Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy HOLidays, Part 1

I have things backward in this entry, so forgive me.

My New Year’s resolution for “Handful O’Landfill” is that I will edit and compile these entries into a book-length something when I hit 50 entries – an event I would very much like to happen early in 2012. So the more posts, the better is my philosophy. But no sacrificing quality. No siree. You can’t do away with something that isn’t there to start with.

With New Year’s disposed of, on to Christmas.

My Christmas gift for you isn’t as tuneful as Phil Spector’s, but it also doesn’t involve wolverine-fur hairpieces or dumpsters full of cocaine. It’s also regifting, in a sense. I’m giving these to you, though I still have them physically. Because they are, like, valuable collectibles.

Nothing says Christmas like a holiday-themed Flik It Kick It Football, right? The fine folks at FIKI sent me this sometime in the early ‘90s and it wound up at work, of all places. I mean, who dreams of playing fingertip tabletop football at work? FIKIs were licensed for many college and pro sports teams, but they couldn’t escape the fact that as a functional item a well-folded-and-taped piece of filler paper worked better, and as collectibles, King-B Jerky Stuff discs beat them eight ways to Sunday. Mele kalikimaka anyway, boyos.

Moving on to the Christmas cards, I miss Inkworks. Not for its formulaic-in-a-pretty-good-way cards but for its Christmas cards, and especially for the folks behind Inkworks. Head Inkworker Allan Caplan defines “impish,” with a voice straight outta Brooklyn. I can still do a great, “Hi, Kiiiiiiiiit. This is Aaaaaaaaaaalan Caaaaaaplaaan.” Martha Modlin is an out-and-out sweetheart. And they both had the wacky idea that trading cards should be fun.

Every year Inkworks would send its A list a special card that promoted the season and its latest product in a fair-ish 25-75 split. Sometimes the product was good – Kung Fu Panda. Sometimes it was not so good – Angel. Sometimes it was just Inkworks being Inkworks. But they were always welcome, and I’m proud to say I never sold one when they were valuable, because now they’re worthless.

Quiz time! Fifty bonus points and my last unopened box of Pacific Flash Cards if you can tell me what the Bible verse is inside this card. That's right – "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven." I always associate Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn and the Byrds with Joe DiMaggio, and I know you do, too. This effort is from Major League Marketing, renowned shouters-into-phones and distributors of Score and Pinnacle, and its subliminal purpose under Heaven was to promote Score Masters, one of the first attempts to fuse art and baseball cards, though not the ugliest.

The only thing missing from this card? The reindeer with the computer Photoshopping Eric Lindros' head on Santa's body.

And look! Here's Eric Lindros' head, attached awkwardly to the body of some minor-league hockey player.  "Peace on Earth" is written inside this Major League Marketing card, because minor-league hockey is synonymous with peace on earth. And chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

People paid big money for Pro Set's Santa Claus cards for reasons both clear and obscure. The clear reason was that people thought the trading card was rare, though "rare" in a Pro Set context meant "less than 2.7 million." Otherwise, the delightful Rick Brown art gives you plenty to ponder – cards of what appear to be a Giant and a Viking and a Bear in addition to the Man in Red himself, a Pro Set binder (full of Chris Berman cards, no doubt), and the Great Ones book, an NFL Properties production that like all NFL Properties productions marginalized the league's dynamic past in favor of a much-better-paying present. The faux elves peering through the window are Pro Set demagogue Lud Denny on top and (I believe)  NFL Properties chief John Bello below. Denny is plotting how to get the Big Guy to ditch the toymaking operation in favor of printing presses cranking out more of that great Pro Set Series II. Not sure what Bello is doing there. 

Brown returned in 1990 and ditched Denny and trading cards (except for some Pro Set packs, a Christian Okoye card and a possible Baltimore Ravens sighting, six years before they actually began play) in favor of NFL Properties' Super Bowl book project – another NFL-sanctioned attempt to mess with football's time-space continuum and split league history into B.C. (Before Commercialism) and A.D. (Anno Dominance). Carb-lovers should note the peanut M&Ms in the candy dish and a half-eaten Super Bar, the abortive Official Confection Treat of the NFL, at Santa's right hand. The December Employee of the Month is less of a scary clown than Lud Denny, unless it’s Denny in mufti, in which case it's totally scary-clown.

The next year, a recently-divorced-from-the-NFL Pro Set returned with another take on the Santa-Claus-as-card-collector theme. Note the NHL hat and the skates and stick hanging in the background, but no helmet. Hey, Santa: You really think that mane’s gonna protect you from an Al MacNeil slap shot? All right, man; it’s your Christmas.

Also notice the absence of any Puck/Rondelle bars. Based on last year’s greeting, I know why. They’re sleeping with the Super Bars.

A hockey card appears to be falling into the bag, along with a Yo! MTV Raps Boyz II Men card, a Payne Stewart PGA card, and a card of an unidentified Colt. Lud Denny makes another appearance as a poster elf. If the poster could talk it'd be telling Santa to set a few thousand cases aside for some special distributors who have been real nice.

This is the best Christmas card of all, and it’s from and for no one in particular. The credit line on the back reads “Mudville Baseball Art, Box 334, McIntosh, MN,” and even though you know the rest I’m going to say it anyway. There was no joy in Mudville when the makers of these cards figured out this Babe was not their salvation. But I still love it.

Finally, there was a time when the otherworldly illustrations of Mark Martin were a big part of my professional life. So while this isn’t a valuable sports collectible per se, I reproduce his holiday greeting in all its whacked-out glory, in fervent hopes that you go back and check out his 20 Nude Dancers 20 collections.

Merry Christmas to all. And watch out for the Martians.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Baseball Freaking Birthday

So I reached into one of the file boxes holding the entire history of the Handful O’Landfill era in press releases and sell sheets and pulled out a folder with a Sharpie scrawl that read “Misc. Non-Card Baseball.”

