Baseball Cards and an Aging Slugger

It’s a pretty well known fact that when Upper Deck entered the baseball card market in 1989, all other manufacturers had been asleep at the wheel for quite some time. Upper Deck came out swinging and took charge of the card industry thanks to bright, crisp photography and a classy design. It took Topps several years to respond but the wait was definitely worth it when collectors got their first look at 1991 Stadium Club. Unfortunately, Stadium Club never really lived up to the hype of its unbelievable debut and it is clear that when Topps introduced Chrome and Refractors in 1993, Stadium Club took a back seat. Things got even worse in 1997 with the debut of Bowman Chrome and prospect autographs (in the Bowman flagship and Best line).

While Stadium Club found success often with great-looking inserts, the Hobby train had left the station by the late-90s as collectors began to focus their attention to pack-inserted autographs and game-used relics, AGAIN, two innovations introduced by Upper Deck in the baseball card market. Eventually, Stadium Club fell so out of favor that it was retired by Topps in the early 2000s. Below are some examples of base cards from Stadium Club during what I consider to be the peak years of baseball cards (’96-’99). This is what Stadium Club was letting out during the years Pinnacle Brands and Fleer / Skybox were producing nothing short of baseball card magic year after year. It’s no wonder collectors stopped caring about Stadium Club.

1996 – lazy design, terrible photograph
1997 – Forgettable photograph
1998 – Another forgettable photo
1999 – Just another random photograph

After a long retirement, Stadium Club made a grand return in 2014. Unlike the hobby landscape of the past, there is now only one company that can produce licensed baseball cards and instead of 10-12 products a year from Topps, collectors are now flooded with close to 40 different releases per year. It’s easy to get lost in the pack these days but for some reason, Topps has actually given collectors something unique. Stadium Club is once again beloved for its photography. Yes, each set has Chrome, Superfractors, and certified autographs but many times it’s the amazing photography that is all that anyone is talking about in card forums and on Twitter.

I already wrote how 2018’s Stadium Club Jose Canseco card instantly became one of my favorite cards of all-time but what Topps did with his 2019 base card is simply on another level of greatness. Jose is still a mysterious figure these days. Part buffoon on social media and tragic figure everywhere else. Anyone who personally witnessed Jose’s rise to fame in 1988, the year he won the MVP and became baseball’s first “40-40 Man”, could never have predicted a fall this steep. From being banished from baseball a season away from 500 home runs, to multiple arrests, jail time, bankruptcy, multiple foreclosures, and even a strained relationship with his only child. There are days when I feel Jose’s pain will only come to an end when his own life does.

Which of course brings me to this card, featuring what appears to be a morose Jose Canseco walking into the dugout. What I see is Jose walking away from his fans who still love him and going into “the light”. Incidentally, Jose turned 55 years old yesterday. For a man who has abused steroids for over 20 years, realistically, Jose is living on borrowed time. Two guys who come to mind that probably abused steroids more than Jose are Randy Poffo AKA “The Macho Man” and James Hellwig AKA “The Ultimate Warrior”. Those two died of heart attacks at ages 58 and 54, respectively. Eleven years ago, A & E released a documentary on Jose titled ‘Last Shot’ in which it was revealed that Jose was already suffering from serious health side affects due to prolonged steroid use. I can’t imagine his health has improved much in over a decade but what I see besides sudden hair loss is Jose continuing to shrink in size and also looking red in the face at many public appearances.

Jose made a promise to his dying mother that he would do whatever it takes to make her proud and reach the Majors. He gambled his life away on Steroids and when that day does come that we see Jose’s picture on TMZ and all over social media, THIS is the card I will look at and cherish for the rest of my own days. Somehow, Topps Company has produced one of the best and most memorable Jose Canseco cards ever and would you look at that? No autograph or piece of game-used memorabilia was even needed.

Who’d a thunk it? #ThanksTopps

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Things Were Different In My Day

Take a look at the card below. It comes from an overproduced baseball card era when card companies left their printers running full time and at full speed with hopes of artificially creating the next ’52 Topps Mantle. In the end, 30 years later, I can’t even say I blame them. No matter what these iconic, pieces of cardboard mean to us … to companies like Fleer, Donruss, and Topps, these cards were nothing more than a way to make as much money as possible. Business as usual. So if collectors were buying up wax at an all-time high, you can bet card companies wanted to benefit. The end result, unfortunately, is worthless “junk wax” that clogs up card shows, garage sales, eBay, and attics all over the United States.

The 1988 Fleer ‘Power Team’ card above isn’t anything special, as far as value is concerned. There are literally millions of copies that wound up in landfills, millions of copies in collections, and still many more millions of unopened boxes waiting to be busted open. However, to me it is special for a couple of reasons. First, it was one of the first baseball cards to feature the “Bash Brothers” and trust me, there would be several dozen more to come. Topps Company likely did it first with their ’88 Flagship but to me, the Fleer version had more style, color, and in my opinion, has aged much better. Dare I say, 1988 Topps was and always will be a bore.

