For more than 20 years, Gregg Forwerck’s focus has been “getting the shot” for a hobby that isn’t just for kids anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time.
Since 1989, Forwerck has been taking pictures of professional baseball players for the New York-based Topps Co. Topps has been printing baseball cards on squares of cardboard for slightly more than 60 years, since the rookie year of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in 1951.
Many of the photos on the cards ranging from baseball’s one-season wonders to superstars have been taken at the practice fields or spring training ballparks in the East Valley such as Tempe Diablo Stadium or Mesa’s Hohokam Park. Included in the mix were the 1969 and ‘70 Topps cards of the Seattle Pilots taken at Tempe Diablo with the Tempe Buttes in the background and many of the late 1960s and early 1970s cards of the Oakland A’s taken at long gone Rendezvous Park in Mesa.
Armed with a Canon camera and a 400mm lens, Forwerck scans the field to capture a player in the “moment.” Of the 1,200 players he shoots during a spring training season, about 600 of them will appear on cards included in sets available in retail big box stores. Overall, Forwerck estimates that about 20,000 of his pictures have appeared on trading cards.
“I think about the player and what he does and how I can make him look best,” Forwerck said. “I love it if I can catch a guy laughing or smiling. I like to catch that stuff because you often don’t get to see it during a game.”
At Tempe Diablo on Friday, Forwerck said he planned to focus on superstar Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, perhaps the top drawing card in spring training after leaving the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals last year. Forwerck also conversed with first-year Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson, a photography buff, and shot some pictures of Angels top prospect Mike Stout stepping out of the batter’s box. Starting with a “hit list,” Forwerck said he works through a list of those he needs to photograph; the players are often alerted with a sign inside the clubhouse.
Unlike the salaries of Major Leaguers themselves, the contract a player gets from Topps begins with a $5 check. And if he later appears on a card, the player receives $500 — a sum that has been in place for decades.
Topps was founded as the Topps Chewing Gum Co. by brothers Abram, Ira, Philip, and Joseph Shorin in 1938, and in 1947 they introduced Bazooka Bubblegum. But it wasn’t until 1951 that Topps started putting baseball cards in packages to help sell the gum.
Like Forwerck did himself as a kid growing up in Michigan hoping to find a card of Detroit Tigers superstar Al Kaline, kids used to be able to purchase wax packs of the cards that included a pink slab of bubblegum for a nickel at the corner store in hopes of completing a set of 600-plus cards by the end of the season or at least get their favorite player.
Now, Topps releases a set in December in time for Christmas and then another one in time for opening day and has many subsets in-between that cost nearly $50.
If a player has a good year, he might land a special deal from Topps to do a special limited edition card. Some limited edition cards feature a piece of the player’s bat or uniform and are placed in select packs.
“It’s what drives the market and pushes kids to buy the cards,” Forwerck said. “I think fans want to be closer to the game. It’s still popular to collect trading cards of your favorite player. I don’t think that’s going to go away. People get the cards hoping to get them signed. A lot of people keep them and pass them on.”