Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Faces on the Storage-Room Floor

I spilled a shoebox of cards while I was taking a shipping box out of our storage room. The shoebox contained thousands of mixed cards I had given my son in an effort to teach him the value of a dollar and the valuelessness of trading cards. As I was picking up the cards it struck me that many of them epitomized what Handful O'Landfill is all about. Let's have a look.

Card companies viewed promo cards the way the Nixon Administration viewed marijuana: As a stepping-stone to harder drugs. The conceit went that you took eight big stars and hot rookies, made cards of them in your upcoming design, stamped “promo” on them, and sent them to a strictly limited list consisting of the hobby press and key distributors … and card-store owners … and the players … and the league … and the teams … and people who attended major shows … and veterans … and people who opened the packages of floppy disks good for 30 free hours of America Online … and buyers of SmurfBerry Crunch cereal … and death-row inmates. And then those people would peddle their promo cards to other card-store owners or distributors or show-goers or America Online users or cereal eaters or death-row inmates, with ever-decreasing success.

Most promo cards found their equilibrium of worthlessness only after the set they were created to promote had long ago sold through. They were cardboard mayflies, giving up everything to perpetuate their species.1

None of which explains this 1991 Donruss promo card of Scott Chiamparino. I cannot recall a time when Scott Chiamparino was considered either a hot rookie or a big star. My contemporary impression of Scott Chiamparino was the same as my current impression of Scott Chiamparino: He was Andy Replogle without the ‘fro, or a really tall Brittany spaniel with a cutter. His most significant carrier accomplishment was being traded (with Joe Bitker, who also could have been Scott Chiamparino, if he’d only had the breaks) for Harold “Cooperstown” Baines, then in the Moses-in-the-wilderness phase of his career prior to heading back to the promised land of U.S. Cellular Field for the second of three stints filled with opposite-field doubles looped over Carney Lansford’s head and innumerable ground balls to first base.

Chiamparino’s ability to build demand for Donruss trading cards was like Ryan Braun’s ability to play third base: Just because you put him out there doesn’t mean he’s any good at it.

I work out in the mornings, starting around 4:30. Since I may be doing the official book on the SAW movies 2 and have seen none of the movies, I use this time to watch the movies. I don’t savor these movies in quite the same fashion as their fans 3. I run the movies at 8x so I can say I’ve actually seen all seven before I start writing the book.

A bonus of running the movies at 8x is that the dialogue doesn’t get any less unintelligible at that speed, so I just turn off the sound and substitute music instead. Right now I’m listening to a lot of African music, particularly the Indestructible Beat of Soweto series. And because the SAW movies can be hard on the eyes, I read. The current book on the stand is Roy Blount’s About Three Bricks Shy of a Load.

So when I say that riding a stationary bike and simultaneously doing weight work while reading about the 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers, watching new-age garrotings and listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo is nowhere near as bizarre as the idea of former U kicker Carlos Huerta as an Upper Deck Star Rookie, I’m speaking from experience.

There are two object lessons here.

The first is that not everything in the Handful O’Landfill era sucked. For all the trading-card equivalents of Stars On 45 medleys there were equivalents of “Dim All The Lights,” and that was reason enough for card companies to green-light projects that today would be called boutique or artisan or bespoke or some other word applied to mass-produced stuff to make you think hands touched it in a meaningful way.

Pro Set was the Papa Doc Duvalier of trading-card manufacturers, but it was capable of quasi-bespoke stuff. The Parkhurst “Missing Link” set, for instance.

When Pro Set bought the Parkhurst name, it first made a hockey set that paralleled what Donruss was doing with Leaf: Nice quality, foil, slick thick paper, but no whiff of the attributes that made Parkhurst Parkhurst. It was like Hyundai buying the Packard name and slapping it on a Sonata.

It’s impossible to see what hockey collectors love about classic Parkhurst cards unless you’re a hockey-card collector, and then it’s so blindingly obvious that you can’t explain it to anyone who can’t see it.

Classic Parkhurst cards look like they were made with Photoshop for Daguerreotypes. Players are silhouetted on plain backgrounds, or backgrounds with Canadian or American flags depending on the location of the team 4, or backgrounds with fake crowds. The earliest Parkhursts disavow art entirely. They’re trading cards at their most primal, a picture glued to a slab of cardboard. That endears Parkhursts to hockey-card collectors the same way that Charley Patton excites fans of rural blues and hollers. It’s populist culture as opposed to pop culture, and the irony is that most people don’t like it.

Missing Link cards (the name refers to the fact that in 1956-57 Parkhurst, for no particular reason, decided to not make hockey cards) get the details right. The typography is just crude enough. The photos are just grainy enough. The cardboard is raw enough. The backs are bilingual. The wrappers feel like wax paper. If Missing Link cards were a guitar, they’d be a Gibson Les Paul Standard reissue. And they’d cost $5,000.

