Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Babe, The Dupe, And The Nine-Pocket Sheet At The End Of The World

I was cleaning out a filing cabinet – stranger things happen, but not many – and came upon a nine-pocket sheet of cards filled with the cards described below. The combination of randomness and mediocrity swept over me like a tsunami, and a column – a series of columns, more likely -- was born. Don’t blame me, blame them.

We might as well dispatch with the legitimate card first. The combination of restrained design (in team colors, yet), compelling photography and star power makes this the best Pacific Trading Card ever. Honestly: What Pittsburgh Penguins fan's humble abode would not be graced by this card’s presence? You wouldn’t want it staring back at you from the sheets when you pull the covers back at night, or greeting you as you lift the lid, but otherwise this is the shizzle. The problem, of course, is that Pacific made roughly 100,000 other cards, almost none of which were as good as this, and many of which were far, far worse. So is it worth sifting through a Brooks Range of Pacific-made landfill material in hopes there might be something even better than this bad boy?
I don’t know, but it sounds like a History Channel series to me.


One of my buddies sent me a link to a blog written by my old boss, Bob Lemke (a link I’m proud to share with you – boblemke.blogspot.com, and be sure to wear your cynicism-proof gloves), and then I stumbled upon this card, so I guess it’s a sign that I should tell some Bob Lemke stories.
If Oscar Levant was reincarnated as John Belushi he would have been Bob Lemke. The combination of hypochondria (completely warranted, in Bob’s case), acerbic wit, encyclopedic intelligence, shrewdness, self-destructive tendencies, creative wardrobing, and curly hair could only have been created by a mashup of the bilious-yet-charming antihero of movies like The Band Wagon and the out-of-control-yet-charming antihero of movies like The Blues Brothers.[1]
There are a few people who know more about trading cards than Bob Lemke, but most of them are dead –and one of them is definitely not me. He’s discovered heretofore unknown sets, which is really wild when you think about it, since we’re only going back 90 years and we’re talking about things that were designed to be collected, if not exactly kept. If the object matter was hot-dog wrappers it might be a different story, but these are baseball cards. Unknown baseball cards would seem to be something that only exists in the abstract, like leftover bacon.
Bob couldn’t move very well due to a number of ailments, but that didn’t stop him from pitching on the company team. I’m pretty sure we had the only lefthanded hemophiliac pitcher with rheumatoid arthritis in the entire Iola Summer Recreational Softball League.
Every month I tried to deliver Bob a perfect issue of Baseball Cards magazine, and every month I’d get a marked-up copy that showed the ways I had fallen short. He was awfully nice about it, though. He always let me try again the next month, and he defended me to his higher-ups when I called Ken Goldin (one of our biggest advertisers) a slimewad.[2]
The absolute best thing about Bob Lemke, other than the fact that he was allowed to put his encyclopedic knowledge into an actual encyclopedia, was that he totally did not care what people thought of him. If he decided he was going to wear a Razor Shines Indianapolis Indians jersey to work that’s what he did, and if it wasn’t exactly tailored-made to fit him or him if some high-zoot potential money type was flying in from New York to meet him, it didn’t matter. The Razor Shines jersey was stayin’.
Most of the important things in life are accomplished by people who could care less what others think of them, and it makes sense. It’s hard to change the world when one hand is holding a mirror and the other hand is cupped over your mouth so you can check your breath.
This card shows Bob as I will always remember him, smiling in a polyester doubleknit of uncertain origin, and the back is priceless. “A 10-year veteran at KP, Bob was traded from the Old Cars division for a ’55 Cadillac hubcap,” it reads. “Collects 1950s baseball cards and memorabilia and gets paid for playing with them at the office.” It goes on to list his hobbies as “Cold Beer” and “Hot Women.”
 How could you not want to follow someone like that into the fiery furnace – or to the Willow Grove show, even?


This card didn’t start out bent to pieces, though in retrospect it’s a darn good idea. Evidently the nine-pocket sheet was faulty and this card slipped out and was crushed by a laptop.
Oh, well. It’s just a Babe Ruth card.
Now before you start talking in all caps, take a deep Buddhist breath and remind yourself that not all cards are created equal, even Babe Ruth cards. There are really valuable Babe Ruth cards, valuable Babe Ruth cards, modestly valuable Babe Ruth cards, and holograms. And you can pretty much guess which card type this is.
The reason why we have holograms, in case you were wondering, is so something astonishingly three-dimensional can emerge from a flat, two-dimensional surface, like a grain elevator or Jennifer Aniston’s bustline. Given that, the best way to create a hologram is to start with a three-dimensional object. (It’s a little like the classic line from The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble-Gum Book that states the best way to create a large cantaloupe is to start with a small cantaloupe and not a collection of cantaloupe parts.) As we’ll see sometime in the next couple of weeks, the more three-dimensional the object and the better the job of capturing that three-dimensionality, the better the hologram.
In case you haven’t noticed, Babe Ruth is currently not three-dimensional. He’s barely two-dimensional. Hence, your chances of getting a hologramesque hologram of Babe Ruth are less than your chances of taking Kate Upton to prom, even if you say please and buy her a wrist orchid.
Questionable compositional choices aside, there is also the issue of expectations. The back of this Whitehall Collection card reads, “Limited edition of 150,000.” Under what circumstances is an edition of 150,000 limited? When you expect to sell 150,001, obviously. But even at the height of the fury in 1992, when this card was issued, it seems beyond unlikely that there were 150,000 Babe Ruth, New York Yankees, or trading-card fanatics fanatic enough to plunk down $5 or more for a chunk of aluminum foil theoretically overlaid with a chunk of Babe Ruth’s ectoplasm.
And that, dear readers, is precisely what the Whitehall Collection found out for itsownself.


