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.

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