Michael O’Keeffe Interview
Michael O’Keeffe is a sportswriter for the Daily News, a guy who takes his job as a journalist seriously and, as a consequence, is one of the best reporters in the business (he’s also a self-professed fan of The Starting Five, which is always nice to hear). He graciously agreed to sit down with me (virtually) to talk about his new book and about his views on important issues of the day in sports. His book, The Card: Collectors, Con Men and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card (co-authored with Teri Thompson), was published this Spring by Harper Collins. It tells the story of how the T-206 Honus Wagner baseball card, originally printed in 1909 (also known as the Gretzky T-206 because the Great One once owned the card) became the most sought-after card in the world, having sold most recently for over two million dollars, and the nefarious circumstances under which that card came to be deemed so valuable. Along the way, O’Keeffe tells some fascinating tales, including how revenue from Topps’ baseball cards allowed Marvin Miller to transform the Major League Baseball Players’ Association from an inert talking shop into one of America’s most powerful unions. And, he explains how two working-class African American men, in possession of their own T-206 Honus Wagner baseball card, got shut out of a memorabilia market desperate to buy almost anything.
JW : Where did you get your start in sports journalism and when did you get to the Daily News? And, have you always been a sports fan, or was this something you fell into professionally?
MOK: I loved sports when I was a kid, especially baseball. I grew up on Long Island and I was 10 years old when the Mets won their first World Series in 1969. That was a marvelous moment. I also liked football – I was a Jets fan in the Namath era, and during those years I always assumed New York teams would win championships. How wrong I was. My brothers and I were also big hockey fans when we were growing up.
I grew disinterested in watching sports and following sports when I hit my late teens and wasn’t much of a sports fan for several years, but until a few years ago I always played sports. I played a lot of pickup basketball. Some years I played on 2-3 softball teams in the summer and a team or two in the fall. I really loved it, and although I’m not much of an athlete, I had my moments.
My first job out of college in journalism was covering University of Colorado sports for the Colorado Daily, a campus newspaper (I’m a CU grad). I didn’t like it much. I thought writing game stories and sidebars was pretty dull. I wanted to do important stories, like Iran-Contra. So eventually they moved me on to something else. But throughout my career I’ve written an occasional sports-related story. One of my favorite stories I did working in Denver was about a crooked boxing promoter who was allowed to operate without regulation because Colorado did not have a boxing commission. For me, it was a perfect story – the intersection of sports and politics.
I jumped back into sports full-time in 1999 when my friend and colleague Teri Thompson gave me the opportunity to work at the Daily News as part of the sports investigative team she was putting together. I think we’ve done some very good work together on a number of topics: steroids and sports supplements, the taxpayer-funded stadium racket, and, of course, sports memorabilia. Thankfully, they don’t make me write Knicks sidebars anymore.
JW: You’ve got a new book out, The Card, about the famous 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card, which has now sold for over $2 million. What most interested you about that story and what do you think is the take away for the readers?
In 2000, Mastro Auctions held a press conference to announce that the card would be sold in an internet auction in conjunction with e-Bay. I attended the press conference and really got sucked into the whole story. I remembered how badly my brother Tim and I would beat up baseball cards and I could not imagine a card could be that pristine after so many years. I decided I wanted to do a story on every single person who owned that card, and hopefully trace it backwards to 1910. But when I pressed Bill Mastro about the origins of the Wagner card, which he is credited with “discovering,” he became very vague and evasive. I could only trace this card as far back as 1985, which really ticked me off. So I started to dig deeper into the card and collecting, and the result is the book.
JW: We hear alot about the bad character of many of today’s athletes. But, back in Honus Wagner’s day, in the first decades of the 20th century, baseball was filled with gambling, cheating, carousing and brawling, and Wagner seemed to stand out as a man of good character.
After writing the book, do you think that’s an accurate portrayal of him?
MOK: Honus was a big drinker – his subpar performance during the 1910 season, some suggest, was the result of too many nights in the saloon. He was a fixture in the bars in Carnegie until he was a very old man.
I think Honus probably gambled with the best of ‘em, although I’m certainly not suggesting he ever threw games or provided inside info to bookies or gamblers. As far as cheating goes, I don’t have any evidence of that, but he was a man of his times and probably did the same things other players had to do in order to win. I don’t think he was much of a fighter. He sounds like he was an easy-going guy. He was also strong as a moose, and that may have scared potential enemies off.
All that said, I think Honus was very well respected by his peers and the fans. I think he was in many ways a real gentleman. He helped ensure the survival of the National League – the American League was founded in 1901 to give fans a family-friendly alternative to the NL and its rowdy, drunken crowds. AL teams threw a lot of money at NL players to get them to jump ship, but Wagner always resisted. He was the best player in the game and his loyalty helped keep the Pirates intact and helped the NL preserve its star power.