O frabjous day calloo callay. It couldn’t have been better if I had answered the doorbell and found Tim Tebow on my stoop, in the arms of Lindsey Vonn. And Newt Gingrich.
The folder was surprisingly thin. It did contain a press release from demi-legendary semi-legit cardmaker Little Sun touting its first set of high-school all-stars, the set that put Little Sun on the map, albeit somewhere in southwestern Oklahoma. This was the first card that showed Manny before Manny was Manny being Manny, even though technically Manny couldn’t be anything besides Manny being Manny without running afoul of immigration or the Social Security Administration or or something.
That’s a topic for a different column, Manny and Little Sun and the first card of big-league malcontent Tyler Houston, sporting a sneer that put to shame even the twisted lips of James Thurber’s great dysfunctional national hero, Pal Smurch. This column is about some of the other stuff in the folder.
In addition to an embarrassingly self-congratulatory press release from the U.S. Playing Card Company, makers of a set of big-leaguer playing cards I was all prepared to like in a future column (how’s this for self-congratulatory: “Sales for the first edition were extraordinary. Over 600 customers eager to receive the new deck called during the first week of the 1990 All-Star playing card release in April.” Six hundred customers? In a week? A hundred customers a day, in a business where press runs of under a million were considered scarce, and collectors rang the phones like Quasimodo on speed? Oh, mur-der), there was this press release, from the legitimately high-falutin’ firm of Silverman, Warren/Kremer (their punctuation, not mine) in New York:
Many Top Baseball Stars To Be Featured In Unique Gift Idea;
‘A Happy Baseball Birthday’ To Reach Retailers In April
A Happy Baseball Birthday. And what goes into a Happy Baseball Birthday, you may well ask?
How about: a cassette tape. Hoo doggie.
Lest we forget, there was a time when a cassette was on top of the high-tech ziggurat, when the idea that you could record a whopping 45 minutes of music on a piece of iron-oxide-coated plastic only slightly more expansive than the hook to a Black-Eyed Peas song (but much deeper) had the stupendous import of a French nail treatment done in iPads.
We were discussing this the other day in the context of car CD changers. Cars these days have six-disc changers the way they have engines, but when in-car CD changers came out it was like the day they quit putting whalebone in corsets. You mean I can put six CDs in my car? At once? And I can listen to music five hours straight and not have to do anything else? And at this point most people fainted dead away and had to wait until their cars smashed head-on into telephone poles to be revived. Or not.
Of all the defunct audio technologies I've tried to explain to my kids, they get cassettes least. Phonograph albums they get, in a prop-driven sort of way. Eight-tracks even make more sense to them, probably because they've never heard an eight-track. But they have the idea that the cassette tape and cassette-tape players, especially portable ones like the Walkman, were invented by Playskool and sold to three-year-olds whose parents couldn't afford iPods.
Anyhow, enough about the technology. Think of the execution. The Happy Baseball Birthday card carried an MSRP of $7.99. Now, imagine you're a seven-year-old in 1991 and you're having a birthday party. Your mom has told all the invited guests not to spend more than $10 on you – a reasonable amount in those days. (Heck, a reasonable amount in these days.)
So it comes time for gift opening, and you get the usual hodgepodge: Some G.I. Joe figurines, a couple of LEGO sets, a Furby ("From Tyler" – figures; I never liked the little dweeb anyway) and then a thin package with a couple of lumps and bumps.
"Oh, boy – Sega Game Gear," you think. Just what you'd wanted, forever and ever and EVER! So you tear open the package with trembling fingers and discover (switching back to Silverman, Warren/Kremer mode here), "a high-quality audio cassette with a two-minute birthday greeting from a Major League Baseball star [Kevin Maas, in this case], as well as a special photograph collectible card with the player's autograph printed on the back." And three packs of strawberry Bubble Yum.
You seek out the offender and find him buck-toothed and smiling in the corner, smeared with Rocky Road from ear to ear.
"Get out of my party!" you scream at him, pounding him with tiny fists of rage and shattering his genuine gold-plated-plastic Screaming Siren Sound Effect, imported from China at $15 the gross. "I never want to see you again! You're not my friend any more EVER!" And so on.
Don't be thinking it was just the fact that little C.J. chose as his gift a card of an ineffectual though good-looking slugger with more holes in his swing than in an average Dancing With The Stars costume. The Happy Baseball Birthday thing came in many other flavors, including Tony Gwynn, Dennis Eckersley, John Smoltz, Mark Grace, the Ken Griffeys, Kevin McReynolds, John Franco, Kevin Mitchell, and – look, chicos! – Ruben Sierra, reading his special birthday greeting in Spanish (because if he read it in English you'd think the wow and flutter was all out of whack again). It's just that on the bang-for-the-buck scale it's no Kim Kardashian, if you catch my drift.
It should be obvious from the fact that no one has wished their buddy a Happy Baseball Birthday for a good 20 years that this particular attempt to scoop a ladle off of the gravy train went a-glimmering, and it's probably for the best. Think of what the 2011 model of a Happy Baseball Birthday would look like:
It's Wyoming's seventh birthday and all his friends are there: Cheyenne, Cody, Sheridan, Casper, Douglas, Laramie, Powell, Rock Springs, and Utah, the little neighbor boy.  His mom has told all the invited guests not to spend more than $15 on Wyoming – a more-than-reasonable amount these days.
So it comes time for gift opening, and Wyoming gets the usual hodgepodge: a couple of Bakugans, two LEGO sets, a Wimpy Kid book, a Webkinz ("From Lander," the little dweeb) and then a thin package with a couple of lumps and bumps.
"Oh, boy – Pokemon," you think. Just what you'd wanted, forever and ever and EVER! So you tear open the package with trembling fingers and discover ... nothing.
"It's actually a high-quality mp3 with a two-minute birthday greeting from a Major League Baseball star [Brennan Boesch, in this case]," little Torrington in the corner pipes up, his face smeared with dirt-and-worm cup, "and a special virtual collectible card with the player's autograph printed on the back. Oh, but it's all in the cloud."
Wyoming's little lower lip starts to tremble. "So you got me ... nothing?" he says, as visions of a full-scale evacuation dance through his mother's head.
Well, I also got you this," Torrington says, and reaches into his pocket and produces three packs of strawberry Bubble Yum.

You can take it from here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Flairum Scarum

The last time we met (and it seems so long, long ago – oooh! I hardly recognize you, you’ve gotten so taaaalllll) we were discussing the unmitigated delight that ensues when you take a series of comic books that is completely non-essential to the war effort, the peace effort, and all efforts in between, and make an utterly unneeded series of trading cards showing characters from those comics and any – ahem! – action involving them. It certainly is unmitigated. Right down to the widdle nubbins.

Anyhow, in that last column I took on (or down, depending on your point of view) Upper Deck/Pyramid’s Valiant cards and Fleer/SkyBox’s Marvel vs. Wildstorm cards. Their putridity did not go unpunished, but I still feel like David Allan Coe in “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” You know, my friend Kit Kiefer wrote that column, and he told me it was the perfect crappy-comics-card column. Well, I wrote him back and told him he did not write the legendary perfect crappy-comics-card column because he didn’t say anything about pickup trucks, rain, mama, prison, or getting drunk. So he wrote me back these paragraphs, and now I’m proud to say he did write the legendary perfect crappy-comics-card column, and I’m privileged to repeat it here for all of you.

Basically, I was drunk the day my ma got out of prison, and I went to pick her up in the rain. But before I could get to the station in my pickup ………………. truck, she got runned over by a damned old train carrying Fleer Flair comic-book cards.

If I had thought Marvel vs. Wildstorm was the nadir, I realize now that not only was it not the nadir, it wasn’t even the top of the bottom of the middle of the place two spaces above the nadir. Fleer Flair comic-book cards may not be the nadir, either, but I think I can see it from here – or I could, if the goldarn holoflake glitter crud wasn’t blinding me.

If, Allah be praised, you had forgotten about Fleer Flair, let me refresh your memory. For a time there was a space race going on among the major manufacturers seeing who could make the most needlessly flashy, wretchedly excessive trading card. Basically, they were in a duel to the death to create a card that could sing “Benny and the Jets” in six-inch platforms with goldfish swimming around in the heels. Now I look at that competition and wonder why companies simply didn’t include a decoupage kit and a tube of glitter in every pack, because that’s what it amounted to.

Fleer Flair’s No. 1 shtick was ... wait for it ... thickness. No other card was thicker than Fleer Flair. Fleer Flair could stop a hollow-point .38; everyone else couldn't stop a BB. Fleer Flair was the New Oxford Dictionary; everyone else was Funk & Wagnalls. Fleer Flair was Hardee's; everyone else was McDonald's. Never you mind that as product attributes go a thicker card is like a more colorful abbatoir, but it belonged to Fleer Flair and ain’t nobody touchin’ it.

Flair’s other hat-hook was holofoil – i.e., glitter – which many other cards had, but not to the extent that Fleer Flair had it. Glitter seemed to escape from the cards into the surrounding atmosphere, so that when you flipped open one of Flair’s short-lived cigarette-styled packs (still the best thing about the product by far) you expected to be greeted by a puff of glitter, like what you’d see if you were in the bathroom while Tinker Bell was taking a shower.

Okay, there was some method to this über-düber-ultra-premium madness. The ineffable logic of the trading-card business was that if Product Y (in the spirit of the moment, we’ll relabel that “Product Why?”) sells x cases the first time around, the next time around you make x-minus-5 percent. And then the next next time around you make x-minus-5 percent-minus-5 percent. Drove the Harvard Business School grads nuts, that logic. If you follow that logic all the way down the drain, eventually you get to a point where you’re making one case of a product one year and 95/100ths of a case the year after that, and so on.

I figured it would take maybe not 100 years but at least a decade to get near Zerosumville. It actually took about 20 months.

Now, I realize I'm being a bit ambiguous, but it's only because those darn facts keep messing with my recollections. I will swear to you on a stack of Heroes of the Old Testament cards that there was a Fleer Flair set showing characters from selected Malibu and Image comics. I am haunted by a Flair card of the much-more-immortal-than-inimitable Prime, though I can produce no evidence to suport my claim. There's plenty of evidence of Fleer Flair Marvel cards, if only because the half-life of those babies is north of an epoch -- about six miles north, if Google Maps can be believed.

Image or Malibu or no, one of the few redeeming qualities of Fleer Flair comic-book cards was that they came out toward the end of the zero-sum games, so there aren’t many of them around to clog up the commons bins or hang out on barbecue grills prior to being eaten by a dog.

You think I jest? My friend John B. Seals had a good thing going for the better part of a decade where he comparison-tested trading cards by flinging them at things ninja-star fashion, cooking them on a barbecue grill and having his dog, the immortal Zach Malamute, try to eat them. I daresay I’ve never seen a better test of a card’s worthiness, probably because there aren’t any.

"I remember that Fleer Flair gave Sportflics a run for their money as the most indestructible card," Seals says. "But dip it in bacon grease or cover it in barbecue sauce, and Zach would have eaten either one of them. Maybe the plastic on a Sportflic would have stopped him for a second compared to a Fleer Flair, but this was a dog who ate the aluminum siding off my house. And Fleer Flairs were superior to early every other card when put in your bicycle spokes."

