Thursday, December 20, 2012

Splits and Strikes and Spares -- and Hair!

It struck me yesterday that I have not written nearly enough about bowling cards.

I apologize. I apologize to the world’s bowling-card collectors, all 18 of you. I apologize to the world’s bowlers, who have had to stand idly by, their feet together, their hands over the dryer, while Woo Daves and Brad Lohaus and Steve Emtman and Clyde Booth and Olden Manynice hogged the spotlight, and whose bowling hands have been reduced to slabs of Jack Link’s as a result. I apologize to the myriad sponsors of these bowlers, and their suppliers of hair-care products, and their wives and children, and Chris Schenkel, even if he is dead, and golly, I hope I didn’t drive him to it.

In this season of redemption, I hope to make it up to you, starting now.

Ahem. Cards showing bowlers had been made sporadically before 1990, but were never given the full mani-pedi until that year, when Collect-A-Card issued its 100-card Kingpins set.

To say that Collect-A-Card spared no expense with its Kingpins set is wrong. One of the reasons Collect-A-Card was fairly successful over its decade-long lifespan was that it knew when and where to spare the expense. However, Collect-A-Card left no bowler uncommemorated, not even the AAAA bowlers, the C.J. Nitkowskis and Al Shirleys of the bowling world, who in the early 1990s were barely a toestep down that yellow-brick road that would take them to full athlete status – meaning intercollegiate feeder programs, Finding Bigfoot-level drama, and a primetime gig on ESPN.

This set was actually a revelation for many of us in the business at that time, whose knowledge of bowlers started with Earl Anthony and passed through Earl Anthony before returning to Earl Anthony, with perhaps a pitstop at Dick Weber. Even tennis, whose pool of recognizable talent is shallower than the lyrics on a Rhianna album, provided more star power than bowling.

That shows what you know about Collect-A-Card. The company’s greatest successes came with its Coca-Cola and Campbell’s Soup cards, properties whose talent pool went one (Santa Claus) and two (the Campbell’s Twins) characters deep, respectively. Its only misstep came with a property with zero recognizable characters – Dinotopia, a series of mildly interesting young-adult books (think Maxfield Parrish or Winsor MacCay collaborating with Michael Crichton on Jurassic Park) that spawned a truly misbegotten made-for-TV movie.

Collect-A-Card’s knack for making something out of nothing was sorely tested in the making of Kingpins, because as we all know, there are different grades of nothing. There is the total absence of matter, the total absence of matter except for several thousand leftover copies of Tubthumping, and then there is the nothing represented by Teata Semiz, Guppy Troup, Les Schissler, Jimmy Certain, Jon O’Drobniak, and 95 of their closest friends.

Upon further review, and after thinking harder than I’ve ever had to think about bowling cards, it’s amazing how much they resemble baseball cards. Both sports concentrate their action into rather small, explosive packages. The interminable wrapping and rewrapping of the batting gloves, the flex of the fingers on the bat, the demi-stretch, the quasi-yawn, the digging of the back foot into the batter’s box, the bat action prior to delivery of the pitch, and the stepping out to repeat the process all over again is awfully similar to what a bowler goes through prior to delivery. If Ryan Braun had a hot-air footswitch at home plate it would be virtually identical.

In both cases, the ball is delivered, something more or less dynamic occurs, and the process repeats. In neither case is sustained athleticism required, nor is there a target baseline metabolic rate. Male pattern baldness, aviator glasses, and pornstar mustaches are condoned, if not outright encouraged.

This leads to a score of déjà-vu moments in the Kingpins set. The three-images-in-one Andy Marzich card is straight out of ’89 Topps Baseball. If Don Zimmer had a recurring role on Cheers he’d be Billy Walden. Tommy Hanson is Rick Camp, but so is Ron Bell. Harry Sullins is Billy Stein. Dave Soutar is Dale Murphy. Mike Aulby is Matt Stairs. Bob Benoit is Rick Sutcliffe. Guppy Troup is Billy Loes with Lowell Palmer’s glasses and Gorman Thomas’ hair. Pete Couture is Kent Tekulve, with Tekulve’s glasses and hair. And Dennis Horan Jr. is Mario Mendoza, poor soul.

You may have noticed that with the exception of Stairs[1] all the bowlers are from the ‘90s and all the baseball players they resemble are from the ‘70s and ‘80s. This is no accident. Bowlers have never been the most fashion-forward sportspeople, so looking like the baseball players of 15 years previous is about right for them. This creates the very real possibility that in 2027 Parker Bohn V will be sporting cornrows and full-body tats.

Still, this only hints at the overwhelming otherworldliness of the Kingpins set. There has never been a sports-card set with so many pictures of people in striped polo shirts. Three people out of 100 are not in polo shirts, and that’s because they’re announcers in suits and ties (including the aforementioned Mr. Schenkel). The mustache count is at 34. This is also a constituency to whom flowing hair – from side to side, in ripples cascading across either temple, or sent straight back, like a killer wave from the Banzai Pipeline – is important. There is no hair on these cards that is not either falling out or being sent in purposeful swells across the head. This is taken to frightening extremes on the card of Pete Weber, whose noggin appears to be sporting either a forehead extension or a muskrat.

There are other frightening cards in the set, to be sure. Who would not be terrified by the sight of “Skee” Foremsky going off Gundam style, or Don McCune poking himself in the eye, or Mike McGrath adjusting his prosthetic forearm, or Dave Davis sitting astride the ball return in a pose both suggestive and frightening, or Curtis Odom, playing to the hilt the role of token-black comic relief?

