Earlier this year I had the good fortune of becoming facebook friends with Jon Leonoudakis. Jon is a documentary filmmaker and producer. I sought him out for his involvement with The Wrecking Crew
film. He's made a few other documentaries that focus on baseball; The Day The World Series Stopped
, Not Exactly Cooperstown
, and his latest, Hano!
. He's running a promotion on the films that involves baseball cards. I thought I might wrangle an interview and he graciously agreed.
What is your first memory of baseball cards? As a kid did you collect players or a team, or did you try to complete sets?
The summer of 1964. I was 6 years old, and my older brothers, Tim (4 years older) and Steve (10 years older) introduced me to the wonder of baseball cards. I was immediately smitten with the Kodachrome colors bursting off the thin slats of cardboard, the heroic photography, and the cards of my hometown team, the San Francisco Giants. The Topps cards of 1964 also came with a colorful coin of a player. My brothers made up some kind of game with those coins and I recall the sound they made as they fell on the floor.
It was a beautiful summer spent in Palo Alto, California, and the smell of jasmine, the sound of the Beach Boys wafting from room to room, and baseball cards and coins made that my favorite summer of my childhood. It was also the first time I played Wiffle ball, and my romance with our national pastime was underway. 51 years later, it is still going strong!
|Wiffle ball with my brother, Tim (catching), in August of 1964 - and here’s my brother and I 50 years later, to the month!|
Did you trade with your friends? What was your best trade? Did you ever 'flip' for cards?
I did trade with friends, but I cannot recall one special trade. Usually I would only trade doubles. My brother Steve taught me about flipping, but I didn’t like a game where I could lose cards! He had a Nelson Mathews card from the 1964 set that was dipped in wax so it could be used to knock down cards in flipping games. I never used my cards in bicycle spokes. Playing cards always sounded better because of their plastic coating.
Do you have a favorite card, one that has special meaning now that you're an adult?
Yes! The 1965 Topps card of Juan Marichal. That was the first pack of cards I bought on my own when I was 7 years old. I opened the pack, and the very first card was Juan Marichal! I recall exactly where I was at the time, on my front lawn on a rare sunny day in our part of San Francisco (we grew up in a part of the city known as “the fog belt”).
Have you ever defaced a baseball card? Drawn a mustache on a player, or given him 'devil horns'?
Oh, yes! Mustaches, horns, hair sprouting from faces, even using scissors to cut out a guy’s eyes.
|Some of Jon's handiwork|
In later years I got into digital defacing. I made a set of cards, “Cinema Villains” and put them on the two most evil teams, the Dodgers and Yankees, from the 1964 set.
I also did a lot of R&D creative approaches to cards, like turning SF Giants catcher Jack Hiatt into a cat and turning Ron Perranoski of the Dodgers into the robot GORT from the famous sci-fi movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still
|"Cat" Hiatt and GORT|
I have made cards featuring family members, and my business card is a baseball card! I started doing that in the late 1980s and it was a very effective sales tool. Prospective clients would always say, “Hey, you’re the guy with the baseball card!”. I did one in the style of the 1965 set and 1959 set.
|Could this be Jon's rookie business card?|
My brother Steve and I had our card art exhibited at a follow-up baseball card exhibit by the Baseball Reliquary
, “Son of Cardboard Fetish”. Steve had grouped together themes of cards onto a sheet fat guys, guys with funny nicknames, old guys, etc.
|Sons of Cardboard Fetish - Lumps|
|Sons of Cardboard Fetish - Vaseline|
Do you keep up with the hobby? Any thoughts on how the hobby has changed in the last 50 years?
Somewhat. I try to buy at least one Topps pack a year to be in touch with the latest. I like the Topps heritage cards and re-prints of players form the 50s and 60s. I am not pleased with the graphic design, printing and photography of baseball cards since the 1980s. mostly the graphic design, which is uninspired. My favorite Topps card designs are 1957, 1959, 1964, 1965 and 1972. The 1972 graphic design really echoes the pop art styling of the time, infused by Peter Max. I think the 80s featured some of the worst designs in the history of Topps. The 1981 year with the nondescript caps on the lower left was absolutely abysmal.
The over-production of baseball cards in the mid-late 80s was bad for business—Topps and others oversold the cards and went for the quick buck. It’s sad those cards aren’t worth much, but I still have some of them from 1984-1988.
We’ve seen more card companies enter the fray: Donruss, Fleer, Score, and Upper Deck, which contributed to the great card glut of the 80s and 90s. Because mass production, card companies now have to offer pricey incentives to get people to buy cards. Like major league baseball, cards have become somewhat gentrified, costly items for kids who may have little to no allowance. In the 60s you could buy a pack for a dime, making it very affordable.
I’ve been part of a group of collectors on youtube, and I love seeing people opening up vintage packs from the 50s and 60s that cost hundreds of dollars for just one pack. They rarely pull stars, but I saw one guy opening a pack wearing white gloves, producing a mint 1962 Warren Spahn.
Do you still collect? What are you doing with your collection now?
