Héroes de Cartón: When is a Card not a Card?

A few months ago I attended the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Conference at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Fred is my favorite of all of the SABR conferences because of the intimacy, the subject, the location and the camaraderie. One of the presentations that weekend was entitled “The Birth of Baseball Cards.” The panel was moderated by MLB historian John Thorn and featured the SABR Baseball Card blog’s very own Jeff Katz, Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber and author Peter Devereuax. Devereaux’s book, Game Faces, is an inside look at many of the early baseball cards that constitute the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection at the Library of Congress and served as a jumping off point for the panel. Game Faces should be on the reading list of everyone in this group.

Over the course of the panel the question was brought up of just what it is that defines a “card.” It is a question that is often addressed in the hobby; has, in fact, been addressed in this blog by Mr. Katz. It is also a question with no definitive answers, although Shieber, who was one of the driving forces behind the Hall’s new permanent baseball card exhibit entitled “Shoebox Treasures,” listed a few personal criteria. To be clear, Tom does not espouse to be the final voice on this subject, but much of what he said rang true to me. To him, the item in question should be: intended as a collectible, part of a set, directly related to baseball, and there should be a “cardyness” about it. That last one is admittedly vague, though for most of the folks reading this, the idea is likely akin to the old adage coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography. We know it when we see it.

My paper-thin 1946/47 Propagandas Montiel Los Reyes del Deporte card for Nap Reyes, purchased on a visit to Cuba. Reyes has an earlier card, a 1945/46 Caramelo Deportivo, but it was only issued to collectors who had completed the rest of the set, thus making it rare and one of the most expensive cards of a Cuban ever issued.

This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me, not just because it was dedicated to one of my favorite subjects, but more so because I have wrestled recently with this very question. As I mentioned in my last post, in my quest to complete a collection of the rookie cards of every Cuban who has appeared in a major league game, I have had to stretch certain standardly-accepted definitions, beginning with the idea of a what constitutes a “rookie card.” In the interest of finding at least one card for every player, I have had to not only step outside of some of the accepted definitions within the hobby, but I have been confronted numerous times with the issue of whether or not an item I am looking at even counts as a “card.”

Such is the case with the 1943 set issued by the Havana-based, cracker, candy and chocolate manufacturer, La Ambrosia. As with major league baseball, the arrival of World War II created a vacuum of talent in the Cuban professional league. The league had already been struggling financially since the political upheaval of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado, in the early 1930s. When the war began, it stemmed the flow of top-tier American talent, the quality of play suffered, and the league found itself at a low point. The silver lining of this nadir was the maturation of the Cuban amateur leagues.

The La Ambrosia card for Rogelio “Roy” Valdés. He had a single plate appearance with the Senators in 1944, although Valdés stuck around in the Washington minor league system for another four years after that.

With no minor league system in place, Cuban clubs would find their promising young talent on the sugarmill teams that dotted the countryside. Similar to the American company teams that would produce exciting local baseball that filled the void before the advent of radio and television broadcasts, the sugarmill teams were a loose collection of business-based semi-pro clubs. One of those clubs was sponsored by La Ambrosia, and would feature the likes of such luminaries as future Cuban batting champ Claro Duany and Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso.

The candy giant capitalized on their sponsorship of the club by publishing a set of 240 images that were released as “stamps.” Collectors were encouraged to get all of the stamps and then stick them inside an album, similar to the more ubiquitous Cuban release issued by Caramelo Deportivo during the 1945/46 and 1946/47 seasons. Printed on thin paper that most closely resembles magazine stock, the La Ambrosia stamps featured the largest single published collection of Cuban amateurs that I have found.

The album that La Ambrosia issued, with the intention of the stamps being pasted inside. The cross promotion with the Wilson sporting goods company is an interesting insight into how intrinsically American business was intertwined with Cuban interests at the time.

Unlike the Deportivos, in which the images are black and white and often grainy, the La Ambrosias are in color. They have the distinctive look of the tones being both vibrant and muted, as though the photos had been tinted with watercolors. The images look especially bright when mounted on the yellowed pages of their original album. It is those albums which resulted in the Deportivos and the La Ambrosias sharing another unfortunate trait. There are few remaining of either issue that do not have serious flaws, including backs that were damaged by adhesives.

