I came to America in 1987 and have lived in Florida ever since. It’s not the greatest place in the United States and our Summers are pretty much year-round but it’s my piece of the American pie and I am sticking with it. In the 80s, I spent my days at stores like Sears and Ames, Toys ‘R Us and Kay Bee Toys. That’s why the baseball card you see below always confused me. I picked it up at some mall card show (remember those?) in 1991 but for pennies on the dollar. At the time, Jose was a bonefide superstar so I couldn’t believe it. I studied the card, which was produced by Topps and wondered about its fancy glossy card stock. Topps’ flagship from 1990 featured some of the laziest and often times blurry photography I had ever seen but this unknown card seemingly had it all.
As it turns out, Hills was a discount department store based out of Massachusetts. I do not know how they earned their right to a Topps baseball card set because just a year after this card was produced, they had well under 200 total stores in the nation. Less than a decade later, they went under and were never heard from again. All that remains to a kid who grew up in South Florida is my Hills baseball cards. Sure, to the many kids from the 80s who had one of these stores in their cities they probably have great memories but still, Hills only covered about 7 states. One has to wonder how much money Topps earned for the right to have a relatively small store brand their name over these cards. Also, how many total sets were ultimately produced? Whatever the cost, it surely did not help as they were bought out by AMES in 1999. AMES went out of business in 2002.
Today, collectors including myself will go on and on for days to anyone who will listen about Topps’ monopoly and how they are producing just way too many products, parallels and cards in general. This is an absolute fact but not much has really changed. In the late-80s and into the early-90s, there were a lot of baseball card alternatives. Aside from the usual 1-2 products per licensed manufacturer (Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, Donruss, Score), we had a gluttony of “Broder” cards. Some looked good, others just awful but they all made their way into card shows and shops. Today, if you were to set up a booth at a show with custom cards you’d likely get laughed out of the event but back in the days before high-end printers were readily available to the public, anyone with the knowledge and resources could compete with the big boys of the card industry. For example, check out the Star 1986 Jose Canseco below.
There are literally hundreds of unlicensed, “Broder” cards of Jose Canseco that have been polluting my collection since way back in 1990. The one problem I often heard about these cards is how “anyone” with a printer could make them so what would stop them from continuing to produce them after their initial release date? Well, the flaw there is we didn’t exactly know what companies like Topps and Upper Deck were doing either so who is to say what’s really on the up and up? There have been rumors for decades that Upper Deck printed full sheets of just the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card from 1989 and sold them through the back door, essentially printing out money. Another flaw to that theory is that these unlicensed cards were completely worthless. They were never listed in the monthly issues of Beckett Baseball and could be had for dirt cheap. I often picked up sets of Star with 8-10 cards for a few dollars.
Hills stores and Rob Broder weren’t the only ones adding to the flood during the Baseball Card Boom of the late-80s. During the “Junk Wax” era, it seems like everyone wanted to grab a cookie from the jar, which resulted in more card sets than one can keep up with. K-mart and Woolworths. Kay Bee Toys and Toys ‘r Us. Pepsi and Post. You name it. Everyone wanted in on the action. Today, all these cards are worth less than the paper they were printed on but for a generation who grew up with them, they are part of their collecting memory. These cards for us, despite carrying the “Oddball” moniker, held up well with the overpriced $2 packs of Upper Deck. Sure, maybe we were kidding ourselves but to kids who still had their training wheels in baseball cards, they absolutely were magical.
As much as I love collecting baseball cards, it’s not the actual cards that make these sets so memorable. See, these cards unlike any other flagship releases take me back way deeper into my childhood. I can remember being 9 years old running through the isles of Kay Bee Toys. The excitement of finding a new Transformer toy for my mom to hopefully buy or looking at the video game systems behind the glass with the seemingly endless shelves of video games next to them. We weren’t rich or even well off but my mom did something right in her life because every weekend I’d come home with some toy or by 1990, a pack of trading cards and everything would be just fine. Believe it or not, these corporate brands on these forgotten cards are what makes them memorable to me.
It’s hard to believe but in 2019, an age when more than half of my purchases come from Amazon or eBay … I would give anything to spend one more day being a kid again and walking down the isle of Toys ‘R Us. Showing my mom all the toys I want for Christmas or seeing a whole section of baseball cards and looking through the wax wrappers for a hint of a big freak on Steroids named Jose. Those days are long gone, as is my youth. Sadly, the stores in these cards have all disappeared as well. In my town of Sarasota, there are 3 malls but two of them are “dead”. Sears closed down, K-mart is gone. Toys r’ Us left two years ago. It seems the best we can do to relive these days is Target or Walmart with their uncaring employees, not to mention messy and mostly empty shelves.
Today, these cards and almost all from that time period have been universally labeled by collectors as “junk” and judging by sale prices at flea markets and card shows, “they” are more than likely technically correct. To me, however, these cards are a direct portal to my childhood and the memories attached to it. In the end, your first day at Disney or a big birthday party will always remain with you but as you grow up other less exciting memories tend to fade. These unwanted corporate sets will be a lifetime reminder of the love my mom, a single mother who worked 2 jobs for over twenty years, had for me. Even small moments like opening up packs as my mom drove home tired are some of the best memories I could have and they will never go anywhere thanks to these sets.
One man’s junk, is another’s treasure.