By Mike Shannon
Baseball cards and baseball books are two separate collecting categories, right? For the most part, yeah, but there is more overlap than you might suspect.
We all find baseball cards endlessly fascinating; they are an entrenched, recognized and important part of American culture; and there is a lot to know about the subject. So it really shouldn’t be surprising to realize that there are some excellent books out there on the topic of baseball cards that are worth tracking down and making a permanent part of a collection, whether you consider them part of a sports book collection or as a supplement to a card collection.
Keep in mind that I’m not talking about price guides, as useful and informational as such volumes are. The subject of this story, for the most part, are the books offering a historical, narrative, investigative or didactic element that you can actually read as you would any other book.
In a few other instances, the books under discussion here are more photographic than textual, but that’s only to be expected, as baseball cards are such a visually driven collectible. In either case, the following are the best books ever done on a subject we all hold dear.
The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book
The first book published by a mainstream, commercial publisher to take baseball cards seriously was The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, which did so by treating the subject (for the most part) flippantly. Published in 1973 by Little, Brown & Company and co-authored by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, the book reproduced in color a shoe box full of Bowman and Topps cards from the 1950s and ’60s and accompanied each card with a brief biographical commentary, ranging from a few sentences to several paragraphs. While occasionally simply factual or rueful (as in the cases of Ken Hubbs and Harry Agganis, who both died prematurely), the authors’ comments in pointing out the deficiencies, quirks or defining characteristics of the (mostly) journeymen players are usually highly sarcastic, wacky and hilarious.
Consider, for instance, the comment about Senators’ third baseman Reno Bertoia’s 1959 Topps card: “The back of Reno’s card is interesting. It says that his average last year was .162 and that, although he did not get to play in too many ball games, he gained valuable information about American League hurlers that would help him in the future. I suspect that the information he gathered was that every pitcher in the American League could get him out, and that perhaps he should try some other line of work.”
Or this shot at diminutive Angels outfielder Albie Pearson, shown kneeling in the on-deck circle: “Albie Pearson would have been, had he been only 6 inches taller, almost 5’11”. Here he is standing next to his favorite bat, Merle.” The constant “diss”-ing might have grown tiresome if the criticisms weren’t so truly funny, good-natured and based in truth and if the authors’ affection for the cards, the players and the era that produced them did not run through the entire book like a powerful undercurrent. There is also the fact that the book is full of keen insights, excellent writing and vivid descriptions, such as the following about Tiger bullpenners Ray Narleski and Don Mossi, who remind the authors of “two small-town undertakers: “Narleski with his sly little-boy grin and the darting fishy eyes of the small-town criminal handles the customer relations, and Mossi with his loving-cup ears and the dark hulking presence of one newly dead or resurrected does all the dirty work.” Not your normal talk about baseball cards, by a long shot. If the book had any effect on the public, besides providing plenty of laughs, it was to engender a nostalgia for the cards that had been forgotten and disposed of by the vast majority of adults who’d once treasured them. The book did a lot to bring baseball cards back into prominence, to remind people of how much fun baseball cards can be, and it remains a classic of overall baseball literature, not just books about cards.
Topps Baseball Cards: The Complete Picture Collection: A Thirty-Five Year History, 1951-1985
By the time the second noteworthy book on baseball cards appeared in 1986, the resurgence in the collecting of baseball cards from the 1950s had gathered plenty of steam. Card shops, weekend shows and price guides had all proliferated, and Topps’ place in the hierarchy of modern card producers was well established and recognized. The book published to celebrate that status was Topps Baseball Cards, a giant tome published by Warner Books, measuring 10-by-14 inches, running to almost 1,000 pages and containing photos of more than 30,000 cards (36 per page for the standard-sized vertical cards; 32 per page for the horizontal). The photo quality of the book far surpasses that of the Boyd/Harris book, as well it should, given the fact that the emphasis of the book is totally on the images of the cards themselves.
Indeed, the book’s text by Frank Slocum consists mainly of brief introductions to each year’s set, broken down into a season recap, some basic facts about the set and values of key cards and a trivia quiz that sends the reader to specific cards in the set for the answers. The book retailed for $79.95 – a hefty price tag but much less than the approximate $30,000 it would have taken in 1986 to acquire all the cards pictured. Today’s vintage card prices make the book, the largest baseball book ever published, look like even more of a bargain.
