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If there is anything baseball card collectors love to do almost as much as actually collecting cards — buying them, trading them, sorting them, touching them — it’s reading about cards.
And it’s little wonder why.
The history of baseball cards is intimately tied to the history of the game itself, and understanding more about one adds flavor and context of the other.
But baseball cards have their own distinct story, a trajectory that passes through stops in the tobacco era and the candy cards of the Twenties and Thirties before emerging on its track after World War II when the hobby began to stand on its own.
And then, of course, big money changed the game forever as Baby Boomers became the adults of the 1980s and looked for ways to recapture the glory of their youth.
A whole new generation of collectors was born of that heady era, and we thought the hobby would always be awash in cash, and that our cards would go up, up, up in value … forever.
The big boom of the early 1990s and the bust that followed, when we realized that our cardboard was not as rare and valuable as we thought, smashed our beliefs about the hobby.
But through it all, we keep coming back. Generation after generation of children find their way to baseball cards, often through the glowing remembrances of their parents, and they — we — are all eager to learn more.
Across the decades, there have always been books to help us on that journey. Big books and little books, price guides and history guides, checklists and mailing lists. We’ve loved them all.
We still do.
The next time you’re in the mood for some baseball card reading, check out these 12 timeless hobby gems, presented in no particular order.
(Note: These entries contain affiliate links to Amazon and eBay listings.)
Published in 1994, this book sat right on the line between the baseball card boom and crash, and it was full of advice aimed at investors and speculators.
It’s great fun to look back on the recommendations and think about how they fit with the realities of the market over the last 20+ years.
“Sell every card you own that was made after 1989.” … pretty good advice.
“Buy Willie Randolph cards”? Not so great.
A wonderful read if you’re interested in the recent history of the hobby.
In the early 2000s, Dave Jamieson stumbled upon an experience that has become commonplace for many of us who grew up during the 1970s, 1980s, or even the 1990s.
An avid baseball card collector as a kid, Jamieson was reunited with his “treasures” when his parents cleaned out their home in preparation for selling it. Figuring he’d finally cash in on the bounty he had so painstakingly built decades before, Jamieson instead found there were no takers.
His cards were basically worthless.
Determined to figure out what had happened, Jamieson dug into the history of the hobby, tracing it from its origins in the nineteenth century to the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s to the bust soon thereafter.
And he wrote it all down.
If you’re looking for answers about the value of your cards or just want to revel in the history of the hobby, you can’t do much better than this tome.
Since before you ever opened your first pack of baseball cards, and likely since before your father opened his first pack, the most valuable and sought-after card in the world has been the T206 Honus Wagner tobacco issue from the early twentieth century.
With just a handful of copies known to exist and with whispered legends swirling around the card, “The Wagner” always draws attention whenever it’s mentioned.
One particular specimen, the best ever found, has become a bona fide celebrity over the past three decades as it’s changed hands among rich and famous owners numerous times. With every sale, the legend grows deeper and more complex.
Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson put their investigative reporting skills to good use in tracking down the origins, travels, and travails of the most famous piece of cardboard in the world. In the process, they uncovered dark corners of the hobby that are both disturbing and fascinating, but which make the book hard to resist.
No force shaped the modern baseball card scene quite as profoundly as the battle between Bowman and Topps in the early 1950s.
First producing cards under the Play Ball label from 1939 through 1941, Bowman joined Leaf in 1948 as the first manufacturers to mass-produce cards after the cardboard-rationed years of World War II.
Three years later, Topps eased into the market with a couple of oddball issues before releasing their huge and iconic 1952 set the following year.
The battle was on, and it would rage for nearly four full years as Bowman and Topps struggled over player contracts, design standards, and collector dollars. When the dust cleared in 1956, Topps stood victorious, having bought out its competitor and paved the way for decades of nearly unchallenged cardboard supremacy.
In Bubble Gum Card War, veteran dealer Dean Hanley presents the full story of this battle like it’s never been told before. Bringing to bear a lifetime of collecting and untold hours of research, Hanley paints a picture that every collector should dive into at some point in his hobby lifetime.
The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubblegum Book: “The Spinal Tap Of Baseball Books.
