The coolest baseball cards of the year

Left Field Cards' Edible All-Stars feature players with food-themed names such as Darryl Strawberry. Paul Lukas

Everyone loves baseball cards, whether they're made by Topps, Donruss or Fleer. But what if I told you that the coolest baseball cards of the past year weren't made by any of those companies, but were instead produced by a 30-year-old European woman who'd never even seen a baseball game until five years ago?

That's the story behind Left Field Cards, the increasingly buzz-worthy project headed by Amelie Mancini, a pixie-ish artist who grew up in France and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her cards aren't conventional baseball cards -- they're postcard-sized and they feature themes such as ballplayers with mustaches, ballplayers with "edible names" (Darryl Strawberry, Jim Rice, etc.) and my favorite, ballplayers who've had bizarre injuries (all non-game-related). The cards are fun and playful, plus you can mail them to friends. They've become so popular over the past nine months or so that Left Field Cards has become Mancini's full-time gig.

All of which is pretty remarkable given that Mancini was completely baseball-oblivious when she arrived in Brooklyn in 2006. Some friends invited her to join them for a Mets-Phillies game the following year and it turned out to be a life-changing experience.

"I immediately saw that baseball is so simple, yet so complex, and I got hooked right away," she says in her light French accent. "I started reading the back pages of the New York Post. If I was at a bar and a game was on the TV, I'd pay attention and ask questions." She essentially became a baseball sponge, poring over old Baseball Encyclopedias and pretty much any other baseball-related printed matter she could find. It was education via full-on immersion, sort of like trying to cram a sports geek's entire childhood into a year or two.

Mancini soon began incorporating the sport into her artwork. She created a series of large-scale paintings featuring greats such as Babe Ruth, Sandy Koufax, Roger Maris, Harvey Haddix and Tom Seaver (you can see some of them here) but soon faced a common artist's dilemma: Almost nobody could see her baseball paintings unless they visited her studio. And besides, the paintings were too expensive for the average baseball fan.

"That's when I decided to do something smaller and more affordable," she says. She'd become fascinated by her boyfriend's baseball card collection, so that seemed like a good direction, but she didn't want to just create a static collectible. "Baseball cards are fun, but what do you do with them? I wanted to make something that could be shared through the mail."

And that's how the idea for Left Field Cards was born. Mancini ultimately decided to make letterpress cards from hand-cut linoleum blocks. Remember linoleum from junior high art class? Mancini was trained as a painter, not a printmaker, but she quickly got the hang of it. She says a typical design takes her about an hour to execute, and that the folk-art feel is intentional. "If I wanted them to be perfect, I'd do the work on a computer," she says. "But I like it better this way. The little imperfections are part of the charm."

She launched the first set of cards -- the Bizzarre Injuries series -- last October, sold a few packs to friends, and figured the venture would be a small but creatively satisfying project. But then some sports blogs and design websites picked up on what she was doing, and she was flooded with gift orders for the holidays. "I go back to France for Christmas, and all these orders were coming in while I was on my way to the airport," she says. "It was a disaster!"

Mancini eventually returned to Brooklyn, got caught up on everything and realized she'd created something much bigger than she'd expected. As the media attention grew, she issued another series of cards (Edible All-Stars), and then another (Marvelous Mustaches, which is her favorite so far because it's her first foray into two-color design). By March, she was able to quit her restaurant job and work on Left Field Cards full-time.

Today Mancini's cards are carried by about two dozen shops across America, and she continues to do a brisk business on her website. She already has plans for additional card sets (players with glasses, players with curious second careers) and she's thinking about additional products, like T-shirts and pennants. Not bad for someone who didn't know a pickoff from a kickoff six years ago.

"I definitely was not expecting it to work out like this, but I'm very invested in it," she says, her accent fading further into the background with each sentence. "I want to take it as far as it can go."

Paul Lukas thinks Topps would be smart to strike some kind of deal with Left Field Cards. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.