Music may have lost a legend recently, but the hobby lost one of its most passionate celebrity collectors.
B.J. Thomas passed away on May 29, 2021, less than a week after publicly announcing that he had Stage 4 lung cancer.
Thomas was a musical icon of the last half century. His career really took off with his 1966 million-selling cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” He followed that up with his monster hit, “Hooked on a Feeling.” He won an Oscar for the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”, which appeared in the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” He won a Grammy with “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” A five-time Grammy award winner and Grammy Hall of Fame inductee, Thomas sold more than 70 million albums worldwide. He had eight No. 1 hits and 26 Top 10 singles over his more than 50 years in the music industry.
Everyone knew who B.J. Thomas the singer was. But few knew that he was a bigtime hockey card collector.
Bought Every Pacific Product
In the early 2000s, I was working at Pacific Trading Cards in the Seattle suburb of Lynnwood, WA. After having stepped onto a sinking ship at Pinnacle and then going from the frying pan to the fire at Collector’s Edge and the Shop at Home TV Network, Pacific was a nice, calm, positive place to land. Put it this way. As a lifelong collector, it was like going to the fragrance department at the airport duty free shop and finding a men’s cologne called “Eau de 1970s Baseball Card Bubble Gum.”
It’s not that Pacific didn’t have its difficult days and stressful times. It’s just that it was a smaller company where everyone was treated with respect and like family. You didn’t go through your day feeling like a corporate suit was standing behind you holding an axe above the back of your neck.
One day, I was talking to Mike Monson. Many of you who were in the hobby in the 1990s and early 2000s who ever went to the Pacific booth at a major card show will have dealt with Mike. He was the ultimate gentle giant, and one of the nicest and most honest people who ever worked in the sports card industry. Shannon Johnson, a girl in her mid-20s (I think), looked after a lot of our customer service details. She came into Mike’s office and had an aggravated look on her face.
“Ugggh,” she groaned. “My stalker called me again.”
“Your stalker?” Mike asked. We both looked more intrigued than concerned.
“This guy calls me like three times a week wants this card replaced and that card replaced, and asking questions about serial-numbers on rookies and different parallels,” she said.
We didn’t really see an issue with that. Mike and I were both collectors, so we understood that.
“Oh, and get this,” she said. “He says he’s famous.”
This was starting to get really interesting.
“His name is B.J. Thomas or something,” she continued. “He lives in Dallas. He says he’s a singer and that he sings the anthem at Dallas Stars games.”
Mike and I just sat there, jaws dropped, looking at each other and then at Shannon. Mike just started laughing and had a huge smile on his face.
“B.J. Thomas?,” Mike said. “Are you kidding me?”
“No,” Shannon said. “Should I know who he is or something?”
Clearly, Shannon was not yet born when B.J. Thomas was getting major air play and winning Grammy Awards. And as annoyed as she was with “her stalker,” Mike and I were both star truck. I told Shannon that when I was a kid growing up in the country along the St. Lawrence River in Canada, my dream was to play in the CFL or NHL, and for the rest of the year, to be a singing cowboy. B.J. Thomas inspired my singing cowboy dream. I rode around on my bike when I was six singing B.J. Thomas songs, with the odd John Denver or Conway Twitty song thrown in for good measure.
Shannon thought that was weird.
As the hockey season went on, B.J. Thomas kept calling. He was a hard core hockey card collector. He bought boxes of every hockey card product Pacific made. He examined each card thoroughly. He put sets and parallel sets together.
A few months later, a package arrived for Shannon. Mike and I were more excited than she was when she opened it. It was a complete set of B.J. Thomas CD’s. They were autographed. Mike and I were awestruck. Shannon was totally our new hero.
A few days later, Shannon came over to talk to us again. Thomas had called with a few questions, and he had some big news for her.
“He was all excited because he is singing the anthem at the Stars game tonight and he wanted to look at all of his Dallas Stars cards to get ready,” she said. “He said he only sings for the really important games, like when they really need a win.”
I did all of Pacific’s product development at that time, so I thought it would be fun to talk to him about it. But I knew I would have tripped over my tongue and I wouldn’t have made any sense. It was better that Shannon talked to him.
Pacific ended up being a casualty of the NHL lockout. The NHL was willing to work with us through that year. The NHLPA’s Ted Saskin, however, made what is widely called a back room deal with Upper Deck to make them the sole NHLPA licensee. The NHL followed the NHLPA – they really had no choice – and Pacific was done.
Mike Modano Fan
Three years later, I was at the NHL All-Star Game in Dallas, set up at the hockey card and collectibles show that was part of the event. Low and behold, I finally got to meet B.J. Thomas. I told him that I had worked with Pacific and knew that he called us frequently. He smiled.
“How’s Shannon doing?” he asked. “She was always so nice and always took care of me.”
I told him I had lost touch with her, but inside, it was nice to know how appreciative he was of everything she did for him. We talked about hockey cards. He was a big Mike Modano fan and he loved the Stars. We talked about how Pro Set had a subset of celebrity captains in one of their first sets, and how it was a shame that the Stars were still in Minnesota then. Had the timing been different, he could have been in that hockey card set as the Dallas Stars celebrity captain.
“I have been on a couple cards,” he said excitedly. He pointed out that he was in a music card set in 1972, and he was in the 1993 American Bandstand set. I was always tempted to get that set when I saw it at shows, but I just wasn’t a non-sports guy.
I told him that my dad wanted to call me Billy Joe, which was B.J.’s full name. My mom demanded I would be Jeff. I’m still kind of mad at her for that. Billy Joe would have been so cool. Jeff is such a middle-aged white guy with khakis and a golf shirt kind of name. When I told him I used to pretend I was a singing cowboy and I rode around on my bike belting out his songs, I think he thought I was kind of weird. Maybe he thought I was his stalker.
Hearing of the passing of B.J. Thomas brought back all those memories. It made me think of Shannon and Mike and all of the great people I worked with at Pacific. It made me think of that All-Star Game Fanfest and collectibles show in Dallas.
I still have a couple of wax boxes from my time at Pacific. I think I am going to put a B.J. Thomas playlist together for Spotify and open a box of old hockey cards this weekend.
And even though I am too old pursue my childhood dream of playing in the NHL, I still have time to be a singing cowboy.