Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

November 1, 2010

Pieces of Cardboard

Author Dave Jamieson, in 'Mint Condition,' traces the implosion of the baseball-card industry and the colorful collectors who followed its rise and fall.

David Roth

Dave Jamieson and I—and many other members of our generation—once shared a hobby that, during the time in which we pursued it, felt like much more than that. It wasn't just that we hoarded, traded, doted on, and obsessed over our baseball-card collections; we're hardly alone in that, and from our parents' generations on down to those of our elder brothers, there's no shortage of poor souls who either weep for their lost cards or maintain carefully tended binders and Lucite-bound collections of treasured cardboard.

Dave Jamieson. Photo by Gabe Joselow.
"Ask a guy why he collects cards and I don't think you'll ever get a satisfying answer."

Dave Jamieson. Photo by Gabe Joselow.

But for those of us who lived through the unprecedented and cruelly short-lived baseball-card boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the experience of collecting cards was different than it had been for those before or since. For us, it wasn't just that cards seemed like the most awesome things in the world; the 130-year survival of the trading-card industry suggests that we weren't the first to believe as much. It was that, during the peak of the cardboard market, our cards had very concrete, very impressive real-world worth: At the height of the boom, even new cards could be worth significant money, if properly curated and cared for. The crash that followed, then, was doubly tough to take. After learning to see our card collections as an investment, we witnessed the collapse of both the market and, in time, the reputations of the stars whose rookie cards sustained that market.

In Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, Jamieson—a 32-year-old reporter covering transportation issues in Washington for TBD.com—traces the history of America's baseball-card habit and the industry's ups and downs. He begins with that dimly remembered adolescent heartbreak—the first truly grown-up disappointment many members of our generation experienced, in retrospect—and works his way back to the baseball-card industry's very origins. While it remains odd and a little sad to think of all those kids losing their notional nest eggs before graduating from high school, we now have something to show for it in Jamieson's book. Mint Condition is something like the definitive text on a hobby that has fired up generations of adolescents and—for those of us who thought diversifying our portfolios meant complementing our Topps and Upper Deck packs with the occasional purchase of Fleer, Score, or Donruss—broke a few hearts.

In this interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for length and clarity, Jamieson talks about the card industry's signature eccentrics, the year that Don Mattingly saved Christmas at the Jamieson household, and how the collapse of the baseball-card market was and wasn't foreseeable.

Gelf Magazine: You and I grew up not only with the same habit/hobby, but with the same card set as our central obsession: that goofy 1987 Topps baseball set with the wood-paneled basement motif. What are your first baseball-card memories? Do you remember your first pack, or the first time you pulled a really ace card from a pack?

Dave Jamieson: The first year I can remember collecting cards in any significant numbers was 1987. I waxed on the '87 set quite a bit in the last chapter of the book, and you wouldn't believe how many people have dropped me emails in the last few months to reminisce about that set. They're always 32- or 33-year-old guys who still have their cards in their closets. It was visually a very distinct set, certainly compared to anything like 1985 or 1986—which is probably why it's stuck with so many people for so long. I simply couldn't get enough of that set when I was a kid. I probably completed two or three sets on my own and just kept going. I would've been eight years old in the spring of 1987. I think that's kind of a magical time for a kid who's into collecting cards, or collecting anything, for that matter. You're just old enough to understand what you're trying to do—amass and order something—but not so old that you have any motives other than to amass and order something. And there was a ridiculous sense of excitement when you tore open a wax pack at that age. I remember one Christmas—I think it may have been '88—when my mother surprised me with a rack pack from 1985. That was a big deal back then, to get an unopened pack that was a few years old. And I remember pulling a Mattingly out of that pack and pretty much losing my mind. I was wearing full-body long johns and I squealed like a little girl—and I know this for a fact because my father recorded the whole thing with his VHS camcorder. That was an annual tradition of my father's—no one could open presents until the film was rolling—and he would always replay the greatest hits every Christmas as my extended family gathered in the den. The Mattingly pull was a Top Three or maybe even Top Two moment in Jamieson Christmas history. That was back when a pack of cards cost about 50 cents. Did you know you can get a pack of '87 Topps for even less than that these days? I bought two boxes for my book-launch party and I think I paid around 35 cents per pack.

