Friday, September 28, 2012

Stars 'n' Tripes

I’m fascinated by the concept of automotive extinction. Having learned to drive on a three-on-the-tree Ford Maverick, and having seen countless three-on-a-tree Ford Mavericks being jump-started or towed or hauled out of ditches or trailing dark clouds that could have hid the U.S.S. Enterprise or up on a rack having their corroded underbellies swapped out, it’s staggering to me that there may no longer be any three-on-a-tree Ford Mavericks randomly killing themselves at stop signs anywhere in the world. It’s not a bad thought, just an overwhelming one. Our mortality is infinite compared to that of a K-car.

Automotive extinction also got me thinking about trading cards. Long ago my friend Hal postulated that most cards from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were fated to be worthless until enough of their numbers could be destroyed and equilibrium struck between the numbers of collectors wanting these cards and the numbers of cards. Right now the cards are winning by a margin of 12,473 to 1, but the margin keeps narrowing. At this rate, and with a little help from global warming and allied disasters, the scales should be even sometime in the 24th century. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing with some of these sets if the scales tilted in favor of collectors and the number of interested collectors was a smaller number – zero, say.

So trading cards are the cockroaches of the collectibles kingdom, and therefore mostly worthy of extinction. Naturally the most extinction-worthy emanated from the Handful O’Landfill era. Where else but a landfill for cockroach collectibles?

Tops on my list is Fleer Stars ‘n’ Stripes. It’s the effluent byproduct of a cash-fueled M&A boomlet that came about because trading cards are a high-margin product. You pay the league, you pay the players, you pay the photographers, you pay the printers, and you’re done. Most of those costs are up front, so after a certain point everything is profit – and that point came a whole lot earlier than it used to starting around 1989.

Before everything went shinier and sparklier and thicker, trading cards really were just pictures on cardboard. Gold foil was a luxury. Spot UV was as bourgeois as putting a free Bentley Flying Spur in every pack. Miniscule production cost and maxiscule sales meant cardmakers were loaded, and they did what the loaded do: they went shopping. Pinnacle spun itself off, SkyBox ate its distributor, and Fleer splurged on the hard-candy maker Asher Confectionery.

A hard-candy company? Really? Really really. Fleer’s roots were in confections. Fleer invented Razzles, after all. Far be it from Fleer to buy a new-media company when there were plenty of perfectly hidebound confectioners like Asher to be had.

Asher’s raison d’être was candy canes. Nothing wrong with candy canes. Nice, steady business two months of the year, followed by six weeks on clearance. Candy canes haven’t yet been able to pull a Peeps and create seasonal varieties –pumpkins or footballs or hearts or tree trunks for Arbor Day, or wreaths, for Decoration Day -- but there’s nothing to say that candy canes might not someday be as big as Bit-O-Honeys, if not bigger.

Anyway. Fleer bought Asher, and as a sort of a welcome-to-the-family gift, came up with a product that combined the crazy collectibility of football cards with the classic irrelevance of peppermint stick candy.

That product was, of course, Fleer Stars ‘n’ Stripes.

Unfortunately, the name was as clever as Stars ‘n’ Stripes got. The front design was boxed-set pedestrian, photographs were Grade Q, backs were cut-and-pasted, packaging was awkward, the candy was broken (gaaaaah!!), and the decollation simply didn’t exist.

Decollation: the process of putting number-ordered cards into random order. One of Hal’s great pet peeves was people who called decollation “collation.” “No!” he would exclaim. “You’re not collating – you’re decollating!”

Well, maybe he was. The bottom line was that you could look at the top card in a Stars ‘n’ Stripes pack – where two peppermint sticks flanked a cellophane-wrapped brick of cards, Lincoln Memorial-fashion – and predict with 95 percent certainty the rest of the cards in the pack.[1]

Needless to say, the packs with stars – loosely defined in that set as Randall Cunningham, Barry Sanders, and Jerry Rice – were quickly snapped up, and the only packs left on the shelves at ShopKo delivered dose after freaking dose of Percy Snow, Andre Ware, Rich Camarillo, and Tunch Ilkin.

Talk about confections: Stars ‘n’ Stripes was the Anthrax Ripple of card sets, an appalling amalgam of homely product, shoddy packaging, negative star value, and scant attention to the barest basics of collectibility. With Stars ‘n Stripes Fleer delivered the trading-card version of the Cutlass Diesel, GM’s raised middle finger to the car-buying world.

If only football cards could rust.

