Images as Currency

Before I joined SABR I had a post on my own blog which looked at baseball cards and the role they played in developing my visual literacy. Over the past year of watching various Zoom presentations with my kids about the history of cards I’ve found myself realizing that I need to write a similar post about the way baseball cards also track the way that we, as humans developed visual literacy.

Baseball and baseball cards sort of eerily parallel the development and evolution of photography with a number of rough steps starting around the Civil War before finally coalescing in the late 19th Century around something that’s not changed much over the last 125 years. The thing though is that baseball cards are but a thin sliver of this development.

The hobby has a tendency to talk about cards and collecting as if they evolved as part of baseball history. I get it; we collect cards and aren’t photo historians. But I think it’s important to understand how, if anything, cards basically came along for the ride and that their history is less a history of baseball but a lesson on how we learned to use photographs and changed our relationship with celebrity.

A couple years ago I read Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths. It’s a great book about Sojourner Truth and how she supported herself in part by selling cartes de visite. I went into the book expecting history about photographs and what they depict, and how they interact with issues of race, power, and privilege. Instead I came out with an appreciation of how printed images function within our society.

For most of human history, portraits were only accessible to the wealthy. You had to pay an extremely skilled artist to paint you and you only got one piece out of it. With the advent of photography in the mid-19th century things got a lot more accessible. Tintypes and ambrotypes were affordable* to a much wider range of people. However they are still one-off pieces. The negative itself is treated in such a way that it becomes a positive** and there is no way to make prints.

*25¢ to $2.50 during the Civil War years. So not cheap but something many soldiers or freedmen were able to acquire.

**Watching one develop is as close to seeing real magic as anyone could ever hope to see.

Napoleon III & Empress Eugenie

The next step, making prints from negatives,* opened up the age of photography as we truly know it. Rather than an image being a singular piece, prints could be made and disseminated all over the world. These quickly became cartes de visite and, later, cabinet cards. Cartes de visite are literally visiting cards but took off as soon as they began to be used as celebrity—at first royal—portaits. the resulting phenomena became known as cartomania and became a serious thing both abroad and in the United States.

*In this case albumen prints from glass negatives.

Coming back to Sojourner Truth, not only were people collecting cards, notable people like Truth were producing them for sale as well, modifying them to not only be photographs but to include messages.* Card making and collecting is not only a hobby but a business that can support people whose images are in demand.

*In Truth’s case “I sell the shadow to support the substance”

Grigsby points out that in parallel with cartomania, autograph collecting also saw a massive surge in interest during the Victorian Era as the idea of collecting expanded to include all manner of people. She also makes an amazing connection to the rise of printed, national currency following the National Bank Act and how said currency is also heavily image based. The rise of postal systems and stamps starting from 1840 to the point where we had to create an international standard in 1874 is also worth mentioning here. Stamps were immediately collected and are another way that images became currency.

Cartes de visite, stamps, autographs, etc all ended up being stored in albums and shown to visitors in ways that are shockingly familiar to any of us card collectors today. We have pages that are frequently better for preservation but both the concept and practice of the card binder emerged hand in hand with the cards themselves.

It’s impossible for me to look at sets like Old Judge or Goodwin & Company outside the collecting world which existed in this era. When images are currency and the idea of celebrity culture and “set” collection has taken such a strong hold, it’s no surprise that companies started to create cards of their own.

These are photos—cabinet cards actually—which were printed for commercial instead of personal reasons. They depict all kinds of athletes as well as actors, actresses, and other famous people. Yes they’re promotional items. But they clearly were intended to be collected and traded in the same way as the individually-produced cards were.

Cards and photography usage only begins to diverge a bit in the late 19th century when cabinet cards began to die out due to the emergence of amateur photography. At this point other forms of printed images took up the torch since cards and card collecting were firmly entrenched. Manufacturers like Allen & Ginter in the US (and many others abroad) created sports sets including baseball players, billiards shooters, boxers, and pedestrians and non-sports sets depicting animals, flowers, flags, etc. There was plenty of stuff to choose from; if you could imagine a collection there’s a decent chance there’s a set of it out there.*

*Up until World War 2 the world of trading cards was massive and wonderfully varied. This represents over eight decades of card collecting. I’ve been grabbing “pre-war”sets which cover whatever subject matter strikes my interest—from Hollywood to science to travel because they represent how cards became an affordable way to create your own wunderkammer.

