Wax Heaven Flashback 2: The Card That Exposed Topps Company

Published: February 4th, 2015

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God bless the Internet. Before the days of eBay, message boards, and to an extent, card blogs … we were all at risk of being scammed, sooner or later, by trading card companies. We’ve all heard stories of 1989 Upper Deck card #1 being printed over and over again to make a killing on the secondary market, as well stories of highly sought-after cards leaving card company warehouses through the back door. This one, however, is new to me.

When 1996 Finest Baseball was advertised by Topps in their sell sheet sent to distributors, it promised collectors and investors alike that there would only be 150 Gold Refractors of each player produced. While there was serial numbering in ’96, it still was not a common practice and was kind of a hobby rarity or at least it would be for another year before numbering became a normal occurrence in high-end products and is now everywhere. This story may be the reason for it.

Unfortunately for Topps, as it relates to ’96 Finest, they didn’t count on Dr.Joseph Sentef’s deep pockets to expose something that seems to have been a common practice. By the time the Dr’s Finest shopping spree was over, he had somehow amassed 220, Finest Gold Refractors of Greg Maddux, a figure almost 50% more than what was advertised in the sell sheet. When confronted, a spokesman for Topps blamed a theft at their warehouse. Later, the story changed to missing cards from their vault. It wasn’t long after that exchange that a lawsuit was filed, which Topps ultimately ended up settling in court for an undisclosed amount.

In case you’re wondering, the card that started this PR nightmare almost two decades ago recently sold on eBay for a whopping $4.50. The real question is just how many more Greg Maddux ’96 Finest Gold Refractors are out there. If one collector alone has/had 220, just how many more are in other collections or in boxes of unopened product, which is still out there to be found. This incident for me really makes me question just how rare and valuable some of these 90s inserts really are.

I am currently working on another story about a collector who just recently picked up a “one of one” Manny Ramirez from 1998. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a problem at all, right? Except for one tiny, little, teeny issue. He already owns the same, exact card. So what do you do when you find yourself the owner of two “one of one” cards? Also, we are not talking about a worthless printing plate or some set filled with dozens of parallels. We are talking about a 1 of 1 of a star player with a huge hobby following from a set where pulling this card was the equivalent of winning the lottery. Unfortunately, this company is now out of business so there’s no one to ask why/how this could have happened.

So as collectors, who can we really trust out there?

Chase the Base?

Author: Todd Uncommon

Contained in responses to a “state of the hobby” thread today on SCU, the discussion largely turned again towards whether the hobby would do better to market directly to kids, or to just assume that someone older always buys the cards.  Is it true that kids today don’t buy them with their own money, and might get them only in some sort of trickle-down effect of collectibles?

It is very hard not to extrapolate personal experience as a kid too far into the present. The target market for cards had always been kids, at least until 1989. I think it is safe to say that Upper Deck’s debut with premium cards at premium prices started the end of the kid-budget era.

In 1981, whatever money I got as a kid–allowance, small job, gifts, recycling proceeds, even found change–easily would pay for a fistful of card packs at the counter of my local supermarket or drug store. 25, 35 or 40 cents didn’t take long to add up to buy just one.

Back when 30¢ could get you 15 best friends (and a sticker!). For a while. Maybe.

Today, “retail” options are pretty much limited to discount mega-chains like Target and Walmart, and that same fistful of packs basically come prepackaged in a blaster for $20. Even accounting for inflation, those prices (for arguably less desirable product than hobby edition) are out of reach for any frequency on a kid’s budget, so I am convinced that it is more often some adult’s money that really is the revenue source.

I have to give credit to the card makers for actually trying to make lower-cost products in an attempt to get closer to kids’ budgets: Upper Deck Victory, First Edition, Topps Total, Opening Day, etc. to name a few.  As much of a nostalgic note as it strikes with me to have 99 cent pack options on the store shelves, there is also one inescapable truth. Nobody wants these products.

Why?  Well, the allure of pricier brands is strong, and their lottery-style hits are glitzier than those from these budget brands, even if the cheaper sets have them at all.  Add the fact that with some of these lower cost products, you really can see the quality reduction to meet that price point. UD First Edition is an awful product; it’s basically the standard set, but with the attractive life in it sucked out so it could be sent back in time and sold into Cold War-era Bulgaria.