Given that there aren't any of these cards around, their essential pork-barrel-project uselessness becomes easier to bear. It's hard to criticize something for being useless when there's none of it around to use, even if that means substituting for a pig ear in the eyes (and jowls) of a siding-chomping canine.

So I won't say that the Deadpool cover collection could subsitute for Rick Santorum's presidental candidacy, or that the various Spider-Man cards could replace a whole season of DC Cupcakes, because it doesn't matter. It's like that thing Superman did to Lois Lane afer she discovered his identity in Superman 2. It never happened, and you can't prove that it did.

So to wrap all this up in a bacon-scented bow, Fleer Flair comic-book cards are a needless application of unwanted technology applied in the service of a useless series of worthless comics. Zach might disagree, but he's a dog, and a non-pretend dead one at that. So the verdict stands.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


The trading-card boom didn’t occur in a vacuum, though if it did it would have been easier to suck up the 8.4 million excess cards that flooded the market during its peak. And those were just the Gregg Jeffries cards.

The hangover from those days won’t go away. At least once a week I have this conversation with someone other than myself:

THEM: Are you still doing that trading-card thing?

ME: I have a basement full of cards. But they’re worthless.

THEM: Yeah, but I have cards of Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens.

ME: They’re worthless.

THEM: And a lot of rookie cards.

ME: They’re worthless.

THEM: And football and basketball too.

ME: They’re worthless.

THEM: Are they worth anything?

ME: They’re worthless.

THEM: You want to buy them?

ME: [sound of me gnawing off my own arm]

My friends in the comic-book business went through the same rigmarole with the comic books of that era. Almost all of them have at least one limp sleeve. One guy who was heavily into the business is down to half a lip and a medulla oblongata.

One of the huge advantages comic-book publishers had then that’s a major disadvantage now is that it doesn’t take licenses from leagues and players’ associations to make comic books. All it takes is a reasonably derivative idea, some India ink, a gum eraser, and the right kind of people. And a kiss on the cheek from Todd McFarlane.

As a result, new comic-book titles sprang up more frequently than new card sets throughout the early ‘90s. And for every worthy indie title blown onto a larger stage as a result of the boom (Bone comes to mind), there were 10 puerile concepts that commanded big bucks for no apparent reason than their gravity-defying high-school binder-cover babes were more gravity-defying than Archie for one, and anything Marvel or DC was laying on the table.

As art they were passable; as literature they were laughable; as pop culture they were execrable. Really. I would rather watch the promo campaign for Whitney for 58 hours straight than read a single issue of WildC.A.T.S. They were the literary equivalent of a Kia Rio tricked out to look like a Mitsubishi Evo: fast, flashy, loud, and buzzy, but ultimately poop.

Speculation in these hooters-and-shooters titles ran to insane, Nyjer-Morgan-on-Red-Bull levels, with the bulk of the speculation surrounding a couple of upstart publishers: Valiant and Image.

The Valiant titles included Harbinger, X-O Manowar, Rai, Shadowman, Eternal Warrior and Archer & Armstrong. Sound familiar? No? You haven’t been following the Mothergod story arc? You didn’t cry big weepy tears at the death of Bloodstone? Me neither.

The Image titles – Spawn, The Maxx, Pitt -- were much more coherent, seeing as they mostly featured the same character, a reconstituted Venom that really needs to herk and swallow.

I was tangentially in the comic-book business through most of the maddest days. I was the part-owner of a comic-book distributor that dealt in Valiant and Image, and in those days that was like being the guy with the pipeline to the Crown Royal during prohibition. Cartons of comics would arrive one hour and depart the next. I’ve been around slower-moving hummingbirds.

Seeing as cards were hot and comic books were hot it was only natural that these two hotties would team up in some way, and since the comic-book publishers weren’t big on putting cards in their books, the only option left was to put the books on cards. It was like the star point guard dating the cheerleader, only the cheerleader was actually a him and the point guard liked it that way.

Valiant and Image were two of the hottest licenses in non-sport cards, and you could literally feel the earth move when it was announced that Upper Deck had won the Valiant license, and had started a non-sports-card imprint called Pyramid in honor of the occasion. Maybe Vanessa Hudgens getting it on with Zac Efron had more oomph, but not much.

So imagine the card world’s surprise when the world’s most unscrewable pairing since chocolate and peanut butter produced crickets.

Okay, it produced a trading-card set – a couple of them, actually, from 1992-94. But no one came.

In the words of Jim McLauchlin, who covered comics and occasionally cards for the late and marginally lamented periodical Wizard and its much more lamented brother pub, Collectors' Sportslook, "Upper Deck got the license for Valiant about 12 seconds after Valiant lost all relevance. But Upper Deck had their big guys like Joe Montana and Michael Jordan signed to personal-services contracts, so they were gonna make those guys 'Secret Harbingers' in a chase-card set a la the Harbinger comic. That set never made it to light of day.

“Upper Deck [-slash-Pyramid] had Chaz Fitzhugh heading an entertainment-card division that had no entertainment cards. We guessed that he'd go into work every day, go to his office, close the door, and pray that no one knocked."

That might have been enough, but for comic books and cards in those days, enough was never enough. Fleer/SkyBox followed up the UD/Valiant joint plunge into the holding tank with Marvel vs. Wildstorm cards.

Wildstorm was the comic-book label founded by writer/illustrator Jim Lee. Lee specialized in pencilly guys with cheekbones on their elbows and girls with cushion-ride appendages and weapons the size of the Flatiron Building. As literature and art went, the average Wildstorm title was no Phineas and Ferb. Instead, it was no good.

But as Mae West used to say, goodness had nothing to do with it. Marvel, the Joe Montana of comic-book publishers (i.e., the only comic-book publisher that would do a Skechers Shape-Ups ad if the money was right), was crossing over with Wildstorm at that very minute.

The creative heat generated by the Marvel-Wildstorm pairing first turned on Al Gore to the dangers of global warming, and the cards sucked, too.

Okay, “sucked” is too strong. “Unnecessary” is more apt.

Hey, I can always stand another quality image of Captain America, or Spidey, or Golden Age Wolvie. But I am way beyond totally good on qualityish images of Brass and Backlash and Majestic and Grunge and Wynnona Earp. I don’t need to see them in the base set, I don’t need to see them in the parallel refractor chase, and I don’t need to see them on Clearchrome cards. You could have taken their images wherever they appeared in the set and replaced them with lampposts without changing the set’s impact. The best Wildstorm cards were the commons to the most insignificant Marvel character’s star cards. So what would that make a Wildstorm common? Exactly.

No kicks with the quality of the cards. They were as nice a bunch of comics cards as ever decorated the bottom of a two-for-a-penny bin. But they were as unessential as Brett Favre’s announcement that he was staying retired. All they did was off a few hundred trees, and Clearchrome plants.

It would be nice if Marvel vs. Wildstorm represented the death throes of the comics-cards syndicate, but it was actually just the tip-top layer in the vacuum bag. We haven’t even gotten to Spawn cards yet.

But soon, grasshopper. Soon.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Action Pecked

I absolutely cannot believe that I’ve gone more than a year in Handful O’Landfill without featuring Action Packed. It’s like being locked inside Donovan McNabb’s head and not noticing all the room.

If ever a cardmaker not named Pacific Trading Cards was worthy of a marquee spot in HoL, it’s Action Packed, if for no other reason than its cards take up twice as much space in a landfill because they’re actually two-two-two cards in one. The cards use two pieces of cardboard, one embossed to mimic the outline a featured player (the “Action”) or sometimes surrounding players (the “Packed”), and one affixed to the back to keep the derriere of the embossing process from showing through.

The idea was that the embossing would make the photograph pop – literally. The only way Action Packed could have taken that to the next level would have been if the cards made their own field in the microwave.

However, as I pointed out in the last HoL, any mechanical means of displaying action on a collectible short of a flipbook (and no one collects flipbooks) runs head-on into an immutable fact: the technology doesn’t work.

Sportflics didn’t work. SkyBox basketball (remember the other swoosh?) didn’t work. Upper Deck holograms didn’t work. And Action Packed didn’t work. They didn’t work so much that you would have thought that, like the appliances in the Nissan ad, they ran on gasoline. Or wood. And got their power from steam.

As failed technologies, these products were the trading-card equivalent of mechanical television. Back in the early ‘20s, there were two parallel tracks of television development. One used electrical means to transmit images from one place to another. The other, mechanical television, used a whirling disk and a photoelectric cell to transmit images. It wasn’t quite wooden scaffolding and gnashing gears, but it was a positively 19th-century solution to a 20th-century challenge. And in what should have been a lesson for mechanical-action trading cards to follow, it didn’t work.

