the punk bands that he's drawn, sell out. He's not trading in his colored pencils for fancy digital graphics -- even if Noren admits he actually traces out the shape of his cards instead of drawing them on any available piece of scrap paper like in the old days.

Even the card-sets that he sells online -- and which can command decent money on eBay for collectors looking to complete their Gummy Arts collection -- are positively folksy.

"It's all very quaint and homemade," Noren said. "It's printed by me at home. Cut by me with a pair of scissors, and I construct the packs by hand making sure no one gets any doubles in the same order. And they're just bound up with a little wrapper with a rubber stamp that I get each year. So it's just a fun little homemade art project, basically."

That even has an effect on his sales.

"It's pretty tedious to do all the cutting, so I'm out of stock a lot of the time," Noren says with a laugh. "It's not a professionally printed, efficient operation."

The cards have brought him some pretty nice recognition, too. The now-defunct online National Pasttime Museum asked Noren to draw 300 actual members of Cooperstown, allowing the artist to fill out his collection with the players he had never planned to cover.

Randy Johnson once saw a cartoon that Noren drew featuring the pitcher and the bird that he accidentally vaporized during a Spring Training game. Soon after, the Hall of Fame hurler requested a drawing for his photography business. Noren sent Johnson a few options, who then sent back a signed copy of the one he didn't select.

Via @GummyArts on Instagram

And then, in perhaps the highlight of his career, Noren was asked to submit work for the opening of the actual Hall of Fame's baseball card exhibit, Shoebox Treasures, in 2019.

"When that invite came in, and they asked if I could provide some cards I was pretty much floored," Noren said, who sent his drawings of Jimmy Rollins, Ted Kluszewski, Jack Pfiester and the AAGPBL's JoJo D’Angelo. "It's funny because I started this whole thing creating my own extension of the Baseball Hall of Fame. To actually have four cards included in the exhibit -- and all four are non-Hall of Famers, so they're actual Cecil Cooperstown members who are now hanging on the walls in the actual Baseball Hall of Fame."

The work has not only given Noren a new day job, but a happy little place to exist in.

"The baseball card artwork online community is a really positive and supportive group," Noren said. "I know that a lot of Twitter can be a mean place, but the little corner of card artists just feels really genuine and has people being good to one another."

As for why baseball cards still hold such a sway over people and give artists and collectors so much room to work and grow, he has a few ideas.

"There's so many different ways you can specialize," Noren said. "You can draw cards, you can even cut up cards, like there are a lot of people that are doing like card art where they they'll take junk wax cards and create new pieces out of them. And so baseball card collecting has branched into so many different areas, different styles, different ways you use them. I can't think of any other hobbies that are open to that many different approaches."