Hobby Interview: Pete Williams

2 03 2009

The day Upper Deck became an official sponsor of Wax Heaven, many readers felt that I had “sold out” and gone corporate. One reader even sent me a very angry email asking why I have never covered Pete Williams’ book, ‘Card Sharks: How Upper Deck Turned A Child’s Hobby Into A High-Stakes, Billion-Dollar Business’.

The truth is that I have never had a chance to read Card Sharks. I searched high and low in book stores and libraries but never could find a copy. Rather than giving my opinion on a book I have never read, I went straight to the source for a very special interview you won’t find anywhere else.

Pete Williams has agreed to sit down for an interview with Wax Heaven. This interview is brought to you exclusively by the Card Blogosphere and Dave of Fielder’s Choice, who helped put together some of the questions for Mr. Williams and wrote a great review of Card Sharks on his own blog.

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How did the card industry react when Card Sharks was published?

A: The book came out in April of 1995, a time when few people were on the Internet. So there wasn’t the type of viral response you see with books today. Several hobby publications, dependent as they were on Upper Deck advertising, were not very kind to the book, though I can remember at least two hobby writers apologizing to me later for their slanted coverage.

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Were the ethical standards at other card companies better than at Upper Deck during the early 1990s?  Did you hear about any unethical schemes involving other card companies that were similar to what Upper Deck did with the reprinted Dale Murphy cards and the French hockey cards?

A: I wouldn’t know. The book evolved out of rumblings I heard in the industry at the time about Upper Deck. I had only been working on the book for a few months when one of the Upper Deck founders, Bill Hemrick, filed a lawsuit against Upper Deck that included allegations of card reprinting. That became a significant part of the book. Hemrick later settled his suit with Upper Deck.

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If you were to write a follow up to Card Sharks, what are some of the biggest events in the last 14 years of the hobby that you would want to cover?

A: I’ve been asked this question through the years and it’s very flattering. The publishing business, however, doesn’t work that way. I can’t think of a book that’s been updated or revisited 15 years later, though it’s an interesting idea. Michael O’Keefe and Teri Thompson did a terrific job in their 2007 book “The Card” investigating many of the industry’s hot-button issues of recent years: grading/slabbing, card doctoring, auctions, etc. I highly recommend their book.

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In Card Sharks, you wrote a lot about Beckett and the book values of certain cards.  Do you believe, as many collectors do, that Beckett has lost its integrity and relevance in today’s hobby?  If so, what led to their decline?

A: Losing one’s integrity is a rather harsh accusation. I’ve always found Dr. Beckett and his staff to be people of high integrity and character. Once they got into the auction and grading business, however, I did raise an eyebrow over what appeared to be a conflict of interest. Then again, there’s perhaps no business I can think of so replete with conflicts of interests as the sports card/memorabilia business, and that extends to auction houses and appraisers, card manufacturers, sports leagues and their unions, and hobby publications. As for Beckett losing its status as the definitive source of values, the reasons would include slabbing/grading and the Internet providing an easy forum for competitors to spring up. I marvel that we’re not that far removed from the days of waiting for the Beckett Monthly magazines to arrive in the mail. That seems like another lifetime ago.

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Where do you think the hobby is headed in the future?  What changes do you think Upper Deck, Topps, and other companies will need to make in order to keep existing collectors interested and attract new collectors in the 21st century?

A: Admittedly, I don’t cover this industry to the extent I did during its early-1990s heyday, but here’s my take: Generation X people like me don’t recognize “the hobby” anymore. My formative collecting years were the late 1970s and early 1980s. I learned to read from baseball cards. They taught me geography, arithmetic, how to alphabetize and put things in numerical order, and how to save and allocate my limited financial resources to buy packs of cards. My family did not have cable TV and even though I saw only five MLB games in person before becoming a baseball writer after college, I was familiar with every player in the game by the age of 7. This is the role “trading cards” played for generations of collectors. I’m not sure what role they play these days, let alone in the future, given our technology-based culture and the countless short-sighted marketing approaches card manufacturers and sports leagues have made over the last 15 years in a desperate attempt to stay relevant.

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In the last six months alone, Upper Deck has laid off many employees, canceled a product shortly before release due to lack of interest (2008 Update), discontinued two very popular brands (Masterpieces, Sweet Spot), and rumored to have shut down their Nevada facility. With all these elements in place, do you believe there is opportunity to write a follow-up on Card Sharks?

A: I have not followed the state of Upper Deck very closely, but such measures really are no different from what’s happening in most U.S. industries right now. Again, the nature of the publishing business is not to write follow-up books and “The Card” pretty much updated the state of the industry adequately for now.

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With all the new card technology introduced in the last decade, do you believe we are in the new “Golden Age” of collecting or like many collectors, do you feel “game-used” memorabilia and other “gimmicks” have made companies care less about design and photography and more about what bat or jersey they can cut up and insert into a card?

A: I’m starting to feel like a geezer talking about the good old days. No, this is definitely not the golden age of collecting. When everything is overproduced and shamelessly marketed as a can’t-miss, limited-edition, blue-chip investment, as it has for the last 15-plus years, it’s very sad. Kids couldn’t care less about the technology and other gimmicks used in cards, if they pay attention to cards at all. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the four sports leagues take game-used and autographed memorabilia in house and eliminate dealers. It’s already happening to some degree.

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If given just one choice, which card would you invest in and why: a 2001 Bowman Chrome Albert Pujols autograph or a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle.

