Friday, July 23, 2010

Straw Dogs

Aw, to heck with it. I can't find this week's card. But here's the post anyway.

As I’ve mentioned several times on these electronic pages, when it comes to sports collectibles I have the world’s largest collection of worthless rarities. I am the person you call upon to fill out your Comic Ball 3 set, to score that elusive Pro Line Portraits autographed card of Aaron Cox, to hold in your hands the glory that is a Star Company Sam Horn set.

But what does that mean exactly? Does that mean I am the world’s greatest pure collector of sports memorabilia in the same unbearable, unlistenable way that Ornette Coleman was the world’s greatest pure musician, because I do not allow the joy of collecting to be sullied by the ogre of value?

I hope not. I wouldn’t wish that on BP. Besides, I have kids to put through college.

But to continue, grasshopper, what makes a worthless rarity outside of its lack of value, which is self-evident?

I guess to do that you need to know what makes a valuable rarity.

The valuable rarities I’ve seen have a couple of things going for them. First, they have a story. The Wagner card is the Wagner card in part because of the story, apocryphal or not, that it was pulled from circulation because Honus Wagner did not want his visage associated with tobacco products, Henry Reccius cigar cards notwithstanding.

Second, they need to be associated with a mainstream card set. There are baking issues and candy cards from the 1910s that are much rarer than the Honus Wagner card, but they’re also from obscure regional sets. It’s much more newsworthy when a T206 Honus Wagner showed up in a Maine farmhouse than when the aforementioned Reccius card appeared in a Louisville cigar box.

Then there’s star value and eye appeal, and after that is perhaps the most important thing: quantity. Having the only example of a collectible is not the road to the fortunes of Kubla Khan. Ideally you need somewhere between 10 and 25 examples of a collectible for it to be actively sought-after. Fewer than that and the known examples don’t show up frequently enough to keep the fervor bubbling along. More than that and the rarity deteriorates and takes the value along with it.

That’s why owners of one of 24 known valuable cards root with the fervor of a drunken Scottish soccer fan the existence of No. 25. They don’t want to spend $500,000 for a picture on cardboard and wake up one morning and discover it’s been replaced by a Kia Rio.

Here’s how this wickedness works. About 20 years ago an auction-house proprietor named Joshua Evans turned up what he claimed to be the most valuable card in existence: A U.S. Caramel card from 1932 showing Hall of Fame shortstop Freddie Lindstrom. The Lindstrom was the one card necessary to complete one of the toughest sets from the ‘30s and at that point was the only known example of that card.

This card has star value after a fashion, if you believe Lindstrom qualifies for Cooperstown on his accomplishments and not because Ted Williams got the Veterans’ Committee smashed on grain alcohol and Lithia water and what they wrote sure looks like “Lindstrom” from here.

It has a story. The Lindstrom card was withheld from circulation because kids who got a complete set of U.S. Caramel cards could redeem them for a baseball glove and U.S. Caramel wanted to keep the glove expenditures to a minimum. As in zero.

It wasn’t the best-looking card of the era, even before someone cancelled it. And while the U.S. Caramel set was national after a fashion, U.S. Caramel did not have the zillion slimy tentacles of the tobacco trust. So compared to the Wagner card the Lindstrom card was definitely minor-league.

But Joshua Evans laughs at such hindrances. He dubbed the Lindstrom card “The Million-Dollar Card” and took it on a barnstorming tour that made what C.C. Pyle did with Red Grange look like REO Speedwagon’s summer schedule.

And then he sold it. For less than a million. For less than $100,000 even. For around $90,000, if reports can be believed.

Again we ask, wha’ happen? The easy answer: not enough star power and too much scarcity. One card cannot make a market. Two cards, which is currently the number of known Lindstrom cards, cannot make a market, even if the owners of these cards, once they get them home, realize that $90,000 in the raw is far better-looking, even if it’s in pennies salvaged from automobile upholstery.

(Let this be a lesson to all those Fleer Flair and Stadium Club collectors waiting for the right moment to cash out their one-of-one Terry Puhl cards. Amen.)

So to bring things ‘round again, a worthless rarity has to lack star power, eye appeal, national scope, a marketable quantity, and a story. In short, it needs to be one of nothing.

Meet the 1989 Saranac Glove Darryl Strawberry card.

Let’s dispense with the story, such as it is. Green Bay-based Saranac Glove wanted to package a baseball card with its batting gloves and didn’t think a photo would properly showcase its product, so it commissioned Green Bay artist Dan Gardiner to paint Darryl Strawberry wearing a Metsish uniform and sporting Saranac gloves. It came off fine except for one thing: the Straw Man didn’t like his nose.

Now, Darryl Strawberry resembles nothing so much as a resident of the planet Zorg. For him to complain that they got his nose wrong is like Clint Eastwood complaining that they missed a wrinkle.

And it’s not like Gardiner missed Strawberry’s nose by much. Maybe he was thinking Darryl “Sausage Nose” Hamilton and painting Darryl Strawberry, but it’s close. And, hey, whatever happened to artist’s license?

Still, Saranac Glove would rather pull a perfectly good card off of the market than pay millions to a large-nosed, baseball-playing space alien. So the Saranac Glove card was history. Gardiner got a few, and the company ostensibly kept some, and the rest were destroyed.

Twenty years ago this would have been the perfect collectible storm: Hot player, legitimately scarce card, national distribution, not too ugly, interesting story. But between then and now Strawberry’s career came up short of Cooperstown, which in the card market meant he had the baseball career of a raisin. And no one pays extra for a picture on cardboard of a raisin, no matter how scarce.

So if you were looking for the quintessential worthless rarity, here's your answer. Though a Fleer Flair Terry Puhl sure looks like it qualifies from here.

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