Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It's Wild! It's A Card!

Nothing like a sheriff’s sale to jog the old memory.

Reading the back (way back) issues of The Brill Report has brought on the flashbacks big-time. Many of the bit players whose names (and cards) had escaped me over the last 20 years have come charging back like William Perry astride a donkey.

There’s the Ted Williams Card Company, a high-concept piece of sports-marketing detritus that was a better idea than the Sandy Consegura Card Company, but only marginally. (We shall write about the TWCC at greater length when we clean out the vacuum-cleaner bag.)

There are the Assets phone cards from Classic and Kayo’s America’s Cup set, part of Kayo’s grand scheme to corner the market on crappy licenses for quasi-sports. After all, nothing says “misguided” like a 24-karat-gold card of Dennis Conner.

And then there’s Wild Card. I had forgotten about Wild Card for several reasons, but mainly because its product was so godawful in concept and execution.

Okay, so the very basic, basic concept behind Wild Card wasn’t godawful. It was even a wee bit inspired, in a self-referential sort of way.

Start with the name: Wild Card. Roughly defined, a wild card is something of value – interest, at least – that appears on an unexpected basis. How much of the Handful O’Landfill era was built around that conceit? The more you buy, the higher up the theoretical ladder you can climb. Buy enough – and we mean enough enough – and you can get a genuine authentic jersey-fragment card of Browning Nagle.[1]

With Wild Card, that conceit even extended into the base set. Each Wild Card card (is that right?) had a point value printed on the front. Most were one-point cards[2]. There were proportionally fewer five-, 10-, 25-, 50-, and 100-point cards, and far fewer 1,000-point cards. You could, if you had a masochistic streak as wide as the Monongahela, collect 100 one-point cards of Amp Lee or some other schlubby NFL draft pick and trade them for a 100-point card. Collect enough point cards of a given player and you could trade them in for an autograph or something similar, though not anything useful, like a washer-dryer. It was like Let’s Make A Deal with the base set as the zonks.

Again, Wild Card, not a terrible idea for a card set. Certainly worse ideas have been allowed onto the market. (We’re talking to you, Pinnacle Inside.) The problem with Wild Card was that the execution was exactly that. Wild Card took this idea out back, blindfolded it, offered it a cigarette, and blasted it to smithereens with some antediluvian fowling piece lifted off of Sons of Guns: Winnemucca.

The logo was ripped – flames, ragged edge, and all – out of a third-grader’s social-studies notebook. The pictures were taken at night with a cell phone, a feat made only slightly less remarkable by the fact that the cell-phone camera hadn’t been invented yet. The backs were written in Twitter on a Magnadoodle by Johnny Manziel. The remaining graphics were designed, if you want to call it that, by people who view a glittery puffy sticker of a goldfish as the pinnacle of modern art.

In a trading-card world full of Star Pics cards of Really Obscure Draft Picks Taken From a Long, Long Ways Away and Traks racing cards of tire-changers reading newspapers, this was the nadir. If you took the world’s worst tattoo artist, gave them a Barbie Fabulous Fuzzy Digital Camera and a nail, and told them to create a card set, they would have come up with something better than Wild Card.

Here’s another reason I had forgotten Wild Card: Wild Card’s card-producing lifespan ran from mid-1991 to late 1992, with a quick breather in mid-1992. I got engaged in 1991 and married in '92, and why would I want to sully two otherwise perfectly wonderful years with memories of some perfectly awful trading-card sets?

Speaking of awful, Wild Card’s coup was landing the license for the World League of American Football, the League Subsequently (And Oh-So-Misleadingly) Known As NFL Europe, the league with the most spot-on acronym in pro sports (WLAF, with the accent on the “laf”), the league that bedecked the fabled capitals of western civilization with teams full of CFL rejects named Amir Rasul, Mike Prugle, Ron Sancho, Cornell Burbage, and Joe Howard-Johnson, the league that out of nearly a decade of grinding effort and vein-popping concentration gave the NFL … Stan Gelbaugh.

It’s a reasonable match. If you want it bad enough you can have a Wild Card WLAF card of Falanda Newton. But I don’t know anyone who wants that bad enough.