For many, including the auction houses that sell these sets, the descriptions of these issues have evolved from “stamps” to “cards.” They certainly fit with Shieber’s first three criteria. But what about “cardyness?” They are not published on what we think of as a card stock. But does that matter? What is that quintessential piece that makes a card a card? Does an item need ALL of Shieber’s (self-proclaimed arbitrary) criteria? Are three sufficient? What about two? Or one?

The La Ambrosia cards feature a large number of pencil-thin mustaches, a popular fashion choice in Cuba at the time. Rogelio Martinez, who would not make his lone appearance with the Senators until 1950, sports a rather thick example of the style.

The “cards” I have included in the collection for the Aragóns, Ángel and his son Jack, are a perfect example of this latter question. Their short major league careers, as well as the fact that they played during war years (Ángel appeared in 32 games with the Yankees during World War I and Jack’s lone major league appearance was in 1941), led to neither of them having what would be thought of, traditionally, as a card. I have not even had any luck by expanding my search to include cards that portray them in foreign leagues, although Jack’s extensive minor league career gives me hope that I may discover him in an obscure set someday. At the moment, though, they just don’t seem to exist.

However, while trolling through ebay, I came across a seller who was offering images of both Ángel and Jack. He had come into possession of a number of old periodicals, including a 1914 Spalding Guide and a 1949 publication called, “Historia del Base Ball Profesional de Cuba,” written by Raul Diez Muro. The seller, scissors in hand, cut up both periodicals into a series of head shots for the players that appeared in the two collections. The Spalding Guide offered a number of publicity photos of minor league players, including Ángel. Jack appeared in the book by Muro.

Ángel played for the minor league Long Branch Cubans in 1913 and 1914 before being called up to the Yankees. Unlike some other teams named “Cuban,” the Long Branch squad was made up almost entirely of actual island-born ballplayers.

I have decided to include these hand cut bits of newsprint in lieu of “cards” because there aren’t any other options for these players and they do have the advantage of originally being printed concurrent with the player’s career. They pass virtually none of Shieber’s criteria. While the publications themselves could be considered collectible, they certainly became less desirable after the scissors were taken to them. The subjects are definitely baseball related, but they are not part of an intended set, nor do they feel very “cardy” to me. I have blurred the line considerably in the interest of completing my checklist.

I am now at the point where I need to decide if, since I have expanded my definitions for the Aragóns, do I do the same with the remaining Cubans who were never issued a card? Are pictures cut from newspapers enough to check that box, especially if I hold true to the criteria of the images being published during their careers? I know it’s my set, and I can do with it as I damn well please, but I’m not a fan of cheating. I suppose the best answer would be for me to wait to make a similar discovery of a player who is cardless, and decide when I see the actual item. Because, like Stewart’s porn, I believe I’ll know it when I see it.

Author’s note: I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the collection as it develops. I have created a flickr album that you can access here. The cards appear in the album not by the year in which they were issued, but rather in the order in which the player made their major league debut. Thus, even though the card for Esteban Bellán wasn’t produced until 2014, he is the first one in the set.

Ruining with Scissors

By now you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the various scandals rocking the baseball card world. Any summary I could provide here would be outdated by the time I hit “Publish.” Therefore I will address only one aspect of the scandal, one that to some collectors is no scandal at all: the alteration, restoration, and repairing on cards. (Also see “What Do Baseball Cards Want?” for a related SABR Baseball Cards article.)

I will lead off with an unquestioned assumption I think most collectors have hung their hats on for a while: condition is a one-way street.

True or not, we at least initially presume cards begin in some pristine (or at least best) state from which their condition either stays the same or gets worse over time. Were we to plot the condition of a card continuously over time, we could get what your calculus teacher would have called a monotonically decreasing function.

Where a collector put his cards in bike spokes, pockets, or a rainstorm, condition decreased quickly. Conversely, where a collector used more protection than a Spring Breaker in Tijuana, condition was protected and preserved. However, nothing caused condition to improve. Cosmetic appearance? Yes. Condition? No.

