Score’s Sin of Gluttony

Three billion, six hundred million.

That’s how many 1991 Score cards are believed to have been produced. Thirty-two million of those alone are cards of Ken Griffey Jr. Four million unnecessary copies of Jose Canseco’s infamous Dream Team card. This set was destined to be the Junk Wax era’s swan song, a massively overproduced swing and miss. Collectors had already discovered that less was more with the resurrection of Leaf in 1990 and with 1992 Bowman, Topps chose to drastically cut production. Just two years after 1991 Score, collectors would be introduced to Topps Finest, with just 30,000 copies of each base card and a shockingly-low, 241 copies of each Refractor. The game was changing and sets like 1991’s Score & ’91 Fleer were instantly relegated to garage storage status or sent to landfills all across the country.

Speaking of Jose Canseco, who was baseball’s brightest and highest-paid star when 1991 Score was released, the photograph that inspired Score’s Dream Team card originated from an American Express magazine advertisement and was shot by world-renowned photographer, Annie Leibovitz. The Score card instantly became iconic and even inspired a Broder (AKA unofficial) card titled ‘Power & Glory’. The irony of it all is that clearly Score’s version is all-around much better card and is official licensed by Major League Baseball but thanks to rampant overproduction, the knock-off usually sells for a couple of dollars more today on the secondary market.

We can all poke fun looking back today but in reality, Score’s Dream Team was a subset way ahead of its time. Unlike many products from that era, it managed to capture a little bit of each player’s personality smack dab on a baseball card. One specific Dream Team alum, Doug Jones, is a perfect example. Jones, a late-bloomer and eventual 5-time All-Star, may have been one of the weaker selections on the Dream Team checklist. Ironically enough, his fireball card may be the most memorable of the entire set that’s packed full of Hall of Fame players. Sadly, two weeks ago, Jones, 64, succumbed to complications of Covid-19. To many collectors who were around during the Junk Wax era, the Dream Team card was probably the first image you thought of when you heard the sad news of Jones’ passing.

Another memorable subset, the All-Star caricatures, was a favorite of mine when I was 11. The Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco versions are particularly interesting because any steroid user knows, a large head is one of the tell-tale signs of abuse. I recently discovered, thanks to Beckett’s Ryan Cracknell, who the artist was behind these cards. It was something that had been bugging me for three decades. These days, card artists are revered and publicized all over social media but back before the internet, there was almost no information available. Perhaps as a small tribute to Score, Topps recently created their own “big head” cards, as extremely rare, super short prints, which were all the rage two weeks ago. I have a feeling that 20 years from now, the overproduced Score Big Heads will be remembered more fondly that the Topps SSPs.

1991 Score is a lot of things to a lot of people. Overproduced, redundant, gawky, and behind the times even at the time of its release but it conjures up heavy feelings of nostalgia that I truly believe modern collectors from 2020 and up will never experience. We will likely never again see a 900-card set and if we do, none could match the imagination and effort that went into ’91 Score. It may have been late to the party and unable to read the room but in the end, it is still one of the most memorable and dare I say, most important releases of the Junk Wax era. Score will forever live in collector’s hearts, at least those who lived through its release. Yes, us Boomer collectors, if you must. With Fanatics around the corner, it would be great to see Panini America, who owns the rights to Score, put out a few throwback Score baseball cards. It’s unlikely, especially from a company like Panini, but a collector can dream, can’t he?

A 30-Year Mystery Finally Solved

One of the main reasons I love baseball cards and have been an avid collector for 32 of my 41 years on this planet is the feelings of nostalgia certain sets, cards, and even players are able to conjure up in my mind. While my collecting rookie year is officially 1990, the set that really captured my imagination as a child is 1991 Score, specifically the All-Star caricatures subset. Over the years, I often wondered who the artist that created these cards was and even wrote about it to help get the word out.

In my article published five years ago, I received a tiny lead in a comment that ultimately helped solve this 30+ year mystery. The comment told me to look at old issues of Beckett price guides as he remembers there being an article about the artist published in the 90s. That was all I needed, as my next step was to reach out to Beckett’s hobby editor (and blogging legend), Ryan Cracknell. In less than a day, Ryan was able to track down the specific article as well as the artists’ name.

Chris Greco is the man responsible for some of the most memorable artwork on trading cards from the Junk Wax Era glory days of the 90s. These days, he doesn’t seem to delve too much into sports anymore. You can see his portfolio on his Instagram here. Aside from those big head caricatures, Greco was also responsible for 1993 Pinnacle’s Team Pinnacle inserts. It would be interesting to know if Topps made any effort to bring him on-board for their Project 70 set.