About that sheriff’s sale: In late 1994, and without explanation for how Wild Card spent 1993 and most of ’94[3], a sheriff’s sale was held in Cincinnati to dispose of Wild Card’s assets. I can’t imagine what was in the sale – I’m guessing thousands of cards of Will Furrer, Tommy Maddox, Siran Stacy, Darryl Williams, Tommy Vardell, Quentin Coryatt, Ty Detmer, and David Klingler, with a couple of Babe Laufenberg autos as lagniappe – and how anyone could call them “assets” with a straight face, but Bob Brill pulled it off. At least, there weren’t phlegm stains on my Brill Report from Bob coughing up a lung in laughter.

It’s a very real possibility that they held the sheriff’s sale and no one came, meaning that if you ever get arrested in the Cincinnati area, while they’re slapping the cuffs on you and the officer reaches into his pocket and pulls out a card, instead of, “You have the right to remain silent,” you may hear, “Former Packers signal-caller Anthony Dilweg is hoping for big things at the helm of the Montreal Machine.”

At that point you may just want to plead guilty and be done with it.

[1] Or this year’s Browning Nagle, Geno Smith.
[2] I’m doing this from memory, so I may mess up some of the details. But take my word for it: It really doesn’t matter.
[3] Beating the bushes for the next WLAF is a possibility.

Friday, July 19, 2013

POG Wonderful

I have only mentioned POGs in passing lo these many years. This is not an accident. I have a hard time deciding what to say about POGs.

POGs, in case you’ve forgotten (voluntarily or involuntarily) were milk-bottle caps. Actually, they weren’t really milk-bottle caps but instead the cardboard lids put on containers of passionfruit-orange-grapefruit juice in Hawaii (hence, the POG). Only the POGs that almost everyone knew had less contact with a passionfruit than I‘ve had with Jon-Erik Hexum.

In their original incarnation POGs were used to play a game. Your buddy stacked a bunch of his POGs face-up, and then you hit them with a “slammer” – either another POG or something heavier. You kept any POGs that landed face-up, and then you switched roles. 

As games go, it’s no rock-paper-scissors, but you could make 15 minutes seem like an hour playing it. The only problem? Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of POGs were actually used to play the POG game.

So to sum up, POGs were a milk-bottle cap that never capped a bottle of something that wasn’t milk used to play a game that nobody played, and it’s junk like that that makes it hard for me to say something coherent about POGs. The original collectible was so esoteric and so far removed from the final product that flooded the market in 1994-95 that POGs 2.0 literally had no reason for being other than to separate collectors from their money a dollar at a time.

Contrast that with baseball cards. The baseball cards of 1994-95 would have been instantly recognizable as baseball cards to the collectors of 1952. A modern POG would have been unrecognizable to a collector of vintage POGs – only there were no vintage-POG collectors. See? Junk like that.

I mention POGs today because of my continued perusal of The Brill Report, one of several faxed newsletters that attempted to chronicle changes in the fast-paced collectibles business in the pre-internet days. It seems like such a platypus of a publication now, like we couldn’t just read an email newsletter or check a news feed and get this stuff pronto, but we couldn’t. This was the news feed – and the fact that it was ad-free, minimally laid out and printed on someone else’s paper gave it a modicum of speed. You could have an event happen yesterday – early yesterday, but yesterday – and see news of it in The Brill Report the next day. Presuming Bob Brill was there. And decided to write about it. In time to meet his own self-imposed deadline.

(Actually, this particular edition of The Brill Report was called Brill-iant Ideas, a misnomer if ever was and one of those fillips of the business I’ve conveniently forgotten with the passage of time. It reminds me of the Wisconsin Dental Association’s newsletter that collects all the lighthearted aspects of Wisconsin dentistry, many of which involve breaking off an endodontic file deep in the roots of a back molar. It’s called Tongue ‘n’ Cheek, and yes, it makes Constant Reader fwow up.)

Anyway, the article that caught my eye was headlined “POGs Continue to Hop-Scotch [sic] the Nation.[1]” I wanted to read about POGs hopscotching the nation because the headline suggested there were POG-free areas around the country, and I wanted to know where they were. I know it wasn’t New London, Wis., because my Hawaiian partner, Darren Lee, was moving out Valiant Comics POGs[2] as fast as they came in. And I know it wasn’t San Clemente, Calif., because my buddy Mike Speakman had taken over an old racquetball court and filled it with POGs, and was literally shoveling out POGs with a grain scoop to meet orders. There were days, he told me, when the racquetball-court-cum-warehouse was full in the morning and empty at night, and in the course of emptying it out a million POGs had come and gone in 24 hours. 

