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’ĂȘtre 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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Seashells and EMTs

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the road to seashells and balloons in the NFL does not involve being a defensive lineman and the No. 1 overall pick.

The first name that springs to mind faster than he ever sprang in real life is Walt Patulski. Walt Patulski; even the name evokes onion farming in the mud flats of central New Jersey. But what can you say? The guy was a Notre Damer, and Notre Dame defensive linemen are famous for translating their college gridiron exploits into professional success. Except for Mike McCoy. And Kevin Hardy. And Paul Grasmanis. And Steve Niehaus. And Jeff Alm and Mike Fanning and Mike Kadish and Chris Zorich. [1]

There were exceptions to the linemen-No.-1-overall thing, namely Lee Roy Selmon and Bruce Smith. And we won’t be too hard on Bubba Smith, who was headed to Canton until his knees got in the way, forcing a career shift that netted him a special sort of fame that can only come from playing a token large black cop in a series of dumb-and-dumber movies.

But for every Lee Roy Selmon there were two Russell Marylands, and for every Bruce Smith there was a Kenneth Sims or a Courtney Brown. And for every Mario Williams (who is not a sure-shot Cantonian by any means) there is a Steve Emtman.

Steve Emtman was neither the guy who composed the music for the Batman movies nor the guy who snatched the foul ball from Moises Alou at Wrigley Field. He was a very active if not Mt. Rainier-sized defensive end from Washington who was chosen No. 1 overall by the Colts in 1992, at the very height of the Handful O’Landfill era.

A big reason why for so many years the Colts were the Colllllllts, just two small vowels away from colitis, was because when the Cowboys had the overall No. 1 they chose Troy Aikman, and when the Colts had the overall No. 1, they chose Steve Emtman. [2]

You can’t fault the Colts for not knowing that Emtman was a ticking time bomb of bodily breakdowns that would blow nine games into his rookie season, when he tore everything tearable in his left knee. The next year he shredded the patellar tendon in his right knee. The year after that he blew out a disc in his neck in a collision with a teammate. [3]

This particular card was the promo card, the high supreme collectible, of Courtside’s 1992 Draft Pix set.

There are a number of incongruities to consider here. The first is that there would be a series of football-draft-pick cards called Courtside. It’s a little like oceanfront property in Nebraska. The other is that something could conceivably be accomplished by shortening “Picks” to “Pix.” How does that make these cards more fun, more youthful, more dynamic, more collectible, or anything other than more dysfunctional? In the end, they kinda deserved Steve Emtman, and he them.

The combination of No. 1 overall and Colts and defensive lineman – and Courtside endorser – was lethal. Steve Emtman should consider himself lucky he got out alive.

The one true golden non-sport franchise regardless of manufacturer, time, date, place, cost, quality of cards, or quantity of cards was Star Trek. This was because the absolute best audience for non-sport trading cards was Trekkies, seeing as they were spending every waking hour, all five-and-a-half of them, hanging out at their local card-cum-comics stores throughout the entire span of the Handful O’Landfill era, Sundays and holidays included, arguing over why there weren’t more Klingons in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and playing marathon sessions of RuneQuest because Dungeons & Dragons just wasn’t hardcore enough.

(Okay, I realize I’m painting with a broad brush here. Many Trekkies overcame their essential gravity and went on to have productive careers as video-store clerks, RPG programmers, and Medieval Languages majors.)

The Star Trek license made many stops along the way, including Topps, SkyBox, Decipher, and the Rittenhouse Archives. All of them made money for the licensee and the licensor. But despite the wealth of material – remembering that you could done screen captures of the original episodes at one-second intervals, so you could have made flip movies with a complete set, and they would have sold like William Shatner hairpieces – SkyBox in particular always gave the impression with its cards that it was scraping the bottom of an extremely large barrel.

Case in point: This card from the 1991 Star Trek set shows cover art from one of the few Star Trek art forms that didn’t crush it at the box office, the Star Trek Pocket Books. The artwork is black-velvet quality – maybe that’s why the Pocket Books didn’t sell, huh? – and couldn’t be any less evocative of Star Trek or unseen enemies if it had featured golfing dolphins. [4]

Because it was Star Trek, this card sold along with all the others. But not on its merits. Because unless you’re naming a star, you can’t sell something you don’t have.

[1] We’ll give you Alan Page, and call it a draw on Justin Tuck, Bryant Young and Renaldo Wynn.
[2] This was not an isolated instance. Two years earlier the Colts had the No. 1 overall and chose Jeff George, just to get the taste of Art Schlichter out of their mouths. And back in 1983 when the Colts had the overall No. 1 they chose John Elway, but were forced to ship him to Denver in a blackmail deal involving Mark Herrmann, Chris Hinton and a couple of mismatched socks. Some people say the Colts should get a get-out-of-jail-free card because Elway wanted to play on the West Coast. I say if the Colts had been something other than the Colllllts Elway would have been happy as a clam in Baltimapolis. Uneasy lies the crown on Andrew Luck’s head.
[3] Having a name that started with “EMT” might have been a giveaway.
[4] Reference: Sometime during the Handful O’Landfill era we received in our office a copy of a kids’ book titled Arnold Palmer and the Golfin’ Dolphin. It wasn’t explicitly stated in the book or the accompanying materials, but I got the very strong impression that a significant quantity of Arnold Palmer Hard Half and Half was involved in the creation of this book. In the end, it was just another high-concept media project that fell flat. Like Cop Rock.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Swann Drive

I might as well tell my Eric Swann story.