When it comes down to it, the idea that condition is a one-way street is the main reason high-grade cards are so coveted. Some collectors might argue that their value simply comes from looking the nicest. However, I would prop up the near worthlessness of reprints as a counter to that claim.

Take a look at this (aptly named) Hack Wilson, before and after it’s run-in with a paper cutter.

With four well-placed cuts the corners, edges, and centering have all improved, but would you (or anyone) actually pay me more for the card on the right, having watched me create it from the card on the left? Unless your intention was to profit off an unsuspecting collector ignorant of the trimming, I have to imagine you’d either walk away or lower your offer considerably.

Yes, the card may look better, but we know it’s not better. Sure, the contrarians out there might challenge us to explain why size is somehow more important than corners, edges, and centering combined, and when they put it that way we would likely even struggle. Of course the real reason isn’t a reason; it’s an assumption.

Condition is a one-way street. As such, anything significant done to a card automatically and axiomatically makes the card worse. Period. Doubt that, and nearly any discussion of condition or premium on condition becomes farcical.

Condition is a one-way street. Period.

My Grading Experience – PSA 1 (Poor)

When grading hit the hobby in the late 1990’s, it was, for me, a death knell. As a set collector, seeing nice commons get sucked out of the market in raw form put me on a baseball card hiatus that lasted about 15 years (except for my annual sets and some occasional new things that caught my eye). I still don’t like buying graded cards (I crack them out of cases if I happen upon one for a set I’m working on) and I’ve never graded a card. Never, that is, until this past month.

As my friend Greg will tell you, my thoughts on grading my pre-war cards stretches back at least a year or more. I’ve been thinking of selling those off to support my current hobby interests. (Here’s a post from last July, which puts some kind of date on this exercise.)

In a very real sense, my back was against the wall when it came to my George Ruth Candy Company cards. A rash of fakes hit the market at the turn of the century, and, though I listed one of the two I have, it was clear that I’d need to get it graded to alleviate any fears of counterfeiting. PSA won’t grade these cards anymore because of the frauds, but SGC will. I sent off #3, the one I want to sell. It’s a pretty nice looking card, nicer than some I’d seen grade EX. I had high hopes.

Ruth front

Ruth back

To SGC’s credit, they promise a quick turnaround. To their discredit, they didn’t deliver on that promise, and I had to call to find out why it was taking so long to get back. I got good help, and, it was during that conversation, that I found out the grade, a 3, VG.

I couldn’t believe it. Not only is the card now valued much less, but I had to pay about $80.80 (including my priority postage to send it) for the privilege.  The whole ordeal made my stomach hurt.

Still, I had an extremely nice Ty Cobb Sweet Caporal Domino Disc to look forward to grading, this time by PSA. I searched around and found some EX ones that sold for well over $1,000, and I was at least in that condition ballpark. While PSA cost less SGC, $49.80, they take longer.

I checked the PSA site often, almost daily, and the card was in processing for a long time. Finally, the grade appeared – PSA 4 (VGEX). I was appalled.

I was once told “Buy the card, not the grade.” That’s good advice, but getting lower (though still good) grades feels terrible. Not only will I end up with less money via sales, but the grades have affected how I feel about these cards. Though I made the intellectual decision to sell them, I enjoy (enjoyed) having these, especially the Cobb, which I loved. Not anymore. Now it feels lousy and I don’t know what to do moving forward. I really would prefer not to have my other pre-war cards graded, but I wonder if I can sell them at a fair price without that. It’s a trap and, for a Katz, I feel pretty mousy.

Overall, it was a Pretty Shitty Adventure. I can’t give it a worse grade than that.

A Hinton Price Discovery (or, Causey effect)

One of the nice things about pursuing sets that are out of the mainstream is that there’s a real chance for bargains. I need an ungraded 1956 Topps Mantle in VGEX. It’s going to cost me $350-450; maybe more, unlikely less.

The cards I tend to go for have relatively little demand and, even when there’s somewhat less supply, the paucity of interest works in my favor.

I just nailed down the final coin I needed for the 1964 Topps set. If you read my last post, you know what it is.

