The Snake Will Always Bite Back

In the late 90s, I watched a documentary on the behind the scenes aspect of professional wrestling. In that program, a wrestler, best known for his interview skills and accompanying pet snake that he’d utilize to scare his opponents, talked about life on the road with an endless supply of groupies and how damaging it was to his marriage. Basically, once you’ve been with thousands of women and involved in threesomes & orgies, having marital relations with just one woman just didn’t do it for him and he’d eventually end up divorced.

That’s me, I am the Jake the Snake of Jose Canseco baseball card collectors. With more than 3 decades under my belt, I am tired. Certified autographs, game-used jerseys, serial numbers, and parallels just don’t do it for me anymore. I have now reached the point that missing cards from the 80s and 90s is what I really desire. If you’re a longtime reader, you probably can guess that I’ve covered all my bases with Topps, Panini, Fleer, and Upper Deck but Pacific Trading Cards is one company I was never fond of and never made an effort to collect.

Today, I want to show off two cards I’ve recently acquired. One is an “oddball” and the other, a forgotten insert. Neither is worth much and 9 out of 10 collectors today would likely pass them up at a show but for me they represent something really special. These are two cards featuring eras of Jose’s career that just don’t receive a lot of coverage anywhere, especially in baseball cards.

The first is this lowly, bottom of the barrel unlicensed card back when people didn’t care about lawsuits and used team trademarked colors and logos. This card came up by accident when searching for Pacific Trading Cards as it was mass produced in the mid to late 80s by a company called Pacific Cards and Comics, which produced many awful Canseco oddballs during that era and had no connection to the gaudy Pacific Trading Cards we all know and love from the 90s.

Still, as far as oddballs go, this one is great. It features an excellent and very rare photo never to be used again on another card. The jersey is rarely seen in Canseco cards and is from his 1986 season. What’s interesting is this card is from 1989, which typically use 1988 images but going back into the archives works extremely well and makes this oddball stick out from the pack more than 30 years after it was produced. I paid $3 for this card and it’s worth every penny.

The second card I picked up, I wasn’t even aware existed. Jose’s time with the Yankees for me was a depressing time as I realized, maybe even before Jose did, that the writing was on the wall. There would be no 500 career home runs, no great comeback story, and definitely no Hall of Fame speech. The Yankees signed Jose to keep him from going to a contender and then happily placed him squarely on the bench for his remaining time. It was heartbreaking to see and was the beginning of my hatred for Major League Baseball. Since Jose’s retirement over twenty years ago, I’ve watched less than 10 full baseball games.

By the late 90s and into the early 2000s, Pacific Trading Cards were pumping out many sets with extremely rare parallels and inserts. Since my boy was struggling to stay afloat, I too began to stray from collecting and missed many different Pacific cards from this era, including this amazing Yankees crown die-cut. I have other Pacific crown die cuts of Jose with the Rays, Red Sox, Rangers, and Blue Jays BUT this is the ONLY Pacific crown diecut from Jose’s short time with the Yankees.

This card here (the unnumbered version) landed into my collection for $12. I will continue to grab missing Pacific cards of Jose needed to complete my collection but for me, none will top this Yankees diecut for many reasons, including that it somehow managed to evade me for over twenty years and stay off the radar of a true, Jose Canseco super collector.

CM Punk (and Pacific’s) Triumphant Return

I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never quite understood the fascination with CM Punk.

CM Punk was a charismatic wrestling personality and a great storyteller in the ring but by the time he rose to stardom, my lifelong obsession with the squared circle was nearing the end. I watched him instead as the co-host of a short-lived TV show covering WWE programming and saw him on more than one occasion get physically destroyed in the world of MMA. Oh, and of course I followed him on Twitter, where he occasionally had some interesting takes on WWE. I was certain by 2021 that the hype was over and we’d never see Punk wrestle again but his return, this time for All Elite Wrestling, absolutely shook the wrestling world. CM Punk’s comeback happened to come right on the heels of Upper Deck, at the Nation Sports Cards Convention, announcing that it was now the official card company of All Elite Wrestling. Upper Deck even managed to release a timely Topps Now-style CM Punk card to commemorate his unexpected/expected return.

