I think it’s a mildly unpopular opinion to feel fondness for Hardball. He was from 1988 and everyone knows that the only good figures from that seventh series were Shockwave, Hit & Run and Storm Shadow. And maybe Destro and the Iron Grenadier. And Tiger Force has some cool repaints, and has become de rigueur in the Joe collecting community in recent years. And Night Force is one of the most popular subsets in the whole line, with versions of Crazylegs, Sneak Peek and Psyche-Out that are better than the originals. And Blizzard has kick-ass gear. And Repeater works if you like military realism…
Okay, so can we all just admit that most of the 1988 Joes were good, and simply unite over mutual disdain for Lightfoot?
Getting back to Hardball… I always had a soft spot for him.
Growing up in Fort Smith, NWT, I liked sports. My dad played softball and hockey and those became my main sports, too, keeping me busy in the summer and winter.
Kids in the NWT played slopitch, with a big ball and slow, underhand pitches. In our teen years, the better players graduated to fast pitch, with fast, spinning, underhand pitches. Baseball, with its fast, overhand pitches, was exotic since it was only accessible through watching the Jays, Expos, Cubs or Tigers on TV. (Our cable company picked up American channels from Chicago in the early 80s, before switching to Detroit in the mid 80s.)
By the end of 1987, I wasn’t rushing home to play with toys anymore. Instead, I would go into my parents’ room to watch their little, colour TV with the pull-out knob for power and volume, and a channel dial that we didn’t use anymore, since we changed stations using the VCR remote. On TSN, there was a Motoring show where a British guy would test drive cars, and I’d watch that before catching the baseball highlights on SportsDesk.
Amercia’s pastime was fascinating to me, and I remember summers spent at my grandparents’ house in New Brunswick, buying bags of chips from a brand I didn’t like, just to get the tiny baseball cards they were giving away inside. I would soon graduate to full-size Topps and Donruss cards, before Upper Deck came along.
Hockey was fast but almost felt too contrived, given the amount of equipment players would wear and the artificial ice they played on, whereas baseball was more casual and natural. It felt lazy and heroic at the same time, and the statistics – I’m a math nerd! – were light years ahead of hockey’s.
A few years later, after moving to Yellowknife, all the kids were wearing Oakland A’s hats and jerseys, at least until the Jays won their first World Series. In the summers, kids my age would congregate at our school to play scratch games of baseball. Actual baseball. We went to the junior high because the field was shallow compared to regulation parks, and it felt good to be able to hit the ball out of the park. But we would get beaned by pitchers just as frequently as hitting dingers, since these were baseball games played by teenagers who had always played softball.
I quit hockey when I was 18 years old, after I graduated from high school, because it became too hard to fit it into schedule working in retail and hanging out with friends. But I had quit ball earlier, when I was 15, and as much as I love hockey and follow it and miss playing it, I often think of leaving ball so early as a greater regret.
But did baseball and GI Joe really mix? And is my love of baseball driving me to overrate Hardball? I don’t know.
The connection between sports and GI Joe had long-been established, with Cutter’s baseball cap, Bazooka’s football jersey, Sgt. Slaughter being a professional wrestler, The Fridge being a football player, Red Dog also having some connection to football, Big Boa being a boxer…
Sometimes these connections felt forced. I could see Cutter wearing a baseball cap while piloting the Whale, without too much issue, but Bazooka wearing a red football jersey into combat was a guarantee he’d be sniped. Hardball and his baseball jersey, baseball cap and related backstory probably went too far. But his colours weren’t outlandish for the late 80s. Sure he was less gritty than most of the 88s, but the connection made some sense, given that he was lobbing grenades at Cobras.
One of my favourite comic issues – that came out as I was leaving GI Joe – was GI Joe #80. In it, the Joes are looking to secure an unstable island against Cobra. Two of the biggest, and best, 1988 vehicles are showcased: the Rolling Thunder and Phantom X-19. And a half-dozen Joes are introduced in one of the most exciting self-contained issues. This was my first exposure to Hardball. He was one of the Joes fighting Cobras while the island was shaking and ready to recede back under the water surface.
