Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Just The Three Of Us: Me, My Ball, And My Pink Pants

Shades of the Gift That Keeps On Giving: I found even more fun stuff in the 1990 Collect-A-Card Kingpins set.

Let’s think about this. In some sports you really can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Water polo, for instance. Many swimcapped heads, scant space for team branding let alone player identification, and four-fifths of each person’s person is submerged. Team handball. Steeplechase. Tug of war. Field hockey. The Tour de France – this year’s Tour de France, anyway. These sports cry out for best practices in player ID.

Bowling is not one of these sports.

In bowling you are never not conscious of who’s bowling. There are only two pseudo-athletes to keep straight, to start with. This puts bowling on the same plane as boxing, wrestling, and MMA, sports that consciously play to audiences whose retention skills only go two names deep.

In a bowling match, the bowlers’ names are on the screen, on the scoreboard, announced beforehand, and prompted throughout. If you are watching in person, you did not just happen upon these bowlers on your way to the skeeball machines. You sought them out to baste in their glory – and hey, they’re 20 feet away from you. You can almost feel the heat from their hand dryers. Bowling fandom is highly informed, to the extent that they know the two bowlers kegling in front of them.

Given that, why does a bowler feel the need to splash his name across his back in the thickest embroidery floss money can buy?

I know why. It’s a throwback to the early days of TV, when bowler names were not always scattered with abandon around the screen and venue. You could chisel a player’s name in stone faster than you could superimpose it on a TV screen in the early cathode-ray days, when bowling was right up with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen as a time-eater. Throw in audio that wasn’t always audible and picture quality only foil-covered rabbit ears could provide, and there was a dire need for bowler identification of the most screaming sort. Hence plaid Sansabelt slacks and doublewide embroidered names on striped shirts that throbbed like a stubbed toe.

But Bob Benoit, he’s a hipster. He’s with it. His hair is Werewolves-of-London-quality. His mustache droops with Dennis Eckersleyesque aplomb. He was 10 when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. He doesn’t need to live in the past … yet there he is.

That leads me to believe there’s some inferiority-complex stuff going on. His body language is screaming like Bon Scott: You don’t think I’m as much of an athlete as Tom Tupa? Oh, yeah? Well, let me tell you: My name is on the back of my shirt in even bigger letters than Tupa’s ever was – and it’s in script, too! If that doesn’t shut up the haters – or at least get them laughing to the point that they can’t utter consecutive coherent syllables – nothing will.

The only pseudo-athletes more driven to self-recognition are NASCAR drivers, and it’s understandable. They are identified by what they drive to a ridiculous extent. It’s not “Jeff Gordon is doing a masterful job”; it’s, “The number-24 car is doing a masterful job,” like if Randy Wimmer was doing the driving instead of Gordon – or better yet, if no one at all were driving it, save for Sergey Brin and a couple lines of code – the car would still be in the same position in the race.
That has to get old. Throw in the contractual obligation to dress like a Nomex M&M or tote around every shade of industrial Pantone on your bib and you can understand why NASCAR drivers tell the lady behind the sewing machine to put their names in freaking lights. [1]

I don’t know. I look at this picture and think “plumbing contractor,” or maybe “Winnebago dealer.” It’s almost like a Jackson Pollock painting in its ability to let the viewer build the story. The story I’m building includes a lewd escapade in a Mini Winnie at the hot-water-heater convention. And dental work.

Before the Susan G. Komen initiative pink was just pink, and it was not a common color among athletes. The ABA’s Floridians and the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the only teams to have pinkish colors as part of their palette, and they were vibrant, tropical fuschias. No limpid shell-pinks for them. No siree.
Pseudo-athletes were a different story, evidently. There are at least a half-dozen cards in the Kingpins set that show bowlers wearing some shade of mild-mannered pink, including the infamous Pink Pants of Don McCune.

