08/05/2013 03:26 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Dead Ball at the Met


Tucked away in the furthest reaches of its American wing, the Metropolitan Museum currently has a nifty little show on view. "Legends of the Dead Ball Era," an exhibit of early-issue baseball cards, quietly opened in July as part of a wider push to celebrate this year's All Star Game at Citi Field in Queens. It's also the latest in a string of card shows sponsored by the Met over the last year. "Legends" follows directly on the heels of "A Sport for Every Girl," which featured cards of women athletes from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before that, the museum hosted a remarkable show celebrating the first black players to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

As the title of this most recent exhibit indicates, the cards on display date from the so-called "dead ball era," a period when home runs were rarely hit, and when the small-change tactics of today's game -- bunting, stealing, and working bases on balls -- were the chief engines of run production. It was also an era when unusually colorful and capable players like Shoeless Joe Jackson, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and the heinous Ty Cobb roamed the diamond. In short, the Dead Era was also the first of the game's great eras. It's these players, and dozens of others that history has forgotten, whose cards currently grace the museum walls.

What the Met has chosen to exhibit for this show represents no more than a sliver of its total collection. The museum houses some 30,000 cards, an assortment widely considered second only in size and scope to that stored at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The museum's holding includes some treasures: gorgeous tobacco and confectionary cards dating as far back as the 1880s, the marvelous Cracker Jack series cards with their blood red backgrounds, and, most famously, the rarest card on earth -- a T-206 Honus Wagner, the Holy Grail of baseball card collecting. More astonishing still, the collection represents the life's work of a single man.

Nearly all of the Met's holdings in this area come from Jefferson Burdick, an electrician from upstate New York. Burdick began collecting cards as a child in the early years of the twentieth century, and continued until his death in 1963. But he wasn't merely a hoarder. Burdick devised a cataloguing system to organize his collection that still serves as the standard today, communicated regularly with other collectors, and wrote extensively on the history of baseball cards, among other topics. Remarkably, he never attended an actual game.

The showcase of Burdick's "dead ball" collection is terrific: a joy for those who love baseball, but not so big that it'll tax the patience of people who couldn't care less. Some six hundred cards, including a rare appearance by the famed Wagner card, are arranged in framed groupings that Burdick himself put together. When he approached the Met in the late 1940s about the possibility of gifting his collection, the museum accepted on condition that he personally catalogue the cards. How he chose to do this would make any serious collector scream. With the exception of the Wagner card, which gets its own handsome display case, Burdick pasted and stapled the cards in close proximity to one another on sheets that were then stored in binders. When framed, the effect is magnificent. The sheets take on a collage-like feel, forcing the eyes to dance around the blotches of color, the tinted features of players' faces, and the small print letters announcing here that "Cicotte" played for Boston, and there that "Clarke" played for the Pirates.

In its brief introduction to the exhibit, the Met declares that the cards are important both to the history of American printmaking and to the game of baseball. Sure. How exactly they fulfill this function is left unexplained, however; the curators didn't see fit to elaborate the point. The question that jumped to my mind during my visit was entirely different: what is it about baseball cards that draws in so many little boys and not a few little girls, and makes fanatics of grown men? (I'm pretty sure that obsessive card collecting among adults is the exclusive sanctuary of guys.)

There a few possible explanations. Each type of collector's item -- coins, stamps, commemorative plates, vinyl records, whatever -- features its own unique characteristics that presumably drive different acquisitive impulses. Perhaps it's the case that baseball cards qua objects simply appeal to certain sensibilities. Burdick himself suggested as much about his own love for cards, noting in an interview that "card collecting is primarily an inherited love of pictures." Another explanation could be their associative value. Collections are frequently passed down from generation to generation, the older indoctrinating the younger into the the mythologies, logics and protocols of acquisition. In this way, the items in a collection can take on the qualities of a family heirloom, are rendered the family jewels. Maybe it's the case that collecting becomes less about the objects themselves than it does experiencing and preserving the feelings attached to those objects. Or, more obviously still, it could simply be the case that these cards act as important signifiers for the game of baseball for which many feel profound fondness.

But baseball cards are distinct from other collectibles by their inherent economics. They've traditionally been referred to as "trading cards," after all-little rectangular commodities designed to be bought, sold, and traded in school yard marketplaces and storefronts across America. Not are all cards created equal, of course. Young collectors quickly learn that the great majority of cards in circulation are junk, referred to derisively as "common cards," which trade for pennies on the dollar or not at all. Common cards make up the bulk of any run-of-the-mill collection. It's the cards featuring elite athletes, themselves few and far between, which are prized, not least because they were historically understood to be printed in limited numbers -- an early lesson for many in the laws of scarcity.

