Around the same time in 1980 that I was jumping into the hobby feet first, I also started daydreaming about making my own cards. Remember, this was pre-computer days – or at least pre-widespread use of home computers – so the idea of engineering something like that had more of a homemade quality to it.
So in the rare spare time that I could find from my job as public relations coordinator for the Empire State Games in New York, I started doing pen-and-ink drawings of many of my favorite players, and then picturing them on hand-painted backgrounds meant to emulate the 1959 Topps Baseball card issue.
I didn’t know a thing about licensing of such things, but the best thing I could think to do was write to Topps and ask their permission for my undertaking.
I don’t remember how long it took – and I really wish I had saved the letter – but I got a really nice letter back from Joel Shorin of Topps saying that they had no objection to my plan as described. They did point out that their tacit blessing didn’t constitute permission for use of the players’ likenesses or the major league logos. In my less-than-infinite wisdom, I was undaunted and ostensibly ready to go.
By then, which was early 1983, I had already come up with a catchy double entendre for a company name: O’Connell & Son Ink. My father, T.S. Senior, had only recently retired, and the idea was that he would handle the mail-order end of the business while I stuck to the artwork department. He was in Indiana, where he had retired, and I was still in Albany, N.Y. That would change pretty dramatically, but I didn’t know that when I borrowed $2,500 by way of a bank loan to pay for the printing costs.
Sounds like chump change now, but it was a big gamble for me ... and quite a sum in 1979. It seemed even more imposing in early June when New York State showed me the door, giving my Empire State Games job to a campaign worker who had labored on behalf of new Governor Mario Cuomo.
But I had already signed for the loan and had committed to the printer in Indiana, so we gave it the go ahead in spite of my scary new non-employed status.
It was a 20-card set of Baseball Greats, 41/2-by-61/2-inch, blank-backed cards, with four-color printing on the front. I promptly moved down to the Delaware/Pennsylvania area and ponied up $100 for a full-page advertisement in the pages of Sports Collectors Digest. I think I paid nearly that much to have the ad designed by a professional graphics company.
I was/am pretty proud of that unusual collector-issue set, and sales were brisk enough that fall to get the loan paid off long before its due date. Because I was now unemployed, we also moved the mailing responsibilities back to me as well, though my father did have a good time with it for a few months.
I would run that funky little business full time for another year, and then part time for another seven or so years after that. I even snagged a substantial bit of table space at the 1984 National Convention in Parsippany, N.J., where I got to meet some of the hobby legends that I had known only from the pages of SCD. By 1985, I had even lingered long enough on Bob Schmeirer’s famous waiting list to get a table at the Philly Show at Willow Grove, which at the time was every bit as raucous and exhilarating as any National Convention.
If I hadn’t been hooked on the hobby beforehand, that convergence of events certainly took care of it.