Thursday, December 30, 2010

'Mint Condition' details rise and fall of card collecting

Baseball cards ain't what they used to be. The hobby itself has changed dramatically over the past three or four decades. This sentiment will be nearly universally accepted by anyone familiar with collecting cards, though what caused the shift and precisely when it occurred may be fair points for debate.

I would make a case for the dawning of the plastic sheets era, when kids moved their collections from shoe boxes to photo albums or even hard plastic cases. No more rubber bands, certainly no more flipping or jamming them in your bike spokes. These things had value, updated monthly in the Beckett guide. It was like a stock ticker for the hobby, and it changed the landscape completely.

I began collecting cards in the late 1970s. My cousin, older by six years, jumpstarted me by handing down several hundred of his doubles, from the 1974 and '76 sets. I still have most of them. Years later I actually completed the '74 set, which now sits, protected in plastic in a three-ring binder. But for years, perhaps a decade even, those cards were rubber-banded together by team in my shoe box filing system, along with the thousands of other cards I'd traded my allowance for over the years at drug stores and baseball card shops.

There were downsides, of course, to the rubber band and shoe box setup. If the bands were too tight the cards on the top and bottom would soon have notches on the edges, which we knew was bad even without a price guide. My cat also once mistook a box on the floor of my closet for a litter pan, ruining a near complete set of 1979 Topps cards. There's not much you can do to doctor cat urine out of a baseball card.

When I was 12 we were for the first time faced with multiple lines to collect when Fleer and Donruss joined the party. Our first impressions were the newcomers were cheap knockoffs, riddled with errors. Why was "Craig" Nettles worth so much more than "Graig" Nettles? My friend subscribed to Sports Collectors Digest and we naively placed a classified ad in 1982 to sell off an extra Cal Ripken Jr. rookie card. We were inundated with calls from dealers wanting to order them in bulk. Clearly by then the hobby was big business to many.

Over the next decade it continued to grow, with more companies jumping into the mix. Eventually the cards no longer resembled the cardboard ones we had collected as kids. The new ones in the early '90s looked like they were made of space shuttle tiles or something similarly synthetic. More cards, more money, more cards, more money, and it finally exploded. Or more accurately, imploded.

Anyone who collected during those transitive years will have their own firsthand impressions of what happened to a hobby they likely loved more before than after the boom. After rediscovering his childhood collection-and learning its value had plummeted since he'd last pawed through it-Dave Jamieson was curious what had happened in the interim. As the writer dug for answers, his parameters expanded. He eventually found himself researching the entire history of card collecting, dating back into the 1800s. The result was "Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession."

Jamieson traces the roots of the industry to sporting goods operator Peck & Snyder in the 1860s. In the coming years, cards were effective tools in tobacco advertising campaigns, though baseball players were hardly the first to adorn them. They were preceded by war heroes and actresses, among others. The tobacco companies recognized that kids could influence their parents' purchasing decisions, even on items not intended for consumption by children. Decades later, gum manufacturers took a more direct route, including cards in an effort to entice kids to chew their brand. Eventually it was the gum that came with the cards, not the other way around. By the 1950s, Topps emerged as the king, forcing its competitors out, holding a virtual monopoly for three decades.

Jamieson profiles many of the key players of the early days, including James Buchanan "Buck" Duke, whose tobacco company took the lead in issuing cards; Jefferson Burdick, a pioneering collector who battled through his crippling arthritis to catalog his massive collection for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and Sy Berger and Woody Gelman, who both played key roles in the formation of Topps. No less fascinating, though certainly less savory, are characters such as Michael Gidwitz, a card connoisseur whose collection is worth millions, and Bill Mastro, the auctioneer whose high-end nostalgia business crumbled in part due to a willingness to deal in unauthenticated items.

The book could almost more aptly be subtitled "How Greed Destroyed a Beloved American Hobby." With unscrupulous sharks doctoring older cards to hide damaging defects and new card companies such as Upper Deck pricing their product for deep-pocketed card investors instead of kids, the hobby lost any semblance of the innocence that had so long made it a staple of American boyhood.

Even today, years after the card market bottomed out, it's not enough just to offer baseball cards. Topps, once again the only licensee authorized by Major League Baseball, pushes multiple releases each year, each containing numerous special insert cards. Instead of cardboard, kids are now chasing cut up pieces of players' jerseys, one of the crazier special inserts of recent vintage.

The creative inserts haven't resonated with this generation of children, however, and it's not looking like the card manufacturer will ever win them back. Jamieson's lament for a hobby that has forsaken its base is on target. He concludes the book with a proposal:

"Instead of trying to reinvent the baseball card, Topps and the league should restore it to what it once was. They should convince everyone-children and adults alike-that baseball cards are exactly what they were before the boom times of the 1980s and '90s: cheap playthings, suitable for tacking to the wall, flicking on the playground, or stuffing into a shoe box."

Sure sounds good to me. Anyone out there listening? The decision makers may not be, of course, but anyone else who was ever enthralled by baseball cards should check out Mint Condition. It's a very thorough, entertaining history of a once-great hobby, and it will help you better understand how it got to where it is now.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific review of a book I'll certainly be looking for.