Monday, January 30, 2012

A Little Sun In A Little Sky

In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m Pro-Life; I love the cereal and the board game. But I’m a purist; I have no truck with Maple Life or Cinnamon Life or the multiple bloated spinoffs of The Game of Life, with their flashing lights and electronic spinners and debit cards and snowboarders (really, snowboarders? In The Game of Life? Is nothing sacred?). Give me the white-box Life that Mikey likes and the original version of The Game of Life, the Wonder Bread of board games, with its hand-powered carousel spinner in the middle and its soft plastic convertibles filled with soft-plastic-pushpin families.

There were two basic tracks you could take in The Game of Life. The short route took you straight from high school to a tricked-out plastic convertible. It was the Milton Bradley* approximation of drug dealing, with as many pitfalls along the way. The long route required more spins of the wheel to get you to the American Dream – a frothy concoction of spouse, children, college, home in the suburbs, career, and all the play money you can stuff in a suitcase – but it was worth it, because hard work, grinding your way down the Road of Life without ever dreaming of skipping ahead three spaces, is the way to get what you want in America. And not drug dealing. And certainly not spending your rainy Saturday afternoons playing a silly board game when you could be inventing The Twitter or something.

I bring this up in the context of trading cards because just like in The Game Of Life, in the Life of Game are two tracks pro athletes can take to get to the soft plastic convertible of their dreams. The fast track is the football-basketball track, where players spend several months between high school and the pros in a licensed-apparel-merchandising operation called “college.” The roundabout path is the hockey-baseball track, where smooth-faced boys are sent on a hobbit-like quest that routes them through Visalia and Wilkes-Barre and spits them out at the other end pot-bellied and scarred and looking like a degenerate Bob Probert (who you probably always thought of as the degenerate model).

Because of that maybe we owe Little Sun a debt of gratitude for its two years of high-school baseball prospects sets. Without them, how would we know that major-league malcontent Tyler Houston, instead of sporting a Pal Smurch autograph-model sneer, once sported … well, a high-school-level sneer? Or that the most famous denizen of the Little Sun high-school-prospects sets, Manny Ramirez, once wore clothes that fit and did not have hair that could double as an abacus?

Ramirez is the biggest name in these sets, but there are others. Ryan Klesko was a free-swinging free spirit who got old overnight and wound down his career in San Diego, in a park worse than Yosemite for his left-handed power stroke. Cliff Floyd had a long, decent career and a well-earned rep as a nice guy, but injuries turned him into John Mayberry Lite instead of Manny minus his 150-car freight train of baggage. Mike Sweeney hit almost .300 over a 15-year career as a DH and pinch-hitter, but had the misfortune to spend most of that career with teams worse than a Mitt Romney attack ad. Benji Gil took the good-field/no-hit shortstop paradigm in a whole ‘nother direction with a swing borrowed from Billy Ashley. Jimmy Haynes and Shawn Estes sported great arms and less feel for pitching than Newt Gingrich has for nuance. Andy Fox hung around the majors for 15 years, and I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because his name was so short that GMs glanced right over it on cutdown day, never realizing until June that their 25-man roster actually contained 26 players. Not that it mattered.

Otherwise, the best these sets have to offer is one semi-cup-of-coffee guy (Mike Busby), a mess of busts like Al Shirley, Earl Cunningham, Greg Blosser, and Tyrone Hill who had success written all over them until they were discovered by the curveball or the rotator cuff, and then an ever larger mess of never-weres. And given that there are 55 player cards spread over two years, and we’ve only named 14 names, there’s lots of never-weres in these sets.

That’s the point – actually, two points. The points are that in the overheated atmosphere of the trading-card universe circa 1989 people went gaga over the first Bo Dodson card, and that learned baseball people didn’t immediately peg Bo Dodson as just another slow-swinging, heavy-legged first baseman who actually played Bat, and played it no better than scores of others who could play other positions besides.

