Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Fast And The Spurious

From the Department of Amplifications, a correction.

When I was referring to a crew member pictured on a Traks racing card with the statement, “This is what hand-fishermen do on their off hours,” I was mistaken. The Clyde Booth card shows what feed-mill operators do on their off hours. The Greg Moore card shows what hand-fishermen do on their off hours.

The Times regrets the error, and so do I.

In a previous edition I mentioned how the 1992 Score Baseball All Star subset created a series of caricatures that “was less distorted, anthropomorphically, than Woody Allen.” Here is more proof. Ramon Martinez was roughly 90 percent head and 10 percent body, with the body stretched along a six-foot-four-inch frame. All the warnings plastered to buckets aimed at head-heavy two-year-olds applied equally to Ramon Martinez. Many’s the day when the aftereffects of Ramon bending over to tie his shoes was a call to the paramedics. Had R-Mart been able to use his head as a counterweight, as is suggested in his card, he might have been able to throw the ball 120 miles an hour without his shoulder disengaging from his body, the condition that ultimately killed his career.

Somewhere out there is a Score All Star where the huge head is bestowed on someone so entirely bottom-loaded, so Bozo-bop-bag-shaped that the caricature actually has some sock.[1] But I’m still looking.

I realize that those also serve who sit and wait, but by the same token, I always thought of trading cards as the one playing field where everyone plays at once. Happy Feller gets a card just the same way that Walter Payton gets a card. Even the special cards deign to include the proletariat. Ted Shows How features Ted Williams and Mike Epstein. There’s a Boyhood Photos of the Stars card of Wilbur Wood. The SkyBox Slammin’ Universe subset includes Tony Dumas. Like Sly Stone said, everybody is a star.

So is it right to single out Detlef Schrempf not as the top player, not as No. 2 or No. 3 or No. 4, but as the sixth man? I realize being the next guy in after the starters have played can be a special thing in basketball, but it’s really only a basketball thing. The twelfth man in football is only relevant in Canada and College Station. The 10th man in baseball is Casey Candaele. The seventh man in hockey gets you a two-minute penalty for delay of game. The fifth person on a relay team gets you disqualified.[2] And even in basketball the sixth man doesn’t always come into the game on a winged chariot of fire trailing clouds of rosin dust. (cf., the sixth man on the 1989-90 New Jersey Nets was Purvis Short.)

My other problem with this card is that I have a personal bias against haircuts whose sole reason for being is to simplify headstands.

Detlef Schrempf was a fine basketball player whether he started or came off the bench. Should we really draw lines on an endless green expanse?

In my rather lengthy treatise on umpire cards several months back I danced around the nasty truth of cards showing officials: Officials really don’t do much, even when they’re doing their job, and when they do something interesting you can’t show it. This goes for managers and coaches, too. I can think of only one exception: The 1972 Topps Billy Martin In Action card shows the volatile manager chewing out an umpire while pointing to a spot where someone was safe or out or went to their mouth or caught the ball or dropped the ball or missed a called strike or a foul tip or a balk or catcher’s interference. There are no cards of Jim Mora ripping off a headset, Buddy Ryan flying into apoplectic shock, Slick Leonard tossing a chair, Don Cherry getting unhinged, or Lou Piniella repositioning second base. Similarly, there are no umpire-and-official cards showing Dale Scott getting it on with Martin, Mendy Rudolph teeing up Bill Musselman, or Don Koharski going after Jim Schoenfeld.

Instead, we get this: Pat Dapuzzo bent over at the waist.

While I admire completeness (and do appreciate the fact that Pat is an avid weightlifter and karate enthusiast, like several million other individuals worldwide), the wages of completeness in Mr. Dapuzzo’s case are a lifetime of autographed-set completists chasing him through hotel lobbies and cornering him in restaurant restrooms.

Was it worth it? Pro Set is out of business and Pat Dapuzzo’s image is frozen in thousands of collectors’ minds as the guy who looks like he was just gut-punched by Superfly Jimmy Snooka. Upon further review … nah.

Talk about excitement. For several years before Fleer got a Major League Baseball license (and for several years after, actually) this was Fleer baseball: A team logo and clip art on the front on the front, and a baseball quiz on the back.[3] Fortunately Fleer picked a fairly animated piece of clip art to suggest action and canted the letters in “Baseball Quiz” at odd angles so we knew it was all in fun and didn’t misunderstand. Otherwise we might have thought that it was, you know, a colossal waste of cardboard.

I give up – which one is this?

If I'm Vin Diesel, I'm royally hacked off right now.

I understand the problems with checklist cards in the pre-computer era. You want to know all the cards in the set because you want them all, even the elusive Derek Livernois card. However, the card you want least is the card that shows you all the other cards you want, and that’s a conundrum.

Cardmakers have been wrestling with this forever. They’ve put facsimile autographs on checklist cards, team logos, head shots of stars, or photos of players milling around batting cages comparing runs in their doubleknits, all in hopes of sparing the cards from a painful death at the business end of a Daisy Red Ryder. However, most of the time they’ve cut their losses and put as many players as would fit onto cramped, ugly checklist cards. They were a cost of doing business.

Like everything else associated with trading cards during the Handful O’Landfill era, this cost of doing business went up, too. There may be more unattractive, inefficient checklist cards than the checklists from the 1990 Best minor-league set, but I haven’t seen them. It probably doesn’t help to note that there are six of these cards, each in a different color, and the job could have been accomplished with two.

Sometimes three of these cards would show up in a pack, filling the spaces between cards of Scott Plemmons, Sam Ferretti, and Jeff Mutis. They added negative value even under that scenario. And that truly is as low as you can go.

It’s fantasy-football-draft time again, and this card emerged from the floor to remind me of my best fantasy-draft experience ever.

It’s the afternoon of April 4, 1994 – Opening Day – and a fantasy-baseball draft is being held at The Lakeview, in Iola, Wis. The Cubs game is playing as the draft begins, and Cubs centerfielder and leadoff man Tuffy Rhodes is having the game of his life. Rhodes goes four-for-four with three home runs off of Dwight Gooden in a losing effort, but Rhodes’ effort is enough to get him drafted, and highly, by one of the fantasy managers, to a chorus of groans, shouts, flung french fries, and pelted pretzels from everyone in the room – even the Norwegian bachelor farmers at the end of the bar who hardly knew English, much less baseball, fantasy or otherwise.[4]

Two weeks later Rhodes was out of fantasy baseball, and he was out of the majors not too long after that, but he had accomplished his purpose: In one game, he had won a week for his owner.

Speaking of stupid things, printing a player’s name in six-point type and burying it inside a rainbow-colored bar has dubious merit from aesthetic and practical standpoints, so naturally Topps was all over it for its retro-styled Bowman set, which dearly wanted to appropriate the no-name-on-the-front aesthetics of the original Bowman set without actually going there.[5]

Rhodes was the fantasy-ball equivalent of the stretch-drive rent-a-player, a body employed to produce but designed to be cast aside as soon as conveniently possible. As long as everyone’s good with that we’ll move on.

The reality is that Brad Daugherty is seven feet tall and Larry Nance is 6-11. The impression is that Mark Price has the dimensions of Billy Barty and is holding Mr. Wiggins’ prize pumpkin.

Some cards do their subjects no favors. In the case of this card and Mark Price, it doesn’t even insult him well.

Good to be back. We’ll talk more soon.

[1] Current Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado comes to mind.
[2] Though the fifth Beatle, George Martin, was knighted.
[3] Sample question: “True or False? The Mets played their home games at Ebbets Field in 1962.” If I’m an eight-year-old kid, I’m saying, “I don’t give a crap.”
[4] He wasn't our most popular owner. I'll leave it at that.
[5] It helped that the original Bowman photographs were generally so stunning they needed no embellishment.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Card Blog Only For Adults And Absolutely Nobody Else

Today only it's the Same-Sex-Kiss edition of "Handful O'Landfill"! Just keep it to yourselves, if you don't mind.

A while back I mentioned that creating a card set for girls and calling it “A Card Set For Girls” is the kiss of death. That also applies to card sets made just for kids. Donruss Triple Play was such a set. It was low-cost, low-quality, and bright and colorful and obvious as an episode of Sesame Street but less educational, unless your career goal is writing the straight dialogue for A.N.T. Farm. It ignores everything that consumer research has learned about kids over the years, which is if you want to make Metamucil For Kids call it Metamucil Only For Adults And Absolutely Nobody Else. The kids will get there.

The back of this card reads, “Baseball players like to have fun at the ballpark. This photo shows three New York Mets who think they are playing for the New York Giants. David Cone is trying to block Jeff Innis’ kick. John Franco is the holder. Even though work is serious, this shows you can have fun at your job.” Yes, and family is the most important thing, and even though you’re young you can make a difference ‘cause everyone is special, and being different is okay, and it’s what’s inside that counts, and when you send a kid off sniffling in the third reel he comes back to save the day in the fifth, with a proton-beam accelerator crafted out of popsicle sticks and Play-Doh.[1]

Life lessons are important, but they’re better taught by someone who’s lived a portion of a life, and not a sunburst-bordered baseball card showing a bunch of pitchers screwing off.

Just in case the Scott Chimparino promo card of a couple of weeks ago didn’t get your blood racing for 1990 Donruss Baseball, here’s a Kevin Morton promo. Restrain yourself.

One of the big areas of the Handful O’Landfill I really don’t have covered is fantasy art. There were dozens of fantasy-art sets released from about 1990-95, and some of them sold extremely well. Companies like Krome Productions and Comic Images made demi-scads of money on sets featuring characters like Lady Death and artists like Frank Frazetta, Boris, Roger Dean, and the Hildebrandts.

There were a lot of these sets. As former Cards Illustrated editor Don Butler put it, “Basically any artist who ever did a prog-rock album cover got a card set.”

I always found fantasy-art cards to be sort of limiting, but I realize now I had it totally upside down. If Comic Images ran out of pictures for its Ujena Swimwear set, it could call up Ujena and have him/her paint some more hydraulic babes in thongs. If Topps ran out of baseball players three-quarters of the way through Stadium Club 2 Baseball it couldn’t exactly call up the Oakland A’s and have them make more players [2].

That’s the long way around to this Brockum RockCard showing a Megadeth album cover, done up in a style that would loosely qualify as fantasy art. The back of this card is black. I like the back better.

Score had no way of knowing the future when it made this card, but in retrospect we say: Not the best choice, guys.

Just as a reminder that at or about the time of Bo Jackson there were three players excelling at major-league baseball and NFL football – Brian Jordan, Deion Sanders and Jackson.[3]

Maybe today’s pro athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger. But they ain't Bo.

Quick – guess the set!

That’s right – Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, from Pro Set.

This card has a place of honor right next to my Pagemaster promo cards.

I know you’re dying to know what’s on the back of this card, so here goes: “Indy is totally lost in the bush. A large Askari rescues him and takes him back to camp. Indy’s parents are very angry with him but are glad he is alive.”[4]

Alive until the Nielsen numbers come in, that is.

And here’s another card from the same set. No, Topps did not print this card. This was an (intentional) 3-D card, meant to be viewed with the glasses that came in every pack.

