Wacky Props, Week 1 Previews, Baseball Cards, and Kristen Schaal
In this king-sized kickoff edition of Walkthrough, you'll find the wackiest Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, and Carolina Panthers prop bets on earth, previews of all the Week 1 NFL action, and a nostalgic look back at the golden age of baseball cards. But first…
A Few Minutes With Kristen Schaal
Kristen Schaal has been one of the most distinctive voices in animation for over a decade. She has brought life to memorable characters such as Louise Belcher (Bob's Burgers), Mabel Pines (Gravity Falls), and Sarah Lynn (BoJack Horseman). Her live-action credits include memorable runs on Last Man on Earth, Flight of the Conchords, and, this season, What We Do in the Shadows. Schaal can be seen in the current DraftKings "The Feels" advertising campaign, where she plays the voice of Confidence, spurring wagerers to overcome their doubts about going for that six-legged parlay.
Walkthrough interviewed Schaal via email about the DraftKings campaign and other topics:
Walkthrough: You play the voice of Confidence in the DraftKings ad. Which of your animated or live-action characters would you say is the most confident and why?
Schaal: Mel from Flight of the Conchords -- she knows what she wants!
Walkthrough: If you could be an announcer for any sport or sporting event on earth, which would you pick and why?
Schaal: Gymnastics. Something about watching a human body flip in the air makes me very emotional. I think I would probably last a day before this sobbing announcer would get fired.
Walkthrough: Have you ever placed a wager on anything like a "six-legged parlay?"
Walkthrough: We'll be getting a Bob's Burgers movie soon. Which of your characters would you most like to see make the jump from television to film?
Schaal: All of them! I would like to play all my characters in as many formats as possible.
Walkthrough: Tara Strong recently had a significant role in the Loki television series. Will we ever get to see/hear you in a major superhero universe? If so, who would you like to play?
Schaal: I think Squirrel Girl is the best fit for me, but I'm aging out. So probably Squirrel Girl's mom, who also has special powers.
Walkthrough: The Buccaneers are seven-point home favorites against the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener. Who do you like?
Schaal: I like the Broncos.
Thanks, Kristen. I hope to get more animation actors into Walkthrough in the future, and not just via email. It would be great to have Dee Bradley Baker perform every member of The Bad Batch explaining his choice in a six-legged parlay.
Prop Bet Performance Art
Walkthrough has identified the worst NFL prop bet in all the sports books in all the world. And of course it involves the Atlanta Falcons.
Here's the bet, now available at DraftKings: Over 39.5 points in every Falcons game, +400.
At first, it sounds tempting. Who hasn't considered playing the over in, say, a Falcons-Saints early game? Most of the time it pays out before 2:45 Eastern! Or so you might think. The over-under for Falcons games has crept up in recent years (it was 50 or higher 25 times in the last three seasons) and the Falcons are just 23-25 at clearing the over since 2018. Still, the allure of an early shootout was one of the only things that made Falcons football bearable. Move that number way down to 39.5, a figure Falcons and their opponents eclipsed 37 times in their last 48 games, and this wager has some curb appeal.
Then you remember that Julio Jones is gone. So is Drew Brees, which matters when banking on 17 overs. Arthur Smith's new offense appears to boil down to "Titans, but with that guy who had a few good games for the Panthers in place of Derrick Henry." Dean Pees' defensive strategy, on the other hand, can best be described as "bananapants blitzing." The Falcons defense isn't going to curl up in the fetal position and hope to keep opponents under 40 points each week. Instead, it will be attacking quarterbacks such as Sam Darnold and Jameis Winston.
Wagering on the Falcons and their opponents to combine for 40 or more points each week is wagering on the Falcons offense to remain effective and their defense ineffective, the Buccaneers to not hang a 31-7 win on them, Matt Ryan to stay healthy, and much more. The Falcons face the Eagles, Giants, Football Team, and Jets in their first six weeks; the likelihood that they will get dragged into at least one 19-13 muckfest by that slate of opponents is staggeringly high. If you survive that gauntlet, you get to pray that the weather in Buffalo is conducive to moderate scoring on January 2.
Best of all: the measly +400 payout. You take get the Steelers at +500 to win the AFC North, or you can spend all of autumn and winter sweating bullets as Younghoo Kim attempts 51-yarders for a lower return on investment.
No worthy prop bet should have the potential to go belly-up in the season opener. Sure, a quarterback could tear an ACL in Week 1 and ruin an MVP bet, but that's football. You can cry on a pal's shoulder about losing a wager to an injury. Try getting sympathy for losing a 17-game Falcons bet because Jalen Hurts gets sacked out of field goal range in the fourth quarter of the opener against the Eagles. No one wants to hear about your awful decisions.
Panthers, Lions, and More
The 17-game Falcons over is evidence that the modern prop bet ecosystem is a multiverse of wackiness dreamed up by an army of football-obsessed actuaries experimenting with peyote.
Take this Panthers prop bet: Panthers Over 7.5 Regular Season Wins, Brian Burns over 8.75 Sacks, Christian McCaffrey over 1499.5 Scrimmage Yards AND over 10.5 Rushing and Receiving TDs, DJ Moore Over 999.5 Receiving yards Yards AND over 6.5 TDs, +300
Can … can you even follow all of that? I write for a statistical website, and have years of experience both covering football and teaching mathematics, but that wager forced me to kick off my sneakers so I could count on my toes. Scrimmage yards, sacks, some Boolean operators … what, no 20-yard field goals? How can it be a Panthers prop bet with no 20-yard field goals?
And naturally, your reward for 17 weeks of Football Outsiders-caliber stat tracking is $75 on a $25 bet. You'll spend more than 75 bucks throughout the season on just the beer you drank while trying to explain the bet to your buddies while they politely try to change the subject.
That prop, like the Falcons prop, tells the story of the 2021 Panthers. No one wants to wager on Sam Darnold doing anything constructive, and expectations for the team are low, so the house dreamed up a hodgepodge based around the team's scattered stars and hopefuls.
The Lions also inspired their share of revelatory wagers. For example: Jared Goff over 21.5 Regular Season TD Passes AND D'Andre Swift Over 7.5 Regular Season Rushing TDs AND T.J. Hockenson Over 775.5 Regular Season Receiving Yards, +550. Note the low thresholds: this wager gives you the chance to be the only person on earth to leap for joy when T.J. Hockenson crosses the storied 776-receiving yard milestone.
If that Lions prop is too optimistic for you, there's this one: Romeo Okwara over 8.5 Regular Season Sacks AND Amon-Ra St. Brown Over 500.5 Regular Season Receiving Yards, +275. Finally, a chance to bet on mildly interesting players achieving semi-impressive and utterly unrelated thresholds. Placing this prop is tempting fate that St. Brown will gain exactly 500 receiving yards.
At least the Lions have a recognizable starting quarterback and a few other quasi-stars. The house has essentially given up on the Texans and their quantum-foam-of-replaceable-journeymen roster. You can get a +50000 moneyline on the Texans earning the top seed in the AFC playoffs. You can also just toss money into a furnace.
So, say your team has a committee backfield, no clear No. 1 wide receiver or star tight end, and a new/often injured/surely unvaccinated/possibly terrible quarterback that neither the house nor the public has any confidence in. If that's the case, this is your defense-heavy Prop of the Year, Colts fans: DeForest Buckner over 8.5 regular season sacks AND Darius Leonard over 101.5 regular season Solo Tackles AND Julian Blackmon over 2.5 regular season Interceptions, +1000. C'mon, oddsmakers: why not throw a little Kwity Paye, Xavier Rhodes, or Rock-Ya Sin into the stew?
At least the moneyline for that Colts Frankenwager is tasty. Unfortunately, with Tyrod Taylor starting for the Texans, most free safeties are likely to end up with zero interceptions, while every edge rusher in the division clears the over of 2.5 strip sacks.
