Interview with ‘Card Sharks’ author Pete Williams

By: Shane Salmonson

Interview with Pete Williams By: Shane Salmonson

As I have mentioned before, I have really been getting into reading different trading card books lately. One of those books, that I just started reading this week, is Card Sharks. Luckily, I was able to track down the author of Card Sharks, Pete Williams, who agreed to answer some questions for me!

Pete Williams author of the book Card Sharks

BU: Can we get a little background on you?

PW: I grew up in Virginia playing baseball and basketball and following all sports. I was the unusual person who went to college (University of Virginia) knowing exactly what I wanted to be – some sort of sports journalist. I wrote for my college newspaper, hosted a radio show on the student radio station, interned in USA Today’s sports department, and had the good fortune to serve as a correspondent for The Washington Post, covering UVA sports during my senior year. That year (1990-91) included the first and only stretch where the Virginia football team was ranked No.1 in the nation. I joined USA Today after graduation in 1991 to work for its new USA Today Baseball Weekly (now Sports Weekly) publication. I worked there until the end of 1998 when I went freelance. Since then I’ve worked in television and radio and written a number of books, including the best-selling Core Performance fitness book franchise with prominent performance guru Mark Verstegen, and a book on the NFL Draft called The Draft. Over the years I’ve written a lot about sports business and these days I also write about fitness and training for the likes of Men’s Fitness and Men’s Journal.

BU: How & when were you introduced to the trading card hobby?

PW: I discovered baseball cards in 1976 at the age of 6. For men of my generation, I actually can guess their ages if they tell me what year they started collecting as most Generation X guys tended to start around the age of 6. Baseball cards played a much larger role in the lives of boys of that era. I learned to read with baseball cards and they taught me geography, math, stats, and how to put things in alphabetical order. I’m convinced baseball card collecting is why I’ve always been good with names and faces – all those hours of sorting cards. Even today if you name any Topps card from the late 1970s – i.e. ’77 Reggie Jackson, ’78 Biff Pocoroba, ’79 Dave Concepcion – I can picture that card in my head. Since this was before cable television, the only way I could follow baseball was through baseball cards, the newspaper and the Saturday “Game of the Week” on NBC. I probably never saw the Seattle Mariners or Toronto Blue Jays play on television until I had cable TV in college in the late ‘80s – my parents would never spring for it – but I knew every Mariners and Blue Jays player having collected cards from the inception of those teams. Baseball cards also taught me about money since I knew how my allowance or lawn mowing money translated into packs of cards. At the age of 8 or 9, I’d ride my bike two or three miles to the grocery store or drugstore to buy packs of cards. Think of how times have changed. Today if an 8-year-old walked into a grocery store and tried to buy something, they’d probably call child protective services. It’s definitely a different era and that extends to sports. With 500 TV channels, the Internet and all the sports information imaginable at our fingertips, baseball cards aren’t nearly the same.

BU: Do you have a favorite card or set that has always stuck with you?

PW: The 1977 Topps was the first set I fully collected and I like the style of that set more than the other late ‘70s designs.

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BU: Are you still a collector today?

PW: I’m not. I find I’ve become a minimalist in my middle age, not wanting to be bogged down by stuff and preferring experiences over things. I even write a blog – www.tolivelean.com – along those lines. But I have kept a few things, mostly memorabilia from my career as a full-time baseball writer in the 1990s.

The e-book cover

BU: Where did the idea to write Card Sharks come from?

PW: When I started at USA Today Baseball Weekly in 1991 as a writer covering Major League Baseball, the baseball card industry was at the peak of its investment-driven hysteria. I hadn’t paid much attention to it during my college years (1987-91) but since we were an all-baseball publication, it made sense to have a weekly column “Collectibles Beat” covering baseball memorabilia. I wrote that column from 1992-94 and Upper Deck, which drove the industry at that time, often was the subject of the column. I thought a book exploring the meteoric growth of the industry focusing on Upper Deck would be well received.

