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.
I 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 Some historical documents are protected by methods such as this, but the reason isn't usually because of the monetary value, but rather an attempt to preserve the historical content and meaning and even many of these are gingerly handled by archivists and historians.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.
It 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
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Ah, happy, happy scenes! that cannot lose
Who are these coming to the ballpark?
O Cooperstown shape! Fair attitude! with seal