Were you a sports fan back in the 1980s and ’90s? Were you glued to the TV watching Bill Buckner’s Blunder, or jumping to your feet as Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history after defeating Trevor Berbick? Did you spend your weekends on the neighbourhood blacktop, smiling smugly every time your half-court Hail Mary sank with a satisfying swish? If so, chances are very good that you had some Starting Lineup figures on your shelf.
This highly collectible line was first conceived by former Cincinnati Bengals punter, Pat McInally, following a trip to the toy store in 1986. While scouring the shelves, McInally noticed that there were no figures depicting the professional athletes of the day — people whom he felt were just as recognizable to children as Cobra Commander or Optimus Prime.
Looking to rectify this, he met with Bruce Stein, the senior vice president of marketing at Kenner. The pair sat down to discuss McInally’s concept and the rest, as they say, is history.
Starting Lineup debuted in 1988 with a 124-piece Major League Baseball set, a 137-piece NFL set, and an 85-piece NBA set. Each team included within these different assortments featured at least 4 different players. The Canadian teams based out of Toronto and Montreal, however, would get only one player each, as Kenner was unsure of how the line would appeal to Canadian consumers.
The majority of the 4-inch static figures were released on blister cards with a suggested retail price of $3.99 USD. Additionally, they were distributed to stores by geographical region, making it a challenge for completists to find the players from out-of-market teams.
Despite this, collectors and fans just couldn’t get enough. The line was a bona fide hit!
As such, in 1989, Kenner expanded the Starting Lineup assortment with a hockey sub-line and a number of specialty products available through several promotions. These included the AFC and NFC helmet sets, a selection of multi-pack baseball team sets, the One-On-One action sequence assortment, and the popular Headliner series. That same year would also see the release of the popular mail-away NBA Slam Dunk series, which featured such notable players as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan dunking on a small basketball hoop. Each of these 6 initial figures also came complete with a miniature backboard and hardwood floor.
Heading into the next decade, Starting Lineup found ownership with Hasbro after it purchased Kenner in 1991. Looking to continue the line’s success, the new parent company launched a collector-club newsletter that allowed consumers to purchase a number of exclusive Starting Lineup figures. One such item was the 1995 Nolan Ryan Freeze Frame set. It featured the future hall-of-famer in 4 different team uniforms, while each of the figures in the set was sculpted to depict a different position in Ryan’s windup and delivery of a pitch.
As time passed, the powers-that-be further grew the line to include the larger Stadium Stars baseball set, a 14-inch NBA sub line, and even a series of doll-like 12-inch figures beginning in 1997. Boxing figures were also released and featured such popular fighters as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Rocky Marciano. Starting Lineup founder Pat McInally, gymnast Mary Lou Retton, and Brazilian soccer sensation Pelé would also be included before the line ended at the start of the new millennium.
In 2001, after more than 10 years on the market and an estimated $700-Million USD in total sales, Hasbro decided to discontinue Starting Lineup.
However, in the years that followed, collectors would once again find renewed interest in the atom-sized athletes. Turning to toy shows and the all-powerful Internet, these dedicated and passionate people would stop at nothing to procure classic examples of the original figures – driving up their value and making them some of the most coveted sports-based collectibles of the modern age. As such, the line would eventually return in the late 2010s. This time around, however, the figures were released as promotional items at various sporting events across the United States.
Since then, the Starting Lineup figures have continued to find new life on the secondary market. Nowadays, loose examples in the 4-inch range can be had for just a few dollars, while carded figures from the 1990s can be yours for as little as $10 USD. At the same time, carded examples representing such athletes as Dean Palmer and Bo Jackson will set you back close to $30 USD, while all-stars like Michael Jordan are sitting pretty at close to $70 USD.
The rarest Starting Lineup piece is said to be 1988’s Karl Malone. Produced in a much smaller number than most, its estimated worth is well over $1,000 USD on card. Analysts predict that this number is only going to increase thanks to the recent Starting Lineup relaunch announcement from Hasbro earlier this year!
Hmmm, perhaps Pat McInally really was on to something special when he walked out of that toy store in 1986.