So much of my own childhood revolved around sports, but for a while, sports didn’t really have a place when it came to toys. When I wasn’t watching baseball on TV or outside having a catch, I was usually on the floor of my bedroom playing with my Gobots (poor man’s Transformers) and other action figures of assorted origin.
Then, in 1988, Kenner launched its inaugural Starting Lineup set — called SLU, in toy industry parlance — and my play time was never the same. When I wasn’t watching the Mets on TV or at Shea Stadium, I could also keep close my lifelike replicas of Kevin McReynolds, Darryl Strawberry and Gary Carter (pictured above, where he sits on my writing desk to this day). Starting Lineup allowed me and (apparently) millions of other kids to take our sports wherever we went.
But what of those little 5-inch figurines? They seemed to peter out some years ago, but how could such a phenomenon just unceremoniusly vanish from our sports consciousness? The story behind Starting Lineup’s rise and fall is one of serendipity, opportunity and the ability to harness a childlike love of sports.
1. The idea for Starting Lineup came from a brilliant punter.
But just a few days after his retirement, McInally was already brokering a sale of his Cincinnati condo, in advance of moving back to his native Southern California, when the buyer, who happened to an executive at Kenner — still in the afterglow of the Star Wars craze some two years after Return of the Jedi — struck up a conversation about McInally’s post-career plans.
Pat McInally had a 10-year NFL careeer, punted in a Super Bowl and to this day has the only perfect Wonderlic score, but the line of sports action figures he launched undoubtedly was his greatest contribution to society.
"I was talking to him about my idea for working with kids and writing books," McInally told the Detroit Free Press in 2006. "He took me to a toy store, and we picked up a G.I. Joe. I thought, ‘Why not a sports figure? Everybody knows who Walter Payton, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are.’"
As they say, one thing led to another and McInally sold Kenner on the merits of mass-producing a line of lifelike sports figurines that could be sold on the cheap (around $5 a pop) to kids.
Some trends or fads take a little while to ramp up in popularity, but SLU busted out of the gate in 1988 with 124 MLB players, 137 NFL players and 85 NBA players. (I was mostly a baseball kid, but because my dad was/is a New York Jets fan, a random Al Toon figurine eventually made its way into my collection. Thanks, Dad!) And by the 1989 Christmas season, SLU was being dropped in the same breath as G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Starting Lineup might have jumped the shark at about the time it added hockey.
The problem is that after those initial releases, the subsequent annual sets topped out at maybe three or four dozen players each. Often, a complete set comprised of less than 10 offerings. A 12-player hockey set didn’t even show up until 1993. (And that was sans Wayne Gretzky, who didn’t sign off on his inclusion until 1997.) And as popular as the NBA lines were, the 1998-99 lockout helped to effectively end their production. Only a few B-list figurines were produced after that — hello, Raef Lafrentz! — but the line survived just long enough to see some of today’s contemporary stars, like Kobe Bryant, so honored.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the popularity of SLU started to drop in the late ’90s, as the sports card craze also came down off its peak and the generation of kids who’d grown up on SLU started to spend its disposable income on other luxuries.
The rising cost of sports licensing deals with leagues had also become prohibitively expensive by that point. Sports leagues today are almost literally printing money, and SLU was but one casualty of that economic evolution.
Also, the generation that grew up on Starting Lineup discovered this magical time-sucking invention called the Internet.
Thus, the NBA, NHL and NFL lines were all done by 2000. The final baseball set was produced in 2001 and contained just a couple dozen players.
For collectors and sports fans alike, the void didn’t last long, as McFarlane Toys launched a six-figure lineup of cooler, hyper-realistic NFL player figurines in August 2001. Baseball followed the next spring with an eight-player offering that included current Angels slugger Albert Pujols. McFarlanes remain a hit with sports collectors to this day.
John Stockton and Karl Malone never brought Utah an NBA championship, but they did bring Starting Lineup collectors in that state a pretty penny.
3. If you lived in Utah, you hit the Starting Lineup lottery.
Many of the releases had a regional launch preference, which makes sense because (especially) as a new toy line, you want to make sure you’re hitting a natural customer base. As a result, the rarest and most collectible SLU to this day come from the four Utah Jazz players released in the inaugural 1988 basketball set. An unopened set of John Stockton, Karl Malone, Mark Eaton and Thurl Bailey would likely run you more than $1,000 on the resell market today.
5. McInally didn’t actually get his own figurine for a long time.
Sure, McInally was getting checks, but what the creative force behind Starting Lineup figures never had was … his own Starting Lineup figure.
Kenner was able to milk the Starting Lineup franchise for some fat stacks: a reported $500 million.
In the initial stages of the product line, McInally offfered his services to Kenner executives to promote the line. "I said I was fairly well known," McInally recalled for The Cincinnati Post in 1997. "If you want me to promote it, I will.’" One executive basically replied that they had Michael Jordan and Walter Payton, so what would they need him for?
McInally finally got his due when the company helped mark the line’s 10th anniversary by releasing a limited edition Pat McInally figurine. Seen in his Bengals uniform and in mid-punting stride, McInally finally felt like he belonged with all of the superstars he had, against all odds, helped to immortalize for all-time.
You can follow Erik Malinowski on Twitter at @erikmal and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.