If you want a genuine time capsule, a document of how far we have come as a society in 22 years, as well as the most comprehensive professional-bowling set ever made, you cannot do better than the Collect-A-Card Kingpins set.

But I wonder: Who would want that?

[1] Who, as a sawed-off, beer-bellied, power-hitting occasional right fielder was nothing if not an anachronism most of his career.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Canadian Railroad Thrillogy

I’m on one of my periodic “I Love Canada” jags. I just picked out my Christmas present: a Saskatchewan Roughriders toque. I’m making plans to visit my wife’s aunt in Kingston, Ontario, despite the fact that she lives in a convent and I wouldn’t actually be able to see her, though I will definitely wear my Saskatchewan Roughriders toque when I go[1]. I read the Canadian news first in my Google News feed, ahead of even the latest Lindsay Lohan news borrowed from TMZ.[2]

I think one of the reasons for my latest I Love Canada jag is that I watched the Grey Cup last weekend. Everyone who sees this column on a regular basis – shout-out to Sparky, the reader who puts the “one” in “everyone” – knows I have an unhealthy love for the Canadian Football League. It’s Division I-AA pro football, stripped of the artifice and hype and pretention and inflated everything, from egos to biceps to nosebleed-section ticket prices to the stentorian tones of Kevin Harlan.

Players are getting paid relative peanuts in the CFL but it’s not the burlesque football of the arena league, and there are enough fun rule differences to make it something other than just minor-league NFL product.[3] I don’t know who decided to let just about everyone go in motion before the snap, but I’m guessing Angelo “King Kong” Mosca left the rulebook with Groucho Marx for a couple of minutes, and when he came back from pounding on Joe Kapp the section outlawing motion before the snap was gone, three timeouts a half were whittled down to one, and someone had crossed out the two-minute warning and written in “three-minute warning.”

The combination of these rules changes and the lack of eight-minute TV timeouts is exhilarating. Games move at an Oregonian pace driven by short (but dynamic) quarterbacks airing it out to shorter (but dynamic) wide receivers, everyone goes home entertained, and no one cares that the team you played this week was the team you played two weeks ago because it’s an eight-team league, a 16-game season, and the Labatt’s is relatively cheap, by Canadian standards.

The Grey Cup is especially fun. It has some of the traditions of the Stanley Cup with some of the trappings of the Super Bowl, all for the price of a bleacher seat at Petco Park, and it’s even money that three-quarters of the Grey Cup games will be played or extreme cold and/or snow.[4] 

This year’s game was the 100th Grey Cup. I shudder to think of what the United States will do when the 100th Super Bowl rolls around. Fold over itself, drool at the mouth and babble incoherently is my guess, and that's just ESPN. I'm also thinking Gussie Busch XII's head is going to explode and the remnants of Joe Buck are going to pop out.

Not so much Canada. They put out a coin and put the trophy on a train (more on that later), but basically the 100th Grey Cup meant more Mounties and more bilingual announcements – two of the necessary evils that go along with being a CFL fan.[5]

I loved the game, though. It was like Brett Favre leading the Vikings to a Super Bowl win in 2009, only without a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty in the conference final. Toronto nose tackle Adriano Belli (who looks exactly like John L. Sullivan) was ejected for putting an arm-bar on Calgary center (centre) John Gott.[6] A Don Nottingham clone named Chad Kackert had almost 200 yards in total offense[7]. Ahmad Carroll was whistled for defensive holding at a crucial point in the game. The halftime show consisted of a nearly dead Gordon Lightfoot, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Justin Bieber, and they booed Bieber with a sincere lustiness that American football fans would never have turned on Madonna. And the home team won.

I mention this because today’s Handful O’Landfill takes us to the exotic country of Belize, where we pay a visit to the reclusive zillionaire John MacAfee, his weapons and blue pacifier. No, we’re in Canada, looking at trains.

I love trains and I love Canada, so naturally I love Canadian trains. I spent a week on Canadian trains in my younger years, watching the Canadian Rockies pass by my bedroom window, dining on the prairie semi-al-fresco, subsisting on dried fruit and sausage, running sprints on the depot platform in Medicine Hat, steering clear of the native drunks in Prince George, B.C., hanging out of the vestibule watching the salmon run orange on the Fraser River alongside the Pacific Great Eastern tracks south of Quesnel, and coming face-to-face with an elk on a mountain trail outside of Banff.

So you can imagine how I felt in 1992 when I received a set of 76 Railfan Canada ’92 cards. Trading cards of trains? In a box? Yeah, that’s woodpulp heaven to me.

Well, no. The cards came up short of heaven – Peyton Manning short instead of Snoop Lion short, but short. They’re not a bad product taken at their face, though they do a number on the whole power-beauty-and-majesty-of-trains thing. These are the non-action photos – the head shots, if you will, only with no airbrushing. 1967 Topps Garry Roggenburk, anyone?[8]

The backs bristle with statistics: model number, horsepower, number built, number remaining, special features. That’s not a bad thing; if you’re moved enough by Canadian trains to buy 76 Railfan Canada cards, this is just the information you’re looking for. Railfan Canada resisted the urge to go all holofoil and die-cut, and the result is a better, more honest product.

A more honest product without any real market, unfortunately. Looking at the demographic requisites, the ideal buyer of Railfan Canada ’92 cards would have to love A) Canada, B) trains, and C) head shots, in that order. He would have to get off on the squiggly-lined logo of the Ontario Northland, the diamond of the Northern Alberta, and the whatzit of the Greater Winnipeg Water District.[9] He would also have to afford the $28 ($CDN) for the set.