Gelf Magazine: I worked in the baseball-card business for a few years, writing text for the backs of cards, and you devoted a couple years to researching it from the ground up. I know, for me, the process of not just seeing the sausage getting made but actually making the sausage was disillusioning but also, weirdly, something that rekindled my interest in it. I started ripping packs again, scouring eBay, the whole deal. How did working on Mint Condition change the way you engaged with baseball cards? What would you say your relationship is to them today?

Dave Jamieson: My relationship with cards hasn't changed much since I was about 13 years old. That was when I stopped collecting. I never started again, and even to this day I don't have a desire to. People are always a little surprised when they learn I wrote a book about baseball cards but haven't collected them in years. I'm much more interested in other people's relationships with cards, which is why my book is littered with other collectors but has relatively few words about my own experiences. I had a very typical American experience with baseball cards: I pursued them obsessively for about five years, then drifted to other things. But I wanted to write about people who had atypical experiences with them—like the people who've never managed to stop collecting them well into adulthood, or the people who've spent their lives pursuing the rarest specimens, or the people who've spent their careers trying to create them and make a life out of them. I don't have whatever gene it is that drives those guys. I just have the cards that were important to me when I was a kid, and I like to pull them out and flip through them every now and again. But I never had the collector's instinct as an adult, and I don't think I ever will.

Gelf Magazine: Beyond the fact that you were a baseball-card head as a kid, what led you to take on this project? What was your hope with Mint Condition—did you set out to write something like a definitive history of the industry, or was that sort of the shape the project took as things progressed?

Dave Jamieson: The idea for the book actually came from my editor Jamison Stoltz, at Grove/Atlantic. Back when he was my editor-to-be, he read a piece I wrote for Slate, about the unraveling of the card industry after the 1994-95 Major League Baseball strike. When I agreed to write a book about it, I didn't have so much as a tentative outline. I believe in my contract it was actually referred to as UNNAMED BOOK ABOUT BASEBALL CARDS. But I knew I wanted it to be more about people than about cardboard. And so what ended up driving the story were the characters behind the cards, whether they were collectors or businessmen or artists.
People are just more interesting to me. I don't even know how you'd try to write a full-length, non-fiction book about the cards themselves. I think it would be a dreadful book. But yes, it just sort of took shape as a popular history of the industry. And the people I tried to write about were the people who illuminated that history, whether it was Buck Duke using cards as a marketing ploy in the 1880s, or Woody Gelman creating the first Topps cards in the 1950s, or, in more recent years, Mike Gidwitz making the first million-dollar sales of baseball cards. Those are people who really shaped the card industry as we understand it today, and they were endlessly fascinating to me.

Gelf Magazine: You mentioned Gidwitz, who is just one of the weird, indelible baseball-card nuts in the book—probably the weirdest, given that his collecting seems to come exclusively from obsession and not from any sort of recognizable affinity for sports. I suppose the same could be said for Jefferson Burdick, who was seemingly Patient Zero for card-collector mania and whose collection formed the backbone of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection. Did you feel like spending all this time learning about obsessive collectors—and seeing Gidwitz's terrifying home—gave you any insight into the collector's mindset? Did you get a sense that anyone, from auctioneers on down, understands these guys?