If elaborate prop bets like these were available in the days of illegal bookmaking and analog bookkeeping, casual bettors and everyday fans cannot have known much about them. There's no way teenaged me would have called Uncle Carmine on my home phone and asked, "Can you put me down for Randall Cunningham OVER 27.5 rushing and passing touchdowns AND Reggie White OVER 11.5 sacks and John Teltschik OVER 39.9 gross yards per punt at +275 for 25 bucks. What? No, I have not been smoking the devil's escarole!" As for trips to Vegas, any futures bet in the good ol' days had to be simple enough to be slurred after a half-dozen noon beers.
No, the modern rococo prop bet is built for the ease and anonymity of apps and the low stakes of microtransactions. Tossing 10 bucks at that Colts defensive prop or the Okwara/St.Brown parlay distinguishes the bettor as a distinctive type of fan. (Tossing any money on the Texans to do anything but stink distinguishes the bettor as a wingnut). A portfolio of quirky microbrew props turns wagering into a form of self-expression, which makes much more sense than trying to turn wagering into an investment opportunity.
Personally, I plan to express myself by never, ever, EVER betting on the Falcons to do anything. Which means that they will win or lose each week by precise 23-17 final scores this year.
Week 1 Game Previews
Look for most Walkthrough game previews to run on Fridays during the regular season as we pivot to a four-day-per-week (!!!) format. Also, look for tighter, shorter previews as some of the longer essays and skits you are used to seeing in this space become Wednesday and Thursday content.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills: Sunday, 1 p.m.
AFC Kickoff Challenge, Game 1. Three opening-week games will help us determine the balance of power in the AFC for 2021. This is the first of them.
With Zach Banner now on injured reserve, the Steelers appear to be sliding their offensive linemen around so fourth-round rookie Dan Moore Jr. can start at left tackle. Chukwuma Okorafor appears to be moving from left to right tackle, while rookie Kendrick Green appears to have narrowly defeated J.C. Hassenauer for the starting center job. All of the "appears to" qualifiers are necessary because the Steelers never deployed this starting combination in the preseason, and some of the listings on Monday's depth chart came as a mild surprise. The last-minute shuffling would be just dandy for the rebuilding Jets but are more of a concern for a would-be contender with a 39-year-old quarterback.
Also, T.J. Watt has been a low-key "hold-in" throughout camp and his status for Sunday was uncertain at press time. The Pittsburgh media isn't making a big deal about it. because the Pittsburgh media only makes a big deal out of JuJu Smith-Schuster's Instagram posts.
The Bills have won their last two meetings with the Steelers, beating Ducky Hodges and company in 2019 and making Ben Roethlisberger look like Father Time during Pittsburgh's December swoon last year. That -6.5 Bills spread looks a little rich, especially since our DVOA projections are relatively optimistic about Big Ben and company. But watching the Steelers playing musical chairs with randos along their offensive line makes it rather tempting. Bills 27, Steelers 20.
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs: Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
AFC Kickoff Challenge, Game 2. To recap some things you already know:
- The Super Bowl became a "bullet hell" video game experience for Patrick Mahomes last year, so the Chiefs rebuilt their offensive line with veterans Orlando Brown and Joe Thuney and rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. The new line looked very good in the preseason in a total of 45 snaps, none of them against a full slate of opposing starters.
- The Browns won a playoff game last season for the first time since Full House was on the air and threw a scare into the Chiefs in the playoffs, making them a "team on the rise" in the minds of fans and analysts. Our DVOA projections, however, see them more as a "team on the leveling off."
- If you were building a team to beat the Chiefs, it would probably look like the Browns: a fierce pass rush to keep Mahomes uncomfortable, a relatively balanced offense that can both create chunk plays against the leaky Chiefs run defense and control the pace of the game.
- That said, the team that actually beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl needed a Hall of Fame quarterback, a completely stacked roster, and some of the best injury luck ever.
I'm expecting a brilliant but sloppy game from the Chiefs this week, and probably a brilliant but sloppy 2021 season. The Browns are more tortoise than hare, and life is not a folktale: you can bet on the tortoise to cover, but never bet on it to win. Chiefs 34, Browns 24.
