Crackerjack Reads: a rookie in the majors, what’s it like?

Some good reads to get your week started…

Mail Call: Astros Uniforms 75 vs. 89

I’m always interested in any cards with players from the 1975 Topps set, and Bru from Remember the Astrodome delivered with a stack of cards. That motivated me to organize my cards and find some Astros he could use. It took a while (in between other projects), which explains the month long hiatus here.

I’ll break this mail call into two posts, starting with Astros uniforms. I really liked them growing up. They fit right in with clothes we wore those days (like Ocean Pacific t-shirts). Even today their iconic outfits from the mid-70s and 80s takes me back to those days.

The Astros had tame-looking uniforms in the 75 Topps cards:
1
1975 541

They didn’t match my reality of what the Astros wore. It’d take another year to highlight their new threads on cardboard. 1976 SSPC Roger Metzger and 1976 Topps Joe Niekro look like they’re still getting used to their new outfits:

1976 sspc 0571976 273

What started me on this path was one of the cards Bru sent. Buddy Bell was an Astro for a year but he was wearing a different outfit than I remembered. After digging into it, turns out there were four incarnations of what are dubbed Tequila Sunrise uniforms. These lasted until 1993 and the 89 Upper Deck card shows him in the third version:

1989 UD 112 1989 UD 112b

The 1975 Buddy I knew played for the Indians (so he’ll always seem out of place in an Astros uniform):

1975 038

There’s also a cool page I found on mlb.com with a slideshow of Astros uniforms throughout the years (starting with them as the Colts in 1962). I wasn’t planning a post about uniforms, so thanks for the inspiration and for sending the cards Bru!

What’s an unopened 1975 pack worth?

An eBay auction for 24 unopened 1975 Topps baseball card packs ended tonight with a winning bid over $7200.

So for that person, it’s worth $300.50 per pack (and $30 per card).

1975 Unopened Packs

If these contain a Gem Mint 10 of a Yount, Brett, Ryan or Aaron, the buyer’s a winner.

But what’s odd is single unopened packs have sold on eBay for $50 to $80. So something doesn’t add up. Or the bidders just lost control.

Night Owl 1, Mariners 2, Orioles 3

Baseball card collecting isn’t complete without baseball games. And Monday was a perfect night for a game.

It started with pre-game brews. And if I hadn’t discovered baseball card blogs recently, I wouldn’t have paid attention to this selection:

2015 Mariners Game Nightowl Ale

Score 1 for Night Owl

The game started with a bang and had an exciting ending. The views were spectacular, the weather amazing, and we had a great time. That also made it easier that the Mariners didn’t eek out the win in the 9th.

2015 Mariners Game Day

2015 Mariners Game Night

Mariners 2, Orioles 3

1982 Kmart Redux

The 1982 Kmart MVP Baseball card set that celebrate the 20th anniversary of Kmart’s 1962 opening includes what I think should’ve been the Fred Lynn rookie card (covered here). Also included is Kmart nostalgia (I still remember walking by those flashing blue light specials as a kid).

The set breaks down like this:

  • 41 cards of MVPs from 1962 to 1981. You’d expect the MVP cards to have an even number, but there are 3 in 1979. That’s the only year with a tie (Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez – see here for more details on the voting).
  • 3 Highlight cards like this one:

1982 Kmart 044

  • 28 are of players featured in the 1975 set (including rookies and future MVPs: Jim Rice, George Brett, Keith Hernandez, and Fred Lynn)
  • Players with two cards in this set: Johnny Bench (1970 & 1972 MVP), Joe Morgan (1975 & 1976), Mike Schmidt (1980 & 1981), Pete Rose (1973 MVP and Highlight)
  • 26 are also in the 1975 Topps MVP subset, which have two photos per card (#200 to 212). But the Kmart cards have larger photos since there’s one photo per card:

1975 207

1982 Kmart 015 1982 Kmart 016

It’d be nice to own the original cards represented in these reprints

I don’t know how many were produced. I was able to find one clue here where a forum post noted 2,000 Kmart stores initially got from 576 to 1,152 sets per store. That amounts to between 1.1 to 2.3 million sets. Even a production run that was a fraction of that would explain why there’s still so many unopened packs

Kmart also made similar sets with different themes in four other years (all with 33 cards per set): 1987 Stars of the Decades, 1988 Memorable Moments, 1989 Dream Team, 1990 Superstars. The Wrigley Wax blog has a good overview of them all here.

