Sunday, March 28, 2010

Book Review- Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession

Confronted with the reality that his childhood baseball card collection is essentially worthless, author Dave Jamieson begins a historic journey into the evolution of the trading card market. Documenting the industry from its humble beginnings to the industry’s hey day that launched the speculative era of the late 80’s and early 90’s, to the modern day insert craze, Jamieson provides first person information from some of the industry’s major dignitaries including Marvin Miller, Sy Berger, Joe Orlando, Bill Mastro, Kevin Saucier, and Rob Lifson to provide a comprehensive overview of the industry side of The Hobby.

Unaware at the time that his childhood collection was spawned from products most collectors refer to today as “junk wax”, the author’s curiosity about the industry leads him down a road of un-intended adventure. Taking him to such places as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to view the comprehensive catalogue assembled by The Hobby’s first collector Jefferson Burdick to the suburbs of Chicago and the vintage treasures of Lionel Carter.

Jamieson assembles a detailed chronology of the influence of trading cards in the gum and candy market featuring all of the early players including Goudey, Fleer, Philadelphia, and Bowman. The sophisticated and planned strategy of the Topps monopoly is particularly interesting in light of recent events regarding current MLB licensing. As is the retold synopsis of the Upper Deck story as detailed in the book, Card Sharks.

Interesting to note is how the author utilizes the advent of the price guide, as created by Dr. James Beckett, to serve as the bridge that turned a childhood pursuit into an industry of high finance created by the advent of the full-time sports card dealer and the more prestigious auction business and it’s six-figure clientele. The author quotes outspoken hobbyist Lew Lipset to provide insight to the mind of a dealer, “Try to make a living in this hobby and you’ll learn about . . . deceit , unfair business practices, the lack of truth in advertising, price manipulation, collusion, restraint of trade, insider trading, patronage, extortion, payoffs and bribes, graft, plagiarism, and last but not least, hype.”

What starts as a rather encyclopedic, albeit interesting look at the early tobacco and gum trading cards that birthed The Hobby, takes a sinister turn two-thirds of the way through the book. Readers will be educated on some of the more controversial and less than ethical business practices employed in the market today as a resulting consequence of the increased demand for high-end vintage cards. From the subjective practice of card grading as detailed with a tour of PSA’s facility in California to a day spent with the mad scientist of trading cards, Kevin Saucier who provides the reader and author a look at the various methods employed in the highly unethical if not illegal deception of vintage card doctoring.

The later chapters reveal the loss of innocence from a once benign and gentile pastime and provide a primer with everything that is wrong with The Hobby today. Unfortunately, the author falls short of providing any real answers with an obvious idealistic understanding of the current state of affairs, as he laments with the notion that the manufacturers need to do more to bring kids back to The Hobby. This tired notion and lack of understanding of what interests 21st Century children and who constitutes the current card market is a simple-minded, short-sighted solution to a sincerely more complex problem.

A thoroughly compelling, entertaining and sometimes tragic read, will provide even veteran collectors with new insight to the hobby they love. Novice collectors will be thoroughly educated with deep background history of their new cardboard pursuits and everyone will be left aghast with some of the seedier aspects of The Industry.

Copies of the book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession
are available at online retailers and booksellers everywhere.


capewood said...

Thanks for the review. Is the Kevin Saucier you mention the former pitcher for the Phillies?

Steve Gierman said...

I'll have to pick that up when I get a chance. One thing about the cover bothers me. I understand it is symbolic, but if an '89 Griffey Jr and a '52 Mantle are used as the foundation for a house of cards, that would make for one lopsided house, as they are two different sized cards.

Rob- AKA "VOTC" said...

Capewood- I don't believe so as it wasn't mentioned in conjunction with his name

Kevin Saucier said...

Nope, not the same Kevin, although I get asked that frequently. Just a collector who got burned some time ago when I bought a trimmed card. I then tried to learn everything I could about card doctoring so it wouldn't happen again. It became an obsession and my self-education and experimentation took me far beyond the basics and way outside of the box. I try my best to educate all other collectors on what to look for.

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