One of the things I love most in this hobby is how it remains a direct connection to the way we originally used photographs. Yes I love baseball. But I also love photography and being able to experience how the the world of cartomania still survives today is fantastic.

It’s why I love the non-sport elements of the modern Ginter sets. It’s why things like exhibit cards fascinate me. It’s why I enjoy Jay Publishing, team-issued postcards, and other card-related photopacks which are aren’t necessarily cards. I can see all these different directions that the hobby could have gone in. Different ways of designing sets and releasing cards. Different concepts of who is worth depicting.

It all reaches back to the 19th century when we realized how images are currency. Something people are willing to purchase and save and trade. The history of card collecting depicts baseball. But it embodies how we learned to see and how we learned to use images.

Art Market

We don’t talk a lot about value and sales prices on this blog. This is by design. Neither Jason nor I (nor Mark nor Chris) are interested in that stuff too much and we all agree that the primary interest of this committee is in card usage. Yes value maters when it comes to putting together a collection or knowing what to expect to pay. But none of us are in this committee to talk about how we’ve made (or lost) money on cards.

At the same time, when the market goes up and new money comes in, the results affect all of us. The past year in the hobby has been wild enough to result in numerous articles over the past year about the exploding market for sports cards. Most of these are nothing new to anyone who’s been collecting for more than a couple years. At their best they serve as decent primers to anyone who hasn’t thought about cards in decades. At their worst they end up being lazy analogies comparing card prices to index funds. Almost all of them mess up some key facts, such as calling the 1952 Topps Mantle his rookie card.

I read them because sometimes there’s something interesting. Usually I’m disappointed or frustrated but a recent article in the New York Times caught my eye because it made an explicit connection to the art market.

“This is the art of the future for sports enthusiasts who have money and don’t want to buy art,” Davis said. “Pretty much everything I collect now is because I think it is a good investment and because I like the player. The common thread is, I think it will be a good investment. It’s part of the fun.”

I’ve been making this point on Twitter for a while. While many people like to think of sports cards as analogous to stocks, it’s been clear to me that the better analogy is to the art market. From the way serial-numbered cards are basically art editioning to restoration issues and catalogue raisonné issues, the hobby has been moving in a direction which takes it out of the realm that most of us grew up in.

Becoming more like the art market means that extremely rich people are buying things as part of a portfolio. Some of them might be fans. Many of them though just like the idea. But the products they’re buying and selling are going to be products that the rest of us never see in person.

Most worrisome is the likelihood that the market will be manipulated as these investors seek to prop up the values of their cards. This kind of stuff is pretty common in the art world and, despite being a Potemkin Village, seems to skirt right by the press coverage which focuses just on the latest record-setting auction price.*

*It’s also worth watching the developing Non-Fungible Token art world here.

What the two dealers were apparently attempting to do was thread the needle on the two lesser Warhols. To bid high—as much as the consignor was hoping to get—might serve to prop up values for the Warhol market at large, but would be expensive and make the paintings that much more difficult to sell down the road.

Sure this might be fun for some people. But the fun is in the making money, not the medium which enables these flips.

The thing about the art market is that many museums have let the art investor/collectors drive the business. Some museums make a big deal showing one person’s collection. Often these feature a piece from all the prescribed big names and do nothing but allow for the owner to enhance the prestige of their collection. Other museums are basically showcases for a specific collection.

I don’t inherently dislike this but it’s important to realize that the immense platform we give the expensive stuff is only a sliver of the whole picture. As baseball cards move toward this territory it’s important for us all to remember that the art market side of things has pretty much nothing to do with the way we collect and that the focus on the expensive stuff tends to remove the hand of the curator.

