Baseball Card Company Finds Own Niche

The Ted William's Card Company, with the help of its namesake, has become successful by honoring some of the game's past greats

AS chief operating officer of the Ted Williams Card Company, Brian Interland sits in a windowless, two-room office in a suburban Boston office park. His daughter Tara, the receptionist-assistant, is the only person keeping him company inside this shoebox-like space. But Mr. Interland is in regular contact with a production team in California that actually manufactures baseball trading cards.

With no licensing agreement from Major League Baseball, the company can only issue two cards bearing the images of current big-league players. This might not seem the best way to run a business, one that must compete alongside such giants as Topps, Upper Deck, and Fleer, and in a sports trading card industry where sales have fallen off from an all-time high of $2.1 billion in 1992 to about $1.8 billion last year.

But as the name suggests, the Ted Williams Card Company is not just another lemonade stand. This company has succeeded in part because its name strikes a chord with collectors.

``Ted [Williams] is an icon. He gave us an identifiable factor right off the bat,'' says Interland, who describes himself as an ardent fan of Mr. Williams. Interland, Williams's son John Henry, and Jerry Brenner are partners in Grand Slam Marketing, which represents the Hall of Famer in all his business dealings. The card venture is one of many under the Grand Slam banner.

Interland, who is a vice-president and part-owner of Grand Slam Marketing, says Williams ``never really gave a hoot about cards'' and threw his own away. Nonetheless, his handlers had an idea for honoring past greats on cards that appealed to the retired Red Sox star, who lives in Florida.

The card-set idea was presented to Major League Baseball several years ago and was received enthusiastically. Plans proceeded apace and the initial sets, when issued last year, met with favorable reviews and a strong consumer response, selling out.

Forgotten stars

By working at the periphery of the big leagues, the company has succeeded in carving out a niche market - what Interland is fond of calling ``total baseball.'' The reference is to the spectrum of players depicted - those of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The bulk of each set is devoted to former major league stars.

``Ted feels very strongly that the great players, the ones who are in the record book, in a sense have been all but forgotten when it comes to cards,'' Interland says.

A select group of minor leaguers represent ``tomorrow;'' two current major leaguers represent ``today;'' and standouts from the long-defunct women's professional baseball league and the old Negro Leagues fill out the ``yesterday'' category.

Williams personally keeps an eye out for hot young prospects and sees that those who achieved in the past, even if briefly, are not overlooked. Thus, his insistence this year that Pat Seerey be included in the 224-card set. An obscure player, Mr. Seerey nevertheless did something neither Williams nor Babe Ruth ever accomplished: He hit four home runs in one game, establishing his place in a ``Swinging for the Fences'' subset.

Williams likes each card to be a small history lesson. To that end, Interland says the company makes a concerted effort to find top-quality writers and engaging photographs.

For example, Interland points to his signing of Phil Dixon, one of the foremost authorities on African-American baseball, to write the card backs of a Negro League subset.

Interland assumes much of the responsibility for tracking down many unused photos of old-timers. This year, the cards have been colorized to give them new life, no doubt making them more appealing to youngsters.

Making collecting fun

The nostalgic-looking cards naturally attract adult collectors, too, but the company strives to create something that young hobbyists will want to sample, learn from, and enjoy.

Much of the fun has gone out of collecting,'' Interland says, ``because everybody's been so hung up on what cards are worth. People are afraid to handle cards.''

The Ted Williams Card Company, he adds, wants to put the fun back into collecting. In one attempt to do so, slabs of pink bubble gum will be added to packs later this summer. The gum will be wrapped to protect the cards and will be made ``not to break into 65 pieces after two months.'' (Ironically, cards were once used to sell gum.)

A visit to Interland's office, with cards and product proofs strewn around, provides a hint of the endless brainstorming required to be ``cutting edge'' in this fast-moving industry.

``To come up with a new design and a new way to produce a 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inch card ... is a very tough thing to do,'' says Greg Ambrosius, editor of Sports Card magazine.

``Interactive'' is one word that's heard more often these days, and the Williams company has already introduced one modest product toward that end. Pogs, or milk bottle caps, have been the rage in Hawaii, and Interland says interest in playing a simple game (somewhat like marbles) using plugs bearing sports motifs is spreading rapidly.

Product placement has contributed to the company's success. One industry observer says this was facilitated by a friendship between a company executive and a buyer at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the Bentonville, Ark., superstore. Getting space at Wal-Mart represented something of a coup for such a small company.

Innovation and quality are important too, Interland says. Technology has led to vast improvements in card-printing processes in recent years, and the Williams company tries to use these advances to give its cards a distinctive, high-quality look. Each card bears the Ted Williams Card Company logo, and many include Williams's fine penmanship, with player names handwritten along one edge.

Another feature is a certificate of authenticity in each box, as well as a short printing run of no more than 9,999 cases (there are 12 boxes per case and 36 packs per box).

Other companies, Interland says, have been inspired to make dramatic cutbacks in production, which he says is ``better for the hobby,'' because it makes the cards more valuable.

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