If you haven't already heard about it, picked it up, or read Michael O'Keeffe and Teri Thompson's new book The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History's Most Desired Baseball Card, you're missing out. It's a great, comprehensive and controversial read about the hobby's most prized possession (the former Gretzky/McNall T206 Honus Wagner) and the many men who made it that way. Michael O'Keeffe answered The Baseball Card Blog's questions about the book and his take on the state of the hobby.
BBC Blog: Tell me about yourself.
O'Keeffe: I’ve been writing about sports cards since the late ’90s. This has never been a full-time pursuit, but sports collectibles is one of the beats I’ve followed and written about since I joined the Daily News. I did collect baseball cards as a kid, and to a lesser extent, football cards. But I gave all that up by the time I was about 13, 14 years old. I have very fond memories of collecting, trading and flipping cards, and at least indirectly, those memories did play a role in the writing of the book.
BBC Blog: So much of the hobby has built on the intrinsic value of one word: authentic. Does this word have any meaning?
O'Keeffe: I’m not sure what you mean here. Are you talking about “authentic” in terms of a grade from a grading company? Or “authentic” from a memorabilia authenticator? “Authentic” cards are cards that are lower value because a grading service said they were genuine but trimmed or altered. “Authentic” memorabilia means simply [that] some authenticator said it is what a consignor or auction house says it is.
I think the word has meaning when it comes to cards – at least you know what you’re getting, even if it was trimmed or altered. I don’t think it means a great deal when it comes to memorabilia – there are so many unqualified and unscrupulous authenticators.
BBC Blog: One of the questions I ask myself from time to time is, Did Topps invent Mickey Mantle or did Mickey Mantle invent Topps? You could make a pretty strong case that were it not for Mickey Mantle anchoring every Topps set 1952 to 1969, the company would be in a very different position today. But also, were it not for Topps, would 'Mickey Mantle' be synonymous with 'baseball', 'nostalgia' and 'Americana'?
O'Keeffe: I think he was such a phenomenal talent that he would have been a star regardless of baseball cards. He was not only a great ballplayer, he was the right man for the right time – a big, strapping, handsome, easy-going hero for a generation that wanted to return to normalcy after the violence and uncertainty of WWII, Korea and the Cold War. I think he would be an iconic figure regardless of baseball cards, although cards certainly played a role in his fame.
His image certainly helped Topps maintain its monopoly for many years and you’re right, it’s something they can go to every so often to gin up consumer interest and press coverage.
BBC Blog: Similarly, Bill Mastro seems to be the man behind the curtain in the hobby's secondary market; is this a fair assessment of him, or is he just a product of the industry? If not for Bill Mastro, would card and memorabilia collecting be where they are today?
O'Keeffe: As far as Mastro goes, I believe he has played a vital role in the industry’s evolution. He’s a smart and aggressive businessman who has brought a lot of innovation to the hobby. He’s also a very personable guy, and his larger than life personality has attracted a lot of collectors into the hobby. He’s got a lot of critics, too. We compare him in the book to George Steinbrenner – some people love him, some hate him, but you can’t deny he’s played a big role in collectibles.
BBC Blog: Do you think Ray Edwards and John Cobb have gotten a fair deal?
O'Keeffe: Not really.
I can’t say if their card is real or not. It probably isn’t, if you look at the numbers – there are only a few dozen real wagners still in circulation, but thousands of reprints still exist.
To me, their story is interesting because of the lengths they have gone to to prove their card is real. It’s like that Lucinda Williams’ line, “June bug vs. hurricane…” The hobby has jumped on these guys with a viciousness that is frightening. A paper expert and a printing expert have both said their tests indicate it is consistent with a 1909 card – that raises interesting questions to me. Many have ripped their card without ever seeing it or examining it in person. Why should industry executives be the final word when the industry has so many ethical lapses, when authenticators typically spend just a few seconds examining the average card, when the grader/auction house relationship is so fraught with conflicts of interest?
I was pretty horrified by the way collectors and dealers attacked Ray and John on Network 54. The overt and suggested racism in some of the posts was pretty disappointing. The hobby is dominated by white men, and in reading some of those posts, you get the feeling the only way a black guy would be welcome in the club is if he is a superstar athlete or a waiter. If the Cobb/Edwards card is so obviously a fake as Network 54 members say, why get so angry? Why rant on and on about two guys who will probably never sell that card, at least for not more than a few bucks? Why call them “Stimeys?” With all the problems in the industry, why pick on a couple of working guys from Ohio?
BBC Blog: Could the sports memorabilia and vintage card secondary markets survive if Mastro admitted to trimming the Wagner, and PSA admitted to knowingly rewarding a trimmed card with an 8 NM-MT?
O'Keeffe: Yes, I think the markets would survive. I’m not sure much would change. I get a lot of calls from collectors who say this auction house ripped them off or that authenticator made a mistake and I should write a story exposing them for the crooks they are. I always ask this question: Why do you buy this stuff if the hobby has so many problems? “Because I really need it, because I don’t want somebody else to get it…” is usually the reply. It’s a joke.
These guys act like vintage cards or old jerseys are as vital as food and water. Some people might drop out of the hobby but many won’t. Some collectors are like junkies. I think it’s rather sad that so many people tie their happiness and identity to an old cardboard card.
BBC Blog: Should we be more worried about the demise of Topps?
O'Keeffe: It doesn’t keep me up at night. But it would be a shame if a venerable old company many of us grew up with would be swallowed up by Upper Deck. UD strikes me as a sterile, soulless corporation; at least Topps has a great history.
BBC Blog: Nearly all of the available writing about the baseball card hobby is resoundingly positive in nature, even though by many accounts what has happened to it over the past twenty-five years or so has been negative (per-pack and per-card prices driving young collectors away, too many sets and a rapidly shrinking list of national manufacturers). It's almost as if collectors, dealers, publications and auction houses have their heads in the sand when it comes to the state and future of their hobby. Why do you think the hobby is like that? Is it really all about the money?
O'Keeffe: It is really about the money. Collectors and dealers are heavily invested in the status quo; if a grading company is exposed as chronically sloppy or incompetent or corrupt, the cards it has graded become suspect and the value of those cards becomes uncertain. The hobby publications are more interested in advertising dollars than real, honest coverage. The mainstream press is not interested in educating itself about the problems the hobby faces; it’s easier to write a “gee whiz, isn’t it crazy that a baseball card sold for $2 million” than do real reporting. Still, I’m encouraged by a lot of the coverage I’ve seen in recent years. The collapse of Topps, the rise of Upper Deck have sparked some good stories. Pete Williams' Card Sharks, although over 10 years now, is a vital read for anybody who cares about the hobby. Kevin Nelson’s book Operation Bullpen is also quite good.
BBC Blog: Could the Wagner phenomenon happen with any other card?
O'Keeffe: I don’t know, but certainly the Gretzky T206 Wagner benefited from the perfect storm.
The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History's Most Desired Baseball Card is available through online retailers and at bookstores around the country.