Death and Trading Cards: Is There a Right Way to Address It?

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In Loving Memory

By Ryan Cracknell | Hobby Editor | Commentary

By their very nature, trading cards exist to commemorate people and events. Usually, they come in the form of celebrating achievements. Big home runs, career milestones, lasting on a big league roster long enough to be deemed worthy of a spot on a checklist — cards of achievements come in many forms. But how should we deal with death in the hobby?

It’s a debate that seems to pops up every time somebody passes away. If cards are a tribute for athletes and celebrities, it seems like an appropriate format to honor them. But on the other hand, trading cards are a business and many feel there are issues of taste in profiting off of someone’s death.

Leaf Live

The discussion of death and cards started up again immediately after 2016 Leaf Live was announced, a print-on-demand set that launched with a Gene Wilder tribute.

2016 Leaf Live 1 Gene Wilder

This card isn’t intended to be a one-off. Rather it’s the start of an ongoing news-related card line in the vein of Topps Now. But rather than starting with something less emotional like the latest controversy to surround one of the Presidential candidates (or Anthony Weiner), Leaf opted to launch with a Wilder card the day after his passing.

My Twitter timeline and Facebook feeds quickly lit up. Some were okay with it, others decried it, accusing Leaf of trying to profit off of the actor’s death and releasing the card too soon. This isn’t the first time Leaf has released cards of someone shortly after their passing. Earlier in the year, they used some sticker autographs for new Chyna cards a short time after the former WWE champion died.

Also, as I saw a couple of people point out, there’s the fact that a set called “Live” started following someone’s death.

Some collectors were quick to suggest Leaf donate proceeds from the Wilder card to charity. But is there an obligation to do so, especially making it public and drawing attention to it rather than making giving a private issue? Such a public act could shift public perception, and possibly lead to more sales, but it doesn’t change the fact that the card exists.

Leaf had a relationship with Wilder and his estate prior to his passing. In fact, outside of cut signatures that don’t have images, they’re the only company to make mainstream trading cards featuring the actor that I can think of, period. Wilder has autographs in both 2015 and 2016 Leaf Pop Century. So it’s not like this particular card came out of nowhere other than the fact that Leaf hadn’t publicly teased the possibility for such a set ahead of time.

The arrival of the card was jarring and I can certainly see where many of the issues come from. I felt many of the same things initially. But I’m hoping it is the start of something bigger.

The Forgotten Chronicles

2016 Leaf Live isn’t the first set of trading cards to offer an on-going look at the news. It’s also not the first to make memorial cards in the days following someone’s death. In retrospect, 2005 Topps Chronicles was a set that was ahead of its time. Haven’t heard of it? That’s okay. It flopped.

One of the hobby’s earlier online exclusives, one Topps Chronicles card was released every seven days looking at the week’s biggest news story. Like the plans for 2016 Leaf Live, it covered sports, entertainment, politics and more. Like death. Johnny Carson and Richard Pryor comes to mind. And both comedians were given Topps Chronicles cards within days of their respective deaths.

2005 Topps Chronicles Carson Pryor

I don’t recall there being any controversy with either of these. Why? Perception. The set had already been established. Even though the Carson card came out early in the ill-fated line’s run, a couple of others had come before it with varied topics ranging from college football to Middle East elections to international tsunami relief efforts.

We also see new cards of deceased people all the time. It seems like we get thousands of “legends” cards every year. But the biggest issue here is when old pieces of memorabilia are cut up. When it comes to athletes, cards are a part of everyday life so it doesn’t seem weird or grim to get a Babe Ruth or Rocket Richard from a pack today.

Another thing that’s different now is printing technology. 2005 Topps Chronicles was just starting to hint at how quickly cards could be made. And even then, it took a little time. Still, the turnaround was much faster than the months it takes to plan, print and distribute traditional trading card sets. So if there were tribute cards, a good amount of time had passed.

Now we’re at a place where companies can economically plan, print and distribute cards in a matter of days. This brings a new immediacy to cards that might deal with touchy subjects like death. That makes perception more important than ever.

Trading Cards, the Act of Grieving and Exploitation

Personally, I don’t know where I stand. As far as cards go, I’m a big believer in thinking we should be able to buy what we want. That includes memorial tributes. At the same time, I think there’s a certain amount of tact that should be taken to ensure respect is maintained.

For a collector, buying a card of a favorite person might be a form a grieving. Even though it’s an emotional purchase, it’s not right to stop someone making that purchase if it doesn’t do them harm. In fact, it could be doing the opposite by giving a fan a chance to cope. That requires a certain sense of immediacy. Bottling up grief, even if it’s for a celebrity we’ve never met, only prolongs it.

The problem arises when people try to exploit that grief in unreasonable ways. These are the people who are quick to draw attention to someone’s passing in the title of their eBay auction or immediately jack the price up on an autograph. Even though I’m all for choice and capitalism, these sorts of practices make me feel kind of gross. I’m not against selling an autograph shortly after someone passes, but I think there’s a way to go about it.

If you’re using a recent death prominently in a title or mentioning something like, “This will be worth more because there won’t be any more made,” in the description, that’s wrong to me. But if you sell something and basically word it the same as you would have a month earlier, that’s more maximizing off of increased attention. You may or may not like the idea, but it’s not inherently unethical. It’s a fine line, though.

