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Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession

Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession

4.3 3
by Dave Jamieson

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When award-winning journalist Dave Jamieson rediscovered his childhood baseball card collection he figured that now was the time to cash in on his “investments.” But when he tried the card shops, they were nearly all gone, closed forever. eBay was no help, either. Baseball cards were selling for next to nothing. What had happened? In Mint Condition<


When award-winning journalist Dave Jamieson rediscovered his childhood baseball card collection he figured that now was the time to cash in on his “investments.” But when he tried the card shops, they were nearly all gone, closed forever. eBay was no help, either. Baseball cards were selling for next to nothing. What had happened? In Mint Condition, the first comprehensive history of this American icon, Jamieson finds the answers and much more. In the years after the Civil War, tobacco companies started slipping baseball cards into cigarette packs as collector’s items, launching a massive advertising war. Before long, the cards were wagging the cigarettes. In the 1930s, baseball cards helped gum and candy makers survive the Great Depression, and kept children in touch with the game. After World War II, Topps Chewing Gum Inc. built itself into an American icon, hooking a generation of baby boomers on bubble gum and baseball cards. In the 1960s, royalties from cards helped to transform the players’ union into one of the country’s most powerful, dramatically altering the business of the game. And in the '80s and '90s, cards went through a spectacular bubble, becoming a billion-dollar-a-year industry before all but disappearing. Brimming with colorful characters, this is a rollicking, century-spanning, and extremely entertaining history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A phenomenal primer in the pitfalls of personal investing and the dangers of believing something is valuable just because everyone says it is (see: Tickle Me Elmo, Retired Beanie Babies).” —Boston Herald

"An entertaining history of baseball cards . . . an engaging book on a narrow but fascinating topic." —Washington Post

Nostalgic and quirky.” —New York Post

"Jamieson chronicles the story of baseball cards with skill and bounce ... It's a blast for collectors of all stripes." —Austin American Statesman

“Jamieson explores the history of card collecting through an entertaining cast of characters—the visionaries and villains who turned a gimmick designed to boost tobacco sales into a billion-dollar industry. . . The pictures in Jamieson's book are captivating, a veritable art gallery of the industry from its infancy in the 1800s to the slickly produced versions of today.... For anyone who can recall being excited to rip open their newest pack of cards, Mint Condition is a treat.” —Forbes.com

“By the early 1990s, baseball card manufacturers were printing 81 billion of the things a year, or 325 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. . . . Of course it ended badly. How and why is the subject of Dave Jamieson’s absorbing Mint Condition.” —Bloomberg

“In this compelling book, journalist Jamieson tracks the history of baseball cards from their late 19th-century beginnings to the present, covering the controversies (e.g, card forgeries), the rivalries (e.g., between companies issuing cards, and between rival collectors), and baseball cards as investments. . . . This very satisfying account of the development of baseball cards and our attitudes toward them is highly recommended even for those casually interested in sports or collectibles.” —Library Journal

“Engaging, informative, and full of unexpected pleasures, Mint Condition deserves a spot on any baseball fan’s bookshelf. Dave Jamieson has hit it out of the park.” —Cait Murphy, author of Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History

Mint Condition kept me spellbound and couch-bound for two days. Its pages are redolent of basements, bubble gum and bachelorhood. They teem with artists, innocents and charlatans. Dave Jamieson fit a century-and-a-half of Americana on the back of a baseball card, a remarkable achievement.” —Steve Rushin

“An engaging, playful and well-reported history of baseball cards, and how they went from being a premium in packs of gum to collectibles selling at six-figure prices at the world's auction houses.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A thoroughly compelling, entertaining and sometimes tragic read, [Mint Condition] will provide even veteran collectors with new insight to the hobby they love.” —Voice of the Collector

"A definitive history of both a pastime and an industry. For those of us who grew up collectors--and still feel a sentimental attachment to those seventeen utterly worthless Dan Plesac rookie cards gathering mold in our basement--this is the book that explains everything." —Michael Weinreb, author of The Kings of New York and Bigger than the Game

“An interesting examination of a hobby that turned into big business and then fell back to earth.” —Charlotte Observer

“A fascinating history of a once-vital tradition.” —Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News

The only history of baseball cards that matters.” — Kriston Capps, DCist.com

“Jamieson elucidates with smooth prose and fascinating tidbits of historical trivia just how the production of baseball cards became a major industry … Jamieson peppers his narrative with stories of the eccentric characters and colorful personalities … The book is an essential read for the baseball fan or anyone who remembers ripping into a wax pack, hoping that their childhood heros would be found inside.” —Brett Savage, New Jersey Monthly

Sean Callahan
…an entertaining history of baseball cards, which started as freebies in cigarette packs in the 1880s…this is an engaging book on a narrow but fascinating topic.
—The Washington Post
Marc Tracy
Dave Jamieson's Mint Condition is a comprehensive romp through a quirky subject's history…the real fun comes in the mini-profiles that propel the narrative…
—The New York Times
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.)

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
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6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mint Condition

How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession

Atlantic Monthly Press

Copyright © 2010 Dave Jamieson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1939-1

Chapter One

Please, Mister, Give Me the Picture!

Although an estimated five thousand Union soldiers would eventually die of starvation and disease inside its wooden stockades, the Confederate-run prison camp at Salisbury, North Carolina, was a great place for a ball game. Created seven months after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, Salisbury was one of the primary destinations for Yankee prisoners of war early in the Civil War. The only war prison in the state, the modest sixteen-acre compound included a cotton factory, a blacksmith's shop, and enough of an open field to accommodate a pair of baseball nines when weather and the warden permitted.

The first 120 Union detainees arrived at Salisbury shortly before Christmas 1861, and by the following spring there were a still manageable fourteen hundred prisoners sleeping in the camp's tenements. In these early days Salisbury, with its oak trees and water barrels and ample breathing room, was a rather pleasant place to suffer one's wartime capture. One Yank remarked that it was "more endurable than any other part of Rebeldom." As several prisoners' memoirs bear out, this agreeable atmosphere had a lot to do with baseball. According to the diary of imprisoned doctor Charles Carroll Gray, prisoners played ball nearly every day that rain or cold didn't prevent it. They even celebrated the Fourth of July of 1862 by reading the Declaration of Independence aloud and playing a few innings on their makeshift diamond.

Baseball took hold at other encampments in both the South and the North, especially during the first half of the war. The game provided a respite from the wretchedness of battle and camp, with regimental soldiers routinely playing ball among themselves, their games sometimes broken off by the fire of cannons, muskets, and carbines.

J.G.B. Adams, a member of the Nineteenth Regiment of Massachusetts, wrote that during his stay at Falmouth, Virginia, "baseball fever" broke out among both Yanks and Rebs, with Adams and his comrades close enough to their enemies across the river to cheer them on. "We would sit on the bank and watch their games, and the distance was so short we could understand every movement and would applaud good plays."

The war would temporarily cripple organized baseball as players in the North left their clubs to enlist, but it also helped to spread the game to new parts of America. As the New York Clipper noted in 1865, "When soldiers were off duty, base ball was naturalized in nearly every state in the Union." What had been a Northern gentleman's game closely associated with Brooklyn became a fixture in many cities in the South and West, with new clubs sprouting in pockets of the former Confederacy, such as Richmond, Virginia, and Galveston, Texas, where the best local team took the name of Robert E. Lee. After the war, the game began to blossom not only as a professional, revenue-churning entertainment but also as a fixture of blue-collar urban life. In his landmark 1911 book about early baseball, America's National Game, Albert G. Spalding, the pioneering pitcher and latter-day sporting-goods mogul, traced the sport's dawn to the war, arguing that the spirit of the game was inextricably linked to military conflict-and relief from it. The game, he wrote, "had its early evolution when soldiers, North and South, were striving to forget their foes by cultivating, through this grand game, fraternal friendships with comrades in arms.... And then, when true patriots of all sections were striving to forget that there had been a time of black and dismal war, it was a beacon, lighting their paths to a future of perpetual peace."

Among those Northern patriots returning from the war in 1865 was a baseball enthusiast named Andrew Peck. His parents having died when he was a baby, Peck was raised in a New York City orphanage and later sent upstate to work for a shopkeeper. After the start of the war, he enlisted with the Union army and was sent to the front with the federal Army of the Potomac, which included Major Abner Doubleday among its ranks and was renowned for its fondness for baseball. One soldier described the camp as "alive with ball-players, almost every street having its game." Once home, Peck started working as a street salesman in Manhattan, hawking baseball equipment, knickknacks, and games he created himself, some of which he managed to sell to the entrepreneur and showman P. T. Barnum. He also began manufacturing baseballs on the top floor of a building at 109 Nassau Street, where the following year he opened a sporting-goods store with his partner, W. Irvin Snyder.

Before being bought by competitor A. G. Spalding & Bros., the Peck & Snyder Base Ball and Sportsman's Emporium would have a profound impact on the leisure culture of nineteenth-century America. The company not only produced some of the very first baseball bats ("fine stock, clear of knots," a catalog proclaimed) and molded rubber baseballs ("which for finish, durability and superior workmanship are not surpassed"), it also put out the first modern canvas tennis shoe and helped make the magic lantern slide projector a fixture in American homes. And with its small series of cards depicting ball clubs, the sporting-goods company is believed by many to have given America its first baseball cards.

During the 1869 baseball season, Peck & Snyder produced a small advertising card, measuring just three-and-a-quarter inches by four-and-a-half inches and bearing a glue-mounted photograph depicting the ten members of the first explicitly professional baseball team-the Red Stocking Base Ball Club of Cincinnati, whose president was Union army veteran Alfred T. Goshorn and whose catcher, Doug Allison, had reportedly learned to play as a soldier in war encampments. On the back of the card is a cartoon showing a ballplayer with sagging eyes and a wispy beard, his back hunched as he hauls an armful of baseball bats, cleated shoes, and uniform belts. The cartoon is signed at the bottom: "Yours Respectfully, Andrew Peck." The ballplayers on the front of the card, lined up five to a row, were dour, hairy fellows with nearly all-white uniforms. Save for the knee-high socks, they looked like a group of convicts. Under the guidance of their British-born center fielder and team captain, Harry Wright, the Red Stockings recruited players from across the country, signed them to exclusive contracts, and instituted organized team practices at which the club developed innovations such as the relay throw. Traveling some twelve thousand miles by rail and boat to play before a couple of hundred thousand people, the Red Stockings logged a 57-0 record and a net profit of $1.39 on the season.

Peck & Snyder produced at least half a dozen baseball cards between 1865 and 1870, though they were hardly the first manufacturer to dole out free "trade cards" to promote its products. The advertising technique had originated in London and been growing for more than a century before hirsute American infielders started popping up on cards. Pushing household items such as Merchant's Gargling Oil Liniment and Lautz Bros. Soaps, trade cards featured either photographs or drawings of everything from actresses and war heroes to comic scenes and pastoral settings; either woven into the image or on the back of the card would be an advertisement for the company's wares. The earliest baseball-themed cartoon trade cards reflected the rough-and-tumble style of the post-Civil War game. Players are carried off the field battered and in bandages, as they were in real life. On some cards, umpires are shown being attacked by mobs of fans who hadn't liked their calls.

Baseball cards may well have been just one more piece of forgotten ephemera had it not been for another novel activity made popular by the war: cigarette smoking. Pioneering cigarette manufacturers would soon discover that coupling their smokes with the likenesses of ballplayers was an exceptional way to move tobacco. The card-collecting hobby had no innocent beginnings. It was the by-product of a marketing technique used to establish the cigarette in the lives of Americans, particularly young boys. And within just a few years of first appearing in cigarette packages, baseball cards would help spur the creation of the greatest tobacco monopoly in American history.

Before the Civil War, Americans had been availing themselves of more tobacco per person than any other country in the world, thanks in large part to an agreeable climate for growing and a massive supply of slaves to work the fields. The tobacco capital of Richmond, Virginia, alone laid claim to some fifty factories devoted to its production. Yet the tobacco that many Americans enjoyed went either into their pipes or between their jaws as plug chew, for the cigarette was considered a bastardized form of the cigar suited only to the lower classes. That perception persisted until pipes and cigars proved too cumbersome for soldiers on the move. As the war progressed, more and more cigarettes made their way from factories in the Southern states to military encampments. Pre-rolled smokes continued to grow in popularity after the war, inspiring a good deal of hysteria among the guardians of public health. Weighing in on an 1884 proposal to criminalize the sale of cigarettes to minors, a New York Times editorial suggested a ban on selling them even to adults: "The decadence of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted cigarettes, and if this pernicious practice obtains among adult Americans the ruin of the Republic is close at hand."

Such pronouncements had no effect on James Buchanan "Buck" Duke, who recognized the massive sales potential of cigarettes better than anyone. His father, Washington Duke, had fought for the Confederacy and served time at a POW camp before walking 135 miles to his Durham, North Carolina, home after the war's climactic close at Appomattox. The elder Duke sent young Buck to New York City in 1884 to help open an additional factory for the family tobacco company. Even then, Buck Duke's ambition was to make the cigarette America's go-to form of tobacco. Although he personally preferred a substantial plug to the dainty sticks, he viewed cigarettes as his family company's only chance to wrest American tobacco dominance from rival Bull Durham. Managing the Manhattan plant by day, he was known to spend nights walking the city streets picking up discarded cigarette packs of all brands, studying their packaging and trying to calculate what percentage of the market Duke Bros. had managed to secure. By all accounts he worked ungodly hours obsessing over advertising and marketing. "I hated to close my desk at night," he once said. "There ain't a thrill in the world to compare with building up a business and watching it grow before your eyes."