I can’t look at these pants without being reminded of my senior prom. The senior prom was my one, solitary high-school date in high school. My mom commemorated the event by taking me shopping[2] and buying me an entire suit in roughly the shade of the Pink Pants of Don McCune. She called it “peach” but it weren’t no peach. It was pink.
The suit came in three pieces that attempted to make up in quantity what they lacked in quality. Every aspect of that suit was as vast and all-encompassing as a Tim McCarver digression. The jacket’s lapels nearly touched the shoulders. The pants’ top pleats could hold Kelly Ripa and the bottoms swelled like the Metrodome. There was a vest, too, a pernicious thing that served only to keep too much sensible white shirt from spoiling the oeuvre.

I’ve often wondered what possessed my mom in those years. She dove headlong into the Mod Years and when everyone else surfaced with tie-dye and paisley she came up with plaid – and not subtle plaids, either. She dressed us in green, white and black picnic-basket plaids; in pegleg pants festooned with interlocking squares of blue, orange and brown; and in red, white and blue quasi-tweeds with matching bow ties. The mildest plaid I remember was a sort of houndstooth affair of blue, red, and navy made from a cloth that was the love child of a shag bathmat and a burlap sack.
There are two ways to look at the plethora of pinks that dot the Kingpins set. The first is that these bowlers overcame their sartorial challenges and became successful professionals, able at long last to chase their dream. The other is that their moms dressed them in pink and they wound up becoming bowlers.

It’s like the Ron Bell card. You choose the outcome.

It’s one thing when you’re a struggling cardmaker and you want to make a card of Eric Swann, and the only photos you can find were taken by an amateur in the stands at the semipro football game, and he wasn’t even focused on Swann and it was nighttime and one of the light standards wasn’t working and he kind of fell over on the play. It’s another thing when you have a bowler at your absolute beck-and-call and all you can think to have him do is, “Uh, could you, like, sit on that ball-return thing over there? And could you spread your legs just a little more? And that’s right – hold the ball nice and high.”

Or, if you’re feeling particularly frisky, you might tell him, “Why not grab a couple of pins and stick your foot between them? That’s right – I said your foot. No, they don’t have to be the same make of pins. Just any old two pins.”

I would be amazed if I wasn’t amazed already.

[1] This isn’t a problem in horse racing. There the line between horse and rider is clearly drawn, and there’s acknowledgement that one is useless without the other. I think it’s because we attribute human elements to a horse that we would never attribute to a car. And the Brits are involved.
[2] Let me rephrase: My mom went shopping and took me along. My role in this was roughly the same as a mannikin’s.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What Time Is It? Not Now, I'm Bowling

Travel and deadlines and work and death being what they are, it took me a little longer than expected to get back to writing about bowling cards as promised, but a promise is a promise and miles to go before I sleep and all that, so I’m back, better late than never, with some spewage on cards from the 1990 Collect-A-Card Kingpins bowling-card set.

#48 Ron Williams: Ever since I was a kid I’ve had a thing about cards of players wearing watches. Maybe it stems from the 1970 Topps Matt Snell card, which very clearly shows the bruising fullback in full pads sporting an Accutron. To me this means one of two things: watches were even more of a fashion accessory then than they are now, or Matt Snell is not really preparing to strap on his helmet and plow over Jim Cheyunski. To me, this discovery, when paired with the 1966 Philly Gum card showing Jumbo Jim Parker clearly wearing his Colts championship ring, was a there-is-no-Easter-bunny moment. I could buy the '64 Philly cards showing the Cleveland Browns posed in an impound lot; this was Cleveland in the ‘60s, after all. But I could never wrap my brain around the idea that these weren’t gameday, gametime, just-before-the-battle-mother shots. And if watches and rings were okay, couldn’t Joe Namath have left on his full-length mink?
Here’s the other thing about watches: Assuming you’re an athlete and not a manager (and even then I’m vaguely suspicious), why the hell do you need to know what time it is? You’re playing a freaking game. You’re done when you’re done. What reason would Ron Williams have for looking at his watch between balls in the sixth frame and saying, “Uh-oh. Gotta wrap this up. My Fantastic Sam’s appointment is at 4:30” – unless he’s trying to throw the match?
Tennis players, especially female tennis players, are the worst for this. They’re notorious for wearing watches. Why? You ever see Anna Kournikova look at her watch? I realize there’s an I-only-have-so-many-ways-that-I-can-show-I-make-more-playing-this-point-than-you-make-in-a-year thing going on, but if that’s the case, wear platinum panties or something. But ditch the watch.
On the other hand, the fireplace with the faux brickwork and the doubly faux oak paneling behind Williams are sweet. Kinda gives you the impression that he’s bowling in his living room. And he wouldn’t need to know what the hell time it is there, either.

