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Cycleback Interview with BOB LEMKE, editor, Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards

Bob Lemke is one of the most prominent and respected people in the baseball card hobby. He works at Krause Publications, Iola Wisconsin, as the editor of the highly regarded annual Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards. He is also rightfully regarded as one of the good guys in the hobby, personally responding to inqueries whether they come from major dealers or average collectors.

This following is an interview Cycleback had with Bob Lemke in September, 2001


QUESTION: Where are you from and how did you get your present job?

ANSWER: I was born, raised and educated in Wisconsin. I got my present job by urging Krause Publications, for whom I have worked since 1977, to enter the sportscard periodical market in 1980. I grew with the hobby and our participation in it from editor to publisher to vice president. Those promotions took me further and further away from hands-on work such as researching and writing features, so when the company went to an employee-owned status several years ago and I sold my personal stock holdings I was able to semi-retire and create a job for myself doing what I like best, research and writing.

QUESTION : How do you like living in Iola Wisconsin? What are the sights to see and things to do? Is it Dairy country?

ANSWER: Iola is definitely dairy country, almost exactly in the center of the state. It is a small town, about 1,200 people. Over the years I have become less a fan of small-town living, principally due to the cliquish status of "natives" and the lack of choices in shopping, dining, socializing, health care, etc. Iola is best known for its annual collector car show in July, drawing tens of thousands of hobbyists and tourists and filling the coffers of local and area charitable organizations.

Q: Are you a natural fan of baseball cards, or is it more of a profession?

A: I was a baseball card collector from age 3 (1954) through about 12; then again from 27 or so to date. In the late Fifties I also collected football and non-sports cards.

Q: Are you a collector, baseball or otherwise? What interests you?

A: I retain a wide card and baseball memorabilia collecting interest, principally in the 1950s, vintage minor league items and selected 1990s inserts (I'm working on the 90 variations each of regular and defractor 1998 Topps Tek Javy Lopez). I also avidly collect the "animal rug" cigar felts of the 1910s.

Q: Do you have a favorite era or type of baseball card?

A: Definitely 1950s, Topps, Bowman and various regionals of the time.

Q: Do you have an all-time favorite player and team?

A: The Milwaukee Braves have always been my favorite team. My all-time favorite player changes as careers end, evolving from George Crowe to Gorman Thomas, Razor Shines, Mark Lemke and Javy Lopez.

Q: On your business card, your job title is 'Editor of the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards.' I also know you write baseball articles for some of the Krause publications. Are you involved in other areas, or are you just centered around the catalog?

A: Editing the SCBC and possible spin-off titles was my principal focus for the past several years. I'll now be more active in writing for SCD.

Q: How many people assist you in your job?

A: I don't have any "assistants," but can rely on the time and expertise of Joe Clemens, Tom Hultman and others on our editorial and price guide staffs; plus I have the benefit of Krause's large computer services division (which has been creating and refining the notion of computer modeling of card prices for nearly 20 years), along with production and support staffs. Besides these in-house assets I have many contributors of data and price guide information from throughout the hobby's collector and dealer fraternity.

Q: How do you decide what newly discovered issues will be included in the checklist? Are there times when extra proof of authenticity is required for an unusual card?

A: As the big book has reached nearly 1,700 pages I now try to prioritize additions to present those of greatest potential interest to CARD collectors. Pins, buttons, team-issues, etc., are likely to get less emphasis than in the past. Reports of new discoveries are always taken with a grain of salt. I strongly consider who is doing the reporting. If necessary, I will personally examine discoveries to satisfy myself of authenticity.

Q: If someone has an unusual card or important information, what is the best way to contact you?

A; I prefer an e-mail (lemkeb@krause.com) with a jpeg scan attached. U.S. Mail (700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990) with a photocopy is good, too. Because I most often have to see an item about which an inquiry is being made, phone and fax aren't very useful.

Q: Have there ever been attempted hoaxes, trying to get made up cards in the catalog?

A: Not directly, that I'm aware of, though there have been a lot of fakes introduced into the marketplace that I'm sure the responsible parties would have liked to get cataloged. Things like the 1959-1960 Gulf Oil, the 1923 Neilson's Chocolates and the 1910s Kendig Chocolates.

Q: For vintage issues that have been known to exist for some time but are not included in the catalog, at what point are they included? Is it when enough data is accumulated, or, considering the workload, when you get around to it?

A: The addition of legitimate vintage sets is my number one priority; I'll usually drop everything else to get something like that into our data base. What holds up most vintage listings is a complete or nearly-so checklist and physical description along with a photo.

Q: For ultra-rare cards that have not been sold yet, how do come up with a price for the catalog?

A: We get few examples of such cards, since a public sale is often the first time we hear of them. When faced with a rarity that hasn't been on the market we begin with our computer modeling, apply the expertise of our in-house and external contributors and, as a last resort, include the listing with a notation that current retail pricing cannot be determined.