Fine, I’ll tell you again; it’s the Wayne Causey All-Star coin, NL back variation. I’ve seen them go for $20 and up, but was holding out for $20. I picked it up for $13.50, plus postage.

The reason I was holding out was because of the other “NL” variation, Chuck Hinton. Both errors (they were corrected to AL backs, but not before some NLs got out) are harder to find than the other coins (even the Mantle variations, which were purposeful), but neither is more or less scarce than the other. So why did I get Hinton for $6, and have to wait awhile to get Causey for less than $15?

Patience helps, but lack of interest helps more. People are not really running after these variations, so, in time, they settle to a price I can be happy with. My goal was to get them both for a total of $20. I came close.

It’s easy to assume sellers/dealers are very knowledgeable, but many aren’t. The guy I bought my coin from knew he had an error, and listed as such. Last month someone listed three Causey All Star coins and two of them were of the NL kind. He had no idea. I tried to swoop in cheaply, but someone else in the know grabbed them in the final seconds. At the recent Boston show, I talked to a guy selling coins and a guy looking to buy them. Neither knew about the variations! I told them all about them (after I had looked through the dealer’s stock), but I was shocked at their ignorance.

Here’s some good background on the whole set (and other coins), but I’m still puzzled. The Causey and Hinton All-Stars, #161 and #162, are at the end of the set, with all the other NL stars. Why are the fronts blue, like all the AL All-Stars? If Topps (wrongly) assumed they were NL players, they should have had red fronts. If Topps knew they were actually AL stars (or what a KC A and Washington Senator came close to in 1964), why were they numbered with the NL guys? The linked post has a guess, but I’m not so sure there was a reason. I can’t figure it out.

Lack of consistent price discovery can bite as well. When I was finishing up my 1952 Parkhurst set, I tired to get a seller to pull a Bob Betz card from his lot. He wanted to charge me $100 for it and I was in disbelief (and told him so). He went through a whole rigmarole about how Betz was moved off the Ottawa Athletics quickly and, as a short print, it was tough to come by. I argued that there were other players in the same boat and they cost me between $5-15. I came away from that exchange knowing that guy was a dope.

97107-9979109Fr

Then a Betz card came up on eBay. I figured, OK, I’m getting down to the end of the set so I’ll pay $20. I ended up paying $80-something. I was bugged that, 1) someone else was forcing me to pay more and, 2) that other guy was right!

So it works both ways, but usually I get the best of the deal. I’m waiting for delivery of a 1963 Bazooka All Time Great Babe Ruth card. I fully expected to pay $35 if I was lucky, $50 if I wasn’t. I got it for $19. It helped that the guy listed it as “Bazooke.”

What do Baseball Cards Want?

There was a bit of an interesting discussion/freak out on card twitter this week over a restored T206 Honus Wagner card. Restoring in this case involves cleaning the card front and back, replacing the trimmed borders with material from other T206 cards, and filling in missing pigments.

Predictably and understandably, many collectors were appalled and outraged at this. We, as a group, tend to treat our cards as items whose aging must be arrested. We lock them away inside increasingly-secure plastic holders and handle them with kid gloves on the rare occasions that we look at them.* The idea of modifying a card by accident—let alone on purpose—is anathema to the collecting ethos and immediately makes people suspect malicious intent or ignorance.

*One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this SABR group is how frequently it champions the use of cards. Sorting and re-resorting things. Changing the contest in which they’re displayed, etc. etc.

So there were lots of reactions about how this is destroying the card. Or how it was no longer worth anything. Or how it was setting up the opportunity for someone to defraud an unsuspecting buyer.

My reaction though was one of excitement as this represents one of those occasions when baseball cards cross over into the art world. The issue of art restorations is one that’s fascinated me for a long time; the first thing I did was re-read Rebecca Mead’s wonderful New Yorker piece, remind myself of all the different ways that we’ve both “preserved” and “restored” items in the past, and think about what it means for us to have invested so much money and/or emotional weight in small pieces of printed cardboard.

“People always ask, ‘Who do you feel responsible to?’ If a collector comes in and says, ‘I want to have a piece fixed this way,’ do you do it as the collector wants it, or as the artist wants it? I always say we are responsible to the art work, not to the artist or to the collector.”

