A ‘Half-Baked Ideas’ Podcast Special Presentation: Starting Lineup Figurines

Jasper Rietman

1988 was a tender moment in collecting. We — the Die Hard–watching, Super Mario Bros. 2–mastering adolescent class — were smart enough not to put rookie cards in our bicycle spokes. But joy hadn’t totally drained out of the hobby. You were still allowed to open stuff. So when you bought a 4-inch, plastic Mike Schmidt figurine, you pulled it out of the package and put it on your nightstand. And played with it. And, on certain nights, even dreamed about it. I speak, of course, of the Starting Lineup figure.

Starting Lineups were like a transitional fossil between the baseball card and the McFarlane Barry Bonds figure. Kevin Wildes and David Jacoby discuss the toy line’s origins in their new Half-Baked Ideas podcast. But the bygone mania for Starting Lineups makes you ask another question: Why?

When they elbowed their way onto toy store shelves, Starting Lineup figures couldn’t have had better timing. By Christmas 1988, the St. Petersburg Times reported, the Nintendo Entertainment System had vaporized the market for talking or electronic dolls. Manufacturers who’d been churning out cartoons-as-cynical-toy-ads (e.g., InHumanoids) found that kids had tuned out. There was a yearning for an action figure that was just an action figure, one that would just be.

Pat McInally, a Bengals punter and wide receiver, told Wildes he quit football and cooked up the idea for Starting Lineup when he found out his former Harvard classmates were doing better than he was. (Apparently, it wasn’t enough to play pro football — you had to be a mogul, too.) McInally had a simple notion: make a real athlete into an action figure. He collaborated with Kenner, the same company that made Star Wars figures.

Starting Lineups initially sold for $3.99 — about eight bucks today, adjusted for inflation. They were hawked in commercials by kids that yelped as they would about He-Man: “Will Clark — his lumber is lethal!”

Sports collectors who’d been making do with cards, posters, and T-shirts lost their minds. “In the last ten days, I’ve purchased 35 Starting Lineup figures in four different states,” an unnamed Ypsilanti, Michigan, man told PR Newswire. A man and woman apparently fought over a Starting Lineup Michael Jordan at a flea market. “Being the gentleman that he is,” a hobby newsletter quoted by the Cincinnati Post reported, “[the man] let her have the piece for her son. They eventually got married and this June are expecting a son. They’ve selected the first and middle name already, Kenneth Ray — or, as they put it in their letter, KENN R.”

The New York Times attributed the popularity of the must-have toy “to the figures’ surprisingly accurate features, the results of some painstaking sculpting by the Chinese manufacturers …” Which is funny, because Starting Lineups looked about as much like real baseball players as Hoth Gear Han Solo looked like Harrison Ford. The difference between Schmidt and Wade Boggs was a slightly bushier mustache. Sometimes players looked suspiciously like their own teammates.

The early checklists — 1988 produced 346 figures across three sports — honored an insanely large number of players. Now, with hindsight, it’s fun to enshrine the “worst” Starting Lineup figures of the era, like the suckiest Donruss Rated Rookies or the scrubs who snuck into NBA Jam. The Nets’ Dennis Hopson had a Starting Lineup. The Cowboys’ Steve Pelluer had one. Cubs catcher Damon Berryhill had two.

In 1988, a Kenner executive predicted that 15 million Starting Lineup baseball figurines would be on the market. And yet you could already trace the inevitable arc of a fad. First: The guys collecting in 1988, the ones whose cortex had been grabbed at its most vulnerable point, were the same guys collecting a decade later. (“About half of all buyers are over 18 years old,” the Cincinnati Post noted in 1997.) Second: Eventually, even those guys split for Magic: The Gathering — Starting Lineup ceased production in 2001. Finally, the toy was exiled to nostalgiaville, where after some years it began to stand as a marker of a more innocent time — “Where have you gone, Starting Lineup?

What was the appeal back in ’88? Strange as it may sound, being a toy — rather than a baseball card or poster — made Starting Lineup something different than any other sports thing you could find at the store. It was something you could touch rather than just admire. (McFarlane picked up the torch after Starting Lineup disappeared.)

Starting Lineups made action figures safe for older “kids.” This was a generation that wouldn’t have been caught dead with a Ninja Turtle, but could happily scoop up Herschel Walker and Dexter Manley without risking a loss in status. Maybe it was the fact that Starting Lineups barely moved, that they were more display than play. A decade later, the Star Wars: Episode I figures offered the same “safe space.”

Even in 1988, Starting Lineup seemed kind of dated. The world was already rushing into the digital future: Nintendo’s R.B.I. Baseball had been out for two years; in ’88, Parker Brothers began selling Talking Baseball, a kind of simulation-cum-fantasy-game that involved a model stadium. Yet old-fashionedness was part of Starting Lineup’s cool. It was a faux-vintage item before the bobblehead resurfaced in the ’90s.

I suppose there were people who bought Starting Lineups as investments like they bought Ken Griffey’s Upper Deck rookie card. (A near-mint Steve Pelluer is selling for $59.00 on eBay.) But for me, Starting Lineup’s primary appeal was emotional. Before fantasy baseball became the dominant way to relate to players — before they began working for us, as it were — the best way to commune with your guy was to collect his stuff. I had Schmidt’s rookie card, his second-year card, his posters, his T-shirts, his stickers, and every clipping with his name on it I could harvest from the Dallas newspapers. And I had his Starting Lineup figure.

Of course, everybody sees their childhood as the last moments of innocence before the nakedly commercial cash grab that followed. It’s near impossible to make that claim about an era whose spiritual leader was Super Mario. But I dunno. When I think about gazing at Mike Schmidt’s Starting Lineup figure, with his bat dangling from his left hand, the feeling I get is a lot like love. —Bryan Curtis

Filed Under: Collectibles, Nostalgia, Podcasts, Half Baked Ideas, Starting Lineup, Bryan Curtis