The Golden Age of Baseball Cards™

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Vintage Baseball Card Blog

What is a Baseball Card? - Is It Art or a Commodity? 

October 21, 2009

by William Szczepanek

Maybe I'm a bit too picky, but I have yet to find a definition of baseball card that lives up to my expectations in its accuracy.  What I have found are the very monotonous descriptions about drab pieces of cardboard with a picture of a baseball player on it. They call it a trading card, but I really don't see much trading going on anymore.

I haven't found a description that explains how cards are bought and sold with the intention of making a profit.  Or one that describes someone who has an affinity for a particular ball player being coerced into buying  card that is one of a million or more.

Mona Lisa GradedI don't see people searching for cards for their impact as a piece of art, though I still do see people buying cards to celebrate their favorite player.  This is the closest I've come lately to seeing the heartfelt reason behind obtaining a baseball card.  Cards of favorite players have an attraction that goes beyond just being a piece of cardboard with a picture.  A favorite player, for whatever reason, is something special and draws to mind a certain feeling that can't be explained away.  Maybe a favorite team will also draw someone to collect images of these players.  But something is still missing.

As a commodity baseball cards are pictured enclosed in plastic with a number indicating it's condition. By referencing a price book you can convert the number for this card into dollars. But these numbers don't change much. Sometimes they go for years without changing and then sometimes they change based on some popular happening.

So, what is a baseball card to you?  Is it something that evokes thoughts of potential wealth, or does it take you to another time and place and enable you to compare past and present. Is it something beautiful? Or, is it just a picture of a baseball player?

Some people collect art (sculptures, paintings).   It's rare to see these things encased in plastic. To do so would take away from the actual value. Some historical documents are protected by methods such as this, but the reason isn't usually because of the monetary value, but rather an attempt to preserve the historical content and meaning and even many of these are gingerly handled by archivists and historians.

Why do such levels of quality exit for baseball cards. Would a document created by George Washington lose significant value if it's corners were a little rounded, or if it had a crease in it. Maybe a little, but not a lot.

Ty CobbIt seems that the real meaning of a baseball card is largely dependent on the individual viewing it, though this picture of Ty Cobb, as art, evokes the essence of baseball. Cards of players from the 50s have a much different meaning to someone born in the 40s than someone born in the 90s.

I leave you with a paraphrased poem.  The original has been around for centuries and its meaning has been long debated. Maybe people will have different views on this version also.

My apologies to John Keats (taken from Ode On a Grecian Urn, 1820)

Ode to a Baseball Card

Thou still untouched card of modern collector,
      Thou common card of silence and slow time,
Cardboard historian, who canst thus express
      An exaggerated tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What white bordered legend haunts about thy shape
      Of deities or mortals, or of both,
            In Brooklyn or the hills of the Polo Grounds?
What men or gods are these? What fanatics loath?
      What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
            What organs and trumpets? What wild ecstasy?

 Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
      Are sweeter; therefore, distant trumpets, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
      Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
      Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
            Bold autograph seeker, never, canst thou have,
Though winning near the goal---yet, do not grieve;
      The card cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
            Forever wilt thou love, and it be fair!

Ah, happy, happy scenes! that cannot lose
      Your luster, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
      Forever singing songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
      Forever sealed and still to be enjoyed,
            Forever wanting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
      That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
            A creased corner, and a scratched image.

Who are these coming to the ballpark?
      To what green field, O mysterious announcer,
Lead'st thou that bear Cub posing at the skies,
      And all his muscles with logos dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
      Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
            Is emptied of this folk, this quiet eve?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
      Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
            Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Cooperstown shape! Fair attitude! with seal
      Of plastic and collectors overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
      Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Faded Cardboard!
      When old age shall this generation waste,
            Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
      "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"---that is all
            Ye know in baseball, and all ye need to know.



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