By Mike Shannon
Fathers should never underestimate the influence they have on their sons, especially when it comes to sharing a passion like baseball.
The “Fathers & Sons” theme is a common one, but it isn’t always limited to backyard games of catch and developing a loyalty to the same team, nor does it always manifest itself in the same way. Take, for example, the case of Gary Joseph Cieradkowski (SIR-AD-KOW-SKI) of Ft. Thomas, Ky. (across the Ohio River from Cincinnati). His relationship with his father, a garment cutter in Passaic, N.J., helped spur him toward developing a wildly original and creative baseball blog, which in turn has led to the production of one of the most beautiful and fascinating baseball art card sets ever conceived . . . one with an interesting twist: It’s never-ending!
The story of the blog and cards called “The Infinite Baseball Card Set” began Aug. 4, 1970, in Passaic when Cieradkowski was born into a family of what he refers to as “third generation New York Yankees haters.” The Cieradkowski household had always been Dodgers territory, and feelings for the team ran so deep that Gary’s grandfather refused to acknowledge that Walter O’Malley had ever moved the franchise across the country to the West Coast. Whenever the Los Angeles Dodgers were in the news or on television, Gary’s granddad referred to them as the “Brooklyn Dodgers,” without irony.
Because the Dodgers really were gone and rooting for the team in the Bronx was out of the question, young Cieradkowski became a Mets fan by default; although for many years the confused lad wondered why, if the original Dodgers still existed as they seemed to for his dad, his grandpa never took him to Brooklyn to watch them play at Ebbets Field.
Cieradkowski wasn’t much of a ballplayer himself. He played one year of Little League, and after that it was “lots of neighborhood ball . . . up into my early 20s.” However, he had always displayed a knack for drawing and an eye for the artistic detail, and so a couple of years after graduating from high school, he headed down to Baltimore, where he attended the Maryland Institute College of Art on a scholarship. Times were tough then, jobs were scarce, especially for new graduates of art schools, and so in the summer of 1991, Cieradkowski marched into the offices of David Ashton & Co. Ltd. and applied for what he thought would be an unpaid internship. It was the luckiest move he ever made.
It seems that David Ashton & Co. had recently picked up a great account, the job to design all the graphics for the new baseball stadium about to be built in Baltimore, a retro-styled throwback baseball “park” that would sit amidst ancient brick warehouses and be known as Camden Yards.
The problem was that nobody in the employ of David Ashton cared that much about baseball. Cieradkowski might have been young and inexperienced, but he definitely cared about baseball. In fact, judging by all the baseball drawings and sketches in the portfolio of student work he brought along to show his betters at David Ashton, he positively loved baseball. He got the internship, and before long the once-a-week internship turned into a real job. The decision whether to go right to work in the real world or stay in school and finish his degree wasn’t really a tough choice.
Cieradkowski was given more and more work to do on the Camden Yards project, so by Christmas he was an art director at the company. In the end, the Cieradkowski touch was stamped all over the new ballpark, as Gary wound up designing the clock on the scoreboard, the graphics on top of the dugouts, the logo of the ballpark itself, the ushers’ uniforms . . . “Everything that made it look good, made it look like a ballpark is supposed to look,” he says proudly.
Cieradkowski stayed with David Ashton for three years and even got some more baseball work, creating the logo for the 1993 All-Star Game at Camden Yards, as well as the signage for the redesign of Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. But he also began to feel the travel bug. He wanted to see the rest of the country, and so, armed with an impressive portfolio and plenty of confidence, he began an odyssey that took him from one job and one part of the country to another.
He had some more notable achievements, such as the successful packaging designs for famous brands such as Folgers Coffee and Bicycle Playing Cards, and he discovered an area he would fall in love with, Cincinnati.
Not every move worked out though, and it was while in California that he reached the nadir of his still-burgeoning career. For years, no matter where he lay his head down at night, Cieradkowski had remained close to his dad through baseball. Like his son, Gary Cieradkowski Sr. loved the history and romance of the game, and one way he shared that love was through the trivia questions he constantly threw at Gary.
“I’d get a phone call, and without identifying himself or even saying ‘hello,’ my dad would ask me a baseball trivia question . . . something he was sure would stump me, like who was a member of three straight but different World Series teams: the 1919 White Sox, the 1920 Brooklyn Dodgers and the 1921 New York Yankees? And then when I got it right, he’d slam the phone down without even saying ‘goodbye.’ Ha, ha!” Cieradkowski shared.
Gary Cieradkowski Sr. died while Gary was living in California, and his father’s death caused Gary to re-evaluate his life.
“All my friends had already moved back East because they kept losing their jobs or couldn’t afford to live in California anymore, and so when my dad died, I didn’t have anybody to talk baseball with,” he said. “I woke up one day and realized I wanted to move back to the Cincinnati area, which I love and where the people really know baseball and love their team, the Reds.”
The passing of his father also spurred Cieradkowski into finding a unique outlet for his passion for baseball that he could no longer share with his dad. In February 2010, he started a sketch of Negro League pitching great Leon Day. He turned the sketch into a stylized baseball card, put the card on a blog he began and wrote a story about Day’s career to provide a context for the image. A couple of days later he created another card, then another, and soon he had five cards and stories on the blog, which he called “The Infinite Baseball Card Set” (http://infinitecardset.blogspot.com). He got feedback immediately . . . from scores of people and then from hundreds of people . . . from perfect strangers, many of whom became instant friends.
