A Hobby's Sad History
In the closet of my childhood bedroom, real estate slowly being consumed by my mom’s wardrobe, are boxes upon boxes of baseball cards. I assure you that I’m not sitting on a goldmine. A year ago, hoping to avoid financial ruin and a future that involved making frapuccinos, I called a sports memorabilia shop. My fears were not assuaged when the store’s owner said he could take some 20,000 cards off my hands for fifty dollars.
“I have boxes of those years (the mid-80s to early 90s) in storage,” the guy said, almost sounding apologetic.
It’s probably better that the transaction didn’t happen. The employment situation got straightened out. Besides, the memories attached to those cards are priceless—grab-bags at The Hobby Shop; visits from neighbor Steve Strozak, who, before regaling my family with uproarious stories, would hand me a box of baseball cards. Regardless of how I procured the cards, poring over them was a blast. I was always amazed that a small piece of cardboard could perfectly capture a player’s essence. You had the color photo, the stats, even where this guy lived.
My infatuation didn’t last. The hobby became more and more about investing. Buying a set of Topps or Score and rummaging through them was now akin to lighting a stack of money on fire. Every card had to be handled like it was covered in uranium. Collecting baseball cards stopped being fun.
Dave Jamieson has unearthed the fascinating history of my childhood obsession and later disgust in his fantastic book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession. Jamieson, who has written for Slate and The New Republic, was also a collector whose childhood was built on baseball cards. A few years ago, he tried selling his old cards and found no takers. He set out to learn why.
For those who consider baseball cards an arcane subject, always remember that a good writer can make you care about anything by dint of reporting and writing ability, both of which Jamieson has in abundance. He goes beyond the actual cards—follows the colorful characters who created, bought, and sold the cards; how collecting strayed from being a kid’s hobby; and the bitterness of those who pursue the hobby full tilt. I defy anyone with the slightest bit of intellectual curiosity not to love this book.
Some of the events in the card world had surprising resonance. In the late 1800s, baseball cards were included with cigarettes, an arrangement Jamieson believes helped cement the latter’s popularity in the United States. “. . . That was a million dollar idea, for the pictures came in numbered sets and the kids began pestering their dads for them,” a tobacconist told the man behind the idea, James Buchanan “Buck” Duke. “Soon collecting pictures became a craze and we had to order cigarettes in quantity.”
Woody Gelman, the creative genius behind the design of Topps baseball cards, helped create the Bazooka Joe comic strip and was a mentor to Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus. “He was a catalyst for a lot of what happened in the junk arena of culture that he championed,” Spiegelman tells Jamieson. “He was working in these sub-basements of our culture, like animated cartoons and baseball cards and ephemeral publishing, and he both salvaged and preserved it and encouraged it into being.” The Major League Baseball Players' Association's crucial victory over Topps to get more money to use their likeness—and to sign with other card companies—“marked the beginning of a dramatic restructuring in the business of baseball,” according to Jamieson.
Ironically, the baseball players benefited from the cards, but were instrumental in its demise. The season-ending baseball strike of 1994—when the Players Association and the owners disagreed over a salary cap—was essentially the end of the baseball card, Jamieson writes. The card companies didn’t know how to prepare for next season, not that it would have done much good. Hoping to appease the investors and not the kids, too many companies produced too many cards. The cards became expensive for kids, and with too many options, Jamieson observes, there was no common pool to trade from. Kids flocked to video games and other card games like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon. “The Players Association, the league, the card companies—everyone wanted more,” Ted Taylor, a former executive with the card company Fleer, explains to Jamieson. “And the guy they were trying to get money from ran out of money. I could never get my colleagues to understand: There’s not as much money and interest as you think there is.”
Baseball cards have become an old man’s pursuit, a rich man's pursuit. Card-grading (which is just what you think it is) is a profitable business; “sports-specific” auction houses for “investors who could afford the most costly of baseball cards” thrive. Bill Mastro, who formed the first of these auction houses, spelled out his entrepreneurial logic to Jamieson: “. . . I’m going to do it for the guys who have the money. The rest of the guys—and hey, some of them are my friends—but sorry, you’re going to get sucked into the wake. That’s the way it is.”
It’s probably best to be sucked into the wake. The hobby is rife with despair and anger. Mastro, whose auction house was investigated by the FBI, had a bitter parting with his partner, Rob Lifson. Legendary collector Jefferson Burdick was a lifelong bachelor who devoted his life (literally) to his hobby, which eventually wound up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Collector Mike Gidwitz plans to sell much of his collection, half of which his brother claims belong to him. “They remind me of this bad, unfortunate thing,” Gidwitz says. “It’s changed, and it’s not fun in the way it used to be. Now it’s all about the money.”
The sad history of the baseball card needs to be altered. Near the end of the book, Jamieson urges baseball cards to return to their past as “cheap playthings” that can actually, you know, be touched and not sheathed in bulletproof plastic. I agree wholeheartedly. Kids should see a pack of baseball cards and get excited about tearing it open to see what’s inside, gladly ignoring the childhood ban on touching. Maybe they’ll learn to love reading and numbers. Maybe they’ll make some memories instead of misguided investments. It’s time to open the cards and enjoy them.
Books mentioned in this column: