Use vs Abuse

Last couple weeks ago Mark Armour and I had a brief conversation about markings on cards. In short, we disagree. Not a bad thing—we all collect differently and have distinct standards about what kind of condition we like—rather, like most good conversations, our discussion caused me to think more clearly about what my standards are.

The discussion Mark and I had was specifically about marked checklists. He avoids them while they don’t bother me in the least. Do I seek them out? No. But I’m also not going to pay a premium for an unmarked one.

Checklists were intended for kids to be able to keep track of their collections. Seeing one that’s marked up tells me about a kid who was keeping track of his collection and I enjoy seeing how his set progress was going, what good cards he had, and who he was missing.

They also remind me of my first year in the hobby when I dutifully marked all my checklists. As I remember it, I enjoyed the activity as a way to both gauge my progress and to see what cards I still needed. I don’t remember studying the checklist as much as looking through them and feeling like I just missed certain cards if they were near a card I was checking off.

What I realized when talking about the checklists is that I really just like seeing cards that have been used. For example, 1964 Topps has these cool rub-to-reveal backs. Some of mine have been rubbed, others have not. I can’t bring myself to rub the ones I get (same goes with marking checklists now) but the fact that some kid followed the instructions over 50 years ago is very cool. Heck I know I certainly would’ve if I were a kid.

Technically I guess this kind of thing is back damage. Practically though I treat it the same as a marked checklist where the subsequent handling qualifies as usage.

There’s a whole bunch of other cards in this kind of category where the intended usage results in wear and tear to the card. Pop-ups, whether it’s a 1937 O-Pee-Chee Batter Up or a junk wax Donruss All Star, are probably one of the best examples here. That the card has been punched out and folded and perhaps has even lost some of the pieces is immaterial.

The same thing goes with stamps and stickers that have been pasted into albums. I understand the desire for something to be nice and minty but there’s also something sad about it sitting in protective storage and never being used for its intended purpose.

My interest in usage though extends beyond the uses intended by card companies. I very much love annotations that reflect how fans have used cards to enjoy and enhance their baseball fandom. Things like the do-it-yourself traded cards which I’ve written about before demonstrate how people watch baseball through their cards.

For many people cards weren’t just something that you acquired and stored, they were references for when you had to look things up. Updating them each season with new teams and positions kept those references current and, when taken to extreme, results in something that documents a career better than a non-modified can ever hope to.

I also consider autographs to count as usage. They document experiences with players whether in-person or through the mail. Many times the choice of card is intentional whether it’s a favorite photo or a memorable season. And in all times the autograph is intended to complement the card as a way of enjoying the sport.

I love all of these things which indicate how a card was used by a previous owner. They tand in stark opposition to cards that have been abused or damaged though non-baseball-related activities. From drawn-on facial hair to flipping and bicycle spoke damage there’s a whole range of modifications that are deal breakers to me.

Yes I have some abused cards in my collection too but they’re the kind of cards I’ll always be wanting to upgrade. It’s the rare doodle that stands out as being clever to me, the rest I can’t help but see as mindless destruction.

When I look at a card that’s been damaged intentionally, the use or abuse question turns out to be the first thing I think of. I just hadn’t quite realized that that was actually the question I was asking.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

9 thoughts on “Use vs Abuse”

  1. Good post.
    In recent years, I’ve become OK with stray, accidental marks (on the backs only), and with revealed back rubs (as long as they’re not too rough).
    I do require unmarked checklists though, and usually I can sell a marked one to offset the cost.

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  2. Most Writings on the back or front of the card does not bother me, The Niekro card is a perfect example. The card is is fine with me. Though I would stay away from autograph cards – they seem to deface the card in my opinion I am more concerned about bent corner and large creases through the card.

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  3. Great post, Nick. The use vs. abuse Q is a good collecting tool, I think. Glad you mentioned signed cards. A signed card in sharp condition is much better than a spiffy unsigned card with sharp corners. I feel no guilt about adding to Topps’ design with autos.
    Ripping unopened vintage material is another form of use. I bought two 1975 rack packs and just had to rip them. Use, for sure, though some might say abuse of the collectible or investment.
    In my collection, there is a stack of ’53 Bowman cards with the player names penned on the front of each one in kid writing. They are FUGLY and super neat at the same time. A little card writing in a collection doesn’t hurt, IMHO.

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  4. Interesting question. It really only applies to vintage cards . . . you wouldn’t think of buying a 2020 product which had been defaced In the past, I’ve collected 1955 Bowman and 1955 Topps All-American football sets in VG condition, but while I was lenient in what I’d accept, condition-wise, to complete those sets, I didn’t really want cards with a lot of pencil or ink marks. However, my attitude toward my own childhood collections is 180 degrees different. My first set was the 1967 Topps as a 10-year-old. I marked up the checklists, and if a player changed teams I wrote in the new team in tiny letters along the thin white borders. I still have those same cards, and I wouldn’t trade them for a gem-mint version of the set. I’ve only upgraded two of the cards on which I’d doodled on the front for some inexplicable reason. As for the rest, all of the marks are kind of a chronicle of my own experience for that summer, memories that I cherish.

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    1. Is true, our standards for use have changed in the decades and keeping things as close to mint as possible is just part of the air we breathe in this hobby. That said there are still things like Topps Sticker or the Panini Soccer Albums where peeling the stickers and putting them in an album is what they’re supposed to be used for.

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      1. I bought some boxes of 2020 Topps Stickers over the summer/fall when I couldn’t find anything else on store shelves. They’re standard sized, and have full-size card backs. While I agree that peeling the stickers would be considered “use,” I would consider peeled stickers as defaced. However, I’m sure I have some late 1980s-early 1990s Topps Sticker Back cards(smaller than standard sized) that have the stickers peeled off the front and I’m fine with those.

        The inside front and back covers of the first baseball card binder are adorned with many stickers from the 1980s. The inside back cover of that binder has 9 stickers of HOFers stuck on it, including an Eddie Murray that has probably been peeling off for 30 years yet is still half attached to the binder. The binder itself now holds duplicate Hernandez cards from his Cleveland playing days, as well as Topps Tiffany, O-Pee-Chee, and Leaf cards (to keep them separate from their regular Topps and Donruss cards) and undersized “cards,” including, yes, stickers and sticker backs.

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  5. A very cool example of acceptable “use” occurs in an autographed Cool Papa Bell card I have. In the same pen as his auto, Bell corrected a factual error on the back of the card. And Nick, your “Not Me” Kaline provides a similar example.

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