Not only that, each card is a treasure trove of information. The front of the thing might feature a player staring off into space or diving spectacularly for a ball making its way through the hole, but the backs are jammed with statistics and other miscellany-games started, innings pitched, percentages of all sorts, a tally of how many game-winning RBI's a player had the previous year, or his favorite things to do in the off season. One can literally trace the player's value over time, not just in the game but in the card market itself, by perusing these meticulously registered stats. If an entire set of cards for any given season can be thought of as a yearly encyclopedia for baseball, each card in the series is surely an investment prospectus.

Not for nothing, the small card markets of children developed into big time markets run by adults in the 1980s and 1990s. When I was a kid, Beckett Baseball Card Monthly-which was largely a regularly updated list of prices for every available card on the market with some baseball-related essays thrown in-took on the qualities of a holy text amongst collectors. Unlike Playboy, no one pretended to read the magazine for the articles. Instead, my friends and I would scour the monthly listings to track the rising and falling prices for each item in our collection, and develop a serious thirst to acquire those cards beyond the reach of our allowance. I still remember distinctly adding up the total value each month of my collection portfolio. We were little brokers without even realizing it.

Hyman Minsky, call your office. It became clear several years ago that the baseball card market had developed a serious case of the bubbles, ballooning beyond reasonable proportions at the hands of irrationally exuberant collectors seeking to gobble up comparatively rare cards strictly for investment purposes. The price for packs rose considerably (the primary reason, not maturity, that I gave up collecting), and a whole slew of new companies cropped up offering boutique sets at premium prices, marketed not as trading cards but as collectibles.

What no one realized until it was too late was that the fix was in. Collectors young and old operated under the idea that a card's value was largely determined by speculative demand, limited availability, or both. But as Dave Jamieson writes in his history of the baseball card industry, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, "The card companies were shrewd enough never to disclose how many cards they were actually producing, but even conservative estimates put the number well into the billions. One trade magazine estimated the tally at 81 billion trading cards per year in the late '80s and early '90s, or more than 300 cards for every American annually." As soon as the reality of the situation became clear, the bubble burst. Millions of Americans were left holding the bag filled with billions of pieces of worthless card stock.

The show at the Met gloriously sweeps all of this away, and offers something special in its stead. While I was in the gallery, a security guard and older visitor got deep into a conversation about baseball in days past -- the simplicity, the purity of the thing as it had been. Older eras would never have produced something as grotesque as Alex Rodriguez, they sighed. For collectors, there's no doubt the added temptation to feel as if the Met offers a peek into the world of card collecting before speculation ruined everything. I suspect this is the takeaway for many visitors: that the show's value lies in its ability to tap into the particular strain of sentimentality which is uniquely American, a pining for the bad old days which have come to seem good through the mysterious workings of time. Maybe it's true. But this kind of thing strikes me as the rubbish of selective memory.

As with anything, there was never such a thing as an unsoiled past. Look no further than the Dead Ball Era itself. The first couple decades of the twentieth century were perhaps the most corrupt period in baseball history, best exemplified by the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919. To suggest that baseball has gone downhill in the years since is plain silly. The game has merely changed. Nor were baseball cards purely ever the object of innocent desire. As early as the 1940s, it's worth remembering that Burdick himself began intentionally underestimating the value of catalogued cards in public to keep hobbyists buffered against potential speculation from the outside.

All this highlights a remarkable feature of the show. The Met took a risk with this exhibit by stripping the cards of their own history and, to an extent, the history of baseball. Sure, the show is temporally-themed. But it offers so little information about the Dead Ball Era and the cards themselves that anyone poorly acquainted with baseball lore is lost at sea trying to contextualize what they're looking at. I think that may be the point. The way the cards are presented forces visitors to confront them on their own terms, as objects of art. And what is a gallery of cards but a hall of portraiture when all is said and done? In one sense, the series of pink-cheeked anonymous white men immortalized in these cards is no different in kind than the endless oil portraits of forgetworthy white men hanging in other rooms throughout the museum.

The cards on view are similarly distinct objects for consideration -- elegant in design if not always execution. Burdick's curatorial arrangement of these tiny blocks of representation and color, whether intentional or not, creates a hypnotic effect. As he has them, the cards offer themselves as touchstones for the imagination, little launch pads for contemplative flights of fancy ordered in patterned rows that delight the eye. It's not high art, but Burdick's simple, elegant presentation of his most prized possessions offers a window into beauty nevertheless. Indeed, the power of "The Dead Ball Era" lies not so much in resurrecting the glory days of sport but in encouraging the imagination to come alive.