In July, Pennsylvanian Joe Curcio is turning 40. While some men on the cusp of such a major age milestone might be spiraling toward a midlife crisis, Curcio seems cool as a cucumber.
That’s because he discovered his own personal Fountain of Youth 25 years ago: Collecting Kenner Starting Lineup statues. And he’s obsessed.
Sure, his Brobdingnagian collection—five or six mint-in-box figures, 1,000 loose figures, and 10 factory-sealed cases—is isolated to his office and basement (i.e. man-cave-approved areas). But its sheer size is no less impressive, a mini army of elegant 3-and-¾-inch display pieces. Although he tells Made Man he could care less how much the collection’s actually worth, he values it between $75,000-$100,000—not a small sum by any stretch of the imagination.
This is what a crapload of loose figures and factory-sealed cases looks like.
He also believes that at one point or another, he’s owned 95 percent of the all the Startling Lineups—or as collectors call them, “SLUs”—ever produced. That includes pro (and in some cases, college) baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer, boxing and NASCAR figures made by the Kenner toy company between 1988 and 2001. (Hasbro currently owns the patents and hasn’t attempted a reboot.) In recent years, too, he’s actually ramped things up considerably. “Ten years ago, it wasn’t even a third of what I have now,” he says proudly.
That’s based largely on two factors: his wife’s blessing to collect and a tremendously flexible work schedule. A self-made man, Curcio skipped college and went straight into the ice cream business. He now owns a pair of successful stores—Mountain Freeze and Goodfellas—which he runs for 12 to 15 hours in the summertime. “I don’t get a day off; I work every holiday,” he notes. But that means he has the entire winter off to concentrate on and build his collection.
From Gretzky and Jordan to Babe and Barry, the collection is stacked with legends.
Now, your first impulse might be to picture a guy like Will Ferrell’s character in Wedding Crashers, who spends his days in big-boy pajamas, yelling for meatloaf; or Steve Carell’s character, Andy, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But Curcio is neither; in fact, he’s a pretty normal guy. “My wife always says to me, ‘You’re not like all these other guys that collect.’” That’s because he doesn’t identify with the dorkocracy. “I enjoy toys: I enjoy the color, the chase, the feel. I’m not like, ‘I have to have Yoda, because I’m a big Yoda fan and Star Wars nerd,’” he says. “That’s not my story. It’s almost like a drug [to me].”
Speaking of healthy addictions, like most kids who grew up in the 1980s, Curcio’s gateway drug was baseball cards. His parents also bought him G.I. Joe figures and Transformers, so he was playing with the toys of the moment, too. Seeing his first SLUs—which included a trading card and an action figure—must’ve been like watching two interests Voltron together. “I bought my first one in a Hills department store in 1990, a Don Mattingly, and I never looked back,” he remembers.
Your collection hasn’t even really begun until you have a mint-condition Jonas Gustavsson.
While most kids who first bought SLUs in ’88, when they first surfaced in toy stores, tore open the boxes and played with them, Curcio was already 15 by the time he discovered them, so he actually left them in their packages. It turned out to be a deft business move; the market for SLUs would soon explode with the rest of the sports collectibles market. Leaving them in their box also meant that Curcio was sitting on a veritable goldmine. One of the few boxed items he still has is a professionally graded 1989 football Bill Fralic figure (see photo below). For reasons unknown, Kenner underproduced the Atlanta Falcons’ toy, and it has steadily commanded insane prices on eBay and at auction ever since. To wit, Curcio sold a pair of them awhile back for $5,000.
Although you’d expect loose items to be way less valuable than boxed ones, that’s not always the case. “I would say probably the most I ever spent on a single figure is $300,” says Curcio, referring to a Kenner prototype he bought. He’s been focusing his energy almost exclusively on hunting down figures that Kenner never intended to release. They come in two types: the aforementioned prototypes, about five of which were ever made (one usually got sent to the player himself); and samples, of which there were maybe 10. “I’ve probably acquired 50-60 percent of my prototypes from a former Kenner employee,” says Curcio, and he’s gotten a load of samples from a person who never revealed his or her source. Samples-wise, he owns a few that were featured in the Kenner’s annual toy catalog—like a 1990 Joe Carter—and some that even “starred” in Kenner’s campy TV commercials.
Wait, they made figures for offensive tackles? Yes, yes they did.
Like most collectors, a few figures have evaded his grasp throughout the years, but he still holds out hope that he might be able to acquire them someday. One is an obscure variation of a 1996 Patrick Roy hockey figure, showing the Montreal Canadiens’ goalie without his trademark beard. Only a few slipped through production and go for a whopping $5,000 each.
But his personal Holy Grail—the one that literally got away—is a rare prototype of a player from his favorite football team. “I had my chance to get it, I couldn’t afford it at the time, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get it again,” laments Curcio. It’s a 1988 Chicago Bears Jim McMahon prototype, featuring the quarterback in a “squatting” pose (i.e. being snapped the ball).
Also included: Soccer-ball-hair Rodman, Troy Aikman (The College Years) and Mickey freakin’ Morandini turning two.
Since then, Curcio’s been so intent on getting one, he’s tracked down the man himself on social media. “I actually contacted Jim McMahon many times through Twitter, and he just won’t respond to me. I wish he would just say, ‘I don’t have it,’” says Curcio. (We promised to tweet at McMahon from our @MadeMan high-horse once the piece publishes.) What would Curcio be willing to pay for the elusive, crouching McMahon? “I would spend between $1,500-$2,000 for it,” he says.
At the end of the day, none of this is about the money for Curcio. “I think as a collector, get involved with what you like; if you’re ever going to buy anything as an investment, you might want to stay away from collectibles,” he says. Driving home his point, he concludes, “To me, it’s priceless because I enjoy it. You can’t put a price on enjoyment … you really can’t.”