Sunday, November 21, 2010

Floppsy, Toppsy, And A Rotten Tale

I feel like Steve Goodman being taken to the woodshed by David Allan Coe. I did not write the perfect country-and-western song because I didn't say anything at all about mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk. And what's worse, I wrote about the so-called funny baseball cards of the Handful O'Landfill era and didn't say anything about Flopps.

Flopps were a product of Pro Set circa 1992, when the company was well on its way to world domination through pictures on cardboard. It already had the official cards of the National Football League and the National Hockey League, it had the NBA dead in its sights, it had sold hockey cards with a Canadian Nut Goodie so it could sell practically anything, it had an opulent corporate headquarters that seemed to be made entirely of light beams and Walter Payton statues, and it had a corpulent CEO guaranteed to make a thousand Marie Claire editors go “ick!” The only thing it was missing: a baseball license.

In those days the real money in the card biz was still in baseball, because the NFL and its players’ association (the whole “official card of the NFL” thing notwithstanding) gave away licenses to anyone willing to make a seven-figure donation to their respective labor-unrest war chests, and hockey and basketball were still hockey and basketball, no matter what Michael Jordan said.

Major League Baseball had kept a pretty tight lid on things, meaning it had only five licensees making six products each. This was before baseball cards in cans, so almost all those sets made money. And Pro Set wanted a piece. Very badly.

That was one aspect to Pro Set – “good” Pro Set, if you will. Then there was the Sarah Palin operation, Pro Set gone rogue, mainly under the leadership of trading-card deep-thinker Victor Shaffer. The Pro Set skunkworks made Desert Storm cards and Young Indiana Jones cards and Little Mermaids cards and Dinosaurs cards and racing cards and other non-mainstream sets, and badly wanted to get into the comic end of the non-sport biz.

(There was another level to Pro Set, the money-skimming “evil” Pro Set, but that’s a topic – and a federal investigation -- for another day.)

Somehow the skunkworks got tangled up with the desire for a baseball license and determined the way to get into comic cards and get a baseball license was to use a comic set to slam Topps and many of the superstar baseball players it depicted. The result was Flopps.

Flopps was not Pro Set's finest hour. It was not even its finest couple of seconds. There was nothing about Flopps that was not done elsewhere – and not simply "done better elsewhere," because ha-ha-told-you-so satiric baseball-card sets have never been done well by anyone.

Here are the contents of the promo packs distributed to the media and dealers: Wade Bugs of the Boston Sweat Socks; Stickey Henderson of the Oakland Ughs!; Ken Groovy, Jr., of the Seattle Mindwarps; Barry Bones of the Pusburgh Packrats; and Lance Perishable of the California Airheads.

Laughing yet? If you're not now you never will be, because that's all there is.

The Calvin Coolidge-like lack of humor of the promo cards aside – and remember, promo cards are supposedly the best of the best – the aforementioned Flopps cards point up a bigger problem: sustaining the humor over the course of a set. The promo cards have players hailing from Boston, Oakland, Seattle, California, and Pusbergh. That would be like creating a Garbage Pail Kids set consisting of Adam Bomb, Busted Bertha, Smelly Kelly, Bea Sting, and Glenn Beck. (Yeah, I don't have a problem with it, either.)

And then how big a set do you want? Keeping the knee-slapping mirth going over a handful of superstar cards is one thing; when you get down to cards 466 and 467, Bean Figueroa and Bill Grisly, who's still paying attention? And what, oh what, do you do with Archi Cianfrocco?

The bottom of the theoretical Flopps barrel is the stuff EC Comics were made of: Paul Faires as Paul Fairies. Juan Agosto as Juan Disgusto. Kevin Appier as Kevin Disappear. It would take James Thurber, Dave Barry, and Mark Twain alternating sentences on the back, and Gary Larson and Bill Watterston doing the art, and it still wouldn't come off half as good as a run-of-the-mill Odd Rod.

And that didn't happen. The art has a day-glo sketchiness that makes a Wacky Package look like a DaVinci, and the writing on the back rarely rises above streetwalker level.

"Lance is not a good long-term investment for any team," reads the back of the Lance Perishable card. "Although he's got it together by the early season, by mid-summer he just falls to pieces. Most agree that Lance stinks because he's just plain rottin.'"

There's a perverse, oh-my-God-she's-wearing-that? fascination to Flopps cards. It's like watching your buddy from accounting trying to do karaoke to "Vision of Love" after going four rounds with chocotinis. But that doesn't mean it's something you want to return to time and again.

Rarely has a set been as broken in so many ways as Flopps, so it's probably a good thing it never made it past the promo stage. Why it didn't is a matter of conjecture.

“What we believe happened is that Topps got wind of it and complained to MLB," a former Pro Set staffer says. "The MLB told Pro Set: If you produce Flopps, you will never get a baseball license. Pro Set had every right to produce Flopps; they just realized that it was not worth it to ruin any chance of ever getting a baseball license."

“I remember a giant yawn from the non-sport community when dealers were artificially rigging promo card prices on these weak cards," contends Don Butler, Pro Set expert and former non-sport-card-magazine editor. "I think we received a cello pack -- Wade Buggs was the top card --with an announcement of the set, then it was abandoned either from the threat of a lawsuit or – what I think – the worse threat of no sales."

Whatever did or didn't happen with Flopps, it points up the eternal lesson: Make lemonade when life gives you lemons, but if insist on making your own lemons, don't expect it to taste like Minute Maid.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nooks and Canooks

The story of trading cards in the late ‘80s in early ‘90s is populated like Churchill Downs on Derby Day with cheaters. You wouldn’t call them cheaters, really, but I would. They were the finest assortment of undercapitalized entrepreneurs, tinhorn bandwagon-chasers, and misanthropic small-businesspeople this side of the 112th Congress.

The only upside to this was that these cheaters were quite entertaining to talk with. They generally had a grandiose idea which tended to work best with someone else’s money, a past that was more littered with potholes than Chicago streets in March, a line of patter that made Professor Harold Hill sound like Shane McGowan, and the idea that the trading-card and sports-memorabilia business was going to divert its course like Mark Twain’s Mississippi and run right through their idea, even if their idea was Dream Team chew toys or Legends of Sea World trading cards. They were a collection of Terry Molloys; they coulda been contenders if they’d only had more money, or the breaks, or the license -- usually the license.

Because they did not have the money or the breaks they couldn’t get the license, and because they couldn’t get the license they had to cheat. Cheating generally took the form of creating an unlicensed product.

There were a couple of routes nascent cardmakers could take to make unlicensed sets. They could just throw the cards out there, usually at shows, and dare the leagues and lawyers to do something about it. That was the Broder approach. They could go the Star Company route and contract with individual players, bypassing the players’ association. They could contract with individual teams or non-major leagues, though by the time the Handful O’Landfill era had rolled around everything this side of the Australian Baseball League was spoken for. Or they could swoop in and sign players while they were in that unique portal between life and the afterlife, otherwise known as the amateur and professional realms.

These projects usually took the form of draft-pick sets, and while many of them were very nicely done (cf. Star Pics), you can’t say there was ever a need for them. Topps and Upper Deck (the Official Upper Deck, not the Forbidden Upper Deck) would get to these guys shortly, assuming they were worthy, and those companies’ cards would be recognized as the valuable ones anyway, no matter how cool the draft-pick-cards’ backs were or how many autographed Chuck Taylors they threw into the mix.

There was a distinct hierarchy to these sets. Football was on top because people actually follow the football draft, and the path from the draft to the bigs rarely detours through Ankara, Gotebörg, or Moose Jaw. Basketball was next, for the same reasons, followed by baseball, and finally hockey.