#65 Glenn Allison: I can cut Allison slack for wearing a watch, because if I don’t cut him slack he’s going to wipe the alley with me and use the leftovers for chitlins. It’s obvious Allison spent a lot of time in his younger years bowling with sailors, on the docks, in Calcutta, and at Corregidor, and maybe on the Bataan Death March. Who cares if he was only 14 in 1944? If anyone could pull off the elusive teenage-bowling-phenom-war-hero-stevedore troika, it’s Allison.

#99 Charlie Tapp: Aviator glasses and science-teacher mustache aside, the troubling thing about Tapp is his haveily branded prosthetic forearm. “PW”? We are looking at the very real possibility that Charlie Tapp is using someone else’s prosthetic forearm, and who would want to do that? It has to be incredibly slimy and disgusting inside, especially since it looks like it‘s made out of half-inch steerhide. I know what my son’s hockey gloves are like after a couple of practices, and they’re not a pleasant place to be unless you’re a bacillus. The other question that follows naturally from the first is: If Charlie Tapp is wearing PW’s prosthetic forearm, how does PW feel about it? Does PW walk around with empty space between his elbow and his fingers, like one of those semi-invisible Disney characters from the ‘60s when the invisibility starts to wear off? Charlie Tapp, you provide more questions than answers.

#17 Bob Handley: What I want to know is: What happened to pinky rings? Watch any movie from the 1940s, and I guarantee that if you look closely enough one of the male leads is wearing a pinky ring. Cary Grant wore a pinky ring in His Girl Friday. So did Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Fred Astaire wore a pinky ring while he danced with Ginger Rogers. I’m betting James Cagney and George Raft didn’t leave the house without their pinky rings. Going through my dad’s stuff, he has a lion’s-head ring that could only have been a pinky ring, and he was a Kiwanian, for crying out loud. Today the only people who wear pinky rings run art galleries and wear black turtlenecks in August.
Bob Handley is wearing a pinky ring in the 1990 Kingpins set, which tells me that pinky rings went out of fashion in 1962. But if the sign behind him really says, “Beer 30 cents after 9 a.m.,” maybe the pinky ring is the right call after all.

#53 Mark Williams: The last time I saw this hair and smoldering look it was on Jennifer Grey.

#62 Billy Walden: Bowlers live on that special intersection between athletes and mere performers, like golfers or snowmobile-flippers or birthday-cake jugglers or slackline mimes or anyone who’s appeared on TLC. There’s no question in my mind which side of the intersection Billy Walden is standing on.

#96 Les Schissler: Speaking of which, the Kingpins set chronicles the transition of bowling from a sport inhabited by bowlers – that is to say, keglers, that is to say, guys for whom the beer frame was every frame, until their personal frame became a beer frame – to a sport inhabited by young, hairy people with prosthetic forearms who bowl because American Idol hasn’t been invented yet. There is no question the roots of Les Schissler’s raising run deep, down to Moonlight Madness leagues in basement alleys with two lanes and pin boys and lanes grooved like Booker T. and the MG’s. Les Schissler did not set out to find fame through bowling; Les Schissler set out to bowl, and fame found him because of how he bowled. It’s the old nature-versus-nurture argument: I have no question there are now bowl-with-the-pros camps, where prospective scholarship bowlers can learn the finer points of the back-pocket hook with class-2A PBA qualifiers. I also have no question that those camps would have taken Les Schissler and messed with his stride, delivery and follow-through until he looked like every other tour bowler, only without the results. However Les Schissler bowled – and I have no idea how that is – he bowled that way because he figured out that was the best way for him to bowl, and he made a damn good living as a result.[1] Is it in any way better to be a clone of someone else’s idea of perfect form, and mediocre?
Of course, this reminds me of mucilage. I was watching an episode of That Girl the other day (don't worry; it's not a habit), and Marlo Thomas was using mucilage to paste items in a scrapbook. It struck me sometime later that there was a rather severe dividing line with mucilage. There was a time when mucilage was in general circulation and there was a time when mucilage was not in general circulation, but there was not a time when mucilage was on the outs or falling from favor. There were just Mucilage Days followed by No-Mucilage Days.
The same with bowling. There were Bowlers-As-Bowlers Days and there were Bowlers-As-Psuedo-Athletes Days, but outside of this set there were not days when Mark Williams and Les Schissler sat around the fire like brothers.
This makes bowling different from other sports, and not really better.