Classic Baseball Cards: The Golden Years 1886-1956
One year after releasing the Topps book, Warner Books published a companion volume which presented photos of the baseball cards from the hobby’s most important sets other than those published by Topps. Some of the well known card sets included in the book are those issued by Allen & Ginter, Old Judge, Buchner Gold, Mayo, Fan Craze, Ramly, Sporting Life, Cracker Jack, Neilsons Chocolates, Fro Joy, U.S. Caramel, Goudey, DeLong, Tattoo Orbit, Batter Up, Diamond Stars, Wheaties, Playball, Bond Bread, Leaf, Red Man, Dan Dee, Red Heart Dog Food, and, of course, Bowman. Classic Baseball Cards is the same size and carried the same retail price as the Topps book, yet despite including 90 different sets of cards from a 70-year period, it contains more than 100 fewer pages than its predecessor: a clear indication of the extent to which Topps expanded the concept of a full-fledged baseball card “set.”
Base Ball Cartes: The First Baseball Cards
A “CDV is a paper photoprint glued to a card mount, approximately 2½-by-4 inches,” so says Mark Rucker, a 19th century baseball expert and the author of the self-published Base Ball Cartes. Rucker’s 64-page horizontally formatted (6-by-9-inch) paperback book features sepia-toned photos of scores of such rare artifacts which he regards as the first baseball cards. The CDVs in Rucker’s book feature individual players, groups and teams (amateur, collegiate, professional) and range in date of production from 1863-90. The book also includes advertising/trade cards of the period, including an 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings example issued by Peck & Synder Sporting Goods. This oddball little book published in 1988 under the name “Haymaker Books” preserves images important to the evolution of the baseball card, and now is itself a desirable collectible.
Card Sharks: How Upper Deck Turned a Child’s Hobby into a High-Stakes, Billion Dollar Business
In addition to being the riveting story of the rise and fall of the Upper Deck company, Card Sharks is the seminal work on baseball cards as a business. Written by former USA Today sports collectible columnist Pete Williams, Card Sharks was the first book to present a detailed, thorough history of baseball cards, including Topps’ rise to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s. The 1995 release laid the groundwork for subsequent recapitulations of that history. Williams’ main topic though was the unlikely story of how a fifth baseball card company (Upper Deck) entered what was thought to be a saturated market and almost overnight rocketed past its competition on the basis of having produced a better, more expensive card that was immune from counterfeiting (due to a hologram affixed to each card). The story involves a fascinating cast of characters, including the small-time baseball card shop owner and printing expert who started the company, as well as Richard McWilliam, the investor who bullied his way into control of the company and then oversaw both its triumph and near destruction.
Behind the scenes during the company’s infancy, Upper Deck was continually roiled by back-stabbing power struggles, constant employee purges, lawsuits and highly questionable practices (such as the reprinting of popular cards after the public had assumed that the press run was complete). Williams’ ability to unearth all this frenetic activity and keep it straight is a tour de force of investigative reporting and a rare inside look at how talented and driven entrepreneurs can take an idea and run with it, for good and for bad.
Sayonara Home Run! The Art of the Japanese Baseball Card
Though issued as a Chronicle Books paperback in 2006, Sayonra Home Run! is a beautiful book that delights the senses from start to finish. Written by Japanese baseball card expert Gary Engel, the book reproduces hundreds of rare and gorgeous Japanese cards. While Japanese cards fall into two basic categories (menko and bromides), a huge and dizzying range of shapes, sizes, materials and graphics are on display in the book. Readers will have no trouble recognizing these bits of paper and cardboard as baseball cards, yet the feeling of immersion in the exotic is pleasantly overwhelming. In addition to the intense visual impact, the book offers interesting information on the history, language and culture of Japanese baseball and the nation.
The Flavor of the Game: Celebrating the Sports Collectibles of the Helmar Brewing Company
Another self-published effort, published in 2007, this 155-page hardback book may be even more obscure than Base Ball Cartes – a status that is both a drawback and part of its appeal. Boasting first-class photography, paper and presentation, the book was intended to serve as a promotional introduction to the Helmar company, a tiny craft brewer that soon discovered the baseball art it used in its advertising was the core of its sustainable business.
As the subtitle indicates, the book includes photos of various Helmar collectibles, such as baseball player silks and beer advertising items (labels, table tents, signs, posters, taps); but it is clearly the photos of Helmar baseball cards that steal the show. The pictured cards, which were all made from original artwork, resemble vintage tobacco cards and famous Goudey issues and demonstrate why Helmar has become the leading manufacturer of vintage baseball “art cards.”
