Monday, January 24, 2011

Mint Condition, by Dave Jamieson

It's the baseball off-season, so I thought reading a book about baseball would be the best way to keep the spirit of baseball alive during the gloomy winter months. "Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession," by Dave Jamieson, chronicles the history of baseball trading cards, from their introduction in the 1870's and 1880's to the present day. Confession: I love baseball cards. I collected them voraciously in my childhood, and I still make the occasional purchase online or at a card show. Jamieson is only a couple of years older than I am, so his memories of the baseball card boom of the 1980's and the collapse of the baseball card market in the 1990's are my childhood memories as well. And Jamieson gets extra points because his all-time favorite baseball card set is the 1987 Topps set, which is my all-time favorite set as well. (You can see an example of the 1987 Topps set above.)

But onto the book itself. Jamieson dug deeply into the rich history of baseball cards, and I learned a lot from this book. The first time baseball cards created a sensation among young boys was in the 1880's, when cigarette companies inserted cards into their packs of cigarettes. This had the dual effect of both promoting brand loyalty to collect more cards, and also of making these young boys eager smokers. Win-win for the cigarette manufacturers. According to Jamieson, the popularity of the baseball trading cards helped establish cigarettes as a tobacco product at a time when they were seen as hopelessly lower-class. (People with status smoked cigars or pipes.)

Back in the olden days, baseball cards were not issued every year, and the next time they make a major reappearance is around 1905-1915. These cards were again mostly made by cigarette companies, and they included the most famous baseball card of all time, the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner. The Wagner card is noteworthy not only because Wagner was one of the greatest players of his era, but also because it was produced in very limited quantities. Sources vary as to whether Wagner objected to the card because he did not want to be associated with a tobacco product, or if he was angry because the company was using his image without his permission. Whatever the reason, the Wagner T206 is very scarce, and an example of it in good condition has sold for more than $2 million at auction, making it the single most expensive baseball card ever.

After around 1915 tobacco companies stopped issuing baseball cards, presumably because their product was selling so well that they saw no need to include giveaways like trading cards. There was a lull in the baseball card market until 1933, when Goudey, a gum company, started producing baseball cards again. Goudey would include 1 card as an enticement to purchase a stick of gum for 1 penny. The Goudey cards were very successful, and a number of other gum companies, notably Bowman, jumped on the baseball card bandwagon. By the late 1940's, Bowman had established itself as the leading baseball card maker. But within a decade the Topps gum company, despite coming late to the baseball card party, would have a virtual monopoly on baseball card production. How exactly did this happen? Jamieson is able to shed some light on it, but I would have liked more detail on the battle between Topps and Bowman. Topps issued it's first real set of baseball cards in 1952, and in 1956 Bowman sold their baseball card rights to Topps. How did Topps bring down Bowman in just 4 years? Well, a lot of the credit goes to Sy Berger and Woody Gelman, who basically created the 1952 Topps cards, and in doing so, created the prototype for the modern baseball card. Berger and Gelman chose the dimensions that nearly all baseball cards would use from that point on, and they decided to include statistics on the back of the card. That was huge. Bowman's cards had narrative sentences on the back, which might incorporate some stats. It would usually read something like this: "Zernial batted .262 and slugged 29 homers while patrolling the outfield last season. The A's have high hopes for this young slugger in the years to come!" But Topps had a full row of all the most important stats from the previous season, hits, runs, RBIs, home runs, batting average, and they also had the player's career totals. And this was at a time when these stats were not readily available to youngsters. There were not comprehensive books of baseball statistics, so the newspaper and baseball cards were how kids knew what their favorite players had done. And so, despite making some beautiful cards, like their classic 1955 "television" design, Bowman sold out to Topps.

It's clear from "Mint Condition" that Topps didn't really want Jamieson digging too deeply into their closet, as Berger was the only former Topps employee he was able to interview. And there are some skeletons in Topps's closet, as they intimidated other companies from issuing baseball cards and basically had a 25-year monopoly, from 1956 until 1981. Topps pressured young prospects to sign exclusive baseball card contracts with them, meaning that other companies couldn't even get their foot in the door. Topps was the only game in town. And this led to some sloppiness on Topps's part. Like using the same photos for a player year after year. (Claude Osteen's 1963 and 1964 cards use the exact same photo, it's just cropped differently.) Or not bothering to obtain a photo of a player in his new uniform after he was traded. Which led to numerous cards of players without hats on, or players whose uniforms have been airbrushed almost beyond recognition. But Topps still changed their cards during this period. For example, beginning in 1971 photos from actual games were used on cards, which lent an excitement to some of the cards.

Eventually, the Topps monopoly began to crumble, as Marvin Miller, the new head of the player's union, took a much more aggressive stance against Topps in the late 1960's, arguing that they were getting rich off of baseball cards and barely compensating the players. (Miller was right, Topps paid most players $125 per year for use of their image.) Topps eventually let the player's union get a slice of the pie from baseball card sales. And Fleer, a rival candy company, launched a lawsuit alleging that Topps was running a monopoly. Eventually, Fleer was successful in their legal action, which opened the door for competing card companies to issue 1981 baseball card sets. Fleer and Donruss both issued their inaugural sets in 1981, and both were low-quality compared with Topps. Photos were blurry and errors were plentiful as the cards were rushed into production. However, despite Topps' fear that the market was not large enough to support two card companies, let alone three, baseball card sales jumped. Legal action by Topps meant that Fleer and Donruss could not package their cards with chewing gum, so Fleer included team stickers as a bonus, and Donruss included puzzle pieces for a puzzle of an all-time baseball great. (I never put the puzzle pieces together. Sorry Donruss! But at least the puzzle pieces didn't stick to the cards the way the gum did. My Dad once broke a crown on a stale piece of Topps gum.) An irony of the baseball card business is that the companies that produced the cards were actually candy companies, and in the beginning, it was supposed to be the gum that sold the cards, not the other way around. But at some point, the baseball cards became much more desirable than the gum.

As the 80's went on, Fleer and Donruss both greatly improved their quality, and the baseball card boom continued. I would have liked to know more about how Topps responded to Fleer and Donruss entering the market. Did Topps do anything special to make their cards better? (Looking back at their 80's sets, it really doesn't seem like they did.) The only things I can think of are the 1982 Topps "In Action" cards, and that the 1983 Topps set features two player photos on the front. Jamieson focuses on the 1989 entry of Upper Deck into the baseball card market, which proved that fans were willing to pay more money for a higher quality card. As the card market peaked in the early 1990's, all of the companies were overproducing cards at a staggering rate, and there were simply too many sets on the market. The 1994-95 baseball strike didn't help sell baseball cards, and that was around the time that I really stopped seriously collecting new cards.

As the baseball card market tanked, so too did the companies. Fleer was bought out by Upper Deck, and Donruss lost their license from MLB in 2006. For the 2010 season, the only company authorized by MLB to produce baseball cards was Topps. So we're back where we started, with a Topps monopoly.

Jamieson writes that baseball cards have become much more of a business than they used to be, and he doesn't think this is a good development. I definitely agree with him. Sure, there's joy in finding out that you have a card that's worth a lot of money, but I also take joy in common cards that aren't worth anything. It might be just a player in a crazy uniform, like the Astros' "rainbow" uniforms of the 70's and 80's, or it might be a fond memory of a journeyman outfielder like Tom Paciorek, but those memories take me back to my childhood. I still enjoy my baseball cards, and I'm very happy that I still do.

No comments: