Friday, May 21, 2004

Test Post: 2004 Cracker Jack Baseball -- 2 box break.

Two Boxes of 2004 Cracker Jack baseball (paid $38 each).
20 packs per box, eight cards plus one "Secret Surprise" per pack (MSRP $2.99/pack)

The Details

Chiptoppers: One bag of Cracker Jack and one Keith Olbermann dissertation sheet per box.

Base Set: 250 cards (237 unique cards, 13 variations)
Broken Down by Short-Print Scheme:
Short Set: 200 cards (197 unique cards, three variations)
Short-Prints: 50 cards, 1:3 (40 unique cards, ten variations)

Red Minis (200 cards, one-per-pack)
Short-Print Red Mini (50 cards, 1:20)
Blue Minis (200 cards, 1:10)
Blue Short-Print Mini (50 cards, 1:60)
White Mini (250 cards, 1:6189, one-of-one)
Stickers (200 stickers, one-per "Secret Surprise" pack)
Short-Print Stickers (50 stickers, 1:20 "Secret Surprise" packs)

Vintage Repurchased (1:2598)

Team Topps Legends (1:755,000)
Secret Suprise Signatures (11 cards, *)
Cracker Jack Autographs (six cards, 1:258)
1, 2, 3 Strikes You're Out (18 cards, *)
Take Me Out to the Ballgame (54 cards, *)

* Odds of finding an autograph or game used card: 1:10/Secret Surprise packs.

The Pulls.

Base Set (including variations): 203 of 250 (81.20%)
71 Doubles

Broken Down by Short-Print Scheme:
Short Set: 189 of 200 (94.50%)
Short-Prints: 14 of 50 (J. Reyes, I. Suzuki, S. Sosa, M. Prior, J. Ortiz, C. Schilling variation, R. Baldelli, D. Young, B. J. Upton, R. Weeks, Z. Greinke, J. Knott, I. Rodriguez variation, D. Jeter)

32 Red Minis
2 Short-Print Red Mini: C. Kotchman, E. Aybar
5 Blue Minis: E. Chavez, E. Loaiza, H. Blalock (2), B. Jenks
1 Short-Print Blue Mini: K. Sleeth
36 Stickers: (34 and 2 doubles)
4 Short-Print Stickers: R. Ibanez, C. Schilling Variation, Z. Greinke, D. Jeter

1 1, 2, 3, Strikes You're Out: P. Martinez (Jersey)
3 Take Me Out to the Ball Game: I. Rodriguez (Bat), J. Rollins (Jersey w/Pinstripe), S. Sosa (Bat)

The Review.

The slogan of Cracker Jack at the turn of the last century was: "The More You Eat, The More You Want." Such a slogan could also apply to the new Topps produced baseball card set of the same name: "2004 Cracker Jack, The More You Rip, The More You Want (to collect)." OK, maybe not.

2004 marks the third consecutive year Topps has produced a "retro" themed product based on a pre-World War I card set. But unlike 2002's Topps 206 or last year's Topps 205, each box of Cracker Jack comes with a sample of the product the original was packaged with: In this case, a bag of Cracker Jacks. In these PC times we live in, I couldn't imagine Topps putting a pack of unfiltered Camels in a box of baseball cards. That's probably a good thing. As with most recent Topps "retro" themed sets, each box also includes a fold out essay written by MSNBC liberal talking head and uber-collector Keith Olbermann. The fold out gives a brief history of the original 1914-15 Cracker Jack cards, and throws in a few nuggets of info that even the most astute collector probably wasn't aware of. For example, did you know that the original Cracker Jack was the first card set that was (for your collecting convenience) sequentially numbered? Or that the term "Cracker Jack" originally referred to sea rations?

As an aside, has there been anyone in the history of broadcast journalism that has inflicted more damage to their own career than Keith Olbermann? I mean, this is Keith Olbermann. Keith Freaking Olbermann! The biggest star of the "Golden Age" of ESPN. But he stepped on a few toes, burned a couple of bridges, and is now been banished to the journalistic equivalent of Siberia: the 8:00 PM timeslot on a third-rate cable news outlet. As the Olbermann of 1994 probably would have quipped: "Gianluca Paliguca, Gianluca Paliguca, Gianluca Paliguca."

