SABR

Review: Books on Baseball Cards

By Arthur Zillante

This article was published in the Summer 2010 Baseball Research Journal.

The T206 Collection: The Players and Their Stories
by Tom Zappala, Ellen Zappala, and Lou Blasi
Peter E. Randall Publisher (2010)
$38.00, hardcover. 224 pages

 

Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession
by Dave Jamieson
Atlantic Monthly Press (2010)
$25.00, hardcover. 320 pages

 

Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards
by Josh Wilker
Seven Footer Press (2010)
$24.95, hardcover. 243 pages

 

House of Cards: Baseball Card Collecting and Popular Culture
by John Bloom
University of Minnesota Press (1997)
$23.50, paperback. 160 pages 

 

To some, a baseball card is simply a piece of cardboard (or cardboard-like material) with a monetary value attached. To others, though, it represents a slice of nostalgia, and, to understand the allure that baseball cards have for them, we must travel to a time and place where you can’t see the latest news and game highlights on a device you hold in your hand. Before television, pictures of baseball players might have been the closest that most people ever came to seeing their heroes. One of the most famous early sets was produced by American Tobacco as an advertising gimmick and is now referred to as the T206 set after its designation by Jefferson Burdick, who is typically recognized as the first supercollector of cards. 

T206 set: George Moriarty, a journeyman infielder and outfielder, shown here with the Tigers, with whom he had his best years, 1909–15.T206 set: George Moriarty, a journeyman infielder and outfielder, shown here with the Tigers, with whom he had his best years, 1909–15.The T206 set is shown in its entirety, including the different known variations, in The T206 Collection: The Players and Their Stories by Tom and Ellen Zappala with Lou Blasi. I’m no art critic, but, thumbing through the pages of this book, one does see the vibrant use of color in the card pictures and the simple yet pleasing design of the card fronts. The attraction of the T206 set is so strong that Topps has produced a brand of cards in their style—and has done so three times in the past ten years (2002, 2009, and 2010). 

In addition to its generally recognized beauty, the T206 set was also the most comprehensive set of its era and the largest baseball-card set ever produced until the 1950s. The T206 Collection brings the subjects to life by providing a brief biography, usually limited to a paragraph or two, on every player in the set. The players are categorized into six subsets: Hall of Famers, Overlooked by Cooperstown, the Uncommons, the Bad Boys of Baseball, the Minor Leaguers, and the Commons. Most SABR members are probably familiar with the general story of players such as Chase, Cobb, Mathewson, and Wagner. But the brief biographies of less celebrated players such as Bill Cranston, James Helm, and Dutch Revelle are helpful, providing some brief insight into their playing careers. The final chapter has pictures of some of the highprofile cards in the set that have been graded by PSA, typically in the 7 or 8 range. Seeing those cards in that high a condition is amazing. 

Baseball cards soon fell by the wayside but were revived in the 1930s, when Goudey started using them to sell more gum and candy. After the Second World War, Bowman and Topps engaged in a heated competition for the rights to individual ballplayers. Topps eventually won and held a monopoly for about twenty-five years. In 1989, Upper Deck launched the first “premium” brand of baseball cards available in pack form, and soon thereafter all the card manufacturers began inserting rare cards inside the packs. Eventually a perfect storm—of overproduction by the manufacturers, the exit of investors from the market, and a general decrease in interest among children as they turned their attention to other activities—led to the decline of the baseball-card market. Dave Jamieson looks at these details, and more, of the history of the baseball-card industry in his Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession. 

But Jamieson delves into more than just the history of the industry. He spends chapters on some of the more interesting characters who have helped shape it, for better or worse, depending on your point of view. In one chapter he details the life of the original supercollector, Jefferson Burdick, and the process he went through to have his collection become part of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1940s. Burdick is credited with bringing organization to the hobby, and many sets predating the Second World War, including the T206 set, are still referred to by Burdick’s designations. Woody Gelman, the subject of chapter 6, was essentially the driving creative force behind Topps products from the 1950s through the ’70s. 

