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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Recommended Reading, Part 1

I'll be posting several book reviews over the next couple of days.

The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card, by Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson (William Morrow)

Those with even a cursory knowledge of baseball memorabilia collecting consider the 1909 Honus Wagner card, produced in a small quantity by the American Tobacco company, the “holy grail” of the hobby. This book discusses how the card came to be so rare (it was pulled from the market at Wagner's request), who has, in recent years, owned the best copy of the card in the world, and what the card’s ramifications are for the baseball memorabilia business.

New York Daily News investigative reporters O’Keeffe and Thompson also discuss the life and times of Hall of Famer Honus Wagner, the superstar Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop and perhaps the most beloved man in baseball prior to 1920, and how the attention given to the card has, in some ways, eclipsed the memory of the man whose face adorns it.

The description of Wagner is cursory—but then again providing a biography isn’t the authors’ mission. What they’re really doing is casting some much-needed light on the dark and often disgustingly corrupt baseball collectibles business, one that operates largely through the faith of the buyer since dealers are not effectively policed, either by the industry itself or by federal or state authorities.

The authors uncover the Wagner card’s recent history, in the process tracing the past 30 years of baseball card collecting. Their investigation leads the reader through a maze of deception and greed to find underhanded dealers, shady auction houses, vested-interest "card grading services," assorted hoods, a few whistle-blowers, and some very odd (and usually very wealthy) collectors.

O'Keeffe and Thompson also show us that Wagner’s home town barely celebrates him; that many of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s treasures were stolen and ended up on the market; and that celebs like Wayne Gretzky and Billy Crystal may have been ripped off by unscrupulous dealers looking to cash in on baseball fans’ love of the memorabilia associated with the game.

I learned a lot reading this book. (One thing I didn't know is that the "Pittsburg" on the front of Wagner's jersey isn't even part of the original photo--it was added on by the card company back in 1907.)

As in any great baseball book, there are heroes and villains, and as in any great book of any subject, you’re left wanting to know more about the subject. This book is recommended.


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