Dave Jamieson: Ask a guy why he collects cards and I don't think you'll ever get a satisfying answer. That's the one question that can reliably stump a serious collector. I don't think people really understand why they do it. I was talking about this with [former Topps illustrator] Art Spiegelman for the book, and he had a pretty simple but compelling explanation. He said that young kids—boys, especially—feel compelled to create order out of things. So if you have card numbers 1, 3, and 4, then card number 2 becomes incredibly important to you, even if it's of some forgettable journeyman reliever. Young boys are just wired that way, and a lot of them carry that compulsion into adulthood.
But it usually gets more complex and sophisticated, like with Burdick, who collected in a way that was somehow both romantic and academic at the same time. I think he liked knowing that the cards he had had gone through other people's hands, that strangers decades earlier had pasted them into their albums and whatnot. But he also thought he was doing important work. There were enough card collectors out there by the 1940s and '50s that he saw a need to identify everything that was out there and catalog it. He's weirdly famous among card collectors these days, but that kind of fanatical collecting comes at a cost. The cardboard took up all the room in his life and he died in what seemed a very lonely manner.
Most of the high-profile modern collectors—like Gidwitz, who was the first to sell a card for $1 million—come from a different breed. I think they largely collect out of competitive instincts. These guys all know one another and they all know when something they want is going on the market. Bill Mastro, who's a very brilliant—and, you might say, cynical—card auctioneer whom I profile in the book, had a very interesting take on these guys. He said he feels like he's in the psychology business more than the baseball-card business, because he sees so much strange and irrational behavior (which, as an auctioneer, he obviously does his best to exploit). Nobody really needs a Willie Mays card to live, he said, but if you watch these collectors in an auction setting, it will seem like they really do require it, like oxygen. He said you'll never make any sense out of the high-end card collectors and you can never really understand what motivates them. And as someone who spent hours talking with such people, I'd have to agree.

Gelf Magazine: My former employers at Topps were not the most helpful when it came to putting your book together, it seems. Did that make things harder for you? How eager would you say the different card-industry folks you spoke to were to talk about the hobby?

Dave Jamieson: No, they weren't terribly helpful, which kind of surprised me. Usually the baseball-card industry is happy to get any kind of publicity it can, but in this case Topps said they may be doing a book of their own at some point, so they didn't want to spill much of the Topps history for my benefit.
But it was probably for the best. I'm not terribly interested in the modern card industry. It's sort of become this strange business that caters to adult collectors who pursue artificially scarce cards with gold foil and autographs and whatnot. How much could you write about that stuff? I was much more interested in the deeper history, and so there wasn't much that a few suits at Topps headquarters could've done for me anyway.
In the end, there were just two stories I wanted to tell about Topps. The first was about how the firm created its monopoly and turned itself into an iconic company. The second was about the company's longtime art director, Woody Gelman, whom I consider something of a mad genius. So I had two terrific resources that I turned to: the Federal Trade Commission's file on Topps (now housed at the National Archives), and the surviving friends and colleagues of Gelman. The FTC file tells you everything you could want to know about Topps in the 1950s and '60s, and in fact it tells you quite a bit about cards going back to the 1800s. It took me a couple of weeks just to get through it all, but it was well worth it. The lengths to which Topps went to keep its stranglehold on the industry was pretty amazing. I mean, they created their own scouting system just to sign the card rights for high-school prospects at rock-bottom prices.
Gelman and his colleagues were there at that time, but they didn't know or care about much of anything on the business side. They were artists, and they were the reason those cards in the '50s and '60s were so gorgeous and really captured kids' imaginations. The talent that was at Topps in those days is just incredible: Art Spiegelman, R. Crumb, and a litany of other artists whose names mean a lot in the world of illustration. I think those guys are what made Topps and its cards so iconic.

"Topps created their own scouting system just to sign the card rights for high-school prospects at rock-bottom prices."
Gelf Magazine: Woody Gelman is sort of the tragic hero of the book, if there is one—a dedicated craftsman with a great eye for talent who created some of the most recognizable and iconic pop-culture artifacts of the century, and yet is more or less unremembered and unknown. Not to ask you to be an art critic, but what would you say sets the cards of the Gelman era—or a good baseball card in general—apart from the rest? And what drew you to him? You write about him with real feeling.

