Pick up a stack of sports cards from the mid-1980s through the mid-90s and there’s a pretty good chance you’re holding the work of Owen C. Shaw. The southern California resident was one of several photographers employed by Topps during the era, snapping images of everyone from Hall of Famers to hopefuls.
“I grew up in the small town of Mt.Healthy,Ohio,” he recently told Sports Collectors Daily. “During the summer as a kid I had two passions, baseball and baseball cards. During the day I’d search the town and park for empty soda bottles and cash them in at Rich’s Pony Keg. Then buy a 16 oz. RC (Cola) and as many packs of cards that I could. As I would open the packs I often thought this would be a cool job. Think it got my mind working.”
Shaw made that vision come true, but one can’t make a living as a sports card photographer and his work behind the camera–and in front of a typewriter– was in demand. At times he served as:
- Rams and Raiders photographer for NFL Properties
- Editor of Petersen’s Pro Baseball and Pro Football Annuals
- Wrote Year in Review, Team descriptions, Super Bowl & World Series reviews, predictions and articles
- Official photographer for the first two years of the Major League Baseball Cracker Jack Old Timers Game
- Photographer and writer for Century Publications
- Contributing photographer for The Sporting News
- Contributing photographer for Athlon Sports Annuals
…and that’s just part of what he kept busy with during a vibrant and memorable career in media.
Working spring training, NFL games and anywhere else he was needed, Shaw used his cameras to grab posed and action shots that were reviewed for selection as Topps put together its annual sets.
“When I first started shooting sports the first photo of mine that was published was of Larry Bird in Basketball Times followed by a steady stream of images in The Sporting News,” he recalled. “My byline I chose to be Owen C. Shaw honoring my dad, Owen, and my grandfather, Clem. They like all the other Shaws were big sports fans. It was great to see my photo and read ‘photo by Owen C. Shaw’.”
And here’s one collectors will definitely remember: He’s the guy who took the famous image of Gary Pettis’ brother that somehow slipped past the editors at Topps and became Pettis’ card in the company’s 1985 set. With only one printing, the error was never corrected.
Now semi-retired, Shaw lives across the street from the Angels’ spring training complex in Palm Springs, CA, where he used to spend time photographing players in the 1980s.
He answered some questions about his time working for the grandfather of modern baseball cards and also shared some of his favorite photos with us.
During what time period did you take photos for Topps? Did you work for any other card companies?
I started shooting for Topps in 1984 when I moved to Mission Viejo, California from Washington DC. I continued to do so through 1998. A departed friend VJ Lovero along with Wally Joyner and Dewayne Byce helped start Upper Deck. VJ was their photographer and purchased from me a hundred or so images
that were in their first issue (1989).
How did the job come about for you?
In 1982-83 I was living in Washington DC with my images appearing in The Sporting News, Century Publishing(Baseball Digest Football Digest), Athlon(College Football Annuals and Street & Smiths (Baseball,Football and Basketball Annuals). I would go to New York to show my work and get opportunities. One visit was to Brooklyn and a old warehouse. This was the main office of Topps before they moved to the Wall Street area.
I met with Butch Jacobs who was in charge of photography. I did some games for them back east and when my wife and I moved to LA in 1984 to be closer to her parents and have children, they offered me Southern California. In baseball I would photograph the Dodgers, Angels, and Padres. For football I’d be covering the Raiders, Chargers and Rams. Living in Mission Viejo, I was a hour and half drive away from Dodger Stadium, Big A, the L.A. Coliseum and Jack Murphy Stadium.
Did you shoot primarily at spring training? Did you travel for the assignments?
After I moved to LA I would go each spring to Palm Springs to shoot the final two weeks of the Cactus league. Then it was the Freeway series between the Dodgers and Angels followed by the regular season. I would often go to Oakland and San Francisco for baseball and San Francisco and Phoenix for NFL.
Obviously, the 1985 photo of Gary Pettis’ brother is well-known. Tell us about that day.
It was right after I had moved to LA in August of 84. I was told to get shots of the players called up for the expansion set. There were a number of players in the Angels dugout and I photographed them all. This was back in the day when I shot film. I would then send the film to Topps in New York. I thought that Gary’s brother was Devon White. I had seen Gary before in Baltimore and knew what he looked like.
What happened after the photo appeared on the card? Did anyone discuss it with you?
Topps realized that they had made a mistake in editing. And took it quite well.
Did Pettis react to it?
Gary took it quite well also. I used to ask him how his brother is doing. I’ve run into Gary over the years and he just smiles at the memory.
About how many photos that you took for Topps wound up on cards? Any particularly memorable images collectors will recognize?
Over the 15 years I was with Topps thousands of my images appeared on Topps Baseball, Football, Hockey and Basketball Cards. One of my favorites was the Pete Rose card I did of him the year he broke Ty Cobb’s hit record (1985).
Any other great ‘stories behind the cards’ that stick out?
When I took Pete’s card he asked me if there was any film in my camera. I replied “I hope so”. Every time afterwards he would ask me. One time in Cincinnati he asked me and I said “Lets see.” I opened the back of the camera and pulled the film out exposing it.Knowing it was coming, I had loaded a roll of cheap film. “Guess I did,” I said. He thought that was funny. The last time I saw Pete was at the Oreo softball game when Riverfront Stadium closed. He asked me if I had film in my camera as usual. No Pete, I have pixels in it now.
Was there a set time each day or on a certain day to take photos such as an organized ‘Photo Day’ or were you on your own much of the time?
I would get to the park four hours early to shoot visitor and home team batting practice for candid shots and then photograph the game. After BP I’d go up to the press room to eat. After the game back to the press room for a beer and wait for the crowd to depart. I was pretty much on my own. I’d see Butch once a year at the Winter Meetings. He would say “keep up the good work” and I’d say thanks. Great company to work for.
Did you have a checklist of certain players you needed to get?
Now and then I would get a call requesting a certain player. Most were pitchers. If they were relievers or not starting I would catch them after BP before the game and pose them. Topps preferred action cards. So did I.
Any particular players that were especially uncooperative? How about those who were great to work with?
For the most part it was a hassle free job. Every once in awhile you’d have a situation where some one was being shy or bull headed. One year Topps issued Teammates cards. The Dodgers were to be Pedro Guerrero and Fernando Valenzuela. Fernando was ducking me. I shared my plight with (Dodger employee) Mike Brito, who yelled something to Fernando in Spanish and Fernando became compliant. Nicest award would have to go to Steve Garvey.
Were you usually taking photographs for the next season’s cards?
For the most part it was the following season or for the (Update) set that would come at the end of the season with rookies, trades and (newcomers).
Do you still have many of the images you took during your career?
Besides the film I shot and sent Topps I have thousands of images in negatives and transparencies. I’ve been scanning them for marketing. A good estimate would be around 50,000 images when I complete them all.