These things work together to make the Milt Schmidt Missing Link card the best card of a hockey coach since the 1964 Topps Casey Stengel card, and that’s the second object lesson.

Not all manager cards sucked. When we were kids collecting baseball cards, we absolutely could not figure out manager cards, especially Walter Alston cards. He looked like Walter Brennan’s idiot cousin. Luman Harris looked like Phil Harris, rum nose and everything. Herman Franks was fat. Don Heffner was ancient. Harry Walker pointed at nothing in particular. Even the green-stamp-sized B&W photo of Joe Kuharich on Philly Football play-of-the-year cards was overkill.

We never came up with a satisfactory justification for manager cards until we subsequently got our hands on a ’64 Topps Stengel, and much later pulled a Milt Schmidt out of a perfectly reliced Parkhurst pack. Manager cards could be cool, but it took a run-of-the-mill card out of a fringe product from the junk-card era to prove it.

On the other hand, nothing has ever come along to convince me that NASCAR cards of crew members are a good idea.

What I love about real minor-league cards – the sets you buy at the concession stands in Ogden or High Desert or the Quad Cities – is that they don't pretend to be anything other than what they are. They're cards of a team of slightly-better-than-college players that are together for a year and then are scattered, up, down or sideways. You can't break the set and buy the card of the first-rounder; it's the whole set or nothing.

Cards like these make me think of the semi-supergroup Little Village. No one really wanted Jim Keltner, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, and Ry Cooder to form a band. They wanted the individual musicians to play on each other's solo albums, but they formed a band instead. That was Disappointment No. 1. Disappointment No. 2 was that once they got together they didn't stay together. They made their music, toured a little, and broke up. And their album wound up in the cutout bin.

Every pop-culture bucket goes through at least one retro phase sometime. Bruno Mars at the Grammys. Dave Grohl at the Grammys. Hell, everything at the Grammys 5. Pac-Man for the iPhone. Newsweek’s Mad Men issue. The Fiat 500. Anything on Broadway that makes money. Mitt Romney.

Sometimes retro is apropos of nothing: Miami Heat throwback nights. And occasionally the retro phases overlap each other until your head throbs with the cognitive dissonance: The Artist overlaid with My Date With Marilyn overlaid with The Three Stooges overlaid with the Dark Shadows remake 6 overlaid with the Battleship make overlaid with the continued existence of Scarlett Johannson despite any evidence of, you know, movies.

Trading cards had their retro moment in the middle of the Handful O’Landfill era, where cardmakers desperate for line extensions realized there were unclaimed old marques that held real heft with collectors.

At that point the race was on. Topps dusted off Bowman, which it had deep-sixed for 35 years. Leaf reclaimed Leaf. Fleer snatched Goudey. Pacific grabbed Philly Gum. Pro Set took Parkhurst and Pinnacle nabbed Bee Hive. No one took U.S. Caramel or Middy Bread, but Topps took the more generic T206 and created the first trading-card set whose namesake was a catalog designation used to index tobacco cards.

Most of these sets were pretty good. They varied in slavishness from Dodge Challenger to Chevy Camaro, but for the most part they got what collectors were looking for from these cards.

For the most part. Score Heads-Ups were an exception.

Heads-Ups were inspired by the Goudey Heads-Ups of 1938 that in turn were inspired by the Player’s Cigarettes cricket cards of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. Those cards had a rickety, loopy charm that was the result of someone sitting down at a drafting table and drawing them, exaggerating noses, lengthening teeth and stretching out chins to get the point across 7. By contrast, the artist of the Score Heads-Ups appeared to be Commodore 64. They were caricatures without irony or exaggeration, just a slightly larger (but appropriately proportioned) head placed on top of a slightly smaller (but appropriately proportioned) body. Score had the chance to really hit baseball's top players with a double short of reverse andro; instead, they wasted scads of time and money on a subset of caricatures that were less distorted, anthropomorphically, than Woody Allen.

I don’t think anything captures the through-the-looking-glass oeuvre of the Handful O’Landfill era better than this: Classic made a crapload of money selling cards of players like Randy Veres. Even Instagram can’t top that.

Bye. I'll see you when I spill another box of cards.

1 Which really sucks in the case of a set like Donruss Top of the Order.
2 Don’t laugh. There’s money involved.
3 I know SAW fans exist because there will soon be a second SAW movie cruise. The cruise lets fans interact with a half-dozen SAW stars and starlets, and have their picture taken with the puppet from the movies. The guest list also includes the star of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, but I don’t like that idea. I’m afraid he’s going to go over like Mel Gibson at a Frankie Goes to Hollywood concert.
4 And not the nationality of the player. In the NHL of the ‘50s, everyone came from Canada.
5 Except for Nikki Minaj, who is a more frightening animated character than any of the Tom Hankses in The Polar Express.

6 That may or may not have contributed to the death of Jonathan Frid.
7 In the case of the cricket cards, the caricature artist "RIP."

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