—Christian Scheidemann

Centering the discussion on the card itself allows me to really think about what restoring does and what it means to restore a card. I proceeded to jump down a rabbit hole and read posts about when museums have chosen to restore objects.* When they haven’t.** Plus discussions about how restoration is really a commitment to having to maintain the artwork over the course of its lifetime.***

*MoMA’s restoration of a Jackson Pollock is interesting in how it addresses previous restoration efforts as well as emphasizing the fact that the restoration is not intended to make the painting new but rather let it show its age while taking care of it and stabilizing the artwork.

**I found myself thinking especially about Cleveland’s bombed (literally) copy of The Thinker here.

***SFMOMA’s post about its “unconventional” approach to Barry McGee’s work is a great read.

In everything I read it was clear that restoring artwork is about balancing the immediate health of the item with its long-term prospects while keeping it “true” to itself. Restoring an old item so it looks brand new is not the point. It should appear old and reflect its history without looking like it’s going to fall apart.

Interventions should also be obvious without being distracting. The goal is to make it clear that things have been mended yet foreground the original piece. This is a delicate balance and is the reason why the restoration cannot be thought of as one-off fix. The item will continue to age along with the restoration and there’s no way for anyone to know for sure how their relationship will work in another 50 years.

All this makes a lot of sense for me when it comes to trying to preserve an item that’s been kept in reasonably good condition. It’s less relevant for items which are heavily damaged—such as the T206 Wagner in question. Sure, the question of being true to the item still remains. But which truth? The item as it was originally or the item as it’s become today?

Comic books have already ventured into this territory with restoration companies bragging about the level of restoration they can accomplish. The restored Wagner is very much in a similar vein. As much as I appreciate that it wasn’t restored to look pack-fresh and instead still looks like the century-old card that it is, something about doing that much addition just doesn’t sit right with me. The damage is part of the history of the card and obscuring that feels dishonest.

I found myself returning to a post The Getty made about how to display a collection of vase fragments since it points at a middle way of restoring a piece. While representing a much more extreme example of damage, the final restoration suggests the finished original while also being clear about what’s original and what’s new.

*The Getty’s post has more detail but lacks the side-by-side comparison that the Tumblr post has.

This approach is one that I feel would work great for damaged baseball cards where instead of rebuilding the trimmed areas and missing pigment so things look perfect, the restored areas were called out by using neutral pigments or a slightly-differently-toned paper. We would still be able to appreciate the card in its complete state while also being able to see how the original was altered over the years.

On the other hand, all the cleaning and soaking to remove dirt and accreted material—specifically the paper glued to the back—is something I’m still struggling with. Much of that material contains a lot of information about how the card has been used over the years and I hate to get rid of it. It’s good to know how it had been displayed before (in this case, pasted into an album) and be reminded that every generation’s best practices will likely give a subsequent generation hives.

There’s also always the risk of removing too much material. There’s a long history of over-cleaning objects in art world.* Even in sportsland the Hall of Fame just recently underwent a massive restoration project on its Conlon photos which, while it cleans up the photos, completely obliterated the history of how those photos had been used in print.

*Sometimes by accident. Other times, such as with removing all the paint from Greek and Roman sculptures, on purpose.

Do I know how I’d want to restore a damaged card like the Wagner? Of course not. Nor do I fully trust anyone with a single concrete answer as to the best solution. The discussion and thought experiment about how different approaches could help or hurt our understanding though is one which I’ve enjoyed and hope to see continue in the comments here.

The Price is Right?

I’m in the home stretch for my 1956 Topps set – 330 down, 10 to go. My tendency is to back into the most expensive card in any set I’m working on, because that puts me in a corner. “Are you really not going to buy that last card, regardless of price?” says the collector voice in my head. Of course I’m going to buy that card, hopefully at the price/condition equilibrium that’ll make me happy. So, yeah, I’m going to end up buying a 1956 Mantle.

66628

I’ve noticed a good amount of collectors approach the pricey card predicament in different ways. Some go lower condition to get a manageable price; some accept that they’ll simply never be able to afford that high dollar card. Some I’ve come across make do with reprints as a way to fill a sheet and look complete. I have thoughts.

