DJ: The book came about in an unusual way. It was actually the idea of my terrific editor at Grove/Atlantic, Jamison Stoltz, to write a popular history of baseball cards. Jamison (who, yes, shares a very similar name with me) had read a piece I’d written for Slate magazine after I’d rediscovered my stash of cards from childhood. The story was mostly about how the card industry had lost its way since the baseball strike of ’94 and how kids had fled for other hobbies. Jamison had collected cards as a kid and I think the nostalgic tone of the piece stuck a chord with him. He became convinced that that piece was the seed for a book, and he wanted me to write it. I spent much of two years researching, reporting, and working on the manuscript.
What type of book did you set out to write and why?
DJ: While there had been a couple of mainstream books that dealt with baseball cards (The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, and Card Sharks), we felt like no one had tried to put together a really comprehensive history of the industry for a wide-reaching audience. Most of the books that really dug deep tended to be written for a hobby audience, like Lew Lipset’s excellent Encyclopedias. We wanted to do a book that could mean something not just to hardcore collectors but also to lapsed collectors who maybe had traded obsessively as kids but then drifted away once they hit their early teens or high school. And to be perfectly honest, that description probably fits more American males than not, certainly from my generation that came of age in the 1980’s.
I don’t think I know a single guy, regardless of age, who didn’t buy a pack of cards at some point in his young life, and I wanted the book to appeal to people who had bought cards as kids but weren’t necessarily lifelong baseball card fanatics. So we tried to avoid writing a dry chronology, which is why the story will seem to jump around in places, say, from collector Mike Gidwitz’s Chicago penthouse in 2007 to Philadelphia during the Great Depression. We wanted the book to be part history, part travelogue, and part memoir of my own collecting days, and that’s very much what it turned out to be.
What was the most fascinating thing you experienced in researching?
DJ: What fascinated me most were the people I came across, both living and dead, who had carved out interesting spaces for themselves in the hobby: Jefferson Burdick, Woody Gelman, Bill Mastro, Kevin Saucier, Rob Lifson, Bill Henderson, and so on—all very different people who happened to share the same overriding passion. Because as wonderful as baseball cards are, you can’t bring them to life without talking about the people who’ve spent their lives handling them. And that’s why I tried to spend a lot of time with collectors and dealers and card makers, to understand the allure of it all.
It’s funny: Whenever I told people I was working on a project about baseball cards, they assumed I was some kind of cardboard nut, that I must have several warehouses stockpiled with wax packs. Truth be told, I hadn’t bought a baseball card since I was about 14. I still don’t buy baseball cards. But I do understand the attraction of it. And for a lot of those guys–yes, they’re overwhelmingly male—baseball cards animate their lives in really amazing ways.
How about the most fun you had?
DJ: The most fun was getting to see some incredibly rare baseball cards in person. I went to New York and spent an afternoon pouring through Jefferson Burdick’s albums at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Burdick created the American Card Catalog on which the entire hobby is based, and he’s obviously a towering figure in this little world. I’d done a good deal of research on him before I made the trip. It was kind of amazing to leaf through those binders filled with ancient tobacco cards and Cracker Jack cards knowing it was his life’s work just to get them together before he died an early death.
I had an equally fascinating tour of Mike Gidwitz’s apartment, which is stuffed to the rafters with pop-culture rarities, from uncut Goudey sheets to original baseball card artwork to Mad Magazine cover art. I also spent a day with Kevin Saucier in Southern California, where he showed me a lot of the cutting-edge techniques in card doctoring. Kevin doesn’t doctor cards for profit—he just does it to stay a step ahead of the crooks. What he showed me was really eye-opening and a tad disturbing.
Who’s the most underrated figure (or two) in baseball cards becoming an American obsession?
DJ: That’s easy. It’s Woody Gelman, the illustrator who led Topps’s creative efforts during the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. Gelman is a mostly forgotten figure who loomed large in a lot of corners of our pop or trash culture. The famous comics artist Art Spiegelman, who worked for Gelman at Topps for many years, told me that Gelman toiled away in what he called the “sub-basements of our culture,” like baseball cards and comic books and things like that. Of course, these days both baseball cards and comic books can fetch millions of dollars at auction, but in those days it wasn’t like that at all. It was considered a very strange thing to either collect cards or spend your life creating them, and Gelman did both.
He was an accomplished collector as well as an artist—he ran the Card Collectors Company out of Long Island, which was perhaps the first real card shop in America, and he also led the production teams that designed all those amazing Topps sets in the 50’s and 60’s. Taken as a whole, its amazing what he was responsible for—with the help of Sy Berger, he basically created the modern baseball card; he was the brains behind Mars Attacks and Wacky Packages; and he was also a wonderful patron not just to Spiegelman but to other artists like R. Crumb and Winsor McCay. I don’t know that anyone was more influential in this hobby than Woody Gelman.
Was there a common theme among those you talked to regarding their attitude toward the hobby?
DJ: There were some common themes, though they weren’t all universally shared. I heard a tone of cynicism in a lot of accomplished collectors and dealers. There’s this sense that all the money attached to vintage cards these days has attracted some unpleasant elements. I mean, the T206 Wagner has sold for $2.8 million; whenever you’ve got that much money washing around an unregulated industry, you’re going to see some shenanigans. I don’t think anyone would dispute that card doctoring actually happens—that’s pretty much an accepted fact among the people I interviewed, though people disagree on how commonplace it is.
But there are other allegations like shill bidding at auction houses and generally shady dealings that have turned people off. Plenty of people complained to me of a corrupted pastime, and yet on the other side I heard people complain that there’s too much grumbling about the unpleasantness. A lot of people still think this is a wholesome hobby that brings enjoyment to a lot of people, regardless of whether the high prices and high stakes have drawn in some unsavory folks.
Anything you wished you could have put in the book but for whatever reason, weren’t able to?
DJ: My one big regret is that I never got to spend time with collector Larry Fritsch before he died. A lot of people think he had the most incredible collection of baseball cards in private hands. I talked with him on the phone a couple of times. He was a very nice guy but a little leery of being written about, so we never managed to get together. What amazed me is here’s this guy who’s getting on in years and clearly sitting on millions and millions of dollars worth of baseball cards, but instead of selling them off and living a life of comfort, he continues to run this mail-order business in Wisconsin, filling little $5 orders one at a time out of his warehouses full of cardboard. Like I said, I never met the guy in person, but my guess is that he just couldn’t bear the idea of parting with his cards, no matter how much money they would bring him. And to me, that’s fascinating.
What do you hope collectors/dealers/industry people will take away from reading the book?
DJ: When it comes to young collectors, the baseball card hobby is a shadow of what it once was. That’s a simple fact if you look at sales. But for all the doom-and-gloom talk, we need to remember that baseball cards are incredibly resilient. They’ve survived for over 140 years. And when you think about, they really haven’t changed all that much! There may be some flashy bells and whistles on them these days, like autographs or uniform swatches or gold foiling, but a baseball card is more or less the same thing it was in the late 1860’s: a piece of cardboard with a picture of a hairy-faced ballplayer on it. And as simple as they are, they’ve had an enormous impact on American life—not just on the boys who spent countless days collecting them, but on huge industries like tobacco and candy and bubblegum that baseball cards helped give rise to, and of course on the game of baseball itself, which has had a cross-promotional relationship with baseball cards for over a century. As I say in the book, so long as there’s baseball, there’s no reason there shouldn’t be baseball cards.