by Rich Klein
As always, I'd like to start by thanking you, the reader for your indulgence in enabling me to discuss old hobby stories. I like the new logo we've got…me with the baseball cards flying out the back. It’s perfect because we are taking trips back to the past each week. There is a great joy in being able to go back and discuss happenings from the hobby’s memorable history and via e-mail, they've re-connected me with old friends.
Recently, I received an email from Bill Barron. Bill used to be the General Manager of NFL Properties and worked out of the Los Angeles office.
"I challenge you to write about Lud Denny," he told me.
For those who might not remember, Lud Denny was the founder, owner and brains behind Pro Set, the trading card maker that debuted in the late 1980s. Within three years, Pro Set had over 200 employees and Denny was featured in numerous media outlets, including this story in the L.A. Times.
With so many years having passed since Pro Set first produced its debut set of football cards, we can get a clearer picture of events then and now. I will say that I had limited contact with Lud Denny and I'd doubt that he'd remember me at this point. Lud was the owner of Pro Set but if he did not exist in the hobby, one would have to invent him.
Lud was a big bear of a man, and his dreams for the hobby were even greater. However, just as in most aspects of the hobby, what he did had been done before. One memorable event he launched, which unfortunately I never did get to go to, was an "open-bar" party at hobby events, most of which lasted until the wee hours. Other people can discuss those parties, if their hazy memories permit.
Pro Set would crank out their football card printing presses 24 hours a day if needed and use that continual printing to keep up with any player personnel moves in a far more timely basis then the card companies were doing in those days. Lud and his staff called the concept "The Living Set".
In reality, it wasn’t a hobby first. In fact, it happened more than 100 years earlier with the famed 1887-90 Old Judge set and the even more famous T206 set, both of which can be considered examples of similar commitment. Pro Set, though, had the NFL's blessing. Their cards got a lot of attention early on. Their debut coincided with the rookie seasons of Barry Sanders, Troy Aikman and other future stars. Denny himself appeared on a few of Pro Set's cards.
However, within a couple of years, things began to go wrong for Pro Set. Growing quickly, the company became the "Official Card Set of the NFL" and by their third year, they were beginning to insert autograph cards into their product.
1991 Pro Set football included autograph cards of Lawrence Taylor. Now, these cards were very scarce within the entire print run, but when the product was released, the company was still hyping any "errors and variations" the set contained. I still remember when we discovered, deep in a Pro Set press release, the existence of the autograph cards and wondered why Pro Set wasn’t trying to promote the autographed cards in their product instead.
On a side note, this history of "hyping" the wrong aspect of a product was to me the final clue about some of Upper Deck's published financial problems circa 2010. When the 2010 Upper Deck product was released, it seemed instead of focusing on the autographs in the boxes, they created variations which collectors were supposed to go out and seek. UD did not provide immediate information on those cards, so in the early days of the product release, I would guarantee that many tougher variations were sold at a pittance.
In addition, around 1997-98, Pinnacle released some of their products with similar lack of focus. By September 1, 1998, Pinnacle was out of business. At least Upper Deck has survived, albeit on a smaller platform.
Back to Pro Set. In 1992, some of the company’s executives drove the few miles to Beckett for a meeting. Interestingly, despite being less than 10 minutes away from the Pro Set headquarters, we really had very little day to day interaction with Pro Set.
This meeting I specifically remember because of an exchange that went something like this:
Pro Set exec: "We're so proud. We're numbering all the hobby cases of 1992 Pro Set.
Me: "How about numbering all the retail cases?"
Pro Set Exec: "No, just the hobby cases.”
There was some other question I asked about what Pro Set was going to do for retail channels and fix some other issues. The execs just continued on their way.
About two years later, when Pro Set was out of business, fellow Beckett employeeTheo Chen and I occasionally discussed that meeting. Each time his line to me was, "You told them how to save their company, and they did not listen."
That brings me to another side note about the hobby.
For more than 20 years now one of great arguments was "retail versus hobby". I do understand and sympathize with dealers who do not want to deal with cards that came out of retail packs. After all, they would prefer you buy hobby products, and only collect what is in hobby packs. Every once in a while, I use the "Diamond Collection" contest as a stopping point to discuss price per card per pack as well as what a collector receives from packs. We figured out that when 2011 Topps Series One boxes went past $60 earlier this year, the "Diamond Collection" collector was better off with hobby boxes then retail. Every case is different, but if I had a store, I would not hesitate to buy a "retail" insert item if I could make a profit.
By 1994, Pro Set was gone, the huge building and their printing presses were no longer in use and the glut of football card companies was starting to get under control. The early 1990's were rife with football card producers. We had companies which included: AW. Pro Set, Pro Line (originally issues by the NFL), Wild Card and some which lasted a bit longer (Topps, Score, Upper Deck, Pacific). I'm probably missing a card manufacturer or two here, but the point was we had more card manufacturers then you could count on two hands.
I've wondered what ever happened to Lud Denny. Recently, I did an online search and found that a Ludwell Denny is associated with several companies, including Arete Sales and Marketing, LLC, Creative Solutions Marketing, LLC and Daycat Managers, Inc.
Ludwell is also listed as the CEO for this company, based in Dallas.
Planet E-Shop, Inc in Dallas, TX is a private company which is listed under household and commercial storage. Current estimates show this company has an annual revenue of $2,800,000 and employs a staff of 32. I'm willing to wager this is our man. I'd doubt there is more than one Ludwell Denny running around the Dallas area at this point.
So, it is good to see that Lud is apparently still with us and doing well. Someday, I hope we as a hobby can get him to jot down some of his stories of those glory years for Pro Set. He was such a larger than life figure, in fact his face was on several Pro Set cards, that his story should be revisited for hobby posterity.
Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]