In art, the museum curators are in charge of what museums display, illuminating why they’re on display, and considering how they interact with other items in the same gallery. There’s no similar position in trading card world. Instead, each of us is wears that hat and our collections are our personal curatorial projects.

The expensive 1:1 stuff is not only unattainable, it’s a distraction. It makes the focus just about value and turns a lot of heads. A collection of “these are expensive cards” is ultimately as boring as an art museum which only talks about how much the paintings are worth. There’s so much more interesting stuff to do with cards. There are so many more interesting ways to collect.

Pick themes. Tell stories. Run down a rabbit hole of weird stuff that interests only you.

Use your cards. Look at them. Share them. Display them. Talk about them.

Remember that this is a personal hobby.

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.

Digital Marketplace

Last December I wrote a post about Topps Bunt, digital cards, and the ways that cards can exist in both digital and physical forms. It was very much from my point of view as a digital skeptic who distrusts the way that digital items are locked into proprietary software and rely on corporate maintenance to exist.

It’s one thing to sink a bunch of money into physical cards. If Topps dies, I still have the cards. Whereas with digital cards we have no idea what will happen in a decade. Will Topps be around? Will it be supporting the app still? Will it be maintaining a server where all that stuff exists on the web? None of us knows and that’s a leap of faith I’m unwilling to make.

At the same time, events in the hobby the past couple months have had reevaluating my thoughts on this. Yes this is related to Project 2020. No it’s not about the cards or even the values they had. Rather it’s about the way they were being bought and sold online.

It was wild to watch and I’ve never seen something where card prices were behaving like a stock ticker and people were buying and selling faster than the the shipping could keep up. While there’s been a market for digital only cards, I sort of ignored it until realized how many people are totally willing to flip cards without ever really having them in their possession.

In the same vein of things, I’ve been seeing discussions about flipping on COMC and can’t help but see that universe as also being digital cards. The same thing is going on there. There’s a big marketplace for buying and selling cards that you never physically own.

Yes, people point out that the cards on COMC are literally there and you can always request a shipment. But from where I sit this is remarkably close to how money used to work back when it was backed by a physical standard—something we abandoned almost a century ago.

I know I know. Cards aren’t money. But as we move into purely digital currencies and purely digital cards, I can’t help but wonder about if the upcoming generation will treat these things differently. I’m already seeing reports of blockchain-backed digital transactions of digital collectibles. I suspect such things will only increase in the upcoming years.

This is the kind of thing that likely freaks out a lot of us. Especially in this nostalgia-focused hobby. One of the only editorial points of view that Jason and I enforce is to focus on usage rather than value on here, this trend toward a digital-only marketplace for cards is one that has me asking myself what it means to actually use a digital card. I certainly hope that the usage is not only for flipping on a digital marketplace.

Some of those questions have already been answered in the Topps Bunt post where, refreshingly, the digital marketplace can serve as a pure version of card collecting where people can just have fun acquiring, trading, and set building. But those digital collections also feel incredibly ephemeral, focused on new items with no long tail or ability to deep dive into the past.

I don’t want digital cards to be emulating physical ones. I’d love to see them do things that physical cards can’t do. But I’d also like to see them be something that can be collected and shared across generations. At the end of the day what makes cards interesting to most of us here is the story they tell about baseball and our connection to the game, not the story about how much money we spent or the profits we made.

The Gould Collection: What Johnny Left Behind

Just a few days before the opening of “Home Base,” my exhibition about the history of baseball in New York City, I received an email from a woman who had been steered my way by the esteemed official historian of Major League Baseball, John Thorn. The content of the email was, mostly, something I have seen before. A family had inherited a baseball card collection. They believed it had some value but were looking for assistance as to which way to best navigate a sale.

In the few years I have been assisting people in selling their collections, I am, at best, usually approached with cards from the 1970s. Often, it’s even more recent and pretty worthless. I’ve disappointed many a soul when I told them that the five Wade Boggs rookie cards they hoarded as a kid weren’t going to make them a millionaire. I’ve reached a point where I understand that such collections aren’t worth the many hours that go into what it takes to inventory, organize and sell a collection, and I pass on the opportunity.