He would have to be me, in other words. And while Railfan Canada hit the target from a marketing standpoint – I wound up with the set – selling to an audience of one isn’t exactly the pathway to the Hamptons.

As often happens, Railfan Canada ’92 cards promised the moon and delivered a Moon Pie. That’s not bad; it’s just less. But as the CFL proves, less can be quite wonderful indeed.

I mentioned this earlier, but as part of the Grey Cup's 100th anniversary the CFL put the trophy on a special train and sent it barnstorming across the country, so fans in remote locales like Kelowna and Kenora and Moose Jaw could get up-close with one of their national treasures.

I love Canada.

[1] And will consequently get beaten up by the tough old nun who bounces at the door and happens to be a Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan.
[2] And I’m constantly amazed at how little Canadian news Google has on a daily basis. Canada is the third-largest country in the world, and less news comes out of there weekly than comes out of North Korea on the half-hour -- and they're working on a 60-year news embargo. Canada's national obsession goes on strike, and the only thing Google talks about is the price of mining stocks. Maybe the entire country is under a gag order, or maybe they really are that phlegmatic.
[3] For instance, I would a thousand times rather watch the CFL than the short-lived World League of American Football. You’ve read about my experiences in getting to Wembley Stadium to see the inaugural World Bowl, but you’ve never heard my impressions of the game. Here you go: It was like a peewee hockey game after the Stanley Cup playoffs. Stan Gelbaugh moved like he was encased in gelatin and being eaten by a wasp.
[4] Which is why the league’s two most temperate cities, Vancouver and Toronto, play in domes.
[5] Among the others: Extra points are “converts,” touchdowns are “major scores,” defense is “defence,” and Ahmad Carroll is still allowed to play despite grabbing heaping handfuls of CFL jersey on every freaking pass.
[6] Hey, John L. would have arm-barred the dude, too.
[7] Or “offence,” as they put it up there.
[8] I can totally relate to the whole head-shot train-shot thing. My brother takes pictures of trains obsessively, and has for 40 years, and because he’s an engineer and not an artist, the less motion the better. He has dragged me through countless shabby quasi-industrial neighborhoods, past the unmarked warehouses of the Russian Mafia, down innumerable oily roads paved with the ground-up bones of Teamsters, and past scores of “We Shoot Trespassers” signs so he could take pictures of grimy, stationary diesel-powered boxes, knowing full well he could have hung out in some better (or at least more scenic) environ and seen it roll past 15 minutes hence. His (pre-digital) slide library exceeds 20,000, so that’s a whole lot of talking to railroad detectives that smell like creosote. I always thought shooting trains when they weren’t moving was cheating, like tackling the quarterback while he’s standing on the sidelines.

[9] Did I mention I wrote to all these railroads when I was about 14, asking for whatever free stuff they wanted to send me – and they all ponied up? In case I haven’t said this before, thank you, Greater Winnipeg Water District. May all your pipes forever run free.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Unremarkably Remarkable Moments

You may have suspected this, but I have the entire history of the trading-card business from about 1985-2005 in filing cabinets and storage boxes in my basement.

You may have suspected this because I look the part – i.e., old. Also because I’m not always lying. And also because there is no other reason why I would have the press kit for America’s Most Wanted trading cards somewhere other than under the refrigerator, soaking up a leak.
We cleaned out the basement the other day and I threw nothing away. I have almost the entire run of Sports Collectors Digest’s Trade Fax printed on slinky paper, and I keep hanging onto it even though I have never referred to it for anything, not even the correct spelling of Tony Loiacono’s name.[1]
I have the packout and insertion ratios for hundreds of Pinnacle products, including winners like 1998 Pinnacle Performers Football. You want to know how often Pursuit of Paydirt Point Cards show up in a box of Performers Football? I can tell you, though if you’re the sort of person who asks for information like this I’m not sure I want to talk to you.
We got sent everything from everyone in those days, and our erstwhile secretary Sue dutifully filed it all away, in neatly labeled folders. When the business went blooey I got the filing cabinets. I hung onto them at first because I was clinging to the hope that the band would get back together. Then I hung onto them because I thought I might write the definitive book on the trading-card business from about 1985-2005 for the seven people who might be interested. And now I’m holding onto them because I’m waiting for reality-TV producers to work their way down to me. I’m thinking of a mashup of Hoarders and American Pickers, with a dash of Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids.
Anyway, I thought it might be fun to reach into one of the file boxes, pull out a file folder and write about its contents. And I struck gold.
The first line of the first document in the folder, a press release, reads, “Don Nomura, Hideo Nomo’s agent, calls the Japanese pitcher, ‘the Michael Jordan of our country.’ That pretty much says it all.”
It does. Yes indeed, that pretty much says it all. Hideo Nomo throws fastballs with his tongue hanging out, lays 50 on the Nippon Ham Fighters while running a 105-degree fever, jab-steps Yutaka Enatsu out of his Mizunos, smokes cigars the size of smoked hams, has his commercials produced by the Japanese Spike Lee[2], and bets on anything that moves, including freight trains and scarab beetles.
Okay, maybe he didn’t mean that. Maybe he meant that Nomo was really, really popular in Japan at the time of the press release – Sept. 21, 1995. That I can buy.
But do you know the name of the product responsible for this epochal statement? I’m guessing your answer is not “Remarkable Moments.” Yet that’s what it is.
There is definitely something oriental going on here. The press release does not suggest a product name, and the product name does not suggest a product. In the collectibles field alone, Remarkable Moments could be a series of commemorative coins, greeting cards, lithographs, stuffed animals, paintings on velvet, or sculptures. Or condoms.
Of course, I know the answer, because I have the entire history of the trading-card business from about 1985-2005 in my basement. Remarkable Moments is a series of talking picture frames.
If you’re thinking of talking picture frames in the context of Billy the Big-Mouth Bass, you’re about 20 years ahead of the curve. This talking frame does not sense your presence, does not flop back and forth, and doesn’t play cleverly repurposed quasi-popular songs. Instead, you press a button and listen to a sound chip play squawky, scratchy, nearly inaudible audio over the 30-second life of the battery.
This talking picture frame also requires a dedicated picture. You couldn’t slip a photo of Aunt Edna into Hideo Nomo’s space without having an answer prepared for Aunt Edna when she asks, “Why is that man with the funny voice calling me ‘The Japanese Tornado?’”
So if you’re keeping score, the entire Remarkable Moments package consists of:

1) A semi-removable picture of Hideo Nomo;
2) A high-quality stone-like base with a sound chip and a one-nanowatt (RMS) speaker; and
3) A battery with a 30-second lifespan that requires a fist-sized piece of gelignite to change.

And what would you charge for this bundle of goodness? Not $29.95. Not $19.95. Not even $9.95. But $79.95.
It is serially numbered and strictly limited to 1,995 pieces[3], so that makes it better. So too does the knowledge that other Remarkable Moments pieces can be yours for the incredibly low price of $129.95.
If that doesn’t sell you on the spot, remember that, “In the past, this type of time-capsule memento has only been available in museums and halls of fame.” Never you mind that in another 10 years the list would expand to include hunting shacks and doublewides.
Lest you think he was trading in hyperbole, Remarkable Moments chief Jeff Schwartz hastened to remind us that, “This new multi-media memorabilia certainly qualifies as a collectible, but Remarkable Moments are not just for collectors … They’re also for anyone who simply treasures a remarkable historical moment. They’re time machines which can transport us back to experience those inspirational moments, again and again.”
Okay. Make that, “trading in succinct hyperbole.”
After paragraphs and paragraphs of such unexpected delight comes the all-too-predictable denouement: “In addition to Schwartz, the Remarkable Moments team also includes former Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres great Steve Garvey and U.S. Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner.”
Well, of course it does. Joe Montana was a northern-California rhymes-with-bore.

In the end, Remarkable Moments were true to their description. They were pictures of moments that to someone were in some way remarkable.
I’m not sure that’s enough to hang a business on, though. After all, I have a picture of me where I’m wearing a Cub Scout uniform and I'm made up like Mae West. That’s a moment for sure, and pretty remarkable, but I’m not sure it merits a sound chip.
And I definitely want it kept the hell away from Steve Garvey.

[1] Not that Trade Fax would have that.
[2] I don’t know – Spike Ree, maybe?
[3] All of which most assuredly found nice, new homes.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Franco. American.

Because professionally I’m a marketing guy, I think marketing thoughts from time to time. Like today, after writing some print ads[1], I started thinking about spokesmen[2]. When was the last time you bought anything because a spokesanything asked you to? Did you buy OxiClean because of Billy Mays or in spite of him? Does the endless splicing of Subway B-roll featuring Blake Griffin, Apolo Ohno, Justin Tuck et al. give you the hankering for a Spicy Italian, or does it make you think, “This is cheesier than a Meatball Marinara”? What’s that you say? Victor Cruz gives you the urge to buy Chunky Soup? Really? Who’s next on the list of shark-jumping NFLers to queue up for Campbell’s? Jabar Gaffney?

I ask because in the course of cleaning out our storage room over the weekend I remembered the rush to spokesmen that took place once Upper Deck hit the card market in 1989. Prior to that there were no trading-card spokesmen. Topps was fine standing on proverbial streetcorners and yelling, “Hey kids! Get a free baseball coin in every pack!” Fleer was full-speed ahead with its innovative distribution system involving horse-drawn wagons and out-of-work icemen. And Donruss – at that time part of General Mills – was just trying to stay out of Cheerios’ way.

Upper Deck was all about spokespeople at athlete involvement from the getgo. One of its founding partners was superstar Angels pitcher DuWayne Buice. Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the contract Reggie Jackson was UD’s first celebrity shill. Then it was Ken Griffey Jr., and the spokesman thing was full-on.

Magic Johnson became the NBA Hoops guy. Wayne Gretzky did the dirty for UD Hockey. Michael Jordan took the cash for Upper Deck Basketball. Joe Montana became the advocate of choice of every would-be Upper Deck with a solvent checkbook. We had receptions with David Robinson, walkabouts with Brett Favre, Q-and-As with Health Shuler and Rick Mirer, meet-and-greets with Shawn Respert, and even a tennis match with Franco Harris, which brings me to this little corner of heaven.

Ever since its Westport, Conn., days Pinnacle had a thing for Franco Harris. I’m not precisely sure why, though this smaller voice in the back of my head says in a grating East Coast accent that Pinnacle’s boss at the time, Dan Shedrick, had some mystic connection with Harris that reached back as far as the brawling hills of western Pennsylvania.

When Pinnacle got a football license, its first spokesman was Franco Harris. Bart Oates was his backup, and that same yawping voice in the back of my head says it was because Oates and Shedrick were neighbors. Gee, what if Shedrick had lived next door to Neal Guggemos? The world might be a different place.

Harris was the front man for Pinnacle football and I was a card journalist in lush Iola, Wis., so when the Super Bowl and its attendant Pekingese-and-Percheron show came to the Metrodome in 1991, Shedrick invited myself and my tennis-playing colleague, Don Butler, to meet them in Minneapolis for a doubles match.

You need to know that Don Butler is about five-foot-four and an absolutely insidious tennis player. He’s the sort of opponent you hate because he takes all your powerhouse drives and 100-mph smashes and turns them into lollipop cuts or well-angled side-spinners that force you to start the process over again, and then he makes you repeat that until you skull one or collapse from exhaustion. With me the skulling always comes first.

So it was the loose cannon and the sniper versus Shedrick and Harris, in a sort of mini-Metrodome tennis court at an athletic club somewhere in downtown Minneapolis. Shedrick played country-club doubles sans the white cable-knit sweater around his neck, and Harris played the ball like it was Charles Romes, meaning he saw it coming and promptly angled for the sidelines. He also had a surprisingly meek serve for such a big guy, a little cutter that was no trouble to return.

In fact, the more we played against Shedrick and Harris the more disappointing it became. Here was a genuine legend who for so many years on so many NFL fields had run out of bounds at the first hint of contact, playing junior-high-school tennis alongside the third runner-up, D Flight, in the Westport Country Club’s Spring Tennis Fling.

And we stunk, too. It was about the worst match Don and I ever played together, so the scores were – we’ll call them even. Both sides demanded a rematch but it never happened.

Harris soldiered on as the face of Pinnacle football for several more years, and when Pinnacle landed an NHL license, he was joined by two of the sport’s youngest guns – first Eric Lindros, he of the cleft chin, unrealistic expectations and recurring head injuries[3], and then Alexandre Daigle, of the 129 career goals and toothpick-diametered extremities. That unusual and unholy trinity were commemorated on this exhibit-sized Pinnacle Power card given away – in its own velvet-lined pouch, no less – by Pinnacle to showcase its holofoilish technology and celebrate one thing or another.

The fact that this piece is serially numbered is comforting. It’s reassuring to know there are at most 200 other cards like this in the universe, presuming none of them have swapped DNA or had their gene patterns replicated.

Spokesmen still swarm over the card business, sorry to say. Panini prominently features Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Kobe Bryant on its website; Topps bandies about Yu Darvish, trying to land that multicultural vote; and Upper Deck has its usual stable of big names. There’s still no proof that any of them by themselves, exclusive of autographs and special subsets, have sold a single extra card, but that’s marketing for you. Never simply sell the product when you can spend lots more money to oversell it to no one in particular.

Maybe it’s time to dust off the wagons and thaw the icemen. Whaddya say, guys?

[1] My forge not being sufficiently hot to hammer out some greaves and cuirasses.
[2] The shortened version of “spokesmen, spokeswomen, spokescats, spokesdoughballs, and spokesovenmitts.”
[3] Which are definitely no laughing matter.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wide Cars, War Cards, and Crickets

I kicked off last time with a paean to the idea of automotive extinction, and how many passenger cars are going the way of the passenger pigeon. Yes, it was just a ruse so I could say something untoward about Fleer Stars ‘n’ Stripes, but there have been worse setups.

Having embarked on that road, I have no choice but to put the figurative pedal to the theoretical metal and discuss some other cards and card concepts that deserve to go the way of the Dodge St. Regis, the only Mopar vehicle named after a second-rate New York hotel (the Plymouth Days Inn having been scratched from the drawing board).

I thought it might be fun to match up these card sets with their automotive counterpart, so I went to and grabbed its lists of threatened, endangered and extinct car species. If you’ve ever wanted to know the trading-card equivalent of the AMC Pacer X, take heart. Your hour is coming.

Dart/Pro Set/Topps/Other Gulf war cards vs. 1988 Pontiac Fiero GT. So much perplexment, so little time. As we sit here in our 14th or so consecutive year of fighting assorted Middle Eastern demi-wars with absolutely no trading cards to document any of them, it is astonishing to me that the first Gulf War, all six months, three weeks and four days of it, generated no fewer than four trading-card sets.

Pro Set had the slickest; you could learn more from a pack of Pro Set Gulf War trading cards than you could from a month of watching Fox News – unless what you want to learn from watching Fox News is how to order catheters over the phone. Pro Set had map cards, map-with-arrows cards, gun cards, bucket cards, missile cards, plane cards, bomb cards, tank cards, Humvee cards, radar-station cards, cards of generals, cards of the enemy, battle cards, skirmish cards, strategy cards, chase cards literal and figurative, announcer cards, and cheerleader cards[1] .

Topps was next; its set was not Son of Mars Attacks, more’s the pity, though it lacked the CNN-ness of Pro Set’s war effort. Topps additionally foil-stamped a special run of its baseball cards, ostensibly for shipment to the troops; however, “troops” in this context meant the troops of dealers who hijacked cases off of shipping docks in search of the ever-elusive Gulf War Mark Lemke card.

After Topps came at least one flag-waving America First set that combined the depressing jingoism of the Koch brothers’ super-PAC commercials with the production values of a rummage-sale sign, and after that came Dart Flipcards’ Gulf War set.

Dart Flipcards was the brainchild of a delightful iconoclast named Dino Frisella. Frisella, like so many of his cardmaking contemporaries, simply appeared one day. He seemed to have absolutely no past, and nothing that would suggest he had the competence to make trading cards other than the fact that he was actually making trading cards.