I did this once myself. In the months before his death, I’d picked up a Bernie Mac autograph from 2007 Donruss Americana. I was a moderate fan and it was cheap. When Mac passed away less than a year later, I sold the card. My thinking was that if I really wanted another one, I could get it somewhere down the line, probably for a cheaper price.

I was aware of the situation and battled with myself over to sell it or not. Ultimately, I did. But in doing so, I tried to follow my guidelines. I listed the card on eBay for what it was — a 2007 Donruss Americana Bernie Mac autograph. It wasn’t a “tribute to a great actor” and I didn’t promise “it’d be worth more” in the future. It was just a card.

But you know what? It’s one of my biggest hobby regrets. Even though I was on the appropriate side of my self-invoked fine line and not in any way exploitative, I still feel kind of dirty about it. I made the choice to sell it when I did simply because I knew I’d probably never be able to get as much for it ever again. I don’t hold it against others for taking similar approaches, or even think much of it. I just know I won’t be doing it again.

The Importance of Choice

If it doesn’t do anything inherently bad, it’s not fair to say what others can and can’t sell. We can make personal judgements, particularly when it comes to approach, but choice is important in our society. We can choose to buy something or not to buy it.

Likewise, businesses are within their rights to sell cards and make money from them. Because something can be done, doesn’t always mean it should be. But if it’s something like cards, who are we to judge beyond what we choose to buy? As consumers, the loudest message we can send is by not buying.

A certain level of tact should always be taken when we’re dealing with death. It’s touchy. It’s emotional. I get it. But who’s to say what the right amount of time is from when someone passes away until cards can be made of them? A week? A month? A year? Never? The answer’s bound to be different for a lot of people.

Whether we’re on the buying, selling or observing side, the best thing we can do is show respect. That means respect for the person who has passed away. If you’re a seller, it means being respectful in the approach and that the line of exploitation isn’t crossed. But even then, that line is going to be in different places for different people so being aware is also important. As observers, we need to respect the right to choose what it is we want to collect. We might not like the idea, but if respect is being shown on the other end, we should do the same.

How do you think death should be handled in the hobby? Let us know in the comments below or keep the conversation going on Twitter.

Comments? Questions? Contact Ryan Cracknell on Twitter @tradercracks.

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Ryan Cracknell

A collector for much of his life, Ryan focuses primarily on building sets, Montreal Expos and interesting cards. He's also got one of the most comprehensive collections of John Jaha cards in existence (not that there are a lot of them). Got a question, story idea or want to get in touch? You can reach him by email and through Twitter @tradercracks.

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5 comments

  1. Daryl Powell 31 August, 2016 at 20:03

    Topps donated net profits from 2 Topps now cards to various charities. Leaf could do the same. I bought more of those cards just because of the donations. I think it’s a neat idea. I’ll buy a Wilder card just so I can say I have a card of him.

  2. Charlie Mowry 1 September, 2016 at 08:51

    Leaf would have had to pay his estate money for the rights to use his image – so on one side I think it’s fair. Presumably his estate is distributing profits to the places he wanted it to go.

    On the other side – it does seem kind of too early. I didn’t like when Topps came out with a Yogi Berra set to sell online right when he passed away. It just seems like they’re trying to capitalize.

  3. Paul Angilly 1 September, 2016 at 13:29

    A well-reasoned and thought out article, thank you. Does Leaf have the right to sell the Wilder cards? Absolutely. Should they?
    Personally, I would have been OK with it if they offered the card a month from now. But the next day after he died? Even if they had been planning to offer this kind of card for a while, that just comes off as trying to make as much money as possible off his fans before the grief and interest wears off.
    I would have also been OK with Leaf offering the card for free to people who buy a box of Pop Century off their website, or if the profits were going to charity. Certainly perception is everything. The way it was handled just came off as wrong.
    This is the type of situation where if it feels wrong, it probably is. Leaf would have been better in the long run to err on the side of respect for the deceased. Not only will I not buy the Wilder card, due to the company’s seeming insensitivity in the face of making a quick profit, I’m not inclined to want to buy any other Leaf products in the future (and I’ve bought several in the past).

  4. Raven 1 September, 2016 at 14:19

    I have no problem with what Leaf did with the Wilder card or any tribute cards that appear in sets, like Star Trek. Fans may enjoy these cards. I do take issue with the “death bounce” and people who sell or buy cards just because the person passed away. This happens especially with certified autograph cards that suddenly increase in value because the supply now has a finite number. No more signatures from this guy, let’s double the price! That is such bad karma for the ghouls. If you did not want someone’s autograph when they were alive, you have no business wanting it or profiting off it when they are dead. Just MHO.

  5. Dawn Rosamilia 4 September, 2016 at 15:38

    I don’t see anything wrong with Leaf releasing the Gene Wilder card so quickly. As you said, with today’s technology what took six months in planning is now down in three days or so. I do feel that the problem is the profiteers who will ( and you know they will) sensationalize the loss of a wonderful person’s passing to make a buck. I sell on eBay, recently I tried to put a NASCAR drivers name in the title and it wouldn’t except the name Dick Trickle. It had a comment popup that I couldn’t use adult language to sell the product. So if eBay can shut my ad down before it’s even started then maybe they (ebay) should envoke a rule that deals with death for profit and shut those down as well. I normally dont chime in though i find your thoughts and articles very interesting. How ever it hit me hard losing Mr. Wilder as he brought me such joy in his comedic style. “SEDIGIVE!” simple in thought, yet incredibly hilarious the way he delivered it. Love what you do here, and thank you for allowing all of us to participate. Dawn R.

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