First Fan: Remembering James Gandolfini’s Place in Landmark “Fans of the Game” Set

June 20, 2013

Gandolfini Base

Little-known fact: The first celebrity signed to appear in the decade-old trailblazer of a trading card set known as “Fans of the Game” was James Gandolfini. His presence alone — during the height of “Sopranos” mania — gave the entire concept of paying tribute to celebrity sports fans in traditional sports trading card products instant credibility and unrivaled star power.

Other Hollywood headliners followed suit on various Fans of the Game checklists (including John Travolta, Val Kilmer, Chris O’Donnell, Dennis Haysbert, Charlie Sheen, Regis Philbin, Alyssa Milano and so many more), but none had as much significance as Gandolfini. The brilliant actor’s death yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 51 impacted millions of fans, including a few inside Panini America headquarters.

Panini America’s Ben Ecklar and Scott Prusha were with Donruss Trading Cards back in 2004 and were instrumental in both developing the Fans of the Game concept and reaching autograph agreements with many of its subjects, beginning with Gandolfini, a passionate New York Yankees fan. But landing a leading man of Gandolfini’s stature at the height of his popularity for a baseball-card deal seemed like mission impossible at the time.

“We knew we needed a huge Hollywood superstar to build Fans of the Game around and we set our sights early on Gandolfini because he was arguably the biggest name possible at the time,” Prusha said. “But no one — and I mean no one — gave us a chance at getting an autograph deal with him; they said it couldn’t be done. But we did it. The rest is baseball card history.”

A few months later, Gandolfini’s Fans of the Game base card and scarcer Fans of the Game autograph card — still the actor’s only trading cards — were making their celebrated debut inside 2004 Donruss Elite Baseball and commanding big bucks on the secondary market.

So important were Gandolfini’s first trading cards that Donruss officials created special preview versions — signed and unsigned — to present to industry VIPs during the 2004 Industry Summit. They also helped the company spawn an entirely new product line.

“The success of Fans of the Game in general, and the Gandolfini cards in particular, proved that trading cards of celebrities and entertainers could work,” Ecklar said. “In 2007, we launched the Americana product line.”

Although best known for playing mob boss Tony Soprano on the hit HBO series “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini is regarded by most folks inside Panini America as the bona fide Fans of the Game godfather. And that won’t change any time soon. A poster-sized blowup of Gandolfini’s seminal Fans of the Game card still hangs proudly in the main hallway of the corporate office, a larger-than-life reminder of the larger-than-life superstar’s timeless presence.

Panini America Gandolfini Hall