But, this email had two distinctive features. The first was the recommendation from John, who has the wisdom to know if something is the real deal. The second was that this family had already done a considerable amount of inventorying and research in the eight months since their uncle died. They sent me a series of handwritten lists they had created, which told me which sets they had and which cards were missing from each. It was intriguing enough that last week I decided to meet with them to see it in person.

I met the three sisters, Karen, Lynn, and Mary, and their mother, Gertrude. They made me a splendid breakfast and regaled me with stories of their uncle, Johnny Gould. Johnny (the handsome fellow whose picture is at the top of this blog) was born in 1940, was single for most of his life, and was living in the home that belonged to his parents when he died. He was remembered by his family as one who was both “salty and sweet,” a kind soul who was a bit of a reclusive loner. He was also a sports fanatic. All sports. He was a Redskins fan who was the quarterback in many a neighborhood pickup game. He liked basketball and was an avid watcher of golf. But, the true passion of his life was baseball.

Because Whalen only served as a scout for the Indians between 1953-’56, Johnny was clearly already on the radar of major league teams when he was a boy no older than 16.

As a youth, he pursued a professional career. Among the things he left behind in his collection were an interest letter from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the business cards of John Whalen and Walter Youse, scouts for the Indians and Orioles, respectively. He signed with the Indians, as a pitcher, and was in their minor league system when an arm injury derailed his fledgling career. After his dreams of major league glory were dashed, he continued to channel his love of the game into collecting. It was an intense romance that resulted in a collection that has brought me to pen this little missive.

I am in the middle of inventorying the first five fifty-gallon storage tubs, and those represent just a portion of the collection. The cataloging process will likely take me several more weeks and as a result, I can’t accurately represent the sheer enormity of it, not just yet. However, I have seen enough that a story is starting to emerge.

Robinson’s 1950 Bowman image was based on a photograph taken by Barney Stein, the Dodgers official team photographer.

Johnny began collecting baseball cards in 1950, when he was a ten-year-old boy. His timing was synchronous with the explosion of the hobby, which had been mostly dormant during World War II. Johnny began with Bowman, the only real game in town at that point. That 1950 offering included what we now think of as key cards for Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and Yogi Berra. The nickels that Johnny paid for a pack of five cards (or one-card packs for a penny), resulted in him having multiple copies of those legendary players, and more, in this relatively affordable vintage set.

After he experienced the photo-based, lushly painted wonder of the 1950 Bowmans, he clearly became hooked. For the next 13 years he purchased every set that Bowman and Topps produced, with the seeming exception of 1960. The quantities he bought would vary, year to year. He was missing fewer than 50 cards that were produced by Bowman from 1950-1955. From Topps, he had a complete set of 1957, was missing only one (ironically inexpensive) card from the 1956 set, and was only a couple dozen cards shy of completing the sets from 1952-55.

Among the many, many cards that Johnny collected in his teens are some of the most iconic ones in the hobby. He not only owned the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, perhaps second only to the famed T-206 Wagner in terms of desirability by collectors, but he had two 1951 Mantle Bowmans. There are multiple rookie cards for all of the biggest names of baseball’s golden age: Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, and Sandy Koufax are all represented, just to name a few. Johnny also, at one point in his life, started collecting pre-war cards, too. There are 1934-36 Batter Ups and Diamond Stars, 1935 Goudey 4-in-1s, 1933 Eclipse Imports and a fair sprinkling of 1939 Play Balls, including both the Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio rookie cards.

One of two Bowman ’51 Mantles in Johnny’s collection. The other one has much nicer corners, but I chose to use this image for the blog because the other is in a yellow Card Saver, making an ugly scan. Since I don’t want to touch them any more than is necessary, I chose to not pull it out just yet.
The 1939 Play Ball of Ted Williams is one of the most recognized rookie cards in the hobby, and one of the most frequently sought after, even when suffering from water damage.