What the cathode-ray tube did to mechanical television, the CD, DVD and computer did to the trading card. And no one except the holders of a billion-odd Sportflics, UD holograms and Action Packed cards really minded.

In Action Packed’s case, collectors were saddled with a bunch of thick, clunky cards that didn’t stack, balked at going into nine-pocket sheets, separated easily, and were the card of choice only if you pursued all your collecting activity in caves.

Still, Action Packed took this pre-Phoenician technology and made something of it. It rode a combination of reasonable print runs and the occasional inspired side set (like the All-Madden Team), built a modest market share, and then sold itself to Pinnacle Brands, the original cash-flinging, buy-high trading-card capitalists, at the absolute peak of the baseball-card tsunami.

Pinnacle turned its back on the obvious Sportflics-Action Packed combo, diddled around with the technology for a couple of football-card seasons, kept PR wündermädchen Laurie Goldberg and jettisoned the rest, like so much flotsam over the side of the Titanic.

This is the long way ‘round to this column’s topic, but understanding Action Packed’s place in the trading-card cosmos in the early ‘90s will help put into perspective the actual subject of this column. Or not.

To reprise: In the early ‘90s football cards have been strapped to a Saturn V and 2 million tons of thrust are propelling them into orbit. Action Packed is on board. So in the midst of this explosive growth Action Packed assaults the market with … birds.

Birds? As in Falcons, Ravens and Eagles?

Not exactly.

Cardinals, Blue Jays and Orioles?

Uh, no. Not really.






No … well, yes … well, let me explain.

At the absolute apogee of its existence Action Packed made cards of real birds.

In other words, when other cardmakers were going football-basketball-baseball-hockey, Action Packed went football-birds.

Looking back, I wonder what the hell Action Packed was thinking. At the time, I went, “Oooh … birds. On cards.”

Specifically I said this: "If you're a bird-card collector you are absolutely going to drop your binoculars over these Action Packed bird cards. The 84-card (approximately) set lacks the trademark Action Packed embossing but instead features the world-renowned bird art of Roger Tory Peterson. He's the Roger Clemens of bird art, if that's any help, and Action Packed's got him.

"He really does some great work on these cards, too. His technically perfect depictions of birds on the card fronts is matched by slick color backs which describe where the birds breed and winter, what they eat, what their song is like, where they go for a real good frosty mug of root beer, and any other distinguishing characteristics.

"The set is broken down into Bird-Feeder Birds, Owls of America and Birds of the Sea, and to be honest, they're all exceptionally beautiful cards. Action Packed's regular cards should look as nice as these.”

These really are darn fine cards of birds. Maybe Player’s Cigarettes’ Birds and Their Young cards have the edge on Action Packed by virtue of their fine-jewel size and elegance (and a bitchin' album), but Action Packed certainly showed it was capable of creating an extremely attractive card set.

Of birds.

And that’s where this reverie breaks down. Action Packed threw every last bit of faux-action-packed technology it had into these cards and wound up with Owls of America on really thick cardboard. It’s like making the perfect cup of gruel. All the elements may be singing in harmony like the Beach Boys, but it’s still bloody gruel.

There really is no market for Action Packed bird cards these days, and that’s fitting. There shouldn’t be a market for these cards. They don’t frame well, they’re not worth trading, there’s no chance that the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak rookie card will take off or the Lesser Scaup will be elected to the National Bird Hall of Fame, and the chase, such as it is, isn’t worth chasing.

So when you combine an obsolete 19th-century technology with a subject that has zero collector value, what do you get? Steam-powered barbed-wire cards, for one. And the Action Packed Birds set, for two.

If you hand me some cordwood, I’ll see what these barbed-wire babies can do.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Motion Vs. E-Motion: A Debate Not Worth Debating

There ought to be enough material in the stuff that actually made it into production in the Handful O’Landfill era that I shouldn’t have go dumpster-diving through all the products that were deemed to be even more unsalable than Fleer Stars ‘N’ Stripes, butSkyBox E-Motion hit me amidships this morning and I thought it was worth mentioning, though still not worth producing.

I know; SkyBox (Fleer/SkyBox, technically) E-Motion really did exist, and such an existence. E-Motion was the Verve Pipe of sports-card sets, leaping from high-demand hotness to Repack Central faster than Usain Bolt with a singlet full of yellowjackets. It was a mediocre-but-expensive, conceited-and-confused product, as coherent as Ochocinco on Twitter, that wandered from sport to sport and configuration to configuration looking for an audience, and when it didn’t find one it was shunted off to a cable channel where they run marathons of reality shows featuring former heavy-metal singers shooing cockroaches out of doublewides. Hypothetically, I mean. Actually, Fleer/SkyBox just stopped making the thing. It was just as well. I had seen more than I’d ever wanted of Dante Bichette’s lighter side – and let me tell you, that side is pretty damn broad.

As plopped onto the market, E-Motion meant “emotion.” It was jam-packed with players tittering, grimacing, guffawing, and screwing up their faces like Max Patkin on a G-force simulator, accompanied by appropriate (or not) adjectival phrases: “slammin’,” “kiddin’,” “the heat,” “smilin’,” “punishin’,” “flyin’.”

Showing (I feel like saying “showin’,” for some reason) mid-grade Winnipeg Jet Dave Manson not skating really but slowing down and raising his stick in preparation for heading to the bench, and accompanying that with the word “soarin’,” represents a height of surrealism in the trading-card biz – an industry less firmly grounded in reality than Michelle Bachmann’s American History 101. It makes Finnegan’s Wake seem as matter-of-fact as a dishwasher-installation manual.

However, as it was originally planned, E-Motion was going to emphasize the “motion” in E-Motion. It was going to be a motion-card set.

The phrase “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” was never big in the trading-card biz. It was as alien as the word “budget.”

SkyBox conveniently forgot that Sportflics, the motion card that led its market niche, was Pinnacle’s very own pair of concrete Nikes, emblazoned with "Sweatshop" down their sides.

It’s not that Sportflics were execrable. That’s why God made the Star Company Sam Horn set. Kids liked Sportflics and would buy them … if they weren’t the most expensive base-brand product on the market, which they had to be because of the technology involved.

I’m using “technology” loosely here, the way I might if I were talking about advancements in the whoopee cushion. Sportflics used a heavy plastic lens to produce either a 3-D effect (insert index finger in mouth, pop cheek, make circular motion in air with finger) or a fraction of a second of motion (repeat previous action, add monotonal “wow,” toss small amount of confetti in air).

This wasn’t that long ago, but today the idea that a trading card could enthrall the masses by performing either of these parlor tricks is as alien as the notion of people running out of movie theaters because they see a moving image of a train barreling toward them. Technology – real technology – has made these low-fi trading-card technologies obsolete as a barrel stave. They don’t generate the slightest panglet of nostalgia. They’re just sort of dusty and sad.

Regardless, SkyBox believed it had secured the rights to the motion-card technology of all motion-card technologies, a technology that would capture on a card two full seconds of action.

Today we cue the yawns. Back then it would have been news akin to Semisonic getting back together. (Right; because you can’t get enough live versions of “Closing Time.”)

There was one small problem with the SkyBox E-Motion technology: It didn’t work. The one prototype card that received semi-wide circulation – showing, fittingly, Trent Dilfer – featured about a second of blurry, double-visioned game action, or the way Monday Night Football must have looked to Don Meredith.

There was no way even SkyBox, even at the pinnacle (scratch that. “Zenith”? Scratch that. “Summit”? Taken. “Peak”? Nope. Oh, hell; we’ll stick with “pinnacle”) of the shove-it-out-there era, was going to go to market with a motion set that showed two seconds of Teletubbies through a glass, darkly.

Still, SkyBox had a multisport license to produce a set called “E-Motion,” and licenses were gold – or at  least, highly polished hematite. Furthermore, SkyBox had a product on the schedule, with presales and everything, and presales really were gold. With the motion a no-go, so to speak, SkyBox reverted to Plan B, a/k/a The Adjective Plan.

The E-Motion cards you see clogging up the commons bins are the byproducts of that executive decision. You can think all you want, “What would have happened had SkyBox actually made motion cards?”, but it’s an academic question that falls in the forest with no one to hear it. It absolutely, completely does not matter.

