30 baseball books in 30 days of ’10: Day 22 — It’s still in the cards … or is it?

On Earth Day, we celebrate what could be the only biodegradable product that baseball ever produced: The bubble-gum card. Because it surely isn’t the hot-dog wrapper:

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The book I: “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession”

The author: Dave Jamieson

The vital stats: Atlantic Monthly Press, 272 pages, $25

Find it: It’s at Powells.com (linked here)

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The book II: “Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards”

The author: Josh Wilker

The vital stats: Seven Footer Press, 208 pages, $24.95

Find it: Check the official site: www.cardboardgods.net Also at Powells (linked here)

The pitch: In 1983, Pete Rose’s Topps rookie card, issued 20 years earlier, was reaching new heights, just as the Cincinnati Reds star was closing in on the all-time career hits record. A card that two years earlier was going for $65 in baseball card stores was now hitting $375.

“Demand was so high that the hobby’s first substantial stock of counterfeit cards made their way into the market,” it says on page 154.

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“A Los Angeles Police Department detective, who happened to be a dealer and collector himself, spearheaded an investigation that found a pair of California men had printed more than 10,000 sham Rose rookies on thin cardboard stock. The cards had been selling at trade shows for about $100 each.”

The guys were caught. But the counterfeit cards were never shredded. Bad move. The lawyer for the guilty parties got the cards returned. The judge ruled that they had to be stamped “original counterfeit” by the LAPD. No problem.

“In a testament to how insatiable the demand for Rose rookie cards was, the stamped fakes went back on the market and sold accordingly for about $25 a pop.”

Websites today dedicated to collectors are still writing about how to tell if you have a fake Rose ’63 card (linked here).

“This card is one of the most counterfeited cards on the planet,” writes Ross Chrisman on www.sportscardinfo. “There was an entire investigation into these fakes and you can still find the ones stamped “COUNTERFEIT” up for sale. I guess any Rose collection wouldn’t be complete without one.”

And to think, I only wanted it because it had Ken McMullen’s picture on it.

To understand how baseball cards became a $1.2 billion a year business in its heyday — the early 1990s — that story acts as a reason why kids just didn’t have a chance to enjoy a hobby that their parents once did when they were in single-digits, just shoving quarters into a dime-store vending machine and hoping to get a card or two of their favorite teams.

Card dealers were as sleezy as drug dealers, stashing away the good stuff, opening up the packs, taking out the higher-end value cards and resealing them to sell off. Publications sprung up to tell everyone how much they estimated the prices of cards to be.

This could only bad. And sad. In Jamieson’s “Mint Condition,” there are stories all around like the Rose saga to illustrate how things went south in the industry.

Jamieson, 31, went to his parents home in New Jersey to clean out his bedroom. He found the cards he collected from the ’80s and ’90s — right about the time when Americas were enamored with this Honus Wagner tobacco card that millionaires kept selling back and forth to one another.

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Jamieson took his cards back to his new home in Washington D.C. and, after doing some research, realized the cards were pretty much not worth the paper they were printed on any more.

The crash of the market came from many things, as Jamieson uncovered. The players’ strike of ’94. The players’ union, which licensed the pictures to card companies that suddenly popped up. The illustion that there’d be more Wagner cards down the road, if you just bought the right ones and hung onto them — like the ’84 Don Mattingly.

“That’s why I make an argument for Don Mattingly to be in the Hall of Fame,” Jay McCracken, a former Upper Deck exec, tells Jamieson. “He’s the one what bailed out the card industry in 1987.”

There are more stories to read and shake your head about — starting with a lot of history behind the Topps brand, to the dealers today who are closing up their brick-and-mortar shops left and right and trying to make a go of it online.

While “Mint Condition” chronicles the business end, “Cardboard Gods” goes straight to the heart, thanks to Wilker’s ability to mark points in his life with cards that he came about having and collecting.

His story is one we can easily relate. So can many others.

Former big-league pitcher Bill Lee wrote in a review: “(This) is more than just a book. It is something that I lived and live still. I was the older brother. I live on Route 14 like Josh once did. My two sons were those boys in the picture, VW bus and all. ‘Cardboard Gods’ awakened feelings in me that I have long suppressed. It is a growth book, like ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ People, especially people who love baseball, will carry this book with them everywhere.”

That’s the second reference in less than a week to a book where “Catcher in the Rye” is involved, and here, as well as in “The Bullpen Gospels,” it’s applicable.

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This is more about documenting Wilker’s family as it is about him and his “Wonder Years” told in cards. Remember that card of Kurt Bevacqua trying to blow a giant bubble (blog item by Wilker linked here)? Or trying to figure out what “pinch runner” meant on the Herb Washington card (blog item by Wilker linked here)?

You can go back to your youth just by looking at your cards and remembering — smelling, especially, if that gum stick left any kind of mark. At the time, you were probably upset that it left a stain. Now, it’s like the Shroud of Turin.

In surveying Wilker’s “collection” here, I can connect in growing up in just about the same era. My most valuable cards to me were from the late ’60s, early ’70s. Wilker jumps in about the same time, just a few years later.

Sometimes, his connections to the cards may seem like a stretch. Wilker starts a chapter on “Topps 1980 #218: Jose Morales” with: “I started kindergarden the same year Jose Morales reached the major leagues, in 1973, and continued to attend school every year of his quietly competent, useful career as a right-handed bat for hire.” … Uh, OK.

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But then, there are chapters that hit is on the screws like this on “Topps 1976 #550: Hank Aaron”:

“As I understand it, the term ‘mint’ is used in the hobby of baseball card collecting to describe cards that have been utterly sheltered from life and its inevitable slide toward deterioration. There are other gradations, but I doubt if there is a label far enough removed from mint to describe the select group of cards, my favorites, that i touched more than I touched anything else in my life. … In a monetary sense, these beloved cards have been nullified. Reduced to nothing. Handled too much, cling to too tightly. The absolute opposite of mint. … The final card, from 1976, of Hank Aaron, the Home Run King, was the very pinnacle of this feeling, this ‘something.’ …

Around our house, we still call those the most prized possesions. No matter if we saw one that was perfectly uncreased, we’d keep our version, never let anyone throw them away, protect them with our family photos and insurance papers if there was ever a fire and we had to grab something as we were running for the door. Glad others feel the same way.

So there’s your two definitions of “mint.”

How it goes down in the scorebook: You’ll be tempted to put one book in the spokes of the front wheel of your bike and the second in the back wheel. Don’t. You’ll ruin them. And the noise really won’t be all that effective.

And by the way, Wilker. You lied. There’s no stinkin’ stick of gum in the book anywhere. So we ate the bookjacket in your honor.

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More to follow up:
== “Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide 2010 by Brian Fleischer”

== “The T206 Collection: The Players & Their Stories” by Tom Zappala and Ellen Zappala

== “2010 Baseball Card Price Guide” by Joe Clemens

== “The Official Beckett Price Guide to Baseball Cards 2010, Edition #30″ by Dr. James Beckett

== “All Star!: Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever” by Jane Yolen and James Burke (for ages 9-12, linked here)

Also: Save the date: Wilker plans to appear at the Baseball Reliquary Pasadena Public Library Community room to sign books on Thursday, June 10, 7 p.m.

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