Thursday, July 29, 2010

Woo. Who?

Trading cards have always been a problem child in terms of what we expect from them. We want them to show baseball the way we remember baseball: Hall of Famers on top and then a human pyramid with Sammy Khalifa at the bottom. We want Nap Lajoie rookie cards and a Jack Quinn card for each year he played. After that, we want trading cards of the other sports in order of modern importance: football, basketball, and hockey, please, but only football, basketball, and hockey.

Trouble is, our memories are faulty and our expectations are whacked. Sport wasn’t always a Gang of Four, and trading cards, in the process of doing their job, which was selling stuff other than trading cards, were not about to wrap themselves around modern conceptions of a point-in-time process. Trading cards started out showing pictures of weeds and butterflies and billiard players, graduated to burning babies, went from there to space aliens, and then capped it all off with an orgy that took them from Playboy centerfolds to lady bowlers to Flavor Flav.  The 1990s were simply the blowout beer party at the end of a misbehaving adolescence. We should not be surprised, but invariably, we are.

So it is in that rather conciliatory light that we consider Woo Daves.

Woo Daves was a bass fisherman. He still is a bass fisherman, in the same way that The White Stripes are still a garage band. His empire ranges from lures to videos to the Woo Daves Fishing Shoe, which “come with an exclusive footbed made of a polyurethane ‘comfort core’ orthotic.”

After reading up on Woo, it appears he was to bass fishing what Larry the Cable Guy was to standup comedy. Woo snatched bass fishing from the intellectual eastern bourgeois elite and returned it to its rightful owners, the proletariat of the American heartland. And by “eastern” we mean eastern Missouri and parts of Tennessee.

Woo was also in part responsible for bass fishing landing its network-TV gig, which is a wonderful thing. Seeing a professional bass fisherman extracting a fish the size of a Smart Car from a live well is a thrill that blows away a pair of sevens on the PocketCam, though it lacks the made-for-TV zing of a sea cucumber playing Minute To Win It.

Plus, his name is Woo. This makes him a perfect candidate for the role of dorky boyfriend in the classic song “Da Doo Ron Ron.” (“Yeah, my hair turned blue/Yeah, his name was Woo/And when he walked me home/Da doo ron ron/Da doo ron ron” etc.)

Given that, and given history, it is entirely meet, right, and salutary that Woo Daves should be on a trading card. And it just as meet, right, and salutary that we, as responsible collectors, should ignore the heck out of it.

Nothing against Woo, or his card, or the set which contains his card. Au contraire, Eau Claire; we think the Big League Bass set is wonderful. In contrast to many so-called “mainstream” sports-card sets, Big League Bass cards fished the weed beds at the edge of the current. They knew their audience. They were all about the fish, the guy holding the fish, the hat, the lure, the rod, the reel, the boat, the fish locator, and the comfort-core orthotic, in that order. They were never wildly overgrown or microscopic, and they never deigned to pose a fisherman in a gray herringbone from Yards 4 Pards.

If the Big League Bass set had wanted to make itself more alluring it would have infused its cards with the smell of pork rind and added wiggle action.

However, there is a difference between knowing and servicing the audience and creating a collectible. What Big League Bass did was extremely straightforward: it made a product aimed at fishermen. The product was a set of trading cards. It didn’t have hooks or monofilament or a smell that made retrievers want to roll in it, but it was a fisherman’s product just the same. Asking collectors to buy and collect it would have been the same as asking them to collect angleworms.

But hey, it’s a big collecting world out there. Maybe someone does collect angleworms. I inadvertently collected field mice, and fed them on a diet of ’64 Topps football cards. (Sob!)

There is hope for Woo Daves and the Big League Bass set as a collectible. Still, it’d be more appropriate to attach a treble hook to its butt end, troll it through a weed patch and see what bites.

Call it turnabout is fair play.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Straw Dogs

Aw, to heck with it. I can't find this week's card. But here's the post anyway.

As I’ve mentioned several times on these electronic pages, when it comes to sports collectibles I have the world’s largest collection of worthless rarities. I am the person you call upon to fill out your Comic Ball 3 set, to score that elusive Pro Line Portraits autographed card of Aaron Cox, to hold in your hands the glory that is a Star Company Sam Horn set.

But what does that mean exactly? Does that mean I am the world’s greatest pure collector of sports memorabilia in the same unbearable, unlistenable way that Ornette Coleman was the world’s greatest pure musician, because I do not allow the joy of collecting to be sullied by the ogre of value?

I hope not. I wouldn’t wish that on BP. Besides, I have kids to put through college.

But to continue, grasshopper, what makes a worthless rarity outside of its lack of value, which is self-evident?

I guess to do that you need to know what makes a valuable rarity.

The valuable rarities I’ve seen have a couple of things going for them. First, they have a story. The Wagner card is the Wagner card in part because of the story, apocryphal or not, that it was pulled from circulation because Honus Wagner did not want his visage associated with tobacco products, Henry Reccius cigar cards notwithstanding.