Except, maybe, to the guy who had to come up with the adjectives.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Refuse To Join Any Club That Would Have Anthony Dilweg As A Member

First, let me dispatch a nasty bit of business. The NFL Quarterback Club was not formed to address a looming shortage of Bubby Brister cards. It was formed because Bernie Kosar’s wife, Babette, threatened Bernie with divorce if he didn’t get the damn thing put together (and then she went and divorced him anyway, because all he got from Nevin Shapiro was a photo op with Donna Shalala).

Actually, it’s pretty obvious why the QB Club burst into existence like a dwarf star (which, yes, could refer to Will.I.Am). It burst because the trading-card and memorabilia biz was blowing up like Alderaan, and the guys who ostensibly made it all possible weren’t getting nearly enough of the proceeds. And yes, we’re talking about you, Ken O’Brien, Jim Harbaugh, Boomer Esiason, Chris Miller, and the aforementioned Bubby.

Okay, better QBs than that traipsed through the QB Club. I have record of John Elway, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Jim Everett, Randall Cunningham, Troy Aikman, and Warren Moon doing hard time in the club, but unsurprisingly not Joe Montana, if my definitive source on the topic, my QB Club T-shirt, can be trusted.

(This makes total sense, as Joe Montana was renowned even during his playing days as a money-hungry free-ranger who would take a check from anything, even a soul-sucking one-eyed alien vampire zombie – or, more outrageously, Upper Deck's Richard McWilliam.)

The QB Club was a self-contained marketing force, neither league-born nor players’-association-spawned, meant to glorify, and in the process make money for, pro football’s most elite marquee players: its quarterbacks.

That was how the QBs saw it, anyway. The rest of the world looked at the club’s roster and said, “Hmmm … Dan McGwire. Nascent Storage Wars guest star. Twice voted most likely to be named golf pro at the Snoqualmie Country Club before the age of 30.” The word “pass” has double meaning for many members of the Quarterback Club.

Part of the reason for the disconnect was the QB Club’s membership requirements. Initially at least you had to be a National Football League quarterback. It never said anything about being good, or mobile, or articulate, or having a clean driving record, or not being pulled in the second half in favor of Stan Gelbaugh.

Oh, and one more thing: You had to look good in zebra-striped shorts. I had forgotten about this until I saw an old clip of Ken O’Brien at the QB Challenge, the club’s skills competition that served as its Battle of the Network Stars. The club had a uniform consisting of black-and-white-striped cutoff Zubaz (and if you don’t remember Zubaz, God bless you), I guess because they go with any jersey and make your legs look like they’re being tapped for rubber. And nothing helps you nail bull’s-eyes on moving golf carts like having zebra torsos attached to your feet.

As scripted reality TV goes it was no Cupcake Wars, and it was even less impressive in person. I went to one in Hawaii and lasted about 15 minutes before walking out. Stacey O’Brien was wearing a T-shirt, for crying out loud, and Bubby Brister was overthrowing 20-foot-tall targets 10 yards downfield. As a lovely parting gift I got a pair of tentlike Zubaz and, not finding Gilbert Brown in the vicinity, regifted them to a sanitation receptacle. Several years later the resort was destroyed in a hurricane. I’m pretty sure it was retribution.

The first time the QB Club showed up in football cards was in 1991, when they appeared in an Upper Deck-produced set distributed by Domino’s Pizza.

There was some serious want on this set at the time. Dealers were buying stacks of Domino’s cheese pizzas, snabbing the cards and then ditching the pizzas – never a bad idea – and delivery drivers were being offered $20 or more for the cards that came in the pizza boxes, even though ultimately the pepperoncini were more collectible.

The Domino’s set opened the door for a storm surge of special sets and subsets featuring the QB Club, and once that door was opened even Aaron Gibson didn’t have enough avoirdupois to hold it shut. The 1994 battle between the NFL and the players’ association over licensing money turned the surge into a tsunami. The QB Club even began to admit non-QBs who smelled the money: Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith. Basically any non-quarterback who could dance the fox trot and audition for a Just For Men ad was in.

Trading-card companies that had contracted with the QB Club had to find unique ways to fulfill their obligations. Third-party sets like the inimitable King-B Jerky Stuff discs were custom-made for the QB Club, as were precious-metal medallions and metal cards. (That’s why God made the airbrush.) Even so, most of the QB Club’s on-card appearances were in chase sets. The cries of, “Wow -- David Klingler!” still resonate in the space between my ears.

The battle over licensing and the rapid decline of the card business hastened the development of the one semi-legitimate spawn of the Quarterback Club: video games. I’m not going to say much about the long-running series of GameBoy and N64 games featuring the QB Club because they’re not funny, other than to comment how much a young Brett Favre resembles Squirtle.

The QB Club still lives in a much-diminished capacity, like Chad Ochocinco, and every now and then they dust off the Quarterback Challenge and the bull’s-eyes on golf carts. Personally I think it’s time for another revival. Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, and Jason Campbell slinging fastballs at 10-foot-square targets 20 yards downfield? Now that’s entertainment.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

... And A Hint Of Mint

Now the secret can be told.

You want to know why Pinnacle Brands put cards in cans, and inside other cards, and made giant cards and puffy cards and image-changing cards and a multitude of other wacky-ass projects long after the market for these products, such as it was, had evaporated like lighter fluid on a tweed jacket?
The company was trying to go public.
Big surprise, I know, but Pinnacle was underwritten by the Bass Brothers. Now, the Bass Brothers have to be differentiated from the Koch Brothers, who made their money improving state forests by adding oil-and-gas pipelines, and the Blues Brothers, who drove a 1974 Dodge Monaco off the Bridge to Nowhere.
The Bass Brothers are mega-rich brothers from Texas who spend money to make money to spend more money to make more money.
It's like Monty Python’s Society for Putting Things On Top Of Other Things, only the pillows are fluffier.
The Bass Brothers started pumping money into Pinnacle when it was still headquartered in suburban New York and the CEO was a prototypical suburban New York CEO named Dan Shedrick.
My enduring image of Dan Shedrick is him screaming into his cell phone (a rarity at that time) from a broken-down bus in the South Bronx in an attempt to get another bus to ferry a brace of trading-card writers to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium.
“Don’t you know who I am?” he screamed into the phone. “I’m Dan Shedrick!”
The person on the other end didn’t know and apparently wasn’t impressed. The relief bus came after a brief five-muggings wait, in time for the writers to have lunch with Martha Stewart (before she was Martha Stewart) in the heavily fortified federal courthouse catty-corner from Yankee Stadium, and proceed under armed guard to the stadium, where Jack McDowell pitched and several small riots broke out, to the delight of all.
During the game, I sat with a thinly veiled equity-capitalist representing the Bass Brothers and tried to open his mind to the secrets of the trading-card industry. The one he was having the most trouble with is that if you have a successful trading-card product, the next year you have to make less of it.
That was evidently a concept foreign to equity-capital-land. Or maybe it was the veil.
Fast forward several years, and Pinnacle has relocated to Dallas, Dan Shedrick has been given a golden parachute and booted out of the cargo bay of an airborne C-130, and the Bass Brothers figure the way to get this particular goose to lay more golden eggs is to sell goose stock. However, it’s a way of life on the Bass Brothers’ goose farm to fatten the goose, fois gras style, before the parceling out of goose pieces. And the way they decided to fatten the goose was to make more trading cards.
Remember the conversation I had with the equity capitalist? Pinnacle didn’t. It rushed 50-some products to market, cut back the chase, saw numerous sets die ugly deaths (as god is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly), and took back the carcasses. Within 18 months the Bass Brothers pulled out and the company was liquidated.
The reason I tell this little Brothers Grimm economic tale is because there’s a commonality between this tale and the current economic mélange. That commonality would be gold.
We’re not talking gaudy gold foil here (though Pinnacle loved gold foil like Ford owners love static-cling decals of Calvin peeing on Chevy logos). We’re talking the real thing, baby, that $3,000-an-ounce hard currency that has tattooed love children from Tallahassee to Tonopah melting down their navel rings.
Pinnacle Mint Collection (could there be any other name?) was one more effort on Pinnacle’s part to push the collectiblity thing to its illogical limits.
Baseball cards, as anyone with a sense of perspective knows, have no intrinsic value unless you are lost on a desert in the middle of the ocean, it’s dark, you’re cold and starving and have only a raw fish, some matches, and a couple of packs of Pinnacle Prime for subsistence.
 Not to belabor the economic thing, but baseball cards are a lot like paper money in that regard. If U.S. Grant looked more like Brian Wilson we might be even closer to the precipice than we are now.
The clear and present danger with baseball cards (but not so much with paper money, curiously) was that someday collectors would wake up and say, “My God, they’re just pictures on cardboard,” and would arise as one and storm from their parents’ basements, only to find they couldn’t fit through the door. EMTs everywhere were dreading that one.
Pinnacle tried to leapfrog that concern by creating sets with more intrinsic value (or at the very least, artificially enhanced extrinsic value) than is normally found in a Bubby Brister photograph. It addressed scarcity sledgehammer fashion with its “Dare to Tear” Zenith sets, and it addressed value roughly the same way with Pinnacle Mint Collection.
The idea with Pinnacle Mint Collection was to offer levels of cards in conjunction with levels of coins. I know because it was partly my idea.
Looking at the confidential configuration for 1996-97 Pinnacle Mint Collection Hockey (it wasn't just a hockey thing; Pinnacle ran this across all the sports for which it had licenses – football, baseball, hockey, and --- oooh, yeah -- NASCAR), the base set consisted of 30 regular cards and 30 die-cut cards, both printed on extra-thick 24-point stock, and 30 brass coins. Cards and coins were packed two coins and three cards to a pack for $3.99, with a $2.49 pre-price pack consisting of one coin and two cards.
Chase cards were included once every 11 packs, with chase coins appearing once every 14 packs. Chase cards consisted of a silver parallel that appeared one every 15 packs, and a gold parallel that appeared one every 48 packs – once every three boxes.
Nickel-silver coins appeared less than once per box, gold-plated coins appeared every three boxes, and the real value in the product, the solid-silver and solid-gold coins, appeared at a rate of never.
Okay, it wasn't never. First it was TBD, then it was one in 2,300 packs for the silver coins (inserted as redemption cards, to avoid the scourge of pack-weighing) and one in 25,000 hobby packs for the gold coins. Either way it turned out to be almost never, because Pinnacle Mint Collection released in mid-May, smack in the middle of Hockey Apathy Days and hot on the heels of  Zenith Hockey and Leaf Preferred Hockey and Leaf Limited Hockey and the squillion other hockey releases from Upper Deck, Topps and Fleer, and promptly sunk to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
Okay, Mint Collection didn't sink to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. But it's a thought. It's actually a quite pleasant thought to imagine a superfreighter carrying Pinnacle Mint Collection Hockey coins, just the silver and gold ones sil vous plait, being shanghaied by pirates in the doldrums west of Manila and never reaching its destination in the Far East, where the coins were to be exchanged for spices, rare silks, and consumer electronics. In the struggle for control of the ship its precious cargo, scores of precious-metal coins of Ed Belfour and Jaromir Jagr, is dumped overboard, and the coins drift to the deep, deep bottom, where they slumber awaiting their rediscovery by some intrepid future treasure-hunter.
It's quite the reverie, but c'est vrai. The silver and gold coins show up on eBay occasionally, priced from the couple hundreds to the low thousands – more these days.
There's not much more to say about the set than that. The cards were placeholders, the images on the coins resembled the players in the same way that vodka approximates gin or Mitt Romney approximates a presidential candidate (President Mitt – really?), and the whole product came off more contrived than Season Two of Bachelor Pad, though it undoubtedly has appeal to hard-money hoarders still steamed at FDR for taking us off the gold standard. William Jennings Bryan would have hated this set.

