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Peter Abraham

Topps is asking artists to re-interpret classic baseball cards – including Ted Williams

The 1954 original Ted Williams card, and the rendition by artist JK5.
The 1954 original Ted Williams card, and the rendition by artist JK5.Courtesy/Topps Company (custom credit)

That he refused to wear a tie for even formal occasions was as close as Ted Williams came to being a rebel. He was an ardent conservative politically and considered fishing a worthwhile endeavor when he wasn’t on a baseball field.

So the idea of 20 artists from such disciplines as graffiti, cartooning, jewelry design, and tattooing reimagining the look of his 1954 Topps baseball card would probably not sit well with Williams.

Or maybe it would.

In his own way, Williams was a stubborn individualist. He fought with reporters, once spit in the direction of booing fans, and was married — and divorced — three times.

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Williams even defied the lords of baseball by using his Hall of Fame induction speech to call for the inclusion of Negro League players in Cooperstown.

“We’re all honoring him in our own individual way,” said Joseph Ari Aloi, one of the artists who took on the unique project. “I think he’d like it.”

Aloi, who is known professionally as JK5, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and now works at a Brooklyn tattoo shop while pursuing myriad other interests. His homage to Williams was rendered in black and white with intricate details that resemble his tattoo designs and reflect a love of typography.

The reinterpretation of the Williams card by artist JK5.
The reinterpretation of the Williams card by artist JK5.Courtesy/Topps Company (custom credit)/Courtesy/Topps Company

In place of his bat, Williams is swinging a pencil, a symbol of the parallels between artists and athletes. What appear to be laser beams are shooting from his eyes. The shapes in the background reveal his name, number, and statistics. “Ted Williams Outer Space” it says at the bottom.

Aloi, 50, grew up playing baseball in the suburbs north of New York and rooting for the powerhouse Yankees teams of the late 1970s before his interests turned elsewhere.

But Aloi jumped at the opportunity to work with baseball cards when his agent presented him with the proposal from Topps. Reconnecting with something from his past was energizing.

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Designing the Williams card took about a week with several long sessions of work to get the details correct.

“It was a chance to take the cards out of this world while honoring the original graphic design elements,” said Aloi, who visited Fenway Park while he was in college. “I wanted to bring it to life with my own aesthetics and make it something unique. I’ve had a lot of fun with this.”

Redrawn Ted Williams baseball cards by artists Ermsy (left), Fucci and Joshua Vidas.
Redrawn Ted Williams baseball cards by artists Ermsy (left), Fucci and Joshua Vidas.Courtesy/Topps Company (custom credit)

Topps calls it Project 2020 because Aloi is one of 20 artists who are reinterpreting 20 classic cards. The 400 cards — plus some artist proofs — will be sold over a period of roughly 40 weeks in limited quantities.

They have been a hit with collectors, selling out quickly. The coronavirus pandemic altered the original release schedule, but card collectors and fans of the artists have embraced the designs.

“The cards were paintings back in the day. So this is taking us back to our roots in a way,” said Jeff Heckman, the global director of e-commerce for Topps. “Baseball card fans are seeing what’s intriguing in pop culture.”

Topps recruited a wide range of artists, including Groteskito, the creative director of Nike Basketball, and Sophia Chang, a New York illustrator who has collaborated with adidas and Puma.

Jewelry designer Ben Baller, who has 1.4 million Instagram followers, did his Frank Thomas card with a diamond look that was similar to pieces he designed for Drake, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West.

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“It’s exciting for us to have nontraditional offers and take a look at what baseball cards can be,” Heckman said.

Along with Williams, the artists will re-create cards featuring Roberto Clemente, Ken Griffey Jr., Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, Ichiro Suzuki, and Mike Trout, among others.

In the case of Williams, the company received permission from his estate.

The Williams card from 1954 card was traditional. There was an image of Williams smiling, a black-and-white photograph of his swing, and his careful, neat signature.

“It’s a classic card,” said Aloi, who collected cards when he was a kid. “Ted Williams had such phenomenal stats. My father knew players from that era and always talked about him.

“For me, mixing two worlds appealed to my creativity and my sensibilities. With everything that has been going on, it’s been a good outlet.”


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.