INTRODUCTION TO THE SET
True Value Hardware stores as a brand grew out of a Chicago-based retailer called Cotter & Company. It is a hardware cooperative, which means that the hardware stores with the name "True Value" are independently owned businesses. Cooperatives like these band together to create a brand, to enjoy economies of scale in purchasing from wholesalers and distributors, and to engage in marketing.
Cooperatives are not franchises, and the differences between the two are stark. Cooperatives are run by their members, which create a voting structure to make decisions on important business issues facing members such as marketing expenses and promotions. On the other hand, a franchise operation is centrally controlled. Very large franchisees may have the ability to shape overall franchise decisions, but generally, the franchisor makes all decisions on what gets sold when, for how much, and how much money will get paid back to the franchisor for the effort expended in marketing.
So, True Value. While Cotter started his company in 1948 as a hardware cooperative, the True Value trademark and brand started even earlier in time in 1932. It was owned by a company called Hibbard, Spencer & Bartlett, and Cotter bought that company in 1963. Wikipedia notes that the True Value trademark was sold at a value of $2500 in that transaction.
As time passed, True Value had to grow, expand, and differentiate itself from the big-box stores that emerged as their main competition -- Home Depot and Lowe's in particular on a national scale. Thus, True Value merged with Servistar Hardware (which had previously purchased Coast to Coast Hardware) in 1997. Accounting irregularities emerged in a 1999 post-merger audit, causing a number of hardware stores to leave True Value to join other cooperatives under the names "Do It Best Hardware" and "Ace Hardware."
These days, True Value is still a viable international cooperative with stores in 60 countries around the world and 400 different locations including Jamaica, Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, Honduras, American Samoa, and Thailand.
The cards came in panels which could be separated out into individual cards.
This set was issued in a total of ten panels of three cards each that included the sweepstakes card as the fourth card in the panel. According to the 2011 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, the cards were given out with a $5 or more purchase to customers at True Value hardware stores.
By 1986, these unlicensed Michael Schechter Associates cards seemed almost ubiquitous. I'm guessing, too, that MSA got a deal on the photos it used where it could use the same photos for each of the players as many times and in as many different sets as it desired. The same Robin Yount photo, for example, appears in multiple sets across a few years (such as the 1986 Jays Potato Chip Discs, the 1986 Dorman's Cheese set, and the 1987 Kraft Home Plate Heroes set to name 3).
Designwise, this is a car-crash set. The photos are all head shots, and the head shots are barely over a quarter of the card. The design is busy with all the stars and bats and balls and MLBPA logos and True Value logos everywhere on front and back. The stats are incomplete -- only the five most recent seasons get shown -- and even the vital information of the player's birthdate appears as a random number set just hanging out below the player's name.
The checklist itself of 30 cards is not a bad one. The stars of the day are mostly there -- Brett, Ozzie Smith, Ripken, etc. -- but there are some strange inclusions and notable omissions. For example, the Oakland A's get Dwayne Murphy, but the big name in 1986 in Oakland was, of course, Jose Canseco. The Padres are represented by Steve Garvey, but Tony Gwynn was already a certified superstar by 1986 -- twice an All-Star in the most recent two seasons and a third-place finish in the MVP voting in 1984. I'm not saying that Garvey should have been left out, necessarily, but Gwynn not being in the set is weird. Finally, the thirty cards in the set represent players from 23 of the 26 teams in MLB at the time -- the Giants, Indians, and Rangers were all left out.
HALL OF FAMERS
Fully half the set are in the Hall of Fame: Eddie Murray, Jim Rice, Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson, Ryne Sandberg, Bruce Sutter, Gary Carter, George Brett, Cal Ripken Jr., Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Andre Dawson, and Wade Boggs
Trading Card Database does not list any errors or variations in the set.
However, on eBay, there appears to be a Don Mattingly variation of sorts available for a scandalously ridiculous price of $108. It might be a test print, in that it has a different number and different back entirely from the version above and the photo is cropped differently. I do not know if there are other players with this test print/variation available.
This is an ugly set. Its design is terrible with all the random stars all over the place and with corporate branding taking precedence over quality baseball cards. The photos are too small, and the unlicensed nature of the cards makes all that worse.
Yet, I have strong positive memories of it.
You see, I got the panels in my collection of this set because I would accompany my grandfather to the local True Value hardware store when he went to pick up some supplies to work in his workshop on his lawn mower or his rototiller. I remember the hardwood floors in the store -- they seemed sloped in one direction or another. I remember the small sporting good section too, as I would always pick up a baseball bat and try to swing once or twice without destroying anything.
During that same year of 1986, my grandmother passed away. My grandfather was lost without her -- they had been married for over 50 years, after all -- and so he spent a fair amount of time puttering around in his workshop. He would let me help him with little things here and there -- sometimes with cutting or sanding wood, other times with cutting the lawn. But I could always tell he was trying to keep himself occupied and not thinking about his loss. That led to a lot of trips to the hardware store.
If you like this set, you can find a complete set in the panel form reasonably inexpensively on eBay. For instance, here is one that is available for $7.45 shipped. As with most of the sets from the mid-1980s, there are ample opportunities to pick up individual cards for a type-collection or player collection as well.