Many thanks to The Hardball Times for publishing this piece!
The year poor Pipgras lost his pinstripes
blues bitter—they bruise
with darling buds today go
*Visit the George Pipgras Wikipedia entry here.
[Note: this previously appeared on Sports Collectors Daily.]
Take a gander at one excessively crinkled 1909 T206 Old Mill Nap Lajoie. Or cardboard gaze upon a perhaps peculiarly scarred and creased 1909 T206 Polar Bear Cigarettes Ty Cobb (bat off shoulder variant). Scrutinize an almost inscrutable 1909 T206 Uzit Cigarettes Honus Wagner. Apart from the card type and date, what else do all of these cards have in common? Under the guise of poor condition intended to suggest authenticity, in actuality they’re all fakes, frauds, forgeries—counterfeits.
Of course the commerce of counterfeits and counterfeit cards is nothing new. It’s a shadowy recess of the pastime that collectors continue to take very seriously, as evidenced by articles and reports such as these: “eBay Buyer Of T206 Magee Cards . . . ,” “A Fake Honus Wagner Tobacco Card With An Interesting History,” “Still ‘Allowed’ on eBay,” or this section from David Cycleback’s “Judging the Authenticity of Early Baseball Cards.” Then there was the recent story by a local NBC newscast in Reno, Nevada, where a man from Sparks purchased a poor condition Honus Wagner T206 for a little under two hundred dollars—in what has been reportedly revealed as an auction of nothing more than a “reprint.” (According to trading card forum chatter, that same purchaser has himself likewise attempted to now pawn the counterfeit off as an original.)
But how do the same online auction sellers manage to repeatedly list such items? Auction sites have at least some basic safeguards in place for this kind of duplicitous conduct in the way of banning procedures, negative feedback, and more. Then consider all of the potentially disgruntled buyers who eagerly place bids without fully deciphering the deceitfully devised auction postings—prior to surely great disappointment and many an aired grievance. So, again, how does this happen?
It begins with the card. What kind of copy is it? Perhaps it’s an acknowledged reprint intended originally for the sake of novelty and/or appreciation, whereby this purpose is clearly indicated some place on the product: as on the card back, with the appearance of the word “Reprint” or an even more salient feature such as a retrospective summary of the card and player’s history. (With the former, some rather half-hearted attempts at fraud involve merely rubbing and scuffing the card back raw to remove this identifier.) Then there’s the outright fake that gives no such stated indication that it is a reproduction.* And with advances in affordable printing technology, especially with cheaper offset printers, some of these are fairly sophisticated—the 1933 Goudey set being among the more common and higher quality counterfeits. These can be found in abundance in online auctions, and they are sometimes difficult to discern from the sample image alone.
The brazenness of many fraudulent sellers, however, is exceeded only by their laziness. As with the previously mentioned scenario where an identifying mark such as “reprint” or “replica” on the card back will be intentionally removed via eraser, fingernail, coin, or other device and perhaps further masked by additional means (see below), this usually involves relatively mass-produced reprint issues from once-legitimate publishers and card manufacturers long-since out of business. Some of the more popular reprints include the following: The Sport Hobbyist and Nostalgia Press, with some early T206 reprints; Renata Galasso, which did T206, Goudey, and more; Dover, who released a perforated assortment (originally in book form) of Allen & Ginter, T206, and Goudey; C.C.C., Hygrade, and Capital, which all did reprints in the 80s; and yet various others. (And this is not a comprehensive list by any means.) Since most of these saw fairly large print runs with wide distribution, though, there’s no shortage of resources available on the relevant collector forums for help in spotting these.
Also, in the current situation of auctioned counterfeits in poor condition, some sellers devise ways to artificially age and intentionally break down a fake card to both lend the appearance of authenticity at the point of purchase and impede subsequent inspection. In fact, when asked about his aging process, one such seller explained how he will “make them look old by dipping them in tea and putting them in the oven for a bit.” Besides adding a generally weathered, or toasted, appearance to what might be a still profitable and sought after low-grade card (that 1909 T206 Wagner, one 1933 Goudey Ruth, or a 1941 Play Ball DiMaggio), this could also be efficacious for baking away the gloss and more evenly distributing wear on an otherwise more evident reproduction. The same seller further mentioned that “Sandpaper works good to round the corners off [sic].” These seem like rather crude stratagems (and they are), but they apparently work well enough and fool enough buyers to, again, turn a profit. And while some Twinings tea and a convection oven may be primitive means for an unsavory end, rest assured that there are others with more advanced methodologies that are additionally difficult to detect. Whatever the manner and mode of simulacrum, though, these finer points probably become semantic for whomever the duped, remorseful buyer after the counterfeit is listed and purchased in an auction.