Even so, in a very real way Mint Collection coins were the most valuable thing produced by Pinnacle – except for the memories. A Mint Collection coin versus the sight of a pre-pen Martha Stewart in a baseball-seamed minidress causing a riot in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium on opening day?
No contest. Gimme the ching, toots.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Zany and Zanier: The True(ish) Story Of Zany Cards, The Set That Never Was

What if they built a trading-card set and no one came?

Actually, that is not the question of the day, since they have built lots of trading-card sets to which nobody came. I have a drawer-full of such cards, and to prove it I reach into said drawer and extract … the “I Am Quaid!” card from the Pacific Total Recall set.

(Funny; he doesn’t look like either Quaid, On-the-Run Randy or Dennis. He looks like Matt Damon after he got into the bacon. But I digress.)

The question of this day is rather, “What if they didn’t build a card set, and someone came anyway?”And that in a nutshell is the story of Zany Cards.

Zany Cards were simultaneously a reaction to and a pointed comment on two phenomena: the explosion in the non-sports-card market that occurred at the fin-de-siècle stage of the Handful O’Landfill era, and the proliferation of trading-card publications that occurred slightly before.

Just sitting here, with only my bookshelf of periodicals to guide me, I can rattle off more than a dozen names: Sports Collectors Digest, Baseball Cards, Sports Cards, Trading Cards, Non-Sport Report, Collector’s Sportslook, Mary Beth’s Collector Card World, Mary Beth’s Pokémon, Baseball Hobby News, Baseball Card News, The Non-Sport Report, Canadian Card News, Canadian Sportscard Collector, Investor’s Guide To Trading Cards, Beckett Baseball/Basketball/Football/ Hockey/ Pokémon/ Non-Sport … and on and on.

In general I bemoan the death of magazines, but in some of these cases, particularly the cases I edited, I make an exception. I read the things I wrote in those days and feel bad for the trees.

What bound these publications together, besides staples, was that they depended on a price guide for their existence. This was because 80 percent of the people inside the trading-card bubble collected cards because they were sure they could sell what they had for more than they bought it for. When that proved not to be the case, the trading-card bubble collapsed, and there it remains, in the pop-culture equivalent of Haiti.

The problems with price guides were twofold: Card sets were flying in from all directions, and in those pre-eBay days, establishing a market price was difficult, especially for chase cards.

The usual method of establishing a market price was to have a panel of dealers price a list of cards. The price-guide editor would then average the dealers’ prices, knock off 10 percent because the dealers always tacked on 10 percent, knock off another 10 percent because dealers were as much wishful thinkers as anyone, and publish the values in a price guide.

You can feel the time lag pulling your butt to the ground, or maybe it’s just the Coldstone Creamery you had for dinner last night. After compiling the pricing list, sending it out to dealers, getting back their responses, reacquainting them with the real world, putting them into type, putting the type into print, and hustling the print to the newsstand, three months or more could have passed. And someone could have watched Total Recall all the way through in that amount of time.

There were ways around the time lag and the bewildering assortment of releases coming from all over. You could make up prices. And ambitious blokes could copy prices off of someone else’s price guide.

Was it done? Not with every card in every set, but certainly on the extremes, with rare old cards that had a limited market, and worthless new cards that had no market. A Dart Flipcards Vietnam War common was going to be worth three cents regardless of whether you had a pricing panel price it or you cribbed the value out of Tuff Stuff. Conversely, if one dealer in the world has cornered the market on Al Demaree Chicago Cubs cards, pretty much what he says goes, and he’s going to tell you what he told Krause. The price is the price.

On one hand, it’s flattering that a competitor thinks enough of your prices to steal them. On the other, it’s damned annoying to do all the work and have some cheap mag that calls itself authoritative crib off of your exam.

This was the situation confronting Cards Illustrated.

Cards Illustrated was a short-lived (1993-96) non-sports periodical spun off of the Chicago-based comics mag Hero Illustrated, a well-meaning and reasonably entertaining pub but no Methuselah itsownself, having a lifespan similar to CI’s, only shifted ahead a few months.

CI was edited by Krause Publications veteran Don Butler and, according to Butler, “it was a reaction to the whole booming non-sports-card industry. We were trying to be as irreverent as we could while still being informative. Our attitude was like, ‘We can't believe how goofy this whole thing is, either.’"

More than most, CI succeeded. It was plenty irreverent – one issue’s margins were plastered with the one-man malaprops called “Dukisms” – but the information was solid. Butler had spent many of his Krause years editing price-guide publications and knew how to put out accurate, useful pricing information.

When a typo crept into one of Butler’s CI price guides and inflated the price of an obscure issue, that was news. When it reappeared verbatim in the price guide of Tuff Stuff spinoff Collect!, that meant war.

Was Tuff Stuff repossessing CI’s price guide? As a test, the next CI price guide contained an additional set heretofore found in no other price guide: Zany Cards.

Zany Cards were a total fabrication, a figment of the collective imaginations of the Cards Illustrated staff that first appeared as a gag in the March 1995 issue, where Butler and staffers Shawn Reilly and Rob Holly mused over 1994’s non-sport sets.

