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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com. I’ll be over here, touching history.
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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!
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.
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.
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”
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.
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 “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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.