As business challenges go, Everyone Wants To Buy Our Shit For Some Reason is a pretty good one to face. And yet, when presented with that challenge/“challenge” in the early 1990s, every trading card company absolutely duffed it in more or less the same way. Adults—not annoying booger-y fan-kids but actual adults with paychecks and dorky sedans of their own—were interested in buying packs of trading cards. As the result of a few high-profile sales and a broader faddish greed-malady, otherwise reasonable adults were convinced that the blurry Cleveland Gary cards they pulled from those packs might for some reason be worth something, if not quite as much as the (very valuable) Joe Montana rookie cards that they saw being sold at card shows and in card stores. People have always been dumb, and adults-with-sedans-and-big-ideas have long been perhaps the dumbest tranche of all, but man: not anyone’s best moment.
And yet, in the near-term, this was great for companies like Pro Set. That was not a company that was built to last, as we discussed last week, but they were the NFL’s official trading card and that stood for something, and there was an opportunity here. And so they responded by ... printing millions of cards for seemingly every player that pulled on a practice jersey, and then padded their sets with grandiose inserts that for some reason featured sturdy linebackers and Pro Bowl offensive tackles rendered tenderly if oafishly in watercolor. None of this is taught in business schools today, but those packs—packs like the 1991 Pro Set Series II pack that Dom Cosentino and I opened in this episode of Let’s Remember Some Guys—are still out there. At some point, everyone realized that they weren’t really anything that you needed to rush into opening.
But if you put a pack of football cards into the hands of some Guy-Remembering guys, you know what’s going to happen. And so it was that Dom and I walked a particularly ill-lit stretch of memory lane populated by forgotten defensive backs and veteran placekickers and faintly impressionistic renderings of Vikings linebacker and semi-legend Scott Studwell. This was a challenge even for Dom, whose steel-trap Remember Box—this is what we in the Remembering Guys Community call the brain—is awe-inspiring even at rest. And so while some Guys were Remembered, some/much gum was also chewed as penance for not recalling the Guys who weren’t quite memorable enough. This does not and should not reflect poorly on Dom, or on all of the rest of us who can’t quite recall the details and high points of Tony Stargell’s NFL career.
It was a different time, after all. It was an era in which all of these cards—the ones for defensive backs who were mostly special teamers and the watercolor portraits of less-obscure linebackers and all the rest—were somehow bought and sold as investments. If the idea of inserting a painting of a grimacing Bruce Armstrong into a trading card set seems strange to you, just remember that everything else about the heated and retrospectively poignant bubble that produced these cards was somehow stranger. They thought these were all little cardboard stock options. In reality, they were just Guys. That should have been enough.