A Brief Stroll Through Baseball History Via Kenner's Starting Lineups
In the late 1980's two of the favorite pastimes of young boys - action figures and sports - combined to create a new obsession for me. Kenner's Starting Lineups gave me the ability to play out baseball scenarios at home without having to turn G.I. Joe into some kind of awkward, gun-toting center fielder. By the late 1990's the figures mostly died in popularity, but I never ditched the decent collection I amassed as a kid.
Then something magical happened early on during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the midst of getting increasingly stir crazy, my 2-year old son discovered my old Starting Lineup collection - along with a few "new ones" that I've been able to find in recent years on Amazon - and became as obsessed as I was when they were first produced. He endearingly calls them "hatball guys" and we play with them often. I'm also rapidly acquiring more "new" figures to expand our collection.
Below is a peek at select few with a focus on New York Yankees, sorted chronologically to show the varying degrees of quality and detail of these figures over time. I hope you enjoy them even a fraction as much as we do.
Starting us off with a curveball here, but when these first came out I was living just a few miles from Shea Stadium, so the Mets were naturally a part of my life. However, Darryl Strawberry did have some success with the Yankees so I feel compelled to include him.
The action pose here is pretty neat. In your mind you can almost picture the ball flying into the parking lot behind Shea's right field, a spot that Strawberry hit balls to with some regularity. The uniform is close, but no cigar. There's no earflap on the helmet, and this version of the Mets' road uniforms included orange stripes on either side of the blue piping shown here. Still, representing this Mets uniform set is notable as they only wore that style script on their road jersey for a single season in 1987.
As far as Strawberry's face, it looks close enough. There's probably a half dozen or so major leaguers of the era that this could also pass for, but it works for Darryl.
It's fitting that baseball's all-time stolen base leader is captured stealing a base in his Starting Lineup. Rickey Henderson looks sharp doing it too, even if his face is basically a carbon copy of the Strawberry figure above.
They pretty much nailed the Yankee road uniform here. Gray sanitaries instead of white and navy blue cleats instead of black are minor quibbles. In fact, those navy cleats look even better than what Rickey would normally have worn. This was one of the cooler poses that were available in the early days of Starting Lineups, almost as cool as Rickey himself.
Speaking of cool, this one does a great job of capturing what made Don Mattingly one of the most quietly cool players of the 1980's. The eye black, the mustache, the smooth lefty swing, they even nailed his face. This figure screams "Donnie Baseball".
Yet, there are some glaring weaknesses here. The conspicuous lack of pinstripes on the Yankees home uniform is unfortunately a shortcoming the Kenner never figured out. There's also the missing earflap on the helmet and while you can't tell from the photo, it's virtually impossible to keep him standing up on a flat surface. Since Mattingly was one of my biggest heroes growing up, none of this kept me from playing with it, as evidenced by the wear and tear on the helmet.
In the early days of Starting Lineups some of the best figures they made were of legends from the past. With the long face, bushy eyebrows, and trademark swing, this one is undeniably Joe DiMaggio. The accurate stirrup style for the era is a nice touch and the dust I neglected to clean off the hat almost makes it look like one of the flapless, flocked helmets that the Yankees started wearing in the early 1950's. DiMaggio was no longer playing by the time they became popular though.
This one gives us the first visual evidence of a glaring eyesore found on all of the early Yankee Starting Lineups. The name on the back of his jersey makes it look like this DiMaggio forgot his real jersey and bought an overpriced knock-off on River Ave before the game. Not a good look.
Another eyesore on the jersey aside, here's a pretty solid effort for Mickey Mantle. The face is recognizable, the helmet and stirrups indicate this would be later in his career, and the swing is all arms, just like The Mick.
Oddly enough, the cleats are navy blue, even though this came as a pair with DiMaggio where they got the cleat color right. Two other nitpicks: Mickey's got the broad shoulders of a super hero here, which wasn't the case in real life, and that bat looks more like a shillelagh than something that would be used for baseball.