As for these questionable auction listings, they seem to work like this: while an identifying term such as “reprint” ideally appears somewhere in the given auction’s standard fields for details or “Item specifics” (i.e. categories like “Condition,” “Card Attributes,” “Original/Reprint”), some postings eschew the practice of proper entries. However, many of these counterfeit “Pre-war” baseball card auctions do technically provide this info elsewhere. At the same time, they strategically obscure it by intentionally omitting such points in the auction post title and those standardized data fields. They thus (mis)place facts about the lacking authenticity further below in the auction description, thereby demonstrating their knowledge of how to negotiate whatever gray area in the online auction rules. One seller actually anticipates customer complaints and negative feedback with the following brief disclaimer: “Not the seller’s fault if the buyer doesn’t read the description.”
So what does all of this amount to? We have a fake portrayed as an original yet technically listed as a fake. The forger or seller fully comprehends their misleading methods and likewise creates an auction posting to simultaneously conceal that which is transparent.
Oh, and I neglected to mention one more important variable in this whole scheme. These auctions sell. A poor 1921 W551 Babe Ruth “Signature Strip Card” racked up 26 bids for $37. One scuffed and battered 1934 Goudey Lou Gehrig yielded 27 bids for a final price of $33. There was even a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #53 that sold for $123.50, plus shipping. Of course, each one of these auctions was for a fake card, by way of the above methods. The price tag may pale in comparison to the real McCoy, but repeat business guarantees profits for these poor frauds and their respective sellers.
You (almost) have to hand it to these guys: there may not be a lot of artistry to the con, but they’ve clearly found a way to work the online auction system—though hopefully their success will be short lived. The whole farcical scam reminds me of that final major film by Orson Welles, F for Fake (1973): the elaborate lie that’s *technically* not even a lie.
* Still, several basic steps of inspection may still easily prove an artless artifice: measurement of dimensions and further comparison to a known, verified original from the same issue or set; observation of card stock and finish, whether matte or more glossy; use of a jeweler’s loupe to examine and differentiate pre-war versus modern printing methods; or even employment of an ultraviolet or black light to similarly determine the general era of materials of manufacture. However, much of this is difficult to do without the card in hand, which lends further weight to the advice of collectors to refrain from buying highly valued or sought-after cards that are ungraded—or, at the very least, to obtain the highest quality image scans beforehand and purchase only from the most reputable sellers, who will also offer an explicit guarantee and refund if the card does not pass certification.
Brian-Chidester. “T206 Older Reprints.” Net54baseball.com. Net54baseball.com, 20 Jan. 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
Cycleback, David Rudd. Judging the Authenticity of Early Baseball Cards. Cycleback.com, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
“Sparks Man Wins Online Auction for Rare Collectible.” Mynews4.com. KRNV News 4, 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
In light of yesterday’s final demise of the O’s and many a pinned and crushed hope for this morning’s mournful Baltimoreans, David Salner’s “Opening Day” seems an oddly appropriate poem to close the Orioles’ postseason:
(Read the full poem by Salner in Cobalt‘s 2014 baseball theme issue, available online for free.)
The older the subject, the more challenging it is to add to the discourse. There is nothing new under the home run, and few names are as instantly recognizable in baseball as the legendary George Herman Ruth—otherwise an archetype, as “the Babe.” Actually, Ruth’s reputation precedes him so that he has garnered several additional monikers. In one memorable scene from popular film, the young misfits in The Sandlot (1993) cycle through a list of the alternate names, each title an attempt to convey Ruth’s hard-hitting renown: “The sultan of swat!”; “The king of crash!”; “The colossus of clout!”; “The great Bambino!”
Here’s a man. Here’s a man with more noms de guerre than a prince or king. Here’s a man during his career with easily more mentions in newspapers than his extraordinary number of homeruns. Here’s a man whose name graced more endorsement contracts than any athlete before him. Anyone care for some Red Rock Cola, Murphy-Rich soap, or All American Athletic Underwear? What about tobacco? The Babe peddled for Old Gold Cigarettes and Pinch Hit Tobacco, too. With a wide range of Ruth biographies, baseball histories, and young adult and children’s titles, there’s also not any shortage of Babe Ruth publishing products. So, again, Ruth being so popular a personality in life and in death, is there anything left that’s new to say?
I’ll kill the suspense: no, there’s probably not.
