Sunday, May 13, 2012

Houses of the HOLy

I grabbed another handful of cards that spilled out of a shoebox as I was reaching for a different box. Here are some of the wonders I uncovered.

I am 178 percent for historical accuracy. If a card company chooses to take up a fallen flag and make a retro set, and especially if it’s trying to flat-out copy an old set, it’s taken a blood oath to create not a Dart but a Challenger, an Historic Series Les Paul, a 50th-anniversary KitchenAid, a screw-for-screw duplication of the original. I want to open that case or sink into that upholstery and smell 1958, taste 1967, rub 1964 between my fingers.

Thankfully, the 1954-styled Topps Vintage cards take me there – and in the process they create the most worthless Joe Mauer card ever.

That’s not a bad thing. Oh no no no no.

The card, a takeoff on the so-bad-it’s-good Johnny and Jimmy O’Brien card from the original ’54 set, pairs Joe with his nominally baseball-playing brother Jake, who checks in below Henry Mathewson and Tommie Aaron on the Rotten Baseball Brother scale.[1]

The front’s not exactly the way they did it back in the day, but how many pictures of Jake Mauer in a Twins uniform – heck, any baseball uniform – kneeling side-by-each with his brother could there be?[2]

For forsaking collectiblity in favor of historical accuracy, Topps gets a big ol’ attaboy. And this card gets chucked – fondly – back into the commons bin.

One of this blog’s most popular entries, “Truly Comic,” starts with me asking, “Which property was more screwed up (and over) by trading cards: Disney or Looney Tunes?”

It’s clear from the evidence that of the Big Three properties done dirty by the trading-card biz – Looney Tunes, Disney, and Peanuts – Looney Tunes, via Upper Deck, got the short, filthy end of the stick. All the stars aligned and produced the trading-card version of John Carter[3].

Peanuts suffered from alienation of affection, and having its signature set made by a company called Tuff Stuff Productions. Disney wasn’t abandoned or mismanaged as much as niche-marketed to death.

You know how Disney operates: No matter how old you are, no matter where you live, no matter your socio-economic status or species or party affiliation or feelings about cilantro, Disney has a property for you. In a cup[4].

Little girls get Disney Princesses. Big boys get ESPN. Medium-size boys[5] get The Avengers. Native Americans get Pocahontas and Brother Bear. People of one color get The Princess and the Frog. People of a different color get Mulan. People of a still different color get Aladdin, with a tan Tom Cruise and Robin Williams sputtering gibberish, for the looneys. Navel-gazers get Dancing With The Stars. It’s still unclear to me who gets GCB – people who wished for Hee Haw with cheerleaders, I guess.

Disney (and its cardmaking partner, Impel) took that approach with its trading cards and finally ran afoul of the immutable rules of marketing. Its first set was fine – a general-interest Disney set, Middle America in Mylar, with a few character cards, some activity cards, some screen grabs from really old cartoons, and lots of that mysterious cultural icon, Mickey Mouse. Disney easily had enough material in the can for 20 years of such sets. But it quickly abandoned that approach in favor of a bigger target and the potential for much more money.

Impel followed Disney Collector Cards with a set called Minnie ‘N’ Me. Its purpose and positioning was clear: It was a trading-card set for girls – young girls.

I don’t know if you know this, but girls of any age do not make up a sizable percentage of the card-collecting population, here or abroad, ever. Girls and women have never shown an affinity for trading cards[6].

There are many theories as to why, but it’s simple to me. It usually only takes one 10-minute spin around the floor at any card show for a woman to be disabused of the trading-card habit for life.

Disney and Impel thought they had the power and the property to reverse this behavior. However, they were going up against the immutable power of fat, stinky guys in Keith Hernandez doubleknits scarfing longjohns with sprinkles.

So instead of doubling the size of the potential market for trading cards, with Minnie ‘N’ Me Impel and Disney actually cut the market for their product by somewhere north of 90 percent. And even the Mighty Disney couldn’t bust that dam. Not with Minnie ‘N’ Me.

Minnie ‘N’ Me’s failure takes me down another road. I can think of about a jillion for-girls products, and they almost all tanked – “tanking” meaning not doing nearly as well as a comparable “boy” product. Josie and the Pussycats: animated spies for girls. The Runaways: punk rock for girls. The Bangles: pop-rock for girls. Virginia Slims: Cigarettes for girls. Marvel’s Girl Comics: ‘nuff said. Tomboy Tools: Power tools for girls. Pink LEGOs. Romeo y Julieta cigars. The Pontiac Sunfire. Professional women’s softball. Professional women’s boxing. Professional women’s soccer. The WNBA.