Ah, and gone are the days when you could create a parody of a baseball card and have a significant percentage of the populace get the joke. I saw a picture of the Score Eric Fisher card created on draft night a couple of days ago and immediately got the in-reference. It was meant to resemble a Score Rated Rookie card from 1989, a time when there was someone actually rating rookies and not merely slapping anonymized photos of first-round picks on cardboard and saying, “Yep, we got everyone.”[3] Certainly the College of Card Cardinals got the reference; I can hear them banging their walkers on the floor in assent. But did the new generation, the standard-bearers for the future generation of collectors, all three of them? Did the media? (nysportsjournalism.com didn’t, that’s for darn sure.)
When SkyBox created a Willy “The Dupe” Dipkin card in 1994, everyone got it. It was SkyBox using Matt “Simpsons” Groening to promote the second series of SkyBox Simpsons cards and slam the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken card, the Card of a Million Variations (with obscenity, with modified obscenity, with partially whited-out obscenity, with completely whited-out obscenity, and please don’t make me remember the rest).
Groening nailed everything about the Ripken card that made it a fad as well as an artist with Groening’s skills can nail anything that doesn’t have a natural overbite. The pinstriped, rhombus-cut Dipkin card nails the over-engineered-by-half ’89 Fleer look. The bat knob reads “Fish Face.” The traumatized expression on Dipkin’s face mirrors that of the real junior Ripken, the brother forever destined to live in the shadow of a legend.
As good as the front is, the back is even better. In contrast to the so-called humorous trading cards foisted on a suffering humanity through trading-card history (see a very early post in this blog for the sordid details), the Dipkin card is spot-on satire.
The standard throws-and-bats line reads, “Bats Right, Throws Up.” His stat line for home runs reads “.75 (reached third and pulled a hamstring”). The back text summarizes his career highlights like so: “Willy holds the league record for most errors committed in a single inning (17). His only other claim to fame is this world-renowned ‘error’ card, in which Dipkin poses unwittingly with the word ‘FISH FACE’ scrawled on the knob of his bat. The spiky-haired culprit responsible for this foul misdeed has yet to be apprehended. And the coup de grace is the “Do you really wanna know?” section, which says:  “Willy never really liked playing baseball. His true ambition was to play the flute for the New Shelbyville Philharmonic. Unfortunately, a spiky-haired culprit scrawled the word ‘FLUTE FACE’ on the end of his instrument and Dipkin left the orchestra in a frustrated rage in 1992.”

Perfect. Spot on. And the Simpsons cards it promotes are darn cool as well. (Come to think of it, there has never been a bad Simpsons set.)

All this, and we’re only halfway through the nine-pocket sheet. More good goodies next time.

[1] These movies have more in common than you might realize. Music, for one thing. Couches, for another.
[2] Truth was not an excuse in this case. By the way, did you notice whose name was on the auction house that just sold a T206 Honus Wagner card for $2.1 million? That would be Ken Goldin, the slimewad. He’s come a long way from telling Major League Baseball to go forth and multiply itself.
[3] Full disclosure: We did our share of slapping and anonymizing way back when, and some of the current slappers are friends of mine, and highly capable card people. In fairness to them, if you want trading cards out on draft night or shortly after, there’s not a lot of time to do anything but slap and go. (And how embarrassing was it to get scooped by Tide? http://nysportsjournalism.squarespace.com/tide-awash-with-nfl-rookies-42/?SSScrollPosition=0) Still, I’d have to imagine from a star-power-moving-cases standpoint it was a particularly onerous task this year.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Birdies, Eagles, Bread Puddings, and HEADgehogs

Isn’t this the way it always works: I wax poetic about the demi-legendary Imperial Sporting Collection Ryder Cup set, and then two weeks later I’m rummaging through my desk looking for Taiwanese basketball cards and I come across the even more demi-legendary Imperial Sporting Collection Panasonic European Open set.

