by Ted Golden
The late 1980s baseball card boom was fertile ground for another sports memorabilia product to gain a foothold. For 14 years, “Starting Lineup” figures captured the imagination of kids everywhere.
They were action figures produced in the form of a baseball player, basketball player, football player, hockey players, and even Auto Racing. Everyone, at least in my youthful social group, had to have as many of them as possible.
Each package included at least one figurine, one or more trading cards, and/or items like a mini-poster or small medallion. They became one of the most popular lines of sports figurines ever produced, and there is still a sizeable market for them. Pre-1992 pieces are going to be the hardest to find in good condition and those years are home to the most expensive of all the SLUs.
Behind the Lineup
In 1988, Kenner toys produced the first series of Starting Lineup figures. Based on an idea conceived by former Cincinnati Bengals player Pat McInally, the original series included athletes from baseball, basketball, and football. Each action figure came in a color coded package (blue, red, and green respectively).
By the early 1990s, the figures were extremely popular. Small conventions popped up around the country and even The National became a hotspot for figures. Kenner started to release a handful of convention exclusives and then established the SLU Collector Club. A few figures were issued exclusively to SLUCC members.
Today, the convention and collector club pieces, not being available through retail, usually cost a bit more money. The figures were so popular that in 1993, hockey figures, with their distinct yellow boxes, were introduced. Four years later, Auto racing was introduced.
After the main lines had been established, subsets of the SLUs hit the markets including Headline Collection, Cooperstown Collection (a personal favorite), Stadium Stars, Classic Doubles, One on One (which featured two figures), and Timeless Legends.
In 1998, the product line was on its way down, especially basketball. The 1998 NBA Lockout probably had a serious effect, and as a result, basketball was no longer produced. Two years later, Football, Hockey, and Racing all came to an end. Finally, in 2001, baseball production ended as well and SLUs called it a day.
While they were no longer flying off the shelves, SLUs were still being actively traded in the secondary markets. New entries into the market place grabbed enough market share to take down the giant, but despite that fact, SLUs are still the most well known product line of its’ type. A number of other product lines have continued to carry the torch, most notably the McFarlane sports figures line.
What’s in a Figure
Starting Lineup figures are enclosed in a traditional action figure case. The cardboard slab measures 7 7/8" wide and 8 7/8" tall. The size of the holder often depends on the shape and quantity of the included “products”.
Each figure is made of plastic and dressed to the nines in the appropriate uniform. Because they were produced from molds, there are a limited number of poses, so if you see Marcus Allen looking a lot like Walter Payton, don’t be surprised. Initially there were only 10 poses per line, but in 1993 and again in 1995, new poses were introduced.
The figures are always fixed to a base so that they can stand up independent of the box. Additionally, each figure is semi-possible as you can rotate their torso, head, and arms (at the shoulders). The base is made to look like the floor the player is found on. Thus, a baseball player is usually standing on a green blob (grass), and basketball players on a wood colored “parquet”. If a basketball player is “jumping” in the pose, then the figure is actually elevated off the base for effect.
Not surprisingly, SLUs are most valuable when found in the box. If you come across the figure out of the box, they probably aren’t worth more than a dollar or two (except for some of the key players). Basically, consider an out of the box figure the same as a figure in a heavily damaged box. As you might expect, the packaging can be damaged with relative ease. The most common problems are creases in the slabs or dents in the holder. Like any other collectible, you are going to want to keep them out of the sunlight and if you smoke, make sure you do it outside your hobby room. If you don’t do that then the plastic will discolor and your Barry Sanders that was in Mint condition will fade.
The most common grading scale is Mint, NM, EX, and Poor/Distressed. A mint piece has no blemishes and will look brand new. Near Mint SLUs show minor flaws, like scratches, and can be found with some slightly frayed corners. In Excellent condition, an SLU is noticeably defected and displays things like large scratches, minor denting, slight discoloration or fading, or a “sticker hickey”. Why people call that “EX” is beyond me, as FAIR or GOOD would be more appropriate. Poor or Distressed SLUs are the bottom of the rung. A heavily damaged piece with major discoloration or fading, creases in the card, creases or rips in the package, the hang tab ripped off, or tack holes could easily qualify as such. Most pre-1992 items are going to usually come in NM. After that, you should probably stick to MINT items if value is your main motivation in collecting.
Just like baseball cards, rare figures of lesser athletes are often more valuable than plentiful pieces of major athletes. For example, in the 1988 basketball set, Michael Jordan is the most mass-produced piece, and is valued less than the incredibly rare Utah Jazz pieces (Karl Malone, John Stockton, Mark Eaton, Thurl Bailey). In fact, the 1988 Karl Malone is the most valuable Starting Lineup ever made. If you find him, buy him! Variations exist as well. Sometimes, a player's jersey will change because of a trade. Occasionally, figures come with different poses. Those variations usually do not create a premium because they are often produced in similar quantities.
There are slight variations that do produce a feeding frenzy among collectors. The most notable include: 1994 Cooperstown Collection Jackie Robinson with jersey #44, 1998 Baseball Sammy Sosa at Wrigley Field, 1992 Basketball Magic Johnson with yellow jersey, 1994 Basketball Dennis Rodman with red hair, 1989 Football Ken O’Brien with misspelled name, 1996 Football Troy Aikman with two stars, 1995 Timeless Legends Rocky Marciano with brown hair. Although not a variation, you might find it interesting that ten years after the product's launch, Hasbro produced a McInally action figure. If you see one of the variations, they probably come with a price hefty price tag.
The two most expensive SLUs are Stockton and Malone from the ’88 Jazz. Break out the credit card when you see them and hope they are listed in the wrong category on eBay!
The biggest hazard to Starting Lineups is pressure (for example: don’t put your collector magazines on top of your SLUs). They are made of very light material, and crumple easily. They can be stacked, but do not place them under anything. The two best ways to store them are to set them on shelves, or hang them by their tabs. If the “hook” used to hang the figure is damaged, then shelves are the way to go. Again, keep them out of the kids play room, and you should be fine.
You can also find clear display cases. There are many companies that manufacture them. A visit to Google should yield plenty of options. These protectors completely encase the cardboard and fit snuggly to prevent movement.
Click here to see Starting Lineup figures, cards and more on eBay.