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
AFC Kickoff Challenge, Game 3. Tua Tagovailoa enjoyed a stellar career at Alabama, overcame a major injury, battled through the COVID-marred 2020 offseason as a rookie, earned a starting job (albeit with training wheels), and led his team to a 6-3 record and the brink of the playoffs. Yet he spent the offseason as a supporting character in the Deshaun Watson trade rumor saga.
Mac Jones also had a stellar career at Alabama, took nothing but second-string reps for most of training camp, then won the starting job almost by default when Cam Newton thought he could get away with the whole "no consequences for the unvaccinated veteran quarterback" routine. (He forgot that he's Cam Newton, and that Bill Belichick is Bill Belichick.) Jones' reward has been a steady stream of unironic "Next Tom Brady" headlines and buzz.
Our analysis likes the Patriots in this matchup. I think the entire situation is completely backwards. Dolphins 22, Patriots 16.
Green Bay Packers versus New Orleans Saints at Jacksonville: Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
How this game will go:
- Aaron Rodgers starts things off with a seven-play, 80-yard touchdown that feels like BDSM foreplay.
- Jameis Winston discovers he has no one to throw to, except Jaire Alexander. It's quickly 14-0 Packers.
- Rodgers goes into point-proving mode and throws 15 consecutive passes to Randall Cobb, completing eight of them for 32 yards.
- Winston goes into survival mode and throws 15 consecutive passes to Alvin Kamara, completing eight of them for 32 yards.
- Michael Thomas posts something on Instagram during the third quarter about NFL coaches and executives being dishonest and not as smart as they think they are.
- Rodgers somehow likes Thomas' post while throwing an interception to a triple-covered Robert Tonyan.
- Urban Meyer wanders onto the field in a tracksuit for a quick jog late in the third quarter and wonders what these other teams are doing in the stadium.
- Winston throws for 250 second-half yards and two touchdowns in a comeback bid. Also, two more interceptions.
- Packers narrowly hold off Saints. Rodgers nails 95 theses to the team bulletin board itemizing all the things coaches and teammates did wrong.
- Taysom Hill finishes with three Wildcat carries for 7 yards and a 45% likelihood that he will be the Week 2 starter.
Packers 30, Saints 21.
Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Thursday, 8:20 p.m.
Thursday Night Sportsbook: The loss of Zack Martin lifted the spread to Cowboys +8 early in the week. The EdjSports app revealed a very high probability of a Buccaneers victory in the three- to seven-point range early in the week. Walkthrough is leaning toward the Cowboys but watching both the line and the COVID news.
The Buccaneers were outscored by opponents 100-88 in the first quarter in the regular season last year, and Walkthrough loves a good early-game prop, so we are definitely taking the Cowboys +2.5 to win the first quarter.
To hedge against all of this Cowboys semi-optimism, Walkthrough took the Buccaneers defense +380 to score a touchdown. Based on the way the Cowboys started games last year, and the possibility that a rusty Dak Prescott ends up executing the 2017 Packers offense, the chances of a pick-six or scoop-and-score fumble seem reasonably high. Buccaneers 27, Cowboys 21.
Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons: Sunday, 1 p.m.
It's possible to build a legitimate playoff contender and a truly exciting rebuilding team out of these two miserable, staggeringly expensive rosters:
CONTENDER: Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, Miles Sanders, the Eagles veteran offensive linemen, Zach Ertz, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Darius Slay, Rodney McLeod.
REBUILDER: Jalen Hurts, Kyle Pitts, Mike Davis, DeVonta Smith and the other Eagles receivers, all the young Falcons cornerbacks and linemen.
Arthur Smith and Dean Pees would coach the contender, while Nick Sirianni's rah-rah routine would play well for the rebuilders. And a game between those two teams would be far more interesting than this game will be. Falcons 21, Eagles 19.
New York Jets at Carolina Panthers: Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Panthers rookie class looked very impressive in the preseason. Running back Chuba Hubbard is going to get a lot of opportunities as Christian McCaffrey's change-up, Terrace Marshall could make a huge impact as a No. 3 receiver, young linemen Brady Christensen and Deonte Brown showed promise, and Jaycee Horn will be about what you think he is as a rookie (big plays, big mistakes, big presence). I still worry that Matt Rhule's tenured-faculty sense of urgency could trap the Panthers on an endless rebuilding treadmill, but a strong rookie class could accelerate things.