Speaking of Topps’ Project 70, the once insanely popular set seems to have fallen on hard times. The project, which was set to celebrate Topps’ 70 years in baseball, will ironically forever be known as a celebration of the year Topps lost their MLB license to Fanatics. Now word is spreading on several rejected designs due to possible infringement complaints, which may have come to light with Shohei Ohtani’s Ace of Diamonds card which appears to be more of a rip-off rather than a tribute.

Ermsy, one of the more popular artists producing cards for Project 70, posted on his Instagram that his World Series / Squid Game card was rejected by Topps. It’s a shame because Netflix’s Squid Game is one of the most popular shows of 2021 and these cards would have been an absolute monster had they made it to production. It’s understandable that Topps, fresh off losing their MLB & WWE licenses, is probably not eager to fight off Netflix and the creators of Squid Game in court.

It would be interesting to find out what other subjects have been rejected by Topps and a possible reason why. One thing is for certain, the buzz around Project 70 has all but died down. The print runs on new cards have decreased dramatically as collectors seem to have grown tired of the same teams/players being featured weekly and/or have been left with a bad taste in their mouth due to artist renditions from the likes of controversial contributors, Ben Baller and Keith Shore.

With over 300 cards remaining to be released for Project 70, the entire project is in real danger. There appears to be a lack of interest by some of the artists involved in continuing to produce cards, with many releases appearing rushed and/or lacking much creativity and passion. To make matters worse, MLB is a month away from a possible lockout, which could ultimately lead to a baseball strike. Last time that happened in 1994, it nearly killed baseball and the baseball card industry.

Are we headed for a repeat of 1994?

How Junk Wax Killed A Career

I got a funny notification on my phone last week. For some reason, Google News thought I’d be interested in the story of Bob Engel, a decorated baseball umpire who threw away his 35-year career for a shot at some 1990 Score Baseball. To modern collectors, that might sound insane. After all, the only way you will cash out on ANY ’90 Score is by finding a clean card and having an inside man at BGS or PSA who will give it a perfect rating, or score, if you will. See what I did there? Even then, you still have at best, a $300+ dollar card to try an unload. Remember, you have to move large volumes and spend tens of thousands of dollars to get yourself that inside man if your name isn’t Brian Gray, so it’s likely that even to trimmers/scammers, 1990 Score isn’t the greatest investment.

But let’s go back to 1990. It was a more innocent time before Twitter or the Internet in general. People still read physical books and the magazine industry was booming. To us collectors, Beckett Baseball was OUR Bible and the main card companies were all in tough competition for our money, which in return produced some great innovations and memorable designs that will live in the hearts and minds of collectors for the rest of our lives. Times were good and the industry was RED HOT, perhaps times were too good because companies began overproducing, so much so that those years are now commonly referred to as “Junk Wax” and rightfully so. The junk left behind by card companies, would eventually flood garage sales, card shows, and flea markets for the next thirty years.

Score, who would eventually become Pinnacle Brands in 1992, brought something different to the table in 1990. Unless you are a Topps fanboy, it’s easy to see why ’90 Score was so popular with collectors young and old. First off, no one was going to compete with Upper Deck, a company that was only in their second year and had just introduced the pack-inserted autograph. Second, 1990 Topps was perhaps the worst effort ever put out by the baseball card company that now runs a monopoly in the sport. Score, was in my opinion, the 2nd best product, value-wise, released that year thanks to less than stellar productions by Fleer and Donruss.

Score baseball cards featured much sharper photography than Topps in 1990, had full stats on the back, including minor league stints where and when applicable and had lengthy write-ups for each player. Topps on the other hand featured some of the laziest photography ever seen at the time and printers that often produced blurry cards. To me, the #1 choice was Upper Deck (and Leaf if you could afford it) but Score cards were a very good alternative and weren’t nearly as expensive. As for gimmicks, aside from Upper Deck’s Reggie Jackson autograph card, Score was not far behind with a seemingly super short printed, black and white Bo Jackson baseball/football card. I once witnessed my very lucky friend pull one from a $1 pack and sell it back to the card shop owner (remember card shops?) for $20 and 3 more packs of Score.

Turns out the hype was just too much for Bob Engel, who orchestrated a baseball card heist good enough for a Hollywood B-movie directed by Kevin Smith. Engel, who entered Junk Wax Heaven in 2018, stole 7 unopened boxes of 1990 Score from a Target and then brazenly, went to Costco attempting to steal another 50 packs of Score. After his arrest, he was placed on indefinite suspension by MLB and never returned to the game. After an investigation in 1990, it was discovered that Engel had also shoplifted three video tapes from a drug store in 1986. You can read an original news report from the Chicago Tribune HERE.

Bob Engel has been featured on many Junk Wax era oddball baseball cards himself. Ironically, all these cards can be purchased for around the price of an unopened 1990 Score box. Below is one of my favorites, which definitely plays to the whole degenerate shop lifter and baseball card thief image I have of Engel. After his MLB career came to screeching halt, Bob worked as a used car salesman (of course) into his late-60s.  For the record, I also stole some baseball cards around 1990-ish but I was in search of the most elusive card of the early-90s (and I was 10 years old). You can read about my horrible baseball card crime HERE.

