It’s not exactly a Tale of Two Cities, because Anaheim is the only city involved.
But it is certainly a Tale of Two Nationals.
I have been to three Nationals in Anaheim – 1991, 1996 and 2000. When Anaheim first hosted the National in 1985, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I also missed out on the 2006 National, which was the last one held on the west coast, just after the launch of this website.
The 2000 National, to me, was completely forgettable. That does not mean it wasn’t a good show. It was more my situation at the time. I was working for Collector’s Edge, doing all of their product development and marketing. Collector’s Edge was owned by Shop at Home. The 2000 National, for me, was standing at our booth meeting and talking to collectors about our products, which I absolutely loved doing. They were just long days. When I wasn’t in the booth, I was in meetings with Shop at Home and their business partners. I alternated weeks at that time between the Collector’s Edge office in a little industrial park not far from Mile High Stadium in Denver, and the Shop at Home building in the Nashville suburb of Antioch.
Personally, it was a weird time. The writing was on the wall that Shop at Home was going to be taken over, and that Collector’s Edge would no longer exist. During the National, I was interviewing with Upper Deck and received a job offer. I had always wanted to work for Upper Deck. I still do. (Hi guys!) Around that time, Roger Grass, the owner of Fleer, stepped in and also offered me a job. Not to sound too New Jersey, but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. He instructed me to resign from Shop at Home and tell Upper Deck thanks but no thanks. I did those things, and then in September of that year, he contacted me out of the blue and told me he was pulling the offer off the table and no longer wanted me to work for him. Every bridge I had around me was blown up.
Facing deportation because I was on a visa, and desperate for a job, I reached out to Mike Cramer at Pacific. He and Bruce Chappalear had approached me a few times before about joining Pacific. I was on a plane to Seattle the next day, and realized that I had landed in the best situation I had ever been in. Pacific was an incredible place to work, Seattle was an incredible place to live, and Mike was the best boss you could ever have. He was brilliant, fair, passionate about collecting, and he treated every person in the company like family.
So with that personal avalanche happening at the 2000 National, I really paid little attention to what was going on with regard to who the autograph guests were or what was happening on the floor.
The one highlight of the show I do remember was an offsite road trip we took to see Rob Veres’ shop in Burbank. As a sports card industry executive, I tried to act professional. Inside my body, the soul of my inner-collector was frolicking gleefully, never having see a place so cool in my life.
Except maybe the Baseball and Hockey Halls of Fame, and the Coliseum in Rome.
1991: The Year of Brien Taylor
The real story of Anaheim, to me, is how different things were between 1991 and 1996.
Do you remember the insanity of the 1991 National? If not, this story will help paint a picture.
There were about 100,000 people in attendance. The line-ups for promo cards were absolutely crazy. It’s funny when you think about it, but probably a third of the crowd at that National was there just to get Brien Taylor Classic promo cards. Remember what a big deal Brien Taylor was? He was supposed to be the next Dwight Gooden, and had just been made the first overall pick in the MLB Draft by the Yankees.
People lined up for promos for hours, got their cards, and got back in line. They acted like Classic was handing out $100 bills. Everyone was going to get rich off these rare promo cards, because there were only, I don’t know, maybe six hundred zillion of them produced. There was no eBay back then. There was no COMC. There wasn’t even an online yet. We all thought fax machines had brought us into the world of instant communication and technology. People who stockpiled the Brien Taylor cards were selling them to local shops, or taking classified ads out in Sports Collectors Digest or their local community newspapers to sell these cards.
Brien Taylor, meanwhile, got in a fight at a trailer park in North Carolina in December, 1993 and destroyed his shoulder trying to throw a punch. Swing in a miss, and there goes the labrum. And a potential Hall of Fame career. Taylor never pitched above Double-A.
As for the cards, I am surprised nobody wrote a screenplay for Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax 2 about how many forests were destroyed for Brien Taylor promo cards.
But those were just the tip of the iceberg. Action Packed had a great Emmitt Smith promo, and all of the companies had long lines, handing out freebies.
Another thing that really stood out to me was the autograph line-up. I collect signed 8×10 photos and have a great display of them framed in my Sports Cathedral. (It’s next level so I don’t call it a man cave). I got Hank Aaron and Joe DiMaggio signed photos at that show. I regret not getting Willie Mays, but the lines were long and I only had so much time.
Bobby Hull was there signing, and even though he was only supposed to be there for two hours, he must have been there for five or six hours. I was the editor of Canadian Sport Collector magazine at that time, and Hull was a regular at most big Canadian shows at that time. He is everything an autograph guest should be. He takes the time to meet everyone, give them a personal experience, and he truly loves talking to fans.
