Tim Carroll has one of the most unique jobs you will ever seen. He cuts up junk baseball cards from the 1980’s-90’s to make artwork. A large majority of the work he does is recreating more expensive cards and he is making quite a name for himself in the business.
We have had recent articles featuring artist Graig Kreindler and author David Finoli. Both of those articles were geared towards the Pittsburgh Pirates, even though neither focused exclusively in that area. Today’s article is the final one in the series (for now) and it takes a look at the work of Tim Carroll.
His work is mostly old baseball cards, but he now mainly does commission pieces, so he might be doing a 2019 Topps Josh Bell one day, followed by an 1887 Old Judge Ed Swartwood the next…if you didn’t know that Swartwood was the first batter in Pittsburgh Pirates history then I have taught you nothing here.
Junk baseball cards refers to the cards printed in the late 80’s and early 90’s when the hobby was at its peak. Many of those cards aren’t worth what they cost back then, but Carroll might just be doing something to help out those people sitting on old collections.
Each piece of work he creates uses 800+ cards and depending on the size, it could be many more. In all honesty, he would need to stay busy into the next century to really make the older cards valuable, though there seems to be quite a significant interest in his work these days, so he is going to end up making a nice little dent in that massively oversaturated market.
I’ve known of his work for many years, and while I was very impressed by the early work, he just keeps getting better with every piece. You can see the detail on his work in this close up photo of a Roberto Clemente card that is described later in the article
I wrote Carroll and asked him to tell me all about how he got into baseball, art, and how those two combined into his current occupation. He gave a great history of his background, then described each of the Pittsburgh Pirates pieces he has created up to this point, along with two Pittsburgh Penguins pieces added for good measure. I’m sure you will enjoy his story and the accompanying artwork.
by Tim Carroll
I grew up in a small Mississippi community called Dorsey (home of the Bulldogs), which is a few miles down the road from Tupelo. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for the wonderful people back there in Itawamba county; they helped mold me into person I am today.
My elementary school was very small. Each grade level had two classes, with each class consisting of 16-18 students. I’m unsure if it was due to a lack of funding, the lack of space within the school, or if it was just deemed unnecessary from the powers-that-be, but whatever the reason, a visual arts class did not exist.
I remember having a music class early, but that folded. A local guitar personality then donated his time here and there to engage us in a few songs (while giving us some experience with various instruments). That was it. That was the extent of the fine arts.
My teachers and friends more than made up for the lack of art opportunities with their words of encouragement and high praise. I loved to draw, and I also loved to write stories. My teachers fostered the creative side by giving us an opportunity once per week to share something we had drawn or written with the class. It seems so trivial, but those few minutes per week made a lasting impression on me. I will always be thankful for the entire class making me feel important during my weekly presentation.
I won an advertising competition in the local newspaper and was even hired to create posters for a local market. Money was tight at home, but my family always ensured I had everything I needed and enough of what I wanted. The lack of funds to buy brushes, paints, canvas, colored pencils, etc. forced me to use either use the pencil or other things to create. By other things, I’m talking about pine cones, rocks, or whatever else I could get my hands on. Art was quickly becoming a major part of who I was.
Baseball Enters the Equation
When I was 10, a thunderstorm forced me inside early. Only three channels were available on television, with one of them showing a baseball game. According to the story-telling announcer, it was an important game against some big dudes with hulking arms and a group of role players that had a bulldog on the mound. I heard “bulldog” and my ears perked up; that was my school’s mascot! It was the first baseball game I ever watched, and when Kirk Gibson limped around the bases my hair was standing on my arms. I thought every game had that kind of drama, and I was hooked.
Our community being small, we only had enough players to field a single youth baseball team, so we joined a league in Fulton, which was the county seat for Itawamba. I pitched and played first base, and some major life lessons were picked up during those days – particularly, believing in what you do not being afraid to rise to the occasion and finding a way to get something done when all the excuses in the world were sitting there. Ironically, the Pirates played a huge role it. You see, our 11/12 year team was not very good (that’s putting it mildly, we were winless when the regular season ended). To give everyone at least a couple of extra games, “The Tournament”, a double elimination affair at Fulton City Park was just around the corner for us. Being winless, we had the displeasure of facing what I believed was the little league dream team – the mighty undefeated Pirates.
