Say “Cheese!”

Brooklyn pitcher Chris Van Cuyk’s 1952 baseball card begins its biographical text by describing him as being “Back in the Big Leagues for another try.” While he did see more action in 1952 than any of his brief 1950-51 outings, this would be his final year and only appearance on a playing days baseball card. He looks pretty happy to be photographed for his cardboard debut.

You can almost hear Van Cuyk drawing out a “cheeeeeeeese” as the photographer snapped the picture used on the card. This is unusual, as you often do not see such a toothy smile on cards of the era. Part of this may be related to the relative newness of the now ubiquitous habit of saying cheese whenever we are asked to look into a camera lens.

Reports of someone saying cheese for a camera didn’t surface in written documents until 1943, less than a decade prior to this card’s production. The Big Spring Herald reportedly quoted US ambassador Joseph Davies as using the dairy-themed word as a trick to induce a broad smile when posing for the camera. While early photographs usually featured serious looking subjects, the expansion of photographic media in the early 20th century fed the need to capture more vibrant expressions. The boom in motion pictures and photo-heavy newspapers popularized by Hearst in the 1920s brought smiling images to wide swathes of the population for the first time. Television began its inroads into American life after World War II and with it came additional focus on visual media. Davies did not claim to have invented the trick of saying cheese, but rather said he picked it up from another politician (FDR?). As the use of images became more prevelant, word spread of this easy way to look cheerful.

Perhaps word of this spread to a ballpark in Brooklyn, where a very happy pitcher was posing for his first ever baseball card.

Not a terribly good pitcher, but apparently worth the gamble as rookie. Van Cuyk’s career didn’t pan out but he was at least able to generate a mild improvement over general replacement value across three partial seasons.