Welcome back to another episode of The Art of Manliness Podcast. In this week’s edition, we talk baseball cards with Dave Jamieson, author of the book Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession. If you were a boy growing up in the United States from 1950-1994 you probably owned a few baseball cards. It was a part of the boyhood experience, like catching toads and playing cops and robbers. But at some point this innocent children’s hobby turned into a high-powered business filled with million dollar transactions.
Dave and I discuss baseball cards’ meteoric rise and catastrophic crash and the future of baseball card collecting in America. Will baseball cards survive? Tune in to find out.
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Brett: Brett McKay here and welcome to another episode of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For most men in America, baseball cards played an integral part in their boyhood, whether you put the cards in your bike stores, or took part in high-powered trades with your friends, the Becket monthly in hand, baseball cards were part of the male experience in America. And if you’re like most men you still have boxes of cards in your old bedroom, you held on to them that thinking that they would you know someday fund a purchase of a Bentley or trips to Hawaii years later. Our guest today tried to sell his old baseball card collection when his parents cleaned out his old room, but he quickly found out that his childhood investment was just worth the cardboard it was printed on, not very much. Dave Jamieson is the author of the book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession. Dave is a freelance writer, and has written for the Washington Post, Slate, the New Republic, and the Huffington Post and he’s the recipient of the Livingston award for young journalist and the Sidney Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award. Dave, welcome to the show.
Dave: Hey Brett, thanks for having me.
Brett: All right, well Dave, what inspired you to write about the history of baseball cards? In your book you talked about kind of the story were you, you went to go get some baseball cards your mom found when she was cleaning out your old bedroom?
Dave: Yeah, that’s right, this all started when my parents were selling the house I grew up in North Jersey a few years ago and it really you know my mom wanted me to clean out my closet and I hadn’t really been in there in years and there was an enormous box in there, I mean the size of a small car and it was just filled with baseball cards, mostly common cards from the 80s, but also some what I thought were some little prizes, you know rookie cards from the 80s, like you know Mattingly and Clemens and Pucket and Ripken and I thought those were going to be pretty valuable at this point in time. That why I had stored them away as a kid. But when I started calling up the card shops, I started getting disconnected numbers and I saw that that the cards I had, even sort of the special ones were going for very little money on eBay and on craigslist. In fact, craigslist was littered with guys like me who were try to unload, who were 30 years old trying to unload these cards they’d had from childhood. And that’s when I got interested in finding out what happened in this industry and eventually finding out sort of where these cards came from over a hundred years ago, and where they eventually went to.
Brett: And this book started out as a magazine article, is that correct?
Scott: That’s right, yeah, I originally wrote a piece for slate.com about sort of how this industry unraveled in the 1990s and from there sort of expanded into a book.
Brett: So there was the origin of the baseball card?
Scott: Well, the origin, the short story is that cards first began appearing in large numbers in the 1880s. This was, at the time they were packaged with tobacco, and this was a really brilliant idea at the time and it wasn’t just baseball players that were on cards. There was also actresses, Native Americans, you know army and navy figures. And what these tobacco companies would do is take, print these cards, package them with cigarettes, which was a new tobacco product that at the time relatively new. Tobacco, cigarettes I should say weren’t you know as popular as they are today after the Civil War, and this was a marketing technique to popularize them. And so these cards were slipped into cigarette packs and the idea was to create some brand loyalty and to get people buy more packs of your own brand. And kids would buy these, you know the cards would be numbered one through ten or one through fifty and you’d buy more packs of these cigarettes so that you could complete the set. And it started a fad in 1880s where little kids would beg their fathers to buy one brand over another and kids themselves, this being the 1880s would buy the packs of cigarettes themselves. And you now this, it was very controversial at the time, I mean even though we didn’t know everything, we know now about smoking. People knew, put one and one together, that this was not good for you, and there was a lot of heat on these companies because they were they were really attracting kids toward cigarettes. But you know baseball cards pretty much took off immediately and this marketing technique would be replicated over and over in other industries. Gum, candy, chewing tobacco, to slip baseball cards into the packs. That that’s how it all began.
Brett: What that was interesting I mean is kind of the history, the transition from going from tobacco to candy. But how did baseball cards become an industry of itself? I mean how did baseball cards moved away from you know pushing tobacco or pushing gum to become an industry in of itself?