Baseball cards in bike spokes notwithstanding, trading cards are not a real flexible medium. There aren’t many trading-card parameters you can alter to create a new and radically different product. You can make them taller (SkyBox Superman), wider (Topps Big), thicker (Fleer Flair), or generally more gigantic (Leaf Studio, Bee Hive); change what they’re made of (Sportflics, Metallic Images, Topps Gold) or their shape (Pacific Crown Collection); alter their topography (Action Packed) or their scarcity (Score Printing Plates); sign them (Signature Rookies), stack them (Stak-Its), or place them inside one another (Pinnacle Zenith); or make them smaller.

Topps Minis were the reasonable downsized extension; Topps Micros brought smaller down to a much tinier and wholly illogical level.

The Topps Micro set took a perfectly innocent 1991 Topps Baseball set and shrunk the cards to 1 x 1-3/8 inches, or about 40 percent of normal card dimensions. The result was a complete set of baseball cards that could fit in the space occupied by a tube of anchovy paste.

There was precedent for cards of this size in the form of the 1969 Topps Football Stamps. These were basically regular 1969 cards printed four-up on a 2-1/2-by-3-1/2 piece of cardstock that was perforated and gummed on the back. The cards could be broken up and pasted in their appropriate team albums. Kinda fun, and kinda scarce now. But note that the cards started out normal size and involved actions on the collector’s part to make them smaller and organize them. No such forethought went into Topps Micros. They were just regular Topps cards viewed from a great distance.

See, simply shrinking cards by 60 percent takes whatever functionality or interactivity they might have and flushes it down the loo. You can’t read the backs of Topps Minis without assistance; they fail in bike spokes, they make lousy card houses, they flip like crap, and they look foolish when you put them in nine-pocket sheets, the official trading-card interactivity of the morbidly obese. All you can do is keep them in their anchovy-paste-sized box, which fortunately fits well in other boxes. And even that would have been borderline-fine if there was some randomness to the enterprise, if your box of Topps Micros was somehow different than your buddy’s box of Topps Micros. No such luck; everyone got the same box of the same cards of the same players, to squirrel away in a different box until such time as it was safe for it to move about in genteel company, a day that is nowhere close to arriving.

So seeing as the topic is trading-card extinction, how would the world be changed if there were no Topps Micros? It’s not like that picture of that player on that card design doesn’t exist. It does, and in a size that can actually be appreciated by people without Ted Williams Vision. There would be more room in countless boxes in countless storage rooms around the country, and anchovy-paste-tube-sized spaces would be safe for tubes of anchovy paste again.

Neil Young was fond of saying that he stayed out of the middle of the road because you found more interesting people in the ditches. In trading cards, the middle of the road was where the action is. The ditches were full of Topps Micros.

My friend John B. Seals nominated Score Dream Team for extinction, and he brings up a fine point. When was there ever demand for trading cards featuring art shots of athletes in various states of undress[2]? Did the people at Score look at the demographics, smack their collective foreheads and say, “My gosh! There are no cards anywhere of Rickey Henderson in his skivvies. We must act! We can’t let the Russkies beat us to the punch! Mr. President, we must not allow a Rickey-Henderson-in-his-skivvies gap to develop!”

There’s a certain grace to the Annie Leibovitz shot of a topless Jose Canseco rippling his chemistry-set muscles in the ’91 Score Baseball Dream Team subset. The rest of the monochrome cards add bupkis to the oeuvre.

Still, I’d see Seals his Dream Team and raise him a Christie Brinkley. Several years after the Dream Team, Pinnacle footed the bill for sometime-photographer, sometime-wife-of-a-crazy-person Christie Brinkley to descend on spring training and photograph various stars – which she had no trouble doing, since she was Christie Brinkley and by definition better looking than Mitch Haddad (cf. T&M Umpire Cards). The trouble was that Brinkley’s skills as a trading-card photographer approximated Haddad’s skills as a supermodel, and no amount of hubris or Photoshop could cover that up. Besides, if you’re pulling a mediocre Randy Johnson card out of a pack, how much does it matter that Christie Brinkley took the picture?

On the other hand, I did get a nice (though disturbingly phallic) T-shirt out of the project.

We'll talk more trading-card extinction next time.

[1] The only sets I can remember with worse decollation were the Berenstain Bears set and the first Comic Ball set, which were meant to be sold in number order, and a NASCAR set of undetermined lineage that was made by boobs.
[2] Or in the case of Frankie Sweet Music Viola, various states of mustache.

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