Another reason it remains special to me is because it’s one of the ‘Original 10’, meaning one of the first 10 Canseco cards I owned in a collection that is now sadly is pushing 1,500 different cards. I picked this bad boy up in 1990, two years removed from Jose’s historic MVP season and at a time when ALL of Jose’s cards were extremely overpriced. I remember laying eyes on his 1986 Donruss Rated Rookie for the first time in a card shop that same year and being floored when the price tag read $165 dollars. For a 10 year old, those figures were astronomical. I finally did pick up my first copy of the Rated Rookie but in 1998 and for a whopping $8 dollars.

So even though it’s not a base card or a second year card, in 1990, this card was still worth a few bucks. As a kid, I spent countless hours looking at and organizing my collection and this was one card that got plenty of attention from a kid who idolized a player who would soon begin his descent into worldwide mockery. Sadly, even I couldn’t even begin to imagine what a joke my childhood idol would one day become. Still, I always wondered about the photo, which appears to have been taken at Fenway Park in 1987. Well, thanks to the power of the Internet, I now have a better understanding of one of my ‘Original 10’.

Photo courtesy of Mitchell Layton. Captured on July 19th, 1987 in Massachusetts. It’s not the exact photo used by Fleer but it comes from the same set of photographs, I am 100% certain. Just look at the stadium, Big Mac’s, 80’s-style gold chain and both player’s batting gloves with Jose’s green wristbands. Interesting to see a huge Marlboro billboard in full view of children and TV cameras. The decade of the 80s were a much different time. These days, you’d have protests, online petitions and more to have something like this removed from plain view.

If you ask me, I’d rather go back to 1987.

The Exploitation of Fleer

I’m going to say something today that I’ve never said before in over 10 years as a card blogger. Despite being a die hard Pinnacle Brands aficionado, it was Fleer Trading Cards, not Pinnacle, that featured the best-looking designs and most unique inserts that have stood the test of time. Don’t believe me? Check out the recent Michael Jordan Fleer/Skybox PMG that sold for $350,000. That card doesn’t have a piece of game-used memorabilia embedded in it nor does it feature Jordan’s overpriced signature anywhere. It is just a marvelously beautiful and rare card from the 90s.

Last week, my Twitter timeline was flooded with Fleer cards featuring moments from Michael Jordan’s embarrassing Hanes commercials. I say embarrassing because in one of those clips, he actually sports a Hitler mustache and no one seems to bat an eye. At first, I figured some custom card maker had created these monstrosities and started spreading them around because to be completely honest, they looked like a dumpster fire, featuring mostly blurry screenshots of commercials. Surely, no company in their right mind would associate themselves with these cards, right?

Unfortunately, these are not custom cards but “official” Fleer licensed cards produced by the company that purchased Fleer in 2006 yet didn’t have a single clue what to do with the commodity. It wasn’t long before the Upper Deck Baseball brand suffered a sad, public death, which unfortunately swallowed Fleer Trading Cards as well. There was talk of a baseball comeback with Fleer being put ahead of their own Upper Deck brand, but according to many, that idea was ridiculed to the point of cancellation and has never been discussed publicly by Upper Deck again.

Well, Fleer is back, sort of. You can now find Fleer’s comeback attached to underwear. Sadly, I am 100% dead serious. There are 800,000 packs of these terribly cheap, Jordan Fleer cards sold with Hanes underwear in stores like Wal-Mart and Target. There are only ten autographs in the entire series meaning the odds of pulling one is over 1:100,000. More than likely, you’re going to end up with cards that not only are a disgrace to Fleer’s tradition of brilliant work, but also a reminder that some collectors are so addicted that they will literally buy anything.

If you go into a Walgreens or CVS, you will find a product of cards with a guaranteed hit often referred to as Fairfield Mystery Boxes. These boxes are filled with “junk wax” era singles that belong in a fire pit but with a $2 game-used relic or some never-was prospect autograph. I’ve seen several dozen boxes busted on YouTube and not once have I seen anything of value in them. This industry has someone found a way to repackage the same terrible “hits” you complain about in $150 hobby boxes and has managed to somehow sell it back to you again. Brilliant! Sometimes I get the feeling that collectors who are addicted to cardboard have zero standards.

For younger collectors who weren’t around in the 90’s or were simply too young to collect, let me show you the magic of Fleer / Skybox so you can see why an old fart like myself is once again on his 90s soapbox. Below are only a small sample of Fleer / Skybox Michael Jordan cards that were produced 20+ years ago. Unlike cards of today, many of these issues have become iconic and revered, to the point that the market has skyrocketed. It’s not just Michael Jordan. Tim Duncan hit $33K, Scottie Pippen, $22K, even a guy like Ray Allen hits $11K. Fleer was consistently producing top notch trading cards in the mid to late-90s that continue to break secondary market records.

… and ya’ll are going crazy over Hanes Jordan cards?!?