That entry, wedged between the entries for the legitimate sets "Hooters 1994" from Star International and "Winnebagos" (not the Native Americans or the lake) from TCM, went like this:

Suit Boy Entertainment
Zany Cards
• 49-card factory set featuring black-and-white stills of circus chimps, Billy Barty, dead aliens and other weird photos, all with "funny" captions. A signed-and-numbered edition with a foil-embossed Were-Rat card (3,000 sets) was also produced.
ROB: "Viking Kirk" was the coolest thing since the Enterprise went through the Delta Shield (will go through the Delta Shield? Aaah, forget it). Makes me glad I got a phone. 4 gums.
SHAWN: I cried when the alien died after the long illness, but other than a few chimps in skirts (is that my mother-in-law?), this set is a disaster. 1 gum.
DON: Showing the covers to hard-to-find early issues of Limp 'n’ Squint (the Billy Barty collector magazine) was cool, but the shots of guys pretending they're flying by flapping their arms and pictures of people getting swirlies just doesn't do the trick for me. Must be seen to be believed. 1 gum.

“We decided to sneak in a set that included some of the stupidest, pointless and tasteless ideas we could think of,” Butler says – “and it still didn't come close to some of the other sets released that year.”

“It was a completely logical reaction to our goal of having each of us — Shawn, Rob Holly and I — review and rate all 210-plus entertainment sets that came out in 1994,” Butler continues. “Why not drop in a fake listing of something so ridiculous that even completists would get the joke? Our readers got it.”

The competition didn’t. Within months of Zany Cards appearing in CI’s price guide, they showed up in the Collect! price guide, Limp ‘n’ Squint ‘n’ all.

It was a fitting honor for a set with a pedigree from the tar pits of American popular culture.

“I shared an office with Hero editor Frank Kurtz,” Butler says. “This guy was a true pop-culture junkie, and he did have pictures of chimps on tricycles, monkeys in space suits and dogs with hats in our shared office, so he had expertise in Zany Cards source material. The four of us brainstormed for about 30 seconds to come up with the most illogical card set of all time.”

Kurtz added subtle shadings to the Zany Card premise.

“[Kurtz] had this 1970s video clip of a commercial with a boy eating cereal or something, then beating his chest like a gorilla,” Butler says. “He used screen grabs of this kid in Hero in different spots – you know, like ‘Mike Allred's Madman comic is Ape-Kid approved!’ -- and so we figured Ape-Kid would be a fine addition to Zany Cards.

“Frank had also convinced a couple of comics professionals to help him mock up this Billy Barty fan magazine called Limp 'n' Squint, which was full of these over-the-top, fawning articles on Barty's roles in movies like Sigmund the Sea Monster and Under the Rainbow. It was one of the funniest satire pieces I've ever read, and it was perfect for Zany Cards.”

Butler and his staff even worked out the original 49-card sequence with crazy captions on the front and senseless summaries on the back.

“One card had the Ape-Kid screen grab with the caption ‘Ape-Kid Goes Bananas!!!’ and the back went something like, ‘Children who imitate simians often wear cardigans and sport bowl haircuts. Send three wrappers and $4.44 to the address below to receive more cards and further information,’ or something similar,” he says. “Another card was a photo of a Godzilla Aurora model with its tail glued to the top of its head and the caption, ‘Bill Doesn't Know Which End Is Up!!!’ I think the list got tossed out with all my Menudo, Lois and Clark and Rock 'n' Roll Dead cards.”

Suit Boy Entertainment had an equally deep backstory.

“Suit Boy was Joe Funk, the office manager for Sendai/MVP Media [the publisher of Cards Illustrated],” explains Butler, currently a catalog editor for Eastbay. “He really had no connection to Zany Cards, but it needed a publisher and Joe fit the bill, since he gave the impression of being laconic and insane at the same time.”

Given the fact that Zany Cards could have existed but could easily have been proven to not exist, the question lingers: What did Tuff Stuff-slash-Collect! know, and when did it know it?

Answers are hard to come by.

“It wasn't my fault,” says former staffer and current FHM editor Scott Gramling. “I was working that month on Hooked on Tuff Stuff – I mean, Tuff Stuff Jr.”

And the hectic nature of the card business at the time spilled over into the trading-card publications, according to Collect!’s editor at the time, Larry Canale.

“I arrived at Tuff Stuff Publications in late 1993 and spent my first several months acclimating myself to and editing Tuff Stuff, so my plate was full,” says Canale, now the editor-in-chief of Antiques Roadshow Insider. “I do remember the second or third issue of Collect! kind of coming out of nowhere in mid-1994 and wreaking havoc on our production department. I likely started getting immersed in Collect! sometime in late 1994, and even then, I'm positive I wasn't doing any line-editing in the price-guide department.

"I'm not trying to pass the buck; I would take responsibility if I knew anyone on our staff had knowingly copped a listing without fact-checking," he says. "But honestly, I'm not even sure I had dug into Collect! at that point in time. I barely remember my wedding anniversary and what I had for breakfast this morning, never mind a price-guide controversy from 17 years ago. In fact, I don't even remember Zany Cards being mentioned in our post-mortem issue reviews. So the price-guide editor who stuck it in Collect!'s listings quietly pulled it out.

“At the end of the day, I don't know how many different conclusions you can draw other than the idea that a price-guide editor made the mistake of using Cards Illustrated as one of his sources without fact-checking. That was known to happen in our market from time to time, and it went in all directions. Heck, I remember a mistake here and there in Tuff Stuff's price guide that got picked up by competitors.”

There are two small codas to the Zany Cards story. The first is that Zany Cards were not alone. There was a second Zany Cards issue, albeit by a different (fictitious) publisher.

In the March 1996 issue of Cards Illustrated, right after Krome Productions' Lady Death II set and right before Sannco's Police Cards Series III, appeared the following:

Monkey Wrench Productions
Dumb and Zanier

• The 53-card series, a quasi-sequel to 1994's Zany Cards (apparently the original owners "forgot" to pay the printers and restarted under a different name), included more tasteless cards of obese people in underwear, two-headed cows, tuba bands, 1940s nudist flicks and other goofy photos with "funny" captions. Two levels of chase cards were included: a series of three hand-stamped cards of a woman in a wheelchair hitting a pinata (1:13 packs) and four foil-embossed cards featuring scenes from high-school auto education fatality films (1:3). Five-card packs had a $1.22 SRP.

ROB: The only reason it gets one gum at all is for the card featuring Dr. Shrinker in what's possibly the worst screen grab ever. After high school, I never thought I would see shots of road accidents ever again. I was as wrong as this set. 1 gum.

SHAWN: Euphoniums and trading cards don't mix. Surprises in the pinata — that's entertainment. 1 gum.

DON: Ten times more tasteless than any Mother Productions set. The "Chimps in Space" subset was crazed, as was the four-card "Bob the Blob Wears Bloomers" series. "Michael Dunn vs. Billy Barty Wrestling Match" was nothing more than cut-outs of grainy publicity photos. More covers of Limp 'n' Squint, the Billy Barty collector mag?!? The production quality is the worst. Must be seen to be believed. 1 gum.

FRANK: Not as funny as the previous series, though I enjoyed the historical chimp photos and the chihuahua wearing an oversized sombrero almost beyond my ability to comprehend. All it needed was the Hippo Hurricane Holler and I'd have been in heaven. 4 gums.

Dumb and Zanier lived a much shorter life than Zany Cards.

“I’m not sure if Dumb and Zanier ever appeared in other price guides, because Cards Illustrated folded two issues later,” Butler says.

A shame, because the Zany Cards sets nearly went magazine-viral.

“Zany Cards got a mention in another non-sport price guide – the one run by the husband-and-wife team for the ‘serious collector,’” Reilly says. (That would probably make it Non-Sport Report, since the other husband-and-wife pub, Baseball Hobby News, rarely played in the non-sport sandbox.) “That publication never listed a price. It had Zany Cards with a question mark and asked if anyone seen the cards.

“But, you know, Zany Cards had to be seen to be believed,” continues Reilly, currently the development director for the city of Chilton (Wis.).

“We kicked around the idea of producing a set for each year for our own amusement, but figured it'd be too costly for an in-joke,” Butler says. “Plus it would have verified the fake listing in the other price guides, which would have defeated the purpose. Maybe we'll do an online set of Zany Cards and claim that we found [them] in one of the co-owners' foreclosed house.”

Though no one ever saw them, they still believed. Zany Cards had some pretty strong juju.

And a Magic Motion Limp ‘n’ Squint chase set would have totally rocked the house.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Blunder Down Under

Some trifectas were made just so perfectly conceived that you’d swear heaven was triangular. The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Magic, Kareem, and Worthy. Tinker to Evers to Chance. Dodge vs. Chevy vs. Ford. Chico, Harpo, and Groucho. Moe, Larry, and Curly. The French Connection line. The three Godfather movies. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato.

