Monday, June 11, 2012

The Other Other Hot Hot Cards

You'd think I'd be about done with handfuls from the landfill that is a box of '80s and '90s cards that spilled on the floor of my storage room. You would be wrong. We're just getting started.

The back of A.G. Dillard's Traks Racing card reads as follows:
183 A.G. Dillard
Gwaltney Big 8 Hot Dogs[1]
Dillard Motorsports Buick

1987 Began Busch Grand National, helped son-in-law Rick Mast win first two (Dover, Martinsville)

1988-89 4 more wins, 26 top-10s, 2 poles, $243,585; finished 8th, 7th in Busch Grand National points

1990 Mast to Winston Cup. Elton Sawyer driver. 31 races, 10 top-10. Sawyer married driver Patty Moise following season; will become the first couple to compete against each other in a major series in 1991.

Outside of the high-level items like the Winston Cup, Busch Grand National, Dover, Martinsville, and Buick, there is nothing on this car that I recall or even believe. Gwaltney Big 8 Hot Dogs? Dillard Motorsports? Married NASCAR drivers racing against each other? Patty Moise?

This card is the most tangible proof I've found of the existence of an alternate reality[2].

Barry Colla was a portrait photographer of baseball players who did some trading-card shooting, a little magazine work, and sold some 8x10s to be autographed, and as the Handful O'Landfill era progressed grew increasingly frustrated with the fact that most of the money that was flying around baseball in those days was not flying his way. Being an industrious self-starter, like a lot of the photographers I met in those days, he dropped the big change on an MLB license, which lifted him out of Broder territory and let him sell cards anywhere he wanted.

Actually, it was anywhere they wanted, and they turned out not to want. Colla had the license and the skills and a player (Ken Griffey Jr., who probably doubled his salary on individual trading-card deals), but didn't have design, motivation or distribution. Mostly distribution for a small single-player set.

The result was like running the Gwaltney Big 8 Hot Dogs Buick against the Millers and U.S. Armys of the sponsored-ride world. Colla turned some 8x10s of Ken Griffey Jr. into cards, and figured that would be enough. It wasn't. Not even close.

I'm going to try to describe the origin of chase sets, but it's probably not going to make much sense. It's like trying to explain how disco logically evolved from Creedence Clearwater Revival without getting into polyester, granny glasses, bowl haircuts, or the switchover from heroin to cocaine.

Postwar baseball cards were originally issued in series, which was an incredibly sensible way to market the product. Fresh product (including fresh-ish bubble gum) could be kept on shelves throughout the summer. Kids would buy early series until 80 percent of the packs contained 99 percent doubles and shove the extras in their bicycle spokes or flip them or just rubber-band them and toss them in the attic for their mother to throw out in another dozen years[3], and even though sales of subsequent series dwindled through the summer, that eventually drove collectiblity. I realize Topps probably lost its shirt on fifth-series 1952 Baseball, but the American collectibles economy is forever in its debt.[4]

The other thing Topps did in those days was print cards in different quantities. Cards were printed on sheets of 100; trading-card series weren’t always created in the same multiples. Sixty was a good number for a later series in an early Topps set, allowing for three and three-quarters cards per team – a utility infielder, a backup catcher, and a pitcher recently optioned to Keokuk of the Three-I League. That unbalanced dynamic resulted in 40 double-printed cards and 20 single-prints. Single-prints were twice as hard to get as double-prints, creating a series of scarce cards within series that were increasingly less desired as the summer wore on.

(This wasn’t new. A lot of prewar cardmakers promised kids a new baseball glove or a similar object of desire if they assembled a complete set and sent it to the manufacturer. To limit the damage, the cardmakers would drastically short-print one or two cards in the set, leaving thousands of gloveless American kids tantalizingly close to their dream, but destined never to get there. And then when World War II came, Goudey and U.S. Caramel blamed it on the Japs. No wonder American kids fought like devil dogs.)

As time went on, short-prints became less frequent and the allure of having Bird Belters available for a limited four-week engagement was not enough by itself to sell baseball cards. In response, Topps began including a bonus card in every pack – a scratch-off or a poster or a coin or a gold-foil card. These added indescribable luster to a series whose only other highlight was a Boyhood Photos of the Stars Wilbur Wood card.

