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.