December 19, 2013

Book Review -- The Card by Michael O'Keefe and Teri Thompson

“The Card” is a deep dive into the history of the world’s most valuable baseball card -- a T206 Honus Wagner produced from 1909 to 1911. New York Daily News staffers Michael O’Keefe and Teri Thompson coauthored “The Card” in 2007, the same year that the finest example of the Wagner card sold for $2.8 million.

The authors do a fine job at producing a very readable book that can appeal to a broad audience. At first blush, people who are interested in reading books about baseball cards may seem like a niche audience. But this particular baseball card has received enormous publicity for decades, making it culturally and historically relevant. A T206 Wagner is not only held at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, but also at the New York Public Library. Less surprisingly, another version of the card has been on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

A bit of background is in order. Honus Wagner -- alongside Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb -- was one of only five former players inducted into baseball’s inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1936. The T206 Honus Wagner has been the most valuable baseball card on the planet since 1933, when it was first listed in price guides at $50.

The high value stems largely from a limited print run. Production estimates range from 60 to 200. The reason for the limited circulation has never been entirely agreed upon. Most likely, Wagner objected to the compensation offered by American Tobacco Company or he objected to his affiliation with the sale of cigarettes.

In the mid-1980s -- 50 years after the initial $50 estimated price guide value -- one specific version of the T206 Wagner emerged mysteriously into the hobby at a Long Island memorabilia shop. This discovery became the finest and most valuable Wagner in existence and would later sell at auction for the aforementioned $2.8 million.

The coming out party for this version -- essentially the Mona Lisa of baseball cards -- was a 1991 auction. At that time, NHL legend Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall bought the card for $451,000. Because of the jaw-dropping purchase price and the high profile of the buyers, the popular press ran wild with the story. Media coverage amplified the card’s mystique, credibility and value. Ever since, it has commonly been referred to as the Gretzky T206 Wagner.

The two key questions that the book seeks to answer is whether the Gretzky T206 Wagner was altered, and if so, by whom? It’s not a spoiler to mention here that the book’s authors surmise that the Gretzky T206 Wagner was modified into its pristine condition, an act which is strictly forbidden in the hobby. The number one suspect is Bill Mastro, who not surprisingly has had the most financial incentive to do so. Mastro has owned or auctioned the card many times.

Suspicions about the Gretzky T206 Wagner card include:

  • Its progeny. Why is the lineage of something so valuable so unclear prior to 1985?
  • Its condition. How are the edges and corners of a 100-year-old tobacco card so crisp?
  • Its rating (8 out of 10) from a widely respected authenticator. Does a conflict of interests exist between professional authenticators and sellers?

With this many red flags, why have people been content to look away?

The book explores this, but here’s my take: A rising tide lifts all boats. When the Gretzky T206 Wagner sets a record at auction, the rest of the hobby goes along for the ride. Everyone’s assets increase in value. There’s a “Party on!” mentality.

Another problem is that markets of all kinds are difficult to regulate. Just as corporate bonds are graded by S&P’s and Moody’s, the condition of baseball cards are graded by PSA and Beckett. In both examples, the seller pays the rating agency. Conflicts of interest abound when the seller pays for a rating.

What I like most about “The Card” is that it forces the reader to think critically while covering a topic I found to be pretty fascinating. Even if you don’t think a book about a baseball card sounds very appealing, you still might like a book about the hobby’s darker underbelly. This is a nice piece of investigative work.

Favorite Line:
Beckett doesn't take any ----. Jim Beckett has been honest his entire life. He could have manipulated the market with his price guides and made a fortune, but he never did. He's one of the few honest guys in this business.

December 15, 2013

Bob Feller -- Hall of Fame 1962

Acquired: Foundation Purchase
Purchase Date: 11/5/13
Received: 11/12/13
Turnaround: 7 days
Commentary: Even though Bob Feller passed away three years ago, a stockpile of his autographed baseballs remains available for sale. I made this purchase online through the Bob Feller Museum. This marks the first time I have outright purchased an autographed baseball for my collection. It's also my first acquisition from a deceased player. The Venn diagram below summarizes the motivation behind my purchase. But really, the decision was a no-brainer. As an added note, the ball and the autograph are in excellent condition. This is a real plus when you consider there's no way of knowing for sure how long ago Bob Feller signed this ball. 