Modern chase cards combined elements of the one-per-pack inserts with the scarcity factor of short-prints and began appearing in 1985 – in football cards first, strangely enough. However, in their first incarnation they were like The Operation from the old Monty Python sketch, where the notorious Piranha Brothers would select a victim and then threaten to beat him up if he paid the so-called protection money. In this case, Topps made the chase cards (named “The Star Set” without a smidgen of irony) easier to get than the set’s regular cards, effectively devaluing Ronnie Lott, Eric Dickerson et al. and making every pack less valuable than if it had just contained the usual assortment of Hoby Brenner and Uwe von Schamann cards.

In a couple of years, and with some help from Fleer Basketball, cardmakers progressed to the Other Other Operation and got the whole chase-cards thing straightened out – and by “straightened out,” I mean straightened out the way George W. Bush straightened out the tax code. They started making chase cards harder to get to drive sales, and then added a layer of chase above the chase cards that were harder to get to drive sales, and then another layer above that, and then another, until the base set was a conveyance valued less highly than a Geo Metro.

All of which is a long way around to the point that calling a chase set “Hot Cards” is a lot like naming your baby “Human” and then having it grow up to be a dog – or Christian Okoye, in this case.

I’m done now.

I’ve been scouring trying to figure out what made Lorenzo White and Ken Tippins such bitter arch-rivals that they merited their own (poorly designed) card from the 1991 Upper Deck Football set. Were they a couple of brush-cut junkyard dogs, like Dick Butkus and Jim Taylor? Was there a debilitating injury, like Jack Tatum and Darryl Stingley? Were there bounties involved, like Jonathan Vilma and Brett Favre?

I dunno. I’m guessing the split occurred because White liked milk on his strawberry shortcake and Tippins preferred Cool Whip.

Tippins was a fulltime starter for one year in his seven-year career, White a fulltime starter a sconch more, meaning that Upper Deck expended a card on a couple of part-timers banging ineffectually at each other with less violence and rancor than is seen on a Catholic-high-school kickoff return.

It's possible I'm missing the point with this Arch Rivals card. Tippins might be representing corbel arches and White pointed arches, and this card might be a subtle treatise on the underlying tension between the gothic and Romanesque schools of architecture, especially during the expansive and emotionally charged architectural environment of post-Civil War America.

If that's the case, Upper Deck is more erudite than I'd imagined, and it's still a major waste of cardboard.

Okay, now that you won it, what are you going to do with it?

The futility of hockey draft-pick cards has been mentioned before, and somewhere I have the Ultimate hockey-players-in-tuxedos set that merits its own column, but suffice it to say the only thing that beats hockey draft-pick cards as a waste of cardboard are Roundy’s scratch-and-win game tickets.[5]

Being a No. 1 overall draft pick is usually a path to a modest level of stardom, unless you were chosen by Al Davis or are fond of recreational drugs of abuse. But too often hockey teams dip into the vast pool of international talent and select with the first pick in the NHL Draft … Alexandre Daigle. Bryan Berard. Rick DiPietro.

Part of the problem is hockey’s unique player-promotion system, relying as it does on multiple spins through myriad junior and minor leagues. So it should come as a shock to no one that Alex Stojanov’s NHL career is a big ol’ goose egg – especially when you read the back of his card and see that his heroes are Cam Neely and Bob Probert and his scouting report reads, “Not a naturally skilled offensive player” – not the best attribute for a winger.

I have a new favorite Mark Twain quote that goes, “The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right.” I can think of a couple of places that could have stood a dose of lightning back in 1991.

I was going to give The Vette Set the title of "Card Set With The Smallest Potential Audience," but I look at Star Pics hockey draft picks and am tempted to reconsider. The Vette Set does slice the market thin enough to read a newspaper through. It’s not just a set of car cards, which have a limited track record of success (Odd Rods excepted), or a set devoted to a marque, which have no record of success, but a set devoted to a specific model of a car carrying a marque made by a manufacturer of many marques and cars.[6] It would be like devoting an entire set of cards to Sam Horn. Oh, wait …

[1] What people with their black belts in Lean Six Sigma are absolutely not allowed to eat.
[2] But not a bad alternate reality. It has hot dogs.
[3] So how come I never hear of the cleaning frenzies of the mid-‘60s -- and how come baseball cards are the only thing I ever hear of being thrown out? I haven't even heard of a Wagner card being accidentally decoupaged.
[4] If Topps had issued its 1950s cards in one series and Gibson made all its 1959 Les Pauls with plain tops, thousands more American dentists would be driving around in McLarens and Maseratis. The guitar dealer's windfall is the luxo-auto dealer's downfall.
[5] Where the odds of winning anything were like one-in-40, and the prize won by 95 percent of prize-winners was more game tickets.
[6] Though as such it has more curb appeal than The Plymouth Volarè Set.

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