Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Kenny Make Davy Go Boom-Boom

The trading-card business was like preschool. You had people who played by the rules and people who did everything they could to get around the rules.

Here’s what I mean about preschool. My daughter and son went to the same preschool at different times. My daughter was a model citizen. She colored when she was supposed to color with the colors she was supposed to color with, ate her breakfast when she was supposed to eat her breakfast, took her nap when she was supposed to nap, sang when she was supposed to sing, and wore her reindeer antlers and Rudolph nose during the Christmas program, just the way she was asked. In return, she got two cookies and a glass of punch at the end of the program.

My son, on the other hand, would only color what he wanted to color with his two favorite colors – black and dark blue. He didn’t eat what he was supposed to eat when he was supposed to eat it. He hated napping, hated singing more, and refused to wear reindeer antlers or a Rudolph nose at the Christmas program. In return, he got dragged out of Stevens Point Pacelli High School without a glass of punch or even one cookie. (I ate his cookie. It was mighty fine.)

In the trading-card business there were companies that acted a lot like my daughter. They showed the logos the right size in the right position except for the occasional airbrush, they included all the players they were supposed to include and did not try to slip a Kevin Maas card into every set they made, they made reasonable(ish) quantities of their products, they didn’t cut backdoor deals with certain distributors, they paid their bills on time, and in return got a glass of punch and two cookies – one from the league and one from the players’ association.

Then there were the companies that took their behavioral cues from a four-year-old snot. They didn’t give a hoot about logo and licensing restrictions, they had no compunction about shoehorning a hockey player into a basketball set and a football draft pick into an all-time-great-bowlers set, they made limited editions of 4 million and slipped cases out a back door the size of the Colossus of Rhodes, they paid on whims (and were pretty much whim-proof), and in return they got punched. Or they ought to have been punched.

And – oh, look: Here are some Classic World Class Athletes cards.

Let me get the good things about Classic out of the way. Classic had a vertically integrated business model that John D. Rockefeller would have loved. Classic took trading cards into shopping networks, formerly the bastion of floral polyester dirndls, clad aluminum cookware, and back-acne preparations. Classic added a sense of urgency and value to draft-pick cards.[1]

On the other hand, Classic circumvented every rule and regulation, and made David Stern go boom-boom all over his booster seat, to make cards of professional athletes without securing the approval of the appropriate licensing bodies. It made limited editions with limits in the millions, it cut deals that made the Shark Tank look like the Guppy Bowl, it specialized in nearly authentic autographs, and it had a lucrative make-your-own-promo-card operation that basically ruined the promo-card market.[2]

Given all this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Classic was headed by perhaps the most annoying person in the hobby.[3] Ken Goldin looked like the love child of Mark Zuckerberg and Beaker from The Muppet Show, and talked like Gilbert Gottfried with a mastoid. He had the habit of calling into the Home Shopping Network when his products were being schlepped, posing as “Ken from New Jersey” and uttering rapturous notes on his cards’ quality and value. He was the biggest shyster in the land of shysters; people dealt with him with one hand holding their nose and the other clutching their pocketbook, but deal with him they did, because he had what they wanted.

What they wanted did not include the 1992 World Class Athletes set, by the way. This is somewhat ironic, because World Class Athletes were about as close as Classic came to making a semi-legitimate set. This was Classic’s attempt to gather the best athletes who weren’t parts of leagues or covered under blanket licensing agreements and put them into a set. Sure, there were some of the usual Classic suspects (Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, and Desmond Howard and Rocket Ismail), but there was also Pete Sampras, bless his curly-topped head, and Bela Karolyi holding (in an appropriate fashion) two tiny gymnasts on his shoulders, and the twin decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson, and Muhammad Ali and Oscar de la Hoya, and Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson, and even professional volleyballer Bob Ctvrtlik , because what’s a set of world-class athletes without at least one vowel-challenged tall guy?
Classic is long gone but Goldin is not, much as you may have rather wished for the opposite outcome. Goldin Auctions recently sold a T206 Honus Wagner card, and is currently caught in the middle of the dispute between Kobe Bryant and his mom over Kobe’s high-school uniforms and other memorabilia from his early days that he said he didn’t want but now doesn’t want sold.