Dave: It was kind of gradual. What I thought was interesting in my research is even though this stuff, there were certain golden ages of baseball cards, the 1880s being the first one I think. Around 1910 being another, and again during the Great Depression. You know during the depression that’s when they started being packaged with bubblegum. It was very popular time at the time, for a penny you could get a stick of gum and a card. And this being the depression, kids couldn’t go to ball games and cards really served as a way for them to stay connected to the sport. But during all these years, the first half of the 20th century, cards were always used as what markers would call a premium. In other words you were buying this pack for the gum but the baseball card was there to sort of sweeten the pot. And that started to change around the time Topps came along in the 1950s. This was a bubblegum company like a lot of others, but they really sort of bet their future on baseball cards and they thought that that’s where the future was, and you know they had wonderful timing. This was you know the early 1950s, baseball in the middle of a golden era. You know you got you these great Yankees Dodgers rivalries going on and Topps to that point, put a huge investment into getting contracts and really by 1960 it was a great, a great line by the head of Topps at the time, and Arthur Shorin he said “tell a newspaper reporter the cards wag the gum,” which was his acknowledgment that they were no longer really pretending to sell bubblegum, kids were really after the baseball cards and that sort of when, when as you said baseball cards became an industry in their own light.
Brett: Well, that was interesting, you mentioned tops as one of the big players in the baseball card industry. What I found was that was interesting in your book, is that I always had this wholesome image of baseball cards and baseball card companies you know, kind of this All-American thing. But in your book you describe the baseball card business as this kind of gritty and often cutthroat enterprise. Can you talk about some of the big players in the baseball card industry and what things they did, both good and bad that impacted the hobby?
Scott: Yeah, it was pretty fascinating. A lot of what I learned it came out of a case file now in the national archives. It was a monopoly investigation started by the Federal Trade Commission in the 1950s. They were investigating Topps which you know the idea of there being a baseball card monopoly that got the government’s attention and took years of resources is kind of amazing and it gives you an idea of how vicious the competition was. Topps basically, the contract fight was so rough with these other companies, names you’d know like Flair and Bowman, that Topps basically developed its own scouting system. They had coaches on the payroll, coaches, managers and professional scouts. So basically when you got, when you were a teenager, you’re taught, not only were major-league ball teams looking at you, Topps is looking at you as well and they want to sign you for as little money as possible. And you high schoolers and minor leaguers when they sign, got a check for five dollars from Topps, and it was called stake money, because that’s about what it would get you in those days, a good steak. And basically there were signing as many you know, young rising stars as they could, and this went on through the 1950s and 1960s and Topps were so aggressive in signing that they were effectively able to shut everybody else out. They had such airtight contracts and places like Flair just simply couldn’t manufacture cards. And that’s why Topps, you know you’d see if you collected Topps was the only brand out there really until 1980 when a federal judge basically decided to break up Topps’s monopoly and allow other companies to manufacture cards. And that sort of brought on the boom of the 1980s, which if you are in your thirties now you probably remember, collecting Flair and Topps and Donruss and all these different cards. And that’s essentially why that Topps’s three decade monopoly was finally broken.
Brett: That’s very interesting. And the other part, interesting part of your book, you don’t’ just talk about the baseball card companies, but you the talk about some of the biggest collectors in the history of baseball cards, and it had some just really interesting personalities. Who were these men and how did they effect the hobby?
Scott: Well, the biggest sort of, the guy that’s know as the grandfather of card collectors is a guy named Jefferson Burdick, who was a relatively poor bachelor from Syracuse who pretty much spent his entire life traveling the country trying to collect every card he could get his hands on. And this wasn’t just baseball cards, it was cards of all sorts, and it was tobacco cards, gum cards. He basically wanted every bit of it, and what he was trying to do is catalog it all. He was kind of creating sort of like a Dewey decimal system for trading cards. The collection he amassed is actually at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s called the Burdick Collection action and what he did was he was the first guy to really try to get a handle on everything that was out there and he took it all in and he gave it all. He organized it all and gave the sets different names and you may have heard of the 1909 Honus Wagner card, it’s called a T206 card, and that T206 designation comes from Jefferson Burdick. So he was the guy. He sort of broke the word as kind of how serious collectors look at him and he’s is, yeah he’s kind of a hero to a lot of guys today who were very serious collectors. And of course there’s been plenty of other collectors who sort of built on what he’s done, but he’s sort of considered the grandfather.
Brett: Yeah, and there was one guy in particular that there was really interesting. I’ve forgotten the name, escapes me at the moment, but he’s the one who would spend enormous amounts of money in buying sheets of baseball cards and just like the rarest thing you could find and the Honus Wagner card I think he invested in, what was his name?