The card below, which was only available for a few days, did big numbers as you can imagine and brought some much needed attention to Upper Deck. Punk’s first AEW card should come as no big surprise, however, considering Upper Deck’s strong relationship with CM Punk. Punk has appeared on multiple Upper Deck products over the years from hockey sets all the way to Goodwin Champions. Looking at the card below, to me, there’s nothing special about it but it’s always good to see Upper Deck in the spotlight again after the disastrous decade they have had to face since losing the MLB, NBA, and NFL licenses. It’s fair to say, Upper Deck’s glory years are in the rear view mirror. Just how many years/months CM Punk’s return to wrestling lasts is also up in the air but at age 42, he could easily perform for another decade if he’s inspired and paid accordingly. With Punk, nothing is certain.

So after seeing Upper Deck’s first Punk AEW card I started wondering about Punk’s rookie. I assumed, wrongly so, that it came from those mid-2000 Topps wrestling sets that where everywhere but to my surprise it came from Pacific Trading Cards! Thanks to Punk’s long-awaited return, the hottest card in the hobby for at least one weekend, came from Pacific. Talk about a blast from the past. The craziest part of all this is that in 2004, Pacific was on its very last legs after losing the MLB license (and all others) due to sheer stupidity. This means that at the time of Punk’s Pacific rookie card release, Pacific was looked at by collectors in the same way we look at Upper Deck today. Pacific in 2004 was a shell of their former self on the verge of bankruptcy and shuttering down due to one controversy after another. The only real difference between Upper Deck and Pacific is that Upper Deck, thanks to investors, was able to continue producing trading card sets long after their demise in major sports while Pacific struggled until finally ending all business operations.

As for Upper Deck’s upcoming AEW set, I’m still a wait-and-see guy. I asked one of their employees what their chances are of getting Punk signatures in the set, even as redemptions. I was told it’s unlikely due to the timing “but never say never when it comes to Upper Deck or CM Punk”. I for one hope they can find a way to make it happen, not for collectors … there’s enough CM Punk autographs out there. I want this set to be a huge success for Upper Deck as a company. Now that baseball is locked up for an eternity by Fanatics, it seems all Upper Deck can fall back on is their unlicensed sports cards, the Marvel properties, and this now very hot AEW product. The last thing I want to see is Upper Deck go the way of Pacific Trading Cards. As a collector of 30+ years, I’m tired of seeing the companies I grew up on closing down for good. I’ve lived through Fleer, Donruss, and Pinnacle’s demise, I don’t think I could handle Upper Deck’s extinction. No sir, not after making it THIS LONG without baseball.

Cramer’s Choice: The Finale

It wasn’t an easy decision to start writing about baseball cards again. For starters, it’s been 10 years since the glory days of the site and about as long since blogging was still considered a relevant form of media. Today, it’s social media and video that grabs all the attention. For me to commit fully, I needed to find something to work towards. Choosing to pursue Mike Cramer was an easy choice considering his once larger than life status in this industry and his mysterious, nearly 20-year absence.

I’ve committed two full years to this wild (card) goose chase. I had long given up ever finding this elusive, mythical figure but that all changed yesterday. At 10 PM Eastern time, I posted an update to the series, as there were several requests made recently on Twitter for me to do so. You can find the update HERE. Within an hour, I received an email from someone who wants to remain anonymous. Attached, was a photo of a grey-haired man and some of his pieces of artwork (not pictured).

 

Looking at the photo, there is no doubt that … THIS IS MICHAEL CRAMER. If you need any more proof, just check out his only official baseball card from the 1975 Phoenix Giants Circle K set. The man, the myth, the hobby legend has been uncovered. AND NOW, we say farewell. It was “Cramer’s Choice” to walk away from the trading card limelight and focus on more important things like family. Should he ever change his mind and want to do a quick interview, the offer always stands.

Thank you, Mike, for your work in this hobby that so many of us still love. I won’t be sending out any more unsolicited emails or writing about your whereabouts. Instead, if I do write anything, it will be about those brilliant ‘Cramer’s Choice’ inserts from the late-90s, that captivated so many collectors OR any of your other wonderful card sets, sports and non-sports alike. You made my childhood and millions of other’s absolutely awesome with your products.