#58 David Husted: Speaking of pseudo-athletes, let’s look at the arguments pro and con in response to the question, “Is David Husted a pseudo-athlete?”
First, the pro:
1)     He’s under 50.
2)     Several NFL quarterbacks, NASCAR drivers, and PGA golfers sported similar hair.[2]
3)     There may be actual muscles under his shirt.
Now the con:
1)     No athlete, pseudo or otherwise, not even Rocco Mediate, ever performed in a pink shirt with “La Mode” embroidered on the chest.
2)     I’m fairly certain he just dropped his beer after watching the last play of Super Bowl XXV.
3)     His belt matches his pants.
4)     He’s wearing a watch.
I’m guessing the cons carry the day, but I wonder: If Husted isn’t a pseudo-athlete, what is he? A pseudo-pseudo-athlete? A roller-discoer? Or Les Schissler’s wingman?

Important decisions like these take time. Tune in next time for the results.

[1] The fact that he stole his glove from Mr. Fantastic probably didn’t hurt, either.
[2] Though it was more commonly found on Democratic presidential candidates.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Card-Carrying Accountant

I had meant to write another column about bowling cards – and I will – but then Tom Mortenson, the editor of Sports Collectors Digest when it was at its best, emailed with the news that Richard McWilliam, the former head of Upper Deck, had died.

I don’t find it unusual that I never met Richard McWilliam, though we worked in the same small business and our paths nearly crossed a score of times. I was not the sort of person meant to hang out with Richard McWilliam, nor was he the sort of person destined to hang out with me. What’s more amazing is that we never talked. He was the only card-company chief I never spoke with, and I can’t remember the invitation ever having been extended. Currying favor with the hobby press (or later, sports-collectibles consultants) was not in Richard McWilliam’s self-penned job description.

The five or six executives that ran the business in those days each had, to paraphrase the Ol’ Duke, an image to perform: Topps’ Sy Berger was the oracle of the old days, always willing to discuss the way things were with members of the legitimate (read: non-hobby) press; Fleer’s Jeff Massien was the banty rooster looking to pick a fight; Frank Steele, from Donruss, was pure puritan, swift to chide and slow to bless, missing only the buckle on the hat; Pinnacle’s Dan Shedrick was the carnival barker, and his successor, Jerry Meyer, was the honey-voiced Baptist preacher; Pro Set’s Lud Denny was the schoolboy in disgrace, Angus Young with a gland disorder; SkyBox’s Frank O’Connell was the nicest guy on earth; and Richard McWilliam was the International Man of Mystery, with some Steve Jobs thrown in.

From roughly 1991 through 1994 McWilliam called the shots in the sports-collectibles business. He set the bar for everyone else to jump over, and dared them to jump as high as he did. Upper Deck brought perceived scarcity, dealer allocations, color correction, high-gloss finishes, tamper-proof packaging, anti-counterfeiting holograms, Photoshopping, autographed chase, rookie-driven base sets, well-compensated celebrity spokespeople, and certified memorabilia to trading cards, and if I missed a few in there or if Richard McWilliam wasn’t entirely responsible, you get the idea. Richard McWilliam was at the helm when Upper Deck fundamentally reshaped modern sports collectibles.

In doing so, McWilliam and Upper Deck helped turn trading cards into a destination for investors, speculators, and their money. Sports collectibles were a backwater before he arrived, and a backwater after he abandoned the business. In between the money flowed into sports collectibles like the product was bootleg whiskey. Because of Upper Deck, the Bass Brothers got into the trading-card business, and marketing executives at Procter & Gamble signed on, and Lorillard Tobacco bought in, and Wall Street bankers called up at all hours looking for case counts and sell-through data. It wasn't necessarily a better world, but the shoes were nicer.