The conditions of the cards vary. At some point he trimmed the ’52 Mantle so he could fit it into his wallet, according to the sisters. Most of the wear is more traditional. It’s clear from the ones dating back to the early years that Johnny loved his cards with a little boy’s enthusiasm. But, as he matured, he started to take better care of his collection. The borders of the 1962 Topps, with their dark faux woodgrain, are remarkably sharp and unchipped.

One habit superseded any desire he may have had to keep his cards pristine. Johnny went through a phase in the mid-’50s where he wanted to learn how to sign an autograph, just like his idols. What better arena in which to learn than on the cards themselves, where manufacturers frequently provided a facsimile signature? Johnny had nine copies of Hank Aaron’s 1956 Topps. Five of them feature what I believe are the sixteen-year-old’s florid attempts at replicating the tight signature of Hammerin’ Hank.

The creative autograph stylings of teenage Johnny Gould. Of these, I believe only the faded example on the top right is even potentially legitimate.

His habit of copying signatures almost made me miss a group of 1953 Bowmans that contain, what I now believe to be, legitimate autographs. At first I was working under the premise that they were also fakes, largely because the Mantle autograph looked so different from his more familiar style, with the half-moon M at the front of both parts of his alliterative moniker. Then, I took a second look. On the cards that were obvious forgeries, Johnny’s youthful attempts at copying the signatures weren’t very good. Not only did they look nothing like the real thing, but they were all obviously written in the same hand. The ’53 Bowmans not only seemed to be by different hands, but the cards themselves do not contain a facsimile to inspire his practice. That realization then triggered the memory that Mantle’s signature, like so many others, evolved over the years. With the help of sportscollectorsdigest.com I found a version of Mantle’s autograph from a similar era. I leave the comparison to you.

Top image: Johnny’s 1953 Bowman. Bottom image: Mantle’s 1954 Yankees contract.

Gertrude confirmed that Johnny started taking the bus to Griffith Stadium when he was thirteen. All of the signatures on the ’53 Bowmans, seven in total, were guys who played on American League teams, four of them Yankees. As such, there would have been an opportunity for Johnny to connect with each of them. I’m firmly convinced these signatures are real and will be keeping an eye open for even more examples as I inventory the rest of the collection.

One of three containers filled with hundreds of envelopes. Because he requested autographs for many years, one can observe the evolution of the signatures of players who replied to him more than once.

Autographs became very important to Johnny, ultimately overcoming his collection of baseball cards. While he appears to have mostly stopped buying cards around 1962, that year also marks the beginning of when he started a new hobby. Included in the collection are three boxes of envelopes, with approximately 150 envelopes per box. The dates on the postmarks span the years 1962-’97, and come from around the United States. It seems that Johnny wrote the ballclubs (and later in life, professional golfers), and sent them a SASE filled with blank index cards. The teams returned them, signed, with mixed results in terms of player participation. Often, only one player responded, signing multiple cards. Anyone in need of 12 copies of Charlie Spikes’s autograph?

Some of the envelopes, however, have taken my breath away. One postmarked from San Francisco in 1965 contained the autographs of six Hall of Famers, including Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, Warren Spahn and Willie Mays. Another contained almost the entire starting squad of the 1969 Mets, including Tom Seaver. A third featured many of the 1969 Pirates, including one signed by Roberto Clemente. I had never touched anything that was also once held by Clemente, a personal idol, and the experience left me shaken.

Johnny’s index card from 1969, bearing the signature of The Great One, Roberto Clemente.

The contents of the card collection itself are a rare experience for many hobbyists. A chance to dive into so many of these legendary pieces of cardboard is a precious opportunity indeed, and I expected to be moved by my discoveries along the way. But, I’m normally not an autograph guy. Even as a child, I found something awkward in asking a player to sign something for me. It felt like an invasion of their space, like I was a thief trying to steal their names. So, it is with no small amount of irony that I find myself most captivated by this collection of envelopes. The sisters did not have time to inventory their contents, so each is a surprise to me, and some of the names I am stumbling across are humbling.

