Topps always made the special card relevant and topical. For the most part they featured at least one player anyone cared about, (and when Upper Deck came around in the Nineties they realized this and kept the tradition alive), but for a while there in the Eighties and early Nineties, it seemed like the hapless Fleer photographer went to a bunch of games and got random players to stand next to each other, then went back to his station wagon in the parking lot and wrote a couple sentences of how the two players might connect. Juan Samuel and Tim Raines? How about Doubles and Triples? It almost sounds like they’re on one of the teams in the Laff-a-Lympics. How about Dave Winfield and Kent Hrbek? They look like they’ve never met, but presumably Mr. Veteran and Mr. Rookie are best buds and only rivals in the press. Here’s how one of their conversations might have gone:
Hrbek: I enjoy hunting and fishing in the off-season.
Winfield: I once killed a bird on the field then crouched over its carcass and ate it raw.
Hrbek: Okay. I was actually going to ask you about playing in San Diego but now I don’t know if I want to.
Winfield: I liked the sea birds there ’cause it’s warmer. The meat isn’t as tough.
Winfield: I used to keep a hutch in my backyard and sometimes if the moon was full I’d go out there and just sit.
Hrbek: Oh yeah? You know, I’m pretty good at mimicking birdcalls.
Winfield: And then I’d bite the head off one of them if it made eyes at me. I can see pretty well in the dark, so it’d really have no chance of flying away and make me think it wasn’t them. But one got away once…
Hrbek (throwing his voice to make it sound like Twins Manager Billy Gardner): Hey Rook! Get in the cage!...Well, nice talking to you. See ya around.
Winfield (staring into space): I tracked it down, though. I killed it on the field and then crouched over its carcass and ate it raw.
And how about Robin Yount and Buddy Bell? First of all, implying that Bell is worthy of taking part in a Superstar Special (or really anyone on the 1982-3 Texas Rangers with the exception of Ferguson Jenkins) is an exaggeration, but it does allow us to see what Ric Flair looked like as a younger man. Are you kidding? The two must be brothers, if not the same person. Have you ever seen them in the same room together? And if you have, what kind of function were you at?
Donruss tried to get in on the action with one or two special cards per set, but never really knew how to finesse it. Take this card of Vince Coleman and Wille McGee from the 1986 set. No, Vince is not a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on McGee’s lap, though it does seem that way. Donruss gets points for the topic and the players chosen, but just as promptly loses those same points for having one of their crack high school graphic designers make Coleman look tiny in comparison to the gargantuan McGee. Seriously, they’re on the same team; just make them stand next to each other. You could probably even convince them to hug or high-five and smile winningly at the camera, like an Olson Twins poster. It was probably for the best that Donruss didn’t waste their time with the special card (they had the incomparable Diamond King, after all); Fleer did make some beauties.
I remember buying the Gooden/Clemens card at a show. I think I paid a dollar for it, but it was totally worth it. I think that if I saw this at a show (if I went to shows today) I’d probably still pay a dollar for it, that’s just how awesome this card is. Think about it: two great pitchers at the top of their game, meeting in the World Series, from one of the best sets of the decade on one of the most desirable cards from the set. You’re goddamned right I’m gonna pay a dollar for that. One of the best cards ever (even if I don’t really care about either player, nor would I give either a dollar if I saw them on the street…unless I had a camera with a timer and we could recreate the photo on the card. Then I might consider giving Dwight Gooden a dollar, though the most I’d give Clemens is maybe twenty-five cents, and then only if he needed a quarter and I had one and he had two dimes and a nickel…but not if he only had nickels. I really don’t like getting so many nickels). And how cool is the Al Oliver/Tim Raines double special card from the 1984 set? Wicked cool. Look at their expressions: Raines wants to hurt someone; Oliver is just happy to have all his limbs intact and still be playing.
The last great Fleer superstar special is from the god-forsaken 1991 set (the one that made you barf when you opened the first pack of the year, and even though you tried to convince yourself that it was going to be okay and you kept buying packs, it wasn’t going to be okay. It was never going to be okay). ‘Second Generation Stars’ Ken Griffey, Jr., and Barry Bonds. What a card, and you know, it’s not very valuable (but only because Fleer sent a PO to the printer with a few extra zeroes in the quantity ordered). They both look normal in the picture, just like regular guys. If you took their picture together now, Griffey would look the same, maybe a little heavier with added weight from age and Bonds would look like he ate a still-inflated moonwalk.
In various ways in the early Nineties, Upper Deck tried to capture the same magic that Topps and Fleer were able to showcase. Some weren’t that great in the first couple of years, though by 1993 they hit a goldmine (if you ask me). With the Teammates subset, each team got a special card, and while some teams had questionable entries (who would you flank the immortal Brett with from the Kansas City Royals? Wally ‘The Mormon Ferris Bueller’ Joyner? Or maybe Gregg ‘Mickey Dolenz’ Jeffries? You tell me, because I’ve run out of ideas), most were good and a few were even fantastic. The Cleveland Indians card was fantastic, with Belle, Sandy Alomar, Jr., Thome, Baerga and Kenny Lofton. When this set came out, I thought four out of those five guys were going to the Hall of Fame. Okay, that’s a stretch, but Belle and Lofton for sure. The Yankees card and the Reds card were funny, if only because Roberto Kelly was on both of them. Gotta question the integrity of Kelly, don’t you? Or at least figure out who at Upper Deck was totally in love with him.
Fight! Fight! Fight!
Who would you pick in a fight?
Otis Nixon is waiting in line at a Luby’s Cafeteria, and all of a sudden Hall of Famer Robin Roberts cuts in front of him. Nixon’s pissed. I’m not sure if I’d provoke Robin Roberts if I were you, Otis. He may have cut in front of you, but you’re going to get your clock cleaned if you mess with him in his quest for the last piece of blueberry pie. Roberts goes for the piece of pie, Nixon bum-rushes him (still got speed, baby!), flips Roberts’ tray, Roberts reaches into his sock for his shiv and we got ourselves a fight!
Who’s going to win?
You tell me.