Second, they need to be associated with a mainstream card set. There are baking issues and candy cards from the 1910s that are much rarer than the Honus Wagner card, but they’re also from obscure regional sets. It’s much more newsworthy when a T206 Honus Wagner showed up in a Maine farmhouse than when the aforementioned Reccius card appeared in a Louisville cigar box.

Then there’s star value and eye appeal, and after that is perhaps the most important thing: quantity. Having the only example of a collectible is not the road to the fortunes of Kubla Khan. Ideally you need somewhere between 10 and 25 examples of a collectible for it to be actively sought-after. Fewer than that and the known examples don’t show up frequently enough to keep the fervor bubbling along. More than that and the rarity deteriorates and takes the value along with it.

That’s why owners of one of 24 known valuable cards root with the fervor of a drunken Scottish soccer fan the existence of No. 25. They don’t want to spend $500,000 for a picture on cardboard and wake up one morning and discover it’s been replaced by a Kia Rio.

Here’s how this wickedness works. About 20 years ago an auction-house proprietor named Joshua Evans turned up what he claimed to be the most valuable card in existence: A U.S. Caramel card from 1932 showing Hall of Fame shortstop Freddie Lindstrom. The Lindstrom was the one card necessary to complete one of the toughest sets from the ‘30s and at that point was the only known example of that card.

This card has star value after a fashion, if you believe Lindstrom qualifies for Cooperstown on his accomplishments and not because Ted Williams got the Veterans’ Committee smashed on grain alcohol and Lithia water and what they wrote sure looks like “Lindstrom” from here.

It has a story. The Lindstrom card was withheld from circulation because kids who got a complete set of U.S. Caramel cards could redeem them for a baseball glove and U.S. Caramel wanted to keep the glove expenditures to a minimum. As in zero.

It wasn’t the best-looking card of the era, even before someone cancelled it. And while the U.S. Caramel set was national after a fashion, U.S. Caramel did not have the zillion slimy tentacles of the tobacco trust. So compared to the Wagner card the Lindstrom card was definitely minor-league.

But Joshua Evans laughs at such hindrances. He dubbed the Lindstrom card “The Million-Dollar Card” and took it on a barnstorming tour that made what C.C. Pyle did with Red Grange look like REO Speedwagon’s summer schedule.

And then he sold it. For less than a million. For less than $100,000 even. For around $90,000, if reports can be believed.

Again we ask, wha’ happen? The easy answer: not enough star power and too much scarcity. One card cannot make a market. Two cards, which is currently the number of known Lindstrom cards, cannot make a market, even if the owners of these cards, once they get them home, realize that $90,000 in the raw is far better-looking, even if it’s in pennies salvaged from automobile upholstery.

(Let this be a lesson to all those Fleer Flair and Stadium Club collectors waiting for the right moment to cash out their one-of-one Terry Puhl cards. Amen.)

So to bring things ‘round again, a worthless rarity has to lack star power, eye appeal, national scope, a marketable quantity, and a story. In short, it needs to be one of nothing.

Meet the 1989 Saranac Glove Darryl Strawberry card.

Let’s dispense with the story, such as it is. Green Bay-based Saranac Glove wanted to package a baseball card with its batting gloves and didn’t think a photo would properly showcase its product, so it commissioned Green Bay artist Dan Gardiner to paint Darryl Strawberry wearing a Metsish uniform and sporting Saranac gloves. It came off fine except for one thing: the Straw Man didn’t like his nose.

Now, Darryl Strawberry resembles nothing so much as a resident of the planet Zorg. For him to complain that they got his nose wrong is like Clint Eastwood complaining that they missed a wrinkle.

And it’s not like Gardiner missed Strawberry’s nose by much. Maybe he was thinking Darryl “Sausage Nose” Hamilton and painting Darryl Strawberry, but it’s close. And, hey, whatever happened to artist’s license?

Still, Saranac Glove would rather pull a perfectly good card off of the market than pay millions to a large-nosed, baseball-playing space alien. So the Saranac Glove card was history. Gardiner got a few, and the company ostensibly kept some, and the rest were destroyed.

Twenty years ago this would have been the perfect collectible storm: Hot player, legitimately scarce card, national distribution, not too ugly, interesting story. But between then and now Strawberry’s career came up short of Cooperstown, which in the card market meant he had the baseball career of a raisin. And no one pays extra for a picture on cardboard of a raisin, no matter how scarce.

So if you were looking for the quintessential worthless rarity, here's your answer. Though a Fleer Flair Terry Puhl sure looks like it qualifies from here.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Collect This? Read What?

People who were in the card business never got there through traditional, legitimate means. There was never any sort of internship-leading-to-post-graduate-study-leading-to-entry-level-job path all neatly laid out and codified in the employee handbook. It was hard to do in a business where the location of the restroom changed daily.

Instead, you had Harvard MBAs cheek-by-jowl with old journalists, venture capitalists, card-store owners, starry-eyed printers, diaper-division product managers, teenaged paper millionaires, and a sprinkling of paroled felons, for texture.

And the best part was, no one knew what the hell they were doing.