… and because we are all bored in quarantine, you can view Engel’s grave online.

One Photo, Five Cards

In early 1998, Jose Canseco walked onto a baseball field a complete unknown. Having gone from being the highest paid athlete in the world who once garnered attention from MTV and Madonna to playing in Canada for a fraction of what he once earned, the mighty had fallen hard. Long gone were the glory days of his historic 1988 MVP season or even his 1991 home run title, which he shared begrudgingly with Detroit’s chubby slugger, Cecil Fielder.

Jose Canseco was someone who rocketed to stardom at a very young age and was for years the most popular baseball player on the planet. In 1989, despite not playing a single game in the first half of the season due to a broken wrist, Jose still wound up being the leading American League vote getter for the All-Star game. By 1998, he wasn’t even in a discussion for the top 10 sluggers, having been passed up by the likes of Ken Griffey Jr, Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and many others. Jose was truly a former superstar who didn’t appreciate his God-given talent and lost it all.

Surprisingly, Canseco showed up to spring training looked refreshed and easily in the best shape of his career. It had been six years since he played a full season of baseball due to injuries and the 1994 strike, which prematurely ended his bid at a 50 home run output. On a fateful day in 1998, Jose would participate in a photo shoot which is known widely by players and collectors as producing the images that wind up on a good portion of baseball cards, especially the earlier products released.

This photo shoot alone would inspire 5 baseball cards. Let’s take a look.

1998 Bowman

An easy way to tell which cards came from the photo shoot is by looking for Jose’s gaudy Nike batting gloves and his pine tar-covered bat. This Bowman card below is one of my all-time favorite Canseco cards period and one that can be owned for relatively cheap. Parallels include an International version and a hard to find Gold Anniversary #’d to 50.

In 2016, Topps produced a signed buyback copy of this card #’d to 5 copies for Archives.

1998 Bowman Chrome

The debut of Bowman Chrome in 1997, despite not including a single autograph, was a smashing success. The following year, Topps put in a great effort with Chrome and while these cards look a lot better than the ones from their debut, overall, the brand failed to reproduce the magic of Kerry Wood/Jose Cruz Jr in 1997. Don’t feel too bad for Topps, though, as today, Bowman Chrome rules the world of baseball cards.

In 2018, Bowman produced well over 30 parallels for each card in their set. I am extremely thankful my player retired nearly 20 years ago because I missed out on a flooded secondary market but also would never have enough money to be a completist. With ’98 Chrome, we had the International, the International Refractor, and a Gold Anniversary #’d to 50. Topps also included a Bowman Chrome 1/1 autograph in 2016 Archives.

Good luck finding that one …

1998 Collector’s Choice by Upper Deck

Switching gears to Topps’ former, now defeated rival from the West Coast, Upper Deck, we have a lone base card from the low-end Collector’s Choice brand. This appears to be the exact same photograph from the Topps’ produced Bowman line but from a different angle. I find this kind of stuff absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, there is no parallel available for this card. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t … am I right?

In today’s day of 100 parallels for every card, Upper Deck may have been on to something. Sadly, despite using what is arguably a better photograph, this card ultimately falls victim to its low price point trappings and is overshadowed by the Bowman and Chrome releases of the time. Even as a die-hard collector, I didn’t know this card even existed until finding it on SportsLots in 2018. #SorryNotSorry

1998 Score Rookie and Traded by Pinnacle Brands

Here is yet ANOTHER angle of what appears to be the same photograph used in the Bowman card, now from a third point of view. This makes me think that Topps’ photographer likely had the best seat on the field, while the other card company schlubs had to work with whatever possible angle they could afford before the players promptly walked away to begin training, or in some cases, shoot up with Canseco. Yes, I’m looking at you, Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado.

Poor Pinnacle Brands, which owned Score, was just months away from ceasing all operations and taking with them, sadly, Leaf, Donruss, and the Score franchises. Score Baseball made its debut in 1988 with cards that put to shame Topps’ efforts but ultimately, 1998’s releases would end up being their swan song.

Thankfully, Pinnacle Brands went out with a bang. Check out the Score Rookie and Traded Showcase Artist Proof parallel next to the base card. There was no one producing high-end baseball cards on the level of Pinnacle Brands, which may have also been the reason for their downfall come to think of it. This stuff was not cheap to print.

I do not own this card but will pay you in blood if you can find it for me.

 

 1998 Studio

Studio was a fun novelty, in 1991. By 1998, it had fallen on hard times. Much like a band like Def Leppard, who were superstars in the 80s, Studio just kept going and going to the pleasure of just about no one. Sure, they had all the bells of whistles provided to them by its parent company, Pinnacle Brands, but the magic was gone.

