Look up the word memorabilia in the dictionary and its definition reads: things that stir recollection or are valued or collected for their association with a particular field or interest. Everywhere you go in bass fishing there’s memorabilia. From hats, to patches, to old lure displays, and even trophies. There are even clubs that specialize in bass fishing memorabilia. I can’t think of a single bass angler who doesn’t collect one form of memorabilia and I know of thousands of anglers who are struck by the illness in the worst way. Well today in Big League Bass Trading Cards, we’re going to look at one piece of memorabilia that ranks in my top-5 of contemporary collectors items.
Big League Bass Trading Cards was the brainchild of former Bassmaster senior writer Michael Jones. Jones came up with the idea while working with Al Kalin, of Kalin’s Tournament Tested Tackle, during a two-year hiatus from his normal beat. Kalin funded the project while Jones designed and researched all he’d need to make the cards a reality.
But let’s backtrack a little and learn a little about the man, Michael Jones.
WON Beat Writer
Jones started his outdoor writing career in the early 1980s for the largest outdoor publication in the west, Western Outdoor News. Published weekly, the WON paper covered the entire state of California as well as the Colorado River Region which included portions of the states of Arizona and Nevada.
Early on in his career at Western Outdoor News, Jones realized he wanted to be on the bass scene because that’s where everything in the industry was moving. He quickly found himself at the epicenter of the big bass movement in southern California where he made a name for himself in short time.
Jones also covered the local hunting scene and was always on the prowl for new areas to shoot photographs of waterfowl and other game birds that could lend a hand in his writing and photography. One of his coworkers suggested he call Al Kalin of Brawley, CA because he had access to areas that Jones was looking for.
Jones cold-called Kalin to talk with him about this access and made the drive to the Imperial Valley to check it out. It wasn’t long before they hit it off. At that time, Kalin was just starting his lure business and after a short while, Jones found himself consulting for Kalin.
“One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that when you’re a writer for a large publication, you get ample opportunities to help companies, Jones said. “You end up being a consultant a lot of the time and that helps you make ends meet on a writer’s wage.
“Al was just starting his lure business and I designed the Kalin logo as well as his packaging. From that point on we became close friends.
“Al was just a big kid at heart,” he said. “A good example was the Sandy DeFresco fish caught out of Lake Miramar in March 1988.”
Gorilla Marketing with Kalin
Sandy DeFresco made big waves in the world-record bass chase when she brought in a 21-pound 10-ounce fish to the Lake Miramar scales and nearly became the new California state record holder. The problem with the DeFresco fish was when the taxidermist cut the fish open to begin the mounting process, a 2-1/2-pound lead diver’s weight fell out of its stomach.
“Al couldn’t afford to pay high dollars for advertising, so he went about it in a different way. Our way of marketing was to come up with ideas that would shake up the market. We called it gorilla marketing,” Jones said. “We were getting ready for the AFTMA show in 1988 and trying to think of something that would get people’s attention.
“Al’s idea was to make a replica of a diver’s weight out of plastic, paint them the right color and sell them as the Kalin’s World Record Kit. I designed the packaging and had fun with the words on the package, I think I came up with something like ‘Cram it and Slam It,’ and we sold it on a bubble-wrapped card. If you saw the thing, you’d swear it was a diver’s weight. It got the attention of a lot of people, that’s for sure.”
The following year, Jones had another epiphany.
Big League Bass Trading Cards
Back in the late 1980s, interest in baseball trading cards was at one of its all-time peaks. You couldn’t swing a Louisville Slugger anywhere in the nation without hitting a trading card store. Jones had spent years as a reporter at bass tournaments and sport shows and had seen the pros get mauled by fans for their autographs. Every time it was always the same thing. The pros had nothing to sign.
“I have always tried to be the type of person to think of the next coming fad,” Jones said. “With the trading cards, it was no different. I saw the world going crazy over baseball cards and the bass pros standing around the shows with nothing to sign for their fans. Putting bass pros faces on trading cards just seemed natural.
“I went and told Al, told him there was nothing promoting bass fishing and the anglers, this was a natural fit. Al said ‘okay, I’ll finance it.’”
