Baseball cards strike out

By the early 1990s, baseball card manufacturers were printing 81 billion of the things a year, or 325 for every man, woman and child in the United States. Anyone could have looked at the situation and said, Well, there’s your problem.

What was once a giveaway to get kids to buy more bubble gum had bloated into a stand-alone, $1.2 billion-a-year business. Kids no longer even dominated the ranks of buyers; instead, there were collectors and, even worse, investors. Dealers stockpiled cases of cards (often removing “the good ones,” and then resealing the packs, of course) and legitimate financial publications carried stories about what grand investments baseball cards were.

Of course it ended badly. How and why is the subject of Dave Jamieson’s absorbing “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession.”

The Proustian moment for Jamieson, 31, a freelance writer, came when his parents sold their suburban New Jersey house and he cleared out his old bedroom, which included the inevitable ammo dump of baseball cards he had accumulated in the 1980s and 1990s. Returning to his home in Washington, D.C., with this trove, Jamieson discovered that the cards were, basically, worthless.

How painful! And how pathetic.

It’s not because the players at the time, guys like Ted Simmons and Pete Vuckovich, were somehow inferior to the current lot. As Jamieson points out, the market collapsed because more and more manufacturers were authorized by the players union (which makes lots of money from licensing its members’ pictures) to produce cards, and they responded by printing zillions.

How many? No one knows. The manufacturers never said. How anyone could imagine that this “cardboard gold,” as some hopefuls dubbed it, would appreciate beyond the dreams of avarice is itself beyond belief.

And yet they did, loading up on “unopened packs” and all manner of premium cards, as though these objects had any kind of intrinsic value.

The market would have blown up eventually, as all bubbles do. What sparked this crackup, Jamieson writes, was the players’ strike of 1994-95, which soured fans on the game. It was years before stadium attendance returned to pre-strike levels. Newissue card sales collapsed.

I blame Honus — more precisely, the American Tobacco Company’s 1910 card depicting Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner, or the T206 Wagner, as it is known familiarly by those who lust after it.

This is the most famous baseball card in history, changing hands for hundreds of thousands and now even millions of dollars. Legend has it that the Wagner is a rarity because the star didn’t want to encourage the use of cigarettes by children. Like almost everything connected with baseball cards, the actual truth tends to disappear in the mists of history.

The card first blew into the stratosphere at a 1991 auction, as Jamieson recounts. Unlike the market for brand-new cards, that for vintage sports memorabilia (including cards: think Honus and the rookie 1952 Mickey Mantle) still hasn’t cooled. Everyone thinks they’re going to hit the lottery with the next Honus Wagner.

That doesn’t happen in the modern world of instant collectibles, as baseball card speculators learned. They didn’t print millions of T206 Wagners.

The pages of “Mint Condition” are filled with compelling stories and often manic, sometimes fetishistic characters, ranging from the frail Jefferson Burdick, who bequeathed his massive, 300,000-card collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1947, to Sy Berger and Woody Gelman, who created the modern baseball card for the Topps Company Inc. in the 1950s.

There are present-day collectors, auctioneers and the self-styled experts who created the “authenticating” business, whereby everything vaguely collectible has to be graded and sealed between two slabs of plastic.

Jamieson wants it all to go back to the way it was when he was growing up, a distressingly short time ago.

That seems unlikely in these days of more interactive amusements such as video games.