Soon enough, though, a couple of centers of activity emerged. There was the Philly-New York axis, home of the old money, such as it was – Fleer and Topps – plus newcomers like Classic and Major League Marketing. The area was also home to the infamous Renata Galasso shows, which were a sort of Woodstock for hairspray-fueled invective, and the iconic Cherry Hill show, held in a venue that made you exclaim, “Wow! I didn’t know Best Western did medium-security prisons!”

There was Chicago, home to puffy-card-maker Action Packed and the bought-up and relocated Leaf-Donruss. Leaf-Donruss was owned by the Finnish conglomerate Huhtamaki Oi, which is coincidentally what the Finns said when they saw Donruss’ balance sheet.

There was California, home to Upper Deck, and that was enough. If any more card makers had tried to settle out there Richard McWilliam would have pushed them into the sea.

There was Dallas, home to Pro Set and Pinnacle Brands and their bankruptcy lawyers.

And then there was Raleigh-Durham, home to Impel Marketing and SkyBox International, and later Maxx Racing, Inkworks, and the Racing Champions conglomerate.

The reason the card business stuck in Raleigh is pretty simple. Drive to downtown Durham, go past the gated community known as Duke University, park your car, whisper in its ear that you’ll see it in Heaven, and then sniff the air. It smells like an unsmoked cigarette.

The tobacco industry had spent millions building a distribution network aimed at having a pack of cancer sticks at the ready any time the impulse struck. It was no trick to pour a similarly addictive product through the same pipeline.

The first products through the pipe were NBA Hoops cards, which were tremendously innovative on several fronts. They were the first card set produced with the active involvement of a licensor – the NBA, obviously – which meant they were also the first card set produced with the active involvement of a midget. In that regard the David Stern set paved the way for … nothing, really, until the arrival of Zany Cards several years later. (Watch for the full Zany Cards story in a future installment.)

NBA Hoops were a seasonal item, but the nicotine taps were as wide-open and flowing as BP’s hole in the bottom of the sea. As a result, the NBA Hoops people – who were Impel Marketing at that time – needed more products to plug the pipeline.

Hence, Collect-A-Books.

If you weren’t a collector in 1990 this may not make sense. If you were a collector back then you have no business reading this, because one of the defining characteristics of collectors in the day was that they couldn’t read.

That’s not quite true, because I edited a card-collecting magazine that 100,000 people at a crack claimed to have read, though based on the letters I received, 79,000 just looked at the picture of the fat guy with the cards stuck to him. It was more that when it came to cards they didn’t care whether they read.

Companies like Pro Set spent vast sums compiling detailed player dossiers for their card backs, justifying the continued existence of Erik Affholter, only to find out that collectors liked a big ol’ glob of foil better. And Emmitt Smith on the front, if you please.

Collect-A-Books were the guy with the canoe, paddling against the current of this particular stream. While they didn’t bother to glorify Erik Affholter, they did carry far more reading material in their eight card-sized pages than most collectors deemed safe.

If you count words you'll discover that these cards were not exactly a pocket-sized War and Peace, delving into the crevasses of Ozzie Smith’s id. They carried as many words as your average Pro Set card (which incidentally was all out of go once it had one sentence down on Erik Affholter).

And lest collectors get too uneasy, Collect-A-Books also carried a whopping six pictures, including a snazzy caricature on the back cover.

Collect-A-Books were as well done as a trading-card sized player booklet could be, except no one bothered to ask beforehand whether anyone wanted a trading-card-sized player booklet.

Not to go all marketing on you, but that is a somewhat large question. I mean, there's always the possibility that it might be a bad idea, and that someone doesn't want a 30.06 that doubles as an mp3 player.

In the case of anyone wanting Collect-A-Books, the answer was no. A Hardee's Thickburger of a no. And it wouldn’t have mattered if the message had been delivered with the sensitivity of Sharon Osbourne showing the door to a prepubescent Taylor Swift impersonator on America’s Got Talent. The answer was still no.

You know, Topps, for all its what-the-hell approach to marketing, had this figured out years previous. It made insert sets and test issues of small paper comic books of top baseball and hockey players. They were very cool, even if they did drip a little cheddar. And card buyers said “ehh.” Give us a good rub-off (or rub-on or scratch-off or peel-‘n’-stick or something we can mutilate) any day.

If collectors weren’t going to clutch stone-free mini-comic-books of Reggie Jackson to their bosoms, they certainly weren’t going to nuzzle up to a pricey (approaching two bucks a pop, if memory serves) instruction manual on Ozzie Smith.

While Collect-A-Books were ostensibly created by a company called CMC they were run through the Impel pipeline, where they promptly clogged up the works and delayed the release of the latest paper-wrapped-death flavor for at least 10 minutes.

In the end, Collect-A-Books didn't put an eye out or explode when you ran over them or contribute to global warming, but you don't have to be Pol Pot to be despicable. What made Collect-A-Books nasty was that they were dumped on collectors by companies that frankly didn’t care whether they were unloading this stuff on George Plimpton and His Pals or a flock of seagulls. (The birds, not the band.)

Since this is a somewhat adolescent affair and adolescents always have to blame somebody, we'll blame Collect-A-Books on the diaper-division manager. But only because the teenaged paper millionaire was in a photo shoot with Russell Maryland and Brien Taylor.