Now think about “women’s” or “girls’” products made for men. I can think of two: GI Joe (in his original incarnation) and Just For Men. They’re fewer in number, but they have staying power. You might not take the Touch of Gray concession over the L’Oreal franchise, but GI Joe spawned action figures, and all the action figures in the world versus Barbie is a fair fight[7].

The fact that marketers (mostly men) keep feeling compelled to make “female” versions of “their” products to appeal to women says something rotten and sexist and unfair about our society. And I feel a little twinge of satisfaction each time one of those products bites the large Bratwurst of Death.

One of my favorite lines is that I was a very successful sports marketer even though all my clients went bankrupt. It’s not my fault, I claim. I never told them putting cards in cans was okay.

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know I was wrong occasionally. Especially when it came to stickers.

I was absolutely, dead-solid convinced that over time stickers would supplant trading cards as a hot, valuable collectible. My logic was okay: Older trading cards derived much of their value from the fact that they were designed not as a collectible but as a commodity, to be used up and disposed of. Stickers are designed to be stuck on something. Once stuck, they lose their value as collectibles. They have the permanence of magnesium exposed to air. They drip production-for-use.

I envisioned a world where sports stickers were stuck on everything from Louis XIV highboys to “Expos Fan Parking Only” signs to Mayim Bialik. What I wasn’t counting on was collectors giving stickers the same open-armed welcome Axl Rose extended to the other members of Guns ‘n’ Roses, and sticker companies like Panini responding by printing 12.69 billion of each sticker.

There’s hope for stickers, but only if the government gets involved and encourages sticker-based vandalism – but positive sticker-based vandalism, with stickers being applied to unobtrusive places, like inside the lids of dumpsters.

I see a spate of public-service announcements with a tagline guaranteed to hang on people’s lips for eons: “Stick it where the sun don’t shine.”

Don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming.

The best that can be said about the Star Company Gregg Jefferies set was that it’s better than the Star Company Sam Horn set. The Horn set represents the nadir of A) relatively good-looking cards of B) a major-league baseball player because it took 13 cards to say what Topps could have said in one, with space left over to show a cartoon fish with a bat in his fins trying to hit a curveball. And because it’s Sam Horn.

You know how far society has come? When basketball cards really took off and the NBA got into the act personally with NBA Hoops, the league issued an edict to cardmakers: If a player has a tattoo you can’t show it. Get rid of it. Airbrush it.

This was not a big deal to Upper Deck, the company that considered card photos merely a muted suggestion of what might be. But in the case of Dennis Rodman, the result was semi-otherworldly. On TV he looked like an escapee from a Tad Browning movie; on cards he looked as clean as a No. 2 pencil in a singlet.

The disparity did not go unnoticed, but the NBA managed to plead ignorance (“It’s just the flash they use – yeah, that’s it”) for several years until the number of NBA limbs bearing Bible verses, gang symbols and ex-wives’ names reached critical mass. And Shaq put the Superman logo on his bicep.

These days, when players have entire encyclopedias inked on their person[8], by the time all the tats were airbrushed from all the photos in all the sets LeBron James would be 58, and looking like Redd Foxx with a wingspan.

The NBA admitting that it has a body-art issue is progress of a sort. I’m just not sure what sort.

I’m still wrestling with the notion that a picture of a truck that hauls a car that is driven by a driver in one direction around a track can be collectible, but a sticker of an actual player actually playing an actual sport can’t. Maybe I’ll figure out why by next time. But don’t bet on it.

[1]Though it does score the Twins 25 points in the Take Care of the Homeboy No. 1 Draft Pick Sweepstakes, placing them 1,893 points ahead of the San Diego Padres. Also, no matter how bad Jake Mauer is, he’s gotta be better than Ozzie Canseco, Pete Rose Jr., and John Henry Williams. Combined. 
[2]Further information on the Mauers was supplied by erstwhile Twin Citian John B. Seals, who points out that “Joe's brother Billy now sells Chevrolets.” To which I reply, “Well, of course he does.”
[3]Or more to the point, Looney Tunes: Back In Action.
[4]Thank you, Wall-E.
[5]Talkin’ mental age here.
[6]And yet they call them the weaker sex.
[7] Until they come out with MMA Barbie.
[8] You want to know the real reason Encyclopedia Brittanica quit printing? It wasn’t because the Internet wrecked their business. It’s because you could read it all on Marquis Daniels.

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