Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Interview with longtime Fleer photograher Steve Babineau

Steve Babineau, owner of Sports Action Images, is team photographer Boston Bruins and Boston Celtics and staff contributor to the Boston Red Sox. One of the original baseball card photographers for Fleer, he shot pictures for their baseball cards for fourteen years. I interviewed him by phone yesterday and he shared with me some really interesting stories about his baseball card experiences.

- Do you have any stories about cards whose pictures you have taken?

I worked for Fleer for fourteen years which was pretty cool, especially the first five or six years when we did a lot of portraits and combo cards with multiple players. When I was interviewing with Fleer I showed them some old cards like this, such as one with Mantle and Berra, and said we ought to start doing this stuff.

One example of this was the George Brett/Gaylord Perry Pine Tar card. Perry was the one who hid Brett’s bat during the pine tar incident. I was taking Perry’s picture during BP at Fenway Park and we were chatting. I said it would be great to get a picture of you and Brett with the bat. Perry got Brett, they went into the dugout and we took the picture.

I started with Fleer when they started doing baseball in 1981. I have been the Bruins photographer for 38 years and at that time was looking to fill some time during the hockey off-season. My buddy told me Fleer won its lawsuit against Topps, so I called Fleer, and two days later their executive flew over and interviewed me in my kitchen. We had a handshake deal and I took him upstairs to my sports memorabilia room where I showed him my display case with old cards and told him my idea for bringing back these classic poses. The combo-player cards were my idea.

I shot the Billy Ripken card – it was definitely not intentional. I was at Fenway, and everyone is out there doing BP. Billy is the only one wearing a game uniform with the number in the front. Everyone else is wearing their orange BP top. For everyone else I would need to make sure there was an identifying marker like a glove, or I would take their picture as they walked away to get their uniform number. I didn’t have to magnify Ripken’s card because the number was clearly visible. In the past Fleer used to send us full color sheets, which we would use to check for reverse negatives and other problems with the picture. That year, to save money, they just sent us blueprints that were in three shades of blue. Your eyes don’t focus on something like that. After the card came out, my boss called me and told me to look at the knob of the bat. “Please tell me it says ‘slick face,’” he said to me. I had to look at it with the magnifying glass and tell him that that was not what it said.

The next year the first team I went to see at Spring Training was the Orioles, playing the Expos in West Palm Beach. I went up to Billy and he says “Thanks for making a nickel card into a thirty dollar card!” He told me he started using that bat as a BP bat on a road trip in Detroit or Cleveland before coming to Fenway. He said it was his brother that wrote that on his bat. I heard that he actually started signing that card for kids but had to stop.

Another time in spring training I was taking pictures of the Tigers at Lakeland. I asked Mark Fidrych to pose and he said he would come back out in his white uniform. I waited five or ten minutes for him to come out. He finally comes out and we take a bunch of pictures, when all of a sudden I notice that he is wearing a glove for a left-hander! He said come on, come on, let’s go with it, but I told him I would get in trouble and we couldn’t do that.

- I have noticed that there were more interesting pictures and poses in the first four or five years of Fleer then later on.

I liked to do some posed things with guys bats – bring back some classic poses. There is a photo of Steve Garvey extending his arms during batting practice at Tinker Field in Florida. I became one of their main guys in dealing with this stuff. At the time Topps was doing all action shots, but every action shot looks the same after a while. I was more interested in doing candid shots, shooting more posed things.

What ended up happening after a while, when there became so many card manufacturers, is media days. There is a standard backdrop, mug shot type of thing, but not the creativity of an individual photographer.

Here is another great story from those early years. I was shooting the Astros and Expos in Montreal, and wanted to get a photo of Nolan Ryan. I didn’t realize he was going to pitch that game. I wanted to do something special because he was my idol and he just broke Walter Johnson’s record. He’s out there doing BP because pitchers batted. I told him I wanted to get a picture of you holding this baseball with the strikeout number. He says to me, “why don’t we do it in the bullpen in my uniform.” When it come time for him to go out to the bullpen he sprints out there – totally forgets about me. I totally understand – game time, game face – no big deal. The game starts. In Montreal, unlike most ballparks, the photographer’s pit was closer to home plate – in the visual line of the pitcher. There are two outs in the inning and Ryan went to 3-0 on this batter. All of a sudden he sees me in the pit, slaps his glove against his thigh and says “Goddamn it.” He throws three bullets to strike the guy out and then comes over and apologizes to me and says we’ll get the picture after the game. Unfortunately I had to leave after the fifth inning to drive back to Boston. I did get a picture of him holding that ball the next spring training, but I don’t know if it was ever used. We did do a no-hitter card with him and Alan Ashby.