Dino made his mark with the best Vietnam War set ever made, which should not have its legacy tarnished by the fact that it was the only Vietnam War set ever made. Its strength was that it took a largely dispassionate – and therefore, an entirely Canadian – view of a conflict that did not encourage dispassion through its duration. The card fronts were extremely understated, largely watercolored sketches of war action, but Life magazine and CBS News had already delivered the startling, shocking images and there was nothing to be gained by repeating. The Dart set was a dose of Paul Desmond after years of boiling bebop.

Dino was able to sell his Vietnam cards in packs, and it’s some sort of testament to the frenzied trading-card market of the late ‘80s that a A) Canadian cardmaker could sell B) watercolored sketches of C) cards of an unloved war that ended 20 years prior D) in convenience stores to E) 10-year-old boys.

You’d think the Gulf War would have been a natural followup, but not so much. Dino made the strategic error of selling his set in complete-set form, relegating it to the land of Major League Writers and Harness Heroes. He also lacked the capital to slug it out with Topps and Pro Set, though Dart’s photos of actual battle action came from Reuters and the Bettmann Archive and were every bit as good, if not better, than the big boys’ pix. Finally and fatally, Operation Desert Storm to most Americans consisted of America circling the wagons around Kuwait and Tomahawking Baghdad, and Canadians have to drink from the water fountain over there.

The various Operation Desert Storm sets accomplished one very odd purpose: They transformed Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf into a chase card. No amount of gold foil could duplicate the trick for the current chief of Afghan operations, bless his jar-shaped little head.

So where does the Pontiac Fiero fit into this? About the same places it fit into in the automotive landscape of the late ‘80s, which is to say nowhere. The first general thought when Pontiac introduced the Fiero was that the company had lost its mind; the second thought was that this might not be half-bad; the third thought was that this was way more than half-bad; and the final thought was that it all ended just when they got this right. That’s the way most wars go, with the second and third thoughts reversed, and that’s about the way the public felt it went with Operation Desert Storm. In the proletariat’s eyes, we let up just as we were about to turn the Cradle of Civilization into the world’s largest Walmart parking lot.

War cards got as right as they could get with the various Desert Storm sets, but it’s beyond okay that they’re not around anymore. Like the Fiero, this exercise in extinction was more than appropriate.

Pacific Crown Collection vs. AMC Pacer X: Remember the old Puffed Wheat slogan, “Shot from Guns”? No? How about the latter-day Saab slogan, “Born from Jets”?

Good, because this is the part of the blog where we look at cards and cars Designed by Aliens.

Let’s start with the car. The AMC Pacer X was designed and built in Kenosha, Wis., mostly by Americans with the assistance of only a few aliens, a couple of recent immigrants and maybe a foreign national or two.

Unlike the recent Infinitis that drew their styling cues from a brushstroke on paper and the recent Hyundais that were inspired by all-night Gumout-huffing raves in the back room of the Inchon Elks Club[2], the Pacer X’s styling cues were painfully obvious. It was designed to be a four-wheeled version of the ball turret off of a B-17 Flying Fortress.

I’m of that age that can remember Pacer advertising. Pacers were advertised as “the wide car,” apropos of any established need for wide cars.[3]

Its inherent wideness combined with fact that the Pacer looked like a rolling Biodome made the idea of a performance version laughable, yet that was what the Pacer X delivered.

Let’s be honest: The Pacer X definition of performance differs from a Saleen Mustang’s definition of performance in the sense that the Pacer X didn’t deliver any real improvement in performance; instead, it delivered the suggestion of improvements in performance in the form of vinyl-covered bucket seats[4], floor-mounted gearshift, extra chrome, and fancy wheels[5]. And that makes it the perfect foil, so to speak, for Pacific Crown Collection anything.

Pacific Crown Collection actually owes a debt to Hyundai as well, since they share the same value proposition. A fairly basic Hyundai is stuffed with a 12-speaker stereo, navigation system, heated seats, leather, moon lamps, fog roof, a power driver’s seat, and every other gimcrack you can think of to get people through the showroom door and the car off the showroom floor. It’s only after living with the car a couple weeks that you realize the 12 speakers are made of Mountain Dew cans, the nav system is based on 1979 maps, the heated seats fry your butt, and the power driver’s seat only goes backwards. And it has the resale value of an Asian carp.

Cover that with thin gold foil and cut it in the shape of a Pacer X and you have Pacific Crown Collection. Some people want that. Your only recourse is to wonder why.

1971 Plymouth Cricket vs. 1993 Team NFL Super Bowl set: One of the biggest mistakes a seller of anything can make is misunderstanding what the public is asking for. The Pacer was an answer to a request for wideness that never came from anywhere, like a lounge singer hearing a phantom voice from the wings and saying, “What? You want to hear ‘The Pina Colada Song.’ Hey, sure we can do ‘The Pina Colada Song,’” and counting it off. The 1993 Super Bowl set was a similar response to a similarly anonymous small voice in the back piping, “I want a set of some pretty good players sort-of-but-not-really built around a quasi-Super Bowl theme.”

The set certainly fulfilled the request, and threw a couple bucks in the tip jar. There’s a Super Bowl logo on the first card and cards of Dennis Byrd, Junior Seau, Sterling Sharpe, Terry Bradshaw, Fred Biletnikoff, Keith McKeller, Kelvin Martin, Alvin Harper, Emmitt Smith, and more than a dozen other semi-luminaries.

The struggle for commonalities begins as soon as you look at the names. Dennis Byrd and Kelvin Martin? Fred Biletnikoff and Sterling Sharpe? You can do some limited grouping – position, team, era, neck injuries – but as a group they’re not unified by anything more than having played in the NFL.

