Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick’s Ultimate Collection of baseball cards ordinarily resides at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, but in March and April of 2016 he put the collection on display at the Phoenix Art Museum.
The collection offers not only a trip back in time but also a window into how we view objects and assign them value based on factors that may have nothing to do with said objects. What we see in Kendrick’s cards is what we see in ourselves.
Power of Perception
Perception is a hell of a drug. Baseball cards are nothing more than small cardboard rectangles covered in ink, and yet some have been exchanged for millions of dollars.
Those dollars are small paper rectangles covered in ink, so maybe the idea of something without obvious intrinsic value serving as a proxy for real value isn’t so far fetched. We can convert dollars into food and shelter, which help sustain life. Why can’t we convert baseball cards into dollars? Why can’t baseball cards serve as a proxy for the proxy?
In the 17th century tulip mania struck Europe, elevating the price of a simple flower well beyond its intrinsic value. Tulips may be beautiful, but they do not help sustain life.
Diamonds—the gemstones, not baseball’s playing field—are still bought and sold for enormous amounts despite being nothing more than rocks consisting solely of carbon. They are, as Priceonomics puts it, “depreciating asset[s] masquerading as an investment.”
There are other examples as well: truffles, Beanie Babies, works of art. This last one is of potential interest as it relates to baseball cards, which can be viewed as works of art, as reminders of our past that remain worthy of contemplation and reflection.
What drives the sale of art? In general it is not the materials themselves, e.g., pigments, canvas, stone. Is it the subject matter? The fame of its creator? Or something else, like the stories a piece of art tells?
The latter makes some sense, and in fact translates well to baseball cards. Josh Wilker has used cards as launch points for his own stories, connecting them to his life in a meaningful way. Brad Balukjian has employed them to similar effect, using cards as an excuse to talk with their subjects.
So maybe there is a certain romance with baseball cards, the way there is with other works of art. Maybe the value we imbue them with is disproportionate to the cardboard and ink used to create them. And maybe that helps explain why the “Gretzky T206” 1909 Honus Wagner sold for $2.8 million in 2007 despite its not being needed to sustain life.
Scarcity and Value
Produced by the American Tobacco Company, the Wagner card is famous for its monetary value, which within the context of its being worth anything at all is a direct result of its scarcity. Few were made, so the story goes, because Wagner didn’t like the “smoking message it sent to children” and had production stopped. As Jan Finkel notes in Wagner’s SABR biography:
Wagner, who smoked cigars and chewed but didn’t like cigarettes, stopped the deal, sending Gruber a check for $10. Wagner didn’t want kids buying cigarettes and didn’t think they should have to pay for his picture. The few cards that got out before the print run could be stopped were snapped up and held, making the Wagner T-206 card the most prized sports card on record.
Nowadays card companies (as opposed to tobacco companies; baseball cards are big business, not just a novelty byproduct of some other industry) purposely create scarcity by making limited-edition cards. The Wagner T-206 was a different kind of limited edition brought about by a player’s refusal to comply with the company’s desire to profit from his likeness. This is part of the card’s story.
The card’s artistic merits are debatable. It’s a simple head and torso shot that shows Wagner staring off slightly to his left. His hair is cut above the ears and parted down the middle, betraying the style of a long ago era. In that same vein, his uniform is gray flannel, with a tight collar. The “H” in the “PITTSBURGH” that stretches between the second and third buttons is cut off, hidden from view. His portrait is set against a yellow-orange background devoid of any natural features that might otherwise suggest a sunset. As in John Singer Sargent’s self-portrait, there is no context for Wagner’s appearance; he is simply there.
While the legend of his card is impressive, it should not overshadow his achievements as a ballplayer. The man known as “The Flying Dutchman” collected 3,420 hits in his career and was one of five members of the inaugural Hall of Fame class of 1936. The year before this particular card came out he led the National League in most key offensive categories. Imagine Mike Trout at shortstop. That was Wagner for the first decade of the 20th century.