Scott: Yeah, that’s right yeah that would be Mike Edwards.
Scott: Yeah, like Edwards you know very interesting thing, a lot of these guys, it’s a very different industry now, basically with what’s called the secondary card market is, is where guys with a lot of money buy and sell these days. Baseball cards, you don’t see them in CVS a lot. There’s not a lot of sales going on in that department, but the buying and selling of vintage high price cards, it’s almost like the fine art world these days, and Mike Edwards is one of the guys who has a lot of money, and has been throwing it around on baseball cards for many years and I visited his apartment in Chicago. He has a penthouse overlooking Lake Michigan and another penthouse up there which is basically just for his baseball cards and he was the first guy to sell a baseball card for a million dollars and that was the Honus Wagner card, which he bought at one point for about six hundred thousand dollars, which just kind of gives you an idea of the seriousness of some of these collectors, and you now his apartment really is like an incredible museum. You mentioned the uncut sheets. Those are sheets of cards that were never cut into individual cards, and are the very rare because are basically they were never supposed to see the light of day you know. They were they were supposed to be turned into cards. You know that they’re very beautiful and are very rare, and he’s got them plastered all over his walls, you know tobacco, uncut sheets from the 1800s, and Topp sheets and Goudey sheets from the 30s and it’s really kind of amazing. And you know it just sort of reinforces why so many people love these cards and pursue them and spend enormous amounts of money on them, is that really a lot of are kind of beautiful and they really display very nicely.
Brett: And what do think drives these super collectors to spend any amount of money to finish their set, or did the rare baseball card. I mean what drives them to spend so much money on pieces of cardboard?
Scott: There are probably some psychologists who can explain it better than me. But yeah, a lot of these guys are driven in the way that other collectors whether they’re very elite collectors of vinyl records or wine or whatever, it really becomes a life pursuit for them. And you know it’s interesting I find a lot of guys carve out their own sort of niche. A lot of people are what are called type collectors. They will, they will want one card from every set that’s out there. A lot of people pursue certain players. A lot of people want to complete you know individual sets which was always the idea of card collecting from the very beginning and what’s fascinating about baseball cards is there are certain sets out there like, say the Old Judge set from the late 1880s where we’re still discovering cards to this day.. They will turn up in attics, cards, that where you’ll see ballplayers in poses that we’ve simply never seen before. And so sets like that, that a set for instance where there’s maybe a half dozen people who are pursuing it in hopes of completing it. It’s that extreme, and they probably never will just because we’ll never be able to rap our hands around what’s out there. And I think that’s on a fundamental level what draws most of the series collectors is kind of a search, sort of a search for the unknown. And I think a lot of them know that they will never perfect their collections, but it sort of the pursuit that matters to them and they’re very, very competitive. You know these Honus Wagner cards, the 1909 card, there’s, we believe there’s fifty to a hundred out there and a lot of these serious collectors, they know pretty much where all those cards are and they know when one is going on the market, and it’s a very, very serious world like that.
Brett: So you talked little about how there’s this golden age in baseball cards, particularly you know starting in the 80s when the monopoly on Topps broke up and other card manufactures got into the game, and they kind of went on to the late eighties and early nineties, but then like 1994 kind of, beginning of the unraveling. What happened? Why did the baseball card industry just go bust at it’s that shape it is today?
Scott: You know it’s like, a lot of people compare it to kind of a tool craze. I joke that before Tech stocks and McMansions, they were baseball cards, because basically it was sort of a classic bubble. Throughout the eighties these things were, these cards were appreciating in value that really didn’t make sense, and the hobby grew to such huge proportions. I mean if you grew up in the 80s like I did, you’d remember even as a kid, there came a time where rather than playing around with cards and tossing around and not caring for them, you started slipping them into like hard plastic cases. A lot of people who were buying new cards, new product, by the boxful, by the case, and like putting in their basement, just waiting for it to turn to gold, and that really, that obviously doesn’t make any sense and the fact that millions of people were doing it, it should’ve been, you know, kind of a warning sign. And part of the problem is that the card makers at the time were rolling out so much product and they weren’t really disclosing how much they were rolling out, and so all this stuff was really, never had the chance to be rare. You know what made the cars in the 1950s or earlier so valuable and special is the fact that most of them never survived. They were thrown out by you or your mother and they were never really taken you know good care of, and so those cards became scarce. The stuff in the 80s was junk that really was never going to have the chance to become scarce.