There’s nothing wrong with the production values, though the ghosted field shot that serves as the background for the card backs could do with more ectoplasm and the Arial Extra Extra Extra Bold type face is about one “Extra” too many. Where this set fails is in the raison d’etre category. Even as a Super Bowl memento it’s about as focused as Dez Bryant in the last two minutes against the Ravens.

And that brings us to the Plymouth Cricket. See if you can determine its reason for being from Hagerty’s description:

“Produced in the U.K. by Chrysler’s subsidiary, The Rootes Group, it was known there as the Hillman Avenger. Like most captive imports, Chrysler’s heart was never into selling the car in the U.S. and its dealers were perplexed. Chrysler squashed it just before the energy crisis, selling the entire design to Iran’s state car company where it was produced under license. Add that to the Shah’s litany of crimes. As a genuine car guy himself, he should have known better.”

We should cut Mopar some slack, in the sense that 1971 was one of the postwar car industry’s first what-the-hell? years, when slamming a bigger engine into a bigger hole suddenly did not equate with technological advancement. But the Cricket was small in the absence of any companywide desire for smallness. The car guys didn’t want a rebadged Hillman Avenger, the sales guys didn’t want to sell it, and the bean counters who greenlighted it in the first place curbed their enthusiasm when Cricket inventories started piling up like binders full of women. [6]

I know the trading-card business is infamous for committing to cardboard projects that were better off left for laugh time on the conference call.[7] But every trading card does better when it’s wanted.

The same goes for trading-card blogs, actually. I’ll be back when I’m wanted. In the meantime, toodle-oo.

[1] You think I jest? George H.W. Bush was not exactly in there swinging; what was he if not a cheerleader, short pleated skirt notwithstanding?
[2] We’re talking to you, Hyundai Veloster, and not the Hyundai Azera, the only car whose appearance was improved by adding a Romney sticker.
[3] The Pacer was touting wideness about the same time or shortly after Pontiac was marketing its marque as “wide track,” but there was one big difference between the two: “Wide track” suggested great handling; “wide” suggested obesity.

[4] As opposed to what? Vinyl-covered buckets?
[5] But not spinners, as that would suggest more movement than the Pacer X was capable of.
[6] The first gratuitous political reference, but not the last.
[7] e.g., Pinnacle Inside.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Stars 'n' Tripes

I’m fascinated by the concept of automotive extinction. Having learned to drive on a three-on-the-tree Ford Maverick, and having seen countless three-on-a-tree Ford Mavericks being jump-started or towed or hauled out of ditches or trailing dark clouds that could have hid the U.S.S. Enterprise or up on a rack having their corroded underbellies swapped out, it’s staggering to me that there may no longer be any three-on-a-tree Ford Mavericks randomly killing themselves at stop signs anywhere in the world. It’s not a bad thought, just an overwhelming one. Our mortality is infinite compared to that of a K-car.

Automotive extinction also got me thinking about trading cards. Long ago my friend Hal postulated that most cards from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were fated to be worthless until enough of their numbers could be destroyed and equilibrium struck between the numbers of collectors wanting these cards and the numbers of cards. Right now the cards are winning by a margin of 12,473 to 1, but the margin keeps narrowing. At this rate, and with a little help from global warming and allied disasters, the scales should be even sometime in the 24th century. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing with some of these sets if the scales tilted in favor of collectors and the number of interested collectors was a smaller number – zero, say.

So trading cards are the cockroaches of the collectibles kingdom, and therefore mostly worthy of extinction. Naturally the most extinction-worthy emanated from the Handful O’Landfill era. Where else but a landfill for cockroach collectibles?

Tops on my list is Fleer Stars ‘n’ Stripes. It’s the effluent byproduct of a cash-fueled M&A boomlet that came about because trading cards are a high-margin product. You pay the league, you pay the players, you pay the photographers, you pay the printers, and you’re done. Most of those costs are up front, so after a certain point everything is profit – and that point came a whole lot earlier than it used to starting around 1989.

Before everything went shinier and sparklier and thicker, trading cards really were just pictures on cardboard. Gold foil was a luxury. Spot UV was as bourgeois as putting a free Bentley Flying Spur in every pack. Miniscule production cost and maxiscule sales meant cardmakers were loaded, and they did what the loaded do: they went shopping. Pinnacle spun itself off, SkyBox ate its distributor, and Fleer splurged on the hard-candy maker Asher Confectionery.

A hard-candy company? Really? Really really. Fleer’s roots were in confections. Fleer invented Razzles, after all. Far be it from Fleer to buy a new-media company when there were plenty of perfectly hidebound confectioners like Asher to be had.

Asher’s raison d’être was candy canes. Nothing wrong with candy canes. Nice, steady business two months of the year, followed by six weeks on clearance. Candy canes haven’t yet been able to pull a Peeps and create seasonal varieties –pumpkins or footballs or hearts or tree trunks for Arbor Day, or wreaths, for Decoration Day -- but there’s nothing to say that candy canes might not someday be as big as Bit-O-Honeys, if not bigger.

Anyway. Fleer bought Asher, and as a sort of a welcome-to-the-family gift, came up with a product that combined the crazy collectibility of football cards with the classic irrelevance of peppermint stick candy.

That product was, of course, Fleer Stars ‘n’ Stripes.

Unfortunately, the name was as clever as Stars ‘n’ Stripes got. The front design was boxed-set pedestrian, photographs were Grade Q, backs were cut-and-pasted, packaging was awkward, the candy was broken (gaaaaah!!), and the decollation simply didn’t exist.