Figure the POGs were coming in the door at a penny each and leaving at a nickel each. That’s a nifty return for spending a few hours in a racquetball court.

According to the story, POGs had slowed down in Dallas but had picked up in Houston.[3] However, a Dallas show had a POG tournament, presumably with actual participants slamming actual POGs.

POGs were up-and-down in the New York area, with some shops doing $400 a week and some shops doing bupkis. Even so, Brill said, “the history of the product is an indication the tri-state area is in for a good POG ride before the price falls.” And who doesn’t love a good POG ride, regardless of the price?
My favorite whistling-in-the-graveyard character in this saga is Jim Mitchell, owner of Safe-Co Plastics and manufacturer of mucho POGs. “I don’t believe [POGs] are a short-term thing,” he told Brill. “It’s the marbles of the ‘90s and we’re making quality collector caps.”

What Mr. Mitchell was suffering from, among other things, is a misunderstanding of marbles. No marble-maker ever made marbles looking over their shoulder, scanning the horizon for the end of their marble ride. Marble-makers made marbles secure on the knowledge that someone was going to buy their marbles.
The marbles of the ‘90s were marbles – and not by accident, since the marbles of the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s were marbles. See, the thing with marbles is you don’t have to play the game of marbles to have a hell of a lot of fun with marbles. Got an inclined plane or a mortal enemy? Swell! Then you’re fixed for fun stuff to do with marbles. Macaulay Culkin never used POGs as a boobytrap in Home Alone, nor could he. What was he going to do – fill a laundry chute with them? Launch them from improvised catapults? Have the dog eat them and throw up over the burglars? Give me a good boulder steelie anyday.

And along those lines, no self-respecting marble-maker ever said anything as ludicrous as, “We’re making quality collector marbles.” Heck, no: They’re making marbles. If people want to collect them, eat them on toast, spread them on stairs, drop them from a great height on the heads of squirrels, plant them in their garden and try to grow their own, it’s all fine – as long as they buy lots of marbles. The day a marble-maker started making collector marbles would be Day 1 of their demise.[4]
Brill concluded his piece with, “Many dealers thank their lucky stars, because in a slow period POGs kept many afloat.” Hey, dealers: That should have been a clue to your fate. When you start relying on non-milk non-bottle non-caps to feed your family, to keep the lights on and the wolf away, that’s a good time to find another line of work – unless you really want to wait for the Beanie Baby rip-offs with player names and numbers to drive that last nail in your coffin.

Good as that story was, it wasn’t Brill-iant Ideas’ only memory-jogging example of obsolete technology being employed in the collectibles arena to keep the larder full between POG runs. There was also a story on phone cards. 

I realize that phone cards still have limited uses in international commerce and communication, but in the mid-‘90s some marketers saw phone cards as … well, it’s hard to give you a modern comparison to the phone card as they conceived it. Imagine you needed to scan a special card every time you watched a movie via Netflix, and this card could only be used for Netflix movies. That’s not so far-fetched – right? Okay, now make it so that this Netflix card only got you about as far as the part where the indestructible dude throws Tony Stark through a skylight, and then you have to dig up another one of these cards to watch the rest of the movie, and hope it gets you through the part where Gwynneth Paltrow throws the self-destruct switch without having to produce a third card from down in the sofa. That was a phone card.

Phone cards initially had a nondescript image on the front – a globe, say – and a reasonable amount of long-distance talk time – somewhere between 100 and 1,000 minutes. As marketers realized that phone cards could be sold on their utility and retained for their collectibility the variety of front images increased and the amount of minutes on each card declined, so that by the end of the phone-card era it was like making a long-distance call from an old pay-phone booth, only instead of plugging dimes into a slot you were plugging phone-card numbers in response to prompts. The cards looked absolutely bitchin’, though.

