Baseball cards take some big hits

Dave Jamieson

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Major League Baseball announced today that President Obama's going to throw out the first pitch for the Washington Nationals home opener next Monday. It'll mark the 100th anniversary of the first time a president officially opened a baseball season. William Howard Taft was the first, by the way. One thing that's not such a part of the excitement around the sport anymore is baseball cards. Used to be that kids would buy a pack, get themselves a stick of gum. They'd collect the cards, and if they could see clear to part with them at some point, sometimes sell 'em at a profit. Not really the case anymore.

Dave Jamieson's new book about the decline and fall of baseball cards is called "Mint Condition." Dave, welcome to the program.

Dave Jamieson: Hey, Kai. Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: Take 30 seconds for me, would you, and run us through the history of baseball cards in America: How they started and how they got to where they are?

Jamieson: We first started seeing them in big numbers back in the 1880s. This was an ingenious idea, courtesy of a few tobacco moguls in the South, who decided to start slipping pictures of ball players and actresses into cigarette packs. This really started quite a fad, where kids would beg their fathers to buy one brand over another because they wanted the baseball cards. And this kind of marketing scheme was replicated in other industries, the gum industry, the candy industry. Until around the 1950s, you know, when Topps came along, and really baseball cards at that point were no longer kind of an extra thrown in to sweeten the pot. They really became the main feature themselves. And they've really been their own industry ever since then.

Ryssdal: How did you come to write this book?

Jamieson: Well, it all started about four years ago when my parents sold the house I grew up in. And my mom called me up and told me to head back to New Jersey and clear out my closet. And when I got back there, I found an enormous box of baseball cards. I took very good care of them, kept them all in excellent or mint condition. I assumed that someday it would be time to gather these up and sell them for a great amount of money, and maybe start my retirement that way.

Ryssdal: But who's buying these cards these days? That's the question.

Jamieson: So I started calling up the numbers to card shops and was surprised to find that a lot of the numbers were disconnected. So then I headed to eBay and Craigslist and found that these cards that I assumed were so valuable were actually quite worthless. You know, this all goes back to what I call the "Great Baseball Card Bubble" of the late 80s and early 90s.

Ryssdal: A bubble we've never heard of. We've had dot-com, we've had real estate, but now here's another one.

Jamieson: That's right. You know, when I was growing up in the 80s, there was this idea that baseball cards were valuable. That's because many old cards, like Mickey Mantle's and Willie Mays', those cards were selling for a great amount of money. So a lot of us kids tucked them away, thinking that the cards that we were gathering as kids would accrue this value over time. And that never quite happened. And the reason for that, is because card companies really overproduced the cards and all of us held onto them. And it was years until we realized that these cards were really not worth what we thought they were.

Ryssdal: And in fact, you write about this, going to card shows today, you're what, like 30-something years old, right?

Jamieson: I'm 31, yep.

Ryssdal: And you're the youngest guy in the place, right?

Jamieson: A lot of times, yeah. The problem, as I said, was this speculative bubble that once it popped, it turned off a lot of adults and kids. Packs were, what used to be a dollar or 50 cents, got up to $20 and more. And really, the hobby just kind of got a little out of control. It was difficult for kids to wrap their heads around all this product, and they couldn't afford it either. So eventually, they just kind of fled for Pokemon and video games and other things. And it's been very hard to lure children back to this industry.

Ryssdal: You know what we need? We need an iPhone app for baseball cards.

Jamieson: You know, very funny you say that. I just got an e-mail the other day from a guy who was thinking along the exact same lines.

Ryssdal: I'm telling you, I want a cut, actually, if it actually turns into anything.

Jamieson: Well, you'll be able to make your own customized Kai Ryssdal baseball card.

Ryssdal: Yeah, and finally, maybe I'll get my kid to pay attention to me. Dave Jamieson, his book is called "Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession." Dave, thanks a lot.

Jamieson: My pleasure, Kai.

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