Andy Friedman's journey to imperfection leads him back to baseball cards

The New York artist, who has a new illustrated series of Topps baseball cards, will appear at Westerville's Triple Play Sports Cards on Wednesday, July 28

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
One of 70 baseball cards illustrated by Andy Friedman, part of the Topps "Spotlight70" series.

Andy Friedman collected baseball cards as a kid, tearing into packs of colorful cardboard printouts to hunt for rare rookie cards of top players and other valuable finds. In high school, Friedman would spend his hard-earned wages as a day camp counselor on single cards of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays from the 1950s and ’60s.

After Friedman experienced his first real heartbreak, he took solace in country albums more than baseball cards, but he never discarded them completely. He even brought a couple of lunchboxes full of cards with him to college, where Friedman studied painting, and any time he was in between projects or needed creative stimulation, he would draw baseball cards in private, never intending to show anyone. 

“I was a little self-conscious of my fascination with baseball cards for a while,” Friedman said recently by phone. “But they kind of centered me and brought me back to a simpler time — childhood — and that's good for your creativity to feel safe in your subject matter. So I maintained a relationship with baseball cards, but that relationship changed and shifted throughout my life.” 

Now, Friedman has partnered with iconic baseball card company Topps to illustrate a set of 70 cards as part of the brand’s “Spotlight70” series celebrating the 70th anniversary of Topps. At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 28, Friedman will make his first “Spotlight70” appearance at Westerville’s Triple Play Sports Cards, which will feature a signing and pop-up exhibit with some of the original “Spotlight70" paintings, along with a selection of Friedman’s other baseball illustrations, including art from a recent New Yorker illustrated interview with Philadelphia Phillies Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.

Even though Friedman illustrated baseball cards for fun in college, it’s not where he saw his art career going. “I studied Renaissance painting techniques at the Rhode Island School of Design. I was the only painter in the school learning the Venetian methods of oil painting. … I worked for two and a half years on one painting and didn't even finish by the time I graduated,” said Friedman, who, in an ongoing quest to achieve perfection in his art, eventually completed the painting in a rented office above an auto body garage. “I did achieve perfection, in that I accomplished what I set out to accomplish and achieved the result that I wanted.”  

When he displayed the painting in a show, many people walked right by it, thinking it was a photograph. “My ability to draw things as they appear was celebrated since my earliest memories. Everyone was always so proud of this thing I thought of as my superpower,” Friedman said. “Perfectionism was ingrained in my whole biological makeup. My parents being neat freaks didn't help, either, because it really drove home the idea that perceived perfection — perceived achievement of expectations, no matter how lofty — is success.” 

But that veneer of perfection began to crack soon after Friedman exhibited the piece. While applying a final varnish coating to the painting, he accidentally destroyed it. “That began my journey with achieving imperfection as a means of perfection. Instead of making detailed, photorealistic oil paintings, I gravitated to poetry and songwriting,” said Friedman, who wrote a song about the painting, “Pilot Light,” which is featured on 2009 album The Other Failures

Friedman also began selling cartoons to The New Yorker in 2000, but before long he had to face imperfection head on again as he struggled with carpal tunnel, which robbed him of his fine motor skills. “The hand injury led to my reinvention as an improvisational artist who works without a pencil or a plan, which is the most terrifying thing for a perfectionist to do,” Friedman said. 

One of 70 baseball cards illustrated by Andy Friedman, part of the Topps "Spotlight70" series.

It took about 10 years, but over time Friedman found a new, more spontaneous way of working with ink and watercolor, embracing his limitations in a style that permitted shaky lines and splotches. As the imperfections began to enliven and even define Friedman’s style, he found himself returning again to one of his first loves: baseball cards.  

In 2015, Friedman contributed an illustrated piece of reportage to The New Yorker titled “The Loneliness of the Common Player.” “Common players are the ones who didn’t accomplish enough from a statistical standpoint to be considered stars. They got to wear the uniforms, but their cards are not coveted,” Friedman wrote. “Each one is a nondescript landscape or an unassuming passerby for me to paint or draw. I look at these cards the way Cézanne might have looked at Mont Sainte-Victoire from the Bibemus Quarry.” 

That outlook carried over to Friedman’s approach to the Spotlight70 series, which enabled him to lean into the psychology and feeling of the cards more so than the players themselves. “They're paintings of familiar landscapes that make me feel a certain way, just like mountains and lakes and sunsets,” he said.  

Topps gave Friedman no restrictions on which cards he could illustrate for the series, so he started with baseball cards he already owned. From there, he fished around for cards at flea markets, card shops and online auctions. “I would try to buy these cards when I wasn't even looking or remembering, so packages and envelopes were arriving in the mail, and it was a total surprise because I kind of forgot which cards I bought,” he said. “I would wait until I was sitting in my chair with my headphones on, and then I'd get the ink ready and open the package, then look and start at the same time so that the cards were a complete product of that moment of surprise. … I wasn’t looking for anything, just reacting.” 

Through Aug. 19, fans can order Friedman’s Spotlight70 cards, which come in packs of 10 and feature players such as Joe Carter, Mo Vaughn, David Cone, Julio Franco, Kenny Lofton and Coco Crisp. Ten lucky collectors will also open a pack to find Friedman’s illustration of a pink, rectangular piece of bubblegum, just like the rock-hard, sugar-dusted sticks he used to find in packs as a kid.  

“Life is all about a series of turning your ill fortune into something positive,” Friedman said. “If you can do that, you're always going to persist. It's about reinvention.”