The world of sports collectibles has lost a true icon and a larger-than-life personality.
Don West, the longtime pitchman of sports card packages on Shop at Home TV, passed away Dec. 30 at the age of 59. He had been battling brain lymphoma for about a year and a half.
Perhaps Don is more well known as the commentator for TNA Impact Wrestling. If it was humanly possible that Don could be better at something than being a sports card pitchman on Shop at Home, it was being a wrestling commentator.
I knew about Don and had seen him on Shop at Home while I was working at Pinnacle Trading Cards. At that time, I had no idea that our lives would cross paths on more than one occasion. In September, 1998, I was one of only seven employees left at Pinnacle out of the 250 or so who were in the building when the implosion began a few months earlier. I accepted a job with Collector’s Edge in Denver. I had dealt with them before and wrote card backs for their minor league hockey card product. My experience with them was not that great. However, the company was under new ownership.
And of course, this was less than a year after the famous Saturday Night Live skits with Will Ferrell portraying Don West. I can’t imagine how cool it would be to know that Will Ferrell was playing you in Saturday Night Live skits and Don told that story a few years ago. There was the Shaq Plaque, and then the ultimate Star Wars collectible when they kidnapped Mark Hamill and Don tried to sell him for $80,000.
So why was Collector’s Edge, a Tennessee company, in Denver? I had to ask. That’s when I learned that Collector’s Edge was actually owned by Shop at Home, which was based in Nashville.
Suddenly, this little company was extremely intriguing to me as a career move and leaning opportunity. And I would get to work with Don West.
I split my time there between the Collector’s Edge office in Denver, the Shop at Home office in the Nashville suburb of Antioch, and working at home in Dallas. Staying in Dallas was convenient for a few reasons. It was halfway between the two cities, and my family was settled in Dallas. It was also home of Great Western Press, which printed and packaged sports card products for many manufacturers. And, the Beckett headquarters was just down the tollway from where I lived in Frisco, TX.
The Overnight Collectible King
My first day at Shop at Home was incredibly fascinating. It was filled with a tour and meetings, then great food, and more meetings.
The Shop at Home building was actually a former grocery store. It was divided diagonally. One triangular half was where everyone worked in cubes and clusters. The other half was the studio.
I didn’t get to meet Don West on the first day there, but I watched him work. Don was on the air that night. I became one of the “boys of darkness” that night. We were on the air from midnight to 5AM, yet we worked during the day. Instead of eight hours a sleep on an on-air day, it was like a couple of four-hour sleeps when you could get them.
While Don West seemed like a cartoonish character and persona to me – he may have been like that for you too – I soon learned that he was a genius. He was beyond gifted.
There were three different stages or product areas set up with cameras on them. Don faced the cameras, and behind the cameras, there was an amphitheatre-type of setting with rows of telephone operators. The set up was similar to a college or university classroom, except with phones.
I stood in amazement behind the telephone operators, looking through a window. Watching Don West was mesmerizing. I was standing with Michael Waddell, asking questions about what he was doing. Don would be on the air, giving the pitch, engaging with the viewer. Then, when the camera showed close-ups of the product, Don would be on his laptop to the side, while still talking about the product. He was monitoring how many dollars per second that particular package was bringing in. He also had a producer talking into his ear the entire time.
Yet, with all of these things pulling at his attention, Don kept giving his pitch, flawlessly. When he said the right things, the phones would light up like the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas Tree.
So when I say genius and beyond gifted, that is what I mean. I have never met anyone else in my life able to separate and compartmentalize distractions and variables while continuing to make a world class sales pitch.
The Real Don
The next day, I got the chance to meet Don. We had a one-on-one meeting because we were going to be selling Collector’s Edge products on the air that night. I walked through the different products we had for that night with Don. We ended up spending a couple of hours together. We bonded over our passion for the hobby (yes, Don really loved it) and over our products. After two hours, it was like we had known each other forever. That’s the kind of guy Don was.
As a product development specialist, watching Don pitch products that I had blueprinted was like a dream come true. He knew exactly how to pitch them, and he knew what buttons to push. The energy and passion that you saw on the air was not shtick. Don was like that 24-7. That’s who he was.
Unfortunately, Don did not work every night. When he was not on the air, it was reflected in our sales. It’s not that the other on air salespeople were not good. They were excellent. They just weren’t Don. They did their best, but Don had developed a cult following throughout the country. People could not turn the channel or turn the TV off when he was on. Young people stayed up late or tuned in after a night at the bars. Many of them bought the “deals.”
An example of this smacked me over the head over a two-day stretch in Nashville. We had a Collector’s Edge package that included two boxes of football cards and an autographed card of star rookie Peyton Manning for $99. We sold about $30,000 worth of the package.