Fetch me a bucket, Sylvie. I feel the drool comin’ on.
Really. This set jiggles the Jell-O in my brain on so many levels you’d think you were looking at my mom’s old vegetable-and-gelatin mold (shredded cabbage and carrots, sliced green olives, and lime Jell-O, and it tastes just about the way you’d think it would).
First, this set was sealed. That’s right: for nearly one-quarter of a century I’ve been able to resist the siren call of the Panasonic European Open set, the one with the gorgeous brown eyes and blue polyester pants of Seve Ballesteros on the box lid.
I want you to know I opened this set only in the interest of science, just for this column. It’s one of the great sacrifices researchers must make. Plus, I was really, really bored.
Second, the set claims to be part of a series that includes the aforementioned Ryder Cup set, American Golfers, and All Time Great Quarter Backs (their spelling).
Begging your pardon, but what the hell kind of series is that – three golf sets and a football set? That’s like saying the Beatles’ string of smash singles included “Ferry Cross the Mersey” by Gerry and the Pacemakers, or that Mumford & Sons sound fresh and original. It’s plainly a hash.
Listen, just because your company made four trading-card sets does not mean they are a four-set series. “Series” implies continuity, and unless you plan on showing Bubby Brister in a pair of plus-fours (Zubaz don’t count), you are running on empty in the continuity department.
Even the fact that the likeness of Bernhard Langer looks exactly like Joe Montana does not lift these sets up into seriesdom. It just makes them a plagiaristic hash.
Now, let’s consider what exactly is being commemorated here: The Panasonic European Open. There’s bravado in the decision to devote a set of trading cards to the golfers with good hair who played in a pedestrian European golf tournament, but it’s largely misplaced. It would be like devoting an entire baseball set to anyone who happened to be in the starting lineup on April 6, 1987.
(Oh, wait. Donruss did that. It’s called the Opening Day set, and except for a major error involving Barry Bonds and Johnny Ray, it’s a hash, too.)
Okay, fine. But if we’re going down that road, where is the Big I Houston Open set, or the sets for the USF&G Classic, the Hardee’s Golf Classic, the Shearson Lehman Brothers Andy Williams Open, the Beatrice Western Open, the Canon Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open, or, irony of ironies, the Panasonic Las Vegas Open? I don’t know where Europe gets off saying the U.S. has it all; they got the Imperial Sporting Collection Panasonic European Open set, while the Panasonic Las Vegas Open got bupkis.
Continuity and logic having been disposed of, let’s talk hair. The Panasonic European Open ascends to its demi-legendary status on mountains of hair.
 Golfers have been known for hair ever since they stopped wearing those twee checked caps, but the hair on the Panasonic European Open golfers is positively Alpen. Greg LeMond may have been cycling clean in those days, but there is definitely some funny stuff going on above Jose-Maria Olazabal’s forehead. I’m thinking he’s juicing and volumizing.
And it’s not just Olazabal. I’m sure he was doing it just to stay competitive, because the Imperial Sporting Collection Panasonic European Open set, overrun as it is with soft-collar shirts and saddle shoes, is even more heavily infested with hirsute heads. (They probably smell nice, too, but 24 years in cellophane has sort of eliminated olfactories from the equation.)
Ian Woosnam has amber waves of hair; Paul Way’s locks flow like the Thames. Peter Baker’s bushy overgrowth appears to be concealing a bread pudding, while the mane of Jose-Maria Canizares (the other Jose-Maria) seems to have a mind of its own, which may be the point. Howard Clark’s growth matches his turtleneck, Eamonn Darcy’s tangle is cut to match the rough at Royal Troon, Nick Faldo has obviously pared down a bowling ball to fit his pate, and Anders Forsbrand is only a Yamaha DX7 away from full membership in A Flock of Seagulls.

Even the curly-headed guys get in on the action: Manuel Pinero has more in common with Strawberry Shortcake than he’d like to admit, Bernhard Langer rocks Joe Montana’s ‘do, and for Sam Torrance and Peter Senior I offer some of the sweetest words ever to fall on a middle-aged man’s ears: Bosley hair replacement.

(I guess you really can play golf in it.)

I suppose this is as good a time as any to quit with the wisecracks and actually say something about the set. It consists of 25 really thin, poorly cut cards, with borders that are meant to be reminiscent of old tobacco cards but wind up reminding you of your great-grandmother’s bedroom set. The artwork carries over the head-shot-and-action-shot look of the earlier Ryder Cup set – and not by accident. The players who carry over from one set to the other – Langer, Faldo, Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Woosnam, Darcy, and Gordon Brand Jr.  – really carry over. The artwork for one is the artwork for the other.

Maybe the Imperial Sporting Collectors were thinking (probably correctly) that few people would own both sets, or that two years was plenty of time for collectors to forget (also probably correct), but I’m pretty sure I know the real reason: Imperial Sporting Collection had a bunch of lithos of golfers that weren’t exactly flying off the shelves, and in a fit of marketing call-it-inspiration screamed to the heavens, “We can make trading cards out of them!!!!”

Yes. Well. They did make trading cards out of them, and now we’re sitting around almost 25 years later commenting on how asinine they look. And my guess is the lithos are still on the shelves, so if you go into just the right London shop and ask the proprietor, “Say, by any chance you wouldn’t have a Des Smyth lithograph around -- you know, the one with the surgical collar masquerading as a turtleneck,” he will fall over dead of a heart attack.

Oh, and if you see Dinsdale Piranha, tell him we’ve found Spiny Norman. It’s on top of Barry Lane’s head.