Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Par for the Course -- Get It?

Historically it’s been hard to get people excited about golf cards, and I can prove it. Golf cards. There. I said it. You excited yet? I rest my case.

Beyond the overwhelming dullness of the concept – and it’s like South Dakota in its bleak vastness, with the Corn Palace on one end and Wall Drug on the other – the demographics don’t line up. Now, granted, in the heyday of trading cards no one talked about demographics. They were too busy talking about debentures and annuities, and reciting the Greek alphabet to one another. When they weren’t doing that, it was a Cherokee Strip land-grab for licenses, and when the dust settled only a few odd stragglers like Calvin and Hobbes and the Hanna-Barbera cartoons (note to self: why?) had retained their dignity.

No, the truth is that eight-year-old boys and golf have never exactly seen eye-to-eye. Granted, I played a variant of golf when I was eight years old. I have the scar on my jaw to prove it. (I stood too close to Bobby Miller on his backswing.) We hacked around in our backyard, seeing how far we could drive a green plum, which lacked the dimpled aerodynamics of a Top-Flite XL but made a much better sound (and stain) when it struck the garage wall. Even so, golf was a poor 10th, behind baseball, football, basketball, tennis, swimming, green-plum fights, rotten-tomato fights, and currant wars, and in a league with Jarts and roller-skating (with the skates that clamp to your feet, fall off at a frequency in direct proportion to the steepness of the hill you’re descending, and throw a bearing anytime you utter a preposition).

So would I have bought golf cards when I was eight? Sure – but you have to realize: I was not the target audience. I craved the unusual, the weird, the off-the-beaten-middle-of-the-road stuff. I made (okay, my mom made) the local candy distributor order hockey cards in a market where the nearest NHL team was a four-hour drive away but none of the locals knew that. I bought (okay, my mom bought) Fleer Cloth Patches and Topps Jumbos and World Series cards and any other sporting confection Lang’s or Northside Drug wanted to carry (but not Odd Rods or Gomer Pyle, USMC cards, because they weren’t sports cards, silly). I did not chew the gum but stuck it in a candy jar. I did not stick the cards in a back pocket or flip them but put them in the boxes model train cars came in, and the most physical thing I did with them was build card houses.

So, yeah, I probably would have bought (or had my mom buy) golf cards.

Not these golf cards, though. ’65 Topps AFL golf cards, definitely. ’69 Topps Cap Peterson golf cards, for sure. ’64 Philly golf cards, more than likely. But not Imperial Sporting Collection Ryder Cup golf cards.

Still, I get where these cards are coming from. England, if I read the box right.

I mean, I actually get these cards’ raison d’ĂȘtre. They’re meant to resemble old British cigarette cards without the cigarettes, which is about as fair a trade as I can imagine.

British cigarette cards used sketchy art, and often this same sort of portrait-hovering-above-action (sic)-shot art, to showcase many of the action sports that cram the isles. You know – cricket, golf, bowls, fox hunting, darts, snooker, pub-crawling.

They didn’t often come in this size, though. The Imperial Sporting Collection cards are 2-3/8x3-1/8, smaller even than the old square Goudeys, and that makes them poor fits in just about any media you might use to display them. Not that you would, but you have to do something with them, because once you’ve bought the set that’s it. There’s nothing else to do but sit back and baste in the glory.

And there’s not a ton of that to be done, either. In contrast to many complete-in-the-box sets, there’s not much to this set – only 15 cards, including two recap cards. (I mean, it is a Ryder Cup set. If it didn’t just show the Ryder Cup team and get the heck out of there I’d be accusing it of set-padding, and who wants a padded Ryder Cup set? Not me.)

The combination of small cards, small set and wispy packaging makes this the skimpiest set of trading cards ever. This is an SI-swimsuit-edition-bikini of a trading-card set. Honestly, a single Ghirardelli chocolate square takes up more space, only the chocolate weighs more until you eat it, then it’s about even.