However, this 1933 Sanella Babe Ruth card may be new to you—that is unless you’re the kind of collector with a ludicrous desire and improbable goal to acquire a pre-WWII Ruth card whilst on a trading card budget as tight as the skinny man’s pants worn by a fat man. But that only makes the rare purchase, the rare deal, all the more special. Even better for “the poor collector”: a lump sum of $80-85 will occasionally yield not merely this meticulously crafted card, hand-colored in the pre-press process and issued during Ruth’s playing days, but also the full 1933 Sanella set with its official Handbuch des Sports album.
Like the rest of its set, the 1933 Sanella Ruth is not particularly rare or very valuable, especially compared to earlier, more coveted Ruth issues. Criminy! The flimsy stock isn’t actually cardboard; it’s really more paper than card. Even the nearly identical Astra variation carries a significantly higher price than the Sanella one. Then there’s the obvious sticky point that it’s not American but German, though perhaps that’s all the more appropriate since Ruth’s parentage was German-American.
But let’s face it: no matter how precious, prized, or exorbitantly priced a 1933 Goudey Ruth or 1914 Baltimore News rookie card of Ruth may be, these frail portraits in miniature will never manage to truly convey the enormity and vitality of Ruth’s life. The often weathered substance and time-muted color palette of these artifacts do even less so to capture, contain the icon. The 1933 Sanella is no different when it comes to such shortcomings.
That’s not at all to diminish the intrinsic worth of these cards. Their mere existence today, the perseverance to survive the passing of various stewards whose watchful care must always at some point cease before transition to some new, more watchful sentinel—this culture of cards alone is a testament to Ruth’s life and heritage.
He mattered. And that fact is abundantly clear in every one of his surviving vintage cards, no matter the state of pristine condition or decay. That’s clear, too, in the 1933 Sanella issued by his ancestors’ homeland.
Like most products (indeed all trading cards) to feature Babe Ruth, the Sanella card focuses on a positive quality or moment of triumph, instead of some flaw or folly. Surely it was not a pretty sight when a man of Ruth’s size whiffed at a pitch and struck out, as he almost necessarily did in that stellar year of 1927, for example, with 89 strike outs. There’s none of that here. The still image glorifies Ruth when he was at his best, an apparent instant after full contact and thunderclap: on a stage laid in earth and grass, with a “Hotel Congress” billboard for the set’s stark backdrop, and before an audience all aquiver as a hazy array of apple blossoms. Here Ruth’s follow-through form is less slugger than ballet artist for the ages.
I know next to nothing about baseball in Japan. Here’s what I do know: baseball is big in Japan, very big; folks have been playing baseball in Japan for roughly one hundred and forty years; and, as in the Americas, baseball cards appear to be popular collectables, with menko being just one of several types of vintage Japanese baseball cards.
That’s not all. Today’s MLB teams are filling their ranks with both veteran stalwarts and younger talents who hail from Japan. Of course many fans may be familiar with current Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who previously played ball in what’s known as Japan’s Pacific League. (Although far from peak form, Suzuki’s BA, OBP, and OPS figures are slightly up from last season.) Nori Aoki plays for this year’s surprising (re. winning record) Kansas City Royals; he’s Japanese as well. Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is also from Japan–and with his 2.47 ERA, he remains a promising feature member of New York’s starting rotation (despite some elbow issues). This is just to name a few. Here are some more.
It may further surprise you to know that Tom Selleck was quite the ballplayer and made a name for himself in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons.
(Note: most of this information I’ve gleaned from the million-legged Wikipede and something called Mr. Baseball, which I caught on TV late one night.)
Finally, there’s this guy. . . .
It’s a 1933 Sanella–so a German card of a Japanese baseball player. Apparently, he was a catcher. Again, though, that’s all I know. His name is nowhere to be found on either his card or the trading card album in which his card appears. However, he must have been pretty good, as he’s only one of two ballplayers featured in the entire Handbuch des Sports.
The trading card album is not a rare or recent novelty. Rather than collect some slivered, frail artifacts to store in a shoebox or even today’s slick, ultra-violet ray resistant, acid-free, and PVC-free protective page sleeves destined for some equally cloistered binder, once upon a time folks would tape or (gasp) glue and paste their cardboard and/or paper treasures into an album for display. For collectors of both sport and “non-sport” cards (curious term that may be, as in identification/categorization by absence or deficit, like nonfiction), this phenomenon was a pervasive one across cultures and time.
Some of these albums can still be found lingering, slumbering the decades away in people’s closets, attics, and (worse for wear and mold) basements. For example, hunters and searchers of cellulose gold continue to seek out the following, to name just a few: the 1929 Churchman’s Cigarettes Sports and Games album from the United Kingdom; Cuba’s 1946-47 Propagandas Montiel Los Reyes del Deporte; or the German-issued 1933 Sanella Margarine set. (Besides the supplementary album format, each of these mentioned releases shares another distinction; more on that can be found in the third and final installment of this series.) And while the 1933 Sanella Margarine trading card set and its official, accompanying Handbuch des Sports album may not be the oldest, rarest, or most valuable, the vibrant specimens and often excellent-to-near-mint conditions make this as good a place as any for an introduction to one such noteworthy album-based card set.