The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card
Surely, every adult who collects baseball cards knows that the most sought-after and most valuable card is the T206 Honus Wagner. Less well known, until the publication of this fascinating book by Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson, was the story of how a Near-Mint specimen of the card came to attain its lofty status, how it went in a series of increasingly astonishing sales from a $25,000 card in 1985 to one that fetched $2.35 million in a 2007 transaction. Known as the Gretzky Wagner because the hockey star had once owned it, the card kept appreciating even after it became common knowledge that it had been trimmed to receive its high grade. The authors posit such doctoring as an all-too-common phenomenon and provide evidence that unscrupulous practices exist even in the grading business, purportedly started to protect collectors. O’Keeffe and Thompson show that as baseball cards began to be seen as investments rather than children’s playthings, it was probably inevitable that greed and fraud would rear their ugly heads. As such, The Card is a must-read for anyone considering paying a lot of money for any baseball card, not just a T206 Wagner.
The T206 Collection: The Players & Their Stories
In 2010, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the T206 card, Tom and Ellen Zappala published a lavishly illustrated coffee table (12-by-9½-inch) book that reproduces an example of every card in the set. Basic personal and playing data, as well as a brief biography accompany each card and attempt to bring to life the players depicted. As 524 cards (at a minimum) are required to complete the set, the authors impose some order on their endeavors by dividing the cards into six categories: “Hall of Famers,” “Overlooked by Cooperstown?,” “The Uncommons,” “Bad Boys,” “Minor Leaguers” and “The Commons.” The book is rounded out by an intelligent discussion of variations, rarities, card backs and conditions and grading. The latter is supplied by the president of PSA, Joe Orlando, who calls the T206 set possibly “the most significant release in hobby history.” As with the Topps book, since few of us can afford to buy the actual cards, this book is the next best thing.
Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession
Of all the books considered here, Mint Condition by Dave Jamieson is the most complete history of the subject. While it draws on material covered previously by Pete Williams and O’Keefe & Thomson, it goes further, documenting the decline of the industry and the hobby due to the proliferation of manufacturers and sets, the massive overproduction of cards, the sharp decline in the values of modern cards and the unfortunate spread of greed and fraud. The book proceeds chronologically but is bolstered by intermittent chapters that focus on key individuals who represent important aspects of the history being narrated: T206 Wagner purchaser Michael Gidwitz, card historian and preservationist Jefferson Burdick, Topps art director Woody Gelman, aggressive auctioneer Bill Mastro and PSA President Joe Orlando. Jamieson presents his own trenchant insights (that baseball cards “invented” the cigarette, rather than the other way around), and he offers a solution for the survival of Topps, the lone remaining major producer of baseball cards: Go back to making simple cards that kids (not investment-minded adults) want and can afford to collect.
Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told through Baseball Cards
Author Josh Wilker grew up in the turbulent 1970s and had kind of a tough time with it, dealing with family dysfunction and the struggles to discover his identity and purpose in life. What kept him sane was his baseball card collection, and that supportive, purgative role the cards played is the subject of this affecting memoir. Each chapter in Wilker’s roller coaster maturation is illuminated to one degree or another by the story of a player depicted on a Topps card from his 1970s collection. This book is similar in many ways to The Great American Baseball Card Flipping … book, but the connections between cards and collector are much more personal and deeper here. The intimacy and self-reflection of the book will not appeal to all card collectors, but if given a chance it should convey to any reader a new appreciation for ordinary cards and the power they can have (or at least used to have) in a person’s life.
The Bubble Gum Card War: The Great Bowman & Topps Sets from 1948 to 1955
While several previous books had reviewed the competition between Bowman and Topps for baseball card marketplace dominance in the 1950s, this 167-page paperback by Dean Hanley, the owner of the mail-order card business Dean’s Cards, is completely devoted to the topic. The book examines “the war” year-by-year in detail so that the reader obtains a full understanding of how the result, the upstart Topps’ complete vanquishing of its established foe, came about. In the end, Hanley attributes Topps’ victory to having had the talents of Sy Berger at their disposal. Hanley shares important information about print runs and card scarcity related to the classic sets discussed in the book. His ultimate take-away from the war is also notable: The demonstrable belief that competition breeds quality; monopoly complacency.
The Cracker Jack Collection: Baseball’s Prized Players
Three years after their debut baseball card book, Tom & Ellen Zappala stepped up to the plate again and whacked another home run … this one an even more impressive blast than their first round tripper! All the photos of the Cracker Jack cards in this second coffee table extravaganza are of actual vintage cards, not reproductions as in the T206 book, and the authenticity makes a big difference. The bios accompanying the cards are also more extensive and interesting this time, as are the supplemental materials; particularly Jim Davis’ essay on Cracker Jack history and Joe Orlando’s comparison of the 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets and his population breakdown on graded instances of the more valuable examples. A superb effort and (again) a welcome substitute for cards which have become much too expensive for the average collector to afford.
Mike Shannon is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.