Dave Jamieson: Woody Gelman had an assistant named Len Brown, who I think said it best when explaining why those cards were so special. He and I were talking about Topps in the 1960s and he said, "This was in the old days, when you could look at a 1962 and say, 'That's a 1962.' " His point, I think, was that cards eventually became very generic-looking. But in the 1950s and '60s, every year was very distinct from a design perspective, even though they were all very classical-looking. There weren't any lazy photos, either—each card was something of a portrait.
For example, in the 1953 Topps set, those cards were actually based on hand-painted player portraits. Compare that to the 1970s and '80s, when you got crappy player photos with shadows across their faces. A lot of care went into the designs in the early years, largely because you had actual pop artists at the helm. Even on the backs of cards there were cartoons drawn by legendary cartoonists like Jack Davis. They really went all out, and they never wanted to repeat themselves from a design perspective. Gelman, the art director, was what's called a "type" collector—he wanted just one card from as many different card sets as he could find, and that's because he was interested most of all in the design and layout. He was constantly drawing on other forms of pop art when he and his team were coming up with a new set.
I was drawn to Gelman because, as you said, he was hugely influential and yet largely forgotten. He wore so many different hats—card designer, collector, dealer, not to mention book publisher—and he was a huge champion of people whose work he believed in. Spiegelman, for instance, said Gelman was the most influential person in his life as an artist. And he influenced generations of kids with the stuff he created, whether it was baseball cards or Mars Attacks or Wacky Packages. He used to stop in at the little candy kiosks in Brooklyn just to see what the kids were into, and everything he and his team created was done with kids in mind. I think that's probably why his cards were so successful, and largely why Topps was so successful.
But on a personal level, I think he felt like he was a failure. As his son told me, Gelman was one of those guys who felt like he had the chops to be a legitimate artist himself but somehow found himself managing a den full of commercial artists. So I don't think he ever thought what he was doing was very important, and yet his hands are all over our popular culture, even today.

Gelf Magazine: One thing I noticed from talking to the lifers at Topps when I was there, and which really comes through in your book, was how hugely unprepared the baseball-card industry was for the boom, and how poorly the card makers reacted to it. It's tempting to make some sort of comparison to the economic meltdown, but the collapse of the baseball-card industry seems to have been pretty directly a result of no one really knowing what to do with all this good fortune.

Dave Jamieson: Some of the most fun I had was going through old press clips from the 1980s—and I'm not just talking about mainstream, general-interest press, but also the financial press. Everyone was touting baseball cards as this magical investment that would accrue value for eternity. "Cards beat stocks, bonds as investments"—that sort of thing. And a lot of it was done in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but there was a lot of money at stake! How baseball cards managed to morph into investments in the 1980s, I'll never fully understand.
What I can say is that at some point, people started applying a vintage-card mentality to new product, and that's when things started going off the rails. The old cards that managed to survive over the years—the Mickey Mantles and Honus Wagner T206s—were rare and special and beautiful. They actually deserved their value; there was a reason people eventually started paying thousands of dollars for them.
The problem was when everyone started treating new product as if it, too, would someday become scarce and valuable. And the reason this freakish boom happened with baseball cards and not, say, model trains is that baseball-card collecting had mass appeal over the course of generations. Our fathers had done it, so we did it, too. And it was a lot like having a fake stock portfolio in the sixth grade, only it was actually pretty cool and interesting. So baseball cards just sort of became this inescapable pop fad in the '80s, to the point where boys (and some girls) who weren't remotely interested in baseball were buying the cards, too. They were as essential as candy. But fads don't last. If card makers had had the restraint to limit their production and not wring every dime possible out of kids and adults alike, they would probably have a much stronger industry today. But few people or companies ever have that kind of self-control and foresight when they're rolling in money.

Hoss Radbourn baseball card

Hoss Radbourn introduced the obscene baseball card a century before Billy Ripken. Photo: Robert Edward Auctions.

Gelf Magazine: Because Gelf has covered baseball cards a few times before, we wanted to get your comment on several of our prior stories.
• What do you think of that Billy Ripken card with the word "fuckface" on his bat?
• How is your book different than The Card? Was it helpful in your research?
Josh Wilker took a very different approach to his recent book on baseball cards. Did you enjoy his book? Has it been confusing in the marketplace to have two books related to baseball cards out at the same time?

