Talking baseball cards with Dave Jamieson

One of the more enjoyable books I’ve read this year is Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession. The book details the history of baseball cards, from their roots with tobacco to their association with gum to the boom and bust of the last 25 years. Earlier this month, I asked Jamieson about his book and the phenomenon of collecting cards.

Markusen: In the opening pages of the book, you tie in the “invention” of baseball cards to the American Civil War. In doing your research, were you surprised how baseball cards have so often intertwined with American history and culture?

Jamieson: Yeah, I was pretty shocked. And in the end, that’s really what much of the book was about—how these cards influenced American industries, American culture, and of course baseball itself. We see it in the very beginning, when baseball cards are used to promote cigarettes and actually play a huge role in exposing young boys to smoking in the late 1800s. And that’s how it would be for the next 100 years—these peculiar little cards having outsize influence. They’re one of the main reasons the baseball players’ union became the most powerful of its kind.

Markusen: In the book, you uncover some interesting characters, from collectors extraordinaire like Jefferson Burdick and Michael Gidwitz to artists like Woody Gelman, executives like Sy Berger, and dealers like Bill Mastro. Which of these characters, or perhaps others, did you find the most compelling?

Jamieson: I’m endlessly fascinated by Woody Gelman, who for around 25 years was the creative director at Topps. He had such a huge influence on our pop culture and he wore so many different hats—artist, publisher, collector—and yet almost nobody had heard of him. All that weird dime-store kid stuff we grew up with and often still see today, whether it’s Garbage Pail Kids or Pokemon cards, Gelman was really the originator of all that. As Art Spiegelman said, Gelman operated in the sub- sub-basements of our culture, strange arenas (at the time) like old trading cards and comic books, and he saw a significance in it all before anyone else.

Markusen: Was there anyone that you had hoped to interview for the book that would simply not agree to talk about the project?

Jamieson: Well, Topps, for certain. I’d approached them pretty much right off the bat and they made it clear they weren’t going to cooperate much. A spokesman told me they may want to do a book of their own someday so they didn’t want to give away their stories, which is fine. Most of the people I wanted to write about from Topps were either long retired or dead anyway, so I just worked around the company. I have no idea what Topps folks thought of the book.

Markusen: If you could pinpoint the turning point, when baseball cards went from being a charming hobby to being big business, when did it occur?

Jamieson: It’s hard to nail down an exact moment, but I’d have to say some point in the early 1980s. That’s when baseball cards start to morph from this kiddie pastime into major business and we see a great change in collector demographics. It’s no longer just for the elementary school set—we see adults piling in there, throwing money around and opening stores and traveling to card shows. The first Beckett baseball card price guides show up around 1980 or 1981, and that’s a good indication that this is no longer just a hobby but really a business. People start to view cards as investments rather than just collectibles and that’s really what drives the growth of this industry throughout the rest of that decade.

Markusen: Outside of the Honus Wagner T206, what card do you find most intriguing from a collecting/industry standpoint?

Jamieson: Probably the 1933 Napoleon Lajoie card made by the Goudey Gum Company. It has such a wonderful back story. Goudey listed the card among their initial set but they never actually printed it in 1933. The leading theory on that is they wanted kids to keep buying pack after pack after pack in search of this card that didn’t exist. Well, the mothers of young boys caught on, and many of them eventually complained to Goudey. So the company printed a limited number of cards and mailed them out to whoever had written in wondering where Nap Lajoie was. Those are the only such cards known to exist today. One in good condition will fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Markusen: A tough question, but one that needs to be asked of anyone who has collected cards. If you could boil it down to just one card over the years, what do you consider your favorite baseball card of all time?

Jamieson: Well, from a personal standpoint, it would be the 1984 Don Mattingly rookie card from Topps. I grew up in North Jersey and was a huge Yankees fan; Mattingly was pretty much my hero. It was the card I’d wanted for years as a boy, and I had to wait a while for it because it sold for around $30 at the time. But one year my parents gave it to me for Christmas. I still have it today, and even thought it’s probably worth only $10 at most, I don’t think I’ll part with it.

Markusen: Having researched and written the book, are you more likely, or less likely, to continue collecting baseball cards down the line?

Jamieson: It’s funny—people assume I’m a collector because I wrote a book on baseball cards, but I actually haven’t collected them in years. I probably bought my last pack when I was 14 years old, in 1992, and then I just got interested in other things, as boys of that age tend to do. That said, some of the vintage stuff is terrific. Just beautiful to look at and genuinely rare. If I were to collect—and if I had the money to spend—I would pursue older cards, probably the Old Judge cards from the late 1880s and the gum cards of the 1930s. They’re beautiful.

Markusen: After the boom of the 1980s, the bust of the 1990s, and the current malaise of the 2000s, what do you foresee as the immediate future for the baseball card industry?

Jamieson: Unfortunately I have a hard time offering any rosy predictions. The card companies and the players union really oversaturated the market for many years and it turned off a lot of collectors. They’ve had a hard time getting kids involved again and sadly I think the environment is only getting more difficult. There’s just so much competing for kids’ attention these days—between the Internet and video games, in particular—that it’s hard to give a kid a stack of cardboard and expect him to play with it all day long. That said, these little cards have been amazingly resilient. They’ve been around for more than 120 years! So there’s no reason they shouldn’t last at least a while longer.

To purchase Mint Condition, a highly recommended book, visit http://www.davejamieson.com.

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