Kmart also made a 726 card OPC set in 1980 but I don’t know much about it (other than they’re available on eBay in cello packs for cheap):

1980 Kmart

The Kmart cards may not have much monetary value, but card collecting doesn’t have to be about value. If all cards cost 10 cents, I’d still collect them. And wouldn’t that make collecting a lot easier?

Book Review: Mint Condition

Misc Mint Condition.png

Introduction

I was surprised by Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession.

A historical book about card collecting could easily be dull, but it turned out to be a page turner that I couldn’t put down. Dave focuses on stories about people from all walks of life and weaves them together with a card collecting thread.

I mostly read non-fiction and Mint Condition joins my other favorites: Band of Brothers, A Curious Mind, The Power of Habit, and several Malcom Gladwell books. Below is a review followed by what happened after the book’s publication and an interview with Dave.

 

Overview

Mint Condition starts at a personal level with Dave’s own card story. It mirrors my experience and a lot of collectors: childhood collecting eventually fades away, rediscovering cards leads to finding out most of our cards aren’t that valuable monetarily, and eventually some of us find the underlying adventure of cards again. It sounds a bit mythological.

The narrative at times felt more like the Da Vinci Code. Dave visited the National Archives to dig through the FTC’s Topps vs. Fleer litigation case file (someone nabbed the baseball cards that were included in the archive). And he ends up in Harbor City, California learning some tricks of the trade from a white-hat card doctor. The writing is excellent – I felt like I was right there with Dave.

Early Card Collectors. Jefferson Burdick was one of the earliest card collectors. He railed against another collector advertising offers to pay 10 times the going rates for cards. Burdick felt that would ruin the hobby and cause card inflation. I’m guessing he’d feel the same about graded cards.

He kept in touch with a network of other collectors through mail. It’s an interesting parallel to bloggers meeting via the internet and trading through mail today.

One of the Burdick quotes from the book (and originally published in the 1955 Syracuse Herald-American) resonated with me: “Some ask how anyone becomes interested in cards. You don’t become interested – collectors are born that way. Card collecting is primarily an inherited love of pictures.”

My Precious. The Michael Gidwitz chapter is a cautionary tale for collectors. Gidwitz starts collecting cards as a kid and over time is has the rarest cards like the Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner. But eventually even those aren’t rare enough. He feels “anyone can get the cards” so he transitions to creating collectibles by commissioning one-of-a-kind art from artists that previously drew baseball card artwork.

It felt so isolationist. His portrayal reminded me of Lord of the Rings’ Gollum. It’s the opposite of what I think is the soul of card collecting and trading. I don’t need a 1975 PSA 10 set to feel good. Finding a nickel card that completes a set can be just as rewarding. But it’s a good reminder to check your ego and avoid turning into something you don’t want to be.

2002 T206 179

All I can afford is a T206 Honus Wagner reprint

Behind the Scenes at Topps & PSA. Dave spent time with Topps executive Sy Berger, so we get an inside look into Topps the company. This helps explain many dynamics of baseball cards – like why there weren’t any true Topps competitors until the 1980s or what lead to the mass overproduction of the 1990s.

Dave also takes us on a visit to the grading labs of PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator) to experience how cards are graded. This was one topic that raised more questions than answers about card authenticity (especially when combined with the chapters related to card doctoring0.

Card Sharks. Scams and card doctoring are risks card collectors live with. Dave sheds light on these topics with stories from 3 people. Bill Mastro auctioned a T206 Honus Wagner (that eventually Wayne Gretzky and Gidwtiz would own for a while). Robert Lifson, who was once Mastro’s partner, discusses the dangers of auction houses. And one of the most interesting chapters is about Kevin Saucier, a collector (not the Phillie’s baseball player).