The comic was a fascinating study in how to introduce new toys through the comic book, possibly the most effective since GI Joe #1. It also felt like an expansion of a similar story in GI Joe #36, when the Joes used the Whale to swat Cobra on a small atoll. But that was so long before that so many fans might have forgotten.
The nice thing about #80 was that the Joes felt like individuals, with distinct personalities, but they also felt like a team. A sense of kinship was something that drove my interest in sports teams, in movies like Stand By Me and Monster Squad, and in GI Joe, too.
Hardball was set up to make stupid puns but since there were so many other characters being introduced simultaneously, it wasn’t as grating as if the whole issue had been built around him. He was a fine supporting character. And his look and grenade launcher were memorable, and tied directly to my interests outside GI Joe, at the time.
That issue’s cover reminds me of Uncanny X-Men #238. And it’s an odd coincidence to know that the two were released at the same time: late November 1988, right as I was departing Joe and moving onto X-Men.
As a figure, Hardball is solid, but unspectacular. The white and blue are a seldom-used combination for Joe figures. He has a high number of paint applications over his body, none of which clash too much, and a red, stencilled GI Joe emblem on his chest. This was something that had never been done before. Half the bad guys had Cobra logos, but GI Joe wasn’t nearly as showy. It may have been necessary, though, to break things up, given how much uninterrupted white paint would cover Hardball’s body, otherwise.
The emblem follows the same slant, font and other design elements as the standard packaging version of the GI Joe logo, including the star above the J. The red writing is off-brand, however, and this is surprising given Hasbro’s brand awareness. But since his shirt is white, the lettering cannot be.
The white-blue combo has me thinking about the Dodgers, and it’s almost surprising that Hasbro didn’t try to sneak in “LA” on his ball cap. But his birthplace of Cooperstown, New York, doesn’t necessarily position him as a fan of any specific team.
I love the grey, long sleeves under the baseball jersey. Now, it has an early 2000s, cool dad vibe. But his undershirt is strangely white near his neckline, and having painted that grey would have effectively reduced the big white monotony. Especially given that wearing a baseball jersey significantly limits what they could do with his upper body. He doesn’t have pockets or pouches, for example.
His pants are earthy-enough, and had his jersey been a different colour, he might have appeared as a more realistic soldier. I mean he’s wearing a baseball hat, not a helmet, but having a grey, brown or green shirt would have made him someone more useful in battle.
His molding, much like his colours, are passable. His face is distinct. His lower-half features some nice touches – a holster and spare grenades. And his accessories are decent.
The grenade launcher looks intimidating with its rotating cylinder. Imagine playing Russian Roulette with that! His backpack design ensures that Hardball rarely runs out of ammo, and he’s significantly more useful than Fast Draw, for example, in that regard. The “US” moulded into his backpack is notable, especially in Canadian packaging. That type of unmodified American symbol – like Sgt. Slaughter’s stenciled tank-top or Gung-Ho’s flag, a few years later – reminds children outside the States that this is an American toyline.
I also find the green grenades on his backpack are inconsistent with the red grenades around his ankles. As a kid, I would likely have used them to imagine he had different types of grenades, like red smoke grenades vs. the regular grenades in green.
He also could have benefitted from a pistol. It would have served him well, had any Cobra gotten close to him.
As an adult, Hardball is one of the few 88s I’ve consistently had on display. It started with an appearance in one of the gunner seats on the Rolling Thunder, and it’s continued into larger dioramas of Joes. I haven’t ever considered the best use for the figure, but maybe someday it will come to me.
Do any of the Joe vehicles look like a pitching machine? Or are any designed in a diamond shape? Better suggestions are welcome.
When I got back into collecting, the 88s took me awhile to get into. I was fully committed on the 1982-86 figures, mostly committed on the 87s, and only half-interested in the 88s. Somehow, Hardball was one of the first I looked for because of how much I liked him, and how he stood out in #80, in the dying days of my childhood Joe collecting.
Baseball was part of my transition away from GI Joe, and Hardball benefited immensely from appearing in such an incredible comic issue, just before I left for good, and I appreciate the timing because baseball was, ultimately, one of the interests that drew me away from GI Joe.