The envelopes have also given me a chance to better understand Johnny Gould, the man. It is one thing for a ten (or twenty) year-old boy to spend a few dimes on packs of baseball cards. But to practice a habit for thirty-five years, carrying it through until well past middle-age, speaks to a particular mind. Lynn pointed out that while many of the cards were stored in literal shoeboxes, the envelopes lived in the top drawer of his dresser, always close at hand. Each one of those envelopes, all of them containing the same D.C. return address written in the same, neat, steady hand, is a testament to a passion I readily recognize. For Johnny, those index cards were transformed from simple squares of paper to direct links to the game that he gave his life to, in his most singular way. I, and likely most of you reading this post on this particular blog, can certainly relate.

Once I’m done cataloging all the index cards, I should probably go back and check on the value of the almost 500 stamps that he attached to his requests. The FDR stamp was a part of the USPS “Prominent Americans” series, issued between 1965-’78.

I am excited for what the next few weeks hold. There are still plenty of treasures to discover as I prepare to help the family sell their uncle’s legacy. There’s more I’ve already uncovered that I didn’t even mention this time around. Maybe I’ll have to write more about it as I journey down the path. In the meantime, if any of you might be interested in purchasing items from the Gould Collection, feel free to drop me a line at carhartcards@gmail.com. I’ll be over here, touching history.

What To Do?

From the mid-80’s to the early ’90’s, Baseball Cards magazine had an early version of what we now know of as, and mostly love, “Custom Cards.” (Trading Card Database has them here).

They’re great.

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I have a pretty solid run of the magazine, card inserts intact. (It would take some digging to pull them all out right now).

The question I have, for me, and for all of you, is what should I do with them? It would be a nice bit of weight loss to shed myself of the magazines and keep the cards.

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Checking eBay on this helps, sort of. There are graded gems mints that go for hundreds. Then there are magazines themselves that go for less. Really, though, I’m not even sure I’m looking to sell, but, if I decide to, I’m unclear what’s the best move, cards alone, or cards still in magazines.

So….help!

 

Endless stream of cards and magazines

Picking up a Street and Smith Yearbook from the newsstand or drug store was an annual rite of spring for many baseball fans.  Since ESPN and the internet were nowhere in sight, annuals were one way to obtain updated rosters and prognostications for the upcoming season.  Of course, the information was several months old by the time it reached the magazine rack. However, those of us in a non-Major League markets or rural areas especially relied on these publications to set the stage for the season.

In the 1970s, Street and Smith produced regional covers designed to attract fans of the local team.  Prior to the Mariners arrival in 1977, Washington State baseball fans received covers featuring California teams.  For instance, I bought this 1976 edition with Davey Lopes on the cover.  But New England fans would find the same content covered with the photo of 1975 Rookie of the Year and MVP, Fred Lynn.

While looking through both versions, I was drawn to the advertisements for sports card dealers. Obviously, sports magazines were an excellent method of reaching the customer base.  The 1976 Street and Smith Yearbook has numerous ads for dealers across the nation.

For example, mail order stalwart (still going strong in 2019) Larry Fritsch Cards in Stevens Point, WI, has an ad. The 1976 Fritsch ad is filled with tempting choices including the complete 1976 Topps baseball set for $12.95 plus postage.  This is on the expensive side, since most of the other ads offer the set for less.  Incidentally, $12.95 in 1976 dollars has the buying power of $58.44 today.  Thus, a kid had to mow several lawns or, in my case, return a huge number of beer bottles to the recycler to afford the complete set.

I distinctly remember ordering my 1976 complete set from G. S. Gallery in Coopersburg, PA.  The set was $7.95, plus a dollar postage.  I remember the postal worker (Mr. Copeland-it’s a small town) at the Selah, WA, post office having to redo the money order after accidentally putting “Cooperstown” on it instead of Coopersburg.  By the way, $8.95 has the 2019 buying power of $40.39 when adjusted for inflation.

Two other dealers in the magazine offer examples of the price range for the complete set.  Stan Martucci of Staten Island-who urges buyers to “Go with Experience” based on his 22 years in the business-priced his set at a whopping $14.  Meanwhile, collectors could shell out $9.99 to obtain the same cards from the only West Coast dealer in the magazine, Will Davis of Fairfield, CA.

