March 18, 2006

Think You’re Special?

When I would choose to collect a new set, a deciding factor to go for it would be whether or not the set featured special cards. Topps pioneered the special card, starting with the O’Brien Brothers card in the 1954 set and the Mantle/Berra card that closed the 1957 set. The special became a staple in the Sixties, didn’t really hang around in the Seventies and then was brought back into the fold by Fleer in the Eighties. And for the most part, a special featured all-star caliber players. I can’t put into words the momentary excitement and longer-lasting disappointment of finding a special card in your pack and have it feature Howard goddamn Johnson.

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.
Hrbek: Uh-huh.
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.


Mike said...

I loved the Upper Deck teammates subset, if only for this card of Mark McGwire and Ruben Sierra.

This card reeks of either desperation or laziness. First off, the images have been photoshopped as McGwire is scoring during a day game and the photo of Sierra was clearly taken at night. Secondly, Sierra has supposedly come out to the plate to congratulate McGwire on a homer, but neglected his batting helmet. Oops. And third, Upper Deck used the Canseco-McGwire moniker of "Bash Brothers." It seems as though the trade of Canseco for Sierra ruined their plans for the card and they scrambled to figure something out.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious column, Ben. And good call too, Mike, on the faux "Bash Brothers" card. But how do you know Sierra's picture was taken at night? Is it the sleeves under the uniform?

Aggressively Stupid said...

Of course, Otis Nixon would win. Otis "what's that on my nose" Nixon would kill Robin "Don't spell it Robyn" Roberts.

PS, This is the greatest blog I have ever read.

PPS, that Indians card is the bane of my existence due to the level of talent on it and the championships NOT won by it.

MikeC said...

Robin Roberts clearly wins for the same reasons that A Boy Named Sue won every fight. Having a girl's name toughens you up.

If Buster Douglas, say, had been named Susan Douglas? He would've held onto that title a lot longer, I'll tell you that much.

Mike said...

Regarding Sierra, it's mostly the lighting on his face that makes me think that it was night-game shot. It's harder to tell without viewing the card horizontally. However, I still prefer humorous photoshopping to Upper Deck's current lazy usage of the same photo on the front and back of many of their issues.

Russ said...

If Nixon hasn't had any coke in a few days then he wins the fight the end of which has him viciously punching Roberts on the ground screaming something about how he'd rather have an 8 ball than robbing Andy Van Slyke of another home run.

birdDC said...

This is off subject, but this excellent blog has talked a lot about good players on bad cards and bad cards in general, but what about card stars? For my money, Mr. Nolan Ryan was the best baseball carder of all time. Has anyone ever seen a bad Nolan Ryan card? Ok, maybe that Upper Deck of him throwing a football for some reason (Upper Deck Management: "LOL! A FOOTBALL!") but what about that other card of him pitching WITH BLOOD COMING FROM HIS FACE. Or that 91 Score card of him walking off the mound with his hat in the air? Or this:
the most beautiful card of all time? I think Nolan Ryan needs some sort of special recognition, I'm not sure what, for the achievements he's made over his card lifetime. What do you think?

The Rev said...

The 91 Donruss "Dr Dirt and Mr Clean" card with Lenny Dykstra and Dale Murphy has to rank up there. I loved that card like it was one of my children at the time.

ryan said...

dave winfield & kent hrbek are both minnesota natives...that would be my guess as to the reason for their pairing. great site, by the way. random notes in reference to some of your older posts - my brothers and i used to call the guys who had the airbrushed uniforms "painted hat heroes" and would collect them. and either bob walk or kent tekulve get my vote for ugliest baseball player ever. is it just me or do players from the 80's almost always look like they are between 35-45 years old when compared to players these days? must be the mustaches. anyway, keep up the posting and i'll keep reading...

Crawford said...

From that Fleer could you leave off the Black & Blue two-card "siamese card"? And what about Joel Youngblood's card where he's on two teams on the same day?

Matthew Appleton said...

The "Dr. Dirt and Mr. Clean" card was actually just a reprint of a poster the Phillies gave their fans at the home opener that year. As good as the card seems, it's even better as a poster.

SK said...

That Clemens/Doc card is tight. My uncle gave me a very old special card with Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle (1962 I believe). That is easily my favorite card in my collection. A classic.

Anonymous said...

Great column on special cards. One of my favorites was the '82 Fleer card "Steve and Carlton: Carlton and Fisk." It fascinated me as a youngster. I remember thinking, "so their names still appear the same if you use their first names and last names together?" It still boggles the mind.

josh Mueller said...

Donruss had a wonderful "2 for the Title" card featuring Mattingly and Winfield. And what's better was that it also came as an error card!

Eric B. said...

To me, the epitome of special card silliness was the '84 Fleer double of Al Holland and Lee Tunnel, which was obviously made for no other reason than that somebody at Fleer thought that the "Holland Tunnel" pun was funny. It wasn't when I was a kid, and it's still not now.

Anonymous said...

I have that '87 Topps Otis Nixon card hanging on my wall. I love it. It's between my '81 Topps Woody Peoples card, and my NBA Hoops Scottie Brooks autographed card.