Baseball Books Reviewed: Mint Condition

Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession by Dave Jamieson (Atlantic Monthly Press, 272 pg., $25). HB, 2010.

With Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession Dave Jamieson has produced an elegant history of baseball cards that for the average collector or former collector is informative, fascinating, nostalgic, and … depressing as hell. I say “former” collector because, as Jamieson acknowledges, many erstwhile devotees of baseball card collecting have given up and dropped out of the hobby. Over the past decade and a half the obsession referred to in the subtitle lost its hold over collectors, who became overwhelmed by the staggering number of cards and sets issued each year; discouraged by the inflation of new card prices and the explosion in values of older cards; turned off by the commodification of cards; and disgusted by the shady, unethical practices of some dealers, authentication and grading firms, and fellow collectors.

In the Introduction Jamieson uses his own experience to describe the sad state of the hobby today. After reclaiming his childhood hoard of tens of thousands of cards he’d collected in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Jamieson was shocked in 2006 to discover that his cards are practically worthless. Countless other disillusioned former collectors around the country are also sitting on unmovable piles of cardboard fool’s gold, he learned, and all but a handful of the neighborhood card stores which once seemed to beckon from every other corner have disappeared. It’s emotionally deflating, this account of how greed, mismanagement, and hype killed the baseball card hobby by taking the fun out of it, but a necessary one as it sets the stage for the gripping history which follows.

Jamieson naturally begins with the origins of what are considered to be the first baseball cards, crude team photos made by the Peck & Snyder sporting goods company. These Peck & Snyder offerings appeared right after the Civil War, before the concept of the baseball card was even established. A chapter on the birth and development of cigarette cards is next, and here we begin to get not merely an accounting of what happened but thoughtful interpretation as well: Jamieson’s writing, for instance, that “Conventional wisdom holds that the cigarette launched the baseball card. But one could just as easily argue that, in the United States, the baseball card launched the cigarette.” In this and the remaining chapters the author takes a “great men” approach to his subject, presenting striking portraits of the main players and then demonstrating how their careers influenced, paralleled, and moved along the baseball card industry and hobby. The contributions of some of these giants are well known – pioneering collector and cataloguer Jefferson Burdick and price guide originator James Beckett III – while those of others are revelations – the Topps company’s art director Woody Gelman and advanced collector Mike Gidwitz, “the jaded soul of card collecting” who has shifted his passion away from the cards to the art on which many of the classic vintage cards was based. In both cases Jamieson is able to weave the bios into the tapestry of his story so that the flow of the narrative is never diverted for long.

The one thread running through the book, which should surprise no one, is the fact that baseball cards, like the game of professional baseball, was always a business, and a pretty cut-throat one at that. One particularly memorable example of this theme is to be found in the account of how Topps bamboozled its way into securing a virtual monopoly by crushing its main rival, the Bowman company, and by chaining the players to themselves through hutzpah and grossly inadequate compensation (Marvin Miller, head of the players union, eventually changed that one-sided arrangement, and baseball cards became a cash cow for the players association). More recent manifestations of the theme are the unwelcome invasion of the “investors” and the pernicious grading services which followed them; the advent of card counterfeiting and card doctoring by cardboard thieves; and the rise of sports card and memorabilia auction houses, not all of whom play by the rules. It’s to Jamieson’s credit that he chronicles all this straightforwardly, almost cheerfully, and never lets the greed which has ruined the hobby ruin his outlook or ability to tell the story. He even finds people to admire, such as the scrupulously honest auction house owner Rob Lifson and fake/doctored card detector extraordinaire, Kevin Saucier.

Jamieson saves the last chapter for a review of a sparsely attended National Convention of card collectors and a winsome profile of Bill Henderson, the undealer, who specializes in common cards. Henderson is not obsessed like most other dealers with obtaining and then reselling only star cards in mint condition (in order to fetch the highest prices), and he has devoted his career to helping collectors do one thing: obtain the common cards they need to complete their sets. No matter that few of the collectors left even care about the once-universal goal of set completion, Henderson is there to assist anyone who can still enjoy cards of average players in less than perfect condition. Jamieson himself offers a prescription for the hobby’s woes, and it’s a simple one. Instead of continually trying to re-invent the baseball card and jazz it up with increasingly more exotic and expensive gimmickry, Topps, the only major manufacturer (out of five) left after a recent industry shakeout, 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.” If only Topps could actually do this. If only Topps would want to do it! But now that money has attached itself like a parasite to every card, now that its monetary value has come to define the essence of every card, it is highly unlikely we will ever be able to get back to those wonderful baseball card collecting days of the 1950s and ’60s. “Say it ain’t so, Bazooka Joe.”

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon. (Apr. 2, 2010)