The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card (Anglais) Broché – 17 juin 2008
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Revue de presse
Présentation de l'éditeur
Only a few dozen T206 Wagners are known to still exist, having been released in limited numbers just after the turn of the twentieth century. Most, with their creases and stains, look like they've been around for nearly one hundred years. But one—The Card—appears to have defied the travails of time. Its sharp corners and still-crisp portrait make it the single-most famous—and most desired—baseball card on the planet, valued today at more than two million dollars. It has transformed a simple hobby into a billion-dollar industry that is at times as lawless as the Wild West. Everything about The Card, which has made men wealthy as well as poisoned lifelong relationships, is fraught with controversy—from its uncertain origins to the nagging possibility that it might not be exactly as it seems.
In this intriguing, eye-opening, and groundbreaking look at a uniquely American obsession, award-winning investigative reporters Michael O'Keeffe and Teri Thompson follow The Card's trail from a Florida flea market to the hands of the world's most prominent collectors. The Card sheds a fascinating new light on a world of counterfeiters, con men, and the people who profit from what used to be a pastime for kids.
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The authors admit that "Wagner's baseball card seems to have become more significant to twenty-first century baseball fans than Wagner himself." That's really too bad, for Wagner was a fine baseball player, inviting comparison with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, both of whom were selected with Wagner as inaugural entries into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. Cigarette companies in the 1880s started putting them into packs of ten cigarettes. Honus Wagner is the rarest card of the 1909 - 1911 set produced by the American Tobacco Company; There are around fifty of Honus Wagner's cards, each of them valuable, but most in poor condition. _The Card_ is about the one known as The Card, the one that is in superb condition; it has bright colors, its edges are clean and white, and the corners are sharp enough to draw blood. And that's the problem; The Card is, in the view of many, just in too good condition. There is a great peculiarity of the baseball card obsession: retouching or repairing a card is forbidden, or if not forbidden, it takes almost all the value of the card away. You can refinish antiques, and even the greatest Old Master paintings get retouched and no one minds as long as the work is done well; but baseball cards must not be doctored. And there are baseball card doctors who remove stains, smooth out wrinkles, build up flabby corners with wheat paste, and scalpel or laser rough edges to make the remaining ones sharp. There are serious doubts about the authenticity of The Card, explored at length here. The Card is now all sealed up in a special case, and no owner is likely to open it up to let appraisers reevaluate it.
It isn't just The Card that has authentication problems. Other cards do, and other sports hardware does; even bats, balls, and mitts that are authenticated by their previous owners as having been used in important games may not be the actual equipment as claimed. There are authentication services that for a fee will grade cards, but like any company, they want to please their best customers and are inclined to look favorably on cards from their favorites. Sometimes the services that do the authentication are also the ones that own the property and are auctioning it. Sometimes there are shills in the auctions to make the price go sky high. There is little policing by dealers, the authentication services, or governmental authorities. What used to be a fun hobby for kids has outgrown kids and has become a playground for rich fraudsters. The authors have hopes for the hobby, and there are those who are pushing for reform. There are some honest brokers profiled here, and maybe they will eventually have their way, but it hasn't happened yet. _The Card_, a brightly written and entertaining look at a unique realm of folly, reminds us that baseball may nominally be the national pastime, but the actual one is making a buck any way one can.
At just over 200 pages before the notes section, the book is a quick read and can easily be finished in a day or two. The book essentially drifts among three different topics -- the PSA 8 Wagner card specifically, a history of the card collecting industry and a profile of Wagner's career and place in baseball history.
One point I disagree with the author about is the premise that Wagner would be almost completely unknown today were it not for his T206 card. Author Michael O'Keefe goes so far as to claim that Wagner would be almost completely forgotten today, like other Hall of Famers Tim Keefe, Mike "King" Kelly and Roger Bresnahan, were it not for his T206 card. Sure, the card has helped Wagner's eternal fame. But he is also an inner circle Hall of Famer; Bill James rated Wagner as the second best player of all-time in his most recent ranking of players. Even if the T206 Wagner card was not scarce relative to the rest of the set, he would still be a very famous name in baseball history.