How does one embark on set collecting? For me, from the onset, the overall cost has to be attainable. We all have different budgets, sure (though it seems clear to me that some of you spend far too much!), but putting one’s self on a completion path that you’ll never see the end of seems like bad planning and hugely frustrating. Snipe hunting sucks.

I’ll gulp when I buy that ’56 Mantle, but I knew it was hovering on the horizon when I decided to work on the set. For that reason, I’ll never even begin a 1952 Topps set, and didn’t even in the ‘70’s, when the prices were still relatively high to my income, which was non-existent. I could, back then, work on late ‘60’s sets which, at the time, were closer to my grasp.

1952-Topps-Eddie-Mathews

But, if you’re determined to finish most of a set, what’s the best option? It’s got to be the worse condition rather than the reprint. I know even low grade high end cards (oxymoronic?) can get up there dollar-wise, but a genuine card by default is preferable. Want to use a reprint as a placeholder? Sure, I guess. As an end in itself? You’re better off selling all the cards you have and redirecting towards a more attainable year to pursue.

All of that certainly makes it more difficult to pick a set. I’ve been inching my way along a 1970-71 Topps Hockey set, because I had a critical mass of cards to start with (around 25%) and the priciest cards I still need won’t run more than $30-40, and there’s only two of those (Orr and a checklist).  It’s definitely the last old hockey set I’ll tackle, because I know from the get-go that I’m unwilling to pony up the dough for certain cards.

I’m definitely running out of sets that I can reasonable hunt down.  I know I’ve written about that before, but it really bothers me.  I’ll figure something out. Until then, I’ll be on the lookout for a VGEX or EX 1956 Mantle that won’t keep me up at night.

Of Lefty Grove and Bad Decisions

The ‘90’s were a good time to be Lefty Grove. Sabermetrics were a godsend to his legacy. You’d think a Hall of Fame pitcher with 300 wins wouldn’t need much of a reevaluation, but Robert Moses did. The preeminent pitcher in a high offense era, Grove often had relatively high ERAs; his nine league leading totals included four times from between 2.81 and 3.08. It took ERA+ to really put it in perspective. That 3.08 ERA in 1938 was an ERA+ of 160, the same as Clayton Kershaw’s lifetime number. Good, right?

I wasn’t immune to the new found wonders of Grove. I bought an autographed newspaper clipping, no doubt real (who would fake such a crummy item. Plus, I got this lovely note).

I also got a 1937 O-Pee-Chee card, and herein lies the tale.

We were out in Southern California for vacation and, in nearby Laguna Niguel, or Laguna Beach, or some other similarly named burg, there was a high end auction house that had a store front. I was still trading options back then, my card interests and income at mutual highs. That was bad; it meant I was going to spend. Didn’t matter on what; I was going to spend.

There was a lot to take in at that store. I remember (though not with great surety) that they had old awards, rings, and, of course, cards. In the throes of Grove-mania, I honed in on this beauty, secretly stashed in a velvet envelope.

Tim Jenkins Tweeted his card show loot a few weeks ago and, in the midst of his horde, there was a 1952 Mother’s Cookie PCL card. It made my heart hurt, because, on that SoCal day twenty years ago, my ultimate choice was between the Grove card and a complete 1952 Mother’s set. I’m a set collector by nature, but, in the thrall of the Grove renaissance, Lefty swayed me. Upon further review, it was a bad call, only made worse by the misgivings that were there from the start.

First of all, though it’s a Grove card, it’s one card. The Mother’s set had 64. Second of all, they were both around the same price and, while Grove is Grove, the Mother’s set had a Mel Ott card and Ott is Ott. Third, I should have sensed that, from a purely financial position, the Grove card was going to top out and the Mother’s set would only appreciate. That’s been the case.

ott-mothers

I’ve managed to live a life, both a collecting life and a real life, with few regrets. This is one of them. The sad part is, though I missed the Mother’s set, the decision I made has always taken away from how happy I should be about the Grove card. That’s unfortunate, but hard to shake.