In Little Sun’s defense, 1989 was a crapshoot year for major-league talent. Tyler Houston went second overall in ’89, right after Ben McDonald; Frank Thomas went seventh. Mo Vaughn went 23rd, in between Tom Goodwin and Alan Zinter. The first round was conspicuously short on all-around players; it favored the freaks, the guys with one preternaturally immense foot of a skill, whether it was throwing a fastball (Jeff Juden, Kiki Jones), hitting with power (Cunningham, Thomas and Vaughn), running the bases (Goodwin), or catching the ball (Charles Johnson, Brent Mayne). It was a decent year for setup guys and backup catchers. By contrast, the 1990 draft was about the all-arounders, led by Chipper Jones. These things go in cycles, but the 1989-90 cycles were more violent than Tie Domi on Five-Hour Energy. With both legs covered in poison ivy.

Players aside, there’s not much to say about these cards. They were sold only as complete sets, so you’re either in on the concept or not. Save for a psychotropic cover card, designs are Walmart assemble-your-own minimalist as opposed to Scandinavian design, contact paper instead of woodgrain. Backs are blah-on-blah, even by the forgiving standards of late-‘80s sub-major-league sets – but, hey, design is overhead. At least the snap-latch plastic case, sealed with the classic Little Sun “LS,” is nice.

People who bought the Little Sun high-school-prospects sets were the ultimate betters-on-the-come of their day. They were laying a smallish sum of money on the possibility that one player out of 25 or so would hit the big time, and create a collectible worth far more than the price of entry.

They almost got it right. One of the players in one of the two sets posted Hall of Fame-worthy numbers, pharmaceuticals notwithstanding. At last glance, the Little Sun Ramirez was going for around $10, and the rest of the set was fetching a couple of bucks. The combined value of all the cards about equals the set’s issue price, meaning that 20 years of investing and hoarding and waiting and hoping and leafing through college brochures has generated a net return of nil.

That’s not bad for the card business, but remember: Your results may vary. That’s life. And life is not a game. Or a breakfast cereal.

*Milton Bradley the game manufacturer, not Milton Bradley the malcontent. They’re easy to tell apart: One is all about games, and the other wants nothing to do with games. Neither has had anything to do with drug dealing, as far as we can tell. And we’ll leave it at that.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

You Make The Call

They say confession is good for the soul, so I’m going to have one fine soul after this.

Brother, I have sinned. I helped put baseball cards in cans. I led the Dare to Tear brigade. I endorsed holograms. I perpetuated Sportflics and Action Packed. I never talked Signature Rookies out of anything. I agreed that beer cards were a good idea. I unequivocally asserted there was a market for a tractor-card set. I was there when Campbell’s Soup cards were spawned. I helped Metallic Images make tin cards of Elvis. I created APBA Big League Baseball, the baseball board game for people who find Candy Land too challenging. I was the word guy behind Salvino’s Bammers, the unabashed (and unlicensed) Beanie Baby rip-offs. I created a collectible card game in a morning. I was the world’s worst forger of facsimile autographs. I signed off on Berenstein Bears cards. Lion King 2? That was me.

The reason for all the breast-baring is that I'm going to write something snarky about a set created by some friends of mine, and I want it understood that my raiments are as far from dazzling white as you can get and still be in the color spectrum.

Now that I feel better about things, on to the snark.

In the early ‘90s, baseball cards were so hot that companies sprung up like soldiers sewn from dragon’s teeth to schlep near-baseball and/or near-card products meant to piggyback on licensed baseball issues. These products included the indecipherable Ken Griffey Jr. holograms, the indigestible Donruss Top of the Order collectible card game, the hemi-legendary Little Sun High School Baseball set, Star Company minor-league cards, Star Company major-league cards, Pacific Senior League cards, Flopps cards, Japanese baseball cards, Australian Baseball League cards, the Jim Thome Baseball Game, the Darryl Strawberry Saranac Glove card, the quite perplexing Major League Writers set, the quite gorgeous Conlon Collection cards, the quite less-than-gorgeous Legends of the Negro Leagues cards, and the subject of today’s screed, T&M Umpire Cards.

Umpire cards weren't a new idea. Umpires actually played a supporting role in the classic 1955 Bowman set, the set that brought a half-astonished, half-asleep image of Ed Honochick to a world of bike-riding, striped-T-shirt-wearing, flatopped, disbelieving nine-year-olds. However, a standalone umpire-card set is a different kettle of blue-clad meat, an adventure in Wackyland that makes Don Quixote's excursions look like a spin in one of Richard Branson's flying machines.

