Interview with Gio Balistreri

By: Shane Salmonson

There are a lot of card bloggers out there today, myself included. Gio Balistreri is one of those bloggers. He is not just a blogger, but also a custom card maker. Gio puts out some great looking sets highlighting the stars of yesteryear. He was kind enough to answer some questions for me about both his collecting and his awesome custom cards!

BU: Can we get a little background on you?

Gio: Sure thing! Born (1969) and raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and grew up in an awesome neighborhood of schoolyards, stoops, “johnny pumps”, running to the candy store up the block for whatever cards were out at the time.

Playing everything from two-hand touch football, to “sponge-ball” with the strike zone drawn up against the wall, softball, you name it. Just a bunch of city-kids doing the usual to pass the time, including lots of mischief!

BU: How were you introduced to the hobby?

Gio: It was really my cousin Anthony from Yonkers around 1976. I already loved sports so when my cousin would come over he’d always have his cards, rubber-banded by team, and I was HOOKED! By 1977/1978 I was a little collecting maniac driving my folks crazy.

Every cent I had went to cards, and with my dad from the “old country” of Sicily, Italy, he just could not understand it. But they were really cool with letting me indulge. Baseball, football, hockey and basketball. Whatever I could get my hands on!

BU: What are you currently collecting (anything really, not just cards)? Any favorite items you’d like to share?

Gio: At this very moment I’m two cards from finishing my 1968 Topps baseball set, one of those two being the Nolan Ryan rookie, which is funny since I had one for over 30 years and sold it a couple years back thinking “why hold on to it?”. I wasn’t collecting for years at that time, and just looked at all my cards, books, records, and thought I needed to shed “stuff”.

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Cards are the only things I collect these days, but over the years I collected rare books, Punk/Goth records (my other passion), and old analog synthesizers (Moog, Arp, Roland).

I guess my favorite items would be original Topps sets pre-1977 since there was a long time where I could only dream of having them. Then old-age comes around and (thankfully) you have the means to pursue them, and there they are, on your book shelves, collecting dust like everything else! Ha! But they’re there, and they are yours. You know? Almost surreal.

BU: Do you have an all-time favorite set?

Gio: Sure! Some of my all-time favorite sets: 1977 Topps football, 1976 Topps baseball, 1962 Topps football, 1978 Topps baseball, 1952 Topps baseball, 1949 Bowman baseball. Then we get into the sets like 1894 Mayo Plugs, the Old Judge monster set, the 1933 DeLong and the George C Millers and Orbits. Love those sets. The list really is endless because they all represent such distinct eras in American history. I love American History and sports is also a great measuring-stick (good or bad) for this country’s timeline.

BU: If you had to choose your Top 5 most wanted cards, what would they be?

Gio: Without getting into the ridiculous (T-206 Wagner, ’52 Mantle, etc), I’d say stuff like any of the Mayo Plugs mentioned earlier or Old Judge cards with guys like Billy Hamilton, Tim Keefe, Mickey Welch, etc. I’ve been so obsessed with those 19th-century guys for so long now that it would just be a blast to have a few of them.

BU: How did you decide to start making custom cards?

Gio: Well, after starting the blog, though focused on the 1970’s, and being a graphic designer by trade, it was just a natural step to design and print stuff for the fun of it. To be honest, the only reason my custom sets are actually available to anyone else but myself is because all the printers have minimum print-runs, and 25 being the smallest run, so I was able to make some available to others who shared the same interest!  I really was doing this for myself. But hey, glad others enjoy them as well!

 BU: Can you tell us a little about some of the custom sets you have made?

Gio: I started with a 1930 set of baseball stars, and just went from there: 1910, 1920, 1950, 1960 and am currently working on a 1940 set. They’re usually 40-card sets of the stars of the era, using different sizes, package-idea available to me while also keeping somewhat true to cards that were actually produced at the time. When I can I put in an “insert” set like the fake-stamps in the 1910 set, or the 6-card “All-Time Leaders” cards celebrating 50-years of MLB in the 1950 set. All with deluxe packaging.

The ideas regarding packaging and stuff came from running an underground music noise-label for 20 years, putting out releases with elaborate packaging with a theme. I just took that mind-set and put it towards the baseball card sets: a burlap tobacco-style package for 1910, a candy-bar theme for the 1950, a tin-based package for 1920, etc. I absolutely enjoy putting all these ideas together and getting the final result, and it seems like others do as well!

BU: Are you currently working on another custom set? 

Gio: As I mentioned in the previous question, I’m working on the 1940 set, which will also be a baseball dice-game with 40-cards, two dice, a roll-card, a fold-out playing field and small stands to insert your cards and “run the bases”. I’m hoping to release this one in a wood box or super-heavy card stock box ala’ the game boxes of the time.

BU: What do you find most enjoyable about the hobby?

Gio: Like pretty much everyone else who has this interest, I love the history, the memories of childhood, collecting and completing whatever checklist we’ve made for ourselves. Sports, and baseball specifically, has been the one thread through my life, which has at times been absolutely nuts.

So collecting relaxes me as I devote some time to my hobby, focusing on something innocent and fun, reminding me to just chill. This whole scene with grading, pack-searching, etc is just a bunch of BS to me. That’s why I left the hobby around 1990. I saw the writing on the wall and just bailed. Didn’t come back for a couple decades though I always knew I’d come back at some point. The nostalgia is sublime.

Gio Balistreri
Twitter: @wthballs

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