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Alex Gordon and his amazing, mutilated rookie card

In 2006, Topps printed -- and then hastily un-printed, altered, and otherwise attempted to destroy -- what would've been the rookie card for Alex Gordon. The results weren't pretty.

SB Nation 2014 MLB Bracket

I saw a ghost on Twitter last week. It was more the funny kind than the scary kind, honestly, despite being the ghost of a promising young man whose face had been attacked by a bunch of panicked middle management types wielding razors. I was there when it happened, and it was not pretty.

The young man survived, thankfully -- he won a Gold Glove last year, in fact, and is playing left field for the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. Alex Gordon is doing fine. What I saw was the ghost of what would have been Alex Gordon's first Topps baseball card:

What you are looking at there is Alex Gordon's first Topps baseball card, number 297 in the 2006 Topps Series 1 set. Or, more specifically, you are looking at that card after an industrial-strength hole-punch had been driven through the card in an attempt to destroy it. This is one of several versions of this card that you might see, not including the natural variations inherent to something that has been frantically and intentionally damaged by people who believe their jobs depend upon that damaging being done with sufficient vigor.

Another version features a normal front and completely blank back. The rarest of all these is an unaltered version, with the front and back that Topps' editors assigned, laid-out, and approved for printing. Everything else was ruined, very much on purpose.

"There was no conspiracy with the Alex Gordon cards. This was a straight fuck-up."

This is no way to treat a baseball card, let alone a young person's face. But, at the time, it was the only option that Topps had.

They'd printed a card that their agreement with the MLB Players Association forbade printing. Gordon, who had just been drafted that June, was not yet on the Royals 25-man roster and had not yet played a big league game, and as such was not allowed to have a card in either of those Topps sets. Topps printed them anyway, and did not notice the error until after the cards had been printed and, in some cases, packed out and shipped. Various higher-ups at Topps threw various fits, and sent functionaries all up and down the production chain to work on the task of finding and destroying these cards.

For the most part, they did a good job of it. It's one of the curiosities of the lost Alex Gordon rookie card that the unaltered versions tended to show up in far-flung clusters: a bunch turned up at a Wal-Mart in Wichita, and others surfaced in military PXs overseas. Back in 2006, Gordon cards were selling in the thousands of dollars; ESPN's Keith Olbermann, an avid collector and a consultant for Topps on their throwback-styled heritage sets, bought several at that price on eBay, he wrote, "on the premise that this was the first regular Topps card 'pulled' from circulation since at least 1958."

Mistakes happen in the process of manufacturing all these baseball cards. Negatives get flipped, details get overlooked, Gary Pettis' 16-year-old brother somehow winds up on Gary Pettis' baseball card, that sort of thing. It is not the error that was novel in the case of Alex Gordon's retracted rookie card, but Topps' attempt to fix it.

★★★

I was working a low-level editorial job at Topps at the time, and watched The Great Alex Gordon Destruction of 2006 happen out of the corner of my eye, while pretending to do other work. What I remember about the experience was everyone being extremely nervous. I recall one especially dour homunculus of a manager, whose arrival in the editorial bullpen was heralded by the football editor playing a Mr. Spacely sound cue from "The Jetsons" on his computer, stalking around the office with a look of comically intense rage and purpose not seen again on earth until Taken arrived in theaters. He was not the only one feeling the pressure.

"Everyone freaked out," remembers Jim McKenna, who was one of two baseball editors at the time, "because it was a big mistake. It could've cost us our deal with Major League Baseball." No one I spoke to quite remembers how everyone talked themselves into the possibility that Gordon's card could be in the set, or helped each other forget the conditions of the new agreement. The calendar left plenty of time to catch and correct the mistake before the cards started printing, former Topps Creative Services Manager Frank Amadeo told me. No one caught it.

Alex Gordon
The actual, intact Alex Gordon, Game 6 of the 2014 World Series (Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports).

While a lack of clarity regarding the new agreement with the MLBPA and one of what became increasingly frequent waves of workplace turnover contributed to the mistake, McKenna described Gordon's inclusion on the 2006 Topps subject list as a half-conscious gamble. Gordon did not, by rights, belong in the set. This did nothing to change how much everyone wanted him there.