Even in a market glowing more white-hot than Satan’s tats, there is no path I can see that would have taken you from umpire cards to the Hamptons, the Framptons, or even the Cramdens. The absolute optimum scenario would have umpire cards scrabbling along for a couple of standalone series before being slurped up by a Fleer or Topps and incorporated into their regular sets. The norm would be dissipation, bankruptcy and ruin.

But you want to hear something really crazy? T&M Umpire Cards survived for three seasons, from 1988 to 1990, in the hot, steaming middle of the baseball-card boom.

Maybe that’s why two of T&M’s main principals, the card photographers Lou Sauritch and Mitch Haddad, are alive and well, and show up in the gutter only by choice.

The initial prognosis for the cards certainly suggests terminal illness. The set’s most intense shot features Rick Reed calling a player out at first on a routine call, an act that falls on the action spectrum somewhere between blowing your nose and ordering a side of bacon at a Waffle House. Furthermore, you look at the mugs of some of these umps and realize there’s a reason why they wear masks. There’s not quite as much avoirdupois as you might expect, but on the other hand, there’s not exactly an excess of flaming youth. A spin through a couple packs of umpire cards actually makes you yearn for a shot, any shot, of Charlie Hough. Heck, even a Jamie Moyer would do.

On the other hand, all is not gloom and doom and out-of-pocket expenses with T&M Umpire Cards. The photographs are great, as might be expected. Sauritch and Haddad are gifted old-school card photographers equally skilled at freezing action or bouncing a flash to capture the perfect portrait pose. The cardstock is quality, the backs include height and family status, and there’s a “You Make The Call” trivia fact on each regular card back. The lagniappe includes four Al Barlick puzzle cards that can be redeemed for an Al Barlick litho and an Al Barlick photo, making Al Barlick the umpire-card equivalent of cilantro. It’s everywhere, or at least it seems like it’s everywhere.

Plus, the cards actually got some distribution. I distinctly remember seeing T&M Umpire Cards for sale at the South Plover Motomart, north-by-northwest of the ostrich sticks, right next to the Swisher Sweets. I'm sure nary a day went by without some tough barrelling into that place and growling, "Yeah, gimme one o' them lighters with the flamin' skull on it, a couple of tins of Copenhagen, a pint of Yukon Jack -- and, yeah, how about a pack of umpire cards."

The ultimate problem with T&M Umpire Cards is that … well, the players aren’t players. They’re inanimate objects, basically, and sports cards of inanimate objects are a tough sell even for the  completist collector deemed too out there for shows like I Live Surrounded By Piles Of Crap. The Starting Gate card from the Harness Heroes set is the ultimate expression of this, but there are plenty more: trophy cards that don’t show the athletes who won the trophies, the stadium and logo cards from Fleer Sport Stickers, all of Big League Bowling, half of every NASCAR set, the Pro Set Puck card, Gibson guitar cards, the SkyBox peach-basket card, cap cards, mask cards, helmet cards, and most immovably of all, the Pro Set Chris Berman card. No one got worked up over the Lady Byng Trophy rookie card, and no one gave a second look to Greg Bonin’s trading-card debut, either.

Given that, we probably should be dumbstruck with admiration that T&M Umpire Cards were able to parlay the same small roster of valueless parking-garages-in-blue into three years of faint-pulsed sales.

Then again, maybe not. You see, quite a lot of the products destined to fail came out all right. Tractor cards sold to the amazement of all, including the client. Campbell’s Soup cards tickled the fancy of quite a lot of hoarders-in-the-making. The Metallic Images Elvis cards were a semi-hit (mainly because quality control was so bad that it was virtually impossible to find a set without scratched cards and/or a mangled box). Salvino’s Bammers were a scary-huge seller for six months or so. And the baseball cards with my horrible facsimile autographs (intentionally non-authentic, and designed for insertion into Krause Publications sports periodicals) helped move hundreds of thousands of magazines.

The line back then was you could put anything on trading cards and it would sell. Thanks to T&M’s umpire cards, we know one of the boundaries of the term “anything.” It starts at Terry Tata, goes straight to Tim Tschida, and ends definitively at Rocky Roe.

And given that, Mitch and Lou just might forgive me for the snark.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Steampunk Facebook

January has come in like a lamb in central Wisconsin, stirring thoughts of Toy Fair sooner than usual.