And so this all kind of came to a head in the early nineties when one figure I came across is that 81 billion cars are being manufactured each year. And so you had a lot of people, people at every level, whether it was the card makers, the car dealers, collectors, or especially the baseball players union which was giving out a lot of licenses. Everybody was trying to cash in on it which was really, what would turn and seen as such a spectacular bubble and everything kind of started to come to a head unfortunately around the time of the baseball strike of 1994. And that’s when things started heading south and since then these carmakers haven’t really recovered. It became a hobby geared towards adults, kids kind of ran for the exits and they still haven’t come back. And that’s why cards now, if you go into a card shop, the new stuff aside from the very basic lineup that they are still aiming towards kids, a lot of this stuff is kind of weird stuff you know if you’re not into this world. You know the Stephen Strasberg, card you know the pitcher for the Mets? Card sold a couple weeks ago for $20,000.00, because it’s a gold refractor card. I don’t even know what that means you know, I like, I wrote the book on this stuff. So it’s a very strange world like that. I mean they have cards they call them DNA cards where they’ll be a card of Abraham Lincoln with a strand of his hair on it, I mean just really bizarre stuff that goes for thousands of dollars and obviously kids aren’t into that stuff. They can’t afford it and its, they don’t pursue stuff like that. So it’s become a very, a hobby very much geared towards adults, which I think is part of the problems that they’re having these days.
Brett: While you’re speaking about that, I mean is there any hope for resurgence? I mean are baseball card companies trying to do things to bring kids back into the hobby I mean or is baseball card collecting going to be relegated to you know the dustbin of history along with you know blue laws or male garters.
Scott: Right. Well that’s the tough question. I mean they have been, I think they recognize that the only future for this hobby is with children. You know I talked to guys, older guys, serious collectors who would wonder to me whether we were seeing kind of a twilight of card collecting. And a good reason for that is because you know that most of collectors right now are adults and they are not to be around forever and when you lose one generation of kids it’s very hard to get the next one that’s through. What Topps has done lately, which is pretty smart, is they’ve simplified their product line. For one thing, major league baseball decided they were only going to deal with Topps. They effectively shut the upper deck out and the idea is to simplify things for children to do, to sort of de-glut this market right now and Topps has slashed some prices on some of their lineups. You know you can now once again, get a pack of cards for a dollar, which is very reasonable. And that’s what they’re doing to draw kids back in they’ve also added lineups that have kind of you online fantasy baseball element to them, where you can register your cards and compete with friends. And that’s all pretty smart, but you know the bottom line is there so much competing for kids attention these days between the Internet, and these incredible video games, it’s pretty tough to, to give them some cardboard expect kids to play all day with it. So I think the challenges are pretty huge.
Brett: Well, Dave after I read you book, it really got me nostalgic about my baseball card collection. So I went, when I was visiting my family over the Fourth of July weekend I went and got my collection out. And when I collected baseball cards there’s was a few players I collected, and the big guy I collected was Frank Thomas and the other one was Nolan Ryan. Did you have a particular player or team that you collected when you were a kid?
Scott: I did, being from North Jersey is was a big Yankees fan. So Yankees team sets are always pretty important to me and every year I assemble, I’d assemble it several times over. But my hero those days was Don Mattingly. The most special card for me and I still have it today is my 84 Topps Mattingly rookie. And I remember riding my bike down to the card shop every so often and looking at it under the glass. It was about thirty bucks and I just wondering when I’d have it and finally I got it for it for Christmas one year, and I still have it to this day and it’s probably, I don’t know, it’s probably worth like twelve bucks these days. You know none of what we have from the 80s is worth what it was at the time. But it’s really, it’s a lot of fun to pull it out every once in a while. And what I always tell people, you know guys in their 30s who I’ve talked to about the book, you know they’ll say, tell me similar stories that they went and pulled their stuff out and you know, some people think about selling it, and I always it’s not even worth what you, you know it’s not worth selling it. It’s much, much more valuable as kind of a keepsake and it’s really nice to hang onto and every few years you pull it out and it kind of reminds you of being a, you know an age eight or nine year old kid, and how you spent all day trading cards with your buddies.
Brett: Well Dave, thank for you time, it’s been a pleasure.
Dave: Hey Brett, thanks a lot for having me.
Brett: Our guest today was Dave Jameison. Dave is the author of Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession. And you can pick up Dave’s book at Amazon.com or any other major bookseller. Well that wraps up another edition of the art of manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. And until next time stay manly.
Last updated: October 1, 2015