I do, mostly vintage stuff from the 50s-60s-70s. They have a 25 cent box at my local card dealer and I am always finding interesting cards to add—mostly re-prints of old cards or fun oddballs, like a card set showing Nolan Ryan in his Rangers uniform throwing a football. I consider myself a “possession” collector—I don’t care what condition the card is in, I just want it! I am always interested in SF giants cards from the 50s and 60s that I may not have. I am about 6 or 7 coins away from completing the 1964 Topps coin set! A few years ago I wanted to reclaim that special part of my childhood and bought a mess of them in varying condition on eBay. I traded with the aforementioned card collectors over youtube, a wonderful group of people who connect and send each other “just because…” packs of cards they know the recipient needs or would like, which is very sweet and cool.
|Drowning in Cardboard|
We were a family of card collectors. Older brother Steve got the ball rolling, buying cards in the late 50s up to 1964. I picked up the baton in 1965 an became completely obsessed with baseball cards. Practically an addict! i wanted desperately to collect entire sets, but would always get frustrated, because it seemed retailers in my area stopped selling cards in September when kids went back to school and the cards weren’t moving, so they would not order the 7th series! I had my mom drive me to a couple of stores around town, getting skunked. Other kids on the block got skunked, too, so there was no trading of those last cards. I recently learned you could buy entire sets in the back of The Sporting News during the 1960s! What?!!!
When I went off to college in 1976, older brother Steve got back into it and introduced his first son, Dmitri, to the love of cards. Dmitri really got into it, and we have many cards from the 1980s through the 1990 as a result. Any cards from the 2000s are a few packs I bought here and there.
I got back into the collecting game heavy in 1987 and enjoyed those Topps “woodie” cards of that year. But I had so many doubles, I gave many of them away to kids trick or treating on Halloween.
That same year I started going to card conventions and local cards shows and event, picking up new cards and trading. I used to wear a big button at these events declaring my intentions: “I LOVE TO TRADE!”. One of my best trades was a Joe Canseco rookie card for a pristine 1965 Topps Hank Aaron. I’d won the Canseco card in a spinning wheel game, and a kid wanted to trade with me right away.
My mother knew how important these were to me, and they never got tossed.Our collection grew to an unmanageable size. Big brother Steve became caretaker of the collection until about 12 years ago, when he told me I had to take some of them for storage. I kept the star cards and donated the rest to the Baseball Reliquary here in Los Angeles. They use the cards in their exhibitions and displays and have featured them in their “Cardboard Fetish
” exhibits. On two trips to visit my brother this past year, he found even more cards from the late 50s through 1989 and i took some of them back home with me.
I am using those cards as part of a holiday sales campaign for my baseball documentaries: buy a DVD and get (5) vintage Topps cards from the 1960s. People seem to like it, as we sold an extra five DVDs since the offer went out, and people are ordering my older films, Not Exactly Cooperstown
and The Day the World Series Stopped
, which is nice.
I have a nice collection of most of the cards from the 1964 Topps Giants set and might complete it someday. I have a complete set of the 1964 Topps, which is my pride and joy. My brothers helped acquire some of the cards, which was fun.
I also like to collect vintage players form the McFarland action figure set - I consider them dimensional baseball cards. I have Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Robinson Cano, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yaz.
I had the pleasure of working with Topps this past year, as I sought their permission to use Topps cards and coins in tableaus and shots for my latest film about legendary sportswriter Arnold Hano. They were a pleasure to work with! They requested a breakdown of the film and scenes in which their product would appear, with a detailed log of each card, year of production, and card number in the set. They approved the use of well over 100 items, gratis!
|Tableau from Hano!|
|Tableau from Hano!|
I also met Sy Berger’s son, Glenn, this past summer, when the Baseball Reliquary inducted Sy in to their Shrine of the Eternals/Hall of Fame. He attended with his sister, and the stories told of Sy Berger were of a man who was deeply respected and became good friends and a father figure to many of the players, especially Willie Mays.
My brother Steve invented a dice baseball game using three dice, similar to Strat-O-Matic. This became something of a rage on our block in the mid 1960s and early 70s. 4 or 5 of us kids would engage in tournaments and keep stats of every game. We would select our team from our box of baseball cards, 8 position players, 5 starters, 2 relievers, and some guys on the bench. One of my friends, Mark Marrott loved the game so much, that when I saw him a few weeks ago, he said, “let’s play some dice baseball games when you come to visit”, and we did!
At the end of the day, baseball cards were my passport to our national pastime, and it led me to what I’m doing today: working as a baseball documentarian and historian. I’ve been to Cooperstown a couple of times: one to show my film “Not Exactly Cooperstown” at their annual film festival, and this past year to present my paper on “Baseball in the Digital Age” at their Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. Two of my films are in the Hall's permanent collection, which is quite thrilling. I met two of my baseball heroes, leaping off the baseball cards of my past, when I interviewed Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou for the Hano!
Baseball has been very good to me, and my love for the game continues to rise with each passing day as I research stories and read books to fortify my knowledge of the game and its history.
Want to order his films and get some bonus vintage cards? Visit the following sites:
The Day the World Series Stopped
Not Exactly Cooperstown
My thanks to Jon for his willingness to share his memories and his creations. I'm really interested in his dice baseball card game. I think a another interview is in order.