“The Card” is a baseball card. From 1909. It features Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop Honus Wagner. The card is valuable because not many of them exist. There are two accepted reasons for this: “The Card” was part of a cigarette package, and Wagner didn’t want his name attached to cigarettes; or, Wagner was a greedy bastard who wanted more money. Either way, Wagner demanded that the tobacco company remove his card from the packaging.
The most famous owner of “The Card” is Wayne Gretzky, who co-purchased it in 1991 for $451,000. It was last sold earlier this year for a price of $2.35 million.
There’s just one problem with this baseball card: no one is quite sure that it’s the real thing.
The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card, by Michael O’Keefe and Teri Thompson, is the story of this card, known as the T206 Honus Wagner PSA 8 NM-MT. O’Keefe and Thompson make it a mission to track down the history of the card, from its creation in 1909, through to its discovery in a box in the mid-1980s, through the various big dollar sales. And the picture painted of this card isn’t a pretty one. Well, it’s not that the card’s not pretty. It’s almost that it’s too pretty. Too perfect.
To learn about the card, O’Keefe and Thompson get into the card collection hobby/industry. And what they find is an incestuous world where the same people sell and re-sell the same cards, time and time again. Where the people responsible for authenticating the cards are also owners of the cards. A picture is painted of fraud after fraud. They tell you how the cards are restored and altered. Where the whistleblowers are sued and degraded.
And the problem’s not just with cards. It exists in all areas of the sports memorabilia market. The book goes into the purchase by Billy Crystal of a glove supposedly worn by Mickey Mantle, only it’s later proven that the glove was from 1960, but from 1966.
As someone who’s purchased some autographed baseballs, The Card is a bit of an eye opener. There are two of the baseballs that I own of which I can be confident are authentic, and that’s because I witnessed the signing of the balls. But in the world of The Card it’s possible for everything else to be fake.
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The book, though informative, and a quick read, is disappointing. It provides nothing more than a superficial look at “The Card,” and at the industry behind it. It’s like a piece found in USA Today, which, though interesting and informative, really leaves you longing for a piece in The New Yorker, something more in-depth and detailed.
The Card could’ve have been a top of the line, the perfect book about the fraud and industry behind baseball cards and memorabilia. Instead, it’s just like one of the many remaining versions of the Wagner card. It’s dirty, smudged. The corners are a bit bent; the colors are a bit faded. It’s still valuable, but it’s definitely not worth as much as it should be.
If you want to know about the industry, or about “The Card,” then by all means, read the book, but wait until it hits paperback so that maybe the price won’t hurt as much. – John Royal
The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card, William Morrow, $24.95