Two new books give very different yet equally intriguing looks into the pastime of baseball-card collecting.
DAVE JAMIESON collected baseball cards during his childhood, in the late 1980s and early 90s, when the sports-memorabilia craze reached the apex of both its widespread nature and its inflated prices for those who bought and sold. Government regulatory and judicial rulings in the early 80s had put an end to the monopoly held for decades by the Topps baseball-card company, and companies such as Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck rushed into the commercial fray, making collecting more complicated and, for the truly devoted, more exciting.
First-time author Jamieson documents the history of the baseball-card business in his new book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession (Atlantic Monthly, $25). He details the industrys birth shortly after the American Civil War, when the cards accompanied tobacco products. Later, they began to be packaged with bubble gum and other sugary treats, with the cards eventually becoming the primary draw.
Jamieson cites the prevalence of price guides as one of the reasons for the widespread popularity. First published by Bowling Green University statistics professor James Beckett III, these lists gave preteens a license to buy and sell with confidence.
Having spoken with collectors, retail dealers, auctioneers, museum curators, manufacturers, baseball players and their union representatives, Jamieson has put together an interesting examination of a fleeting hobby that turned into big business. The individuals Jamieson profiles are by any measure eccentric and therefore memorable. Those who collected vintage cards (from the 60s and earlier) continued to profit. But many who invested in modern cards (those that originated in the 80s or later) made significant amounts of money, only to lose much of it when the markets inflated prices eventually plummeted. The value of the modern cards still remains a fraction of what it was, indicating that this once-lucrative corner of the sports-memorabilia industry may have been merely a house of cards.
Unlike Jamieson, Josh Wilker didnt give much thought to the financial ups and downs of baseball cards. As a troubled child, adolescent and young adult, Wilker saw baseball cards as a lifeline rather than as a pipeline into a bank account. Wilkers new book, Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards (Seven Footer Press, $25), is a creative memoir by the now 42-year-old chronic misfit, who relates his lifes journey through baseball cards of players who because of their imperfect physical appearance, unusual name or marginal status in the major leagues captured his imagination and his loyalty.
Wilker struggled through a lonely childhood after he and his mother moved to rural Vermont in an effort to live a more carefree existence. He had few friends, and the affections of his older brother, whom he worshipped, were fickle. The only people he could consistently count on, he found, were those printed on his treasured cards.
Age brought little change, as he delved into drugs and continued to drift. Romantic relationships were few and far between for Wilker, who writes that on the rare occasions when he did have a girlfriend, his brother would get a slightly stricken look on his face, as if he were watching someone bicycle through a red light into the path of a speeding truck. Finally, when he was nearly 40, he began to pull his life together after his beloved Boston Red Sox, a team long down on its luck, won a championship. He settled down in Chicago, ended up reconciling with his brother, and, most significantly, met a woman named Abby, who would later become his wife. For the first time in his life, Wilker had a human for a confidante rather than an inanimate cardboard rectangle bearing the likeness of a baseball player. In the end, the best part of having those cards came when he reached the point at which he no longer needed them so dearly.