Interview with Dave Jamieson author of ‘Mint Condition’
Something I don’t do nearly enough of is reading books. I have a stack of books, mostly baseball related, waiting to be read as we speak. One book I did pick up though, and read through extremely quickly was Mint Condition. This book has me looking for more baseball card books to add to the ever-growing stack. I was able to track down the author of Mint Condition, Dave Jamieson, and he was kind enough to answer some questions about the book and his collecting past.
DJ: I’m originally from New Jersey but have spent the last 15 years in Washington, D.C. as a reporter. I currently work at HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post), where I cover labor and the workplace. I love my job and I love telling people’s stories, which is how I came to write a book about baseball cards. I saw it was an opportunity to write not so much about cards as about the people who shaped a hobby that impacted so many Americans. My wife Jenny was a card collector just like me when she was a kid in Ohio. We recently had our first child, Walter, and I’m sure we’ll make a collector out of him in a few years.
BU: How were you introduced to the trading card hobby?
DJ: When I was a kid in the 1980’s, you couldn’t avoid it if you tried. I was born in 1978 — I’m 39 years old now — which put me smack in the middle of the baseball card boom. My neighborhood friends and I were consumed by cards from around ages 7 to 12. We spent entire days trading them. I was a huge Yankees fan being from North Jersey, and Don Mattingly was my favorite player. I wanted Yankees cards but I also wanted any cards I perceived as valuable. I was very conscious of the concept of baseball cards as investments — even at a young age. I was often toting a Beckett around in those days.
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BU: Are you still a collector of anything today?
DJ: I’m not really a collector of anything these days. I know it’s odd to have written a book about baseball cards but not be a collector of them anymore. But it actually makes quite a bit of sense. Not being a collector offered me some remove from the hobby — I was able to look at it as an outsider, and present it to an audience of mostly outsiders. Most of the folks who read my book — at least, judging from those who emailed me with feedback — were hardcore hobbyists as kids but drifted away from it long before becoming adults. Like me, they wanted to know what had happened to this hobby that was such a fixture in their childhoods. These days I buy a few packs of baseball cards each year, mostly when I see my nieces and nephews. It’s a good sign for the hobby that they know them and enjoy them.
BU: So far, your book is my favorite baseball card book that I have read. Where did you get the idea to write Mint Condition?
DJ: I’m flattered to hear you say that, and I’m glad it’s resonated with you. I wrote a story for an online magazine, Slate, tracing the industry’s boom and bust in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jamison Stoltz, a very smart editor at Grove Atlantic, read the piece and saw a book in it. He asked me if I also thought there was a book there. That’s how it all started.
BU: How much time did you spend researching for your book?
DJ: Gosh, it was a long time, and a long time ago. I was a freelance writer but the book occupied me for at least two years. Oftentimes when you start on a book project you have an outline and much of the reporting done. I didn’t have either of that, so I was starting from scratch. I had to identify the characters I wanted to write about, then start reporting on them. The project took me to some great places — Cooperstown; Chicago; Madison, Wisc.; Cleveland; and Los Angeles, to name a few. I was grateful to all the hobbyists who let me into their lives without hesitation.
BU: While researching, what were some of your favorite pieces of information that you came across?
DJ: My favorite part of the book is the chapter about Woody Gelman, the longtime art director at Topps and an accomplished collector in his own right. I was amazed by him. He had such a huge impact on American pop culture, and yet so few people have ever heard of him. Everything from the first Topps baseball cards to Mars Attacks to Wacky Packages — he shaped all that stuff. As the artist Art Spiegelman put it, Woody operated in the “basements and sub-basements” of our culture, and his imprint remains on so much.
DJ: I like to think it’s an enjoyable book! I wanted to provide a survey of the hobby’s history, but more than that I wanted to tell the stories of interesting people. My book is by no means a reference book that will guide your collecting. I like to think of it as a pop history, something that illuminates a corner of our shared childhood.
BU: Do you think the “glory days” of card collecting are behind us, or do you think there is still hope for a resurrection of the hobby?
DJ: I do think there’s hope. Like I said, my nieces and nephews love cards. They don’t collect them quite as much as we did in my day, but there’s a familiarity there that was lacking for many years. I think kids are the lifeblood of the hobby. If the card makers can lure them back and keep them, there will be baseball cards for many more decades. People forget that these things first showed up in the late 1800’s. They are remarkably resilient. They may look different in our more digital future but I do believe they’ll be around in some form or another for as long as baseball is around.
BU: Any favorite cards or sets from your childhood that still stand out today?
DJ: My favorite set is ’87 Topps, with the wood borders. I don’t know what it is about them. My favorite card is Don Mattingly’s ’84 Topps rookie. I no longer have one, but I can still see him crouched at first with his sunglasses flipped up. Baseball cards have a way of staying with you after all these years.
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