Q: Amongst T206 collectors, there is always debate over what is a true variation ('Magie' error) versus what is just a freakish printing error (ghost overprints). For example, some say the Nodgrass (no 'S') is a true variation and others says it's a printing error that should not be included as part of a set. Do you have a specific philosophy concerning this, or do you just play it by ear?

A: Specifically in T206, our checklist is complete as it stands since the addition of the Doyle "Nat'l". The hobby has had 90+ years to sortout what is or isn't an intended design variation in T206. We know a great deal about how the set was produced and issued and I have no problem distinguishing, at least in my own mind, a variation from a printing error.

Q: Do you have a special computer program to handle all the data for the price guide?

A: Absolutely, we created our initial Baseball Cards Magazine price guide on an AS400 program in 1980. It has been updated continually since. While it will one day be replaced with some new state of the art technology, I'm not sure it will be improved upon.

Q: In the last few years, Beckett has come out with their 'big book' baseball cards price guide. What do you think of it?

A: The Almanac is an excellent resource. Obviously a huge percentage of the material covered in its pages duplicates what can be found in the Standard Catalog. They have many listing which we have not, or do not, publish, just as we have many listings they do not carry. We have several basic differences in the manner in which we handle listings and, of course, our price listings. We are comfortable that the collector and dealer can make a decision on which book best suits their needs.

Q: While there are a number of different Peck & Snyder Trade Cards, only the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings is listed. Is there a specific reason for that, or will the other Trade Cards be added later?

A: We added several (perhaps all) of the Peck & Snyder cards to the 2002 Standard Catalog, as information on current retail value became available. They hadn't received too great a priority in the past because of their team-card nature.

Q: I notice that a number of well known and commonly bought/sold 19th century comic trade cards aren't listed-Forbes, Merchant's Gargling Oil, Spalding Die-Cut. Will these be added?

A: We've added a few of these to our data base when complete set checklists and current values have become available but because these do not depict actual ballplayers it is not a priority with us to get those listings into print.

Q: While the catalog has always covered some non-cards (Armour andSalada Coins, Sweet Caporal Pins, 1968 Sports Illustrated Posters), I notice that the proliferation of non-cards. Is this a conscious approach?

A: It was conscious in that these items were virtually the only way to expand the vintage section since virtually all of the "cards" prior to 1980 have now been cataloged. We have reached a page count of nearly 1,700, a practical limit in terms of size and weight in our current paper stock. With 10,000 or more cards forthcoming from the major manufacturers each year, we have to consider de-listing those collectibles which least fit into the definition of "baseball card."

Q: In recent memory, has there been some new card discovery, or one that you saw for the first time, that that you though was particularly unusual or interesting?

A: The circa 1870 Troy Haymakers carte de visites was a great discovery in that it was the first time, at least to my knowledge, that a team-set card issue had been undertaken. I get very excited whenever a new 1950s Globe Printing minor league set surfaces such as the 1951-54 Sioux City Soos Globe cards, postcards and photo album we first saw earlier this year.

Q: Will there be a future edition of the book, 'Sportscard Counterfeit Detector'?

A: No. The book was commercially unsuccessful. Who'd have thought that with an estimated 25,000 card "dealers" in the early 1990s, and the proliferation of counterfeits that could cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, that a $15 book to protect oneself wouldn't sell? We now publish this information in the pages of SCD as it becomes available.

Q: Do you think Pete Rose and/or Shoeless Joe Jackson should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame?

A: I could write and essay on each. The short answer is that until such time as either or both are removed from baseball's ineligible list, they should not be in the Hall of Fame.

Q: What are some of your favorite baseball cards of all time?

A: The 1954 Topps Hank Aaron, the 1955 Johnston Cookie George Crowe, the 1957 Dodgers' Sluggers, the 1959 Roy Campanella Symbol of Courage, and my number one favorite, the Old Judge Art Whitney with dog.

Q: Do you ever wish there weren't so many baseball cards?

A: No. The proliferation of cards and the manner in which they have been issued over the past 10 years has made it impossible to have a "complete" collection, has ruined the concept of set-building and made impossible the quest of single-player collectors, but it offers the collector an unprecedented bounty from which to create his own collecting specialty. As at a smorgasbord, the collector can pick and chose those items which appeal to his taste.

Q: When you are away from your job, how do you spend your free time?

A: Being relatively disabled, I'm not very active. I enjoy reading (often about baseball) and television. Since so much of my work day is spent on the computer, I almost never access the computer at home.

Q: When the catalog gets too big for you to lift, is that when it's time to retire?

A: Since I greatly enjoy what I do, retirement is a relative concept. I see an immediate challenge in holding the line at our current size and packing in the most useful information possible, changing as the hobby and the market change. It wouldn't take much of a hobby resurgence to convince us to break out the non-card collectibles into a separate volume, or creating two volumes based on issue dates or other criteria. So I don't foresee running out of things to do.
 

 

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