Behind the Lens with AU’s Jade Hewitt

AU’s Official Photog Talks Collecting, Cards, Photography

Date: Jun 13, 2024
Author: Tom Devoto
Topics: 2024 Topps Athletes Unlimited Pro Softball, Aliyah Andrews, Athletes Unlimited, Card Culture, Chicago, Jade Hewitt, Megan Wiggins, Pro Softball, softball, Tom Devoto
Length: 1397 Words
Reading Time: ~7 Minutes

Jade Hewitt, the official photographer for Athletes Unlimited Softball, captured every photo for the 2024 Topps Athletes Unlimited Pro Softball,l arriving June 14.

“Aliyah, can we just go back on the field for two seconds?”

The air was thick, and the temperature was brutally high — it was the kind of clear-sky summer day where anyone who spent more than a few moments outside got fried by the scorching sun. Athletes Unlimited softball had just wrapped up the second of back-to-back scrimmages days before the beginning of its 2023 Championship season, and Jade Hewitt had her eyes on the sunset, transfixed by the golden light it shined on the ballpark.

Hewitt is AU’s official photographer, and in that moment, she was on a mission to get her shot. She hustled outfielder Aliyah Andrews onto the field and asked her to toss a few balls — nice, slow, elongated motions, nothing crazy. Hewitt only needed five to 10 throws, she promised. 

In the end, she got her shot, a stunning silhouette photo of Andrews in front of a captivating sunset. Beginning June 14, that photo will be available as a Topps card to thousands of collectors. 

Jade Hewitt getting the shot (all photos provided by Jade Hewitt)

From click to card

Hewitt’s photographs are the focal points of 2024’s softball-specific trading card set from Topps and Athletes Unlimited. The sports organization has been around since 2020 and has created an innovative player-centric model for women’s softball, basketball, volleyball, and lacrosse leagues. 

A few pieces of that model are apparent from looking at these new cards. You’ll notice no team names on AU cards because there are no set teams. Each week, top individual performers (as determined by an in-depth, real-time statistical leaderboard) serve as captains, drafting new squads that come up with new identities. Those teams play a series of games, and the cycle repeats the following week. Rivals one game, teammates the next — AU always keeps things fresh.

Additionally, there are two distinct seasons: Championship, its original competition format with a longer season and more players that’s contested in Chicago each year, and AUX, a condensed season that takes the show on the road to a new city (this year it’s Wichita, Kansas), packing 18 games into two weeks.

The first few years of their partnership, Topps and AU released On Demand card sets, sold online for a few weeks during the season. Last year, Topps and AU collaborated for a more traditional release, a fuller card set that brought together the athletes from each AU sport, all in one pack. This particular new release is solely dedicated to softball, and in Hewitt’s eyes, that kind of set should appeal much more directly to fans of the game. 

“Softball fans know their trading cards,” Hewitt said. “I think they really appreciate having their own softball-specific product.”

In addition to taking the photos, Hewitt is also part of the team that evaluates the photos at the end of the season and selects the top shots that make it onto cards. It’s a lot of responsibility, she says — picking the right photos that will live on in print forever — but it’s also a lot of fun. 

For athletes who have been with AU for a few years and have had a few Topps cards, Hewitt will message them and ask for their input. For example, if one player had a defensive picture last year, she might see if they want a batting picture this year, or maybe one on the basepaths. (Though minor, it stands out as another example of the player-centricity that permeates every aspect of Athletes Unlimited.) 

And that’s only one of the reasons that players like working with Hewitt. Megan Wiggins, a veteran outfielder who’s been playing professionally since 2011, has known the photographer from their shared time in other pro leagues stretching back a decade. In addition to making players look good and feel comfortable at big events like Media Day, Wiggins said, Hewitt takes photos that essentially serve as journal entries that the players can look back on. 

“She produces high-quality photos and videos and content that, as players, we love,” said Megan Wiggins. “It’s great to have photos of what you do. She does a great job capturing the essence of everything we do on the field.”

Jade Hewitt and Sis Bates

Living a kid collector’s dream

Hewitt understands the significance of her photography appearing on cards because she’s collected them since she was a kid. 

“I was a baseball kid when I was younger,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt admiring her work at the Topps wall at last year’s National

As so many collecting stories do, her journey started with Topps Baseball. She recalls chasing a few of her childhood heroes—renowned sluggers Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Griffey Jr., along with Houston Astros legends Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman—and storing her favorites in a display case shaped like a sports locker. Today, her professional work in softball has also gotten her into collecting AU cards. 

“There’s just something about it that makes you feel like a kid when you hold cards,” Hewitt said. “Now, I’ve got an obscene amount of AU Topps cards at home.”

A favorite in her PC is a Cat Osterman parallel from the 2020 Topps On Demand Athletes Unlimited Softball set. While she’s got a few rare parallels from the first few years of Topps / AU collaborations  — lots of purples numbered to 50, she recalls, some blues numbered to 25, maybe one or two oranges numbered to five — Hewitt says she’s never gotten lucky enough to snag a one-of-one. Maybe this could be the year.

“That’s why we’re all in sports”

Hewitt has been photographing softball for 10 years now. Before AU, she was involved with National Pro Fastpitch (NPF), a foundational pro softball league now defunct. While the league was an essential stepping stone to where pro softball is today, Hewitt recognizes that those were leaner times—the crowds were smaller, and the marketing and promotion were less sharp.  

“From where we started to where we are now,” Hewitt said, “there’s just an immense sense of pride.”

As evidence of that growth, Hewitt remembers one night in San Diego during the AUX season two years ago. She was set up with her camera like any other game, and on this night, there were two little girls — sisters — watching the game with their dad. Each of them sat bright-eyed, clutching their binders full of AU softball cards they hoped to get signed by their favorite players following the game. After chatting with the family for a bit, Hewitt eventually asked if they liked photography — and of course they did, she recalled, since phone cameras have turned everyone into a photographer. 

Hewitt brought them down to the top of the wall right behind home plate, and for three or four innings, the two girls held Hewitt’s camera and snapped photos of their softball heroes. An extra meaningful coincidence that night, in Hewitt’s memory? It was Title IX Day at the ballpark.

Hewitt and some serious collectors at Title IX Day

“Seeing a little girl with a binder of cards in the autograph line, checking players off as she meets them, that’s enough to make me crumble into tears,” Hewitt said. “That little girl might not know I took the photo on her card, but she’s going to have that memory forever, and that’s why we do it. That’s why we’re all in sports.”

It all makes her think back to the start of AU when games were played in front of empty stands due to COVID restrictions—or even a few more years before that when the future of softball might not have looked so promising. But today, she knows that the players are inspired, the fans are engaged, and the game has more potential than ever.

“These athletes endured some harder years and leaner times in the name of women’s sports,” Hewitt said. “And now here they are on Topps cards.”

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