Naturally Upper Deck was all over collectible phone cards. If it was semi-illegitimate and could hold a picture of Ken Griffey Jr., Upper Deck was on it. UD led in late ’94 with a Mickey Mantle phone card, then announced in January 1995 that it had inked a deal in conjunction with phone-time reseller GTS to produce a series of five phone cards featuring current major leaguers, with second and third five-card series in April and May.

The first five cards featured Griffey (natch), Frank Thomas, Cecil Fielder, Fred McGriff, and Tony Gwynn, with nary a Scott Klingenbeck to be found. 

The cards were not cheap -- $12 for 15 minutes – and they came out at a time when baseball was being threatened by a labor dispute, hence the plaintive (and only slightly out-of-whack) statement from GTS President Tom Silverstein: “We hope for the return of baseball in the spring and the excitement that the first MLB/MLBPA Player PhoneCards will generate among all fans.”

Uh, no. Didn’t work out that way. The previous year’s strike dragged into the season, teams played a truncated 144-game schedule, Dante Bichette led the NL in homers with 40[5], and MLB/MLBPA Player PhoneCards fell into the collectible sump, never to re-emerge, not even to make a phone call. 

Licensed phone cards were not the worst idea. They do combine utility with collectibility, and Silverstein was right to hope that they would generate excitement. But the funny thing about hope is that sometimes it gets crushed – especially when Upper Deck’s involved.

And here is the best part, the I-can’t-make-up-this-crap surprise ending that ties everything together. In the gutter of Brill-iant Ideas, just below the news that Hank Aaron, Jerry Rice, the Brady Bunch kids, and the four surviving cast members of Gilligan’s Island will be appearing at an Atlanta show, was the announcement that all subscribers will receive a “1st Anniversary Brill Report Phone Card.” 

You know what this means: The phone-card aliens got to Bob Brill, the torch-bearer for poorly titled hobby journalism delivered via fax! Is no one safe?

Actually, we all are. Phone cards, POGs, The Brill Report, even Zubaz – they all passed from the scene. Now I see that Zubaz are coming back. Embrace them. Consider the alternative.

[1] Interesting word, hopscotch. Beer and whiskey all wrapped up in a kids’ game. And they wonder how we got to be a nation of tumble-down drunks.
[2] At least, I think they were Valiant Comics POGs. Maybe they were Valiant Comics and POGs. Whatever they were, they needed to leave New London now.
[3] That’s Houston for you – a dollar short and a day late. Dallas got Dallas and J.R. Ewing; Houston got Matt Houston, with Lee Horsley in a Roman-helmet hairdo and a Dave Wannstedt mustache – and in California, of all places.
[4] Some did, and it was.
[5] Must be the PEDs and the altitude.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Who You Callin' A Harlo?

On my bike ride this noon I noticed one of those big plywood storks you can rent to announce the birth of a baby.[1] The plywood stork had clenched in its plywood beak a plywood balloon with the words “Welcome baby Harlo.”

I saw the name and was momentarily taken aback, because I didn’t see “Harlo”; I saw “Harlot.”

I’m special but I’m not that special, so I’m probably not the only person who will make the Harlo-Harlot connection and conclude that naming your child “Harlo” is pretty much like naming her “Rostitute.” 

This is one of those cases where it pays to be complete. You want to name your kid “Harlow”[2]? Add the bloody “W.”

Another area that would have benefited from completeness in communication (transition alert) was the Handful O’Landfill era. I was reminded of this when I found a near-complete run of Trade Fax while cleaning out a file cabinet.

Trade Fax was a weekly trade publication started by Krause Publications to satiate the hobby’s interest for breaking news (breaking in the sense of being less than 10 days old) and break the backs of a couple of competitors, The Brill Report and Beckett Insider. Today the idea of up-to-the-last-10-days news being delivered on paper the consistency of Warren Jabali’s drawers[3] is ludicrous, like putting potato chips in boxes.[4] Back then it was like Twitter on muscle relaxants.

I didn’t have to dive far into Trade Fax to get stopped by a random fact. In fact, I cliff-dived headlong into this one and was paralyzed from the waist down.

The fact was a quote from a SkyBox product manager named Ken Smith. Ken isn’t around anymore. He died way too young – a real shame, because he was a peach of a guy: smart, funny, polite in that delightful southern manner, self-effacing.