In another life far different from my current and previous lives I was the Assistant General Manager of the U.S. National Semipro Football Team on its first-and-only tour of the British Isles.

My job duties as described to me consisted of 1) carrying the ball bag and 2) paying the General Manager $1,800. By all measures I did fine on both counts.

However, other duties arose that were not described to me when I performed Duty No. 2. For instance, when the team arrived in England we were under the impression that we had reserved two 14-passenger vans for our sojourn to Blackpool, the aptly-named quasi-resort town on the North Sea. However, the people at the rental-car agency were adamant that we had reserved seven four-passenger sedans. And because this was England, not only did the cars have the steering wheels on the wrong side, they had standard, shift-it-yourself transmissions.

I was quickly named one of the seven drivers, and was tasked with driving from the airport to Wembley Stadium, where the inaugural World League of American Football championship – the never-less-aptly-named World Bowl – was being held that day.

The counter clerk drew the route from Heathrow to Wembley. It looked like something the Gauls painted on their chests before battle.

Two wide receivers from Texas whose combined height was not more than 10 feet piled in the back seat and a linebacker sat up front with me, in the seat where there should have been a steering wheel. They had no idea what they were getting into, but since that was the usual state of affairs in semipro football, they were content as lambs. With only a modicum of grinding – and only some of that from the gears – we were off.

If you’ve never made the driving-in-America-to-driving-in-England changeover, let me set the scene for you. The roads around London were built in 1670 and are clogged with Vauxhalls, Citroens, Peugeots, Skodas, Opels, Morrises, Morgans, MGs, Minis, Minors, Majors, and assorted packing containers that would never be allowed past American customs, all running as quietly and efficiently as chainsaws and spewing enough exhaust to conceal the Sixth Fleet. Plus, the roads are slightly less wide than Vince Wilfork, and moving over to accommodate oncoming traffic usually means climbing a wall. The English also view the roundabout as the solution to every traffic situation, including parallel parking. And all of that would be manageable if you didn’t occasionally glance to your right and notice six feet of car sticking out where a mirror should go, and a freaking gear shift where there should be an arm rest.

In other words, I would not recommend your first English driving lessons be in a stick-shift automobile navigating from Heathrow to Wembley Stadium. I’m thinking something a little less crowded, like the Crab Nebula.

In between finding second, searching for third, and learning English culture through its vulgar insults I glanced in the rear-view mirror at the two diminutive wide receivers. They were huddled together, as far from the doors as they could get, with the same popeyed looks on their faces that Z-list B-movie actresses get before the knives come down.

I still don’t know how the car and I made it to Wembley unscathed, though I was one of the fortunate ones. A tight end named Al who swore he could drive a stick broke down 14 miles from Heathrow. Turns out he never shifted the car out of first.[1]

After that the World Bowl was anticlimactic, but the inaugural World Bowl was anticlimactic after a warm bath.

Eventually our little caravan made it out of central London onto the motorway. I caught a few minutes’ sleep cuddled up amongst the ball bags and then spent the rest of the ride to Blackpool getting to know the individual members of the U.S. National Semipro Football Team.[2]

In addition to the fellow you’ll meet later who claimed to have taught Pete Gogolak everything he knew about soccer-style football-kicking, there was the guy whose most memorable game came against the inmates of the Oregon State Penitentiary. (It was a home game for the inmates, naturally.) One set of goalposts was painted on the prison walls. He said it made The Longest Yard look like an episode of Full House.

A number of the guys had played against Eric Swann, who was drafted No. 1 by the Cardinals in 1991. They said he wasn’t the best semipro player they had ever seen, or even the best semipro lineman; instead, he was the most logical, for one reason or another.[3]

I hadn’t realized this until today, but Branch Rickey said the same thing about Jackie Robinson.

In that context, Eric Swann was what Jackie Robinson would have been if integration in baseball had stopped right there, if there had been no Larry Doby or Roy Campanella or Monte Irvin – a sort of footnote, something for people like me to write about.

There’s a gulf of differences between the situation of Jackie Robinson and the situation of Eric Swann, most having to do with the heart-wrenching unfairness of Robinson’s situation. But they tunneled under the English Channel. They joined France and England. The things that unite Swann and Robinson are in many ways greater than what separates them.

[1] We later named him “Lucky Al” for this incident, coupled with the sprained ankle he received crossing the street and the case of the “flu” he came home with after a tour of Blackpool’s livelier establishments.
[2] Except for the guy from Indiana who couldn’t make it because he thought you could take a passport photo yourself. With a Kodak Instamatic. In front of a tree. With your dog.
[3] Not having a rap sheet as long as your arm was one big reason.