How a very talented baseball fan is bringing baseball cards back in style by hand
Mike Noren is the steady hand behind Gummy Arts
Creation beginneths with Joaquin Andujar and white space. Or it does for Mike Noren, anyway.
Noren is a 43-year-old Chicago-based writer, editor, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor. He's also a unique and dedicated practitioner of celebrating old baseball cards, which he does by hand-drawing them and sharing them on his website Gummy Arts. The process starts the same way each time with the aforementioned materials: Noren traces around his copy of Andujar's 1984 Topps card, establishing the proper dimensions for his latest work.
Next the magic happens. Though Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell are not involved, Noren's creations cast a spell on anyone who views them -- leaving everyone feeling younger as a result, including the artist. "I used to draw a lot when I was a kid, but then for a long time I didn't draw at all," Noren told CBS Sports about his drawing expertise. "A few years ago, my girlfriend bought me a doodle-a-day desk calendar, so I got in the habit of doing a quick drawing every night before bed. Over time, the drawings got more involved, I'd post some on Facebook, and friends seemed to like them, so I decided to take on a bigger drawing project."
The bigger drawing project was "Cecil Cooperstown," a Tumblr designed to serve as a visual Hall of Very Good. Noren would comb through Baseball-Reference's pages, ensuring he captured the likeness of the Hall of Fame's top snubs. He's since altered his vision. Nowadays, Noren includes any player who captures his imagination -- regardless of their career or lack thereof. The loosened standards has led to a bottleneck situation, not unlike the one faced by the Hall of Fame itself: a player placed upon Noren's to-draw list could wait months before being drawn. The drawing themselves, however, tend to be borne out within a half hour.
Predictably, Noren is passionate about baseball cards. His collection ranges from the the "T206 tobacco cards to the present day." The cards he draws often come from his own stack, or from a book detailing Topps' cards of the '60s. When all else fails, there's always Google. "Once I select a player, I'll look through the cards for interesting poses/expressions, fun hairstyles/sideburns, great '70s uniforms, or whatever else makes the card distinctive," he said. "I have the most trouble drawing clean-cut normal-looking people, so if a guy has a card with scraggly hair, shades, or a big mustache, I'll probably choose that one."
Noren is far from the only one enchanted by big mustaches and baseball cards. Gummy Arts has more than 3,000 followers on Twitter, and recently the National Pastime Museum asked him to author a card for every player in the actual Hall of Fame. Simple as they may be, cardboard bearing an image and statistics that is sometimes packaged with gum, baseball cards remain baseball's most effective conduit for connecting fans.
"At heart, we want to share our love with others and others care more if they understand our love," said artist and Baseball Prospectus owner Stephen Reichert. "Baseball cards have the potential for universal appeal. We all know what the '86 Donruss Canseco looks like and what it meant to get it in a pack and we all know who '[****] face' is. We know because we lived it and held it and talked about it and dreamt of it and traded it and tried to bat like Rickey Henderson and Julio Franco because of the photos on the cards."
Many seem to agree with Reichert's assertions. Literature, baseball or otherwise, is scattered with references and allusions to cards. Be it Stephen King, Joan Didion, Michael Chabon; metaphorical or literal. "For a long time, I knew how to find happiness. All I needed was a quarter," Josh Wilker wrote in Cardboard Gods about the joy baseball cards brought him as a child. "[I love (recklessly, dumbly, intensely) the sense of possibility that accompanies the first little tear of the plastic wrapping and that follows until every last card has been turned over and all their identities are known," read a recent entry on Baseball Prospectus. And so on.
Gummy Arts has found a following, then, because it offers similar sensations to those gained from opening cards. "There's a little bit of excitement each time you open a pack or even see a stack of baseball cards. There could be a jewel hiding in there. For a lot of us, it reminds you of being a kid," said Mike Oz, a writer for Yahoo Sports whose "Opening 25-Year-Old Baseball Cards" video series has included appearances from Pedro Martinez and Clayton Kershaw. "That's what makes baseball cards so much fun. Even with something like Gummy Arts where there's no actual card you're chasing, just seeing a piece of baseball artwork in baseball-card form gives you that nostalgic feeling of being a kid and falling in love with baseball."
Fans of Gummy Arts eventually might be able to conjure those feelings through different means. While Noren mostly keeps or gifts his cards, he has opened a shop and aspires to produce a book or card set of his work someday in the future. Until then, Noren will continue bringing the past to the present, one drawing at a time.
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