Friday, January 22nd, 2021

The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card

Only a few dozen T206 Honus Wagners are known to still exist, having been released in limited numbers just after the turn of the twentieth century. Most, with their creases and stains, look like they’ve been around for nearly one hundred years. But one—The Card—appears to have defied the travails of time. Its sharp corners and still-crisp portrait make it the single-most famous—and most desired—baseball card on the planet, valued today at more than two million dollars.

It has transformed a simple hobby into a billion-dollar industry that is at times as lawless as the Wild West. Everything about The Card, which has made men wealthy as well as poisoned lifelong relationships, is fraught with controversy—from its uncertain origins to the nagging possibility that it might not be exactly as it seems

In this intriguing, eye-opening, and groundbreaking look at a uniquely American obsession, award-winning investigative reporters Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson follow The Card‘s trail from a Florida flea market to the hands of the world’s most prominent collectors. The Card sheds a fascinating new light on a world of counterfeiters, con men, and the people who profit from what used to be a pastime for kids.  [Source: Product Description]

What follows below are the card collecting rememberances of Jason Miller, Books on Baseball Contributing Writer.  Jason is an avid, if not always astute, baseball card collector and has read The Card.   Welcome to the team Jason!

The Card is a fast, revealing read, and having lived the collector’s life myself (in a penny-ante kind of way) I can say this is a must-read book for those of us over a certain age. The book seizes on a single surviving 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card that recently re-sold at private auction for nearly $3 million, and how, through years of investigative journalism, the authors have fairly well proven that the card is not exactly what it purports to be.

I spent most of the 1980s collecting baseball cards. I started with the complete 1977 – 1979 Topps sets, collected for me by my dad as a failed attempt at leaving me an inheritance. Most of what I bought and traded for on my own I stored in shoeboxes; I own about 98 percent of the 1980 Topps set and I store those in the cigar box that originally heralded my sister’s birth. My mother never threw my cards away; I still have them all, many creased from having been transported to summer camp in my pockets.

Apart from the hours I wasted cataloguing and re-cataloguing my meager collections (I once traded the 1977 ChrisChambliss [below left] for a 1983 tandem of Ed Lynch and Dave LaRoche; dumb, dumb move) I’ve never spent a million bucks on a card of dubious provenance. I once laid down $10 for a 1957 Topps Luis Aparicio[below right], which was printed before Topps adopted their current card sizes and as such is too big to fit into the 9-card-per-page collector sheets that housed my dozen 1987 Mark McGwires (not even his rookie card, as it turns out).

“The Card” is a terrific look at the dark side of the hobby. Since many of those noted as “villains” by the author declined to be profiled, the book mostly features interviews with collectors who’ve left the hobby out of heartbreak, or those who run honorable and transparent businesses trying to clean it back up. It’s not just about baseball cards: it also touches on the grey market for “game-used” bats, autographs, jerseys and gloves. Billy Crystal makes a poignant cameo late in the story: he spent a quarter of a million collars on an item that isn’t what he thought it was.

At a card show in 2007 I was fortunate enough to meet two retired ballplayers who autographed their memorable cards for me: Bake McBride signed his afro on the ’80s Topps card, and Alvin Dark signed for me his 1955 Bowman TV-set image. I will not be selling these items. Neither card is in near-mint to mint condition, as was the T206 Wagner described in “The Card”; neither card is particularly rare; and I got them signed for sentimental value, not for investment purposes.

Confession, however: I did once trim a baseball card. Trimming is part of a run of dubious practices, made easier with the advent of newer technology, revealed in “The Card”.  To trim is to make a dog-eared card crisp, and to pare aging borders back to their original white and pristine state. In early 1983 a Junior Scholastic-type magazine I ordered through school came with an uncut partial sheet of eight 1982 Topps cards. Being nine and having never seen an uncut sheet before, I promptly grabbed my safety scissors and got to work liberating the cards from their unified tyranny. I mangled all the cards in the process. Including the Orioles Future Stars card. With Cal Ripken, Jr. on it.
To be fair, at the time I couldn’t have known I was cutting up a card that, thanks to the hobby’s implosion, probably isn’t worth more than 20 bucks today, if that.  I ruined Cal Jr. so bad that even the villains from “The Card” couldn’t convert it into a million-dollar item.
BoB Rating: Triple (and the people who live in Honus Wagner’s old house barely know who he is…)
Amazon: 4.5 stars (15 reviews)

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