Tomorrow's Collectibles Today!
Who Made The First Sports Figures?
When were the first Sports Figures produced and when did the hobby become "mainstream".
There are many arguments to which were the "original" sports figure whereas there are no doubts that G.I. Joes is the granddaddy to all action figures.
But my bets are on Johnny Hero.
In those days though sports figures were bought to be played with, not put on pedestals and worshipped like they are now. As kids we played with our toys.
We bashed them, shot them and blew them up.
But now the innocence has gone.
Many kids are afraid to even remove the price tag for fear of devaluing their nice new shiny toy!
So when did action figures become more than toys?
I believe two events happened to change the hobby.
Star Wars and Kenner's Starting Lineups (and of course it was Kenner who also produced the first Star Wars figures).
A coincidence? I think not...
It wasn't until the Starting Lineup figures caught the attention of trading card dealers and older sports fans that the hobby really kicked off.
So what was there before that?
Well, let’s take a trip down memory lane...
The Original Sports Figure?
Johnny Hero was released between 1965 and 1966, just a year after G.I. Joe; the figure had silk track shorts and short-sleeve shirt with trim (piping) and was produced by Rosko Industries of New York.
Kids could buy separate uniforms for their "Johnny Hero" and dress him in the team of their choice. Uniforms were available for most of the teams in the NFL and MLB at the time. The football uniforms also included the shoulder pads, knee pads and a sheet of adhesive numbers. These uniforms came in tray style packaging.
The Johnny Hero sports figure was offered in the Sears catalog during the 1965 and 66 seasons but it is unclear whether he was sold all year round.
Unfortunately he didn't sell well and wasn't featured in the 1967 catalogue and so was presumably not stocked on store shelves either, except were old stock still existed.
However he was re-issued and re-packaged as Olympic Hero during the Olympic games 1968, which was seen as a poor attempt to cash in on Olympic fervor and to get rid of surplus stock.
The boxes for Olympic Hero were very basic and generic, also the uniforms were no longer packed in the tray-style box but were tac-sewn cards or bags which meant the uniforms were sewn to a piece of cardboard, dropped into a baggie, and stapled shut at the top with the cardboard banner.
In the case of the football uniforms, the shoulder pads, knee pads and jersey number sheets were dropped out but the shoes were still included.
Another little quirk with the "Olympic Hero" figure is that the original Johnny Hero box stated that "Rosko Industries" were the manufacturers and that the uniforms were "Officially licensed by professional sports teams".
However, this is not the case with the Olympic Hero boxes which made no mention of the licensing or Rosko Industries.
Also it seems a bit strange that the figure should be repackaged when the original box featured a track runner and came in a sporty running kit.
Surely this would have been ideal for an "Olympic Hero".
Many feel that the "Olympic Hero" figure may have been such a mis-match of accessories, uniforms and packaging to intentionally avoid problems with the licensing issue.
It also may well be that a large distributor or retailer, other than Rosko Industries, who had large quantities of stock remaining were attempting to "dump" it and recover some of their loss.
What's he worth now?
Johnny Hero figures can fetch anywhere from $12-$150 depending on his condition and the uniforms anything from $12-$60.
The Real Beginnings of the Hobby?
The next real "breakthrough" for the Sports Figures hobby wasn't until 1986 although there were sporadic releases of different sport figures before this time.
It was in 1986 that an innocent Pat McInally, a veteran of the Cincinnati Bengals American Football team, was preparing to move to the West Coast after retiring from football that he met a newly appointed Kenner executive whose job was developing toys for kids. As it happened, Pat had a regular syndicated newspaper column "Pat Answers for Kids" and so he was asked by the Kenner exec if he had any ideas.
Initially Pat came up with the idea of 3D cards but Kenner weren’t keen on the idea. Then while he was browsing through the toy aisles of a local store it suddenly occurred to him.
There on the toy shelves were rows of toys featuring all kinds of super-heroes but there wasn't a single toy based on the real world heroes of sport.
Nothing much happened after that until he had completed his move to California but finally arrangements were made for him to make his presentation to Kenner in Cincinnati.
On his way Pat stopped by a local toy store to pick up a pack of baseball cards and armed with these and one of Kenner's current action figures he was ready to make his proposal.
Pat however was not expecting quite the reaction he got. After two hours of discussions Kenner's reaction was overwhelming, now how were they to get the licensing rights?
Luckily Pat proved to be the key mover here as well with his vast experiences in the NFL and his contacts in the sports arena and so within a week he had commitments in hand for all the 3 major U.S sporting Leagues and so the Starting Lineup brand was born.
This was the first time that all the major sporting leagues were represented under one brand and in 1998 the NHL league also joined the others.
The first of these Sport figures were released in 1988 much to the delight of fans and collectors. The Kenner Starting Lineup figures gained a large following of loyal collectors and became a huge hit (the SLU club still has approx 40,000 active members!).
Generally these figures were approx 4-inches in height although occasionally "special" event figures up to 14-inches in height were produced.
Recently sold graded Kenner Starting Lineup sports figures have gone for:
Looking back now it's hard to see what the attraction was in these rather crude "action figures" that often had little resemblance to the actual players, which is probably why the SLU trading card was included ;-).
But at the time they were all we had and they were FUN!.
In between the Kenner and McFarlane eras Topps came out with a strange product call Action Flats. These were 3-inch figures packaged with a foil stamped Topps card, featuring popular players of the day. There were two series of NFL and Baseball figures produced in 1998-99.
Other series produced during this lull in the market were the Playmates Pro-zone figures featuring MLB and NHL players, Topps Action Flat Figures, Mattel's NBA figures, Mezco's extreme Athletes and Upper Decks All-Star vinyl figures.
