BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI
Mike Mottolese never saw Warren Spahn pitch.
The Hall-of-Fame southpaw, who won 363 games despite missing three seasons while serving in the military during World War II, retired three years before Mottolese, 55, was born. Yet it is Spahn, who dominated the National League for the better part of three decades, with whom Mottolese so closely associates.
“He was such a great pitcher,” said Mottolese, who lives in Connecticut with his wife, Maura, and their three daughters. “He’s my favorite player though it’s not as if I ever saw him pitch. I just like the fact that he was a goofy looking guy. When he was younger, he kind of looked a lot like me.”
That Mottolese can discuss Spahn, his exploits and, yes, even his looks, is telling. His knowledge of baseball and its history are two of the reasons why Woody’s Custom Cards has proven to be a hit in what has become one of the most popular genres among card collectors. Mottolese’s creations are colorful, informative and tap into the history of the game, a history about which many young collectors remain unaware.
“Obviously I love the game and the history of the game,” he said. “I do a lot of Warren Spahn cards. I don’t collect a ton of cards, but I do buy a low-grade Warren Spahn here and there for fun.”
The fun that Mottolese has collecting Spahn cards is the same type of feeling that his customers get when he comes out with a new creation. He has made some 75 cards since the beginning of the pandemic and generally reaches back into history to produce tobacco cards, early 1950s Bowman style cards, stamp-style cards and many others. The cards of that era serve as his inspiration. And while he isn’t really a collector himself, Mottolese does have 40 or so vintage cards from the early 50s.
So, if you’re interested in the likes of Ernie Banks, Tom Seaver, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams and, of course, Spahn, then Mottolese is your man.
“I like to do mostly classic players like Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, players like that; it’s just what strikes me,” Mottolese said. “Most of my cards are players from the past. I really can’t explain it. I did a Willie Stargell We Are Family card and it struck me what a great design it would make. I did it in the 70s style with black and yellow. And sometimes I’ll just do a card of some of my favorite guys growing up. I did a Dr. J card because I love Dr. J.”
Mottolese sells most of his cards for $25 but the size and complexity of the card can have an impact on the cost. He’ll do the occasional original drawing, too, but the bulk of his work is done digitally through Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator or on an iPad with an Apple pencil. It could take as many as six or seven hours for him to put a card together and then another five or six hours to complete the back, which includes finding an appropriate quote from the player to put on the card.
His creations have caught the eye of many a collector, including the folks at the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in South Carolina. He did a 20-card set for the museum, including creating the packaging that resembles the box in which a deck of playing cards is sold. Mottolese was also part of the Josh Gibson Card campaign on Twitter a few years back.
“I spend a lot of time on Twitter,” Mottolese said. “Baseball history guys post pictures and they get me and my creativity going. I follow a lot of people on Twitter, a lot of them card collectors. I see a lot of historic and tobacco cards and that gets me going.”
Once Mottolese does “get going” his experience as a creative director at an advertising agency allows him to bring his ideas to life. He was an art minor in college and also received certification in graphic design. Mottolese spent much of his 20s and 30s working in that field until the time that he and his wife started a family. The couple ultimately decided that one of them had to stay home with the kids and that someone was dad.
“I was a creative director and she was working doing marketing for Snapple and I kept threatening that I was going to stay home and be a Mr. Mom,” he said. “We had one daughter in daycare and another with a nanny so I have been a stay-at-home dad ever since. My wife has done extremely well in her portion of the world so doing this is something that keeps me in the creative game. I don’t do it for a living; I do it to keep my chops up and keep creative and I have a lot of fun.”
Mottolese said he stumbled onto card art and custom cards during the pandemic and decided to test the waters with a Reggie Jackson design. He created one of Reggie as a Yankee and one as an Oakland Athletic depicting Mr. October in the follow through of his classic swing in a way that captures the vibe of the 70s during the slugger’s heyday.
“That’s my favorite card because it was my first and it stands up there as one of the more popular cards I did,” said Mottolese, who is a big New York Mets fan. “Most of my cards are just painted portraits but that one captures the era with the type of design, the sunburst, the broad colors and the swing. I don’t remember how I got looped into Twitter but I put it out there saying I made this poster just for fun. I asked if anyone would be interested and they were. So, I made some cards and got hooked into the whole thing.”
While the historical players are Mottolese’s go-to design, he said he currently has more designs ready to be made into cards of current players such Shohei Ohtani and Pete Alonso.
“I am working on an Alonso now and Pete has that great look when he bangs a big one,” Mottolese said. “I did a [Jacob] deGrom, which I guess you can fold up and destroy now. I think people would love a custom Bo Jackson or Ken Griffey, Jr. card, though.”
As for the name of his creations, it all goes back to the look, much like his love of Spahn. When Mottolese worked for an agency all those years ago he got the nickname Woody after the character in the film Toy Story.
“Apparently, I reminded people of Woody,” he said. “I was kind of tall and slim, like him. One of my buddies had come back from lunch with a Woody happy meal from McDonald’s. he said, ‘Mike I figured out who you are’ and that became my work persona. All these years later, when looking for a name for my little cottage industry, I thought Woody had that friendly feeling of nostalgia that I want to represent through my cards.”