The hobby as we know it can trace its origins to the 1950s and the gum wars between Topps and Bowman.
Those were halcyon years as the United States exploded out of World War II into a new era of prosperity, and boys across the country dreamed of becoming the next Big League superstars.
On-field role models like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays fueled visions of grandeur and, for the first time ever, those superheroes came right into homes on a regular basis through both television broadcasts and wax packs purchased at the corner store.
First published in the 1970s by former bookstore employees Brendan Boyd and Fred C. Harris, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping Book captures better than any other piece of pop culture the true essence of collecting cards in those more innocent days.
(On a related note, I interviewed Mr. Harris for Sports Collectors Daily when the book was first released for Kindle, and he still maintains much of the love for those golden years as he did 40 years ago.)
If you want an authentic read on hobby history from those who lived it, this is the book for you.
“How much are my baseball cards worth?”
“How much will you give me for this 1966 Topps Art Shamsky?”
“Why do you want so much for that Roberto Clemente rookie card?”
Down through the years of the modern hobby, the most common questions asked about baseball cards have all centered on value.
It’s easy to see why, what with The Wagner card and the Mickey Mantle rookie card and “Ted Signs for 1959” pulling in big bucks — for whatever time in which the transactions took place — for at least 40 years.
As the hobby began to pick up steam in the mid-1970s, there were no great answers to those questions other than to go to a card show or your local card shop and see what you could get.
About that time, Dr. James Beckett, a statistician from Texas, was running into the same questions in his own pursuit of the hobby.
With his background, though, Beckett wasn’t content to just hunt and peck for answers — he wanted to compile as much data as he could and then put together a definitive list of prices for every card he could.
So that’s what he did.
Teaming with Dennis Eckes and the folks at Sport Americana, Beckett compiled his research into the first large-scale and widely available baseball card price guide.
That first edition of the guide that came to be known simply as “Beckett” was published in 1979 and quickly became the go-to for collectors everywhere.
“I’ll give you 50% of book value for that card.”
“How much does it book for?”
“I can’t give you full book for a card in such poor condition.”
And, of course, “book” meant the Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide.
Today, that first tome is a piece of hobby history that can provide many hours of fascinating number diving.
By 1985, the baseball card hobby was on fire.
Fleer had broken Topps’ monopoly in 1980, and they were joined by Donruss as new products on the market in 1981.
Collectors were scooping up all the cards we could lay our hands on — had to have one of everything, after all — and investors and speculators had begun to invade the hobby.
Amid all the excitement and turmoil, good old Topps kept churning out their 792 swatches of gray-brown cardboard every year, while adding in Traded sets and various test issues and other special runs.
They were still king of the hobby, but there was a growing faction of collectors who felt that The Old Gum Company wasn’t keeping up with the competition, and that their product was inferior to what were seen as innovations by Donruss and Fleer.
But no matter what disparaging remarks came their way, Topps remained steadfast in their conviction that no one could match them for hobby history or swagger.
They were right, of course, and they drove the point home by releasing this massive coffee-table book that showed every regular-issue Topps card from 1951 through 1985. It was and is gorgeous and weighs about as much as an old Chevy.
If you haven’t seen this beauty up close yet, you’re missing out on one of the great joys from the hobby’s boom years.
It should come as no surprise that, once Beckett broke the seal on the price guide market, copycats followed.
It was inevitable.
One interesting trend that developed was a proliferation of “pocket” price guides that were much more limited than the Beckett offering but which were both easier to lug around and more affordable.
Of those diminutive guides, the Official Pete Rose 1983 Price Guide to Baseball Cards stands out for the prominent endorsement by Charlie Hustle and for the actual Rose card inserted between the pages of the book.
It’s an interesting little read that gives you a look at prices of the day and doubles as a collectible itself.
One of the first price guides I ever owned was this massive book from Ron Erbe.
And by massive, I mean big in just about every way you can imagine:
- It’s 75o pages long!
- It rivals the Topps retrospective in terms of sheer weight.
- It covers all sorts of issues from 1880 through 1981.
- It includes large-type checklists, complete with checkboxes, for each set.
- It’s chock full of commentary about the history and future (as of 1981) of the hobby.
- It even touches on the investment angle of the hobby.