Anyway, kudos to the NFL for getting the "Sam Darnold Revenge Game" out of the way in the opener, when there are so many storylines to cover that no one could possibly waste serious time and mental energy on something as silly as a "Sam Darnold Revenge Game." Panthers 23, Jets 13.
Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals: Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Vikings lack the two quality tight ends necessary to play their preferred two-tight end alignments and the third wide receiver most 21st century teams routinely cultivate to make them effective when using 11 personnel. So here are some strategic options to get the Vikings through the year:
- Three running backs. No, not the wishbone. That would be silly. We're talking Power-T. Kirk Cousins would be the ideal 1950s collegiate-style pivot. C'mon, you just know that this is what Mike Zimmer's daydreams look like, right down to the blurriness.
- The Wildcat. The strategic equivalent of wearing sweatpants to work is back and blander than ever! Cut out the middleman and just snap the ball to Dalvin Cook! Of course, the Vikings would still feel compelled to tack another two years and $66 million onto the back of the middleman's contract.
- Six offensive linemen. Yeah, not sure the Vikings have the necessary personnel to do this either.
- Play 10-on-11. Adam Theilen and Justin Jefferson each deserve double coverage. Cook will keep the linebackers biting on play-action. If Cousins floats his checkdown passes high enough, he can catch them himself with room to run.
- More C.J. Ham. This is probably the Vikings' actual plan. Please try to keep your excitement in check. Vikings 22, Bengals 14.
San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Pretty much every tool in the Football Outsiders and EdjSports toolbox indicates that that the Lions are undervalued entering the 2021 season, while the 49ers are somewhat overvalued. On the other hand, Trey Lance was the talk of the preseason, while Penei Sewell looked like a wheelbarrow with arms. But Lance isn't playing (or only playing some derpy Wildcat package), so ask yourself: what did the 49ers do to be touchdown favorites in the season opener except "get healthy?" Getting healthy is definitely a thing, mind you, but I need to see the product on the field before I start laying eight points. 49ers 24, Lions 22.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Welcome to the NFL, Urban Meyer. Your team is a one-point underdog to an organization run by a dime-store huckster whose franchise quarterback is on the commissioner's exclusive Everyone Wishes Someone Else Would Do Something About Him list. You're doing a heck of a job, coach. Texans 19, Jaguars 10.
Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts: Sunday, 1 p.m.
New for 2021 at Walkthrough: the Carson Wentz Victimhood Index, a tool for determining the Colts quarterback's degree of martyrdom in any given week. If the CWVI reaches 100%, the little red light on Wentz's chest starts blinking, he becomes unable to do anything except launch bombs into triple coverage, and it's everyone else's fault.
This week's CWVI:
- Injuries to T.Y. Hilton and members of the offensive line have created a less-than-ideal offensive environment: 10%
- No one has given him enough credit for his heroic efforts to rehab his foot injury: 10%
- Some folks said nice things about Jacob Eason in the preseason: 5%
- Those untrustworthy media types just refuse to respect his privacy and personal choice when it comes to vaccinations: 25%
Total Victimization: 50%
As you can see, the figure is already perilously high and likely to trend upward if Wentz doesn't receive effusive praise on Sunday.
Oh, and if this gag works out as well as last year's Tom Brady Excuse-o-Matic, Colts fans will end up very, very happy. Seahawks 27, Colts 16.
Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Future Hall of Famer update:
- Julio Jones must be thrilled to be playing for a possible contender after his relationship with the Falcons soured in recent years, partly because of money and partly because of the whole stench-of-failure thing.
- J.J. Watt must be thrilled to be out of Houston but should be bracing for another year of heroic poses and stoic soundbites for yet another organization with a handful of great players, zero depth, and a completely incoherent plan.
- Larry Fitzgerald doesn't have the "desire" to play football right now. That desire is scheduled to return as soon as a Buccaneers receiver gets hurt. Titans 34, Cardinals 20.
Los Angeles Chargers at Washington Football Team: Sunday, 1 p.m.
