Handful O' Landfill 2: And They're (Way) Off!

There are not a lot of things that can go wrong in the designing of a collectible card. This isn’t like designing the Saturn V, where one false move with the liquid oxygen and there goes John Glenn, spattered all over Cocoa Beach. It’s been fairly well established that you can show a picture of a batboy with his fly open and middle finger upraised holding a bat with an obscenity scrawled on the end, and this will not harm a card’s collectibility. In fact, it will send people falling all over each other to their nearest 7-Eleven to buy one. And a jumbo Slurpee.

Printing flaws are likewise no big deal. There are pictures of Babe Ruth which make him look like Lon Chaney playing Marie Antoinette, printed on materials that make Chinese cardboard feel like vellum, that fetch $10,000.

$10,000 for Babe Ruth too dear? You can get Freddie Lindstrom printed on grass clippings for $5K.

To sum up then, you can print a card on waste paper showing an athlete doing the most vulgar things imaginable and it can still be collectible. This is pretty much an idiot-proof process, which is why … no, I won’t say it. But I’ll think it hard.

The list of faux pas with collectible sports cards, then, essentially has one entry: Don’t make cards of stuff.

Let me expand on that. Don’t make cards showing a trophy, no matter how nice the trophy, because kids just don’t care. The Lady Byng Trophy looks like a Silex that’s been put on the rack. Think that’s going to win a place in any kid’s heart? Do you honestly believe that instead of putting himself to sleep thinking, “I’m Dustin Byfuglien … from the point … he shoots … he scores! And the CROWD GOES WILD!!!” the kid may think, “I’m an elongated coffeepot named after a female search engine”?

Don’t make cards showing a bat. Don’t make cards showing a ball. Don’t make cards showing a stick, a glove, a tee, or a puck. You could print them on plutonium and include a piece of a saint with every card, and you would still find no takers. Because card collectors do not care about cards of stuff.

It becomes quite obvious that of all the lessons of card collectibility that the 1991 Harness Heroes cards ignored, this was the most basic. They began by ignoring a corollary to not showing stuff, which is: Don’t show animals. Collectors likewise do not care about animals, not even Bill Romanowski or the rabbit that gave up his life to prove that Raffy Palmiero was on the juice. There has not been a successful animal card set ever, not the Garden Pests set given away with British cigarettes or the Animals of the World set given away with Sugar Daddies (though we certainly did down a lot of caramelized sugar trying to land the elusive capybara, let me tell you).

So Harness Heroes started with a set full of animals attached to buggies – Fresh Yankee, Beach Towel, Miss Easy, all the big names -- and capped it off with a card showing stuff that’s used in the racing of animals attached to buggies: The starting gate.

Yes: the Starting Gate card.

This card could not have been less desirable if it had read on the back, “Hey kids! Amaze your friends! Kill Satanic Americans!”

It is not hard to imagine what was going through the collective minds of the creators of Harness Heroes cards as they were hooking the Starting Gate card up to the electrodes. It only seems hard in the hyper-reality of the present.

“It worked for baseball,” they said to themselves, as the hunchbacked one flipped the switch. “Of course it will work for harness racing.”

Well, no, of course it won’t work for harness racing, and wouldn’t work even back then, because harness racing is a sport 1 percent of the population follows recreationally, and 1 percent of that 1 percent follows with any sort of intensity, and 1 percent of that 1 percent of that 1 percent would even consider buying trading cards of were they set in front of their noses at every 7-Eleven in the country, right next to the jumbo Slurpees, which of course they weren’t.

In short, the market for the Starting Gate card consisted of the fellow who ran the thing, and he was so bloody sick of it that he wanted a Starting Gate card less than he wanted polio.

The Starting Gate card, then, represents the nadir of collectibility, the point against which all subsequent issues are judged. If a card is deemed better than a Starting Gate card, then it is conceivable that someone in the universe may want to possess it, if only for a little while, if only because the area for 20 miles around them is bereft of burnables.

If it is judged to be less collectible than a Starting Gate card, then … well, then it is absolutely likely that I have it here somewhere, and it will turn up in the next several weeks.

‘Til next time.