Ah, but the talent. There is more talent in the Ryder Cup set than in the aforementioned chocolate but not by much, since this is the Ryder Cup team from 1987, when European golfers, while not exactly inferior to the American models, largely kept to themselves on their tour. So while there’s Seve Ballesteros – the main reason for buying this set, now as then – there’s also lots of chumps with side partings that wouldn’t come apart at Royal Troon, guys like Ken Brown, Gordon Brand Jr. and Jose Riviero. They’re not duffers by any means, but they’re the Booth Lustegs of the golf world – which made their triumph in 1987 all the more surprising. It was like Florida Golf – excuse me, Gulf – Coast, in white belts.

Even with the included glassine wrap, the Imperial Sporting Collection Ryder Cup set is the lightest complete trading-card set I’ve ever encountered – not the optimum combination of attributes. It’s like having the best-smelling car. What does it get you?

In the case of the Imperial Sporting Collection, it didn’t get them sales. There was this set, a larger and somewhat more weighty set of American golfers (same size cards, though), the deathless Panasonic European Open set, and a set of “All Time Great Quarter Backs” (think Joe Montana with saddle shoes, or the Bernhard Langer art done up with shoulder pads), and then the Imperial Sporting Collectors were gone back across the pond, presumably to peddle their art to grownup eight-year-old boys with plaid slacks and Hush Puppies and vacant spaces in their offices just the right size.

And walls that can’t take a lot of weight.

Friday, March 1, 2013

London 0 Kingpins 4

Onward and upward with the arts, and the 1990 Collect-A-Card Kingpins pro-bowling set, too. Let's get right to the action -- which is more than the PBA ever did:

Ever wonder how bowling balls get juiced? Here you go. In another couple of hours it’s going to be stumbling around like Kristen Stewart at the Oscars.

A basic etiquette question crops up throughout the Kingpins set, namely: What’s an appropriate reaction for a bowler when he makes a nice shot?

The problem in bowling is there’s not a lot of athletic continuation going on to make a celebratory gesture look spontaneous yet not stupid.

Let me frame this question for you in the context of that other sport that dabbles in the pastel shades, golf. When a golfer makes a long putt, and s/he knows it’s going in the hole, s/he strides briskly towards the hole, simultaneously raising his or her hand to acknowledge the applause they know is coming as soon as the ball touches the bottom of the cup.[1] That’s a natural continuation of the putt, and not the starting-a-two-cycle-weed-whacker gesture most golfers (and bowlers) resort to when a putt they had given up for dead takes an abrupt left turn and jumps in the cup.

(There’s also the drop-the-putter-and-serpentine-wildly move, but that doesn’t even merit consideration. When a golfer feels the need to imitate Alan Arkin in The In-Laws, it’s like he’s surprised at his accomplishment, and I have no use for tour golfers who aren’t 100 percent dead-solid sure they can sink it from anywhere – the water, the sand, the tee box, the rainforest canopy, the crab nebula. It’s like the legendary Yankee scout Paul Krichell used to say: “A kid who thinks along the lines that it’s too hard to make it couldn’t make it anyway.” So why act surprised?)

The follow-the-ball-to-the-hole thing works in golf, but not for bowling, because it’s not only illegal but as ridiculous as hockey coaches in dress shoes walking on the ice after a game. Put Baryshnikov in a pair of Gucci loafers and send him out to the faceoff circle to shake hands with Sidney Crosby and he’s going to look like Wile E. Coyote, famishus famishus.

So what’s a bowler to do? The crowd expects something, even if that something is a severe questioning of their judgment for going to a bowling tournament and expecting it not to be a snoozefest with roller dogs. Cheerleaders are out, and so are jumbotrons, spotlights, pyrotechnics, sideline reporters, pep bands, Jerry Jones, that “Jump Around” song, and any other music that doesn’t come from a jukebox at 50 cents a track[2]. The crowd’s needs are simple: they expect a bowler to knock down the all the pins and then bust a move, so as to point up the crowd’s aggregated inadequacy in both departments. A spectator may never come away from the King Louie Open saying, “Man, that Earl Anthony sure can pump his fist,” but that’s what he’s thinking. In so many words.

Of course this expectation is unwarranted, but it’s real. The needs of the crowd must be served. The problem is that great bowlers are poor move-busters. Nothing is natural; everything is as conscious as a choice of matching belt and shoes (white). Ron Palombi Jr.’s fist-pump? Contrived. Joe Salvemini’s moonwalk? Pitiful. And these are the Italians. You don’t want to know the moves in Les Zikes’ arsenal.