Kevin educated himself in the ways of card doctoring to avoid getting scammed. In the book he teaches us about card doctoring so everyone’s informed of the risks. It reinforced my belief that “investing” in cards doesn’t makes sense. The more incentive there is to beat the system, the harder people will try. I can’t afford a Gem Mint graded Yount card, and even if I could, I wouldn’t feel comfortable buying one.

1975 223

The Yount is one of several rookie cards in the 1975 set that may
be susceptible to card doctoring due to it’s high graded value

It’s Just a Piece of Cardboard. A collector describes a dire outlook about the long term card market: when the current generation of card collecting adults get older and start disposing their cards, nobody will be there to buy them. Maybe that happens with more valuable cards. I don’t really know. But the final chapter helped remind me not to plunk down a bunch of retirement money into cards that possibility won’t concern me.

What I do know is that as long as we enjoy the experience and the people we meet, it’ll be worthwhile. And even if I don’t breakeven in the end on what I’ve paid for cards, that’s ok. It’s the price of admission.

Epilogue

It’s been over 4 years since Mint Condition was published. This is what happened to some of the people featured in the book since then…

  • In June 2012, CBS Sunday Morning ran a story about the demise of baseball cards (news flash!) – it includes Dave Jamieson
  • Bill Mastro, the card auctioneer, was indicted in 2012, plead guilty in 2013 and will receive his sentence on August 20, 2015. This was for charges that included selling “…the most expensive baseball card in the world, a Honus Wagner T-206 card… MASTRO knowingly omitted the material fact that defendant MASTRO had altered the baseball card by cutting the sides of the card in a manner that, if disclosed, would have significantly reduced the value of the card….”
  • In 2013, Upper Deck’s Richard McWilliam aka the “well-connected accountant” as referred to in the book died at age 59
  • Major League Baseball extended an exclusive baseball card license with Topps through 2020 with a goal of making cards increasingly relevant to children…
  • In 2014, Sy Berger, the Topps exec that played a huge role in card collecting died at age 91.

Kevin Saucier Update

Kevin Saucier quit baseball card collecting after becoming disillusioned with the hobby. Referring to the Mastro scandal, he wrote, “When the most iconic card has been admittedly altered and graded without apologies from the authenticator it’s time to move on to something else.”

Kevin added that sellers will pay to have cards “improved” which adds to the deception in the hobby. He didn’t share all alternations that can be done to cards in the book. Intense weeks-long doctoring can lead to unbelievable results. According to Kevin, “There are some card docs who try to improve common modern cards. They work in volume and try for big grade bumps. They are few and far between though. Once graded and slabbed it’s harder to tell if anything has been done.”

I’m a 1975 Topps fan and I’ve thought of 1975 Topps cards as a safer set to collect. I asked about the risk with those cards. Kevin notes that the ones to be concerned about are the top dollar cards like a Yount or Brett, which can cost over $15,000 in PSA 10 condition. “Those cards are typically sanded to get the sharp edges if they are doctored. Thankfully they have colored borders which make it tougher to color match.” He thinks people are safer with lower grade ’75 cards. That reaffirms what I thought and fits my approach.

Today Kevin runs a Titanic collectors web site and I wish him all the best.

1995 003 UD

Upper Deck George Brett running away from card doctors

 

Interview with Dave Jamieson

Dave Jamieson currently works at The Huffington Post. He still owns an ‘84 Topps Mattingly rookie card that holds sentimental value. Below is a brief interview with Dave.

Question: If you knew what you know now, would you do anything differently when writing the book?

Dave: The biggest development since I published my book is probably the guilty plea of card auctioneer Bill Mastro. I interviewed Mastro at length for the book; he gave me a lot of time at his office outside Chicago. We spoke for a while about the card-doctoring and shill-bidding allegations, as well as the reputation he bore for being aggressive, even bullying. Obviously, had I known all that would unfold in the years to come, I would have had many more questions for him.

