A John Elway Starting Lineup Figure.
A John Elway Starting Lineup Figure.

It was nearly 15 years ago that Pat McInally's stroll through the aisle of a toystore sparked a collecting phenomenon.

It's a story that has become part of the Starting Lineup lore.

McInally, a longtime member of the Cincinnati Bengals, recently had retired and was in the process of selling his condominium in Cincinnati. The buyer turned out to be an executive from Kenner. Soon, McInally was trying to come up with toy ideas for the company.

When his first idea was rejected, McInally decided to visit a toy store for inspiration. He noticed there were many figurines available of the likes of G.I. Joe, but nothing based on real-life heroes.

The idea of producing sports figurines won over Kenner and, about two years later, the first Starting Lineups were released.

The plastic figurines feature athletes from baseball, basketball, football, hockey and even motorsports. Today, these sports figurines have a prominent place in the hobby. Tuff Stuff not only has a price guide section on sports figurines, but a monthly column as well. There are multitudes of Web sites devoted to the figurines and an official Starting Lineup Collector Club.

There are even conventions dedicated to Starting Lineups. Already this year, there has been a Starting Lineup convention in Cincinnati with another scheduled for Sept. 11-12 in Anaheim, Calif., and one set for Nov. 6-7 in New Jersey. At many of these conventions, collectors have the chance to purchase special pieces made specifically for attendees of the show, such as the special John Elway retirement figure made for the Anaheim convention.

Many of the regular issue Starting Lineups can be found cheaply at these conventions while others can be found at toy stores and discount stores around the country. However, a number of scarce figurines carry a hefty price tag.

In Kenner's 1988 basketball set, many players were distributed regionally. The Utah Jazz figures from '88 were produced in smaller numbers, making the set difficult - and expensive - to complete.

According to the September issue of Tuff Stuff, the '88 Karl Malone books for $800, while fellow future Hall of Famer John Stockton is priced at $600. Even lesser-known players such as Mark Eaton and Thurl Bailey go for $300 and $275, respectively. By comparison, the '88 Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, is valued at $125.

However, those prices are for figurines in mint condition. And trying to find a Starting Lineup in mint condition is often as easy as trying to find one of those rare Utah Jazz pieces.

The figures come in packages with a cardboard backing that is easily creased and bent. The plastic bubble that covers the figurine also can be dented easily, potentially decreasing the value.

But one of the challenges of collecting the figurines is finding one in pristine condition. Plus, collectors aren't inundated with different sets as they are with trading cards.

And to think it all started with a walk through a toy store.

Eric Breier is a staff writer for the North County Times in Escondido, Calif. He covers a variety of topics, including a monthly sports memorabilia feature.