Kathman Embraces Hobby History

By George Vrechek

David Kathman

David Kathman with his copy of Burdick’s first catalog, The United States Card Collectors Bulletin from 1939.

It is is an understatement to say that collector David Kathman is enthusiastic, or that he gets into the details, or that he has a good memory. While he is like many of us who retained our childhood collections and got back into the hobby as adults, Kathman is now an avid collector of not only cards but hobby history. He enjoys obtaining and reading articles, ads and letters about the hobby origins and how collectors shared information and obtained cards.

Pulp by the pound

Kathman started picking up old hobby publications 25 years ago and has kept at it, piling up hobby pulp by the pound. In doing so he has often linked his collection to hobby pioneers (Burdick, Barker, Carter and Wagner) and a following generation of longtime hobbyists (Lipset, Medeiros, Lerner and Even).

He has written about “the long and winding road” describing how the hobby grew. For example, he went through publications and traced how the short-prints in the 1948-49 Leaf Baseball set were gradually discovered between 1959 and 1968.

Shakespeare Scholar

This enthusiasm and attention to detail is not hard to understand, given Kathman’s other interests. He works as a senior mutual fund analyst at Morningstar in Chicago, analyzing and reporting on fund performances. He has a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago, speaks four languages and has expertise in Shakespearean theatre.

His numerous articles and reviews are published in scholarly journals such as Shakespeare Quarterly. “Grocers, Goldsmiths, and Drapers: Freemen and Apprentices in the Elizabethan Theater” is the title of just one of his many contributions. In linguistics, Kathman articles include “Abkhaz Stress and Morphological Templates.

“I’ve always been interested in the history of any field,” said Kathman, reminding one of something Jefferson Burdick would have said.

Closet collection

In 1991, Kathman’s mother asked him to pick up his 1970s childhood card collection stored in a closet at the family home. He had a few thousand cards, a smattering of older type cards and a few hobby publications. His interest was renewed. He visited a card shop in his hometown of Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He picked up a Sports Collectors Digest at a Chicago newsstand and got involved.

1976 Sports Collectors Digest

January 1976 SCD with Wirt Gammon on the cover.

He bought cards, not so much from the recent years but from the 1880s and early 1900s, because of his natural inclination to study the origins of a field. In 1995, he responded to an SCD classified ad by sports postcard collector Dan Even, who sold him a collection of hobby publications from the 1960s and 1970s.

Reading the pubs

Kathman tries to read everything he can on the early days of the hobby and hobby publications. He observes that such publications were often started by one person and the publications came and went with the enthusiasm of their founders. A listing of most of the prominent hobby publications, their founders and years of publication is included for reference.

Kathman is familiar with hobby names in the 1950s and 1960s and comments, “Sam Rosen, Woody Gelman and Gordon B. Taylor provided cards and publications for the young collector audience, while Card Collector’s Bulletin and Sport Fan were geared to the relatively few adult collectors.”

Writers Preston Orem, Rich Egan, Lionel Carter and Buck Barker shared their knowledge in many publications.

As Barker humorously wrote in a 1960 Card Collector’s Bulletin about advanced collectors, “In order to obtain a few cards every month, he must write many fruitless letters and keep hot on the chase, but the disappointments will be many. Often there is no use writing old friends as none will have anything for trade. Then he’s reduced to writing articles, a sad state indeed.”

Publications were a major help to isolated collectors, who found each other through hobby articles or ads. Subscribers would enthusiastically pursue their wants by writing other subscribers or advertisers, sending them wantlists and then sending cards or money (sometimes stamps) in exchange for the small amounts involved.

Hobby publishers would be diverted away by jobs, military duty, school or family obligations and might resurface after such interruptions. Sometimes, you would get a double issue as publishers tried to catch up. More than a few ran into financial difficulties and quietly disappeared, sometimes spreading their misfortunes to prepaid subscribers and advertisers.

Collecting expands

Kathman’s card collection gradually expanded into a near set of T-206s, T-205s, T210s, hundreds of Old Judges and thousands of non-sport tobacco issues. He continues picking up publications and hobby correspondence. He looks for ads, checks eBay and keeps in touch with other collectors. He purchases large lots of publications, generally for a few hundred dollars each.

The Trading Post

The Sports Exchange Trading Post from 1947.

Veteran hobbyist Steve Mitchell sold him Sports Exchange Trading Post, and other publications. Mitchell didn’t have any copies of Sport Collector’s Journal, which he founded and edited in the late ’60s. Publications once owned by Ray Medeiros, Lew Lipset and Irv Lerner have found their way to his collection.

Kathman has won several caches of publications in auctions, including hobby pioneer John B. Wagner’s copies of the first 30 issues of Jefferson Burdick’s Card Collector’s Bulletin from 1939-1944. Any issues in a publication run that he was missing, he has purchased or obtained copies.

Kathman noted, “I now have complete runs of Sports Trader, Sport Hobbyist, Card Comments, The Card Collector, Sports Collector’s Journal and Sports Collectors News, and near-complete runs of most of the other major hobby publications up to 1990.”

In addition to the hobby magazines, Kathman has collected old individual articles on collecting which appeared in other publications such as Hobbies and The Sporting News.

Sharing findings

Kathman reads my numerous SCD articles on hobby history, and over the years we have met for lunch to exchange information. I find it impossible to exhaust his knowledge on any subject that he has researched. He shares excerpts from old publications with fellow enthusiasts via Net54 postings and likes stories that focus on the big picture. In 2017, he posted numerous old hobby publication excerpts on Net54, reflecting how the hobby had changed over the prior 50 years.

Kathman said, “While some of the old publications are quite scarce, there are not many people who collect them. Therefore, the prices can be reasonable, unless two hobby history collectors are both avid about the same item. Prices reflect a case by case nature of the transaction. Some eBay asking prices are all over the map.”

It is too bad that the sale prices for cards in the publications aren’t good anymore.

Richard Rubin, Mike Jaspersen, Ed Kobak and David Hornish are among other collectors who have provided information on some of the old publications.

Publication pile up

As collectors, it is not surprising to find many of us hanging on to hobby publications – for a while. Sports Collectors Digest at one time was published weekly in a larger format. A 1990 issue I have has 352 pages. Retaining a complete run of SCDs takes space. Lionel Carter (1918-2008), of course, saved all his SCDs. He piled the heavy issues neatly in two stacks extending from floor to ceiling underneath his basement stairs, not a location which would please any fire marshal. It will likely be a challenge for Kathman, as well, to continue to store the pounds of pulp.

While having copies or digital files of old publications is informative, Kathman said, “I like having original issues owned by many of the early hobby pioneers and seeing the distinctive handwriting of people like Buck Barker.”

He thinks about how people ran ads, exchanged letters and wantlists, and connected long before the internet. But if you want to connect with Kathman, try the internet at djk1@ix.netcom.com

George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached atvrechek@ameritech.net. 

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