Q: In a 2010 interview, I read you would’ve written about Larry Fritsch if possible. Now that some years have passed, is there anyone else?

Dave: Well, I’ll always regret not meeting longtime Topps art director Woody Gelman, though I can’t blame him or myself for that; he passed away years before I wrote the book. But he remains my favorite character and chapter in it, and I’m grateful for all the time I got with those who knew him. One chapter I didn’t write but should have is one about Cuban baseball cards featuring African-American players. I wish I’d taken the time to do that because it’s such a fascinating subject and a largely unknown corner of the card world.

Q: You said you understand the attraction of cards and that they animate people’s lives in amazing ways. Do you remember what you meant by that?

Dave: Everybody had their own motivations behind collecting, whether it was Jefferson Burdick or Woody Gelman, or Mike Gidwitz or Bill Mastro. That’s why it never got boring reporting the book. Each collector was driven by something very different (and it was rarely money, in my opinion).

Q: After 5 years, if you reflect on what you enjoyed most writing the book, what would that be?

Dave: Years later, it’s the people I remember far more than the cards. People like Mike Gidwitz and Kevin Saucier were incredibly interesting collectors who opened up their collections and their stories to me.

Q: You’ve mentioned you haven’t bought any cards since you were 14. Has that changed since publishing the book?

Dave: I’m a lapsed collector – I haven’t regularly bought cards since I was a kid – but I found the characters in the card world to be fascinating. Though I don’t collect cards myself and doubt I ever will, I find that since writing the book I really enjoy giving cards to other people. When I threw my book party I bought several boxes of ’87 Topps and gave packs out to whoever showed up. It was a blast. Last week I was visiting family in New Jersey and picked up a couple packs at the pharmacy to give to my nephew. It’s such a small thing but it brings me back to my own childhood. Who didn’t love getting a random pack of cards that you weren’t expecting? I could see the excitement on my nephew’s face, even if this generation doesn’t collect the way ours did.

Q: Do you still have all your childhood cards?

Dave: I had to get rid of the 80’s commons I had. I just couldn’t cart them around whenever I moved; I had boxes upon boxes of them. And they weren’t easy to unload. I called some charities but they wouldn’t take them. I think I ended up putting them at the curb for whoever passed by and wanted them. What I saved were the 80’s rookie cards and handful of vintage cards I had that were special to me, as well as some old Yankees team sets. They fit into a single shoebox. Every once in a while I’ll pull them out and leaf through them. I suspect I’ll have those cards for years to come.

Q: Are you working on any other books (or updating Mint Condition)?

Dave: I’m not working on any books at the moment. I’m a reporter at the Huffington Post, covering labor and workplace issues out of our D.C. bureau. I’d like to write another book someday, but for the moment I suppose I’m just happy to be on a beat and getting a regular paycheck.

Q: We hear anecdotal evidence and concerns about a decline in card collecting and card values, but the truth seems more complex. What did you encounter along these lines?

Dave: There was a reason I closed out the book by writing about Bill Henderson, the so-called King of Commons, who helps people fill out their sets on the cheap. There are a lot of collectors for whom value is very much beside the point, and I found that to be an encouraging ray of hope for the industry. Baseball cards in general have gone through booms and busts, stretching all the way back to the 1800’s, yet they’ve always found a way to endure. Even with all the competition today for kids’ attention, be it video games or the web, I see no reason why they shouldn’t last as long as baseball.

 

Thanks to Kevin for sharing additional insights, and thank you Dave for writing the book and answering my questions!

To buy the book click here.

The Blogs: NightOwlCards

I started reading card blogs recently and Night Owl Cards was the first (strong ’75 card connection). At some point it became a mission to read the entire blog from post #1.

