Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

September 30, 2007

A Card Above All Others

Card-collecting has fallen out of the mainstream, but as a new book recounts, hobbyists' lust for the Honus Wagner card knows no bounds.

Carl Bialik

In the last 15 years, sports-card collecting has been pulled in two opposite directions. The mainstream fan has lost interest in The Hobby, as it's known. But the hard-core collectors have kept bidding up the most-valuable, rarest memorabilia. And nothing is more valuable than The Card, a small piece of cardboard bearing the likeness of Hall of Famer Honus Wagner that was once bought by Wayne Gretzky for $451,000 and more recently sold for $2.8 million.

Michael O'Keeffe (left) and Teri Thompson/photos by New York Daily News
"I collected cards when I was a kid. But then I became a teenager and I gave all that up for rock 'n' roll."—Michael O'Keeffe

Michael O'Keeffe (left) and Teri Thompson/photos by New York Daily News

That Wagner card, known as the Gretzky T206, is the star of The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History's Most Desired Baseball Card. As its title suggests, this is no sentimental journey through dusty card collections in basements and shoeboxes. It's a look at an industry as shadowy and cutthroat as any other unregulated, unexamined, high-stakes pursuit.

The authors have honed their skills investigating such industries as part of the New York Daily News's sports investigative team. Teri Thompson is the group's editor, while Michael O'Keeffe is a reporter who has written several stories for the paper about the card industry, covering such characters as the controversial and successful Bill Mastro; Rob Lifson, a self-styled white knight of the hobby; and Brian Siegel, a collector who has owned The Card (O'Keeffe also shared a byline on the recent News scoop about a Human Growth Hormone bust). The book expands on these character studies and on the history of the Gretzky, while stepping back to profile Wagner and his hometown, demonstrating just how far removed the hobby has become from its roots in the national pastime.

In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, O'Keeffe tells Gelf about his own lost card collection, a fierce backlash to the book from a minority of the hobby, and the sorry state of newspapers' sports sections. (You can hear O'Keeffe, Thompson, and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, October 3, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: What's your baseball-card collection like? Or what was it like? Did your personal perspective or experience affect how you wrote the book?

Michael O'Keeffe: I don't have many cards, just a few things I picked up inexpensively at shows while doing research for The Card. A friend gave me some early Bowmans a few months ago and I think they are gorgeous.
I collected cards when I was a kid. I really got into it for a few years. I collected football cards, too. But then I became a teenager and I gave all that up for rock 'n' roll.
I think my early experiences with cards influenced my approach in one way. I was at the news conference in 2000 before Brian Seigel bought the card for $1.2 million and I thought it was amazing that a card that old could look that good. I remembered what my brother and I did to our cards.
But mostly I approached this as a journalist going after what I thought would be a good story.

GM: What happened to the cards from your collection as a kid?

MO: I don't really know. I think my Mom threw them out at some point. I don't remember. It wasn't like it was a traumatic event. I might have given them away.

GM: Card collecting strikes me as somewhat similar to fantasy baseball—an obsession on the periphery of the game itself. Do these activities enhance or detract from the enjoyment of the game itself?

MO: I think they probably enhance enjoyment of the game, but since I'm not really involved in either, I don't know. I know my cards helped me stay connected to baseball when I was a kid.

GM: Is the Gretzky T206 Wagner legit?

MO: What do you mean by legit? Nobody that I'm aware of has ever credibly argued that it is counterfeit. But as we report in the book, it did not meet PSA's grading criteria—in other words, it was given a pass.

GM: Does it matter, or is it now more a status symbol than a real piece of baseball history?

MO: It clearly doesn't matter since it has sold for record-breaking prices twice this year—once right before The Card was released and once after the book's release.

GM: If you were finishing the book now, what would you write about the recent $2.8m sale of The Card?

MO: I am a little flabbergasted that it sold for so much so fast. I guess I'd ask for proof this actually took place. Show me the canceled check!

GM: You weren't able to interview Mastro, since 2001, and Siegel for this book. Did this hurt or help the final product?

MO: We requested interviews with both numerous times and they both declined. My feeling is the more voices, the better.

GM: You're very positive about Lifson, calling him a white knight. How can you be so sure he's legit?

MO: That's really a reflection of how Rob is perceived by a lot of the people we interviewed. He is one of the few industry executives who even address the industry's problems.

"I have my moments when I get bored with it. There are bigger problems in the world than card counterfeiting and bogus memorabilia."
GM: Have you heard from the subjects of the book about it? How has the hobby responded?

