By M. G. Moscato
Call it ideology, call it economy (or both), but sometimes capitalism can be a strange and funny thing.
Nowhere is that any more apparent as in the rather bizarre subculture of collecting – particularly in that quixotic or, by turns, seedy cellulose netherworld of pulp ephemera.
As in many such markets, the baseball card market operates largely on the principles of supply and demand. And therein condition is king. Terms like “Poor,” “Very Poor,” “Mint” and “Gem Mint” persuade with seeming authority that a thin piece of cardboard belongs in the same durable goods category as a Tiffany diamond. These “grades” (yet another term borrowed from the likes of jewelers and metallurgists) often dictate the assigned monetary value of a card, again in addition to or conjunction with those dynamics of supply/demand. Of course, a poor Mickey Mantle card from his playing days is typically held in higher esteem by many collectors than many a near-perfect, Mint specimen of, say, “Steady” Eddie Murray.
Consider, though, a further interrogation of that paragon of cardboard trophies – the authentic Mickey Mantle card – and how it functions in the baseball card marketplace in oddly prized yet almost ubiquitous qualities and quantities. Therein a paradox reveals itself in the capitalist schema for this specific marketplace, while suggesting potential insights on other markets as well.
First, a contemporary collector of Mickey Mantle cards will notice upon even a cursory search of current and recently closed online auctions how, when taken as a whole, there appears absolutely no shortage of original Mickey Mantle cards to be found, sometimes for as little as $6 or $7 with shipping costs included. Now a qualifier seems prudent here: Namely, that these generalizations should not be interpreted as relevant to “every” Mickey Mantle issue in existence, such as the rare Mickey Mantle Red Heart, 1951 Bowman, etc. Those can soar in cash value, upward of hundreds of dollars.
However, the fact remains that many a Mickey Mantle card from his playing days may be easily and very affordably acquired, especially for fair or poor condition finds.
Moreover, some slippage in the capitalistic binary of supply/demand emerges under closer scrutiny when considering Poor or even Very Poor grades next to higher grades. And although “Very Poor” is not an official grade category (simply “Poor” being the lowest rating), it’s nevertheless productive to consider this as another, lower level grade.
Indeed, it only seems appropriate given the “Mint” vs. “Gem Mint” distinction, grades which are granted official, separate categories. But to arrive at my point, we see a contradiction in the marketplace with these diametrically opposed extremes (and, yes, that may be a bit repetitive, but it seems merited here). In other words, a collector of Very Poor sports and non-sports trading cards will encounter an almost similar scarcity as would a collector of Mint cards for many Mantle issues.
So on the one hand, the Very Poor card: i.e. absolutely shipwrecked with water stains, wrinkles, tears, pieces missing with fibrous wounds, handwriting, cartoonish doodles, tape, tape adhesive marks, etc. On the other hand, the Mint card: i.e. immaculately smooth surfaces unblemished by dings or nicks, nary the faintest crease or fold in sight, corners and edges sharpened to perfectly perpendicular “Ts” and so on and so forth.
They are almost equally difficult to locate and acquire in shops and online auctions, yet one will always be monetarily valued at a fraction of the cost of the higher grade for the same issue – for example, two cards of the same 1959 Topps No. 461, Mickey Mantle but in these very different conditions.
Surely some arguments and rebuttals come to mind here. Perhaps card sellers possess plenty of Very Poor condition cards, but this stock rarely is listed for sale because dealers assume (probably rightly so) that the minimal profit yields are not worth the time, effort or auction listing expense. Also, it feels worth the reminder that it’s far easier to unmake or break down the condition of a card and transform it into a Very Poor state of existence than it is to preserve and/or (fraudulently) manufacture a Mint status.
Finally, to return to my earlier claim about insights here for other markets: While countless analogies abound, perhaps one would need look no further than the marvelous manipulations and colonial orchestrations of De Beers. Call it cartel, empire, monopoly, De Beers cleverly manufactured the low supply and high demand dynamics inherent to the diamond mining and trade industry. In other words, despite an actual heavy surplus of diamonds, De Beers historically restrained release to create a false sense of supply and demand – and thus higher prices. (And much of this continues today.)
While comparatively few if any legitimate published sources can attest to this same kind of pervasive hold on supply/demand in regards to trading cards, it may only be a matter of time before such a scheme emerges (or previous schemes unearthed, as in the baseball card boom and then bust of the 1980s). If such a conspiracy were to be real, it’s certainly intriguing to contemplate all those Mickey Mantles neatly stashed away in some media company’s basement vaults.
Yet it feels almost universal, no matter the marketplace: Wherever there is a market, then there will always be those who seek power and control over it.
But there will still need to be customers; there will still need to be believers. And even with such contexts and qualifiers in mind, I know that I continue to feel a deeply personal preference for those abused and orphaned pieces of cardboard over the more conventionally privileged siblings.
History shows us – as it shows so well on the bruised and battered surfaces of these misfits – that further considerations should be given beyond mere monetary value. And perhaps no postwar era baseball life exemplifies this sentiment better than poor Mickey Mantle.
M. G. Moscato lives and teaches in Columbia, S.C. His work has appeared in Spitball, Stymie, Lungfull!, Plainsongs and elsewhere. Additional work is forthcoming in Harpur Palate. He blogs at pulpephemera.wordpress.com.