September 22, 2021

Once Considered Jewels, Baseball Cards Have Lost Luster

May 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Remember the days when “gem” referred to the rock on a lady’s finger or to a pitcher’s performance? Remember the days when you’d scrounge up three or four dollars for a pack of cards, hoping that you’d find that 1:150 insert? Today we journey back to yesteryear with Dave Jamieson’s “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession.”

Read this book because:

1. You will discover how an adult hobby turned into a kid craze, only to be left to dwindling numbers of adults today.

During wartime, soldiers need diversions. Not much has changed from the Civil War to today. When Northern soldier Andrew Peck returned home from the front lines in 1865, he thought about his fondness for baseball and decided to open a sporting goods store. But how best to get customers’ attention? Peck and his partner decided on advertising cards, and what better to feature than that which was already in public consciousness?  War.  Scenes featuring battered players and players being carried off the ballfield were common themes for the earliest baseball cards.

Already intrigued by the striking cards their fathers brought home, youngsters became attached to the product, thanks to a 1928 innovation. Fleer candy accountant Walter Diemer devised a bubble gum that was packaged with baseball cards for decades.

2. Jamieson’s thorough research highlights the rise and fall of a tradition as American as the game of baseball itself.

In 1947, collector Jefferson Burdick approached the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with an offer. Burdick knew the Met housed some of the world’s foremost treasures. Would it be interested in acquiring thousands of cards which told their own history? After a few days of deliberation, the museum agreed. Suddenly baseball cards sat side by side with priceless artifacts.

Meanwhile, baseball cards continued to rely on proven themes for inspiration. The Horrors of War set screamed headlines like “Japanese Bomb Orphanage” and depicted gruesome war scenes (63).

In the 1950s, Topps (as in “tops in the field”) hired animator Woody Gelman to produce cards. Besides his designs of non-sports cards of Tarzan, Elvis and Robin Hood, Gelman was the artist behind the ’52 baseball set that changed baseball cards forever with eye-catching designs.

Armed with exclusive licenses with players, Topps stood peerless in the industry. Baseball’s union pioneer, Marvin Miller, would have none of that after he came on the scene in 1966. “I’d learned enough about licensing to know that in a program like that the players were entitled to a percentage of the revenue, and they were getting zero on that,” Miller said.  “They were getting fixed payment, and that was it.” (141)  Miller put a halt to the monopoly, urging players not to renew their contracts with Topps and to sell their card rights to other companies instead. 

A decade passed before Jim Beckett, a “born-again Christian,” began to produce price guides.  He “viewed the assigning of values to baseball cards as something of a religious calling.” (151)  But before you go thinking that a Crusade ensued over baseball cards, listen to what pastime purveyor Kip Young points to as a catapulting force for the industry. Young says he and plenty more red-blooded males couldn’t get enough juvenile fixes once they spied the beautiful Jennifer Hart pondering baseball cards in a 1982 Hart to Hart episode. “There were millions of people watching,” Young said. “It was really the first time the hobby had national attention.” (152)

3. Just like any other juicy scandal, readers can’t help but be magnetized by the industry’s fall.

Enter counterfeits. The fakes subsided soon enough, but added protective measures (read: higher prices) did not. Along with adding product quality, Upper Deck instituted a star-power system that stuck. For its debut product, the company chose a touted but unproven rookie named Ken Griffey Jr. The move was a gamble that neither UD or Griffey regretted. Now, competitors had to scramble to keep pace. Topps hadn’t included Griffey in its offering, a move that gave way to disastrous results.

Six years later, baseball had a problem that put all brands in the same boat – the 1994 strike. Nonetheless, one segment’s folly allowed another’s fortune. In the fall of ’94, radio host “Papa Joe” Chevalier turned the card companies’ catastrophic loss into his colossal gain. “Papa Joe” urged listeners to send him their cards for a mass burning. More than five-hundred thousand cards came to his address and forced the host to use a wood chipper instead.

Hobby publication “Sports Collectors Digest” called on kids to share their thoughts after the strike and found that many abandoned cards, never to return.

What’s more, terms that seem more appropriate for jewelry rather than cardboard now dominate the industry. Cards won’tt come anywhere close to high-dollar values (ie. taken seriously) unless they are appraised with a “Gem mint” or “excellent mint” rating that takes into account every edge, fingerprint and slight indentation only the world’s best microscope can pick up.

If only baseball cards would stick to what forefathers like Woody Gelman envisioned when he said, “Part of collecting is the desire to complete something, to find everything in one category. Part of it is a recapturing of the past. You discover how to play again.” (237)

Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.

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