December 8, 2013

Phil Niekro -- Hall of Fame 1997

Acquired: TTM
Sent: 11/22/13
Received: 11/29/13
Turnaround: 7 days
Submittal: $25, ROMLB, LOR, SASE
My request: Blue pen, sweet spot, HOF inscription
Commentary: Phil Niekro turned around my request within a week and followed through on everything asked of him -- with one small exception. The knuckleballer signed with black pen instead of blue. The autograph, however, looks fine and so does the ink. Interestingly, I know Niekro had a blue pen readily available. When he returned the ball to me, he included a nice note both written and signed in blue pen. Niekro's stationery was embroidered with Hall of Fame lingo, including a Cooperstown logo at the top with the names of his fellow induction class. I wonder if that's a perk of induction or if he had that custom-made.

December 6, 2013

Book Review -- Francona: The Red Sox Years

Baseball players seem to approach the biography in two very different ways.

On one end of the spectrum, there is the squeaky-clean approach. This method was chosen recently by former outfielders Doug Glanville and Andre Dawson. As authors, both players pulled their punches and largely bypassed controversial topics that might prove to be inflammatory (steroids, team executives, Sammy Sosa). Bios like these encourage kids to work hard, get a good night’s sleep, eat a hearty breakfast, and so on. No bridge is burned.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have what Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy delivered. The Red Sox Years -- especially the second half -- airs dirty laundry. To be fair, this is not a vindictive tell-all of the Jose Canseco variety. But calling it a fire-bombing, as others have done, is pretty fair. 

The key targets of said fire-bombing are Red Sox owner John Henry’s business partners Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner. Bill Madden’s terrific biography of the late George Steinbrenner notably recounts Steinbrenner’s advice to Henry regarding Lucchino and Werner: “Those are two treacherous, phony backstabbers you’ve got there, John. You’re a pal, but I’ve got no use for those two bastards.” 

Turns out that Terry Francona is no fan of Lucchino and Werner, either. The back end of the book is a detailed account of ownership incompetence and Francona’s take on his bizarre departure from the Red Sox. It still seems unclear to him or to the reader if he was fired as Red Sox manager or not. 

Overall, the only challenges I encountered with the bio were a few in-game sequences that were a bit too detailed relative to my interest level. In addition, despite the book’s title, the content drifts early on to cover preceding managerial experiences.

Naturally, The Red Sox Years will appeal most to Red Sox fans. The second most likely audience for this book are Yankees fans due to the rivalry. Unexpectedly, I think Cubs fans would enjoy this behind-the-scenes look into Theo Epstein’s management style. Through Francona’s story, we learn how Epstein aspires to build and operate a franchise.  

It’s extremely difficult to write a tell-all book without coming across like a creep, but Francona pulls it off. Francona puts a lot of things in print that he probably shouldn’t, but the result feels authentic and that’s admirable. Perhaps “Francona: The Indian Years” will be the next book? If so, I look forward to it.

Favorite Line:
Epstein bristled at the notion he was Lucchino’s creation and was uncomfortable with the number of Sox employees who’d migrated from San Diego with Lucchino.

December 3, 2013

Rod Carew -- Hall of Fame 1991

Acquired: TTM
Sent: 11/7/13
Received: 11/29/13
Turnaround: 22 days
Submittal: $10 (he returned my $), ROMLB, LOR, SASE
My request: Blue pen, sweet spot, HOF inscription
Commentary: Apparently, Rod Carew is the nicest guy in the world. To my knowledge, he does not sign TTM. Yet, he did for me probably due to a unique set of circumstances. On July 4th, my wife and I were standing outside of Angel Stadium while waiting on another couple to join us. At a certain point, I nudged my wife and said, "I think that's Rod Carew!". Turns out it was. In fact, he was walking around outside The Big A like a civilian and everyone else seemed too busy to notice. Months later, I dropped a ball in the mail as well as two ticket stubs to demonstrate that, indeed, I had truly been at the game. I don't know why exactly, but I also added $10 in cash. The end result is that Rod Carew signed the ball, signed a ticket stub, and returned my money. I had only requested the ball to be signed. Because it was such a surprise, this has been the best TTM success thus far for me.