The iconic Ken Griffey, Jr. 1989 Upper Deck RC

BU: I would assume you did a tremendous amount of research. How long of a process was writing the book?

PW: I started in June of 1993 and finished in August of 1994. I traveled the country to interview people and gather information. Thankfully I could piggyback it on some of my travels for USA Today Baseball Weekly. I interviewed hundreds of people, some many times. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re 23 or 24 as I was. You have a lot more time. Though it was pre-Internet and cell phones, in some ways it was easier to reach people since back then people picked up their (landline) phones. These days you have to send an email, text or social media message to set up a time to talk. Ironically, it’s much harder to get people on the phone today.

1989 UD Dale Murphy Reverse Negative Error Card

BU: I am just now discovering this book, and have ordered it. What should I expect to be reading?

PW: Card Sharks is an in-depth look at the history of the sports trading card industry, especially the meteoric growth of the 1980s and early ‘90s driven by the Upper Deck Co., which went from start-up to $300 million in sales in just three years. The book details Upper Deck’s reprinting of its own sports cards in those early years, which while not illegal was considered unethical in the industry.

BU: Looking back at the history of baseball cards, where do you think cards changed from a novelty item to a serious money-making endeavor?

PW: I’ve never believed sports trading cards have been an attractive investment or moneymaking endeavor, though clearly some were able to capitalize on the investment-driven fervor of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The false premise was that people saw in the early 1980s that vintage cards from the 1960s and earlier were suddenly valuable and figured if they just held onto cards from the ‘80s for a few decades, they’d experience similar appreciation. Of course, cards from the ‘80s were made in far greater quantities and stored in pristine condition. Those ‘80s cards are still around, of course, and worthless. If you were lucky enough to have cards you saved from pre-1970 – or inherited from someone – then you no doubt made some money.

 BU: Which information about the history of trading cards did you find to be most interesting?

PW: The origins of baseball cards are fascinating. James Buchanan Duke, son of a Confederate soldier, was the first to mass produce cigarettes and used baseball cards as inserts to keep the cigarettes from getting crushed in shipping. Duke parlayed that fortune into a utility company, now known as Duke Energy, and he’s also the namesake of Duke University, formerly known as Trinity College. The battle to break the Topps monopoly on trading cards was fascinating and Card Sharks details that saga. There were a lot of great resources I used for Card Sharks in addition to hundreds of interviews. Bill Madden, the Hall of Fame baseball writer for the New York Daily News, covered the baseball card business as far back as the 1970s and sent me copies of all of his columns. Most people don’t realize that Keith Olbermann began his media career as a teenage writer for Sports Collectors Digest, writing some insightful columns. Phil Wood, who is best known as a member of the Washington Nationals broadcast team, is an encyclopedia of hobby history who was nice enough to let me co-host a radio show with him in D.C. in the early 1990s.

BU: What has the reaction of readers been over the years?

PW: Phil Mushnick of The New York Post devoted his entire Friday column to Card Sharks the week it came out and The Post’s back page screamed “Grand Scam.” The mainstream media gave it a lot of coverage. The hobby press actually vilified me initially since they thought I was hurting the business by exposing Upper Deck’s card reprinting operation. (Of course, these publications were dependent on Upper Deck advertising.) Card Sharks has been widely quoted and sourced in other books over the years, including great books like The Card by Michael O’Keefe and Teri Thompson. I still hear from readers who have just discovered or re-discovered the book, especially in the last year since I finally got around to publishing an e-book version, which is available on Amazon. (BU: you can find the e-book HERE)

BU: Anything else you’d like to share?

PW: I’m occasionally asked if I plan to write a sequel to Card Sharks since much has happened to the industry and Upper Deck since I finished Card Sharks in 1994. I have done some interviews and written some chapters, so perhaps one day I’ll publish a follow-up.

Pete Williams
Author, Card Sharks
www.petewilliams.net

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