The next night, with Don West pushing the exact same package, our sales were more than $75,000. Don was that good. He told SC Daily back in 2010 that from 1995-2001 the show raked in an average of over $150 million a year–and over $1 billion total.
Of course, some of what was sold turned out to be virtually worthless and Don may have crossed the line with a few things that he said. Some of my favorites were:
“Charizard is the Mark McGwire of Japanese animated characters.” Remember that this was 1998. “We have PSA graded 10 rare Charizard cards. This may be the most important purchase of your life.”
Or how about this one.
“These Tiger Woods autographed cards are only available with this offer. The question is not are you going to buy one. It’s are you going to buy six, or eight, or maybe a dozen.”
Keith Smith and I looked at each other. He told me to check my next paycheck to see if Satan signed it instead of our CFO.
Don West and Wrestling
The boys of darkness eventually faded away. Shop at Home was being sold to another company, and owning a sports card company and selling sports collectibles was not in their long term plan.
I accepted a job with Fleer, but then Fleer pulled the offer after demanding that I turn down an offer from Upper Deck. I eventually landed at Pacific Trading Cards in Seattle, which was an amazing place to work and a great move for me.
After a while, I was channel surfing one night and came across TNA/Impact Wrestling. I recognized the voice immediately. It was Don West. I was thrilled to see that a great professional who had become a good friend had landed on his feet.
A few months later, I was in Nashville again for the 2003 NHL Draft. I spent about a week in Nashville, and I was able to connect with Michael Waddell and we planned to get together for dinner and an adult beverage or two on one of the nights I had free.
Michael took me to this area downtown called Printer’s Alley. If you go to Nashville, obviously you have to go to the places on Broadway. But Printer’s Alley is an amazing hidden gem in Nashville.
We’re sitting in this big roadhouse type of bar eating wings and having a pint. All of a sudden, we hear a familiar voice behind us accompanied by a hand on each of our shoulders.
“What are you guys doing here!?!”
It was Don West.
He pulled up a seat and explained that TNA/Impact Wrestling was hosting its one year anniversary party upstairs. Everyone was there. Jeff Jarrett, Dixie Carter, Sting, AJ Styles.
So of course, the conversation took a quick turn to the possibilities of Pacific doing a TNA/Impact card set.
It was just like old times. Don and I and Michael Waddell sat there in a bar in Printer’s Alley and drew the concept for Pacific TNA Wrestling on a napkin. We figured out inserts, autographs, an event-used program. And of course, Don would have to be in the set.
His eyes lit up. He was like a kid. “My own ball card,” he said, visibly dreaming and picturing it in his mind.
That napkin made it back to Seattle and was turned into an Excel sheet. A meeting or two with Mike Cramer and CFO Phil Roth and the head of our design team Rob Hicks let to another trip to Nashville to meet with TNA. The 2004 Pacific TNA Wrestling set was born.
When the product was released, I went back to Nashville armed with some boxes of cards. There was a TNA event at the Fairgrounds that night. While Don West was on the air, I was able to get behind him and put some packs and a box, along with his card, on the table in front of him. Don gushed over the cards, and instantly, Pacific TNA Wrestling had an audience.
I only ran into Don a few times over the next two decades. When you work at different jobs across the country and move around a lot, you make a lot of friends. Unfortunately, you lose track of most of them.
I was sad to hear that Don was battling brain cancer. In 2019, I was 36 hours away from dying when I had a tennis ball-sized tumor pulled out of my brain. I was lucky, but my cancer was different than the lymphoma in the brain that Don was battling. I wish we could have talked to each other during our battles.
Someone asked me today what my best memory of Don West was.
Every memory is so animated and over the top, but there is one that makes me laugh when I think of him.
After a long day at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago, we were all at the nearby Doubletree Hotel. There was a bar on the main floor – kind of an open area with a pool table. We all had a couple of Miller Lites to unwind after the show.
Don may have had more than a couple. He went up the elevator and was using his key card to get in his room. It wouldn’t seem to work. He was getting more frustrated by the second.
Suddenly, the door opened from the inside, and a big, jacked guy looked at him and said, “What the hell are you doing trying to get in my room?”
Don looked at home and replied, “What the hell are you doing in my room?”
Eventually, Don realized he was trying to get into the wrong room. As embarrassing as that moment may have been, Don handled it as only Don could. The next morning, I came down to the lobby for breakfast. There was Don sitting with the guy whose room he was trying to break into. They were having breakfast and laughing as if they were long lost friends.
And that’s what we will miss about Don West. He was a character. But to anyone he met, he was a genuine friend.
Good luck in Heaven, my friend. And if St. Peter asks you if Satan ever signed your paycheck at Shop at Home, just change the subject and sell him some Charizard cards.