You say no one cares about baseball cards. You say they’ve lost their charm. You say you’re not even supposed to hold the cards in your hand; you’re supposed to send your valuable cards to a company in Irvine, where for about $10 each they will encapsulate your cards, grade them on a scale of 1 to 10, and give each a bar code, thereby transforming each into a soulless commodity like a share of stock or a speck of precious metal.
Charles Mandel makes baseball cards, and Charles Mandel agrees with you. He is a 53-year-old father of two from Southfield, Mich., near Detroit. He’s collected baseball cards all his life. He had a card-hobby-supply company that was wiped out by the baseball card bust of the early ’90s, about the same time his extensive baseball card collection, featuring pre-World War II cards, was stolen.
Mandel has been fascinated by very old cards for a long time. “I saw my first T206 cards (1909–1911 American Tobacco Company set) when I was 10 or 11. I fell in love with those cards because they were bright and an odd size. They were of guys I’d heard of but didn’t know much about. Every card was an invitation to learn. It was a combination of attractive art and baseball that I find so compelling.”
Sick of the state of the baseball card hobby, Mandel told himself in 2002, I’m going to make a card set like I remember collecting. He took the name of a defunct tobacco company, Helmar. After trying out different formats and methods of card making, Mandel settled on his technique: he bases the style, color and feel of his cards on old sets (1933 Goudy, 1914 Cracker Jack, T206, and others); he commissions original paintings of interesting players of the past in interesting poses; he scans and sizes the images, then prints them out on a very-high-quality printer; he glues the cards to stock that mimics the thickness of the old paper stock; and then there’s a final, amazing step, which I’ll get to in a minute.
Mandel doesn’t pick random players to put into his sets – the players must have some interesting history. In the set based on the 1933 Goudy style there is Bob Feller standing with Satchel Paige; Josh Gibson; the great Cuban player Martin Dihigo; Negro Leaguer Turkey Stearnes; Mickey Mantle (though Mantle was but a beefy toddler in 1933); Babe Ruth; Lou Gehrig; Cuban stars and barnstorming stars. The backs of the cards are written in the style of the times, and when reading the text one is transported back in time.
But here is the final, amazing step in the manufacturing process: after Mandel and his artists print the cards and glue them to the cardstock, they distress the cards. In a secret process that can employ different grades of sandpaper along with steel wool, scissors, staining agents, and wax, Mandel spends about half an hour on every single card, distressing and aging it.
Of the old cards, Mandel says, “They were loved. They look like they were loved and handled.” Mandel’s cards, though they are being made in 2012, look and feel like they were made before your grandfather was born.
In 1991, the Donruss Trading Card Company spat out about a billion baseball cards, over one million of each image in the set. A few years before that, when Money magazine named baseball cards the best investment of the 1980s, it seemed that everyone was rushing in on the craze, buying thousands and thousands of cards, worrying about every card’s condition, centering, examining printer’s marks, and other “defects.” Cards had to be handled extremely carefully so as not to ding the corner of a card and therefore affect its condition.
Then in the early ’90s, the boom went bust, just as it did with Dutch tulip bulbs in the 17th century and dot-bomb stocks in the early 2000s. The vast majority of cards produced in the mid-to-late ’80s and ’90s are worth less than what it costs to store them for a few years.
Since then, cards produced by Topps and other companies have relied on gimmicks like card inserts – a half-inch square cut from a player’s pants, a piece of bat or a piece of a seat from a demolished stadium – or an autograph, or printing the card on shiny foil. Topps does produce retro sets based on their designs from 40 or 50 years ago, but the cards are more a curiosity than something to treasure.
By contrast, every year Charles Mandel and his Helmar card company make only four to six of each card. That’s about 2,500 cards a year. Mandel puts each card up on eBay, where collectors are lapping them up for between $30 and $125 each (on eBay, type in “Helmar” and “baseball”).
Mandel says, “Every card has sold in the last 2-1/2 years, at prices I wouldn’t have expected. They have resonated with a certain type of collector who was tired of the grading and the junkiness of the [contemporary] cards.”
Charles Mandel has brought back the evocative power of baseball cards for adults with deep pockets. If he, or anyone else, can do the same for kids, then all will be right, once again, in the universe.