A tradition best forgotten: the Chargers averted their annual offseason Final Destination-style injury catastrophe this year. Their injured reserve at the start of the week consisted only of linebacker Damon Lloyd and long snapper Cole Mazza. Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, Joey Bosa, and Derwin James will all suit up together for the first time on Sunday. Brandon Staley deserves credit for keeping the starters shrink-wrapped in the preseason, but Chargers starters are less likely to get injured in preseason games than in OTAs, household accidents, or tours of pillow factories.
A tradition unlike any other: this is the first of three Eastern time zone early games for the Chargers, who face the Eagles and Bengals later in the season. The Chargers are 5-9 in games that start at 10 a.m. California time since 2015. They are 7-7 against the spread, 6-4 as underdogs. Any disadvantage they might have when playing breakfast ball is likely minimized by the fact that this is the season opener coming off a virtual bye; they aren't coming off the Chiefs on Monday night or something.
A tradition that will continue throughout the season: murky, low-scoring Washington games. Washington 19, Chargers 13.
Denver Broncos at New York Giants: Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
The Broncos committed just eight penalties in three preseason games, tied with the Cardinals (who played just two games) for the lowest figure in the NFL. The Broncos must minimize mistakes for the Teddy Tapwater experiment, so the low penalty preseason rate is an encouraging sign. The Broncos tied for fifth in the NFL in fewest penalties with 81 in 2020, so there's evidence that Vic Fangio has them playing a more disciplined brand of football than they did back in the days when Garrett Bolles was Grabzilla.
The Giants also committed just 81 penalties last year and only 12 in the preseason, but a blocker must get close to a defender to actually hold him. Broncos 24, Giants 17.
Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams: Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
Some proposed NFL storylines for Marvel's What If?
What if Matthew Stafford was drafted by a strong organization instead of the Lions? Stafford has some very good years and some weak years. He hooks up with a Hall of Fame receiver for a while, compiles a lot of statistics, and reaches 2021 as a 33-year-old leading a roster top-heavy with big names that is a few years removed from conference-championship glory. In other words, nothing changes.
What if the Bears never drafted Justin Fields? Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy roll into the 2021 season with Andy Dalton playing behind a makeshift offensive line, a defense that is still formidable but starting to crumble, and questions swirling about their competence and job security. In other words, nothing changes.
What if Sunday Night Football were Thursday Night Football? Instead of broadcasting one of the week's most compelling games, NBC ends up airing marginal-interest games against conference also-rans that are likely to be decided by lots and lots of field goals. In other words, nothing changes. Rams 26, Bears 16.
Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders: Monday, 8:15 p.m.
The Raiders have finished 23rd, 20th and 28th in defensive rushing DVOA since 2018. Their defense hasn't finished in the top 15 in DVOA since 2010, when it finished 14th. Gerald McCoy and Yannick Ngokue are their big-name additions along the defensive line, because Jon Gruden is still signing players who impressed him when he was in the broadcast booth.
You may have the uneasy feeling that the Ravens are about to be carried away on a riptide of sheer narrative in 2021. You may even sense a trap in this Monday night road game against an unfamiliar foe (the Ravens and Raiders last met in Lamar Jackson's second career start) with no real expectations. But trust the metrics, especially in Week 1: "trends" from last year are usually simply "the last thing that happened, which we spent seven months talking about." Ravens 37, Raiders 20.
Still the Topps
The arrival of the new set of Topps baseball cards was the ultimate rite of early spring when I was a kid.
In the very late 1970s, my grandma sent me to the neighborhood bodega just about every Saturday morning. The squat rectangular cardboard display full of packs of Topps cards appeared next to the cash register sometime in late February. Grandma's Salem 100s cost just over a dollar, and the cards hovered in the kid-friendly 30- to 35-cent range. Given two dollars from grandma and the nickels and pennies found in any not-yet-teenager's pockets, I could come home with one pack of smokes and three packs of cards.