Mickey Mantle’s 1951 Bowman card in Kendrick’s collection is a grade 10, or “gem mint.” It is, unlike the man the card depicts, “virtually perfect” and is the only recognized rookie card of Mantle, who is “the most widely collected figure in the hobby.” A grade 9 version of this card sold for $220,000 in August 2013, and its current value is estimated at $600,000.
The artwork is stylized, displaying an idyllic setting filled with partly cloudy skies, green trees, and a light standard behind a hulking Mantle. He dominates the foreground the way he would go on to dominate baseball and the public consciousness, bat back and eyes beneath his Yankees cap focused on some imagined pitcher. Mantle’s forearms are hidden, making the bat appear to be an extension of his own body, as though he had been wielding it from birth (which seems plausible given that he was named after Mickey Cochrane).
That would help explain his three American League MVPs and four home run titles. He hit just .267 with 13 homers in 1951, but then, he was only 19 years old. It marked one of two times in his 18-year career that he wasn’t named to the All-Star team. Despite retiring at the relatively young age of 36—injuries and alcoholism had taken their toll—he finished with 536 home runs, good for 17th all time. He also ranks among the top 20 in OBP, SLG, and walks.
The scary thing about Mantle’s career is that it could have been better than it was. Instead of being one of the best to ever play the game, he could have been the very best. But we’ll have to settle for a perfect rookie card.
The photos are also stylized, capturing imagined moments. On the left side of his 1955 Topps card, Harmon Killebrew simulates a swing without any context. He is suspended in space (and time), bat coiled behind an icon of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC. A neck-up portrait of the not-yet great Senators’ slugger wearing neatly cropped hair and a close-lipped smile dominates the right half, hinting at the era’s conservatism.
Killebrew, the only pro baseball player ever to hail from Payette, ID, reached the big leagues at age 18. He led the AL in homers six times, finishing his career with 573 bombs. An 11-time All-Star and 1969 AL MVP, he was sort of Jim Thome before there was Jim Thome.
A nickname like “Killer” lends itself to hyperbole, which is what folks employed in describing him. Former Washington Senators manager Ossie Bluege once said that “he hit line drives that put the opposition in jeopardy. And I don’t mean infielders, I mean outfielders.” Former Baltimore Orioles skipper Paul Richards claimed that “Killebrew can knock the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone.” Former Senators and Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith noted that “he would hit the ball so blooming high in the sky, they were like a rocket ship going up in the air.”
As with Mantle’s 1951 Bowman, Killebrew’s 1955 Topps is his only recognized rookie card. At the time it would have been hard to foresee the card’s future value. Killebrew spent the first five years of his career on the bench, stuck behind former All-Star Eddie Yost. But in 1959, after the Senators traded Yost to Detroit, Killebrew knocked 42 homers and began his journey toward Cooperstown.
Are baseball cards a window into some forgotten time, a reminder of our collective past? Are they a means of acquiring money, which is then used to procure food and shelter? Are they works of art to be studied and appreciated in their own right, without regard for subject matter?
The answer, as you may have guessed, is a resounding yes. Baseball cards are physical objects with a strong metaphorical component. They allow us to dream, just as baseball itself allows us to dream and get swept away in its romance.
This romance is counterbalanced by the reality of a cynical industry that cares only about the financial bottom line. But we keep pursuing the romance and the dream despite such cynicism, in much the same way we do with baseball and even life.
Maybe this is the real connection [value?]. Dreaming on a child’s game, or on cardboard depictions of said game and those who play it, helps us survive in a world that too often threatens to overwhelm with its inherent harshness. Moments of comfort, however fleeting, are to be cherished.
When we watch a game, we store those comforting memories for later, when we need them. When we look at cards, we retrieve those memories or others like them. When we see hope in the cards, we see hope in ourselves.
Geoff Young is a writer and editor based in San Diego. You should follow him on Twitter.