After dealing with Barry Bonds’ mom, I have this advice for Ken from New Jersey: Wear a helmet. And if it comes down to the mom or the mamba, take the mom. And the points.


The essential lie here, of course, is that there is no way this set represents Baseball’s Best anything. The player is acceptable – a Hall of Famer in name, thanks mainly to one great season spent scaling the Walls of Ivy. But the photo is pedestrian, the design is execrable, the backs are poo, and the distribution model renders these cards worthless from the getgo.
Baseball’s Best was made from 1987-88 and sold as a boxed set in McCrory’s stores. Been to a McCrory’s store lately? Know anyone who goes to McCrory’s, or ever went to McCrory’s?

McCrory’s was a rookie-league version of Woolworth’s. Still struggling? Okay, try this: It was a Dollar General with notions. We won’t get into what kind of notions.
There is also no redemption in the knowledge that the set's full name is “Baseball’s Best Sluggers vs. Pitchers,” because the sluggers don’t really face off against the pitchers, and if they did pity the pitchers, especially Joe Dawley.

It’s ridiculously easy to buy a sealed Baseball’s Best set. It’s the baseball-card equivalent of buying a bottle of Thunderbird.[4] In fact, it’s easier to buy a sealed set than an open one. Speculators bought thousands of the sets when they came out and hung onto them, waiting for the inevitable price rise that became all-too-evitable. And it’s hard to move even a thousand sets when demand is sitting at the half-set level.
These speculators are easy to spot. When you visit their homes, look inside their walls. The insulation has a common motif.

Of all the lame attempts to create a collectible during the Handful O’Landfill era, this is the one least able to walk without assistance. I’m ashamed to have even a single card in my pseudo-collection, but the only redemption in this mess is that I once had a full set. And my house is warmer than it used to be.


Last time I mentioned how holograms work better with three-dimensional objects than with objects that are not currently 3-D, like Babe Ruth. Here’s proof.
This 1994 Upper Deck Motorsports Salutes Jeff Gordon card features a really neat Gordon hologram, and you know why it’s so cool? It’s because Upper Deck put Jeff Gordon in a special studio and shot him from all angles, like they were taking an X-ray. And then when they created the hologram they kept the image small, to keep it from getting too diffused and indiscernible.

The result may be the best hologram card ever, but you know what? I still don’t care. It’s an Upper Deck NASCAR card, and when you’ve seen one NASCAR card you’ve pretty much seen them all. No other sport has as much of its sportness taken away in the card-creating process. Noise? Smell? Skill? Spinouts? Slap fights? Nope, nope, nope, nope, and nope. They’ve been replaced by rednecks on headsets and long, loving shots of sponsor logos.

I never thought I’d say these words, but here goes: If only this were a bowling card.


[1] It’s 50-50 as to whether this is an asset or just a fact. Sticking lighted matchheads into your skin hurts. That’s a fact, but it doesn’t make me want to buy matches. Classic had a Huey Richardson card available within a couple weeks of the 1991 NFL draft. That’s a fact, but it didn’t make me want a Huey Richardson card. It made me want to curl up in a corner with a blanket over my head.
[2] Not that it shouldn’t have been ruined, but still.
[3] It would have been a contest, though. A real contest. It would make The Voice look like a bulldog beauty pageant.
[4] As Townes Van Zandt talked/sung in “Talking Thunderbird Blues,” “Among the strangest things I ever heard/ Was when a friend of mine said, ‘Man, let’s get some Thunderbird’/ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He just started to grin/Slobbered on his shirt, his eyes got dim/He said, ‘You got fifty-nine cents?’”

1 comment:

  1. The wino bums in Saint Paul used to call out from sidewalks and alleyways:

    "What's the word? Thunderbird.
    "What's the price? Thirty twice."

    As in thirty twice equals 60, or the 59 cents needed for a bottle.

    I kinda like specific panhandling with a message.
    Yet I do not like Ken Goldin. And if ever there was a specific panhandler with a message, it was Kenny G.