The dates of the cards in what remains of my collection track the course of my childhood in the same way pottery shards in trash middens reveal the expansion of some prehistoric settlement. The few pre-1979 cards I own must be hand-me-downs from my brother or the remnants of packs gifted to me when I was a very wee lad. But by 1979, there are a few hundred cards, including doubles, illustrating both the freedom/resources to purchase my own cards and sophistication to avidly collect them.
My large 1981 collection reveals evidence of an allowance and the independence to ride my bicycle to make purchases instead of waiting for grandma to let me spend her change. It also confirms the arrival of Fleer and Donruss on the card-collecting scene, though their cards looked and felt inferior at the time. A near-complete set from 1984 reveals a young teen mowing lawns to earn enough money to purchase packs of cards in bulk. Then, year-by-year, the number of cards dips significantly: not a civilization in decline, but one growing more sophisticated, spending its entertainment capital on new discoveries such as cassette tapes and beer.
Football cards were never quite as big a deal in my youth, first because they arrived in summer (late winter offers fewer other youthful distractions), but also because the backs of the cards were so sparse. The backs of Topps baseball cards were the closest thing any kid had to Baseball Reference at the time. They introduced me to the easily unlocked mystery of batting average and the trickier-to-reverse-engineer ERA. Slugging percentage arrived in 1981, and my 10-year-old brain struggled to unravel its subtle connection to power hitting. (On-base percentage would wait until I was a parent and homeowner). The backs of baseball cards introduced me to concepts such as "sample size" as I reached the preteen epiphany that a middle infielder who went 1-for-2 in his only major league action was not a better hitter than Pete Rose.
Football cards? Half of them contained no stats at all, because who could even conceive of statistics for a defensive lineman?
Topps, an institution in sports card collecting since the early 1950s, lost its MLB license to Fanatics last week, per the Wall Street Journal. Panini, a major 21st century player in the trading card market, lost its NFL license to Fanatics this week. The major changes in the industry mark the end of an era that has been ending since soon after it ended for me. Not long after I aged out of collecting…
- The price of paper increased, making both baseball cards and comic books prohibitively expensive for preteens with only grandma's change to spend.
- A collectables culture exploded, causing adults to treat Kevin Seitzer rookie cards like tech stocks while comic book companies introduced foil-wrapped covers and other initiatives (like 5,000 characters with "death" or "blood" in their names, huge boobs, and poorly-drawn feet) that further drove children out of the consumer base.
- Video games and (to a lesser extent among kids) fantasy sports became immersive enough to replace card-collecting as a vicarious fan experience.
- Sports lost their absolute primacy in youth-boy culture, and Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon cards began competing with sports cards next to 7-Eleven cash registers.
It's surprising that Topps and Panini held on for decades in a media-saturated sports marketplace, though they relied on increasingly Byzantine gimmicks (patches of game-worn jerseys in select packs, like the relics of saints, are almost literally "Byzantine") to woo an insular collector's market. Fanatics sells a wide range of apparel and functional collectables and may see cards as a type of value-added brand extension, which was the original function of baseball cards, anyway.
Even when I collected them, baseball cards were a remnant of a bygone era. Their size and shape betrays their origins as promotional inserts in 19th century cigarette packs, an idea which itself evolved from the "calling cards" of a receding century. Baseball cards clung to popularity because they were handed down from our grandparents and there weren't many better options: before Nintendo RBI Baseball and out-of-town Braves and Mets games on basic cable, reading the back of Mike Schmidt's card was as good as it really got when the local team wasn't playing and there weren't enough playmates around for a pickup game. The cards were quaint then but are almost archaic in a world where sports-obsessed kids can spend Saturday afternoon updating a dozen fantasy lineups before facing their pals online in MLB: The Show.
A tiny, flimsy image of a professional athlete is a silly memorabilia item in modern times. Yet baseball, football, and Pokemon cards all fit in small hands and allow young minds to sort, study, and rearrange physical stacks of tangible items; cherish their favorites; and follow their drifting imaginations to unfamiliar places. Also, a shoebox full of old cards can later remind adults of who we once were, and what our worlds were like when spending their last dime on some little chunks of cardboard was the culmination of a youthful adventure.
Look for Walkthrough on Monday mornings and three more times throughout the week, starting next week!