Once you lift off the tray that holds the Cracker Jacks and the Olbermann dissertation, you get to the cards. Each pack contains seven standard (2.5" X 3.5") cards, one 2" X 3" "Mini" parallel card (which is done in the same size as the 1914-15 originals) and a "Secret Surprise" pack. These Secret Surprise packs remind me of those annoying one-card packs that were in 2001 Donruss. (Reason #713 why 2001 Donruss was the worst card set ever made.) Yes, just like 2001 Donruss, the Secret Surprise packs are a real pain in the ass to open. But unlike 2001 Donruss, the "pack-in-a-pack" gimmick works here. After all, it wouldn't be a pack of Cracker Jacks without the Secret Surprise now wouldn't it?

Much like the "20X" and Heritage lines, the design of Cracker Jack holds true to the original, albeit in the modern day 2.5" X 3.5" format. The fire engine red backdrop makes the card stand out from any other set released since, well, the original Cracker Jacks. If you're like me, you probably have a box of random commons that you'll sort through when you "get around to it." Admit it, we all have stacks of unsorted cards hanging around just waiting to be collated. If you're like me, when you finally "get around to it," you'll come across a card and have to ask yourself this question: "What set was this card from again?" Years from now, when you're thumbing through your "get around to it" pile and come across one of these cards, you shouldn't have any trouble remembering that it's from 2004 Cracker Jack.

The backs are a different story. The original Crack Jack cards were designed in conjunction with a custom album that could be acquired via mail order. Because of this, Cracker Jack purposely printed the backs of some of the cards upside down. That way, when the cards are placed in the album's designated position, the fronts and the backs of the cards are all aligned in the same direction. Although there is no custom album element to this set, Topps has done the same thing with their version of Cracker Jack by printing the backs of some cards upside down. While this does make collating the cards very tedious, it does add a touch of authenticity to the set.

Something else you may not even be aware of. If you look real carefully at some cards, you may notice slight levels of discoloration. This is especially evident on the backs and front borders. I'm not exactly sure if this was intentional, but it appears to be what a caramel "stain" aged 90 years would look like.

The actual set is composed of 250 cards: 237 unique player cards, and 13 "variations." Now, you could accuse Topps of beating a dead horse with the variations, and they have. Beaten to a point where most variations really don't serve much of a purpose anymore, other than to aggravate collectors everywhere. But much like how the "black back" variations in 2001 Topps Heritage were a play on the set they mimicked (1952 Topps), the variations in the original Cracker Jacks serve a similar purpose in this modern version. For example, in the 1914-15 Cracker Jack set, there are two different versions of Roger Bresnahan (who is one of a handful of players from the original 1914-15 Cracker Jacks, with a cameo appearance in this set), with and without the card number. For this set, there are two different versions of Alex Rodriguez's card, both with and without the card number. Other variations account for players who have recently changed teams (Sheffield, Schilling, I. Rodriguez), and a handful of "pose variations," just line in the original.

Fifty of the cards (40 from the base set, and ten of the 13 variations) are short-printed. Unlike the variations however, they really do not add to the "realness" of the set, since none of the original 1914-15 Cracker Jacks were purposely SPed. Using the example of 2001 Topps Heritage, the "Gold Standard" of retro themed card sets and the one which all others that have come afterward must be compared to, the short-printing of cards 311-407 was based on the "high-number" series of '52 Topps. By SPing the same numbered cards in '01 Heritage, Topps added that much more authenticity (and prestige) to '01 Heritage, short of releasing Heritage in six separate series.

Like I said before, the original Cracker Jacks did not feature any short-prints, contrived or otherwise. Unfortunately, much like the Heritage products that came after the wildly successful 2001 edition, 2004 Cracker Jack does not have nearly the same level of "short print authenticity" as '01 Heritage. But instead of comparing '04 Cracker Jack to '01 Heritage, a better comparison would be to '03 Heritage. 2003 Heritage had 450 cards, 100 of which were SPed. But the set it was based on, 1954 Topps, had only 250 cards and no SPs. But despite this, even with (or in spite of) the short printing, Cracker Jack is still a set worth building. Besides, unlike scores of other products with short-prints I could name, Cracker Jack is a set you can actually complete (with a little time and effort of course) without having to sell your firstborn.