“I made it clear that he couldn’t promote Kalin’s since all these pro anglers had sponsors. He fully understood the program. That was one thing about Al, he knew the business.”
Kalin financed the project and let Jones run with the concept.
“I was really worried about someone else hearing about the project or coming out with the same product before we did,” Jones said. “We kept it under wraps as best as we could.
“At the time, I was in contact with all the anglers due to covering the Bassmaster events or seeing other anglers at sport shows and such. Every angler I contacted about the project said yes. They knew this was about them and promoting their careers.
“All I needed was headshots of anglers and I would collect those at the events I’d see them at. In some cases, like Greg Hines, Johnny Morris, and Bill Dance, they ended up sending me pictures – sometimes not bass related.
“The deal with the anglers was I’d give them 1,500 cards for their own use, and I think I gave them something like $100. In all, I had about $5,000 wrapped up into that first year. That was a lot of money back then for a project like this.”
The next issue was finding a company to print the cards.
“I found a printer that was printing large cartons and other things like that on baseball card stock,” he said. “We couldn’t afford a full setup, so the printer agreed to give me the edge of the cardboard that didn’t have what he was currently printing at the time. So, imagine this printer printing some detergent box in the middle and on the edge were the bass trading cards. It saved us a lot of money.”
As with anything Jones did, he held himself to a high standard. These cards were no different.
“I wanted the cards to be as good or better than baseball cards,” he said. “I’m really anal about everything I do, and I wanted these cards to be as detailed as I could get them.”
The cards all had a picture of the angler on the front and the back had a complete bio of them. The bios included their personal information like birthday, their recent tournament highlights, their career highlights, and a list of their sponsors.
Big League Resistance
Jones wanted to get the cards out for the 1990 season and with the cards nearly completed, he had one more person to get a picture from – that of B.A.S.S. founder, Ray Scott. Jones didn’t have Scott’s home number, so he called Bassmaster headquarters to get it.
“I didn’t have Ray’s number, so I called Dave Precht and told him what I was doing,” Jones said. “Dave said I needed to talk with Helen (Sevier).
“Up to this point I hadn’t talked to B.A.S.S. about the project, not because I was trying to keep it from them, I was trying to keep it from other card companies. Heck, I wanted to put the BASS logo on them too.
“Let’s just say it was a one-sided, bare-to-the-bones conversation for about 15 minutes if that. In essence it was don’t do it, we were thinking of doing it.
“I told Helen I couldn’t stop with the project. I was almost done and after getting Ray’s info, I will be done. But if I can’t get Ray’s info, then I’m done now. I’d invested all this money; I have to go forward with it.
“At that point, I was no longer a Bassmaster senior writer,” Jones continued. “I ended up going back to work with Al for about 2 years, while I was on hiatus from Bassmaster, but the beauty of it was I made an impact on the fishermen at the time. I took the sword for them. Guys like Guido Hibdon were awesome. They couldn’t do much, but they weren’t afraid to say something.”
Jones and his cards debuted in 1990 and were a big hit with the pro anglers and the fans.
Bigger League Resistance
Shortly after Jones released the cards in 1990, he received a call from an unexpected caller.
“Later in the year, after things were rolling, I got a call from a guy named Jim Bouton, a former player for the New York Yankees,” Jones said. “I answered the phone, this was back before cell phones and caller ID . I picked the phone up and said hello. The caller said he was Jim Bouton. I said, ‘okay wow. What can I do for you.’ Bouton then said, ‘I saw your bass fishing cards and you need to stop using that name, Big League Bass Trading Cards.’
At this point in time Bouton was representing Big League Chew bubble gum.
“I asked if he had the name trademarked, and how could he have it trademarked for Bass Fishing Cards. He was selling chewing gum that mimicked chewing tobacco. I didn’t see a problem. He essentially told me he would sue if I didn’t stop using the name.
“I contacted my attorney friends, and they told me that he could sue, and it would end up costing me a lot of money. So, I changed the name and went with Pro League Bass Trading Cards, but not after telling Jim Bouton what I thought of him.
“That’s why you saw the name change from Big League Bass Trading Cards to Pro League Bass Trading Cards after 1990.”
