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.

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