Pinnacle Brands first got in the sports card game in the mid-1980s with Sportflics, which used a lenticular printing process to make the images appear to move when you tilted the card. The company started producing cards under the Score trade name in 1988, then released its first Pinnacle baseball issue in 1992. The 1996 Pinnacle Foil set that changed humanity forever is marked by gold foil triangles that jut up from the bottom of the frame, often seeming to stab players in the groin. This was just one of a mind-boggling array of different sets that Pinnacle brought to market in 1996, including Pinnacle Aficionado, Pinnacle First Rate, Pinnacle Starburst, Pinnacle Team Spirit, and Pinnacle Christie Brinkley Collection. Given all the cards the company was cranking out, at least a handful were bound to stretch the limits of human decency. Such was the baseball card market of the 1990s. And this, too, was a sign of the times: In 1998, two years after Pinnacle Foil No. 289 came off the presses, Pinnacle Brands filed for bankruptcy. The baseball card bubble had burst.
The arc of Bob Hamelin’s career coincides perfectly with that of Pinnacle Brands. The Elizabeth, N.J., native made his minor-league debut in 1988, finally cracking the Royals’ big-league roster five years later. In 1994, the slugging DH cracked 24 home runs, beating out Manny Ramirez to win the American League Rookie of the Year award. The Hammer, though, was out of the big leagues for good after hitting .219 for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1998.
Hamelin is now a scout for the Boston Red Sox, and he says he couldn’t ask for a better job. He also looks back on his playing days with fondness, a nostalgia trip that’s easier to take when you’ve got piles of your old baseball cards around the house. That’s one benefit of playing in the Pinnacle era. Hamelin, who was in the big leagues for just six seasons, has 119 different cards listed on Sports Card Source, and that doesn’t even include 1995 Tombstone Pizza No. 3. The most valuable of those cards, according to COMC.com, is worth $5.75. Depending on where you look, the 1996 Pinnacle Foil No. 289 is valued at anywhere from 33 cents to 39 cents.
Having a huge stash of cards comes in handy, Hamelin says, when the mailman asks if you really played in the majors or when your kids’ friends are looking for a souvenir. The 1994 Rookie of the Year says he still gets around 200 cards in the mail each year from autograph seekers. Sometimes, he admits, he’ll swipe a few if someone sends more than a dozen in a single envelope.
He’s seen that Pinnacle card before, and it reminds him of spring training. One day each year, players would go into some auxiliary room, he says, and get herded through 15 different stations—one for ESPN to take a headshot, another where you’d hold the bat on your shoulder for a card company, another where you take a swing. Each player would hold a sign so all the different photographers know who they’re shooting. Most of the time, the guy with the camera chose the best image. This time, Hamelin says, “Maybe they accidentally erased every other picture.”
Bob Hamelin does not think the worst baseball card of all time is the worst baseball card of his career. The first time he ever appeared on a card was in 1988, when he played for the Class A Eugene Emeralds. That time, they spelled his last name wrong.
In the end, then, perhaps Pinnacle Foil No. 289 shouldn’t be regarded as an example of everything that can go wrong with a baseball card. Rather, we can focus on how Pinnacle got it right. The company didn’t just spell Hamelin’s name correctly—H-A-M-E-L-I-N is written out three separate times in all its glory.
Yeah, I don’t think so. This is, and will perhaps always be, the worst baseball card of all time. But don’t feel too bad for Bob Hamelin—he’s got 118 other cards that he can hand out to the mailman. “Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t,” he says. “They didn’t get it on that shot.”