In trying to think as a kid, I can see why they might spend their three bucks on one pack of Yu-Gi-Oh! or M:TG with a guaranteed rare / shiny / powerful card in the mix, compared to three packs of stodgy, limp looking cardboard.

Hi! Magicians and clowns use me for flash paper at birthday parties!

Topps Total sometimes felt like it was printed on notebook paper, the cards were so thin.  Who wants these when somebody’s richer friends are getting at least flagship to high-priced and shiny cards from their mom, dad, or designated guardian?

I think the secret is not in finding a cheaper price for kids to afford.  What needs to happen, and I don’t know if it’s even possible at this point, is to make base cards desirable again.  Let’s face it, base cards are basically packing material for wide distribution of the hits these days.  Decoy support.  No better than gum, stickers, puzzle pieces, team logo holograms, or lenticular trivia cards used to be.

Now that overall populations of hits like autos and relics are in a glut, to the extent that you can get 4/$10 at your local card shop, the status of the base cards, even in the priciest of wax boxes, has fallen even further.

What "mojo hitz" looked like when your uncle was a boy.

To use my frame of reference as a kid in the 80s, finding the ’81 Fleer Fernand(o), the ’84 Topps Mattingly, or the ’85 Topps Gooden in a  40 cent pack *was* the hit.  Sure, that aspect of getting a lottery hit was present, even back then.  However, today, the lottery ticket appeal is actively marketed, rather than being a market effect of its own accord based on player or team popularity.

The last great base card?

Is making base cards the new chase cards even possible? I think the last time base cards were desirable on their own was 1990 Leaf.  If you got a 1990 Leaf Frank Thomas, you were doing really well.  Since then, chase cards, inserts, parallels, autos, and relics have all come and gone as gimmicks, taking our eyes off the mark of collecting “base” cards just because we like them, not because of what we think the inserts might be worth to someone else.

Bummer, Topps …

Some readers of Wax Heaven may have noticed that in the few instances that I have been blogging, more often than not it’s about wrestling. You see, having had a baseball-loving wife for four years meant that I spent 99% of my time following the sport with her by my side. Now, it’s just no fun doing it alone so rather than follow my Florida Marlins and Andrew Miller, I’ve begun watching WWE and TNA wrestling to pass the time.

Unfortunately, it’s just not as grand as it once was when I was a kid or even young adult. Quite honestly, it’s brutally bad and embarrassing at times, especially the shows being pumped out by Total Nonstop Action, unless your idea of entertainment is watching your grandparents battle it out in a steel cage till one is left bleeding to death over a piece of jewelry (WWE Hall of Fame ring).

Anyway, it’s not all bad. There are some wrestlers who I enjoy following. For example, Ted Dibiase Jr. is now sporting his daddy’s Million Dollar Belt, which is not only awesome for nostalgic reasons but it also makes up for his lack of any personality and skills in the ring. In the 80’s, that was without a doubt the coolest of all championship belts, even if it meant nothing.

Chris Jericho is also still a blast, despite not being anywhere near as cool as he was in the late-90’s and early part of this decade. That’s what he gets for doing all those VH1 “I Love” specials. Randy Orton is perhaps my favorite heel (AKA bad guy) today but without a doubt the only wrestler that keeps me tuned in week after week is CM Punk and his Straight Edge Society.

Unlike most WWE creations, Punk lacks the size and cartoon-like muscles to be the main guy at WWE (although he came close) but that’s just fine with me. Currently he’s playing the role of tormentor to Rey Mysterio Jr. and what he did to his family on the birthday of Mysterio’s young daughter will go down for  me as one of the best promos I’ve ever watched in over 20 years of being a wrestling fan.

You can watch the whole thing here.

Anyway, Topps has released an early preview of 2010 Topps WWE and while the autograph checklist is a huge improvement over 2009’s list, I think it’s time Topps finally scraps those loud & obnoxious holographic stickers once and for all. Yes, the sound you hear is that of me beating a dead horse but you gotta admit he had it coming.

In the past the stickers have worked with some releases like the futuristic Finest brand but really, enough is enough. Look at what Tristar is doing with their stickers. For the first time ever I can honestly say Tristar is doing much better work than Topps when it comes to the wrestling licenses. Yes, I know stickers suck but if you are going to do it, at least find a way to execute it without destroying the work of the design team.