Dave Jamieson: The Ripken card is a classic, of course. There's a long tradition of naughtiness on baseball cards going back to the late 1880s, when Hoss Radbourn covertly flipped the middle finger on his Old Judge card (as Billy Martin would do some 80 years later). The Ripken error was the naughtiest of them all, and it set off a huge firestorm. In fact, it helped expedite the sale of Fleer to Marvel. The Mustin family, which had run Fleer for generations, was mortified over it. Today, the card tells us a lot about the card boom of the late '80s and early '90s. That card was from 1989, and in the weeks after it appeared, some specimens were selling for more than $200. It was insanity. But now you can pick up that card on eBay for about $5. Nobody understood how many of them were being printed. Nothing was rare.
As for The Card, that book, which I enjoyed very much, is a focused look at the T206 Honus Wagner and some of the players in the collectibles field who've handled the most famous of them, the one once owned by Wayne Gretzky that sold a couple of years ago for $2.8 million. My book is much more of a pop history, covering more ground and different ground. One area where they overlap is our coverage of two characters, Mike Gidwitz and Bill Mastro, a reputable collector and a well-known auctioneer, respectively. Michael O'Keeffe and Teri Thompson wrote about them in their book, but I felt I needed to, as well. They were too fascinating not to. But in terms of The Card's research value, it was immensely helpful. The authors, who work for the New York Daily News, have covered the collectibles field and its general weirdness more closely than any other journalists, as far as I can tell.
As for Josh Wilker, I've picked up Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards but haven't dug into it yet. I'm eager to. I've read an excerpt and had some discussions with Josh. It's the kind of thing publishers don't like to hear—that a perhaps similar book is dropping at the same time as yours—but Josh and I both thought it was very cool. And in the end, our books weren't very alike. His is a memoir, telling his personal story through baseball cards. Mine, as I said, is much more of a pop or cultural history. I write very little about myself in it, save for in the first and last chapters, probably because I can't make the connection between cards and my personal life that Josh can. As for having two baseball-card books out there at the same time, I don't think it's been very confusing for people. At least we fall into separate categories: sports/history and memoir. But it still makes me laugh. I mean, two books about baseball cards dropping in the same month: What are the odds?

Gelf Magazine: The baseball-card industry is in a pretty weird place right now—reliant on the artificial scarcity you mentioned and on ever-more-expensive high-end products, as well as increasingly baroque gimmickry like the DNA relic cards and such, and fighting for scraps in a shrinking market. Not a nice position, in short. The book does a good job of explaining how this shrinking into the margins happened in its final act. Do you see any indication that the industry could turn its fortunes around?

Dave Jamieson: I hate to say it, but I'm in the doom-and-gloom camp when it comes to the card industry's future. My guess is that a lot of people who are honest with themselves don't see another golden era around the corner, except maybe Michael Eisner. There's just too much competing with kids' attention these days to expect them to be lured back into the baseball-card hobby in any massive numbers. And of course baseball itself isn't as popular as it was a generation ago. So it's definitely a steep climb.
And I don't think the market even for vintage cards will remain as strong as it's been, at least in the long-term. It's like one baby-boomer collector said to me—who's going to be there to replace these aging collectors once they're gone? Once you lose a generation of collectors, it's very difficult to get that generation's children. But of course baseball cards have managed to survive for 130-odd years, and in that time they sometimes completely disappeared, only to return later in great numbers. So if I ever have children, will they end up buying wax packs at the local CVS someday? Perhaps. But will they be utterly and hopelessly preoccupied with baseball cards the way we were? That I highly doubt.

David Roth

David Roth is co-author of WSJ.com's Daily Fix, football columnist for The Awl, and contributor to Can't Stop the Bleeding.







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Article by David Roth

David Roth is co-author of WSJ.com's Daily Fix, football columnist for The Awl, and contributor to Can't Stop the Bleeding.

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