This release would end up being Studio’s swan song as well, at least for a few years or so until Playoff purchased the bloated, rotting corpse of Pinnacle Brands and made an attempt to revive it. Today, Pinnacle’s maggot-covered remains (sorta speak) belong to Panini America but much like their work with the Donruss license, they know not what to do with my beloved Pinnacle Brands.

As for Mr. Canseco, 1998 turned out to be perhaps his best season in a 17 year career cut short by the Baseball Mafia. Not only did Jose smash a career-high 46 home runs and steal 29 bases, he fought tooth and nail to play outfield instead of DH. Shockingly, Toronto failed to resign Jose despite paying him next to nothing with an incentive-laden contract. This would be the beginning of Jose’s problem finding work despite being a 40 HR guy and being healthy. Canseco would be out of baseball by 2001.

We all know how what came next …

Player Collector #FAIL

For a collector who has focused his attention one just one player for 28 years, I think I’ve done a pretty decent job. For one, here I am pushing 40, with more knowledge about the hobby than ever before, still lucky enough to be picking up new cards of Jose Canseco in 2018. When I began collecting baseball cards in 1990, I was immediately hooked by this WWF-like slugger named Jose and his larger than life home runs. I wasn’t alone. The entire sports world and everyone I knew was enamored with this guy and his baseball cards reflected that popularity.

Jose has had many ups and downs in his career but arguably his first big fall was in 1992 as his personal life was spiraling out of control. Unfortunately, his play on the diamond began to suffer and Jose, baseball’s highest paid player, was having a lousy season which resulted in his own fans in Oakland booing his every at-bat. Jose was already the most hated baseball player in every other stadium so even as a 12-year-old kid, witnessing my hero’s downfall was pretty depressing. As the season began to wind down, Jose Canseco was traded to the Texas Rangers … while on-deck to hit for the A’s.

It was a bizarre turn for the former unanimous MVP, who conquered baseball and was just 28 at the time of his shocking trade. It is safe to say that despite a couple of good seasons, Jose was never again anything close to the Baseball God he was in 1988, when he was the first player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases. In late 80s cards, companies were predicting he’d one day hit 50-50, break Roger Maris’ single season home run record, and much more. The truth was, whether he knew it or not, Jose’s glory days were behind him in 1992 despite playing another decade for 9 organizations.

Above you will find Jose’s 1992 Score card, which features a great action photograph of Jose from his 1991 season in which he led the Majors in home runs. There were a lot of companies producing baseball cards in 1992 and even more still releasing unlicensed, “Broder” cards as well so missing a card here or there was not uncommon but not by the “main” companies like Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, and Score. The thing is, back in 1992, we only had Beckett price guides, card shops, and weekend card shows to see what was out there. There was no eBay. No message boards. No Twitter.

Thanks to today’s vast technological improvements, I have pretty much every Jose Canseco card from 1986 through 1999. The specific cards I don’t have, I have lots of information and details on, not to mention front and back scans. So you can imagine my shock and awe this afternoon when I discovered I was missing a KEY 1992 release. Not only was it missing from my collection, I did not even know it existed. How did such an important release manage to stay hidden from a true Jose Canseco “Super Collector” for a whopping 26 years and what does this say about me?

The card you see below is nowhere near as cool as the main 1992 Score Canseco base card for many reasons. For one, Score used a less impressive photo with too much blurriness in the bat section. Second, the Texas Rangers colors just don’t mix and let’s be honest … aside from Pinnacle Brands, has ANYTHING good ever come out of Texas? Jose played 3 seasons with the Rangers and only had one good year, which was ruined by the player’s strike. That season, 1994, Jose was on pace for 45+ home runs but Matt Williams and Ken Griffey Jr. were chasing 61. It was over for Jose.

Anyway, this 1992 Score Rookie/Traded was released as a box set and came with 110 cards of players who had been traded or were rookies during the ’92 season. It is sadly best known for having Tim Wakefield and Jeff Kent rookie cards. These are two players who could make a crackhead fall asleep, they were THAT dull. Don’t get me wrong, they were great players but they lacked much in the personality department. Today, you can find sealed boxes of this product on eBay for about $5 dollars or $25 if you happen to find a beat-up box at your local Goodwill.

Over the past month, my collecting spree has slowed to a crawl as I have been focused on work, raising my daughter, and going to the gym 6-7 times per week. I just haven’t had a lot of time for cards, blogging, or even much of Twitter but this mistake must be fixed at once. As soon as this post is published, I will run out to COMC or eBay and will pick up this mysterious and elusive 1992 Score card to add to my 1,500+ count collection of Jose Canseco cards. It’s one thing to miss out on 1/1s and high-end autos but not having this card is about the most embarrassing thing that could happen to me in 2018.