He took a real interest in kids. He would hold the players gate open so young Pittsburgh fans could sneak in behind him. The people I talked to in Carnegie said he was always quick with sodas or bags of chips for the local kids. He was very community-minded and took a great interest and pride in Carnegie.
JW: One story you tell in the book that really interested me was the story of John Cobb and Ray Edwards, two working class African American guys who own what they say is an authentic 1910 Honus Wagner card. And yet, they’ve been shut out of the “hobby.”
Can you talk a little bit about their story? And, do you have an opinion about whether their card, which one appraiser valued at between $300,000-500,000, is legitimate?
MOK: John Cobb would be interesting to me even if he didn’t have that card – he played in a band with Bootsy Collins, and they even opened for Hendrix! How cool is that?
John acquired a T206 Wagner card many years ago, and in the early ‘90s, he asked Ray to help him sell it – Ray was brought in because he was comfortable with computers and the Internet. They were told they needed to have it graded before it could be auctioned off, but PSA, the hobby’s main card-grading service, told them they couldn’t be in the room when it was graded. I think both sides have legitimate points. PSA is concerned about security – they don’t want customers’ pilfering other cards in the grading room, and they don’t want somebody trying to bribe or intimidate grading teams. On the other hand, as John and Ray put it, a T206 Wagner is not an ordinary card – how do they know somebody from PSA won’t swap it or damage it?
I don’t know if their card is legit. I’m not qualified to determine that. A paper expert and an ink expert have both said the card appears to be from the turn of the century, but it could be a common T206 with a fake Wagner front slapped on it.
I think their story has a lot to do with being outsiders to the industry, and to a lesser extent, with the fact that they are African-American. I think this hobby is dominated by white, upper-class guys with plenty of disposable income, and they took it as an affront that a couple of black guys were trying to get into their club.
The guys on the (internet) collectors forums were especially brutal. With all the problems the memorabilia hobby suffers from, you’d think these guys would have something better to do than rag on two working-class guys. The comments were vicious and racist and ugly and they should be ashamed of themselves.
JW: Another great story you tell, one I knew nothing about, is about how Marvin Miller, when he first took over the MLBPA in the mid-1960s got the players to stop signing away their rights to Topps baseball cards for a song. As a result, within a couple of years, Topps was forced to start paying the players real money for their cards, and this money, called “Marvin Money” became the foundation for the powerhouse union the MLBPA has become.
Can you talk about that story a little bit?
MOK: We spoke to Miller at length about this over a long lunch here in New York about two years ago. He’s quite elderly but very sharp and a real interesting character. Why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame? Isn’t there something wrong when the man who changed the business of baseball isn’t honored for his achievements?
He told us that getting a collectively bargained deal for the union from Topps helped ensure the association’s survival. Before that, Topps would pay the players peanuts – a steak dinner here, a refrigerator there, really just tokens. The money generated by card revenue gave the union the money to fight for free agency and other issues. During the 1994 labor stoppage, card money gave the union the cushion to hold out.
I think the union has diversified quite a bit but card revenue is still important. The union joined forces last year with card manufacturers to start a campaign to convince kids to start collecting again. I don’t know how successful it was, but it suggests to me that the union believes cards are important.
JW: You mentioned that, earlier in your career, you wanted to cover significant stories, like Iran-Contra, not file game accounts. Now that you cover sports full time, do you see the sports stories you cover as having some larger significance? Or, do you just find sports more interesting than you used to?
MOK: I do think sports journalism has an important role in our culture. I think my earlier distaste was the result of my own ignorance and the fact that so many sports reporters and columnists seemed more interested in being cheerleaders than objective and aggressive journalists. I didn’t know sports guys could go deep on stories.
Most of the sports writers I knew in my younger days were bland guys (virtually all were white, middle-class men) more interested in sucking up to athletes than providing thoughtful reporting or critical coverage. Plus, they weren’t even fun away from the job – no personality, no thoughts beyond who the Broncos might draft that year. I remember telling one sports guy that I spelled my last name with two Fs – just like Georgia O’Keeffe. He didn’t know who she was, and when I told him she was an important American artist, he told me I was lying. A college graduate had no idea who Georgia O’Keeffe was, but I bet he could tell me the batting average of every player on the 1976 Reds.
I try to run around with a more interesting crowd these days.
Obviously, sports impacts Americans’ lives in many ways, even if you’re not a sports fan. Everybody’s tax money gets used for stadium construction. Resources that could be used to build schools or for healthcare are diverted to arenas and ballparks. We’re tearing down a neighborhood here in Brooklyn for an NBA arena. That affects everybody, not just sports fans.
