Maybe I’m just more sensitive to it, but there seem to be an awful lot of books this year catering to the boomers among is. There are plenty of biographies from higher-end publishers on all-time favorites such as Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Maris, Rizzuto, Kaline, and Musial, not to mention those that come from vanity presses and/or print-on-demand outfits.
And if you’re going to talk nostalgia, you have to include baseball cards.
At least three new books take a look at that rite of youth, albeit from very different points of view. One — Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods — is most introspective and has already been discussed here. Another — The T-206 Collection: The Players and Their Stories — is a beautiful photo-intense volume on the famous set that includes the Honus Wagner card, “the “holy grail” of collectordom. I’ll be discussing this one at greatly length in the near future. The third — Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession by Dave Jamieson — takes an informative and entertaining overview of the industry.
Contrary to boomer belief, trading cards have been around since the mid 19th century, when tobacco sellers started marketing their products towards kids by including photos of baseball players and actresses in their packaging. The idea was that the kids would bug their fathers to buy Brand X over Brand Y for the premium. (Of course, the sellers didn’t really care if the kids were useing the tobacco themselves….).
Jamieson takes the reader through the evolution of the card industry, introducing us to giants such as Topps’ Sy Berger an artist Woody Gelman. He also goes behind the scenes to card shows where a generation of collectors sought to make their fortunes by selling off their cherished childhood memories. Topps, an amazing business model, had a stranglehold on the players, signing them up for a mere pittance (not unlike the owners in the pre-free agency days) and maintaining a monopoly, for all intents. That changed in the 1980s, and several new companies burst onto the scene: Score, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Dunruss, to name the more popular and successful. But as the business expanded and hundreds, if not thousands of additional cards became available in effect, it had the unexpected and unintended long-term effect of decreasing the value; the market bottomed out to where plans to sell off old sets to pay for homes and college educations are now barely enough to pay for another set of high-end cards. Not to mention that some of the sets were well out of the reach of kids’ allowances,which had the additional effect of cooling off a future source of income..
Jamieson does an excellent job of uncovering little-known nuggets of trivia and history. There’s even a section on how to doctor cards to improve heir appearance and increase their value. Not condoning it, just sayin’. A book like this should be fun, as opposed to an academic/sociological treatise and on that Jamieson scores high marks, even if some might consider a few sections consist of too much insider information.
For guys of a certain age (not to be sexist, but I’m guessing the majority of collectors are male) like me, Mint Condition brings back fond memories. Jamieson, 31, was a little late to the game. I was in that age group that bought cards for the fun of it, not as an investment. when I was in middle school, I did a project for which I glued cards from the 1971 set to a piece of oak-tag: Seaver, Yaz, Jackson…I wonder that that would be worth today. Certainly not as much as they would have been 20 years ago, but still…. I also had a box full of the premiums they used to toss in to each pack: a mini-poster, a coin, a playing card. Can’t blame my mother from for their disappearance.
Jamieson spent a few minutes with the Bookshelf talking about the book and his own collecting experience.
Hear it here: