By Bert Lehman
In 1981 the baseball card hobby went national - with the launch of a glossy-covered magazine named Baseball Cards Magazine. That magazine helped transform the baseball card hobby into an industry.
What most baseball card and sports memorabilia collectors don’t know is that the magazine almost never left the ground. If it weren’t for the persistence of collectors Bob Lemke and Doug Watson, who worked at Krause Publications in Iola, Wisconsin at the time, the hobby would have had to wait longer for a hobby transforming magazine.
Cliff Mishler, who worked in management at Krause Publications at that time, said both Lemke and Watson came up with the idea for the magazine. He added that both were persistent when they recommended to management that the company dive head first into the endeavor.
“They had spoken to Chet (Krause, the founder of Krause Publications), and myself about this idea they had about a product on national newsstands that would be a real great thing,” Mishler recalled. “They had been camping at his (Krause) door every once in awhile.”
Mishler remembers speaking with Krause about the proposed Baseball Cards Magazine, and neither were too keen on the idea.
He remembers Krause saying, “As a company we have a little money to put at risk, so we’d be out only a few thousand dollars when the thing fails. But at least it will get them off our backs and back into concentrating on the business that we’re interested in.”
Krause and Mishler gave Lemke and Watson their blessing to put an issue of Baseball Cards Magazine together and get it on national newsstands.
“That first issue just sold and was received very phenomenally,” Mishler said.
After that, Baseball Cards Magazine was given a regular publishing schedule, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Only a short time later, Lemke recommended the company purchase Sports Collectors Digest. That purchase was made and Lemke served as editor and eventually publisher.
Mishler said Lemke had a couple of talents that allowed him to have the foresight to see the upcoming boom in the sports cards hobby.
The first talent was understanding the collector, with the second talent being able to understand collecting disciplines.
This foresight led Lemke to undertake the monumental project of creating a book that would catalog all the baseball cards in existence, as well as provide pricing for those cards. Mishler said Lemke worked with card dealers from around the country to assemble the book, which would become The Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards.
“I can imagine he spent a lot of time on the telephone back in those days,” Mishler said. “You didn’t have e-mail. Sometimes he was exchanging things through the mail with people who were experts in the field.”
The first edition of The Standard Catalog wasn’t perfect, but it was a starting point.
“You don’t wait until you have the perfect product ready to go,” Mishler said. “You put a deadline out there and you’re going to publish at that particular point in time, and you publish the best that you have at that particular time. You assume it is going to be successful so you can do a second edition. That’s what Bob was able to do because he had his grasp of the collector and the collecting disciplines.”
Looking back, Mishler said he never thought the baseball card hobby, and eventually sports memorabilia in general would become the giant that it did.
Lemke’s foresight into the hobby, and being able to turn that into Baseball Cards Magazine and The Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, were key factors in that growth.
“Bob was the consummate professional from the standpoint of the talent he lent to the products he was responsible for, you knew what he did was going to be accurate and presentable to the best of his ability at that given time,” Mishler said. “An audience can’t ask for anything more than that.”