SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Another Longstanding Company Going. . . Going. . . Gone

Lots of brands come and go, as do lots of products. I remember as a kid when you'd see tons of ads for Alka Seltzer, Rice-a-Roni, Lestoil, Geritol (with Art Linkletter doing the pitching), Razzles and a whole host of products too many to name. I also remember collecting baseball cards.

I wasn't the type to flip them (I didn't think the game made a whole lot of sense). I didn't put them in the spokes of my bike, because I valued the cards too much. At a very young age, I did draw on them with magic marker, and I stored them, like many did, in old shoe boxes with rubber bands wrapped around them. I'm sure, to save space, that my mother threw out her fair share, because, back then, no one viewed them as an investment, as something to save. Everyone viewed them as something to talk about, something to study, and, yes, we did chew the gum that came with the packs (and had to wipe the powdered sugar from the gum off the cards). We bought them for a nickel a pack, later raised to a dime, and we bought a few packs at a time. Up until 1974, I believe, the cards were printed in series format (instead of all at once), which means in today's market that cards printed in the last series of a year prior to 1974 could be more valuable because there weren't as many of them made as there were of the first series.

It wasn't all that complicated.

Lots of things change, and it's said that those organizations that seize upon change and embrace it are the ones to survive (and thrive) the longest (a look at the companies that made up the Dow Jones industrial average thirty years ago compared to today is testimony to that). Back then, there were seven channels on your TV, three of them UHF, which meant that the picture was hard to get. There wasn't any cable, there weren't personal computers, video games (there was pinball), and there wasn't as much in the form of entertainment. You didn't see your home baseball team that much on TV, and you listened to the games on the radio. For people over a certain age, you learned the game not only from your family members, but from your home city's local broadcasters. And from the stats on the back of baseball cards.

I'll always have a fond place in my heart for Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn. I grew up listening to them broadcast the Phillies (they were a big improvement over an aging Byrum Saam, and out-of-his-element -- in my opinion -- Bill Campbell and an ancient Jimmy Dykes, the shortstop on the great A's teams in the last 20's and early 30's), and they were just first-rate. I recall fondly turning on my radio at bedtime to listen to games from the West Coast, and my then-funky clock radio had its own shutoff switch. I put the timer on for an hour, and I could listen to a few innings. I also would pull out my baseball cards from time to time, wondering all about the players I was hearing about on the radio or, a few times a year, seeing in person.

I read about this the other day, and was reminded of it by skimming Off-Wing Opinion this morning. Fleer, one of the oldest baseball card companies, has gone out of business and is liquidating. A while back they were up for auction, had $40 million in debt, and Upper Deck offered $25 million. As can be the case with failing companies, management sometimes gets too romantic, too stubborn, too optimistic or too much in denial to deal with their problems before things get really bad, and they turned down the bid. The auction is today, and Upper Deck offered just $2 million.

I don't know much about the economics of baseball cards today, about who buys what memorabilia and what items are hot (other than to have some general knowledge that hip-hop stars like Mitchell & Ness's vintage jerseys). And I don't know even if interest in Pokemon and Yugi-Oh cards has cut into baseball's share of the card market. I do know that kids are more scheduled than before, probably have less free time, and, when they do, they're either on-line or playing on their Game Cube or PlayStation 2 or something like it. As Fleer's demise demonstrates, they're not flipping or trading baseball cards like they used to, and they're not putting them in the spikes of their bicycles.

Then again, what kids are permitted to ride to a friend's house anymore without an escort today?

I like looking at my old baseball cards every now and then, and occasionally I'll try to buy some cards on eBay to fill in a set or two that I have. My kids wanted cards this past winter, and I bought a good set for each of them at Target that had cards for a lot of the stars. Name an All-Star, and his card was probably in the packet. They had fun playing with them -- for a couple of days. Now they sit on their shelves, and, no, they're not that interested in baseball.

(Then again, perhaps I'm not either. My hometown team is mediocre and has been for years, and I'm busier too. I envy Yankee fans, because for the past ten years they knew that when they were turning on their televisions that they were watching a team that had a chance to win it all. We Phillies' fans haven't had that same experience, and yet, somehow, we're still loyal.)

Does Fleer's demise mean the end of an era?

Not really, because for many that "era" ended a long time ago.

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