Chasing Mike Cramer: UPDATE

In early 2018, after resurrecting this blog from a nearly five-year slumber, I set out on a mission to find the now-mythical, Mike Cramer. For those who don’t know or remember, Cramer was a lifelong collector and sports photographer who started from the bottom, producing non-sports trading card sets, until he managed to get his company, Pacific Trading Cards, an MLB license.

Unfortunately, like most of the manufacturers I write about on this blog, Pacific suffered a very nasty, public demise after a disastrous Manny Ramirez cork-relic and persistent rumors of purchasing fake, game-used memorabilia for their baseball products. Mike’s impressive empire came crashing down in the early-2000s and he’s not made a single, public appearance or granted an interview in nearly 20 years.

It’s hard to believe, in 2019, that Mike Cramer is still “missing” but that is the unfortunate truth. You can read about my first attempt at tracking down this respected hobby legend in ‘Chasing Mike Cramer‘ as well as part two with the first update, by clicking HERE. I came incredibly close to tracking down the trading card industry’s version of the Bigfoot but in the end still came up short.

*Update 2* 

Months after my article in 2018, I received an email from Mike Cramer’s son. He was kind enough to share with me that his father is now happily retired and is spending his golden years being a wonderful grandfather and an award-winning painter. Mike’s son approached his father about doing a quick interview with me but the reclusive Cramer graciously declined the offer.

One year later, approximately three months ago, I followed up with Mike’s son again to see if I could have a few words with the man behind Pacific Trading Cards. I was hoping a year-long wait would have changed his mind. I made sure to let Cramer’s son know that his father is a legend to a legion of collectors and that many of us grew up and even learned the history of the game of baseball thanks to his father.

Mike’s son, again, approached his Dad about an interview but he declined. This time, however, he had a little message for me (and all of you reading). Mike told his son to pass along his greetings and that he is thankful anyone still remembers the products his company produced so long ago. The Pacific head honcho also stated that he has moved on from that part of his life and is now focused on his family.

With that being said, I will try my luck again in 2020.

In today’s fast-paced world of social media, 30-second sound bytes, and on-going card scandals, it’s easy to forget or even dismiss Mike Cramer’s long history of work in #TheHobby. Mike worked his way up from a sports photographer, to producing trading card sets no one else would touch until finally earning his MLB stripes and joining the elite card manufacturers in the early-90s.

Everyone loves an underdog and Mike Cramer was the true definition of one. It doesn’t matter if you loved or hated his products, the man ran an operation from his home that kept pace with baseball card giants like Topps Company and Upper Deck. For a short while in the late-90s, Pacific was producing some of the finest parallels and inserts collectors have ever seen. Pacific was shinny, at times gaudy, but always REAL.

Today, Major League Baseball has given collectors no choice by making Topps Company the official baseball card manufacturer. For some, this may be a good thing but I truly believe that Cramer’s era of the late-80s into into the 2000s was the best time for this hobby thanks to fierce competition from 4-5 different manufacturers. I’ve said this 100 times and I’ll say it again, we need a second, licensed company.

…and collectors, especially those who loved his work, need an update from Mike Cramer.

We Must Not Do Our Enemies’ Work for Them

Looking back now, the year 2000 seems like the Wild West. It was a time before social media and smart phones. There were only 360 million people on Earth with internet access, a number that seems high until you compare it with 2018’s, 4.25 billion. Collectors were now spending their money on eBay more and more frequently, causing the slow and painful death of the local card shop. Meanwhile, the trading card industry was also going through changes. In 1998, Pinnacle Brands, a company that was so successful that it purchased two of its rivals (Donruss & Leaf), shockingly filed for bankruptcy. In death, not only did Pinnacle bury its own brands (flagship, Zenith, Score) but it inadvertently took down all of Donruss’ and Leaf’s products as well. This gave the overcrowded baseball card market some much needed breathing room.