And then there are accumulations of three that make you wonder whether the prophets at Schoolhouse Rock had it all wrong, and three is indeed not a magic number. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The three Porky’s movies. Wade and Bosh and LeBron. The K cars. That three-wheeled Chernobyl made by the Company Formerly Known As Ski-Doo. Pat Listach to Scott Fletcher to Franklin Stubbs. Moe, Larry, and Joe Besser. Bacos, lettuce, and tomato. And last but not least, Australia, James Donaldson, and baseball.

And yet these things happen and continue to happen. The Brewers persist in trotting out a DP combo of Yuniesky Betancourt to Rickie Weeks to Cecil Fielder, an assemblage that is to slick fielding what Michelle Bachmann is to reasoned political thought. National Treasure 3 is in production. Alabama is back together. And not too long ago, Donaldson promoted Australian baseball through the mercifully short-lived Australian Baseball League set.

Once you break through the realization that this is one ménage a trois that’s really a ménage, it’s fairly easy to draw lines between any two of the three. Australia and baseball is logical enough. Baseball is sort of equidistant between cricket and Australian Rules Football, that aboriginal aberration played by sides of 18 that find Brian Urlacher too much of a sissy-boy for their tastes.

Australia and James Donaldson is doable. The former Washington State big played there after a 10-year NBA career where he moved more glacially than a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s. Baseball and Donaldson is a bit of a stretch until you realize they’re both mortally slow sports. It’s connecting all three that’s the reach. Yet there they all are in the Australian Baseball League set, linking arms and singing “The Kookaburra Song” while the dingoes howl in the distance.

Triangular logic notwithstanding, it’s hard to fathom how a continent whose No. 1 contribution to the National Pastime was David Nilsson, a catcher who couldn’t catch and couldn’t stay healthy enough to hit, merits a set of cards for its incestuous minor league, a sort of multicity crumb tray for all ANZAC players worse than Trent Oeltjen.

On the other hand, in the Handful O’Landfill Era every league that didn’t have the name of a towing service plastered across the fronts of its uniforms was prime territory for a card set. It just so happens that this league was about 50,000 miles away from its target market, with no network broadcast contract and no way of engaging its potential audience other than a set of baseball cards whose most recognizable name got beat out of a starting job by Mark Eaton.

With that said, the ABL cards are a pretty patch in a semipro sort of way. Fronts are clean, photography is right-side up, and backs are no worse than Sally League quality if a little too influenced by the Star Company for their own good.

The real question now, looking back at this set through the crystal-clear lens of retrospection, is what the plan was, how this set was going to do anything for anyone. The logistics – the big leagues are way over here, and the ABL is way over there – were just too heavily stacked against the ABL. The league was positioned as a low-level winter league, the winter equivalent of an upper-echelon independent like the American Association. While it was certainly possible that someone would take a path to stardom that ran through the ABL, the odds were against it. It was much more likely that someone would bounce from the Cape Cod League to the Northern League to the low minors to the upper minors to the bigs, with stops at Maracaibo and UPS and 50 games off for what they swear was an over-the-counter allergy medicine.

It was asking far too much of ABL cards to elevate such a turkey, and the cards' murky distribution – no one in my vast network of gainfully employed former card geeks can remember seeing these cards anywhere except in my file cabinet – ensured that no one would make money on the deal and the printer would be running hard after someone, holding aloft a sheaf of official-looking papers and reeking of acetone.

Ah, but the ABL had a secret weapon: James Donaldson. He shows up in the set, certainly not as a player or manager and not really as a general manager or owner. Seeing as the Donaldson card shows the big man bereft of any mascot clothing, he apparently was just lending moral support to the operation, which needed all the help it could get.

Here's how bad off the ABL was: When it finally gave up the ghost (and the Paramatta Patriots) in 1999, Dave Nilsson bought the entire league, lock, stock, and James Donaldson, for $5 million. MLB now owns 75 percent of the operation and runs it as a trading-card-free, fundamental-stressing South Asia developmental league, which is what it should have been all along.

The Australian Baseball League may not have merited cards, but it got 'em. But so did Dinotopia and Campbell's soup. At a time and place where they were still called baseball cards, it probably deserved them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rocky Mountain Why?

I changed jobs at the height of the Handful O’Landfill era. I moved out of journalism into something more lucrative.

I know, I know. “What could be more lucrative than journalism?” you beller. Well, the fact is, children and future J-school students, there are professions more lucrative than journalism, though I admit that once I get past “washroom attendant at Barstow Kum ‘n’ Go” my eyes glaze over and I lose count of just how many there are.

Anyway, just as the trading-card bubble was beginning to resemble Howie Mandel’s head I got married and joined a firm that consulted for trading-card manufacturers, miscellaneous licensors (which is how I came to have carnal knowledge of the Jim Thome Baseball Game) and licensees like the National Basketball Association.

Essentially, I went from being threatened with lawsuits by trading-card manufacturers for telling them what I thought of their products to being paid reasonable sums of money by trading-card manufacturers for telling them what I thought of their products.

America. What a country.

I have said this before, but at the height of the craziness we had scores of prospective Campfire Girl card manufacturers and History of Plumbing card manufacturers and Famous Dentists card manufacturers banging on our doors daily and bombarding us with offers to make hundreds (on the back end, usually) by helping them make millions.

Most we turned away with a smile and a friendly waffle sole in the tucchus. Coors we did not.

I don’t remember how we got associated with Coors. I’m guessing it was through the guy who put the lifesize cardboard cutouts of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (“Got my steaks. Got my ribs”) into liquor stores. (We didn’t know everybody in those days; just a representative cross-section.)

Somehow someone at Coors thought the company should capitalize on the trading-card boom, and someone who worked with Coors said, “You oughta get ahold of these guys in Wisconsin,” and before you knew it, Coors Cards were leaping a-glimmering out of the Golden Gang’s corporate womb.

These were not shabby cards by any measure. No, siree. The card art came out of Coors’ vast Archives Bunker. (With Coors, everything was in a bunker.) The Coors Design Bunker chipped in the design. Backs were written to the highest standards by a team of Professional Hobby Consultants writers – not me, thankfully – and writers from the Coors Creative Bunker. The chase program was solid. Pete Coors himself even signed a few, from the security of the Pete Coors Bunker. And the gold foil flowed like Rocky Mountain Kool-Aid.

Distribution was a cinch. After all, there are two types of companies whose survival depends on getting their product everywhere: breweries and tobacco companies. The wages of sin is death, but the marketing plan of sin is universal distribution.

There was only one thing Coors and us and everyone else involved with the project overlooked: Cards are for kids. Beer, even Coors, is not.

Coors Cards were barely into their first month of marketing when a righteous mom happened upon the cards at a Smokey Mountain Market or similar establishment and blew The Whistle Heard One-Third Of The Way ‘Round The World.

Now, Coors may have borrowed a page from the Christopher Buckley Thank You For Smoking School of Marketing and played along with Coors Cards as a subtle way of marketing its beer-flavored Rocky Mountain spring water to teens and tweens and pre-tweens. If that was Coors’ plan, its people hid it well. The genuine-seeming surprise leading to outrage leading to cessation of payment when the whistle blew was more than ample proof of that.

Beyond that, these were not kiddie cards. They had pictures of mountain streams, stainless-steel kettles, hop fields, bearded guys, and water towers. Yeah, there were a couple of cards of tank trucks, but no self-respecting kid was going to buy Coors Cards over Pacific Flash Cards on that basis. (Insert raised eyebrow here.)

All good intentions aside, the upshot was that Coors, upstanding bourgeois running dog that it was, acceded to the pressure and pulled the cards from shelves. It distributed a few sets internally, and sold cards in its gift shop, but the idea of mass-marketing Coors Cards went the way of prohibition.

But the funny thing was, Coors was less than a year away from not having to pull the product at all. Playboy cards came along later that year, mimicked Coors Cards' distribution, and created a brief bubble in the adult-card market large enough to cover Sally Rand's ... uh, apostrophe. But the calls for their removal from shelves, if they came at all, went unheeded, and Playboy cards lasted several series before being carried shoulder-high down the road to the landfill all card-runners come.

Many of the cards featured in "Handful O'Landfill" are like cars that rolled off the assembly line missing a part or two, like an engine, that most people would consider pretty vital to a car being a car and doing car stuff. Coors Cards had all the parts in the right place. Who'da figured that they'd hang a left out of the car lot and get broadsided?