April 23, 2010
Dave Jamieson's "Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became An American Obsession" begins just as you might expect from a book written by someone who holds 1987 Topps as his favorite set of all time.
With his childhood home sold and awaiting new owners, Jamieson rescues his large childhood card collection from his old bedroom. But when all of his old cardboard Cal Ripkens and Rickey Hendersons start taking up prime real estate in his tiny apartment, he makes the painful decision to sell them — hopefully for a big price — to a nice new home.
Jamieson, of course, is soon greeted by the reality that not only does no one want to make him rich off his old stash, no one even wants to waste their time looking to see if he has anything valuable. After an adolescence spent watching baseball cards boom and believing that his collectibles would one day bring him a check with a few commas, Jamieson is forced to ask the question many of us have asked as adults.
"What had happened?"
And so Jamieson begins a 248-page journey through the history of baseball cards — from its beginnings as a way to move cigarette packs to its current state in which old jerseys are sliced, diced and made into controversial "chase cards" that, depending upon your viewpoint, have either saved the industry or destroyed it.
If you spent your formative years sticking Pete Rose rookies in your bicycle spokes or thinking that the '89 Ken Griffey was going to put your future kids through college, you're probably going to enjoy this book. Jamieson is a Washington-based writer who has written about baseball cards for Slate — he's also a winner of the Livingston Award for Young Journalists — and the zeal he uses to approach this well-researched account is informative for anyone who ever bought a wax pack at a Walgreen's. It's highly readable and entertaining.
But it's also a very sad tale as Jamieson traces the route that baseball cards took from being a "hallmark of childhood" to "a way for collectors to return it." Despite that shift, he's careful to never simplify the pre-Upper Deck days as innocent and pure fun. The heart of his book underscores that baseball cards have always been serious business and nowhere is that any more evident in the chapter that focuses on the way that Marvin Miller took command of licensing rights in the '60s to give the player's union its first semblance of both big income and influential organizational power.
Still, the early tales of cigarette and bubblegum barons seem downright quaint when you contrast them with Jamieson's trip inside today's sterile grading facility and a former high-profile auction house accused of doctored baseball cards, fake jerseys and shill bidding. The latter half of the book is downright depressing for those of us who ever collected just to collect.
Jamieson offers up many of the usual reasons when performing his autopsy on the last 20 years of collecting — increased pack prices, the 1994 strike, kids being attracted to video games, too many set options, etc. — but what separates his analysis from our commong bellyaching is the history he reveals and the characters he also takes time to profile.
Along the way we meet a millionaire collector who commissions his own baseball cards because he has nothing left to collect, an old recluse who donates his entire candy and cigarette card collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after pasting them into books and even the reclusive and ultra-religious James Beckett, whose magazine turned the industry into a mini-stock market that crashed quicker than anyone ever thought it would.
Like the obsessed characters in comparable niche works like Word Freak and The King of Kong, the neurotic focus they pay toward such a small corner of the universe seems to make some sense of their quest to acquire simple pieces of cardboard. (They also give off a weird feeling of loneliness, an emotion that anyone whoever spent a quiet afternoon sorting a shoebox full of Fleer can probably identify with.)
Jamieson offers up his own prescription on saving the industry at the end of his book, but I think the lasting legacy of "Mint Condition" is showing us exactly how all those baseball cards ended up at the back of our closets. It also might convince one or two of us to go back to mom and dad's to recover our old sets.
We just won't expect them to be worth much.