[The game he describes would be
July 21, 1983 - Ryan struck out the Expos' Doug Flynn to end the second inning. The Ryan/Ashby photo would be 1983 Fleer Stickers #141]

For the first five or six years it was all new to the players. After a while, with more and more card companies it got monotonous for them. I would go up to a player in Boston and give him my business card, asking to take a picture for Fleer. They would say “They just took my picture in Cleveland.” I would have to explain that that was for a different company and not Fleer. After a while the card companies drifted away from that posed material and just went with action shots.

To go up to a guy like David Ortiz and ask him to pose is insanity. In the old days I would just be out on the field and wait until they finished their BP. You can’t do that anymore.

I did Roger Clemens’s rookie card – he posed by the dugout.

Darryl Strawberry’s rookie card – posing on one knee in Montreal.
I got a great shot of Gary Carter posing in Montreal. Carter collected cards – he knew me and when he would see me he would go out of his way to ask how I was, ask how my kids were. Now I am one of five Red Sox photographers and that is unheard of.

Another story – there was a Rickey Henderson card, when Rickey was going to break the single season record for stolen bases in 1982. I got Rickey to pose at the end of the Fenway Park dugout with a base with the number 119 on it – two days before he broke the record! I said to him, you know you’re going to break the record, and I’m not going to get a chance to do another picture of you this season. He said “OK, but let’s go down to the end of the dugout where no one will see us."

- What cities did you cover? How would we know which Fleer cards are yours?

I shot in Montreal, Boston and Toronto, as well as two weeks of spring training. I would stay in Orlando – this is before Disney had a team – and I went to the Reds, Astros, Royals, Tigers, White Sox camps- Kissimmee, Plant City, Winter Haven. I would also do a trip to Vero for the Dodgers and Tampa for the Yankees. It was two weeks of vacation with the kids and family, but I would shoot 4,000 to 5,000 pictures. Shooting was easy – editing that number of pictures was a pain.

- So you didn’t do the famous Glenn Hubbard card – that was in Philadelphia.

That was Bob Bartosz. I heard he got some crap for that – Hubbard didn’t care for that card. I always wanted to go to Montreal to see the National League because otherwise I only saw the American League once the season started.

- Do you have a favorite card?

I liked when you could get a superstar like Garvey or Carter and get something unique or classic. That Garvey is one of my favorites. To have Clemens’s rookie card is cool. In hockey both Gretzky and Lemieux’s rookie cards are my photographs.

Don Mattingly’s is mine. It was during BP in Fenway in his blue top playing first base.
Guys like George Brett would do poses for you earlier on. After four or five years it got more difficult to get guys to cooperate. Also, the emphasis shifted towards actions. MLB made standard headshots available for a flat fee, so card companies would just use those.

Thanks! Those were some really great stories! I plan to go through my Fleer cards over the next few days and look at cards in Fenway, Montreal, Toronto and Florida spring training for interesting individual cards to ask him about. If there are any cards you want me to ask him about, just let me know.


  1. Whoa, so cool! Very good stuff here!

    I would just ask him about cup cards - like 1983 Al Oliver (Montreal) and 83 Fleer #583 Carlos Diaz (maybe the same day as Strawberry's RC?). Don't know what I'd ask, but I love all the bench shots in old Fleer.

  2. Thats awesome! Thanks for the great read

  3. Terrific stuff. I have always insisted that the Ripken card was not on purpose by Fleer and had to argue conspiracy theories about it. So glad to hear the photographer who took the photo explain what REALLY happened.

    When I get time, I'll have to look at some of those early Fleer cards, too. '82 Fleer had lots of wacky photos (and blurry photos, which I don't know if that was the photographer's fault). It'll be interesting.

  4. Amazing stories, Bo! Where do you find these guys?! -Andy

  5. This is just awesome. Great scoops, and Steve is a living legend. Really, think of the amount of time we've all spent looking at the cards he shot pictures for (even just the ones highlighted in this post). He's created some great art! Thanks for shining a spotlight on him, Bo!

  6. Great stories. There are a ton of 81 Fleer photos in Toronto and Boston, but it seems like in 82 there are more spring training photos. I wonder if this was due to the strike in 81 and not having many opportunities to get photos.

    I have a question. Is there an explanation for why certain sets seem to have more of an emphasis on certain ballparks. Like Oakland/SF, or Chicago, Detroit/Cleveland (1985 comes to mind with that one).

  7. Great post! Thanks for sharing the interview. Seeing the 1982 Garvey card, I have a question about the 1982 Fleer set - does he know why so many of the photos in that set are somewhat blurry and out of focus? Was there some type of printing problem that led to many of the pictures looking a bit out of focus?

    Other collectors have noticed this problem as well:


    There are some great photos in the 1982 set, but there seems to have been a lack of quality control in properly printing the images on the cards.

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