Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Wild, Wild Turkey

I have a wonderful son with a great engineering mind who seems to live in ignorance of the last 300 years of technological advancement.

For instance, the other day he said he wants to build a car. This is all well and good; for him to say he wants to build a car is a great leap forward in logic, and will also save me the expense of buying him a car later, even if this car winds up in a pile behind the fence, along with the other points on his particular learning curve.

However, then he said he wants to make the pistons out of wood, and machine them on his lathe. This is the point where we had The Talk. This is not The Talk you may be used to; this version of The Talk begins with me saying, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it,” and concludes with him going ahead and doing it anyway, because he’s a 14-year-old boy, and you know, what the hell.

One of the big problems with the trading-card business during the Handful O’Landfill era was that there were always figurative parents having The Talk and figurative 14-year-olds going ahead and doing it anyway, because, you know, what the hell. And you could do autographed chase cards.

We were the parents in this particular scenario, which tells you how messed-up this business was. It got so that companies wouldn’t tell us they were going to carve a particular piston out of wood; they would just hand us a half-chunked-out piston-thing and say, “Here; see what you can do with this.” And we would throw in some autographed chase cards and call it a day.

TV shows and movies were the worst for The Talk. Just because a TV show or movie was popular or looked like it was going to be popular did not mean that it needed, wanted, or deserved a trading-card set, or that anyone would want to buy said trading-card set simply because the series or movie was popular or was projected to be popular.

There has never been a time when hot TV show = great hot card set. Even in the Golden Age of Trading Cards, which for the purposes of this column we will say was the early 1960s, manufacturers did not rush willy-nilly after the hottest TV shows. Here are the top ten TV shows from October 1964-April 1965: 
  1. Bonanza
  2. Bewitched
  3. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.
  4. The Andy Griffith Show
  5. The Fugitive
  6. The Red Skelton Hour
  7. The Dick Van Dyke Show
  8. The Lucy Show
  9. Peyton Place II
  10. Combat!

While many of these shows have had trading-card sets subsequently, only three – Gomer Pyle, Combat!, and Bewitched – had trading-card sets at the peak of their popularity (and bear in mind: this was three-network popularity in a society where people stayed home at night and watched TV, so this popularity was pretty darn popular). None of the sets were well-liked by collectors then or now. They were dogs of a certain breed, and object lessons in not chasing the latest hot TV show or movie.

Could Topps or Fleer (or Donruss, which made an early splash with its Combat! cards) have made a pretty good set out of Bonanza? Sure. Should they have? Based on the lack of success of the other TV-series sets that year, probably not. Fleer was smart to stick with its steady diet of Beatles, Beatles, and more Beatles, and Topps was very smart to stick with its homegrown solutions, and that whole sports thing.

All of which is just a rambling preamble to this week’s featured performers – and I use that term loosely, since “performers” in this context usually means something or something that performed well. That is definitely not the case here.

First up chronologically is the Wild Wild West movie set. Wild Wild West was a great TV show, though to modern eyes it sometimes seems as wheezy as the steam locomotive that chugs through the opening credits. Still, it had panache, and Robert Conrad and Ross Martin were a hell of a team. Conrad would careen through scenes like the love child of Steve McQueen and a Superball, Martin would underplay like mad and smirk like crazy, and the whole enterprise rolled along merrily but implausibly, like some loony perpetual-motion machine.

Wild Wild West the TV show would have made a great trading-card set, but you can’t fault Topps and Fleer for not pulling the proverbial trigger. There was no consistent track record for TV-show sets, and Topps and Fleer in those days were not 14-year-old boys fond of going ahead and doing it anyway.

Wild Wild West the movie was a different story altogether. It upped the implausibility factor by about 630 by putting Will Smith in the title role, and it blew the scriptwriting budget on extra gelignite. There was less chemistry than there is in a buttermilk pancake between Smith and Kevin Kline (his Artemus Gordon), and the entire enterprise was a colossal, laughless, lifeless, money-hemorrhaging flop. And Will Smith raps over the closing credits.

The clues to this property’s impeding stinkiness were legion, but let’s start here: Remakes of this sort have never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever worked. Sure, let’s nod and wink and blow stuff up and get a name actor to play the lead. It didn’t work for The Dukes of Hazzard, it didn’t work for The Addams Family, it didn’t work for Bewitched, it didn’t work for Charlie’s Angels, it didn’t work for Dragnet, it didn’t work for The Beverly Hillbillies, it barely works for the Marvel movies, and it doesn’t work here.[1]

So, supposing you’re SkyBox and you have the license for this turkey – and because you’re relatively shrewd (meaning shrewder than a table lamp) you can hear this one gobble a mile off – what do you do? Your basic choices are:
  1. Jump off the caboose while you can, eat the licensing fee, but live to print a different gold-foil card another day; or
  2. Ride this train all the way to its certain demise, which looks like the train scene in Bridge On The River Kwai only with none of the drama but a whole lot more C4 because, you know, what the hell.