None of which should obscure the fact that Richard McWilliam was a benevolent despot minus the benevolence. He fired talented people on whims and brought in less talented people to replace them. He allowed backdoor deals to be cut and turned his head to reports of cases of high-demand products vanishing from warehouses. A former employee called him "tortured," but McWilliam spread it around.

The more successful Upper Deck became the more Richard McWilliam divorced himself from the elements that made it so. He was an accountant, and he ran Upper Deck the way most accountants who rise to the top run their companies: with their eyeshades on, sleeves rolled up, nose-deep in the books, with scant attention paid to changes in the landscape. Like Apple, Upper Deck set its own course, regardless of the prevailing winds. Unlike Apple, Upper Deck went its own way because of belief in the bottom line, not trust in a vision.

Personally, Richard McWilliam stiffed my partner and me for $2.1 million. We signed a contract stipulating that we would receive a 10 percent finders’ fee for any investment capital we brought to Upper Deck. We convinced Bandai America to toss $21 million Upper Deck's way, but we never got our contracted cut. Richard McWilliam figured we wouldn’t be able to afford to sue him for the money, and he was right. That doesn’t make him any smarter than he was, or any better or worse a businessman or a person. And it doesn’t matter anymore, for about a dozen reasons.

"I have known reformers and rogues, and in general much preferred the rogues," Red Smith wrote in his obituary for boxing promoter Jim Norris. Richard McWilliam was a rogue, albeit a silent one. Usually I side with Smith, but I claim an exception in this case, on personal and financial grounds.

Two days after I heard about Richard McWilliam's passing I learned that Krause Publications was killing Comics Buyer's Guide after 42 years.

Any proper tribute to CBG is a tribute to Don and Maggie Thompson, the paper's founders and editors. Don was an old newspaper salt from Cleveland; Maggie was as quick-witted and silver-tongued as any Billy Wilder heroine. Together they created a hobby magazine that stood any test as a paper. It was tight, entertaining, comprehensive, and journalistically sound as a dollar -- qualities you may not associate with the printed press any more because so few papers measure up.

Don and Maggie were finicky about things like the proper usages of "comic" and "comics," the punctuation of the paper's title, and the stylebook from A through P, and they covered the comic-book beat like no one has and no one ever will, because no one will ever again give it the hard-news treatment the way Don and Maggie did.

CBG at its best pinpointed where comics were and where they had been, celebrated them as art and literature, but never lost sight of the fact that comic books are inherently disposable, trashy fun. Think it's easy keeping all those balls in the air? Try it sometime.

As an interested third party, I found CBG too comic-y on occasion, but there was always something worth reading, a Peter David rant or a Mark Martin cartoon or one of Don and Maggie's wonderful up-front columns.

I had the privilege of sitting one desk over from Don and Maggie for several years, and it was never less than a delight. Sometimes I was sitting next to the Bickersons; open offices never meant much to Don and Maggie when there was a disagreement of substance. Sometimes I was sitting next to Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Some days I was sitting next to Woodward and Bernstein. There were lessons to be learned every day in how to be a good journalist, and a good partner in a marriage. I picked up what I could, and kick myself for not picking up more.

Don died too young from a variety of journalists' maladies. They buried him on a hill in Iola, Wis. It was late spring, a warm wind scattered the scent from the purple lilacs that lined the cemetery, and I cried. If memory serves, Maggie was back at work in a day or two, cranking out another dead-solid issue that included a perfectly modulated tribute to her mentor, co-editor, life partner, and friend.

I haven't yet cried for CBG, and it's too soon to smell the lilacs on the springtime breeze, but here's my tribute. It's not as well-crafted as something Maggie might have turned out, but it means well. CBG was a great paper, and I'll miss it dearly.

In those late, grand days of the hobby press, when CBG was just Don and Maggie and personal appearances forced them both out of town, sometimes they would let me proof the pages for CBG before it went to press. As a journalist, I've never been more honored.