The Five Dumbest Sports Card Gimmicks of the 1990s

by Chris Harris

In part one of this series I took a look at The Five Most Underrated Baseball Card Products of the 1990s.  It wasn’t necessarily meant to be a countdown of the five best sets, per se, nor should it have been interpreted as one.  All the same, this countdown isn’t necessarily of the five worst sets of the era either.  But all had one quality that, looking back, makes you wonder “What were they thinking when they made this?”

Here’s my look at the five dumbest gimmicks of the 1990s.

1. Fractal Matrix

You probably know it better as the “Gold-Silver-Bronze short-print thing” that Topps introduced in 1996 Finest; but like most new concepts, fracturing (sub-dividing a set into different “themed” levels, each with their own level of production) really didn’t come into its own until Topps’ competitors started coping it.  It only took Donruss a year for them to take the fracture concept and the result was the infamous Fractal Matrix parallel.

The entire 400-card 1997 Leaf base set was broken down (or “fractured”) into nine tiers based on three different colors (Gold, Silver, or Bronze) and three different axes (X, Y, or Z).  In addition, there were two different versions of each card: Die-Cut and non Die-Cut.  Unfortunately, the cards were not serial-numbered and the non-Die-Cuts do not state what the card’s Axis is.  Unless you happen to know what the card’s Axis is, there’s no way of knowing exactly how many of them were printed.

Thankfully, with the 1998 demise of Pinnacle Brands (the parent company of Donruss), we have yet to see the return of this complicated and confusing gimmick.

2. Material Cards

In a way, Material cards were the forerunner to the manufactured “Relic” cards that are now commonplace.  They made their debut in 1995 Leaf Series One with the Hobby-only Leaf Statistical Standouts inserts – a set that was made to look and feel like a real baseball.  Initially, Material cards were a hit and for the rest of the 1990s we saw cards that were made of (or made to resemble): wood, leather, canvas, nylon, felt and other non-cardboard substrates.  Donruss went whole-hog into Material cards, and just about every Donruss product in the mid-to-late-90s had at least one Material insert.

Then as the Century came to a close and game-used cards became more prevalent, tastes began to change and collector’s preferred their inserts with actual game-used bats and jerseys – rather than nylon and wooden gimmicks.

3. Card Supials

Card Supials.  The name just screams GIMMICK; and boy was it a stupid one.  Pacific unveiled the concept in 1996 in football and ported it over to their 1997 flagship baseball set.

Here’s how Card Supials worked.  There were 36 standard-sized cards in the set and they were inserted at the rate of about one-per-waxbox.  Joining the base inserts were a 36-card mini-sized parallel that also dropped one-per-box.  Sounds great, right?  I mean, who doesn’t love mini parallels!

Here’s where it gets really stupid.  Each one of the standard-sized cards had a slit cut into it in which the corresponding mini-sized parallel was meant to be inserted.  And the mini parallels came pre-inserted into the bigger card’s “pouch.” (Marsupials, like kangaroos, have pouches. Marsupial/Card Supial: get it?!)

So naturally, each standard-sized Card Supial must have come with the player’s mini parallel already inside the pouch, right?  Ummm… no.  Each pack-inserted standard-sized Card Supial came with a randomly inserted mini.  You wanted to match-up your standard-sized and mini Card Supial? Tough.  You’re options were to either rip more wax and hope to get lucky or take to the then-nascent internet and hope somebody else had one to trade or sell away.

Pacific dropped the Card Supial after ’97, but brought it back for 2000 Crown Royale (not coincidentally, one of the final baseball card products they would issue).  The Pacific Card Supials: a gimmick whose time came, went, and probably should have never happened in the first place.

4. Dare to Tear

You know those “Rip Cards” in Allen & Ginter that collectors salivate over? (Or at least they say they salivate over?)  Wouldn’t it be great if there was a whole product that’s just Rip Cards?  Well there’s a reason why Topps hasn’t made an all-Rip Card set because Pinnacle Brands bet ‘em to it: 1998 Zenith, a.k.a. the “Dare-To-Tear” set.

Each $6 pack came with three 5” X 7” cards and embedded inside each of those was a standard-sized 2 ½” X 3 ½” card.  OK, so you rip open three jumbo cards and get three inserts, no big deal, right?  Wrong, because there were two separate base sets: one jumbo sized the other standard-sized.  And yes, they made both jumbo and standard-sized parallels AND inserts.  What’s more, many of the standard-sized inserts were embedded inside the jumbo inserts/parallels.

The novelty of having to physically destroy one card just to get to another might work when that card is (like an A&G Rip Card) an autograph or a genuinely rare insert; but having to rip open dozens of cards just to build the base set just reeked of gimmickry.  Dare-to-Tear was bad, but this wasn’t even the worst gimmick Pinnacle Brands came up with.  Oh no.

5. Cards in Cans

By 1997s, The Hobby had six MLB licensees and those six combined to release 56 different baseball card sets.  That’s a brand new product just about every week.  With a segmented marketplace and six companies all competing for a shrinking number of Hobby dollars, card manufacturers had to do something to make their products stand out on the dealer’s shelf.

What better way to make your set stand out than to package it in something other than the traditional foil pack?  Well, that was the thinking of Pinnacle Brands in 1997 when it released Pinnacle Inside, the “First Ever Baseball Card In a Can!” (Yes, this was something they were actually proud of).  For the uninitiated, each 10-card “pack” came packaged inside a soup can and the only way to open the “pack” was with a can opener.

Let that sink in for a moment.  The open the pack, YOU NEED A CAN OPENER.

The set itself wasn’t anything all that special.  Inside was one of a slew of indistinguishable, formulaic, $2-$3/pack products that Pinnacle Brands cranked out (150/200-card base set, a couple of parallels, and a few middling inserts) in the last few years of their existence.

The main selling point of Pinnacle Inside wasn’t the cards, but the cans they came in; in other words it was a product based around a gimmick.

Chris Harris writes the popular hobby blog, Stale Gum