Handful O' Landfill #1: From Racers With Love

Welcome to “Handful O’ Landfill,” the feature that attempts to make you feel better about the slow death of the trading-card industry by highlighting some of the cards and sets that contributed to its demise. Sort of like showing a pictures of T-bone steaks to a guy dying of a heart attack. Swell, huh?

Okay, let’s jump in at the top – or the bottom, or the bottom of the top or the top of the bottom, depending on how you look at the glorification of garbage. One of the least-clear things about the card industry at its zenith (not its Pinnacle Zenith, which was a different place entirely) was what constituted a legitimate card.

A legally obtained picture of a current player placed into a unique design would seem to be legit, but it wasn’t always. Anyone who attended a card show in the ‘80s and ‘90s remembers the cards generally referred to as “Broders,” after Richard Broder, the photographer who first created them. Broders checked all the boxes listed above but were as illegal as a USC summer job.

Contrast Broders with cards that were clearly the product of a Lud Denny acid trip, cards that stole designs, names, artwork, even the style of writing on the back from other card sets, yet you never saw Feds roaming card shows snapping them up.

What made these cards legit was the league and the players’ association saying they were legit. This they did in return for an insane amount of money. At the peak of the frenzy leagues and players’ associations were requiring licensees to pay a basketful of rubies per player, plus supply their offices a fleet of stretch Ferraris with swimming pools and supermodel drivers, and tell David Stern every time they saw him, “Hey, are you taller? He sure looks taller. Don’t you think he’s taller?” in return for a license. And the licensees were ponying up.

In between the Broders and the licensee issues were a whole bunch of gray-market card sets. The rule was you didn’t need a players’-association license to make a one-player set, so Star International made approximately 500 one-player, multi-card baseball sets. These sets would devote an entire card to the career highlights of a Sam Horn or Ricky Jordan; sometimes the backs of these cards were entirely blank, enabling you to imagine Sam Horn actually had career highlights.

Star International was an MLB licensee, but the makers of Arena Holograms didn’t even go to that expense. They simply signed a deal with Ken Griffey Jr., put him in a quasi-Mariners jersey, and proceeded to hologram themselves crazy. You couldn’t tell from the hologram if it was Kid Griff or the bulldog from the Tom and Jerry cartoons, much less if he was wearing a genuine Mariners jersey, so the license cops let them be.

From Arena Holograms it’s a quick trip downstairs to the absolute basement of unlicensed products and today’s featured card. If a quasi-legit card has a legally obtained picture of a current player placed into a unique design, how would you classify a card with a stolen picture of a semi-current player with no design whatsoever? That would be the Wayne Gretzky Indianapolis Racers card.

When the Great One was the Really Good Teenaged One, he spent the first eight games of his initial WHA season with the Indianapolis Racers after being signed to a multimillion-dollar personal-services contract. Gretzky was sold to the Edmonton Oilers shortly before the Racers folded, and the rest is sweet-smelling, well-groomed history.

The WHA, hockey cards, and the 1970s being what they were, there were no legit cards of Gretzky as a Racer. O-Pee-Chee had its hands full getting its cards A) printed on-register and B) cut so that a player’s head and his body appeared on the same card.

However, when Gretzky’s career was in full flower a press release appeared in our office. Turns out (the press release read) that the Racers produced 10,000 Gretzky cards but never released them. Instead, the cards wound up in the basement of “head trainer Joe Smith (not an alias).”

Ah, the gobsmacking chutzpah! Not an alias – as if we were thinking that something might be afoot, that there might be the merest whiff of duplicity involved in 10,000 Gretzky rookie cards turning up years after the fact in the basement of a trainer – not the business manager, not the owner’s mistress, but a trainer -- with the mellifluous, oft-imitated, never-duplicated name of Joe Smith!

Of course these cards were as bogus as Lady GaGa parts, but does it matter? What was undoubtedly a picture of a young Wayne Gretzky was indubitably placed on genuine cardboard. It exists. You can pick it up, run your fingers over it, bend it in half if you’re so inclined. What the hey; it only sells for a buck or so.

In all it’s the most honest dishonest card ever made, which ought to place it high above the platoons of dishonest honest cards. It doesn’t, though. In the card business, only officially sanctioned dishonesty is allowed.

In honor of the dishonesty, the picture you see here is stolen from another Web site. In honor of the honesty, here’s the address: http://puckjunk.com/article.php?artid=20070002

Baste in the irony of what’s legit and what’s illegit in the fun-house world of trading cards. And if you have any aliases, for God’s sake keep them to yourself.