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Monday, August 5, 2013

A LIFE IN YANKEE FIGURINES: PART 2


It was a football player who answered my life long plea for Yankee figures. A Cincinnati Bengal at that. As the story goes, Pat McInally was walking through a toy aisle one day and marveled at the action figures available. He wondered why G.I. Joe and sci-fi characters were well represented but sports stars were not.


McInally had a friend working in Kenner toys. Together, they made the pitch that would become the Starting Lineup assortment of sports figures. The initial release in 1988 included over 130 different players with every MLB team represented. The figures were released depending upon the area of the country they were in. Yankees and Mets got heavy release in the New York area, Cardinals in St. Louis, and so on.


Not that I knew any of this at the time. I was in my late teens when I first saw the figures. I actually let out a yelp of joy and dove into the display. I bought several of them on first sight. I had a bona fide Yankee figure at long last! Don Mattingly. In glorious Yankee colors. After all these years! I was over the moon.


Starting Lineups, or as they are colloquially known, SLUs, would eventually produce figures for all sports until the line folded in 2001. But the only sport they produced figures for every single year was baseball.


Thankfully, Yankee history warranted lots of figures. I soon found Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield. I picked up a Gary Carter figure too, because I always liked The Kid. Yeah he was in Mets colors, but I thought I might re-paint him as an Expo.


SLUs took off immediately with collectors. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one longing for sports figures. The toys themselves were already eminently collectible, but Kenner was savvy enough to include baseball cards in the packaging as well. A collector’s market sprung up around the figures overnight. It still exists today.


It didn’t take long before I was swimming in SLUs. Baseball players, especially Yankees, were must haves. I also loved hockey, football, and basketball so, as you can imagine, the collection sprawled pretty quickly. Many collectors liked their figures Mint in Package. Not me. I had been waiting to play with baseball figures all my life, and saw no reason to keep them trapped in plastic bubbles.


SLUs were available in all sorts of varieties. They made collector exclusives; limited editions; convention specials; different sizes; retro figures; Cooperstown Classics; and Pro Action figures.


I especially loved their 12" figures. G.I. Joe sized baseball action figures with full articulation and lots of accessories? Awesome. Why wouldn’t I get these?


There was Derek Jeter.


Mickey Mantle.

They released Pro Action figures, aimed directly at younger children. No Yankees, but I totally would have gone crazy for these toys as a boy. Hitters had a “power swing" action with baseballs on a tee. Pitchers launched spring-action baseballs at targets.


They covered the All American Girls Professional Baseball League of the World War II era, including Dottie Kamenshek, who was regarded as one of the best all around athletes of the time. Geena Davis’ character Dottie Hinson in the movie “A League of Their Own" was based upon Kamenshek. Eventually though, I tired of SLUs. Even though I had waited so long for these toys, many figures, especially early on, were generic re-paints. There were only a few different head sculpts used over and over again. Figures did not look like the players they represented. Most figures’ poses were repeated ad nauseam. They had limited articulation. More and more, they began to remind me of the plastic toy soldier-like ball players I had as a boy. (See Part One of this series.)


Todd McFarlane was known as a comic book artist. He had made his bones on DC and Marvel titles before launching his own character, Spawn. He made the unprecedented move a few years later of creating his own line of toys based on his characters. They were a smash hit. McFarlane was a huge sports fan, and seeing the growing stagnancy of the SLU lines, made a pitch to make sports toys. He produced absolutely gorgeous figures. More on these toys in the third part of this series.


Hasbro had since absorbed Kenner and the SLU property. They sensed the end was near for this cash cow. Collector interest was flagging and the Internet, brand spanking new in those days, was connecting fans of the toys like never before. Fans were sick of the same old figures being reproduced year after year and validated each others’ disappointments with the line.


SLUs made a last ditch attempt to win their fan base back with Starting Lineup 2 figures. They boasted accurate likenesses and more detailed figures. But Hasbro hadn’t fully listened to their fans. Many figures repeated poses. Jorge Posada looked like Mark McGwire except for the facial sculpt. It was too little, too late.

But the good news was I finally got a really nice Reggie Jackson figure. Only took 25 years…



 Next: The Rise of McFarlane Sports Picks

 
Chad R. MacDonald
BYB Features Writer
Facebook: New York Yankees the Home of Champions
My Blog: ChadRants



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