The goal was to catchup up on card collecting over the past 7 years through a blogger’s experiences. I set aside other reading material and focused on that blog. It took almost 3 weeks to finish. At some point it reminded me of completing a set – just two more years of posts to read…

One of my favorite post categories is the Best of the 70’s, which shows all (or some) of a player’s 70’s cards. I had thought of doing something similar but will never have enough cards. So I’m glad he’s writing these (I think we need some more, I only found two last year, and one mini version this year – updated 8/4/15: added Lou Brock).

I’ve compiled a list so I can easily refer back to them. Maybe they’ll be useful for you too:

Lou Brock (7/28/2015)

Boog Powell (1/25/2015) – sort of a mini version with 3 cards

Frank Tanana (7/30/2014)

Hal McRae (8/20/2014)

Vida Blue (8/26/2013)

Carlton Fisk (2/19/2013)

Luis Tiant (9/21/2012)

Pedro Borbon (4/29/2012)

Dock Ellis (1/3/2012)

Oscar Gamble (6/10/2011)

Tom Seaver (3/14/2011)

Roy White (10/20/2010)

Jim Palmer (7/27/2010)

Carl Yastrzemski (5/19/2010)

George Scott (3/19/2010)

Jerry Reuss (1/27/2010)

Don Sutton (11/19/2009)

Manny Sanguillen (10/8/2009)

Reggie Jackson (9/2/2009) – subset of 3 cards

George Foster (8/12/2009)

Johnny Bench (8/5/2009)

Card Spotlight: 660 Hank Aaron

This is a 1975 card blog, and so far I haven’t posted about any cards from my favorite set… not cool.

Given we’ll get the voting results on Tuesday for the Greatest Living Major League Baseball player, I’m sharing my vote here. It’s not just about the player stats, but the person and their personality. I don’t choose a friend based on who makes the most money or has a winning personality trait which doesn’t outweigh their other flaws. I based it on their total character.

These are the contenders:

 

Misc 2015 MLB Votes

I pick Mr. Aaron. He stands out not just because of his drug-free home run achievement, but also the strength he has to have put up with all the junk leading to getting to 715. When I first read of the threats and evil words other humans sent to him, it reminded me that there are tools out there that have nothing else to do in life but hate. It takes a really tough person to live with that.

So that’s why he gets my vote and he’s the first 1975 card that gets tribute here.

1975 660

I hope you enjoy the 86th All Star Game.

1982 Kmart Baseball Cards

One of the cool things about collecting cards is finding something shiny that leads you down a new path. I was scanning eBay listings and saw a glitch in my matrix, a Fred Lynn card that was unlike any other I’d seen:

1982 Kmart 027

It wasn’t the #622 Fred Lynn rookie card photo I was used to (which just looks wrong):

1975 622

It shouldn’t have shown up in my search, but it was mislabeled (lucky me). It was part of the 1982 Kmart 20th Anniversary AL & NL MVP’s Baseball Picture Cards Bubble Gum Collector’s Series.

1982 Kmart Box Front
Kmart box front

This set was co-branded with Topps – marked as a limited edition. Limited is ironic, I found hundreds plus a lot of unopened packs. Turns out the set was a precursor to the mass overproduction of the 90s. Awesome! Time for a vintage pack break that I could afford.

What I like about this set:

  • an actual complete rookie card photo of Fred Lynn that fixes a flaw in 1975 card history – and even future reprints don’t have this view
  • includes one of (if not) the first 1975 tribute cards
  • it’s cheap… you can get a set for less than 5 bucks including shipping – there’s your blue light special
  • the experience of opening a pack of 44 “vintage” cards (complete with a stale stick of gum)

1982 Kmart Checklist

Back of box checklist

The 1975 Topps set is my favorite, but I’m not a fan of the shared four player rookie cards. The three rookies per card format in 1973 was pretty good, and then for some reason Topps started cramming in four tiny faces on a card in 1974. So this Lynn card rights that wrong and on its own made it worth getting the set. The only other ’75 reprint in the set is Joe Morgan:

1982 Kmart 028

Update: After I wrote this I found another blog post about this card from a while back