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August 2007: Interview with Steve Kozel

Information on the 1981 WTF trading cards of the Rochester Red Wings was difficult to come across until the week of July 22, 2007. That week, an online auction featured one of the 50 uncut sheets of the 1981 WTF Rochester set. In addition to the uncut sheet, a letter of authenticity was included from Steve Kozel. Considering we had never heard the name of the person who produced the set, this letter of authenticity provided an incredible lead. E-mails were sent in hopes of locating the producer of the third toughest Ripken minor league issue to find. Before the week, Steve had not only been located, but agreed to do an interview with RITM. We thank Steve not only for producing this legendary set, but for taking the time to answer our questions. To take a look at the 1981 WTF cards and the 1981 WTF uncut sheet, visit the following galleries:

RITM: What led you to produce the WTF cards?

Stephen Kozel: I hated the TCMA cards from 1980. No stats and produced by someone that did not love them as I did. I made a call on the spur of the moment and got the rights to produce the cards with one meeting with their Co General Manager Bill Terlecky.

RITM: Rumors about the name WTF can finally be laid to rest. Was WTF the initials for a friend or a slang expression? Did the Wings ask for an explanation about WTF?

Stephen Kozel: They stand for "What The ****". I could not tell the Red Wings that so I told them it was for a dead friend, Walter T. Franklin. WTF goes back to when I attended high school and this was the mid-1970s. We would go to bars and we did not want any hassles, so about 15 or 20 of us got jackets made up that stated WTF KARATE CLUB on the back with our nick names on the front. No one ever bothered us as long as we wore those and traveled in a pack. I was a young wise guy kid and it made me and my friends laugh to see WTF Company on the back of the cards.

RITM: In regards to the name you mentioned that WTF stood for, I presume that was a real person and not just a made up name?

Stephen Kozel: No it was a made up name. I could not tell the Red Wings (and they did ask) what WTF really stood for, so on the spot I came up with a deceased friend named Walter T. Franklin. I am not so proud of it now but as I explained, using WTF went back to high school. I am not the only member of our crowd who used it. If you are from Rochester and remember the late 1970's you will remember my friend's 50% off sales he organized then and held in the War Memorial. All his friends were hired as security and we wore t-shirts that again read WTF Karate Club. It was an ongoing joke among 15 or 20 guys I went to school with. 

RITM: What was the cost to produce the card sets and how much did the sets sell for?

Stephen Kozel: I paid 79 cents per pack to print them. They sold for 3.95 a set or three for ten dollars. I sold them and the Red Wings sold them at the stadium.

RITM: How many sets were produced and how many sheets of the cards were left uncut?

Stephen Kozel: 1800 sets (I found the receipt from the printers a while back). I left 50 sheets uncut and gave most of them to my softball buddies after a game in ‘81. I had no sheets left for myself when an old friend called me and said he had bought my mothers’ house and found 6 uncut sheets in the basement. On a side note that friend of mine, Tony Glassman, played in the Mets and Padres chain. I was thrilled to have them again. 

RITM: How were the cards distributed?

Stephen Kozel: I made up flyers and had them around town and the Red Wings sold them at the stadium. I had a lot of great publicity through the paper and local news cast. One guy, I think his name was John Clemens, did so much for me I gave him the proof of several cards including Cal Ripken. With no advertising I sold sets to people in over 30 states and it paid for my last year in college.

RITM: Did you keep any of the sets and/or sheets?

Stephen Kozel: As stated above I have a few uncut sheets and perhaps four or five sets. The rest were sold.

RITM: The initial set contained 25 cards but in a recent e-mail you explained that nobody has a complete set of WTF cards unless they have a variation of the Doc Edwards card that is different from card #5 in the set. Can you explain the additional card of Edwards?

Stephen Kozel: That is what the Wings asked me for in order to get the permission to print the set. I provided them with 3,000 special Doc Edwards cards for a Eastman Kodak Underprivileged Kids Day at the ballpark where they would get to learn how to play from the players. The front was the same. The back had a KODAK logo and a quote from Edwards. Well, it was attributed to him, but Terlecky and I came up with the quote as Edwards did not want to be bothered. The quote was: "The way you practice is the way you play; in baseball and in life." I think it rained and as far as I know none were ever handed out. I have about 100 of them some place but have not seen them in years. Kodak was very upset that I used their logo and it was the first time they ever had their logo on a sports card. Years later I was a consultant and dealer for their Dynamic Imaging division and produced a lenticular card featuring Mickey Mantle hitting his 500th home run. We sold 13,000 in the first 8 minutes on the Home Shopping Network. This was the first time Kodak had ever directly licensed an athlete. They had no idea, of course, about my cards in 1981.

RITM: Some of the rumors about the cards stated that the producer of the cards went on to assist Team USA years after doing the WTF set. Where did your life take you?