At that time, Topps and Upper Deck had quite suddenly found themselves as the only companies making baseball cards; Fleer had gone out of business in 2005, and Donruss had lost its MLB license early in 2006. The mandate at Topps was to compete -- "to get the best and most collectable players into the set," as Amadeo put it -- and a player with Alex Gordon's promise stood out amid the uninspiring crop of approved rookie cards in that set. The card before Gordon's on the checklist belongs to Anderson Hernandez; the one after him is Jason Botts. If Topps had a Gordon rookie and Upper Deck was stuck holding the proverbial Botts, Topps would have something that its competitor didn't. "We took a chance and we lost on that," McKenna told me. "We rolled the dice pretty hard and we hit craps. It was not a good day to be an assistant brand manager or an editor at Topps, I'll say that much."

McKenna estimated the cost of removing the cards, which Amadeo described as a "monumental undertaking," at around $100,000. "The cards were printing, and we hit the panic button," McKenna said. "So basically what they did was they took the uncut sheets, put all the sheets on top of each other and just took a hole punch and cut the card out. It was a fire drill."

But, given the strange economy of the baseball card business, the card still wound up paying some dividends for Topps. The industry has tried everything to generate demand -- autographed cards and cards with embedded swatches of uniform, broken bats shaved thin with a deli slicer and pasted into the cards of their former owners; in 2007, Topps made a card with a purportedly authentic strand of George Washington's hair in it. Some work better than others, but nothing ever works quite well enough.

The only thing that works, the only thing that can make a smallish piece of cardboard with a picture of a baseball player on the front valuable in a non-sentimental sense, is scarcity. The Gordon card was part of the base set in 2006; there would have been hundreds of thousands of it in circulation. The collector's term for cards like this is "common." In the most basic sense, these cards exist to pad the set out, and make the truly scarce "chase" cards -- the 1-of-1 parallels and, um, cards containing strands of historically significant hair -- that much harder to find. Instead, the mutilated Gordon cards became chase cards in themselves. Not because they were so strange-looking, and not because Alex Gordon might someday have developed into the star that he is today, but because Topps had gone about spending all that money making them so hard to find.

Conspiracy theories followed, as conspiracy theories tend to. Olbermann recalls being called a "shill" for the recalled cards; collectors wondered whether Topps was working a sort of self-wounding con in an attempt to gin up demand. McKenna laughed when I reminded him of this speculation. "There was no conspiracy with the Alex Gordon cards," he says. "This was a straight fuck-up."

But, as fuck-ups go, this one worked like a dream, and created a card that was far more valuable, far more scarce, and far stranger -- the faceless rookie looks more like a lost Magritte print than a mass-produced baseball card -- than any other Gordon rookie could've been. "I think it's the modern-day version of the iconic pulled or 'never-made' card," Beckett Baseball and Sports Card Monthly managing editor Chris Olds told me. "In the past, there were other examples of stuff like this -- like the 1977 Topps card of Reggie Jackson as an Oriole that was never made except as a test proof. Except this time they could be found in packs. It was a driving force for pack-ripping that year -- I, myself, bought way more 2006 Topps Series 1 than I normally would have."

The Gordon rookie is no longer selling for anything like its former prices (Olds argues that it's slightly undervalued), although that seems kind of a crude and insufficient way to measure its actual value. Give or take the ones studded with Presidential hair, no baseball card is really worth anything but what we believe it to be worth; scarcity drives the marketplace, but collectors are, in the end, motivated by something more than what moves the market.

Cards remind us of things, people, moments, like every other object we keep to remind us of things more meaningful than objects. People chased the faceless Alex Gordon rookie not just because it was hard to find, but because it was so weird and wonderfully unlike any other card. This is why we chase anything that we chase, really, but the symbolism is hardly ever as clear as it is here. The most valuable baseball card in that set, and the most valuable baseball card Alex Gordon will ever have, is only sort of a card at all. It's something weirder than that: a bright white frame with a big blank space in the middle, to be filled with whatever we want to see.