Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession [Hardcover]
- Updated: December 3, 2010
When award-winning journalist Dave Jamieson’s parents sold his childhood home a few years ago, forcing him to clear out his old room, he happily rediscovered a prized boyhood possession: his baseball card collection. Now was the time to cash in on his “investments,” but all the card shops had closed, and eBay was no help, either. Cards were selling there for next to nothing. What had happened? In Mint Condition, Jamieson’s fascinating history of baseball cards, he finds the answer, and much more.
Picture cards had long been used to advertise household products, but in the years after the Civil War, tobacco companies started slipping them into cigarette packs as collector’s items. Cards featuring famous generals and Indian chiefs, flags of all nations, and comely actresses all achieved success with boys, but none were as popular as cards featuring the heroes of the new American pastime. Before long, the cards were wagging the cigarettes, and a century-long infatuation had been born.
In the 1930s, cards helped gum and candy makers survive the Great Depression. In the 1960s, royalties from cards helped transform the baseball players association into one of the country’s most powerful unions, dramatically altering the game. In the ’80s and ’90s, cards went through a spectacular bubble, becoming a billion-dollar-a-year industry before all but disappearing, surviving today as the rarified preserve of fanatical adult collectors and shrewd businessmen.
Mint Condition is brimming with colorful characters, from a destitute hermit whose legendary collection resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Topps’s mad genius designer who created the company’s most famous card sets, and from a larger-than-life memorabilia specialist whose auction house is under investigation by the FBI to the professional “graders” who rate cards and the “doctors” who secretly alter them. This is an original, captivating history about a tradition dear to millions of Americans.
From Publishers Weekly
It’s a form of megalomania, of course, one famous card collector once said of his hobby—and, as Jamieson explains, there are plenty of people willing to cash in on collectors’ obsessions; the secondary market for baseball cards may be as much as a half-billion dollars annually. It used to be even stronger: Jamieson got interested in the history of baseball cards when he rediscovered his own adolescent stash only to find that its value had plummeted in the mid-1990s. His loss is our gain as he tracks the evolution of the card from its first appearance in cigarette packs in the late 19th century through the introduction of bubble gum and up to the present. The historical narrative is livened by several interviews, including conversations with the two men who launched Topps (for decades the first name in cards) and a collector who’s dealt in million-dollar cards. Jamieson also digresses neatly into curiosities like the Horrors of War card set, the legendary Mars Attacks, and a profanity-laced card featuring Cal Ripken’s little brother. It’s a fun read, but it also shows just how much serious work went into sustaining this one corner of pop culture ephemera. (Apr.)
*Starred Review* Every time a rare baseball card brings a million-dollar price at auction, thousands of aging former collectors wistfully recall shoeboxes full of rookie cards and wonder if they lost a fortune when Mom cleaned out their rooms. The answer, according to Washington-based, award-winning journalist Jamieson is . . . probably not. Jamieson doesn’t supply lists of valuable cards (there are collectors’ journals for that); rather, he chronicles the history of collectible cards, profiles a few unique collectors, and tracks the development of the hobby and ponders its future. He profiles Jefferson Burdick, an almost forgotten man who donated what was probably the greatest collection of baseball cards ever assembled to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art over the course of a decade before his death in 1963. In tracing the history of collectible cards, Jamieson shows the extraordinary lengths to which the early cigarette and card companies went to separate young boys from their money, a penny and then a nickel at a time. A not uncommon tactic was to issue incomplete sets to keep collectors fruitlessly buying in search of a card that didn’t exist. This is a fascinating history that encompasses not only the nuances of serious collecting but also the business machinations and card-marketing strategies that contributed significantly to the rise of the cigarette and gum industries. Superbly informative and entertaining. –Wes Lukowsky
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable and Informative, October 17, 2010 By JDV
I started collecting baseball cards in 1968 and I thought I knew pretty much about the hobby. This book quintupled my education in a short, thoroughly enjoyable week. Jamieson delivers the good, the bad, and the ugly — as he promised in his introduction — and left me both hopeful and concerned about the future of cards.
This book should be of interest not only to those who have continued to dabble in the hobby, but also those who just want to re-visit a childhood passion with greater understanding and context to their own experiences. It is also a great set of case studies about business, from product development to marketing to consumer research to collusion to monopoly. Enjoy!
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Book to be enjoyed by collectors or non-collectors alike., October 14, 2010 By RckyMtnColo
This book is a fantastic read. It gives you an in depth and colorful history of baseball cards from the beginning to the present. The history of the baseball cards and card collecting laid out in this book brings back a nostalgia that makes you want to be a kid again looking for that perfect card. It made me look at my old collection and remember how much fun it was collecting, organizing and trading cards as a kid. The history on cards from the 1800-early 1900 is fantastic. Laying out how the old Tobacco and Gum companies started putting cards in their products as a selling point. How Other cards such as Horrors of War and the Mars Attacks cards were put out. You will learn about the famous Wagner card and the history of the card as it moved from owner to owner and eventually sold for a record $ amount. The book even touches on cards that are altered and counterfeit.