The unfortunately inevitable extension of this thinking is The Happy Dance of Skee Foremsky, which almost certainly was performed to the jukeboxed strains of “The Pennsylvania Polka,” by Frankie Yankovic and His Yanks.[3] It’s a shame that the bowling crowd’s unslakable thirst for entertainment drove this Lone Star kegler over the edge. There’s no need for The Happy Dance of Skee Foremsky. Skee should be allowed to be Skee, whatever that means, away from the crushing peer pressure of the bowling crowd. And he should act like he’s been there before, which he most assuredly has, and he can sink it from anywhere, which is undoubtedly the case.

Skee, my man, you deserve better. But I’m not sure you deserve that much better.

First there was a Horse Whisperer. Then, if I have my whisperers straight, there was a Dog Whisperer, then a Cat Whisperer, and if I’m not mistaken they were followed by an Orchid Whisperer, a Tequila Whisperer, and a Chicken Whisperer. And I just got done reading about a Nanny Whisperer.

So what do you whisper to tequila? “You taste like Sterno filtered through bread”? I think the whole thing has blown its head gasket.

Still, in the spirit of things, behold the Bowling-Ball Whisperer. I’m guessing what he’s whispering to his ball is, “If you don’t knock all those pins down right now when we get home I’m filling you with concrete and dropping you off the end of Navy Pier,” which is where all bad bowling balls go to sleep with the fishes, especially when their former owners are from Des Plaines.

I’m astonished. I never knew that bowling alleys had wallpaper. I always thought their walls were finished in cigarette smoke, fryer grease, and four-by-eight sheets of fake knotty-pine paneling. Sometimes when the owners were ambitious they’d actually nail the fake knotty pine to the walls.

And then I’m astonished that bowling alleys had this wallpaper. I thought this pattern was exclusive to the gimmicky ice-cream parlors that flourished in the ‘70s and featured a 60-year-old guy in sleeve garters and a straw hat strolling from table to table, playing the banjo and singing “In The Good Old Summertime” until someone crowned him with the remnants of their 33-Scoop Gut-Buster Delight, which they invariably did.

This wallpaper does bring up the possibility that Bill Allen was bowling in his basement and not in a bowling alley, adding fuel to the debate that the PBA in the ‘90s did not really exist but was fabricated in a sound studio with not 90 different bowlers but three – a tall one, a short one, and a fat one – and lots of prop hair and glasses. And striped polo shirts.

This would explain Chris Schenkel, who appears to be not Chris Schenkel at all but a cardboard cutout of Chris Schenkel in broadcasting Neverland, waiting on the CGI. How easy would it have been to round up a cardboard Chris Schenkel and a nine-foot patch of hardwood-laminate floor, grab some old footage of strikes and spares and crowd shots[4], rig a ball return out of the back end of a Kawasaki 440LTD, and fake the whole darn Pro Bowlers’ Tour? The PBA was at its nadir. It was pre-NCAA, pre-chip hat, and pre-cool; it wasn’t like anyone was paying attention. And hey, it worked for the moon landing.

I think I’m done with the Kingpins set. It was fun while it lasted. Just be thankful I can’t find my PWBA set, featuring the deathless Tish Johnson. Now, if any readers have a set they want to share …

[1] Rumor has it that when Arnold Palmer was seriously injured in a car wreck in the ‘80s he had his shattered elbow set to acknowledge the applause of the gallery after sinking a long putt, only to reconsider when he realized he would have to stand on his head to get the ball out of the hole.
[2] Preferably a jukebox with “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the Chicken Dance, “Proud Mary,” and everything ever recorded by Bobby Vinton.
[3] And which was unquestionably inspired by the cover of London 0 Hull 4 by the Housemartins, one of the gayest bands to come out of the mid-‘80s British indie-pop scene. Draw your own conclusions there.
[4] Because the crowds at these events never changed. You think it’s a new thing to digitally create crowds in movies and TV shows? The PBA started doing it at the 1972 Waukegan Open. I have proof.