MO: Rob Lifson has recommended it on his web site, so I'm assuming he likes it. Mike Gidwitz told us he likes it.
The response from the hobby has been mixed. A lot of people really like it and a lot of people really hate it. There's not a lot off ambivalence.

GM: You say that a lot of people in the hobby really hate the book. What are there reasons?

MO: First of all, I'd like to make it clear that the reaction to the book was for the most part very positive. Many collectors and industry executives told me they liked it but a minority really hated it.
I think one reason why a lot of people don't like this book is because they have a lot of money invested in cards and memorabilia. We reported that there is a lot of fraud and corruption in the hobby, and that could have a big impact on the value of their collections.
I think a lot of these guys have been in the hobby for a long time and they have developed loyalties. They like doing business with Mastro Auctions or PSA. Mastro, many collectors have told me, offers quality memorabilia and cards along with great service. There's no question in my mind that Mastro has a loyal base.
Some of these critics are just dumb. I don't say that to be funny. I check out collectors' forums fairly regularly to see what people have to say about the hobby. When The Card was released there was a lot of chatter about it, and what really got me is that some people were criticizing it even though they freely admitted they had not read it or had not completed it. With others, you could tell they had not even read the book.

Image Description

A most valuable piece of cardboard.

GM: Are you tired of writing about the hobby or is there more you want to cover in the area?

MO: I have my moments when I get bored with it. There are bigger problems in the world than card counterfeiting and bogus memorabilia. I also get frustrated. There are a lot of whiners in the hobby. I get at least one call a week from somebody who tells me how they've been wronged and demands I write a story about their problems. Then when I ask them to spell their name, they say, "Oh, you aren't going to put my name in the paper, are you?"
But as we've reported in the Daily News and in the book, the hobby is in flux right now. I'm interested to see if the hobby can clean up its act before law enforcement and lawsuits eventually do it for them.

GM: My father and I used to collect cards for the stats on the back. Now they're freely available in seconds online. Will the hobby ever re-enter the baseball mainstream, or has the web and the card industry destroyed any chance of that?

MO: The web is the least of the hobby's problems. Greed is the main culprit. In the early '90s, all these speculators jumped into the market. Card companies started marketing to adults. Cards got too expensive for most kids. Kids said "the hell with it" and stopped buying baseball cards. Annual new card sales are a fraction of what they were 15 years ago.

GM: Is there any chance of the card market returning to its early-'90s peak, before greed undercut it all?

MO: The card companies and the players association are working very hard to draw children back into the market, but I don't really see things bouncing back to 1990s levels. Upper Deck, Topps, and the rest killed the golden goose.

GM: Do you think more newspaper sports sections should have investigative teams?

MO: Yes. Because of the internet, newspapers need to offer more than just scores and game stories. We have to give people reasons to buy the paper or visit the web site.

"I think good sports news helps sell newspapers and boosts ratings, so why would you want to jeopardize that by reporting that a shortstop or quarterback is a 'roid freak who eats small children?"
GM: Do you worry that newspaper cutbacks will allow the bad elements in sports to thrive without being exposed?

MO: I worry more about newspaper cutbacks affecting my family, to be honest. I don't think most newspapers—or other news outlets, for that matter—do a good job of covering sports. Too many big questions go unasked: Why should the public pay for arenas and stadiums? Why are blacks and other minorities so underrepresented in front offices? Why are sporting events so loaded with displays of patriotism?

GM: Why do you think newspaper sports sections aren't answering these questions you pose? Do they think readers won't like that, and would rather have more positive coverage?

MO: I think sports sections have been traditionally about escapism—people get enough bad news without having to read it on the sports pages, too. I think traditionally it has been good enough to give people scores and standings and a feature story or two. I think a lot of media companies—the New York Times and Tribune Co., for example—are owned by corporations that also own sports teams or networks, so there is an inherent conflict of interest. They also do business with corporations that own teams. When was the last time you read something critical about the Atlantic Yards project in the New York Times? Is the Times's poor coverage of Atlantic Yards based on the fact that Nets owner Bruce Ratner was a partner in building their new Times Square headquarters?
I think good sports news—our team made the playoffs!!!—helps sell newspapers and boosts ratings, so why would you want to jeopardize that by reporting that a shortstop or quarterback is a 'roid freak who eats small children?
This is a very good question and I could go on and on…but I won't.

Related in Gelf: An interview with Donovan Ryan, the world's foremost expert in naughty sports cards.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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