I also thought O'Keefe wasted some space in the book by devoting a section to scammers John Cobb and Ray Edwards and their efforts to convince the card collecting community that their fake T206 Wagner is real.
The history of baseball cards in the book can be found in more detail in Dave Jamieson's "Mint Condition" book. But I did learn some things about Wagner the man in this book. The recollections from Wagner's granddaughter in this book were interesting. I also had no idea that Wagner was such a teller of tall tales late in life. O'Keefe relates that one of Wagner's favorite stories to tell was a claim that he once threw a rabbit to first base and had the umpire call the batter out because darkness had settled over the field.
As with the Jamieson book, Bill Mastro comes across as completely unlikeable in "The Card." O'Keefe openly speculated that Mastro had good friend (and card doctor) Bill Hughes grade the card an "8" for PSA. One other point that bothered me was that O'Keefe's use of the term "authentic" regarding the grading of the Gretzky-Wagner card is misleading. "Authentic" is what the card should have been graded, instead of receiving a numerical grade.
The book is an interesting read for how cheap it can be purchased, but more up-to-date information on Bill Mastro and the Gretzky-Wagner T206 can easily be found online.
"The Card" is a fast, revealing read, and having lived the collector's life (in a penny-ante kind of way) I can say this is a must-read book for those of us over a certain age. It seizes on a single surviving 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card that recently re-sold at private auction for nearly $3 million, and how, through years of investigative journalism, the authors have fairly well proven that the card is not exactly what it purports to be.
Apart from the hours I wasted cataloguing and re-cataloguing my meager collections (I once traded the 1977 Chris Chambliss for a 1983 tandem of Ed Lynch and Dave LaRoche; dumb, dumb move) I've never spent a million bucks on a card of dubious provenance. I once laid down $10 for a 1957 Topps Luis Aparicio, too big to fit into the 9-card-per-page collector sheets that housed lots of 1987 Mark McGwires and Garbage Pail Kids at the time.
"The Card" is a terrific look at the dark side of the hobby. Since many of those noted as "villains" by the author declined to be profiled, the book mostly features interviews with collectors who've left the hobby out of heartbreak, or those who run honorable and transparent businesses trying to clean it back up. It's not just about baseball cards: it also touches on the grey market for "game-used" bats, autographs, jerseys and gloves. Billy Crystal makes a poignant cameo late in the story: he spent a quarter of a million collars on an item that isn't what he thought it was.
At a card show last year I got autographs on two memorable cards: Bake McBride signed his afro on the '80s Topps card, and Alvin Dark signed for me his 1955 Bowman TV-set image. I will not be selling these items. Neither card is in near-mint to mint condition, as is the profiled T206 Wagner; neither card is particularly rare; and I got them signed for sentimental value, not for investment purposes.
Confession, however: I did once trim a baseball card. This is part of a run of dubious practices, made easier with the advent of newer technology, where dog-eared cards are made crisp, and where aging borders are pared back to their original white and pristine state. In early 1983 a Junior Scholastic-type magazine I got in the mail came with an uncut partial sheet of eight 1982 Topps cards (I do have a mis-cut, from-the-pack 1980 Topps John Candelaria that's probably worth nothing). Being nine and having never seen an uncut sheet before, I promptly grabbed my safety scissors and got to work liberating the cards from their unified tyranny. Mangled all the cards in the process. Including the Orioles Future Stars card. With Cal Ripken, Jr. on it. To be fair, at the time I couldn't have known I was cutting up a card that, thanks to the hobby's implosion, probably isn't worth more than 20 bucks today, if that.
One final note: the story of the T206 Wagner and its dubious rise to 7-figure investment property, opens in 1985 in a baseball card shop in Hicksville, New York. This is the same Long Island town that for 20 years unknowingly housed the Gospel of Judas. My mother (and all my baseball cards) currently reside in Hicksville. I'm going back to my collection one day and maybe see if I don't have a T206 Wagner myself sitting somewhere in that fated locale.