T206 set: Arlie “The Freshest Man on Earth” Latham, a third baseman with a 17-year career, shown here in his last season, 1909, the only one he spent with the Giants.T206 set: Arlie “The Freshest Man on Earth” Latham, a third baseman with a 17-year career, shown here in his last season, 1909, the only one he spent with the Giants.Jamieson also tells the story of contemporary figures in baseball-card collecting. He profiles Mike Gidwitz, a supercollector who was the first person to sell the T206 Honus Wagner for more than one million dollars. Gidwitz, who seems to epitomize the deeppocketed investor/collector, was sought out as a buyer by another figure in the industry, Bill Mastro. The method by which Mastro conducted his auction business is detailed, and Mastro is given credit for his part in elevating the hobby into a more respected diversion. In particular, his role as special consultant in the Sotheby’s auction of the James C. Copeland collection is viewed as a watershed event in bringing baseballcard collecting to the mainstream. Finally, Jamieson, turning his attention to some of the current problems, interviews noted card doctor Kevin Saucier. For those unfamiliar with the general history of baseball cards, Jamieson gives the details. To those who are familiar with it, it is the in-depth look at some of the primary characters who helped shape the industry that is the most appealing part of the book. 

For a specific example of the cultural impact of baseball cards, look no further than Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told through Baseball Cards. At its heart, Wilker’s story is that of a man recalling his past, with baseball cards as the window on it. After finding an old box of his baseball cards in a storage unit, Wilker recounts various events in his life as he works his way through the cards. It is a moving story, and essentially a no-holds-barred one. Those who have collected baseball cards will recognize the power that looking at and holding a specific card can have. 

Cardboard Gods is written in a journal style, with a specific card serving as a springboard to a specific memory. There’s a 1975 Topps card of Herb Washington, representing the era of “trying new things,” even if they (like the designated pinch-runner) didn’t quite work out. Wilker’s desire for bonding with his own brother is reflected in the 1977 Topps Big League Brothers card of Paul and Rick Reuschel. Then there are the Carmen Fanzones, Bake McBrides, and Rowland Offices of the world, evoking laughter through some combination of their poses and names. 

While Wilker tells the personal story of how one man reflects on his life through baseball cards, John Bloom’s A House of Cards: Baseball Card Collecting and Popular Culture presents an overview of the general baseball-card subculture in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bloom’s primary finding is that there tends to be a struggle, sometimes interpersonal, sometimes intrapersonal, as adult collectors attempt to recapture the fun of their youth while simultaneously yearning for the hobby to be recognized as a legitimate adult endeavor. 

T206 set: Big Ed Reulbach, a right-hander who in 1905–9, his first five seasons in the big leagues, won 97 games for the Cubs.T206 set: Big Ed Reulbach, a right-hander who in 1905–9, his first five seasons in the big leagues, won 97 games for the Cubs.Many of the older collectors in that era returned to their collections as a way of returning to their past and were unprepared for the changes that the industry was undergoing. For many collectors in Bloom’s study, their childhood pastime of baseball-card collecting was simply play, without any thought ever given to the collectability of the cards. At the sportscard shows he attended, he noticed that the competitive environment there upset that notion of play. The changes in the hobby, though, particularly as baseball cards began to be viewed as a possible investment, are what brought legitimacy to it. Before the 1980s, collecting baseball cards was viewed as a child’s diversion, and many adults kept their collections hidden. Bloom’s focus is on the subculture in the upper Midwest, but traces of the shame associated with participating in a child’s hobby are scattered throughout the other works being reviewed here. 

Indeed, Wilker stops collecting baseball cards as he transitions into his teenage years, viewing baseball cards as being for kids. Jamieson’s book is rife with examples of collectors who hide their collections. In a story of Lionel Carter, it’s mentioned that he received packages while serving in the Second World War and opened them in the barracks bathroom, safe from the view of other soldiers. Woody Gelman was once interviewed by a New York Times reporter who called him “a specific kind of nut” for his collecting habits. 

An interesting follow-up to the Bloom study could be conducted today, with 25-to-40- year old collectors who, as children, collected cards for many of the same reasons (play, social bonding, etc.) as did their Baby Boomer counterparts but who, unlike the Boomers, were also likely to be aware that the cards held monetary value. These Gen Xers and Gen Yers should probably be more at ease with the investment aspect of the cards. 

In the minds of collectors there will likely always linger some struggle between the feeling of childlike innocence and adult legitimacy, but the two can coexist. Perhaps the best advice for collectors of all ages was given in the early issues of the Beckett magazines. Baseball card collecting is a hobby, and individuals should collect what they like. Do not think of items in your collection as investments any more than you would think of the movies on your shelf as an investment. Yet this view of the matter does not somehow make the cards lose their investment value. If you do choose to collect baseball cards as an investment, you should be prepared for swings in the market, just as you are when investing in stocks. And you should be prepared to part with your investments. 

Then again, parting with your baseball cards is easier said than done when you’re holding them in your hand. Ask Dave Jamieson and Josh Wilker. 

ARTHUR ZILLANTE is assistant professor of economics at UNC Charlotte. He has been an avid baseball card collector since 1986.

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