Quick – how many football-draft-pick card sets can you name? Offhand, I remember these quasi-companies that either drank the hemlock or thought hard about it: Star Pics, run by Bob Rylko out of the Detroit area; Ultimate, out of Las Vegas; Maxx (or was it Traks?), the good ol’ NASCAR-card boys out of Mooresville, N.C. (or was it Mocksville?); Classic of course, out of a shopping channel near you; Signature Rookies, out of nowhere; SAGE Rookies, who came late to the party and did all right for a few minutes; Press Pass, who resorted to draft-pick sets in a moment of weakness; Courtside, who Tom Mortenson had to remember for me; Broders and all the other unlicensed sets, though “unlicensed” in this context means zip; Star Company, meant to be confused with Star Pics; and many others, I’m sure.
If you’re thinking, “Man; that’s a whole lot of cards of people who have a one-in-five chance of actually sticking on a roster,” you’re catching on. With the Super Bowl in the rear-view mirror and the NFL sitting back regally picking its teeth like Thomas Nast’s rendition of Boss Tweed, I thought it’d be fun to look back on one of the more ludicrous lines of reasoning that came out of the high HOL-y days.
The reasoning (God, I hate calling it that) went like this: If we make a draft-pick set the leagues will see how great our cards are, and they’ll have to give us a license! They’ll have no choice! They’ll be drowned in the groundswell! People will make 34-story-tall human pyramids and bang on the boardroom windows until they give in!
True, this reasoning is too simplistic for Phineas & Ferb; it’s borderline for Big Time Rush (though it’s just right for Two Kings). Yet I know this is what many of these boyos were thinking, because I heard it come out of their mouths more than once.
I won’t even say these were logical people caught in a moment of weakness because I have no evidence of that, though I do have a picture of Classic’s Ken Goldin being held horizontally, Madonna-style, by Eric Lindros, Russell Maryland, Brien Taylor, and Larry Johnson – the No. 1 overall draft picks in their respective sports in 1991. The only reasonable conclusion is that many of these so-called brains behind these sets were genuinely wacked, like LMFAO without the conceit.
The number of big-league trading-card licensees that got their start making draft-pick cards is zero. Not give-or-take zero, not rounded-down zero, but just plain zero. It never happened. Ever. The closest anyone ever got was Pacific, who went from minor-league baseball to NFL football at a time when the NFL was giving out card licenses to itinerant window-washers and filing cabinets. But that never stopped the Bob Rylkos of the world from believing their ball-bordered, fuzzy-photoed cards would be the ones to prove the skeptics dead wrong and reach licensed-collectible Valhalla.
For that to happen, it would have been like the bicycle-powered 12-winged airplane being the one that flew, making chumps out of all those hoity-toity inventors with their motors and propellers and – don’t make me laugh – ailerons.
Let’s be nice for a second. Not all these sets were blatant attempts to milk collectors and bamboozle licensors. Some were 12-winged airplanes that their inventors were honest-to-gosh convinced would fly. And they had autographs.
Autographs were the wind beneath the wings of draft-pick cards. The right autograph could bump the needle on a set from 50 cases sold to 5,000, so the more well-heeled of the draft-pick gang dropped benjamins like they were POGs to lock down the exclusive autograph rights of the top draft picks. Of course Lindros, Maryland, Taylor, and Johnson were ready to peel Ken Goldin a grape. For the amount of ching they were getting for signing their names they were more than willing to throw in a couple of skinless concords.
(You could argue that the cardmakers’ penchant for stuffing their sets full of autographed cards can be traced back to draft-pick sets proving that autographs can sell cards. You’re probably right. But draft-pick sets made you shovel a whole bunch of manure before you got to the pony.)
Autographs almost made up for the near-universal mediocrity of these sets. Granted, they were behind the eight-ball from the starting line because their subjects were restricted by definition to anyone reasonably considered draftable. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal in football-draft-pick sets, what with 30 teams and seven rounds and all, but these sets welcomed offensive linemen and D-backs into their ranks as eagerly as Brett Favre embraced Aaron Rodgers. Given a choice, Signature Rookies would have taken the 27-card Browning Nagle career-highlights set a thousand times over a single card of Ted Washington.
Then they were restricted by exclusive arrangements – and there were many. Then there was photo availability, which ranged from reasonable for the fifth-year seniors from major programs to impossible for juco transfers and Division III superstars. Then people had to think of something hopeful to say about Mark Dingle and Bobby Olive.
The heyday for draft-pick sets paralleled the peak of the Handful O’Landfill madness – 1989-95, roughly. As the ‘90s hit their midway point, the legitimate licensors came to a startling realization: Draft-pick sets thrive in a very narrow window between the draft and training camp. Take away the window and you take away the sets – and all the money that went there now goes here.
The result was the Rookie Photo Shoot in football, and similar events in basketball. Bowman Baseball shifted its release date to better cover draft picks, and hockey … well, no one cared what happened to hockey draft picks, not even the teams that drafted them.
(With that said, one is reminded of the furor that resulted when Upper Deck released a card of Eric Lindros that showed him in action in a Philadelphia Flyers uniform, even though there had never been a game or practice or scrimmage when he had worn said uniform. Upon further questioning Upper Deck disclosed that yes, it digitally inserted Lindros’ head on someone else’s body. For most of us, it was the first time we heard the word “Photoshop.”)
It’s fun to look back at draft-pick sets and think – wait; scratch that. It’s no fun to look back at draft-pick sets. They’re the Tucker Torpedos of the trading-card business, the place where better ideas went to die. Only there were no better ideas, just a bunch of bicycle-powered, 12-winged flying machines. With autographs.