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.

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