Obviously the answer is No. 1, and just as obviously, SkyBox did No. 2.

Sure, SkyBox should have known better. But those days were all about not knowing better, and/or doing things in spite of knowing better.

So, let’s move ahead six calendar years, to the twilight of the Handful O’Landfill era. Presumably age brings wisdom, but here we have a card from Inkworks' Sopranos set.

We won’t even mess around with the normal cheap cracks. Here’s what’s wrong with a Sopranos set:
  1. The show’s not even on frigging network TV. More people saw the single episode of Ball Four than saw a whole season of The Sopranos. Based on comparable viewership, the Candlepin Bowling From New Hampshire set ought to be a go.
  2. It’s a kids’ collectible, not a document of societal progress sold five to a pack. The same medium that spawned Garbage Pail Kids, Wacky Packs, Odd Rods, or Baseball Weird-Ohs cannot also accommodate cards of scenes from an R-rated mobster psychodrama.
  3. There wasn’t a trading-card set for the Godfather movies, and how can you make cards for a modern-day Godfather if you don’t make a set for the original?
  4. The demographic is way off. It’s not like anyone was expecting eight-year-old boys to snap up these things. But the 45-year-old guys who were ostensibly the target of this set are the wrong 45-year-old guys. The target audience was downstairs watching the Astros and Mariners while the other 45-year-old guys were upstairs, decanting their shiraz, making their own buffalo mozzarella, and watching The Sopranos. And never the twain shall meet.
  5. For all its nonconformist aspects it's a totally conventional, straight-ticket-voting trading-card set. There was an opportunity to do something off-the-map with a Sopranos set, like include a horse's head in every pack, give away an affair with Edie Falco or offer show-used-pastrami cards instead of some stupid holographic gewgaw. But no, it's just gold foil and die-cuts and autographs, like every other contemporary non-sport set ever.
  6. Who wants to collect a picture of some old guy in a stupid cap?

Scratch that.

[1] They get it all wrong. If these modern remakers got their hands on Gone With The Wind, they’d spend all their money making the burning of Atlanta even bigger, and not try to fix all the stuff that breaks in the original after they burn Atlanta.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Game, Set, Blanch

If you’ve followed this column you know I’ve chronicled Handful O’Landfill-era sets for every major sport except one. Can you guess what sport?
That’s right: Caber tossing. So today we’re going to look at the Score CaberMasters set, featuring action portraits of superstar telephone-pole-tossers and haggis-eaters painted by noted sports artist Dick Perez.
Sorry. That didn’t happen, though probably not for lack of want-to. Lack of Scotsmen in the upper echelons of card-company management is to blame.[1]
Actually, the sport is tennis. I hadn’t planned on writing about tennis cards, but I was rummaging through a drawer looking for pictures of my loved ones to decorate my new digs and came upon not one but two tennis sets from the days of legwarmers and poofy hair. And you should have seen the women.

Before we get too far down this particular road to the landfill, let me say that tennis is my game. I have gladly given the game my shoulder and elbow and enough knee skin to make a nice mackintosh, and this noon I’m gonna give some more. I love tennis. I love smacking something round and fuzzy as hard as I can – in the context of the game – uh, tennis, I mean. It keeps me out of jail.

I even enjoy watching tennis, in a limited sense. I learn something every time I watch. Yesterday I learned that Andy Murray will never be any fun at all, even if you pumped him full of Yukon Jack and stuck him at the top of a bobsled run.

However, as much as I love playing tennis and enjoy watching tennis, I have never, ever smacked my forehead and said, “You know the one thing that’s missing from my total enjoyment of the game I love? Tennis cards! I wanna be able to trade two Jo-Wilfried Tsongas for a Mardy Fish and a Li Na rub-off!”[2]

While I may want as many pictures of Serena Williams as I can get my grimy hands on, I do not want them in a 2-1/2-by-3-1/2 format, unless you’re talking feet. Or meters.

Also, the ugly truth is that I am not exactly the target demographic for trading-card buyers, unless you’re pushing the Famous Caskets set, or the Clip Art Of Sixty-Somethings Dressed In White And Dancing On A Beach set. Then I’m right there.

Pressing on, leave us first examine the 49-card NetPro Legends set, from 1991. NetPro made a couple of tennis sets before the money ran out, then got pumped up again in the mid-2000s and is still out there selling tennis cards to the demi-masses. It’s either a money-making proposition or the greatest tax dodge since the United States Football League.