Ken understood what it took to move product, so it really wasn’t a surprise to see the breakout quote in Trade Fax that said, “While gimmicks do have limits, it’s important to keep putting new products on the market.”

While Ken is guilty of being just a little too aggressive in the candor department, the quote also suffers from a lack of completism. I don’t think Ken said, “While gimmicks do have limits, it’s important to keep putting new products on the market,” and just left it there; I think he said, “While gimmicks do have limits, it’s important to keep putting new products on the market,” and then added, “so our gimmicks can beat the snot out of their gimmicks.”

The other fascinating thing about this issue of Trade Fax was its lead story, a description of the legal fight between Classic and Upper Deck Authenticated over autographed memorabilia. Basically, UDA was doing what it did best – file legal action, this time against Classic parent the Score Board over its selling of autographed memorabilia featuring UDA-exclusive athletes Wayne Gretzky, Mickey Mantle, Joe Montana, and Reggie Jackson.

Hoo doggie. UDA and Classic duking it out over autographs. This is better than Scott Walker and Kim Kardashian mud-wrestling over the rights to The Lone Ranger 2, with Vladimir Putin (wearing Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring) as the mud.

The quotes are classic, especially from Ken Goldin, the shopping-channel pot that would not hesitate to call any kettle in the cupboard black as a Paula Deen nightmare (tha Timbaland remix).

After UDA’s Brian Burr led off by saying, “We will do whatever we can to clean up the sports-autograph business. The consumer must be protected from the illegal businesses that profit from sports fans’ lack of awareness,” Goldin countered with, “What the case claims and what their press release says are two different things. Score Board is not being sued due to sale of unauthorized memorabilia, but because we’re supposedly infringing on UDA’s exclusive contracts with four athletes[5] … It’s a bullying tactic.”

Ken From New Jersey then went in for the kill. First he said he resented being included in a suit with “three entities that we know nothing about” (though if he knew nothing about one of the entities, Shop At Home, I am all the characters in the movie Rango, including the thing that looks like a cross between a gila monster and a hiking boot). Then he added, “What they’re doing is pathetic. UDA is a company whose co-founder and half-owner [Bruce McNall] has been convicted of fraud. They fired their president and shut down their mail-order catalog and retail outlets. Their highest-paid athlete [Mickey Mantle] is suing them for breach of contract. It should be very easy for anyone to figure out the reasons for this suit.”

How do you like them apples, Upper Deck?
I don’t have a record of what happened after that. My guess is that the two entities came to a settlement wherein McNall and Richard McWilliam donated their supplies of snake oil to the National Strategic Reserve in exchange for Ken Goldin having sinus surgery. But this one Trade Fax – and I have hundreds of others – gives you some idea of how serious (or maybe seriocomic) the pictures-on-cardboard business was at the height of the Handful O’Landfill era.

In other words, this post suffers from a serious lack of completism. And since I don’t have the motivation to complete it, I think I’ll sign off.

Hope you enjoyed my post. Have a nice day.

Sincerely yours, Treetwalker

[1] I wanted to say, “One of those big plywood storks you can rent from …,” and then fill in the blank, but then I realized I have no idea what sort of place rents big plywood storks. Stevens Point Stork Supply? Rent-A-Stork? The Stork Store? I think this will have to remain one of life’s great mysteries.
[2] Because it is a far, far better choice to name your innocent newborn after a self-destructing, substance-abusing, bed-hopping blonde actress, and spell her name properly. The name does sound kinda pretty, and there is the historical value. Besides, naming your child Marilyn Monroe Jones is such a cliché. Unless it’s a boy.
[3] Cf. Pluto, Terry, Loose Balls, p. 218. “Warren noticed that the kid was wearing cotton underwear. Jabali reached over and literally ripped the shorts right off the kid. Warren said, “Don’t you know that our ancestors had to pick this cotton? Get yourself some slick drawers.” Thanx and a hat tip to Jim and Sparky for that one.
[4] Of all the wayback-machine culture shocks my kids have been exposed to, this may have been the most shocking. For weeks afterwards they would break into bouts of head-shaking and mutter, “Potato chips in boxes?” It was a foodstuff and a container that simply did not go together, like chicken in a jar.
[5] Which would technically make the memorabilia unauthorized, but let’s not get wrapped up in the details here.