Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Book Report on The Card

I posted here last month that I found a book at the library that I had been wanting to read if I ever had the chance to find it. I finished reading the entire book a couple of weeks ago, and just went over a few chapters just to refresh my memory and so that I knew what I wanted to write about.

Let me say first that when it comes to the heavy Hobby matters, I can come across as quite naïve compared to those who've been in it for years. There are a lot of things that I enjoy reading and looking at, and I do keep things in a positive perspective. That said, ever since I saw my first Mastro Auction catalog, I wanted to learn more. The clear pictures of every card, from graded Topps cards, to older cards that I had never even heard of before, were beautiful. The descriptions for each lot were very well written. It was more like reading a history textbook than an auction catalog. I learned many things about the cards and other items that were put on auction that I have them on my bookshelf as a reference when looking up older cards.

Then I read this book: The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History's Most Desired Baseball Card by Michael O'Keefe and Teri Thompson. It is the story about our Hobby's number one card. It's the card that everyone has heard about, read about, seen pictures of, and to outsiders of the hobby, is the absolute representation of what sports card collecting is all about. A 1911 T206 Honus Wagner. It's the story about the prestige, the story, the rarity, and the history of this one card. Significantly, and specifically, the best conditioned example of the Wagner card. The one that Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall bought for a then incredible $451,000.00.

Because this book was sold and marketed to those who don't know much about the hobby, there are chapters that discuss in length topics outside of the card. The book talks about the man himself, Honus Wagner, from his playing days with the Pirates, to his later years as a resident in Carnegie, PA. There is a quick history lesson about the baseball cards, from the tobacco days in the late 19th century, to the gum cards in the 30's and everything in between. And then the modern era, from the Bowman vs. Topps war, to the present day, where many companies vie for the Hobby dollar. The story goes into great detail about some of the important collectors and dealers in the Hobby, from Jefferson Burdick to Frank Nagy to Mike Aronstein.

There is a chapter on PSA, the grading company that gave the Wagner card its Nr-Mt 8 rating. I didn't know that the Wagner card was the first card PSA graded as a company. Anyway, that chapter talks about how PSA got its start, the struggles for acceptance, their eventual success, their competition, and even questions surrounding the company and their practices.

There is even a quick chapter on the MLBPA, and union head Marvin Miller, and how he, "inadvertantly initiated the beginning of the end" of the innocent days of the hobby when he convinced the players that they had the right to get more for their images on a Topps baseball card.

It is after these chapters that the book finally gets into the heart of the story. From the card's mysterious beginnings and how Bill Mastro acquired it, to the Sotheby's auction where a bidding war ended with Gretzky and McNall winning the card, the tone of the story takes a dark turn, where many questions about the authenticity of the card are left unanswered. Was it trimmed? Is it real? Was it altered? There is a lot of mystery surrounding this one card.

The story continues after the card is sold by Gretzky to Treat Enterprises, who along with Wal-Mart, used it to "save the hobby." And to an extent, they succeeded as 30 million packs of cards were sold during the course of the sweepstakes.

There are profiles of every person who has sinced owned "The Card", From Patricia Gibbs, who won the Wal-Mart sweepstakes and subsequently sold again at a Christie's auction because of the taxes, to Michael Gidwitz, a former friend of Mastro. Then to Brian Seigel, who wanted to put the card on display at ballparks and conventions everywhere. He then sold it to an anonymous (meaning, even Seigel won't say) collector in a private transaction for a price between 2.2 and 2.4 million dollars.

All the while, the questions about the authenticity of the Wagner card continued to surface. Is the card trimmed? How was the card graded if it was trimmed? Did the people doing the grading know it was trimmed before grading it? So many questions. So many answers going both ways. It's enough to make even a collector's head spin.

The only reasons why I am not going into too many details about the book, are because:

  1. I am not going to say one way or another what I think about the controversy. Obviously, I've never seen the card, so I can not pass judgment. And there is so much evidence in the book for both sides of the arguement that what I feel about it is not only irrelevant to my book report but can be argued to death by those who know more than I do. My position about what I think of the card is clear, and my opinions about the people involved in one way or another I will keep to myself.
  2. I want people to go out and get the book. Read it for yourself, and decide for yourself what you think about the card. I know I have.

It is a great read. Cardboard Junkie's dayf commented after I announced that I was reading the book that "If you aren't cynical now, you sure will be..." He was right, to a point. I am not totally cynical, but let's just say that I'll be reading my Mastro catalogs a lot differently now after reading this book.


JayBee Anama


Big Daddy said...

The "card" was at the Chicago National the last time it was in Chicago (2003?). I was able to look at teh card closely and was just blown away that I was holding a $1M card. I didn't inspect it as there were quite a few people in line wanting to see/hold it as well. I have not read the book yet, but will go visit my library to see if they have it.

capewood said...

I think I saw a reference to this book on another blog and my library doesn't have it. Sounds pretty interesting.