Stephen Kozel: I am about as lucky as a guy gets I got to travel as a publicist for USA Baseball and the first team I ever traveled with was the 1988 Junior National Team (17-18). Some of the guys on that team were Ryan Klesko, Tyler Green, Mike Matheny, Paul Byrd, Charles Johnson, Brent Gates, and several other guys who ended up in the big leagues. In 1990 I spearheaded their baseball card negotiations and it resulted in the richest licensing deal for collectibles in the history of amateur sports. I also printed a card set for USA Baseball that featured Frank Thomas under the BDK Company (that IS the initials of my deceased brother, Barry David Kozel). I had a sports marketing firm for many years and worked an Olympics and did the event management for a national broadcast sponsor for the 1995 Ryder Cup. I sold millions of Kodamotion cards for Kodak in the mid 1990s as well. I designed collectible giveaway programs for two fortune 500 companies and launched a collectibles company with the firm that designed Yankee Stadium and dozens of other great stadiums. In the late 1990s, inventors started coming to me to market their products and now I represent several products and have had several infomercials on national television. Most people remember my product Scratch Be Gone which was invented in Rochester. I still keep my hand in sports. In 2003 I did a promotion with the Florida Marlins where PSA was there to give free appraisals and I had five million dollars in cards and memorabilia for the fans to see including THE Wagner which just sold. We filmed a pilot for a television show that we are just getting to sell now, "The Sports Memorabilia road Swing". I am forgetting much of what I have done. I have had a great run.

RITM: Can you explain the process of how you received permission from the Wings to produce the set and the production process (photography, etc.)?

Stephen Kozel: I made a phone call, met with Bill Terlecky, and promised to give them the Edwards cards for their promotion. The whole thing took about half an hour.

RITM: You are probably aware of the grading scene with companies such as PSA, BGS, and SGC. Counterfeit copies of the Ripken WTF have been slabbed as authentic by PSA. As the producer of the cards, what steps do you feel should be taken by PSA to correct their error?

Stephen Kozel: I know the President of PSA and he is a great guy who will always do the right thing if given the chance. He is as honest as the day is long. I believe he will do whatever is right; he is that good of a person. I have to believe that a publicly traded company like PSA would want to avoid any negative story like this one and bend over backwards to correct the problem.

RITM: In our messages, you mentioned watching the PSA 10 sell online and felt that the card was a fake. What were the warning signs that tipped you? Did you try to get the auction pulled?

Stephen Kozel: It looked too good. Remember I used shrink wrap on every set. Ripken was the first card in the pack. No way any 10s are going to come from those. The set was printed at a little place with old equipment. By the time someone made me aware of it the auction was over. I never found out who won it. It blows my mind that someone counterfeited my set.

RITM: Rumors have circulated about your cards for years. What are some of the most bizarre rumors that you have heard about the set?

Stephen Kozel: That I reprinted the set. I was interviewed years ago by Beckett about this. They were never reprinted by me.

I have been amazed that no one comments on the pictures used in the set. The Wings got me pictures at the last minute and several were wrong. Look at the Silver Stadium card. The knucklehead at the Wings office actually gave me a picture of Busch Stadium in St. Louis and that is Ken Boyer batting. So I cut off the upper deck and the name on the uniform and you have Silver Stadium. I bet if you look closely now you will spot the wrong pictures. Only one person ever spotted the wrong stadium on the card since 1981 without me telling them.

RITM: After reading your comments about the rumor that the WTF sets were duplicated I vaguely remembered hearing that rumor once upon a time. Hopefully it's not ripping an old wound, but I wanted to ask a little more about that. 

Stephen Kozel: Beckett asked me if I knew if the set was reprinted and had I given permission to reprint the set as they had heard from collectors that it had been reprinted by someone. I told them I never had and I knew of no one who had reprinted it. I may have not put it in the proper words before. No one has ever accused me of reprinting the set. Beckett knew me from several other ventures back then and contacted me to eliminate the idea I reprinted the set and to see if I had heard someone did. I had only one print run as I stated before. Any counterfeits or reprints out there are entirely without my knowledge or consent. I believe what collectors were pointing out to Beckett was the first counterfeits out there. No one knows, as far as I can tell, who counterfeited my set or when they did it. I wish I could remember when this happened but I can not. 

RITM: What is it like to have such a unique place in trading card history, especially as Cal is inducted in the Hall of Fame this weekend?

Stephen Kozel: I like the fact that unless the planet blows up someone will always covet something I produced. I get the same feeling when I look at the dozens of sports products I got into the marketplace. It is a touch of immortality. As long as people love baseball cards my set will be remembered and so will I. I believe I have changed the industry multiple times. I got Topps to pay USA Baseball 57 times what the paid two years before and that became a key funding element for USA Baseball. I am very proud of that.

RITM: In your guestbook entry you seemed genuinely surprised to find the site. What was your immediate reaction when you saw the site and what are your impressions after looking through it?

Stephen Kozel: My first impression was how did anybody get all that information on such obscure sets. I really enjoyed reading the research you did and it brought back great memories.

RITM: Information on this set has been nearly impossible to locate, even with extensive research. Have you received any interview requests over the years? How fulfilling is it to have this opportunity for this information to go public

Stephen Kozel: I have done dozens over the years, the local papers several times, Beckett Minor League, Tuff Stuff, and many others. There is a great history of Red Wings cards written by Pete Dobervitch in the 1989 Red Wings yearbook. I can not remember most of the people that have asked over the years.