Understanding the NHL draft is like understanding how Cam Newton wound up at Auburn for free if people were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for him to play at places very similar to Auburn, save for a few entrees in the lunch line. Both phenomena involve money seen and unseen, levels of play with “junior” in their name, the promise of professional glory, and repeated blows to the head. But eventually they diverge.

Unless your name is Sidney Crosby, a first-round NHL draft pick can vanish for several years before suddenly appearing in the NHL, usually with a team five places removed from the team that drafted him. No one knows what goes on in between; many meals of french fries and gravy, several thousand Molsons, and extensive bridgework are the best guesses.

Because the NHL draft is as connected to the NHL as Taylor Swift is connected to Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, naturally hockey-draft-pick sets proliferated like women-on-women talk shows, with about as much worthwhile content.

The production qualities on these sets range from unnecessarily glitzy (Ultimate Hockey) to Home Shopping Network Lite (Classic) to third-world crude, which is where this week’s Handful O’Landfill at last makes an appearance.

The genesis of the “Russian Stars In NHL/National Team of the USSR” has been sucked up in the great Zamboni of time, though it probably wasn’t altogether clear to start with. My guess is that this product of Leningrad’s Ivan Fiodorov Press comes in somewhere between the Joe Smith Indianapolis Racers one-card Wayne Gretzky set profiled in the first installment of Handful O’Landfill and a fundraiser for the Russian Mafia.

Just the name of this set suggests the confusion that still surrounds it. Is it a set of Russian stars in the NHL, the Russian national team, or a national team made up of stars of the NHL? If the set answers these questions it does so in Russian, because the English sure doesn’t get ‘er done.

With that said, this set has its moments, especially at the end of the English portion of the Igor Larionov’s card, which reads, “In 1989-90 he began playing for the Vancouver Canooks.” This falls in perfectly with the Doront Mupplekhleef, Bostabroons and Mondrool Canadeens of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. Alexei Gusarov’s titular team, the Quebec Nordics, can’t compete with that.

The set also has a card of Vladislav Tretiak, the best goalie ever, and cards of that guy aren’t exactly spilling over the gunwales.

From the nesting-doll motif on the card backs to the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time photography on the front, there’s a gritty Trabantesque feel to this set, which is just about right. Like the Trabant, the Russian Stars In NHL set is a socialist approximation of a capitalist fad. And like the Trabant, this set didn’t go anywhere, either.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, And Baseball Cards?

The idea that baseball could be funny has reverberated through almost the entire history of the game, which leads you to believe that baseball was not really designed to be a game but rather some elaborate Victorian comedy routine played out for the enjoyment of the one-armed Civil War vets at the Grand Army Home. Maybe it was their version of Saturday Night Live, with Abner Doubleday as Amy Poehler, doing U.S. Grant impersonations. It would explain volumes, including, at last, Whammy Douglas.

The first instances of mass-produced baseball humor came in the mid-1880s, with the publication of advertising cards showing baseball players doing the hilarious things baseball players have always done: sliding, catching, batting, and throwing. What made you really split your sides and expel peach melba through your nose was that the players' heads were Macy's-balloon-size, and the slogans on the top engaged in subtle wordplay certain to send the eyeballs of the Henry James set rolling back into their foreheads.

For instance, there is the caricature of the Detroit Wolverines’ Dan Brouthers with the slogan, “Watch me soak one.” No, smart individual, the ball isn’t even made of water like the balls in those razor ads. It’s just a ball and a slogan and a caricature of Dan Brouthers that made Thomas Nast’s work on Boss Tweed look like Gainsbrough. A chicken feather lightly waved across the foot is not half so effective as a Moran's Coffee card, let me tell you.

This sort of hilarity continued with the Old Judge set, otherwise known as the card set of the masses, by the masses, for the masses, and containing all the masses. There the humorous hook designed to get people to set fire to dried leaves rolled in paper and stuck in their mouth was the old ball-on-a-string trick. Arlie Latham is reaching for a ball that will never, ever have the giddyup to reach his glove, which makes "Who's On First?" come off like Pacino and DiNiro doing Aristophanes. Combine that with handlebar mustaches and nicknames like "Death to Flying Things" and you're only a couple of gallons of blackberry brandy away from a rip-roaring party.