I pitched the entire game, a couple of boys that hadn’t caught a ball all year made some fantastic plays, and one kid that had trouble making contact hit two bombs down the hill….and it resulted with me being carried off the field by my teammates. For us, we had done the impossible, and it felt great. We weren’t done, as we figured out a way to beat two other teams (sandwiching a loss), setting up for a showdown in the finals with the Pirates.
They may as well had Bonds, Bonilla, and Van Slyke in the lineup with Doug Drabek on the mound, because we were hammered in the finals. Our coach met with us one final time to reflect, and he pointed out that even though we were winless, we got better. We improved every time we took the field and won three games in that tournament due to the effort we had put in. Again, trivial as an adult, but another step in the molding process for me in my journey. I could get deep into the fun times I had playing at Itawamba High School, but I’ll spare you all from my long-winded reminiscing! Being a soft-tossing lefthander that didn’t hit, my desire and willingness to play did not triumph over my lack of on-field ability. My playing days ended at graduation.
Remember the lack of a visual arts program at my elementary school? No actual visual arts class would enter my scene until the senior year of high school. When I made it to middle school, one of the elective classes I took for two years was Industrial Arts. Woodworking, leather works, ceramics…..there was even a sampling of draft & design that accelerated the creativity. I tinkered with woodburning, assembled the scraps of leather into mini works of art.
Fast forward to my senior year: a gentleman by the name of Mr. Long was looking to recruit some talent for the local community college, so he offered his art instruction services in exchange for a classroom and some funds to buy materials. Permission was granted, but there was only enough space and funding for a dozen students. He chose seniors, and a group including myself was selected for the yearlong visual art instruction. Paints, canvas, modeling clay, charcoal, pastels – everything I had ever read about but didn’t have the opportunity to use was at my disposal. It was a year of enlightenment.
I earned an art scholarship at Itawamba CC. Things were shaping up for an immediate career kickstarter in the arts. However, life gets in the way sometimes, and I had to leave my graphic design major early in my second semester in favor of joining the full-time work force. I’m a huge believer in the philosophy of “everything you do in life leads you to where you are supposed to be”.
I then spent a decade cutting leather for Lane Furniture. I’d throw leather hides out on a large table and use plexiglass patterns according to the work order/schedule. It was my job to fit those pieces into place to get maximum yield while avoiding any flaws in the hide. Lots of computation filled my head daily. On lunch breaks, I would sometimes take old, discarded plexiglass and would etch pictures into it using the tip of my scissors. I refined that approach by bringing an old dart from home. Some of my coworkers loved the etchings and hired me to create etchings of their children. There it was: another medium/technique, another opportunity to create.
Once enough of the company’s work left the United States in favor of cheaper foreign labor, I found myself going back to school. My initial idea was to coach baseball and teach high school history, but after many conversations with one of the former football coaches at the school, I realized the amount of family time coaching would take from me. As much as I wanted to be around the game, I wanted to be with my wife and children more. I dug in and decided to give elementary education a shot.
Two of my initial program classes at Ole Miss were “Art for Children” and “Music for Children.” One of the projects we had in the art class was for mosaics. I used one inch pieces of painted cut cardboard to create a picture of Super Mario (no not that one, Pittsburgh fans, the video game star!) I had too much fun with that, and knew I’d be revisiting that kind of work soon. In the music class, our final project was to create something involving music that could be displayed in our future classroom. I painted a giant canvas with the famous black and white Robert Johnson pinstripe suit image. My thought process was that I could have a state musical celebrity hanging on the walls of the classroom. My music class instructor looked me dead in the eye and asked me how I wasn’t doing art for a living.
The Wheels Were Turning
Shortly before college graduation in 2009, my wife, Kim, and I were on a trip to New Orleans. She was a doctoral student and was presenting at the national science teacher conference; I was tagging along as the cheering husband. She had an off-day, and we strolled the French Quarter. I kept finding myself in various art galleries on Decatur and Royal.
There was art inspired by voodoo, zydeco, jazz, the Mississippi River, and the bayou; the styles and mediums varied. I saw intricate sculptures of gators made from foil, and body paintings that completely camouflaged the people into wall scenes. It was sensory overload! Another thunderstorm was about to happen (as it did back during the 88 WS Game 1), and this one would have an even more profound impact on my life.
When the rains came, we hustled into a convenient store to let the heaviest rain pass. I picked up a magazine and flipped through, seeing a small, quarter page blurb mentioning the 100th anniversary of the most expensive baseball card of all-time: the T206 Honus Wagner. I mentioned something to Kim about making a trade of all those common cards in my closet I had accumulated as a kid though playground deals.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if I could trade all of those cards for just a single Honus Wagner?”