Like I said before, each pack comes with a parallel done in the style and size of the 1914-15 Cracker Jack set. Think of the 20X products "Mini" cards and you have the same concept, but much more simple in scheme. Whereas 206 had fifteen different Mini versions (American Beauty, Bazooka, Carolina Brights, Cycle, Drum, Lenox, Piedmont Black, Piedmont Red, Polar Bear, Sweet Caporal Black, Sweet Caporal Blue, Sweet Caporal Red, Tolstoi Black, Tolstoi Red and Uzit), and 205 had seventeen (American Beauty, American Beauty Purple, Bazooka Blue, Bazooka Red, Brooklyn, Cycle, Cycle Purple, Drum, Honest, Honest Purple, Piedmont, Piedmont Purple, Polar Bear, Soverign, Soverign Green, Sweet Caporal and Sweet Caporal Purple) there are only three of each Cracker Jack: Red, White and Blue. Granted, there were just as many different back variations in the real T-206 and T-205 sets, but 17 versions may have gone a bit overboard. In Cracker Jack, the Red Minis are the most common followed by the Blues, then the Whites, which are a one-of-one. The same 50 cards in the base set that are short-printed are also SPed in the Minis, with the Red SPs coming once per box and the Blue SPs every third.

And now, drum roll please, the "Secret Surprise." Earlier, I stated that these packs reminded me of those pain-in-the-ass-to-open single-card packs from 2001 Donruss. Did I mention how much 2001 Donruss sucked? Oh, I did. OK. Anyway, I may have inferred that the Secret Surprise packs were also one-card packs as well. I don't want to mislead anyone here, but you actually get two cards in each Secret Surprise pack: either an autograph, gamer, or a checklist that doubles as a "pack search decoy," and a sticker. Unfortunately, the sticker is essentially another one-per-pack parallel, that just happens to look like and be the same size of the Minis (2" X 3"). As much as I don't like the concept of parallels, I can tolerate them in some instances. But sometimes you just have to scratch your head and wonder what they were thinking. What is the purpose of having two different one-per-pack parallels in the same product? And not just two one-per-pack parallels either, two one-per-pack parallels that are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Although there are not Blue and White versions of the stickers, the same 50 cards that are short-printed in the base set, and that are short-printed in the Minis, are also SPed in the stickers. To make matters worse, the SPed stickers are seeded at the same 1:20/pack rate as the SPed Red Minis! Now, like I said before, I like the "Secret Surprise" element. But if you're going to include an extra insert in every pack, how about giving the people something worth collecting? Like a non-parallel insert such as the "Team 206" cards in Topps 206?

The addition of autographs and game-used cards are, as they should be in a product like this, an afterthought. With the state of The Hobby the way it is, including such cards has become a "necessary evil." But give Topps credit, they know the target audience of Cracker Jack (much like its Topps, Bowman, Heritage and Total brands) probably isn't going to buy this just to pull gamers. You do get two such cards in each box, and while it is nice to pull one, they're really not the "marquee attraction" of this product. Topps probably could have gotten away with an insertion ratio of one-per-box, or even one in every other box, and most still would've bought it. The marquee attraction of Cracker Jack is the set itself and Topps deserves "big ups" for recognizing this.

The Bottom Line:

Nobody does "retro" like Topps. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.

Fleer? 2000 Fleer Tradition was one of those products that comes along once every couple of years, that causes a sea change in The Hobby. '00 Trad all but single handily started the "retro" trend as we know it today. Unfortunately by 2001, the retro floodgates had opened, and Tradition was left in the dust. The fact that in 2001, Fleer issued a truly mediocre Tradition set certainly didn't help. Unfortunately, Tradition has now gone the short-print route, and as such, has to reach the level (both within The Hobby and amongst "real collectors") set by the landmark 2000 Trads. Fleer Platinum has been a brand searching for an identity after its rather successful 2001 launch. It certainly didn't help that Fleer was producing two different retro themed base level products at the same time. With Tradition now going with an original (somewhat) design, it should give Fleer the chance to re-establish the Platinum brand. Either that, or put this product out of its misery.

