Friday, June 25, 2010

Just The Vodka And The Tonic And The Ice

Supposedly this blog is meant to celebrate and document the world of trading cards when it was at its craziest, from about 1989-95, but that's really an impossible task. If you weren't there you wouldn't believe it. And if you were there, you really don't want to relive it.

There were card companies springing up every hour in those days. Honestly, you'd go across the street to the bakery for a peanut-butter cookie and they were all in back, dreaming up the Classic Confections set.

Of course, 99.99999965 percent of them were better off taking their money and placing it into something more predictable, like a roaring fire, but there was no reasoning with these people. They were convinced that every aspect of life short of breathing could be made into a collectible card set, and had they been able to flesh it out beyond the Inhale All-Star and the Exhale Rookie, they would have slapped Breathing Trading Cards ("the official card set of the respiratory system!") into Mylar, too.

I admit my guilt in the whole scheme. I was a consultant to the trading-card industry, helping to foist these experiments in high-tech cardstock and spot-UV coating onto a market that looked like Victor Buono in the old Batman episodes, minus the harem.

We didn't go out looking for clients in those days. They would accost us on the street. Babies would reach out of their Burleys and grab us by the collar, begging us to do the Famous Pacifiers set. Ministers would stop their sermons halfway through a parable that involved open sores, look us straight in the eyes and say, "Now there's a card for you." The money was good when the checks didn't bounce, but we blew it all on dark glasses. And moats.

We spent most of our time in those days looking at some of the most preposterous budget numbers ever produced by an entity that does not involve elected officials. Someone would come to us with an idea to make, oh, the Classic Plumbing Fixtures set, and their costs would be $800 for printing and $250 for advertising, with sales of 1.2 million packs at $1.25 each.

"Are you insane?" we would tell them, for free. "You're not going to print 10 million cards for eight hundred dollars!"

"But all I've got is $1,250," they'd say, at which point we told them politely to buy a tapir. "It's a far better investment," we'd tell them. "Keep it for a year, sell it for $80, $90. And they eat ants."

The card business in those days was the Official Home of Bad Ideas Marketed Badly. And prominent on that list was the Little Sun Famous Sportswriters set.

Little Sun was actually one of the more successful makers of almost-sports cards, which meant they had further to go before the money ran out. There's a Little Sun High School All-Star Baseball set which includes the very first card of Manny Ramirez, but it's worthless because it's Little Sun. A Kodak Instamatic picture of a blur that might be Manny Ramirez playing a sport that could be baseball, or tetherball, would be worth more than a Little Sun Manny Ramirez -- so naturally, I have one.

The line was that these cards were limited to a run of 2,000 sets, which meant there were firm orders for about a dozen. And you can cut that figure by around 11 for the Famous Sportswriters set.

Let me say at this point that Red Smith is an absolute idol. Ed Zern, Stanley Woodward, Jimmy Cannon, Bill Heinz -- love them all. They are truly an inspiration. Grantland Rice is a bit over the top, but he hung around with Ty Cobb in the days before they took the cocaine out of Coca-Cola, so there you go.

In every way I was an ideal target to buy the Little Sun Famous Sportswriters set: I was relatively young, had disposable income to burn, knew the writers, loved their material, and was active in the trading-card market. So of course, Little Sun sent me a set for free and knocked down the number of potential customers to zero.

The other thing they missed -- and this is the fatal flaw in the brainiac that was Little Sun -- is that what I want to do with famous sportswriters is read their stuff, not read someone writing badly about their stuff. What they look like is below tertiary, because these are people who spent their lives breathing cigar smoke and drinking antifreeze filtered through bread. Except for Frank Deford, who could pass for Don Ameche when there was a Don Ameche to pass for, the quality of the sportswriter was inversely proportional to their appearance, on a scale that featured Erin Andrews on one end and everyone in this set on the other.

So what we have here is bad writing about good writers who are also homely people. And also, I should mention, largely dead. Put onto a set of trading cards that were printed for $100 and sent forth with a marketing budget of $37.50.

The idea that this set might sell is as ridiculous as the idea of Tom Cruise as a Nazi general. You knew that at the crucial moment, when the bomb was about to explode and kill Hitler and save the Fatherland and bring glory to all right-thinking Wagner-lovers everywhere, he would come skidding onstage in his underwear and sing Bob Seger songs.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Famous Sportswriters set hit the market like a cow dropped from a plane, with Little Sun following soon after.

It's a pity, in a way. If Little Sun were still around it might be convinced to do a Famous Sportswriters 2 set, only nobody really writes about sports the way they used to. The antifreeze is gone to heck, and the bread's got seeds in it.