Some like it. Some loathe it. Some are right down the middle. “The Card”, a book about the sports card and memorabilia hobby and the PSA 8 T206 Honus Wagner in particular, has been in stores now for about a month. With the ink now dry and some of the reviews in, New York Daily News writer Michael O’Keeffe took time for a Q & A session.
What has been the reaction to the book from the card collecting community?
MOK: It’s been mostly very positive. I’ve received quite a few e-mails and calls from collectors and dealers thanking us for addressing card restoration and the other issues we raise in the book. A lot of people said they found it to be an enjoyable and informative read. People said it was a mystery story and card primer rolled into one book. People told me they got sucked in after the first chapter and couldn’t put it down.
I am surprised that the hobby publications, with the exception of Sports Collectors Daily, have not addressed the book. I was also surprised by some of the comments on collectors forums – there were a number of people who criticized the book even though it was obvious they had not even read it. Some of these people ripped “The Card” even though they admitted they hadn’t read it. Jeez, how ignorant is that?
How about outside that realm? Any surprises?
MOK: The reviews in the mainstream press have been very favorable. Darren Rovell of CNBC.com is a reporter I’ve respected for a long time – the guy is probably the best sports business journalist in the country – and he called it the best book on sports collectibles since Pete Williams’ “Card Sharks,” which was published 12-13 years ago. “Card Sharks” is a terrific book, and I was flattered by the comparison. Parade magazine made “The Card” one of its picks for Father’s Day gifts, which gave us a very nice bump in sales. I’ve been interviewed by a number of radio talk show hosts, and I’ve been surprised by their depth of knowledge and their enthusiasm for both the book and the topic. I’m also surprised by how people who knew nothing about cards or the hobby embraced it – to them, “The Card” was simply a fun summer book.
Obviously, it took quite a while to get the book published. What were some of the hurdles you faced in getting it done?
MOK: Some of the major players in the book refused to talk to us. There were letters from attorneys representing industry big shots threatening legal action. I think it’s safe to say there are people in the industry who did not want this book to be written.
The book traces the card back to a Florida flea market in 1985. Did you have any luck trying to trace its whereabouts prior to that?
MOK: No, that’s where the trail really went cold.
If it is generally believed the card was cut from a sheet and then trimmed at one point, how was it done without being made obvious? The trimming would have taken place in an era before today’s sophisticated printing technology.
MOK: I think a few people have known for decades that there are questions about the card. But those questions were drowned out by hype and marketing. Mike Gutierrez, a longtime figure in the hobby who ironically enough now works for Collectors Universe, was quoted in a newspaper story after Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall bought the card as saying it had obviously been trimmed. McNall told us he was very disturbed to hear that. So the card was sent to PSA to be graded. As we report in the book, Bill Hughes, a longtime dealer, was one of the guys who graded the card for PSA. Hughes told me he knew the card had been cut from a sheet when he graded it, but he wasn’t willing to reject it as trimmed or cut from a sheet. He said it was too clean, too superior to reject.
PSA was just getting established, and the people there apparently thought it wouldn’t be good for business if they rejected the most expensive card in the world. The fact that this card was cut from a sheet and later trimmed is one of the world’s worst kept secrets.
The book indicates there are supposedly photos which show the card before and after it was trimmed, yet no one seems willing to make those public-even anonymously. Did you try to get ahold of those images?
MOK: Yes we did. We are still trying to get those pictures.
We are also still trying to ID the current owner. Don’t you think it’s funny that this card is sold to an anonymous buyer two months before this book came out? Wealthy men and corporations bought and sold this card for huge amounts of money for the publicity and press attention it brought. Isn’t it odd that the current owner wishes to remain in the shadows?
What was the biggest challenge as you tried to tell this story?
MOK: There were a lot of little challenges – interviewing collectors and dealers is kind of like herding cats.
You’ve taken some heat for giving John Cobb and Ray Edwards attention in one chapter. Most collectors who’ve seen images of their card believe it’s a manufactured copy and believe if it were truly real, they would have submitted it to an authenticator without demanding to be present. What’s your reaction?
MOK: I am surprised by how angry people get simply because I thought it was important to tell John and Ray’s story. I’m not qualified to say if the card is real or not, but if I were a gambling man, I’d put my money on ‘not real.’ Just do the math – there are still thousands of T206 Wagner reprints floating around and only a few dozen real cards. Probability dictates it is most likely a reprint. Yet a paper expert and a printing expert both said their card was printed 100 or so years ago. Why are people in the hobby so fast to dismiss that?
John and Ray’s story is a deeply American story – two working-class guys who think they found a way to make a quick buck. It’s the story of the gold prospectors who settled the West. It’s Jed Clampett, it’s Ralph Kramden scheming up ways to move his wife out of a dumpy Brooklyn apartment. It’s every man or woman who fantasized about what they would do if they won the lottery. I am really disappointed that people accused them of being thieves or con men. These guys have worked their butts off to prove to the world that their card is real – if they are drifters, they would have moved on to something more profitable years ago.
I understand PSA’s rationale for keeping card owners out of the grading room – you don’t want collectors arguing with graders or trying to bribe them. There are also obviously concerns about security. In a hobby filled with so many hustlers, why dump all this bile on a couple of working guys from Ohio? Why not aim that bile at the auctions that permit shill bidding and sell doctored cards? What about the graders who spend all of two seconds examining a card? Why don’t they get that angry about the game-used memorabilia authenticators who write letters of authenticity for items they are selling?
You touch on card restoration in the book. In your opinion, how prevalent is it?
MOK: It’s prevalent enough that Robert Edward Auctions has decided to have a dialog with its customers about card restoration. It’s a significant issue, and rising prices increase the temptation to doctor cards. I think it’s a significant problem.
What’s the #1 problem with the sports card and memorabilia hobby right now?
MOK: The authentication system for game-used memorabilia is a joke. Some of these guys write so many letters of authenticity, they can’t possibly spend more than a few seconds on each item. I think a lot of authenticators don’t know what they are talking about. And I think it is amazing that authenticators are allowed to write letters for items they own and have consigned to auctions. How the hell is that objective or independent?
Shill bidding is also a huge problem.
Now that the book is out and the trimming claims are more than just whispers within the hobby, what do you think the future holds for the card and its value?
MOK: I think the card will continue to climb in value. I think it has taken on a life of its own, and the rules that apply to other cards are not relevant. The bottom line is this – it’s still the nicest example of a T206 Wagner out there – even if it is trimmed.
What’s your own personal opinion on the card itself? What should its status be within the hobby and does the fact that some believe it was trimmed hurt it as a piece of sports history?
MOK: My personal opinion? I think it’s a boring card. I think the white border series as a whole is pretty aesthetically pleasing, but the Wagner card lacks life. I like the deep orange background, and I’ve been a fan of Wagner’s ever since I was a kid and read a book about the original Hall of Famers. But the card doesn’t give me goose bumps.
If I were a collector, I’d be partial to the Cracker Jack series – I think those are cool looking cards. Also, I like the Goudey series.
I think the industry should be honest about the card. If people had said from day one that this card, although beautiful, was cut from a sheet in the 1980s and later trimmed, there wouldn’t be a book and there wouldn’t be this stench of hypocrisy.
What’s the most positive thing that’s come from writing the book and having it published?
MOK: I met some really cool people. Mike Gidwitz and Rob Lifson in particular are great guys. I got to delve deep into the history of baseball and American history, which is one of my passions.