Okay, so viewed through the 3-D lens of history it was all a failure – the 3-D cards, the base cards, the glasses, the marketing, the TV show, the marketing of the TV show, the works – but there are other measures of failure besides sales. And by those measures Young Indiana Jones Chronicles trading cards were a hit. They looked good, read well enough for the audience, were colorful and interactive, encouraged play, and didn’t take themselves too seriously. In every way but one they were superior to similar TV-show sets of the ‘60s and beyond: Gomer Pyle USMC, Charlie’s Angels, Valley of the Giants, The Monkees, and so on. The difference was that people cared then – cared about the cards and the shows. There were only three-and-a-half networks, so the number of shows airing across the nation at any one time was maybe a dozen, with tens of millions of people watching the top three. There was no VCR, no DVR, no Hopper, no PS3, no Xbox Live, no Netflix, no Hulu, and no YouTube. It’s not hard to get wrapped up in Captain Parmenter when your other options are Gunsmoke, Adam-12, or doing the dishes. Similarly, the card-and-toy aisle wasn’t awash in Pokemon and Bakugan and Digimon and Gundam Wing and Pagemaster and Marvel vs. Wildstorm and Webkinz and Neopets and avatars of a thousand flavors. It had jacks and paddleballs and a couple of 100-piece puzzles, some cars, some Barbies, and lots of guns.

There was less of everything except guns, and because there was less of everything there was more time to pay attention to the things that were there [5]. It’s great to be able to choose; it’s better to revel in the choices you have.

I think I show so many Traks cards because I’m fascinated by the thought process that places such an emphasis on crew members and car haulers and all the assorted camp followers and monkey wrenches of auto racing. I understand the numbers perfectly. It’s hard to make a 250-card set for a sport where there are fewer than 40 cars, 40 drivers, 40 owners, and 20 racetracks. On the other hand, baseball-card sets at their most desperate (and disparate) did not show cards of trainers, clubhouse boys, tarpaulins, or chartered aircraft. Umpires, yes. Trophies, yes. Stadia, yes. But there the line is drawn, and stays drawn.

I also appreciate card backs that note as a career highlight, “Started 20 years with United Parcel Service, oversaw 10,000 vehicles as Northeast Region Automotive Manager.” It foreshadows PeopleCards, and I do love me some PeopleCards.

All was not equal in the Handfull O’Landfill world. Some cards existed merely to fill the spaces between cards of stars (or, in this case, cards of cars). But do you think any of that matters to Clyde Booth? I’m guessing not.

Anyway, if there’s a card that’s more evocative of the daredevil, thrill-a-minute world of big-time stock-car racing … it’s one of many. This tells me what hand-fishermen do on their off hours.

Remember: Every stupid fashion look throughout history was considered attractive and stylish at the time, and there may come a time in the not-too-distant future when you say, “Hey, a bumblebee-striped stovepipe baseball cap looks really cool when you pair it with a black doubleknit top.[6]”

I personally am hoping I am not alive at that time.

[1] This is one of the reasons I really appreciate Phineas and Ferb. At its best it takes a lot of the hoariest kid-programming clich├ęs and turns them on their heads. In that regard, it’s reminiscent of – but more subversive than – the best episodes of Animaniacs. In the absence of anything as artistically satisfying as Looney Tunes, it’s the best kid-colored social satire we can get.
[2] Hey, but it could break out another Rob Mallicoat card!
[3] Drew Henson, Chad Hutchinson, Josh Booty, and D.J. Dozier were close on both counts – they were bad major-leaguers in both sports. Booty and Henson missed breaking balls and open receivers. Hutchinson couldn’t miss bats or opposing D-backs. Dozier was a so-so fielder who couldn’t hang onto the ball. And don’t get me started on Michael Jordan.
[4] As a disassociated statement, this is remarkable. As an allegory, it’s enlightening. “Indy” must refer to the Colts, and Andrew Luck specifically. I’m thinking the large Askari is either Askari Jones or a normal-sized example of a breed closely related to the Labradoodle. And Indy’s parents are Roger Goodell and Jim Irsay.
[5] I think about this in terms of music. If musical evolution had been pushed back 50 years, Mick Jagger would never have been able to spot Keith Richards with a copy of a Muddy Waters record under his arm because it wouldn’t have been Muddy Waters but one of several hundred Muddy-Waters-type artists (categorized even more diffusely as rural Delta blues artists with urban overtones), and they would both have been plugged into iPods and not making eye contact anyway.
[6] I wonder: At what point did single knitting not be good enough?