I think I found my copy at a flea market in 1983 or 1984, and I probably paid the full cover price for it.
That was a bargain, considering the hours and hours of enjoyment the boo provided, and that it helped lay my foundation in the hobby.
You can get it on Amazon today for peanuts, which makes it a no-brainer.
There is no question that Beckett ruled the price guide market during most of the hobby boom years, and even today.
But the unquestioned leader when it came to providing updated hobby information of all other sorts — beyond mere pricing — was Sports Collectors Digest.
You could giggle at the silliness of Baseball Cards Magazine and ooh and ahh at the slick production values of Beckett Monthly, but when you wanted to get serious about the hobby, you made sure your subscription to SCD was paid up.
It was only natural, then, that the folks at SCD would eventually move into the price guide arena. After all, they had access to hundreds of pages of advertising, and hundreds of additional data points in the form of classified ads, updated every two weeks.
So, in 1987, Bob Lemke and Dan Albaugh — SCD alums both — rocked the hobby with the release of the Sports Collectors Digest Baseball Card Price Guide, 1st Edition.
For the first time, we had a viable competitor to Beckett, and another set of pricing to work with. And when the prices didn’t line up, it somehow felt like SCD had exposed a flaw in the Beckett methodology.
This book became a yearly affair and eventually spawned the huge and popular Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, which itself has spurred the development of other tomes.
And it all started with this one shot across the bow.
If you haven’t heard of Josh Wilker or Cardboard Gods, stop what you’re doing right now and get your priorities straight.
Simply put, Wilker has turned simple reminiscences about baseball cards into an art form that tears at your very soul with each entry.
What began as a trek through a box of old baseball cards soon became a blog, Cardboard Gods, that you can still visit.
Before long, Wilker’s heartfelt posts found a dedicated audience, one that eventually demanded he turn his beautiful words into a book, also called Cardboard Gods.
Josh Wilker is not simply a wonderful card blogger, and he’s not just an accomplished writer. He is a great author whose masterpiece (to date) blows away all boundaries that you might expect to box in a “book about baseball cards.”
Seriously, you have to read his blog and his book. It’s required.
If there was such a thing as a bona fide celebrity among baseball card dealers in the 1980s and 1990s, there is no doubt that Alan Rosen, aka Mr. Mint, was the biggest of them all.
Hailing from the realms of numismatists, Rosen wasn’t afraid to spend big in order to reap big rewards, and he traveled the nation in well-publicized buying tours looking for his next big finds.
In 1986, in fact, he landed “The Find,” a bumper crop of unopened 1952 Topps high-number cards that yielded 40 Mantle rookie cards and landed Rosen an appearance on Good Morning America.
From that point forward, even more than before, Mr. Mint became the go-to guy whenever someone had huge hunks of vintage cards to sell.
Drawing on that popularity and turning the corner into a new hobby decade, Rosen (and Doug Garr) penned Mr. Mint’s Insider’s Guide to Investing in Baseball Cards and Collectibles in 1991.
Like the “101 Ways” book discussed above, Rosen’s words provide an interesting snapshot of the hobby in the early 1990s. In general, his advice is more conservative, though, and looks pretty good even nearly 30 years later …
Focus on quality over quantity …
Pete Rose cards will appreciate even if he doesn’t make the Hall of Fame …
Borderline Hall of Fame candidates are generally not great investments …
At the very least, this book is fun historical read.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to talk with, and actually meet up with, the heroes popping out of your wax packs, then Brad Balukjian’s recounting of his unique trek through 1980s baseball history in the summer of 2015 will be right up your alley.
I won’t give away too much here, but the premise of the The Wax Pack is simple: open a pack of baseball cards from your youth, figure out where all the guys inside are now, travel to their home turf for dinner or a workout or Fourth of July celebration, and then write about it.
For Balukjian, the “from your youth” bit took him back to a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards, and that’s where all the fun begins.
The subtitle of this book is, “On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife,” and it pretty much lives up to that promise, with one(ish) chapter devoted to each of the players Brad unwrapped on that fateful day in the middle of the last decade.
Beware, though — when you read this book, you’re probably going to have a strong urge to embark on your own Wax Pack journey!
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