We returned home a few days later and eventually I pulled that box out of the closet. I had no intentions of cutting anything, I simply wanted to see if I could make the Wagner emerge from overlapping the cards. Once I realized I had to cut some borders off to make it work I knew the kind of cuts I made did not matter. I began cutting and gluing, and eventually I turned 996 common cards into my “Concept Wagner.” I posted it online, thinking I was going to get a few giggles from online friends; instead, some wanted me to make their favorite cards.
I became a teacher in Tupelo and eventually in Conway, SC once we moved here in the fall of 2011. Teaching kids was such a wonderful, yet challenging experience – it is a career that one must do themselves to fully appreciate what these superheroes do daily! While each year and class was special, my hobby had turned into a side job…and that side job had turned into a second career. I was struggling to keep up with the amount of work on my art waitlist, and it was time to decide about which avenue I wanted to take. An opportunity presented itself in the fall of 2016 – so I took the leap to try cutting sports cards as a full-time career.
Most of my work these days is by commission, so most of the pieces are sold before they are even started. Throughout the years, the Great Humanitarian, Roberto Clemente, has always been a popular subject. My first Clemente piece was his 1955 Topps rookie card. I made that one just because I loved the card. Easily one of the Top five cards of the decade, and one of the most desirable HOF rookie cards period. Unfortunately I didn’t get a great picture of it before it was sold (old cell phone camera), but the photo quality gets much better for the rest.
The follow up to that was a commissioned 1956 Topps Roberto. Quite possibly Clemente’s most attractive card, the background with Roberto leaping in front of the outfield advertisement is an epic image all by itself. Put that beside a portrait, and you have what could be the perfect Clemente card, which made for an extremely fun piece of art.
I have always loved the 1964 Topps Giants cards, especially the Clemente. I decided to make that one on my own, but I couldn’t bring myself to duplicate the name “Bob” that adorned his card – so I completely left the bottom portion of the card off the artwork.
During the 2018 National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland, a couple of lifelong friends stopped by my table and inquired about the Clemente. One wanted to talk more, so he reached out after I returned home. He purchased the ’64 Topps Giants, but also wanted to commission the 1957 Topps. When I told him I wouldn’t recreate the “Bob” portion of the card, he was ecstatic. I changed the first name to the way Clemente wanted it to be – Roberto. No matter the Topps card, any Clemente pieces I work will have the name Roberto instead of Bob.
In addition to the crude Honus Wagner concept piece I made back in 2009, I also gave the card the time and energy it deserved in the summer of this year. A decade of trial/error and refining my skills brought out the best of what I had to offer. While I only do each piece once, it was extremely necessary to recreate the concept pieces I made in the spring/summer of 2009 (Wagner T206, Mantle 1952 Topps, 1989 Upper Deck Griffey) given the differences in where my skillset was then as opposed to now.
In addition to the T206 Honus, I recently had the pleasure of creating one of the most popular “find” cards in the history of baseball card collecting – the 1909 E98 “Black Swamp Find” Wagner.
I have found that most Pirate fans are also big into their Penguins, and I have had the chance to create some work from cut hockey cards depicting a couple of Pittsburgh ice legends. The 2005-06 Upper Deck Young Guns Sidney Crosby is widely accepted as his most popular “attainable” rookie card, so making this piece was something special. The photographs of the Young Guns are so busy, yet the designs never disappoint.
In 2017, I attended the Fall Sports Expo in Toronto. I saw the Frameworth advertisement informing everyone that Mario Lemieux would be signing autographs at their booth. I created a piece of Super Mario (YOUR Super Mario this time) in advance of the show and had every intention of getting over to the Frameworth booth to have it signed. While I couldn’t make it over there during that window, I had a tremendous time cutting all the old Pro Set and Upper Deck Hockey cards that it took to make it.
Everything you do in life leads you to where you are supposed to be. I have no idea where this journey is going to take me next, but I am having the time of my life waking up each day to create something new in my garage studio.
Nobody was ever going to trade me a T206 Wagner for the commons in my closet, but I was able to make an even better trade: I swapped those cards for a life-experienced career, opportunities to meet new friends/clients that share similar passions, the chances to work with teams/players/companies/leagues, and most importantly….quality time with my family.
You can follow Tim Carroll here:
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.