For a time at the conclusion of the Handful O’Landfill era, Toy Fair was the highlight of my year. The show was held in February, in two quite separate buildings in New York, and I loved everything about it – seeing old friends, seeing new toys, doing good work, being immersed in a world where I truly belonged, eating the bagels in the press room, and schlepping from one end to another of the greatest city on earth until my feet bled.

The fair part of Toy Fair was held at the Javits Center, hard to the left-hand middle of Manhattan. Most of the rest of the show took place in the International Toy Building, a nondescript pile on the ugly end of Broadway filled with man-eating staircases, harsh fluorescent lights, artificial flowers, carnie-prize teddy bears, and cheerless people, fat importers and pale novelty-makers who smelled of cigars and tandoori takeaway.

“This is about toys, right?” I remember yelling down a dead-end hallway on the 14th floor. “Where are the kids? Where are the smiles? Where is the fun?”

“Can I light this thing?” was the response from a pot-bellied 60-year-old who proceeded to torch a black cheroot as big as your arm.

The thing I liked best about Toy Fair – and I use the term “best” in an atypical sense – was its death-of-a-salesman aspect. Many of the smaller exhibitors were literally betting the farm on Toy Fair, on their geegaw catching the eye of a floorwalking Mattel exec or, best of all, the Wal-Mart buyer. Their lives were hinging on the vague promise of an informal chat with someone who knew the stateside rep for an offshore manufacturer who private-labeled stuff for Toys ‘R’ Us, the alternative was a career in video-store management, and God, I rooted for them. I hoped against hope their brass ring would turn up gold, but most times there wasn’t even a ring.

I remember two Canadian sisters who had a booth next to the booth of APBA, a respected sports-simulation game maker that had engaged me to create products, boost collectability and engage in general whoop-de-do. The sisters had created a game called Spellcast that they hoped would be their ticket off the prairies and on to – I don’t know; Edmonton, maybe. The game was worthy; less playable games have made it to the back corner at Target. We gave them all the free help we could over the back fence, but it didn’t do much good. They got the usual vague lies from buyers and were robbed at the World Trade Center during their night on the town. By the next year the sisters had split up, the game was scuffling and the WTC was on the ground. Their story wasn't par for the course, but it was a solid double-bogey.

There was a fin-de-siècle feeling to my last trip to Toy Fair. I knew it was going to be my last trip; I had a real paying job that took me reluctantly as far away from Toy Fair as a working stiff can get. The properties that had paid the bills were extinct, on life support or in remission – Gundam Wing, Digimon, Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, OverPower, even Magic: The Gathering. 9/11 had trashed my business. The Pokémon magazine had folded. APBA had called it a day. The International Toy Building was being sold and all the 60-year-old cigar-chompers were being kicked down the neverending stairs.

I wandered the aisles and chomped the bagels with a greater sense of purpose that year. I was having my own Willy Loman moment; if I didn’t find a match somewhere at the show I was dooming myself to a life of – all right; I’ll say it – dental insurance.

That’s when I stumbled across PeopleCards.

When I saw PeopleCards I thought, "These are the most communist cards ever!" Really. From their workers-walking-side-by-side-into-a-brave-new-world logo to their San Francisco address, PeopleCards couldn't be redder if they featured I.W.W. slogans and lyrics to Joe Hill songs printed on Bolshevik board.

PeopleCards are all that their name implies, and nothing more or less. They're pictures of people on cardboard. The people are just people – your friends and neighbors, assuming you hail from the freakier parts of Greater California – and the pictures range from Uncle-Harry-in-the-backyard Instamatic shots to church-directory portraits.

In keeping with PeopleCards’ DIY aesthetic, the people featured on the card fronts write the card backs, and stray as far from the usual “Mickey hit .268 in the Sally League” prose of trading cards as they can get.

Consider these entries from the Big Book O’People Cards:

Richard Ravine, aka: Big Rich, Motto: Do not do it today!

John Ponsford, aka: Clark Kent, Favorite Book: Other people's diaries

Bob Bukin, Occupation: High Voltage Lineman, Favorite Animal: Poodle

Tamara Moreno, Occupation: Sex Instructor, Motto: If it feels good, do it!

David Chmiel, Ancestry: Polish, Idea of Perfect Happiness: Never being married

Randy Davis, aka Rhino, Most pronounced habit: Being naked at all times possible

(And yes, someone lists Independence Day as their favorite movie ever.)