The history of the 1933 Sanella set is well known to several avid card collectors—as well as to many German-born citizens. Indeed, an urban legend of sorts indicates that just about every German household owned at least one copy of the album or book. Perhaps one reason: what self-respecting German doesn’t love margarine? As was so often the marketing practice, the trading cards were premiums associated with Sanella margarine products. (Also, a caveat: these somewhat flimsy cards actually look and feel like paper stock, though a mid-to-high grade quality thereof, not cardboard.) Reportedly, or at least as another entertaining myth would have it, one collector took advantage of the high population count of the Sanella cards and several years ago flooded the U.S. market, thereby driving prices down—even for cards of the most popular athletes in set.
Another possible reason for the abundance of Sanella cards: much of the set and album amounted to almost propagandized nationalistic material that German citizens must have felt privileged or compelled to own. After all, the cards were issued in 1933, not too long before the (in)famous 1936 Berlin Olympics. Of course, 1933 being the year that historians often refer to as the beginning of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, another more problematic kind of, er, national pride was brewing with plenty of further troubles abound.
Not surprisingly, among a smattering of globally recognizable athletes, the set therefore features a disproportionate number of German figures. As with a few of these individuals, some of the selected “events” appear to have little if any background or standing in the sports realm, at least as traditionally defined. For one, the number of airplanes and aviators (often or always German) contextualized here as objects and figures “des sports” feels like a bit of, again, a propagandic stretch.
Admittedly, motor sports is somewhat of an oxymoron likely concocted by a person with deep-rooted automotive interests—either a fanatical imbecile or capitalizing genius. But at least by standards of acceptability in German popular culture, even for this time period some of these events were nevertheless tenable: such as motorcycle racing or car racing. With such qualifiers in mind, the colorfully inked and exquisitely printed and rendered card images of these primarily terrain-bound and wheeled automotive wonders really do deserve some focus.
First, here’s an example from the album with two racecar cards on the same page.
One such card of a motorcycle dirt race, or dirt bike race if that’s the preferred phrase, depicts a well-composed yet high-speed scene that really demonstrates the uncanny ability of the still image to communicate motion (which must have been something that continued to fascinate people, even at a time when Hollywood exports of moving pictures were already widely popular). The stillness of the large, floating red letters—as on a high wall or overhead banner—offers an effective juxtaposition that accentuates the movement and speed of the perhaps undersized but powerful machines chewing and churning up bits and plumes of earth on the dirt racetrack.
(Pictured: Rudolf Caracciola.)
(Pictured: Manfred von Brauchitsch.)
Note the expressions of the motorists and the faces of spectators in many of these racing scenes. As probably evident by the contrapuntal dynamics (yes, there can be music in the visual) of photographic definition combined with the softness of an almost watercolor application, all of these cards look to be based on pre-existing photographs. Indeed, for some of the more notable athletes elsewhere in the set, the very same images can easily be researched and located in their earlier, monochrome forms.
Posing here is one racing star of the day, Toni Bauhofer. Before an accident and injury led him to retire, Bauhofer won four major championship titles (between 1924-1932) and earned several other racing distinctions in his early life. A lesser known distinction of Bauhofer’s: according to Hermann Historica, an international auction house and collecting resource, Bauhofer purchased a watercolor painting by Adolf Hitler that was a gift from Hitler to Eugenie Haug, a close and “ardent supporter” rumored to be a former lover of the mustached megalomaniac. The auction house notes that sufficient documentation verifies Bauhofer made the purchase; it makes one wonder about the undocumented penchants held by Bauhofer, as well as some other folks highlighted in this “handbuch.”
Finally, to return to the exemplary quality of these artifacts: both the advanced printing technology and honorific portraits of a booming automotive industry more than tempt the present-day viewer with speculation. What developments, what heights could have been attained through such mechanical and engineering talents alone, specializations so inherently and comparatively benign in nature next to the tragedies that followed. Instead, this portrait of a nation that these hopeful colors paint is now vastly overshadowed by darker shades cast by almost unspeakable monsters and monstrous actions. Strangely haunting, too, how the same enticing messages of an impossibly promising future filled with wondrous, superbly well-oiled machines driven and piloted by blue-eyed, blond-haired specimens of “perfection”—how these lures of a larger, more dangerous and devious scheme eventually doomed so many thousands to such horrors.