Jones even included the women anglers of bass fishing, at a time when not much attention was given to them.
“After the first year’s cards came out, Al and I went to Missouri to support one of the Bass’n Gal events,” Jones said. “That’s where it happened. I went with the women because I’m a child of the sixties. And I knew Sugar Farris and Bass’n Gals. If you knew her, she was kind of a Ray Scott type person – larger than life. Again, it was the rockin’ 80s and 90s of bass fishing. The biggest time the sport has ever seen.”
The cards went on for three years total. The second set covered 1991 and the third set covered the 1992/93 season. There were also several special commemorative cards as well as special edition cards that went into production on a limited basis.
“We had a lot of fun with it,” Jones said. “We even came up with wax packs like you’d find with baseball cards, only ours didn’t have gum in them. I designed a display for the wax packs, and we put them in the tackle stores to sell. Not many people know about those wax packs.
Three Good Years
Big League Bass Trading Cards only lasted for three years. In that time, it brought anglers closer to their fans and helped the anglers promote themselves in a much better way. Unfortunately, it came to an end in 1993.
“We stopped making the cards for a number of reasons,” Jones said. “It got harder to deal with changing sponsors from one year to another. I’d been with Al a long time and it was a huge effort to update, sell, and distribute the cards. Plus the whole card thing in general was on its way out by 1994. It’d run its course. The nail in the coffin, though, was the economy. There just wasn’t the buying power there had been a few years earlier. We looked at each other and just decided to stop.”
Jones looks back on this time with a lot of great memories. He started a movement within the industry and it’s become his calling card, so to speak, within the industry.
“I’ve written a number of books and published I don’t know how many articles over the years, but if this becomes the one thing I get to hang my hat on, it’s okay with me,” he said. “It was the Wheaties box for the anglers of the early 90s. What more could you ask for?
“In the last decade or so, I see Kevin VanDam about once every two years, Jones said. “Every time I see him the cards are the first thing he brings up. He still gets asked by fans to sign their cards. I told Kevin at this past ICAST (2022) that I wished we still had them. You were never going to get rich off them but just imagine if they continued and we still had them.
Pro League Bass Trading Cards 2.0?
Jones isn’t ready or willing to start down this path again anytime soon. But he’s not against someone else picking up the reins and moving forward.
“Even while my cards were out, other companies came out with their own team cards,” Jones said. “It was always my intent to have other companies come out with them because it draws more attention to collecting them. I never thought this would be a money-making deal. But I thought it would be a nice little addendum for Al and Kalin.
“Just imagine what you could do with the idea today with all the new anglers,” he said. “You have high school, college, and Kayak leagues. Wouldn’t it be cool to give the winner of the college championship their own card? Or have a Super Rookie card? There’s just so much you could do with the idea these days.
“If someone out there reads this and they’d like to start down this path, please get a hold of me. I’ll tell you exactly how to do it. If you don’t want my help, go on and know you have my blessing. We didn’t do it for the money, we did it to promote the sport.”
For those of you out there that collect bass fishing memorabilia, you should really check into these cards and add them to your collection. You can still find them on the online auction houses for a reasonable price.
Also, if you’re a book worm, Michael wrote several books about bass fishing that include The Complete Guide to Finesse Bass Fishing and Big Bass Zone. I’d like to thank Michael for spending time with me on this article and for all he did to promote bass fishing through the years.
Below you’ll find a gallery of the full set of boxed cards from 1990 as well as a few other special edition cards from the same year. There is another gallery that features some of the cards put out by other organizations as well as companies in the industry. I will be putting together another gallery soon with the 1991 and 1992/93 Editions shortly.
Gallery 1990 Big League Bass Trading Cards
Gallery of Miscellaneous Trading Cards from other Companies
What a strange, fun thing these trading cards were. And what a cool bit of memorabilia for any retro bass angler’s collection.
Yes David, they’re a fun piece of history. I started collecting them when they first came out and since then, I’ll buy a box from time to time. I wish I’d had the anglers sign them over the years. I may start doing that but it’ll be hard to get a full set signed due to many of them already passing.