By 2000, Topps Company was the top dog in baseball cards with Upper Deck now stuck firmly in 2nd place. Fleer/Skybox, a company that helped break the Topps monopoly in the early-80s, was struggling after a stellar run in the late-90s. As had been the case since landing a Major League Baseball license in 1993, Pacific Trading Cards was busy marching to the beat of their own drum. Their products boasted unique designs with unbelievably fun and often times gaudy parallels. Despite their excellent efforts, Pacific was never really able to break out of the pack even with inserts like ‘Cramer’s Choice’ owning the secondary market. By the time 2000 Pacific Invincible hit shelves, their time in #TheHobby was quickly running out. It wasn’t lousy sales that took them under or even the persistent rumors of buying and using fake game-used jerseys to save money but the release of 2000 Invincible and one of the most controversial and shocking baseball cards to ever hit the market.

In early 2000, Manny Ramirez was a baseball superstar just weeks away from signing a lucrative contract to join the Boston Red Sox. During his time with the Indians, he was a soft spoken, MVP-caliber slugger year after year. Recently, a former Pacific Trading Cards executive confirmed they received two corked bats that belonged to Ramirez. One of them went into the grinder and helped create 200 “game-used” memorabilia cards. Unfortunately for Pacific, despite efforts to remove them before assembling the product, some made it into packs of Invincible. No one knows exactly how many but in 2012 one of these cards hit eBay with an astounding $5,000 asking price. The other bat was saved and x-rays ultimately revealed the cork forever tucked away inside Manny’s tainted bat. This was years before Manny became “Manny” and spoiled his guaranteed entrance into the Hall of Fame with multiple PED violations.

We will never know the truth about Pacific’s introduction of the game-used cork. A year after the embarrassing card hit the market, the company had their MLB license revoked and not long after filed for bankruptcy. Mike Cramer, the man behind Pacific, has become a recluse and has done zero interviews or made any public appearances since the scandal shook the world of sports cards nineteen years ago. In 2018, I attempted to track down Mr. Cramer and somehow got as far as his son, who spoke with Mike for me. Mike thanked us for the interest but declined to be interviewed for a much-needed update. Publicity stunt or accident, Pacific Trading Cards was an excellent company that became a casualty of the Baseball Card War despite unique and memorable products year after year.

See also: Chasing Mike Cramer, Mike Cramer is Alive and Well

Upper Deck on the other hand, is a different story. By 2007, the company that made arguably the greatest entrance into the market in 1989, was a shell of its former self. Years of bad management and customer service had taken its toll on their reputation and the products being produced at the time lacked personality and pizzazz. With the rivalry with Topps on full display, Upper Deck did the unthinkable and created a card that insulted the newly-crowned Home Run King, Barry Bonds, Major League Baseball, and Topps Company. The Asterisk card, as it was dubbed, was found in tins of 2007 Upper Deck Sweet Spot, a product that sold for nearly $200 a piece. At first, collectors were livid for pulling a card without their guaranteed autograph but truth be told this asterisk card was rare and sales of it soared on the secondary market.

The message was both clear, Bonds was a cheating fraud, and noble. I don’t know if Upper Deck created this card to stir up controversy or to defend the title of Home Run King that once belonged to Hank Aaron but this was one step too far. Upper Deck stared deeply into the abyss and fell straight into it. By 2010, Topps Company was granted exclusive rights to product Major League Baseball cards and they have never looked back since. Today, Upper Deck’s historic run, which included the first pack-inserted autographs and game-used relics in baseball cards, has been all but forgotten by many collectors. With Topps and MLB re-upping their exclusive contract in 2018, we may never see Upper Deck produce licensed baseball cards again and that is truly a shame.

It’s hard to believe that 21 years ago, we had six companies producing licensed baseball cards. From 1993 through 1999, I witnessed some of the most amazing and innovative designs and technology I’ve ever seen in my 30 years of collecting. Perhaps six companies was too many but one company, Topps, is not enough. It’s clear that we need at the very least one serious competitor to help make baseball cards great again. With every year that passes, I lose a little more hope that we will ever see a competitive baseball card market again and with nearly 40 baseball products released by Topps in 2019, that should be something every collector young and old should be concerned about.