NetPro made serious tennis cards, which is better than making whimsical tennis cards, but only theoretically. If no one buys tennis cards, it wouldn’t matter if you made death-metal tennis cards. You’ll still sell the usual half-dozen sets.

The NetPro tennis set was not geared toward the rookie-chasing hot-card speculator. It features the first widely available card of Rod Laver, but on the So? Scale that’s only slightly above the fact that this set has the Anne Smith rookie. It’s asking a lot for Roddo to carry this set on his spindly legs.

Okay, there’s more than Laver to this set. There’s Arthur Ashe, who was half the tennis player Laver was but twice the cultural icon; John Newcombe, he of the droopy mustache and bottomless panache; Tracy Austin, the queen of tennis for all leg-warmer-wearing poofy-hairs everywhere; Billie Jean King without Bobby Riggs; and … and that’s about it. No McInroe, no Connors, no Chrissie Evert, no Bjorn Borg And His Hair, no Ivan Lendl And His Teeth, no Martina Navratilova, no Boris Becker – but, hey, here’s Roscoe Tanner!

You need to really be into tennis to get worked up over cards of Don Budge and Ellsworth Vines, so naturally I got worked up over them. But I was also gobsmacked by some of the players the set classifies as “legends.” The legendary Chuck McKinley? The legendary Sherwood Stewart?[3] The legendary Judy Dalton? Really?

If NetPro had really wanted to do a proper legends set, it would have included cards of the aforementioned Connors et al. plus Riggs, Bill Tilden, Jack Kramer, Helen Jacobs, Pancho Gonzales, Helen Wills Moody, Althea Gibson, Gottfried von Cramm, and Fred Perry – Tilden especially.

In fairness, a second 49-card legends series was planned, ostensibly with some of the aforementioned, though I have no memory of Series Two ever going live and neither does the NetPro website, where you can buy the legends set and other NetPro products from the archives/basement/court-appointed receiver. This just reinforces what I’ve said all along: If you’re going to make a tennis set, you gotta lead with Peaches Bartkowicz.

A shame about the second series, because these cards use every millimeter of poplar in service of the game. The pictures show tennis players playing tennis, and provide compelling visual evidence of the game’s evolution from long pants and small rackets to short pants and big(ger) rackets – if you’re into compelling visual evidence of short pants. Me, I prefer the blow on the head before bed.

The backs boil over with information, from playing style (outstanding; why didn’t more cards do this?) to career highlights to additional facts of interest. The card design is clunkier than a K-car with a busted U-joint (all K-cars, in other words), but at the same time it’s more sincere than Linus’ pumpkin patch. NetPro honestly wanted to make the world’s best tennis cards, and it was never swayed by the fact that the world really didn’t care.

If NetPro is Linus, all sincere and soulful, the Ace Fact Pack is Lucy – brash and loudmouthed and attractive in a love-it-or-hate-it way. (I always thought Lucy wasn’t that bad-looking. She just needed to mix up the wardrobe more. I mean, couldn’t she wear jeans just once?)

Let’s get the ugliness out of the way: These cards have playing-card backs.

Playing-card backs – honestly? Instead of running the quite-good pictures on one side and adding some more facts to the fairly-fact-filled backs (fronts?), Ace decided to treat the world’s greatest tennis players like a crazy-eights deck. The result is predictable. It’s uglier than a Chernobyl toad.

However, there is absolutely no quibble with the player selection. Every mid-‘80s player you would want to be in the set is there – McEnroe, Connors, Lendl, Becker, Navratilova, Wilander, Evert, Edberg, and Graf. (Borg had hung it up by then.) Pictures are solid, and every player has appropriate career highlights. The design is totally British -- no wasted space, no puffery, and unapologetically international. The only things missing are the crumbs from the sausage roll.

Still, there’s no getting around the playing-card backs. The one tennis-card set to have isn’t because you want to play pinochle with the flipping things.

I broke the seals on both these sets to write these columns. I hope the Gods of Collectibility will forgive me, because I don’t regret it. Like boxing cards, tennis cards were a noble effort in search of an audience. If card history teaches us anything, it’s this: It’s always best to have the audience first.

And always lead with Peaches Bartkowicz.

[1]  Upper Deck’s Richard McWilliam came closest, but he was from a region south of Scotland. South as the drill flies, through the earth’s crust.
[2] I never understood why they called them “rub-offs” when you’re clearly rubbing something on to something else. But what did we know. You could have stuck any preposition in there, called them “rub-next-tos” and we still would have rubbed them off onto the bathroom wall.
[3] Who I would have confused with Sherwood Schwartz, the producer of Gilligan’s Island, if I had known prior to today that there was such a person as Sherwood Stewart.