In addition to new sets, the dealers offered sets from previous years.  Wholesale Cards of Georgetown, CT, offered complete sets from the 1970s in all four major sports.  Plus, you could pick up Topps Civil War, 1966 English Soccer or the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set.

Another merchant with a tantalizing selection of cards was Paul E. Marchant of Charleston, IL. The 1964 Topps “Giant” set was available for only $3.00. Also, SSPC sets could be had along with an address list for autograph seekers.

This ad uses the card of Glenn Abbott as an example for the 1976 set.  An odd choice since Glenn was just starting out.  I must point out that he would be the “ace” of the original Seattle Mariners in 1977, winning 13 games.  At the time, his win total tied the record for most wins on an expansion team.  The first to do it was Seattle Pilots hurler, Gene “Lerch” Brabender.

The Sports Hobbyist in Detroit offered a different way for collectors to obtain a complete set of 660 Topps cards in 1976.  For $10, they sent 1,000 cards and guaranteed that “just about” a complete set could be assembled.  A 50-cent coupon was included to purchase up to 40 cards to help complete the set.

Once a complete set was obtained, the collector needed some place to store the cards.  A nifty tote box, divided into 26 compartments, was one solution.  It was available for a mere $4.00 from ATC Sports Products of Duluth, MN.

Along the same lines, a Major League Baseball card locker could be had from the Royal Advertising Corp. for $2.95, plus 36 cents postage.  You could even send cash!  Note that Seattle Pilots outfielder Steve Whitaker’s 1967 card on the Yankees is front and center in the ad.

Although cards are not offered, there is an ad for the hobby publication, “The Trader Speaks.” I never subscribed to this trade paper but went with “Sports Collectors’ Digest” instead.

One negative feature of all these offers was the fact you had to wait four to six weeks to receive the merchandize in 1976.  There was no expectation for faster service, and no reason given for the protracted processing time.  My recollection was that it always seemed to take closer to six weeks than four.  This process explains why I am such a patient man to this day.

I will close with two advertisements that were ubiquitous in magazines of this era:  Manny’s Baseball Land and Charles Atlas.  Manny’s had the same format for years with many of the same products offered as well.  Of course, Charles Atlas offered to “make a man out of Mac” for decades.  I’m still trying to get his body building method to work, and I’m damned tired of bullies kicking sand in my face at the beach!

Catch him if you can

At this point we’ve all heard about the “Slabgate” trimming scandal that has the hobby world up in arms. Now, before everyone grabs torches and pitchforks and heads to Joe Orlando’s house, I would like to point out that if the cards weren’t graded beforehand or afterwards Gary Moser probably wouldn’t have been caught yet. Those grading registration numbers made the required research possible.

I get it, having a story about another shady card dealer who’s trimming cards is sad at best. However, a conspiracy that involves PWCC, PSA, and a card trimmer, now that’s sexy!

I’m not saying I can prove PSA or PWCC was or wasn’t involved. Maybe Moser knew someone grading and slabbing at PSA. Maybe the cards just got through, I don’t know. It just seems unlikely that a publicly traded company is going to go on the take for a split pot of a few thousand bucks.

Yes, you’re right. It’s basically PSA’s only job to catch cards that have been doctored. You can breathe now; as long as you weren’t one of the thousands of collectors complaining about turnaround times.

It’s important to remember PSA is in the business of grading the quality of paper stock. If situation arises when they have to hire more graders, these graders have to be experts who know paper fiber, not Billy Bob who wants to slab cards because his Pokemon collection is dope.  

My point is that the grading companies are usually the only stop between the Gary Mosers of this world and all of the various auction houses. The hobby needs grading companies, for better or worse.

The way I see it there are basically two options for PSA going forward. Slow down and potentially lose the impatient collectors in the short term; or keep going, decrease the quality of their product, and lose the revenue of many collectors in the long term.

Either way you look at it PSA is in need of quality graders. They need paper fiber experts who know sports cards, maybe Gary Moser? Hey, it worked with Frank Abagnale, catch him if you can, PSA!

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.