Fast Forward to 1996
The 1996 National seemed so much smaller than the 1991 National, but there were still 60,000 people there.
It was, however, a different crowd. People still wanted the freebies and the promos, but the frenzy of 1991 was not prevalent. I guess no one got rich off Brien Taylor after all.
This show was my last National while working for Canadian Sports Collector. I had already accepted a job to be the hockey brand manager at Pinnacle. My now ex-wife was pregnant at the time, so our plan was to move to Dallas in early 1997, after our second child was born. By the way, she was not impressed that I was heading to Anaheim for a card show to leave her at home pregnant and looking after a toddler. Maybe I could bring her back a Signature Rookies promo card.
There are a couple things that really stick out in my mind from the 1996 National. Anaheim was different – they had a hockey team at this point, which had not even been a thought in 1991. Paul Kariya, the star of the Mighty Ducks, was one of the autograph guests. He signed under the condition that his autographs would be free. I got to have lunch with him and interview him. He was one of the most focused and intense athletes I had ever met. I was still playing semi-pro football at this point in my life, so I was fascinated with how driven he was. I will never forget one of the things he told me.
“Every single thing I do, I think about if it will make me a better hockey player,” he said. “Even looking at the lunch menu. This is the salad I picked, because out of everything on the menu, it will make me a better hockey player. When I watch film or do anything in my downtime, I always do something that will make me a better hockey player.”
So having lunch at In and Out Burger clearly wasn’t an option.
Wayne Gretzky was at the show, and he was famous in the hobby not only for being Wayne Gretzky, but also his partial ownership in the Honus Wagner T-206 card. I had tried out for the Toronto Argonauts in 1993 when he was a team co-owner and I got the opportunity to interview him one-on-one a few times courtesy of Upper Deck. Seeing how people reacted to him at the National really made me understand how much he singlehandedly put hockey on the mainstream map in Southern California.
There were a lot of hockey prospects there signing, including a young Joe Thornton. There was a mask artist painting a goalie mask of a collage of different goalie masks. And the most unique thing regarding hockey at the 1996 National was a joint venture between the NHL, NHLPA, Topps and Fleer.
Trying to capitalize on the new fantasy hockey craze, the NHL brought Topps and Fleer together for an NHL Picks hockey card set. The two companies would be on a stage and have a “fantasy draft” to select the cards in the set. One company had all the odd-numbered cards, while the other had the even-numbered cards.
The draft event was promoted heavily. We even got to take part in it as the media. Canadian Sports Collector took part in a media draft. I think it was with Beckett, but I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember was that this draft was heavily promoted and they had bleachers set up for people to watch. Topps had NHL broadcaster Kenny Albert on their panel, while Fleer had broadcaster John Davidson, who is now the GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
There may have been a dozen people watching at its peak, so as an event at the National, it didn’t quite work. I don’t know how that card set did. It’s one from the junk wax era that you rarely see online or at shows.
Playboy Mansion or Dodger Stadium?
The last memory to share from that show was a VIP outing that night. I think the National promoted it for media members and exhibitors. A bus would leave the show hotels and we had the choice of going to the Playboy Mansion or the Dodgers game. Since my boss at the time was about as low budget as it got, our show hotel was the Comfort Inn. Free cable. Enough said. So we had to cab it to the nearest show hotel to get on the bus.
My boss and my co-worker went to the Playboy Mansion. They were involved in the show because they had just released a 40th Anniversary Playboy trading card set. Many of you reading this will think I am nuts, but I picked the Dodgers game. While it would be cool to say I was in the Playboy Mansion, I wasn’t interested. I was in the middle of a football season so I didn’t want to drink. I had a pregnant wife at home and I missed my three-year-old son, and just the thought of being there in that world made me think that I would have to go back to the Comfort Inn, fill the bathtub with Purell and then scrub myself with sandpaper.
I had always wanted to go to Dodger Stadium and I figured it might be the only chance I would ever get to be there. So while a busload of people went to get a 15-second glimpse of Hugh Hefner and eat snacks handed to them in genetically-altered women in lingerie, about a half dozen or so of us continued on to the baseball game to see Dodger Stadium and watch Hideo Nomo pitch. And to me, saying I went to Dodger Stadium beats saying I went to the Playboy Mansion in my collector version of rock-paper-scissors.
So anecdotes aside, Anaheim was an amazing place for the National. If the show ever goes there again, that is one I would love to attend. Could you imagine how crazy an Anaheim National would be now with the attention Shohei Ohtani is getting?
He would be the biggest thing to hit an Anaheim National since Brien Taylor.
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