Duke soon came to understand the promotional power of celebrities, particularly buxom stage women. Duke Bros. salesman Edward Featherston Small, an advertising mastermind who is credited with inventing the cigar-store Indian, had obtained permission to use a lithograph of Madame Rhea, a curvy French actress on tour in the States in 1884, for advertising in Georgia. The company superimposed a pack of Duke smokes into her extended right hand, above the caption "Atlanta's Favorite," a ploy that helped Duke sell nearly a million cigarettes in what had previously been an impenetrable market for him. The front office was thrilled with Small's tactic, dashing off a letter to him: "We think you made a happy hit with Rhea. Give the Bull's tail another twist." Small procured many more comely ladies to promote Duke cigarettes, putting them on advertising posters and having them sell cigarettes on streets around the country. But the next big twist to Bull Durham's tail would come in the form of picture cards. Duke and Small wanted to put the likes of Madame Rhea inside their cigarette boxes, not just in their ads.

The idea was simple: give the buyer a collectible card to go with his pack of smokes, and he'll buy more cigarettes in hopes of completing the set. Duke and the other tobacco makers who followed him wisely numbered their collectible cards, usually twenty-five or fifty to an issue, which hadn't been done with earlier trade cards. It helped to create brand loyalty, and as a bonus, collector-smokers would be advertising the company to anyone they showed their cards to. It was one of the most ingenious marketing ploys of the nineteenth century. And advertising aside, the cardboard served a practical function by stiffening soft packs so that the cigarettes wouldn't be damaged while stuffed into a smoker's pocket.

To make sure that the country was blanketed with his cigarette packages and trading cards, Duke dispatched employees to New York's Castle Island immigration station, where they handed out free smokes to newly landed immigrants, who would then carry Duke's name off to all corners of America. Duke's competitors were quick to follow, and the cards they issued gave many Americans their first glimpses of exotic animals, far-off lands, and celebrities they'd read about in the newspaper, including ballplayers. They also helped the public equate tobacco with anything and everything American: state governors, heroes of the Civil War, river steamers, Indian chiefs, billiards stars, race horses, yacht clubs, and (in what must have been the dreariest of sets) newspaper editors. As one collector of such cards later recalled, "There were no newsreels, no roto sections, no picture newspapers. A good cigarette picture was no mere plaything for a boy. It was life. No wonder Mr. Munson, next door, would pore over my scrapbooks of a winter evening, using his reading glass under the parlor lamp." Still, some cards were of particular interest to kids, who pined after such sets as the Horatio Alger-esque Histories of Poor Boys Who Have Become Rich and the Terrors of America, which depicted all-American boys causing mischief.

Duke and his fellow card makers grasped the fact that children, then as now, have a say in where the household's discretionary income goes. Even though adults collected tobacco cards, the pursuit appealed primarily to kids. The children, Duke recognized, would beg their parents to buy whichever cigarette brand issued the card series they desired most. And with a foresight that would reshape popular advertising Duke determined that, of all potential tobacco-card images, two could unfailingly shill for a product that even then was known to kill people: scantily clad women and great athletes.

When it came to the former, simple headshots wouldn't suffice. The full-body photos on tobacco cards showed robust young women in elaborate yet meager tasseled dresses and calf-high boots. The models and actresses were thrown across chairs and sofas, fanning themselves, arms placed unnaturally behind their heads and cigarettes dangling from their mouths. The cards featuring these "cigarette beauties" inspired an 1888 ode in the Chicago Tribune: "Who are these beauties, fresh and fair with ebon locks and sun-kissed hair! Whose that brow of alabaster that makes the heart thump quick and faster! What their names! Where their abode!"

The sexual nature of the cards prompted the wrath of religious leaders and public-morality groups such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Society for the Suppression of Vice. A Methodist minister in Washington, D.C., decried them as "indescribably fiendish. To defile the body with tobacco is vile enough, but when all the processes of modern ingenuity in printing and picture-making are brought into use to stimulate and start the fires of unholy passion in innocent children, the crime becomes inhuman in its baseness."

Perpetrators of the card craze even earned a rebuke from the White House when a tobacco maker had the gall to print a card featuring the comely Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland and then the youngest first lady ever. Another inflammatory card was erroneously believed to depict Jeannette Halford, the daughter of E. W. Halford, the president's secretary. Cops raided the studios where cigarette beauties were shot and sometimes hauled photographers away to jail. When a reporter for the New Orleans Daily Picayune asked a young woman on the street if she'd ever allow her photo to be taken for a "cigarette picture," she bridled, "What a horrid suggestion! Only actresses, baseball players, and other dreadful people have such things taken."


Excerpted from Mint Condition by DAVE JAMIESON Copyright © 2010 by Dave Jamieson . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dave Jamieson has written for Slate, The New Republic, and Washington City Paper, among others, and in 2008 he won the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He lives in Washington, D.C., with a closetful of worthless baseball cards, all of them in excellent condition.

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Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although there's great information and insight into all of the parts of the world of baseball card collecting, much of this book spends too much time involved in the minutia of how cards came to be. Specifically, the history of non-baseball cards. In places there's great historical detail of note, such as the formation of Upper Deck. But in others, there's little, such as other card makers of significance. Probably still work your read, however.