Decollation: the process of putting number-ordered cards into random order. One of Hal’s great pet peeves was people who called decollation “collation.” “No!” he would exclaim. “You’re not collating – you’re decollating!”

Well, maybe he was. The bottom line was that you could look at the top card in a Stars ‘n’ Stripes pack – where two peppermint sticks flanked a cellophane-wrapped brick of cards, Lincoln Memorial-fashion – and predict with 95 percent certainty the rest of the cards in the pack.[1]

Needless to say, the packs with stars – loosely defined in that set as Randall Cunningham, Barry Sanders, and Jerry Rice – were quickly snapped up, and the only packs left on the shelves at ShopKo delivered dose after freaking dose of Percy Snow, Andre Ware, Rich Camarillo, and Tunch Ilkin.

Talk about confections: Stars ‘n’ Stripes was the Anthrax Ripple of card sets, an appalling amalgam of homely product, shoddy packaging, negative star value, and scant attention to the barest basics of collectibility. With Stars ‘n Stripes Fleer delivered the trading-card version of the Cutlass Diesel, GM’s raised middle finger to the car-buying world.

If only football cards could rust.

Baseball cards in bike spokes notwithstanding, trading cards are not a real flexible medium. There aren’t many trading-card parameters you can alter to create a new and radically different product. You can make them taller (SkyBox Superman), wider (Topps Big), thicker (Fleer Flair), or generally more gigantic (Leaf Studio, Bee Hive); change what they’re made of (Sportflics, Metallic Images, Topps Gold) or their shape (Pacific Crown Collection); alter their topography (Action Packed) or their scarcity (Score Printing Plates); sign them (Signature Rookies), stack them (Stak-Its), or place them inside one another (Pinnacle Zenith); or make them smaller.

Topps Minis were the reasonable downsized extension; Topps Micros brought smaller down to a much tinier and wholly illogical level.

The Topps Micro set took a perfectly innocent 1991 Topps Baseball set and shrunk the cards to 1 x 1-3/8 inches, or about 40 percent of normal card dimensions. The result was a complete set of baseball cards that could fit in the space occupied by a tube of anchovy paste.

There was precedent for cards of this size in the form of the 1969 Topps Football Stamps. These were basically regular 1969 cards printed four-up on a 2-1/2-by-3-1/2 piece of cardstock that was perforated and gummed on the back. The cards could be broken up and pasted in their appropriate team albums. Kinda fun, and kinda scarce now. But note that the cards started out normal size and involved actions on the collector’s part to make them smaller and organize them. No such forethought went into Topps Micros. They were just regular Topps cards viewed from a great distance.

See, simply shrinking cards by 60 percent takes whatever functionality or interactivity they might have and flushes it down the loo. You can’t read the backs of Topps Minis without assistance; they fail in bike spokes, they make lousy card houses, they flip like crap, and they look foolish when you put them in nine-pocket sheets, the official trading-card interactivity of the morbidly obese. All you can do is keep them in their anchovy-paste-sized box, which fortunately fits well in other boxes. And even that would have been borderline-fine if there was some randomness to the enterprise, if your box of Topps Micros was somehow different than your buddy’s box of Topps Micros. No such luck; everyone got the same box of the same cards of the same players, to squirrel away in a different box until such time as it was safe for it to move about in genteel company, a day that is nowhere close to arriving.

So seeing as the topic is trading-card extinction, how would the world be changed if there were no Topps Micros? It’s not like that picture of that player on that card design doesn’t exist. It does, and in a size that can actually be appreciated by people without Ted Williams Vision. There would be more room in countless boxes in countless storage rooms around the country, and anchovy-paste-tube-sized spaces would be safe for tubes of anchovy paste again.

Neil Young was fond of saying that he stayed out of the middle of the road because you found more interesting people in the ditches. In trading cards, the middle of the road was where the action is. The ditches were full of Topps Micros.

My friend John B. Seals nominated Score Dream Team for extinction, and he brings up a fine point. When was there ever demand for trading cards featuring art shots of athletes in various states of undress[2]? Did the people at Score look at the demographics, smack their collective foreheads and say, “My gosh! There are no cards anywhere of Rickey Henderson in his skivvies. We must act! We can’t let the Russkies beat us to the punch! Mr. President, we must not allow a Rickey-Henderson-in-his-skivvies gap to develop!”

There’s a certain grace to the Annie Leibovitz shot of a topless Jose Canseco rippling his chemistry-set muscles in the ’91 Score Baseball Dream Team subset. The rest of the monochrome cards add bupkis to the oeuvre.

Still, I’d see Seals his Dream Team and raise him a Christie Brinkley. Several years after the Dream Team, Pinnacle footed the bill for sometime-photographer, sometime-wife-of-a-crazy-person Christie Brinkley to descend on spring training and photograph various stars – which she had no trouble doing, since she was Christie Brinkley and by definition better looking than Mitch Haddad (cf. T&M Umpire Cards). The trouble was that Brinkley’s skills as a trading-card photographer approximated Haddad’s skills as a supermodel, and no amount of hubris or Photoshop could cover that up. Besides, if you’re pulling a mediocre Randy Johnson card out of a pack, how much does it matter that Christie Brinkley took the picture?

On the other hand, I did get a nice (though disturbingly phallic) T-shirt out of the project.

We'll talk more trading-card extinction next time.

[1] The only sets I can remember with worse decollation were the Berenstain Bears set and the first Comic Ball set, which were meant to be sold in number order, and a NASCAR set of undetermined lineage that was made by boobs.
[2] Or in the case of Frankie Sweet Music Viola, various states of mustache.