Here's Seamus showing off one of his favorite hatball guys. The bite marks are courtesy my childhood dog, Mickey, who did more than his fair share of damage to my Starting Lineups (I eventually forgave him for destroying Willie Randolph, eventually). In another awesome stolen base pose, check out those sweet batting gloves!
This is supposed to be the likeness of a solid player who was a two-time All-Star during an utterly forgettable era of Yankee baseball. Unfortunately he looks more like Steve Martin than Steve Sax. Seamus doesn't seem to mind at all.
I know what you must be thinking: "Marlon Brando played a Yankee in blackface? That's awful!" No, that would be ridiculous, what you're actually thinking is: "I don't remember Forest Whitaker putting on a baseball uniform in Bloodsport, but I guess it happened."
Well, neither of those things happened. This is actually supposed to be Danny Tartabull, who looks nothing like the figure. Further confounding things is the curious choice in pose. Apparently they were looking to capture the magic of a checked swing. When I found this one recently on Amazon it was too odd to pass up. It instantly became one of the strangest Starting Lineups I own.
At 6-foot-3 and over 200 lbs. with dark hair and a square jaw, Kevin Maas could have easily made a career as a hired Superman for kids' birthday parties. So it should be no surprise that his figure looks like Clark Kent if he played baseball rather than wrote for the Daily Planet.
The usual shortcomings we've seen with the Yankee uniform are all here, but that follow-through on a smooth, left-handed swing makes it a little more palatable. Maas is notorious for having a phenomenal half-season in 1990 as a rookie and doing nothing else for the rest of his career. Amazing that he still got his very own Starting Lineup in 1992. Even more amazing is that he's wearing 14 in the figure - a number he wore for only a brief period in 1991 - instead of his usual 24.
There's something about running the bases that brought out the best in Starting Lineups. Like the Henderson and Sax figures, this one really brings the action to life. With every limb of his body in motion, Roberto Kelly looks like he's about to round third for a play at the plate.
A center fielder with great speed and decent power, Kelly was one of the few legitimate stars for the Yankees in the dark years of the early 90's. While he didn't get the Tartabull treatment here, to say this looks like him would be a stretch. The Yankees wisely traded Kelly for Paul O'Neill right before his career fell off a cliff around the time this figure was released.
As noted for DiMaggio above, the figures representing baseball legends were of the highest quality and this one is no exception. Right away you can see that two glaring errors have been addressed. The cleats are finally black for the road uniform, and more importantly, there's no name on the back.
The lefty delivery, gold locks, and baby face make make this one a dead ringer for Whitey Ford. The cherry on top is the improvement in the size and font of the jersey number to more accurately reflect the uniform of that era. Simply put, this is probably the sharpest Starting Lineup I own.
By the late 1990's two major wrongs were righted in the regular crop of figures for contemporary stars. Here we have our first earflap sighting on a helmet and finally there is no name on the back of the jersey of a modern-day Yankee. The glaring lack of pinstripes notwithstanding, I'll count it as progress.
The face on this figure bears a striking resemblance to Matty Alou, which is interesting because it's supposed to be Bernie Williams. Still, it's fun to see that it looks like he just put a serious hurting on the ball, something he was doing with regularity at this time. And check out those batting gloves, the only pair on a player who's actually swinging a bat in this set of photos.
Alright, a right-hander with a smooth delivery, moderate sideburns, a solid black glove, and wearing number 35. It's gotta be Mike Mussina, right? Wrong. This is none other than Hideki Irabu, whose likeness here was far more generous to him than George Steinbrenner was.
Like the Williams figure above, this one serves as proof that the quality of Starting Lineups improved over time. Yet they still didn't make the wisest choices on who to feature. Irabu had to have been chosen solely on the hype behind his arrival in 1997 and not anything he did on the field. He had one solid season as a Yankee, but over his brief career he posted a 5.15 ERA and a losing record in the major leagues. Maybe the folks at Kenner were just big Seinfeld fans.