Again, a great read for collector and non-collectors alike. I loan this book out to whomever is willing to give it a try.
5.0 out of 5 stars For some it was ALWAYS a business…, August 29, 2010 By SkySoxWiz “Columbine Native” (Pikes Peak)
I “inherited” my first 52 Topps from a friend whose Mom was probably sick of moving them. Barry Wallach later became a CPA and his future success was demonstrated in the small notebook in which he recorded every player’s card by number. He meticulously collected this data while he managed his collection. I’ve tried several times to find him to return this childhood keepsake. Most of us collected the cards as a first love…..some, however, were onto its’ financial value long before it became a national obsession.
The same thing that you might learn from this book was pointed out to us in “Toy Story”…….USE, ENJOY, WEAR THE HELL out of your childhood things…..you can’t trade them in for your youth anyhow.
5.0 out of 5 stars Like my cards, this book will be with me forever…, August 27, 2010 By James Buberger (St. Petersburg, FL)
This is the book that many of us have been waiting for, if not outright then at least in our imaginations. Jamieson delves mightily into a subject that was so near to the heart of many a childhood (and let’s face it, adulthood as well.)
I am awed by the amount of research performed by the author. He tracks down and interviews dozens of a dying breed, those who were around in the early days of the card explosion. Additionally, he does not leave aside those who were key to the industry/hobby but who are no longer alive. He seems to have gone to great lengths to provide a thorough accounting of the product’s evolution, making many a trek to review various collections of cards and, by extension, other pop culture.
I am further wowed by Jamieson’s ability to translate his research in such a fascinating and vivid way. In fact, the author’s accounts of some of the works he has seen has piqued my curiosity enough to seek these trips out myself. Other than in a travel magazine, how often do you read about a place or thing, and the description is so interesting that you then have to see it for yourself? For me, this is a first, and what makes this idea even more preposterous is that some of the items that Jamieson mentions were merely extensions of his research and had before held little interest to me.
Though I read non-fiction more than fiction, I find myself periodically needing to lay the non-fiction aside for a day or two before picking it up again. Not this book: I could not put it down.
Thanks, Dave, for a great read. Much like pulling my cards out from their closet every few years, I suspect that I will again be pulling your book off the shelf.
4.0 out of 5 stars An obession explained, July 23, 2010 By Clifford J. Walk “capewood” (Houston Texas USA)
I never collected baseball cards as a kid (I spent my allowance money in the 1960s on comic books). i did start collecting as an adult, getting into the hobby just before the ‘baseball card as an investment’ craze took off. I never believed that any of those cards I bought in the 1980s was ever going to be worth any money. I collected because I liked baseball, and, as long-time Topps card designer, Woody Gelman, is quoted in the book because I had the “collecting disease”. 25 years later and I’m still collecting, for much the same reason. This book is a pretty good summation of 100 or so yearsof baseball card collecting. Some of the material is duplicative of material found in “The Card” by Michael O’Keefee and Teri Thompson. But “The Card” is mostly about the 1909 Honus Wagner card while Jamieson’s book is more broadly focused. This book will interest anyone involved in the hobby.
5.0 out of 5 stars mint condition, July 20, 2010 By Kevin J Kearney (Glendale, Arizona United States)
I really enjoyed this book if only because I grew up in the heyday of baseball cards the 1950’s and 60’s.
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating social history general lending libraries will relish, July 12, 2010
By Midwest Book Review (Oregon, WI USA)
MINT CONDITION: HOW BASEBALL CARDS BECAME AN AMERICAN OBSESSION is a ‘must’ history for collector and sports libraries alike, offering insights not just into card values, but the business of card marketing strategies that grew the baseball card and other industries. From the years after the Civil War to how the cards helped gum and candy makers survive the Depression, this is a fascinating social history general lending libraries will relish.
5.0 out of 5 stars Great summer read for any baseball/card fan!, July 4, 2010 By Matt the reader
Mint Condition is a great summer read. I love sports in general, and baseball, but was never a huge card collector as a kid. It was fun to learn the history starting with the old 1800’s tobacco cards up through the boom times when people risked a fortune on cardboard. Thumbs up for Mint Condition!!
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read!, June 27, 2010 By Clown
A masterful combination of history and investigative journalism, with a comprehensive look into the world of baseball cards. The book brilliantly depicts the people who have shaped the industry in order to chronicle the history, current struggles, and psychology of an American institution. There are wonderful moments of nostalgia and tongue-in-cheek humor.