4.07.2010

Cardboard OCD: A review of Mint Condition by Dave Jamieson.


The narrative begins with an uncomfortable juxtaposition, especially to anyone interested in Civil War history:
Although an estimated five thousand Union soldiers would eventually die of starvation and disease inside its wooden stockades, the Confederate run prison camp at Salisbury, North Carolina, was a great place for a ball game.
Fetid prison camp/baseball. Next, Jamieson goes on to discuss 19th-century Americans' propensity to use tobacco and sell it, for the almighty profit, to children.

If you haven't been put off by the book opening with these two subjects, you are a lucky reader, because the rest of this fine narrative is matter-of-factly peppered with compelling baseball card facts. For instance, are you aware that Lewis Ginter was a major in the Confederate army? Do you know why completing an original Old Judge set is "hopeless"? The extent to which tobacco moguls and baseball card collectors are inextricably bound? ("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.")

The reason baseball card collectors would enjoy Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession by Dave Jamieson is that the book offers up different angles and new takes even when covering familiar ground. The stories we've heard over and over...such as the inevitable Billy Ripken FF bat saga, or the sinking into the ocean of 1952 Topps cards...are presented anew, with plenty of fresh details engagingly presented.

Card history. Jamieson takes us through a brisk history of cigarette cards, how baseball cards helped gum and candy makers survive the Great Depression and kept children in touch with the star players of the day, and proceeds right up to Topps' first possible sign of an Achilles heel--when Marvin Miller, chief of the Major League Baseball Players Union, fought with the company and won concessions that doubled the players' fees for appearing on cards. Then, as you all know, an antitrust suit allowed the entry of new card manufacturers in 1981. What came next, with the dramatic increase in licensing fees and the strike of 1994, led to, shall we say, the rise of Pokemon and the downfall of kid devotion to small rectangular cardboard pictures of men in little hats. (Read Chapter 9, titled "Gem Mint Ten," for that whole story.)

In fact, these days, according to Jamieson, sales of sports cards are less than one-quarter than at their pinnacle in 1991.

One of our favorite elements in the book is Jamieson's character study of card collector cult hero Jefferson Burdick. It seems likely that J. Burdick lacked people skills, but Jamieson makes us care about the man as well as what he did (amass hundreds of thousands of rare vintage cards). And with this closer look we can also recognize signs of his ilk in the modern world--men devoted to obtaining and cataloging in a completist frenzy. Before the days of slotted binders and top loaders, you must picture Mr. Burdick faithfully pasting thousands of cards into books. Yes, pasting.

Burdick and T206. Jamieson avoids standard coverage of the overworked T206 Honus Wagner card story by focusing on Michael Gidwitz, the investment adviser and collector who owned the Wagner for a while. When you compare the actions of the pure-of-heart Burdick with those of the manipulative, somewhat crude Gidwitz, you can trace the downward vector of collecting. So focus instead on Jamieson's visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view the cards; he paints a deft word picture of the lonely but singledminded pursuit that Burdick entrusted to MoMA for posterity. Jamieson sheds impressively unjudgmental light on Burdick's character and makes vivid his impressive accomplishment.

The strongest insight provided may be Jamieson's overview of when and how aggressive card amassers (including Gidwitz, but many others as well) went in search of private collections of cardboard at low prices at exactly the right time. Unlike school kids, these men (and apparently, they all were men) seemed well-aware of cards becoming commodities. In fact, by buying low and selling high, very high, they helped make baseball cards commodities.
 
Another theme, and this perhaps was the most helpful for me, is that from the early days of the game up until the strike, major league baseball owed a sizable debt to baseball cards. Which begs the question, does it still, or have the tables turned?

One diversion that card collectors with a nonsports bent might particularly enjoy is Jamieson's informative look at the grossly politically incorrect Horrors of War set,


the graphic Civil War News cards,

and the imaginative but offputting (see for instance cards 22 and 36, purposely not pictured here, quel horreur!) Mars Attacks:


Jamieson provides a fascinating examination of what Topps execs and artists were thinking as they produced those cards.

More fun facts: did you know that Dr. James Beckett = born again Christian right? Or what Beckett's PhD was in? (Statistics, fittingly enough.) The 1952 Topps cards dumped in the ocean story is here ( p. 153ff). Do you grok why Pete Rose and Don Mattingly were at the nexus of driving up baseball card values? Are you aware of the role that the TV show Hart to Hart played in baseball card history? Do you know the full story of the Ken Griffey, Jr. Upper Deck rookie card? Why are we asking all these questions? Because although we knew the gist of many of the stories, this book goes well beyond gist.

Bloggers write with rain delays, fistfights in the stands, and a good deal of wandering around in the upper deck if we find anything shiny. Does this book have the same quirky, wildeyed, hopeful, high-energy fervor of many of the best card blogs? It does not. But that is not its purpose. Mint Condition, except for its utter lack of an index, is well-behaved. This is a skillfully written, thoroughly researched history of baseball cards and their place in the American experience, presented in a style that is perhaps more Ken Burns than Cardboard Junkie. Determining which is the most profound may simply depend on your mood.

Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession by Dave Jamieson is available from Amazon.

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