A: I would never, ever invest or even talk about investing in sports cards or memorabilia. The notion of sports memorabilia as investment is a huge misnomer and everyone who perpetrates it should be ashamed of themselves. If someone offered me one of these two cards, I’d take the Mantle. Any value the Pujols card has is manufactured by the perceived scarcity of Pujols’ signature. Last I checked, Albert is still with us and signing on a daily basis. Admittedly, Mantle appears to have signed quite a bit since his death in 1995.

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I see that you’re living in the Tampa Bay area – what are your thoughts on the Rays amazing success in 2008?  How do you think the area sports fans will respond – will the attendance increase significantly in 2009?  Do you think that the team can survive long-term in St. Petersburg, or will they need to move to Tampa or elsewhere to draw more fans?

A: Attendance will grow at least a little since the Rays sold a lot of season ticket packages tied to 2008 playoff tickets. The Rays also are a tremendous value. Upper deck tickets are $10, parking is free for vehicles with four or more passengers, and the Rays let you bring food and bottled water into the ballpark. Plus, they’re the most exciting team in baseball and quite a profitable one at the moment, with a modest $60 million payroll, which is more than double what is was in 2007. Given revenue sharing and the new revenue streams baseball has created in recent years (MLB.com, MLB Network, the Extra Innings package, etc.), the Rays could survive and even be profitable for another decade in Tropicana Field by frugally managing their payroll and continuing to outsmart their opponents the way the A’s and Twins have. With the economy being what it is, the Rays will not get a new stadium in Tampa, St. Pete or anywhere else anytime soon.

Pete Williams Official Website

Card Sharks @ Amazon

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14 responses

2 03 2009
Rob AKA Guido

Nice piece Mario. Well done.

2 03 2009
Mark

Great snag on the interview, Mario. Thanks for asking some decent questions, not just softball lobs.

2 03 2009
beaverman3001

Going to have to check this book out, nice article!

2 03 2009
Alan

Great Job, was a good read.

2 03 2009
Madyankees

I salute him on what he said bout never ever “investing”. I think the lumping of “investing” and “baseball cards” has changed the hobby. Truth is, boxes these days are just too highly priced and buying them is kinda like parting with a small fortune. Even if you’re just an old sch set builder and not a hits chaser, its hard not to feel the pinch.

The part on baseball cards as part of baseball education applies to me when I was a kid. Dont think you will find too many kids these day staring for more than a minute on a base card. I do feel that someone should come up with a book to show how the hobby has changed since the mid 90s. I myself was really really stunned and I;m sure there are a lot of ex-collectors out there who would like to know what their hobby has become since they left.

2 03 2009
Alex

Interesting interview.

A tip for future; try not to be leading with your questions. I know blogs aren’t supposed to be impartial like newspapers are but I think you will get better responses if you leave your views out of the question.

A question like:
Do you believe, as many collectors do, that Beckett has lost its integrity and relevance in today’s hobby? If so, what led to their decline?

Would be better asked as: What do you think the role of price guides, like Beckett, is in today’s card market?

2 03 2009
gobigpelf34

That was interesting, I liked the Pujols/Mantle bit.

2 03 2009
Jeff W

Agreed madyankees. I used to read all the backs of the cards and memorized stats. It’s also how I learned other people were called by their middle names. That’s a big deal at 6 years old.

2 03 2009
DDoubleplay Sports/Paul D.

Great interview Mario! Getting pounded with snow here in South Jerzey about a foot in all.I guess I’ll have to read both books,perfect reading for a snow day like today.

2 03 2009
Gellman

This was one of the better posts on this site from you. What a great person to interview, as I think his book comes up so much in daily conversation on the blogs. I think he kind of dodged a few questions, as can be expected, but I also think he took a direct approach to some of the ones I expected him to dodge.

A few things struck me as odd though. First is that he still refers to “Dr. Beckett and his staff” as if the Doctor is still over there. Secondly that he seems like he only knows today’s hobby with wide brush strokes. Although I dont expect him to keep it up, I does give me a more complete picture when looking at the relevance of his book.

Nice job!

2 03 2009
Bryan

I enjoyed the interview.
And as for reading the stats on the back… My dad used to get so mad, b/c I knew 80% of all MLB players’ batting avg., rbi, hr, win loss record, etc.
He said, “if you spent half as much time studying as you do reading those stats on those cards you’d make all A’s!!!”

2 03 2009
Mike

Nice interview– I just ordered the book off Amazon and also “House of Cards” – got them both used, cost around $13 total, including shipping. Not a bad deal. I used to memorize the players’ height and weight when I was a kid!

Hey Paul– what exit? 🙂 I’m Exit 4

2 03 2009
tribecards

Bryan, that’s exactly what I have said to my son and friggin Pokemon cards…

Mario, this was a great interview. For me, it was interesting to see that basically, the guy quit thinking about the hobby much once the book was released. His remarks about not making follow-up books falls short, in my opinion, unless he is in it only for the cashola of writing. In today’s publishing world, anyone can have a book produced for little money, and if he *wanted* to follow up, I believe he could. Having said that, I wonder how many people would actually read a follow up.

I think you did a nice job of prodding him along to get some of the answers you were looking for. Nice Score! 🙂

3 03 2009
Edwin

Tks for the exclusive Mario. I agree with Gellman about the author dodging questions. Still a very good interview

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