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.

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