And around the turn of the century came the Edith Wharton-esque Mayo Comics set, which shows, among other moments that could have been outtakes from Airplane!, a drawing of an evicted family with their belongings on the street and the slogan "Put Out At 1st" beneath.

Boy, a two-handed eye-poke has nothing on social-consciousness humor from the meat-packing-trust days.

We could go through the hysterical hijinks for years and launch nasal chunks at the mere thought of baseball humor being used to sell paints and suits, but this is "Handful O'Landfill" and our objective is to ridicule the cards of baseball's salad days. So let's fast-forward to '91 – 1991, if you don’t mind -- and sharpen the long knives.

The humorous baseball cards of the HOL-i-days took one of two tacks, neither of which would hurt you much if you sat on them. The first was the historical approach, as embodied by Star Company’s “Baseball Hall of Shame” set.

Star Company was well-acquainted with baseball humor, having made a 20-card set of Sam Horn. It delved further into the history books with its Baseball Hall of Shame set and produced Chaplinesque moments like the following, delivered under the headline, “Blooperstown News”:

“1902 – Cubs pitcher Jimmy St. Vrain had a problem finding first base. This was understandable since he seldom made it to first, batting a weak .097 for the year.

“St. Vrain usually batted right-handed but, following a suggestion by his manager, he attempted to bat left-handed.

“On his very next trip to the plate, St. Vrain hit a slow grounder to shortstop Honus Wagner. Thrilled that he had simply hit the ball, St. Vrain dropped his bat and took off on a dead run – toward third base!

“The stunned Wagner didn’t know whether to throw him out at first or third. He recovered in time and fired to first for the out. It was probably the first time a runner was thrown out by 180 feet!”

Probably. And we wonder where the next James Thurber is coming from.

Forgive me for interrupting your paroxysms and convulsions, but I have a column to run and a question to ask: Would you pay money for more of the same?

Maybe if you’re Jerry Seinfeld and you find yourself with a standup act to write and no material to write it from. But for the mere mortals it would be like giving every new driver’s-ed graduate a Ferrari Testarossa. Watch out for the corners.

While the Baseball Hall of Shame set stuck to the facts with gut-jiggling results, the set known by no other name than "Fun Stuff" tossed aside the history books in favor of a no-holds-barred assault on the funny bone. The result was like a Steven Wright monologue with the punch line not merely delayed but completely eliminated.

Consider the card of "Bubble Dumb" Bonkus, Backup Catcher. Paired with a drawing of a player trying to remove what appears to be characters from a Dreamworks cartoon from his face are the deathless couplets, "If a guy can't blow bubbles, there is just no way he can make it in baseball./So despite his great arm and great bat, Bonkus will always be just a backup player if he can't master bubble gum."

Twain, Thurber, Benchley, Wolfe, Barry -- they were all just a run-up, laying the groundwork for "Bubble Dumb" Bonkus. You have to go all the way back to Chaucer to find something labeled as humor so completely hidden behind a veil of nondescript language.

I have no idea where this card came from. I'm guessing somewhere in the candy realm, based on the name "Confex" following the copyright circle. On the other hand, Confex may be the name of a clandestine operation, much like the Killer Joke Project from the Monty Python sketch, where hundreds of little gray men toil endlessly in an airless bunker, striving under threat of death to create the ultimate funny baseball card that will leave millions of eight-year-old boys so paralyzed with laughter that the Confex operation can swoop in and harvest their organs or swipe their iPod Touches. I know which one I'd prefer. Give me a good, fresh kidney over a mini-hard drive full of Taylor Swift anyday.

It's a thought. So is not bothering to joke up baseball. Let it roast – a celebrity roast, of course – on its own spit.