Upper Deck? Please. If you've ever read the book Card Sharks by former USA Today writer Pete Williams, you'd discover for yourself the sheer irony of products like Play Ball and Vintage. In case you haven't read it (you should, it's long out of print, but you might be able to find a copy on Amazon), it deals with the first five years of Upper Deck, from their 1988 founding in an Orange County strip mall, up to 1993. Other than being a stinging indictment of CEO Richard MacWilliam (who apparently had no idea who "Tony Gwine" was), the book gets into the modius operanti of the company's founders. The m.o. was simple: Use modern printing technologies to build a better baseball card. This was 1988 and the card itself had evolved little in four decades. The result of their efforts: The product that changed The Hobby forever, for the better AND for the worse, 1989 Upper Deck. I seriously doubt that the men who founded UD in that strip mall, would have any idea that years later, the company they begot would be printing the kind of cards Topps was cranking out by the millions in 1988.

Besides, it's not as if either of these products are all that great to begin with. 2001 and 2002 UD Vintage were nothing more than clones of '00 Fleer Tradition. Don't get me wrong, they were both pretty decent products, but it was clear that UD was ripping off Fleer (for the concept) and Topps (for the design). Since 2003, Vintage has become much like Fleer Tradition: Just another card set with a dozens of meaningless short-prints. You could also put the equally horrendous Play Ball in this category as well.

Donruss? Originals was a great product back in 2002, and I'm still waiting for the second series they promised for 2003. But given their recent track record of dicking up formerly "collector friendly" products like Leaf, Studio and Donruss with over-the-top gimmickry and "contrived scarcity," it's probably a good thing they don't do retro anymore.

Getting back to Topps. Following the successes of Topps 206 and Topps 205, Cracker Jack had a hard act to follow. Not only does Cracker Jack follow in the footsteps of 20X, it may be the best of the Pre-World War I retro products yet. However, I couldn't believe just how affordable I was able to pick it up for. I purchased these two boxes at the recent "Philly Show" in Ft. Washington, PA, which occurred a couple of weeks after Cracker Jack went "live." $38 for a 20 pack box? $38! When the first series of Topps 206 came out, I don't remember this product selling for less than $100/box a couple of weeks after release. Granted, the MSRP of 206 was $1 more per pack ($4/pack, as opposed to $3/pack), but both products packed out at 20-packs per box. So using the trend set by 206 two years ago, Cracker Jack should be selling in the $60-$75/box range.

So why isn't it? For starters, it appears that Topps has produced more of Cracker Jack than they did of 206 (and 205). Also, unlike the 20X products, Topps has issued Cracker Jack to retail outlets. There they are, right next to the checkout aisle at your friendly neighborhood K-Mart: Eight-pack blaster boxes of Cracker Jack for only $19.99. Increased supply equals lower price.

Now, on to the collation. Individually, each box delivered as promised. Neither box, by itself, yielded any base set doubles (although collectively they did), and the inserts ran as scheduled. Each box yielded two gamers, one Short-Print Mini Red, three Mini Blues and a Short-Print Sticker. In the first box I opened, in addition to the two promised short set Mini Blues, I received a 1:60/pack Short-Print Mini. The other box had however, was a bit quirky. I pulled three short set Mini Blues, one more than advertised, but two of the same player: Hank Blalock. Very weird. Even weirder, I got both Blalocks in consecutive packs.

Product Rating: 4 Gumsticks (out of five)
Collation Rating: 4 1/2 Gumsticks

Do I recommend this product?

Although you're going to have to rip at least two to come close to building a short set, $38 for a box is a steal. 2004 Cracker Jack is a great product that's easy to collect to say nothing of the "fun factor." Granted, you may not be able to find boxes this affordable in your neck of the woods, but if you can find a box (or two) in the $45 range, go for it. The only real negative point I have, are the stickers. I still don't understand the reasoning behind two virtually indistinguishable one-per-pack parallels in the same product.