Or consider in more detail, under the heading “Thermographics”:

My name is Melissa Altman, aka Motley. I'm a Russian/Jewish art restorer from Sherman Oaks, CA. My favorite animals are little monkeys, and my motto is, "Screw them if they can't take a joke!" My favorite TV show is Iron Chef, and I love to pretend I am a pirate. My favorite drink is Orangina and my most-used expression is "Nobody puts baby in the corner!" Oh, and I like anything with BBQ sauce.

Rick [Savage], also known as “The White Shadow,” can grow a serious mustache in an hour. His idea of perfect happiness is In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Rick’s most used expressions is “Das Freaky Weak!!”, and a weird thing he does is, “I talk to my food when I eat … ‘Are you precious little chillums ready for The White Shadow?’” Rick’s most pronounced habit: “Knockin’ bootz in the back seat of my Carlo.”

Proletarian pictures of proletarian people describing their proletarian lives, and nobody puts baby in the corner when he’s knockin’ bootz in the back seat of his Carlo. Does this sound like anything to you?

No? Then consider the words of PeopleCards founder Brant Herman in introducing PeopleCards on Feb. 6, 2002:

“As the past months have shown us, it is the real people of this world that make the differences which we all value … Looking into the lives, personalities and experiences of real people, rather than artificial experiences of actors and models, is the way for our culture to realize how truly great we are …

“PeopleCards … celebrate the oddities, quirks and interests of everyday people from around the world … You can … sign up for the chance to have your own PeopleCard printed. You can also visit to experience PeopleCards' extended online community … Our website,, will revolutionize the trading-card experience by providing visitors with a myriad of ways to interact with each other – forums, homepages, galleries, email, and more.” Forums, homepages, galleries, email, and more? At this point, if you’re not thinking Facebook you’re not thinking.

PeopleCards was Facebook before there was Facebook. Brant Herman was the steam-powered Mark Zuckerberg. He was Charles Babbage to Zuckerberg’s Steve Jobs. And Herman’s takeaway from PeopleCards? Bupkis.

Just as some of the first horseless carriages came festooned with fake horses’ heads so as not to overly upset the four-hoofed status quo, PeopleCards came with some prehensile trading-card appendages, so as not to give buyers too large a chunk of the future at once. For instance, you could play games with PeopleCards. My favorite, called “Connections,” goes like this:

Each player uses one pack of PeopleCards (8 cards). The oldest player throws out the first card. Each player looks for a connection or match between one of the cards in his/her hand and the card in play. Any player may play a card with a connection. Multiple matches are allowed.

When a match is made place your card on one of the four sides of the object card. State the match to the other players. If a player disagrees with your connection he/she may challenge. At this time you plead the case for your connection. The other players may agree or disagree. Majority wins.

Any card that has at least one open side is available for match play. Matches may be made with any open card. Play continues until no other connections can be made.

It’s not exactly Farmville, but look: no single winner. Everybody wins. How positively This Land Is Your Land.

The flaw in Brant Herman’s grand design is the flaw in most dreamers’ master strokes: money. (Socialism, meet capitalism.) PeopleCards cost $2.99 a pack. Two ninety-nine for eight cards where the very best card is literally a common and there are 1:18 odds of getting a Samuel Nandi (“The quality he likes most in himself: ‘Stripped Ego Nude’”) wasn't going to make the Wal-Mart buyer do backflips down the stuffed-plush aisle.

PeopleCards had zero moneymaking potential to an even greater extent than most big ideas. Steve Jobs could come galloping down from Valhalla on the back of Thomas Edison to rescue the franchise, and nothing would change. PeopleCards would still be DOA.

The ironic thing is that if they were flipped around, if the cards were used to push the site, PeopleCards truly were the Next Big Thing. They were Facebook with a homegrown Zynga. Kept as they were, with the site pushing the cards, PeopleCards were barely a footnote.

Just for the heck of it, I tried to track down Brant Herman on LinkedIn, the online PeopleCards for business types. I found a Brant Herman in the San Francisco area. He’s a project manager. He has one connection.

I wanted to ask him if he regretted anything about PeopleCards, but at the last minute I thought better of it. I didn't want to disturb his plans for a clockwork iPad.