“It was amazing,” he says. “I started bonding with all these people over our common interest in baseball history and art, and fathers would tell me they were using the blog to get their kids interested into delving into the history of the game.”
Those first five card images have expanded well beyond 100. Cieradkowski eventually began making them into actual cards, and he now has plenty of friends to talk baseball with.
Due to requests from fans of the blog, Cieradkowski printed his first cards and made them available as a small set when the number of cards reached 20. He priced the set of 20 cards at $25. Once the number of cards he’d created reached around 100, he began selling individual cards for $5 each. Even though the “set” is up to 144 cards for $290, Cieradkowski does not consider himself to be in the baseball card making-and-selling business. In fact, he doesn’t consider his creations baseball “cards” in the normal sense at all. In the first place, they are business card-sized and not the dimensions that collectors would recognize as common to any other typical baseball cards. Second, they are digitally printed and made of fairly thin cardboard; again characteristics not associated with mass-produced baseball cards. Most importantly, there is no finish line for the set. Cieradkowski envisions adding more players indefinitely, which is why he carefully chose to name the project – the “Infinite” card set – right from the beginning and why the cards remain unnumbered. He freely admits, with a bit of good-natured amusement, that this aspect of the endeavor “drives the complete-ists insane.”
What gives Cieradkowski fans immense pleasure is the cards themselves, whether you call them baseball cards or “art cards,” the term preferred by Cieradkowski. There is simply nothing else like them in the hobby. Each card exerts a powerful pull upon the attention of the viewer, not only because of the striking graphic and design elements embodied in it, but also because of the identity of the player chosen and the amount of research behind each card.
Cieradkowski plucks his flowers from the entire baseball garden, so that the Infinite Baseball Card Set contains cards of players and personages as diverse as Japanese Hall of Fame pitcher and Russian native Victor Starfin, Negro League pitcher and murderer Lefty Brown, handicapped Federal League player Fred “Humpty” Badel, fictional Cheers television character Sam “Mayday” Malone, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Joseph Styborski, the mysterious man in the 1927 New York Yankees team photo . . . unidentified for years who turned out to be a batting practice pitcher who’d recently graduated from Penn State University.
If some of the players on Cieradkowski’s art cards seem a bit obscure, half the fun in collecting the cards is learning the players’ stories, which are presented in brief on the card backs and in detail on the blog. Discovering such players and researching their stories is also a large part of what drives Cieradkowski, as the educational value of The Infinite Baseball Card Set is unequalled in the hobby.
What puts the cards over the top is the creativity that Cieradkowski combines with the research he does. Instead of simply reproducing the same photo of a player that every other artist uses, Gary creates poses from his imagination.
“I try to learn how a player pitched or batted and I create a new pose for him that no one has ever seen before. When I started my website, I wanted my art to be as different as possible . . . something you couldn’t get anywhere else. Everyone does the same pose of Satchel Paige over and over again. I didn’t want to do that. And this is especially important when it comes to Negro Leaguers and players even more obscure than them, because not many photos of them exist.”
There is no question Cieradkowski’s cards are different. His deceptively simplified graphic drawing style and his brilliant use of bold integrated coloring and imaginative backgrounds make the cards strikingly appealing and identifiable. But what holds the ever-expanding set together is the basic design of the cards. Other than an occasional tweak that modifies the icon of crossed bats behind a baseball that appear in the upper corners of each card, every card has the same exact frame: Two pillars down each side spanned by an information-bearing curved bridge at the top and a banner at the bottom. It is an unimprovable design.
The most satisfying part of the entire project for Cieradkowski is the recognition and appreciation that he is able to provide relatives of players depicted on the cards.
“Lots of relatives of the players call me up and say, ‘That was my father . . . or that was my great-uncle. It means a lot to see him on a baseball card.’ ”
Cieradkowski cards have even brought together relatives unknown to each other and living in different parts of the country, as in the case of Overton Tremper, a one-time renowned player for the amateur powerhouse Brooklyn Bushwicks. In another case, a descendent of a player, Negro Leaguer Pete Hill, was so enthused about his ancestor’s card that he inspired Cieradkowski to expand that card into an entire set of 15 cards (complete with its own beautiful wrapper), covering Hill’s career in detail. (The Pete Hill set is limited to 1,000 and sells for $25.)
This summer, Cieradkowski issued a small book about some of the cards in The Infinite Baseball Card Set. It sold out almost immediately, but don’t despair. A larger book is planned for Spring 2015 with Simon and Schuster and will undoubtedly bring Cieradkowski and his work to a larger audience.
In the meantime, you can enjoy his cards for free on your computer screen, or in your hands if you want to purchase them. You can even commission Gary to make cards of yourself and friends and family, similar to the “Groomsmen” set of his best friends who witnessed the vows at his recent wedding. In any case, The Infinite Baseball Card Set is one you won’t soon forget . . . especially since you will never finish putting it together.
And the answer to Gary Sr.’s trivia question? Why, batboy Eddie Bennett, of course – someone it should not surprise you to know who has found a permanent home in the amazing world of Gary Cieradkowski.
Mike Shannon is a freelance contributor to SCD. He is also the editor-in-chief of Spitball magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.