House of Cards: Baseball Card Collecting and Popular Cultureby John Bloom
"Collectors often decried how money had ruined their hobby, making it hard for them to form meaningful friendships through their cards. Money, however, made the hobby not only profitable but also more serious, more instrumental, and therefore more manly. The same
Explores the connection between baseball card collecting and nostalgia among men of the baby boom.
"Collectors often decried how money had ruined their hobby, making it hard for them to form meaningful friendships through their cards. Money, however, made the hobby not only profitable but also more serious, more instrumental, and therefore more manly. The same collectors who complained about greed often bragged in the same interview about the value of their cards. Yet money, in turn, made the hobby less akin to child's play and more like work: lonely, competitive, unfulfilling, and alienating".
Baseball card collecting carries with it images of idealized boyhoods in the sprawling American suburbs of the postwar era. Yet in the past twenty years, it has grown from a pastime for children to a big-money pursuit taken seriously by adults. In A House of Cards, John Bloom uses interviews with collectors, dealers, and hobbyists as well as analysis of the baseball card industry and extensive firsthand observations to ask what this hobby tells us about nostalgia, work, play, masculinity, and race and gender relations among collectors.
Beginning in the late 1970s and into the early 1990s, baseball card collecting grew into a business that embodied traditional masculine values such as competition, savvy, and industry. In A House of Cards, Bloom interviews collectors who reveal ambivalence about the hobby's emphasis on these values, often focusing on its alienating, lonely, and unfulfilling aspects. They express nostalgia for the ideal childhood world many middle-class white males experienced in the postwar years, when they perceived baseball card collecting as a form of play, not amoneymaking enterprise.
Bloom links this nostalgia to anxieties about deindustrialization and the rise of the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements. He examines the gendered nature of swap meets as well as the views of masculinity expressed by the collectors: Is the purpose of baseball card collecting to form a community of adults to reminisce or to inculcate young men with traditional masculine values? Is it to establish "connectedness" or to make money? Are collectors striving to reinforce the dominant culture or question it through their attempts to create their own meaning out of what are, in fact, mass-produced commercial artifacts?
Bloom provides a fascinating exploration of male fan culture, ultimately providing insight into the ways white men of the baby boom view themselves, masculinity, and the culture at large.
Bloom (American Studies/Dickinson Coll.) latches onto the perhaps obvious premise that "white middle class men were the primary constituency that comprised the core of the baseball card collecting hobby" and never lets go. His study covers the late 1980s into the 1990s, after the hobby had been thoroughly commercialized by home-shopping shows on cable television. A hobby with its origins in "the nostalgia for innocence located in symbols of white middle-class boyhood" became a big business back in the mid-1970s, when the number of serious collectors grew from 4,000 to 250,000. The Fleer Corporation's successful antitrust suit against Topps opened the door for other companies to produce cards. That, Bloom argues, set off the direct-marketing boom of the late 1980s; baseball cards became the product rather than the incentive to buy a product, such as cereal or gum or cupcakes. Bloom goes on to examine the dynamics of sports memorabilia shows, finding a class structure among the dealers and collectors in their baseball caps and beer-commercial T-shirts. Those he studied "attempted to make a mass-media form meaningful within their collecting subculture." Numbing statements unfortunately blot out astute, ironic observations, such as Bloom's noting the annoyance show dealers have with children: What was once a boy's hobby now has little patience for childish enthusiasms. Not a collector himself, Bloom refers to his interviewees by first names only ("I first learned of Dave when I was interviewing Bob . . ."), thus giving their statements a confessional edge, like testimony at an AA meeting.
Bloom's occasional cogent observations would be better served by levity and clarity.
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