Come to think of it, why are these even stickers in the first place? Unlike football, baseball, and other “real” sports … wrestling has no off-season. These guys bust their ass 365 days a year and none will ever see the type of money that a prima donna like Alex Rodriguez will get so why not have these hard-signed?

Below is a preview of what is most likely CM Punk’s first certified autograph. Aside from the terrible sticker autograph and the fact that he’s been paired up with someone who won’t be around in a year’s time … the card itself doesn’t quite live up to the expectations of this Punk fan.

You can see a full preview of 2010 Topps WWE here.

Topps’ Lawsuit Ends Canseco’s Comeback

Author: Mario Alejandro

Last year after Upper Deck lost their MLB license I remember having a somber conversation with a U.D employee. In a story I wrote, I labeled the new Upper Deck as “underdogs” but was told that now without MLB breathing down their necks they would have more freedom to produce cards collectors really wanted.

I found out just what they meant when I broke the news that Jose Canseco, baseball’s whipping boy for exposing cheaters in the game, would make his official Hobby return in 2010 in Upper Deck’s very popular Goudey line. While Jose has had a card in a Razor and Creative Concepts brand, to a true collector it’s just not the same unless it bears a Topps or U.D. logo.

Well, I just received the sad news that not only is Jose’s return to trading cards cancelled, the popular Goudey line will also not see the light of day. This now means that Upper Deck’s best two retro-themed lines, Masterpieces and Goudey, are now history. While collectors still go gaga over Topps’ Allen & Ginter, it would have been nice to see Upper Deck respond with their own version even in these clearly tough times.

When I left my full-time blogging position at Wax Heaven, Upper Deck had lost baseball and basketball. Since my part-time return, I’ve seen Upper Deck lose football (sorry Gellman) and have heard really scary rumors about the future of the company, including tales of a looming bankruptcy. While I knew this year would be a rough one for the guys in Carlsbad, California, I never imagined it would come to this.

In sports, every once in a while we are treated to shocking victories by the underdog. My all-time favorite is “Buster” Douglas’ knockout win over an undefeated and in his prime Mike Tyson and the spanking the New York Yankees received at the hands of my Florida Marlins in 2003 (can’t buy every championship, guys). Unfortunately, more  often than we’d like to remember, the underdog puts up a good fight but ultimately succumbs to the giant, which in this case is Topps Company.

I’m not saying I’m giving up on Upper Deck just yet but if 2011 rolls around and all I see is Topps MLB trading cards on my Target shelf (what’s a card shop?), it wouldn’t be the biggest shock of my collecting lifetime, which by the way began in 1990 with a Jose Canseco Upper Deck card I still own.

WWE Getting the Short End …

Author: Mario Alejandro

Tristar did it with their TNA license. Topps did it with their UFC brand. Now, where is the WWE dream card we wrestling fans have been anxiously waiting for?

In case you missed it, Topps produced just ten copies of this amazing, on-card triple autograph of MMA legends, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, along with UFC head honcho, Dana White.

It’s already an amazing card but as a reward, Topps is sending the first lucky collector to pull this card on an all-expense paid trip to Las Vegas to hang out at the UFC training center and sit cage side at a TUF fight.

Alright, Topps … job well done. You’ve created a perfect card and an even better grand prize that no other company can likely ever pull off. Now, where’s the WWE version to go along with it?

With WWE on the road non-stop it should be much easier to plan a grand prize, should Topps follow with a WWE version of the UFC “Dream Card”. Of course, that dream card would have to include one Vincent Kennedy McMahon, love it or hate it.

What other two wrestlers would you include on the card?

I would team up Vinny Mac with none other than Triple H, who is likely to be the man in charge once Vince retires considering Vince’s son, Shane, jumped ship last year and has vanished from the public eye.

On the other spot you’d have to include arguably the most popular wrestler of the moment, John Cena. While we don’t know what kind of price the Tristar and UFC cards will carry on the secondary market, I’d go out on a limb to say the WWE version would top both of them once they appear on eBay.

Of course, Topps would actually have to make the effort. They have clearly shown they can with a “legitimate” sport but would they do the same to for the WWE brand of “sports entertainment” which is not as respected as mixed martial arts?

Here’s hoping Topps gives WWE the respect it deserves.

PS. – In case you’re wondering, someone has already won the grand prize.