Posted by: mdegeorge | September 22, 2010

Summer Reading: “Mint Condition” by Dave Jamieson

One of the great joys of childhood was always summer vacation. And like any proud intellectual (read: nerd), one of the highlights of that eight-week nirvana of a hiatus was the plethora of time available for tearing into my summer reading list. The days spent sprawled out on lounge chairs in the shade delving into the offerings of the local library are one of the great joys of adolescence lost.

Now, as an underemployed college grad with plenty of time on my hands, what better way to while away the days then by giving my library card a work out? My grandparents’ suburban home and spacious decks have been replaced by a sweaty one-bedroom apartment, but the aim is the same. So, all summer, I’ll be posting brief synopses of the latest book to tickle my fancy.

Summer may have ended (though someone should really notify Mother Nature), but the reading hasn’t just yet thanks to some backlog from the preceding months.

The desire to stretch my library card’s use into September was brought on partially by a few gems that I found. One of those is Mint Condition by Dave Jamieson, which provides a detailed look at the history (and the devolution into history) of the baseball card industry.

This engrossing read is one of the most comprehensive yet accessible histories of this multi-billion dollar industry in existence, painstakingly tracing cardboard’s roots from marketing gimmick for tobacco companies to their role in the rise of the bubble gum industry.

As a child of the 1990’s whose only experience with waxpacks or cards as accoutrements to some other product came with six unopened Red Army hockey packs from the late 80s, the reminder of cards’ true legacy can be somewhat of a jolt at times.But Jamieson charts the rise and precipitous decline of the industry smoothly and deftly. He analyzes the major players from every era, from tobacco brands like Old Judge in the late 19th century to the rise and eventual fall of Goudey Gum and Topps throughout the 20th century.

He also explores pioneers in the field, such as Jefferson Burdick, whose exquisite collection was meticulously organized and bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Woody Gelman, whose work for Topps and beyond elevated trading cards far above the spokes of grammar school boys’ bikes and into a legitimate place in the annals of American pop culture.

No aspect of the big business of sports cards goes untouched: Topps use of exclusive contracts and rivals’ like Fleer’s attempts to infiltrate the market; the big business that card licensing became for Marvin Miller and the MLB Players’ Association; the machinations of card dealers like Bill Mastro to ride the coattails of major inflations in price with complete disregard for an impending market crash; the associated industries such as authentication and grading, and those like Kevin Saucier who devote their lives to portraying them as a farce.

Mint Condition is a wonderfully researched book that not only gets to the truth of the cardboard industry, but also interweaves the nostalgia of hobby. Jamieson, a man in his early 30s, presents the facts with quintessential journalistic objectivity, but always retains the true essence of what the cards represented to children that made them so desirable in the first place. After all, the book begins with Jamieson recounting his own travails with cleaning out his childhood home of the masses of cards from the market’s peak in the 1980s.

For those of you like me, sitting on a mountain of baseball cards your father and grandfather collected for you under the guise that someday they would provide the down payment on your first house, the enjoyment from Mint Condition may be the most value the 2.5 x 3.5 slabs of cardboard are still able to muster.

Visit the book’s Web site right here.

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