Just look at the steroid issue: As a result of steroid use, Americans’ conceptions about the ideal male body have changed over the last two decades. My GI Joe looked like an average guy – how come the toys my kid plays with all look like ‘roid freaks?
I also think some of the issues we like to ignore in this country – about race, gender, sexuality – often eventually boil over in the sports world. Jackie Robinson is the obvious example. How many suburban kids got turned on to hip-hop via the NBA?
JW: in the book, you talk a lot about the ethical questions/corruption/dishonesty surrounding what has become a multi-billion dollar sports memorabilia industry. Is there a larger consequence for sports in general in that corruption? Is there any way
in which you see that bleeding over into the business of sports more generally?
MOK: That’s a good question. I approach these issues primarily from the consumer protection angle; I haven’t given much thought to whether the sleaziness in memorabilia can or will affect the larger sports-industrial complex. I don’t think the creeps in memorabilia will cause kids to turn their backs on baseball or football. But all those phony autographs and trimmed cards being sold, like high ticket prices, $9 hot dogs, juiced-up jocks and ballpark taxes, certainly contribute to the public’s negative perception of sports.
JW: At this site, we talk a lot about the negativity that characterizes so much coverage of contemporary athletes. What’s your perspective on that? Do you think it’s fair or unfair?
MOK: Fair or unfair? It depends on the situation and it depends on the athlete. I think racism, sexism and ignorance have strong footholds in the press, just as they do in other walks of American life, and they can taint how an athlete is portrayed. Throughout his career, going all the way back to high school, Patrick Ewing was portrayed as a bad guy, a thug, a gorilla. For what? How many times was he arrested? How many drug tests did he fail? He was a world-class talent who gave a lot to the Knicks and the NBA. I found him to be articulate and intelligent. Too many people in the press treated him like trash.
But I believe the press by and large gives athletes a free pass too often. I come at it from a completely different point of view than you guys do. To me, the coverage of Mark McGwire during the 1998 season is an obvious example. McGwire used to be America’s hero. Now, thanks largely to our work at the Daily News, he is seen as what he is: A talented ballplayer who put up huge numbers during a few seasons because he used steroids. Why didn’t the press look at McGwire in a more critical light in ’98? Why did we all act like he was baseball’s savior when in fact he was a steroid-assisted slugger? Why did it take years for anybody to ask the relevant questions?
Barry Bonds is a guy many reporters and columnists dislike. Some of that, I’m sure, is because he’s a black man who acts like he lives by nobody’s rules but his own. But I recently read Dave Zirin’s comparison of Barry Bonds and Jack Johnson on The Starting Five and although I like Dave and I respect his work, I think he gives racism way too much credit on this one. Johnson was persecuted because he was a man who refused to be victimized by racism, and he paid the price for that – he even did time in prison for violating the Mann Act (funny, they got Chuck Berry on the same stupid thing).
Bonds’ problems were created largely by Bonds himself.
I think “Game of Shadows” lays out a very convincing case that Bonds cheated with performance-enhancing drugs. He’s sat quietly while one of his oldest friends has sat in prison on contempt charges. He falsely told law enforcement that another boyhood friend was stealing and selling his memorabilia. He screwed around on his wife and used his kids as human shields during a press conference a few years ago. And he will break baseball’s most important record with the help of prohibited drugs. Why is it unfair to point that out?
Freud said sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke. Sometimes a jerk is just a jerk.
JW: What’s your opinion about the role of blogs in sports coverage today? Do you read them at all? Do you think they detract from sports media coverage of the games and athletes?
I welcome the blog revolution. In an age when media consolidation and cost-cutting rules, I like having as many sources of information and opinion as I can get. I do read quite a few – The Starting Five, Edge of Sports, Deadspin, Atlantic Yards Report and No Land Grab are all in my regular rotation these days. I also read Filip Bondy’s Daily Blahg on the Daily News Web site to make sure that SOB hasn’t slandered me in some way. Have you seen eTrueSports.com? It’s a scream.
I do have some criticism – there’s not enough original reporting from bloggers. I read some of these things and I wonder if these people have ever been in a locker room. After a while it starts to sound tedious. Then again, I think the same is true of many columnists.
I don’t think blogs detract from media coverage of games and athletes. Obviously, some blogs are better than others, but the ones I read usually offer me perspectives and news I’m not getting in the papers or from TV, and that’s why I read them.
JW: Thanks for your time, Michael. I enjoyed it.
MOK: No problem. I love your web site. You guys do great work.