McFarlane Toys Raise the Bar
In 2001 McFarlane Toys took over the baton from Kenner to be THE manufacturer of Sports Figures by managing to pick up the licenses for all four of the major league sports.
Initially people were wary as to whether McFarlane could produce the goods at the price fans were willing to pay and give them the standards they demanded.
Not only did he achieve this, but he surpassed expectations by producing some of the most detailed and accurate sports figure sculpts to date.
With the use of all the advances in technology and 3-D body scans in order to create picture perfect figures that set that standard for action figures across the whole spectrum of the hobby.
Many people predict that action figures will eventually take the place of traditional trading cards. After all why have a boring 2-D card of your favourite sports personality when you can have a life-like 3-D miniature of him (or her) in an action pose of your choice?
The first series of the new McFarlane Sports Picks to be released was the NFL Series1 sports figures which featured:
But that's not all as like their cousins, trading cards, each series also has Chase and Variant figures available:
There are three different "brands" that come under the Sports Picks umbrella:
Basic Series: Each season there is generally one basic series of basketball action figures released based on the top players and/or rookies of that season.
Legends: The Legends series highlights those players who have achieved a high level of success within the NBA or have entered the Basketball Hall of Fame. This series represents the "Best of the Best".
Collectors Edition: The Collectors Edition series of basketball action figures consists of 'one of' releases to celebrate special events or occassions such as the All-Stars game.
Many collectors will leave their figures in their packaging as an "investment" but generally I prefer to take them out of the packaging and allow them to "breathe".
In recent years there has been a big debate on how much "articulation", i.e. moving parts, there should be as the trend since the 90's has been to keep articulation to a minimum, usually 5-6 points, but companies such as Hot Toys seems to be bucking this trend and pushing the "art" of articulation to its limits with some figures having as many as 30-40.
All in all McFarlane have created an excellent line of high quality, well produced and excellently sculpted sports figures that have captured the hearts and minds of fans and collectors alike and look likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Gracelyn Re-plays Sports Action Figures
Gracelyn are the latest company to produce Sports Figures although until 2008 they only produced NFL figures.
That said Gracelyn have achieved a certain amount of success in the short time their figures have been available.
Each of their sport figures stands approx 6-inches in height and are fully articulated with joints on the head, arms, upper swivel arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles.
The detail on these figures is superb and they are carefully and neatly sculpted. The player's name, number, and team insignia have all been very well printed on the figure's uniform even down to some tiny little NFL logos on the shirt, pants, and gloves.
The overall quality of these figures is excellent and to the standard you might expect from a company like McFarlane.
They are solidly made from very good quality materials, are well-assembled and the paint work has been carefully applied. They also come with a base but this isn't required as they stand perfectly well on their own.
However these are still primarily collectors figures and will probably get broken fairly easily in the hands of any kids.
The best part of these Sports figures are that unlike many others they are true action figures and NOT plastic statues like many so-called "action figures".
Upper Deck All-Star Vinyls Action Figures
Upper Deck have been a leader in the sports collectibles market since they revolutionized the sports trading card hobby in 1989 with their first set of baseball cards.
It was therefore only a matter of time before they got into the Sports Figures market and it seems their chosen medium is vinyl.
All-Star Vinyls: A New Style of Sports Figures
Upper Deck's first All-Star Vinyl figure released in 2006 was LeBron James and typically of Upper Deck it added a new dimension to the sports figure market.
This release was followed by two four-figure sets of The LeBrons in partnership with Nike then in 2007 the company released their first league-licensed All-Star Vinyl figures, the first of these were a NFL release of Ben Roethlisburger, Tom Brady and Brett Favre.
These figures are reminiscent of the Mezco Extreme Athlete figures from 2003 but were they failed it seems Upper Deck have succeeded. Each figure is approx. 11-inches in height, had a very limited production line and featured very limited articulation.
The success of these led them to release a full line of current and former NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB athletes on the All-Star Vinyl label in 2007.
In 2008, recognizing McFarlane’s success with the Sports Picks brand of Sports Figures, Upper Deck released a new line called Pro-Shots.
These figures, unlike the All-Star Vinyls, feature highly accurate 6" figures that "re-live" some of the greatest moments in sporting history.
There are two versions of each figure produced a retail version which is sold at Toys R Us and shows the athlete in the attire he was wearing for the famous moment being replicated and is packaged in a plastic clamshell with a cardboard wrap-around, and includes an Upper Deck card.
Then there will be the limited edition "hobby version," which is sold through specialist shops, hobby stores and collectible stores.
This figure features the same pose but uses an alternate. Hobby versions are packaged in plastic clamshells and will have a limited production run.
MVPs Feature Team Mascots With a Vinyl Attitude
It looks like Upper Deck is taking the whole vinyl figure thing seriously these days.
Their latest line of sports figures will be a line of MVP vinyl collectibles.
It seems in the Urban Vinyl community MVPs are sport related urban vinyls. Borrowing more than the name, Upper Deck have “hired” eight well-known urban vinyl artists to create and design a variety of different original artwork to go on the platform.
The idea is that a single “platform” is designed, in this case and 8-inch figure, and designers create MVPs will be created to represent the 32 different NFL team mascots.
For this first series, Upper Deck have chosen eight well-known vinyl designers including Jesse Hernandez, MAD, Niark1, Rebel Wookiee, Sket One, Spanky, TWEEQiM and UNKLBrand, to create the artwork for the series.
To be launched in groups starting in the Fall of 2008 and true to the urban vinyl market the edition sizes will be very limited.
Upper Deck hope to expand this line to include all the major league sports and other artists as well.
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