Two trading-card obsessed brothers figured out the brilliant way to make money off their worthless collection of cardboard with a Sharpie, an appreciation of design, and an esoteric sense of humor.
As anyone who grew up collecting baseball cards knows, for every valuable rookie or golden foiled card that one might be lucky enough to find in a pack, there were hundreds of worthless cards featuring players undeserving of a prime slot in a binder or plastic sleeve (looking at you, Boof Bonser). These duds were often tossed in a shoebox to gather dust, only to be sold off in garage sale down the road. Brothers Beau and Bryan Abbott didn’t discard them. Instead, they would doodle on them, using a sharpie to draw everything from bushy eyebrows and sunglasses to a well-placed pun of a player’s name or a dick joke.
Now adults, the Abbott Brothers have turned their childhood hobby into a lucrative career — and are collectively known as the Baseball Card Vandals. Their premise is a ridiculously simple one “Decent jokes on worthless cards” but the sheer silliness and nostalgia inherent in their work has struck a chord with thousands who spent time staring at and doodling on not-so-coveted cards. They post their silly works of art on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram and sell the artwork to an in-demand clientele. Who knew a card of Reggie Jackson altered to say “Getting Pussy on the Reg, Son” or one of Chris Smith wearing a drawn-on Santa hat with the words “All I Want For Chris Smith Is You” would get so much love?
“People have always drawn on cards,” say Beau and Bryan, who describe themselves as “artistically inclined baseball nerds” and who’ve expanded their art to football, basketball, and other trading cards as well. “But the phrase ‘vandalizing baseball cards’ didn’t even exist until we put it at the top of our Tumblr a few years back. Now our name is a verb.”
In the Internet age, the brothers capitalize on the silly shock value of their work. Their cards act first as a silly diversion on the Internet, sure. But then you’re sucked in by genuinely clever way they capitalize on a long-ago pastime. Or maybe you don’t understand it. The Abbott brothers have created a lot of art in their lives and know how hard it can be to explain it to other people. Either they get it immediately or they don’t.
“One of the first things that people will sometimes say is, ‘Oh, so you do that on the computer?’ They kind of think it’s like a meme or something,” Beau says. “They don’t even know that there’s a physical thing that we draw it on and there’s only one of them in the whole world.”
The two younger Abbott brothers grew up in the St. Louis area in the 1980s and 90s and were ushered into the world of baseball cards and heavy metal by their two older brothers. By the time Beau was 9 and Bryan was 7, they were already turning their trading cards into works of art.
“For a young kid, baseball cards are an introduction to a kind of art,” Bryan says. “This piece of cardboard has no intrinsic value but all of a sudden, to you, it becomes the most important thing. It means something because of what is visually on it. You could say that about any painting or drawing from an artist. It’s just a piece of paper. But then it’s imbued with all this meaning.”
Deep. Deeper still, there was a whole lot less for kids to do in the 80s and 90s and certainly no Internet to sate curiosity or gain instant information. So collecting was a way of accruing knowledge and, in turn, developing a sense of selfhood.
“When you’re young you can create your own world with the objects you collect. These things become stories in your mind that you can share that with other people,” Beau says. “My favorite player was Rickey Henderson. I could go learn about Rickey Henderson from his cards and then share that with other people or have conversations about that with my dad. It was through baseball cards that I was able to say that, ‘This is my aesthetic. This is my sensibility.’ And it expressed itself in the form of this collection.”
Cracking the Code to Cash
By the mid-1990s the trading card industry was past its speculator boom and awash in a countless number of expensive sets that were increasingly harder for kids to afford, let alone collect. Plus, the boys were growing up and interests were changing. Hanging out with friends, and being attracted to females suddenly took on greater importance. The Abbotts were more than aware of the fact that you couldn’t go on dates and always talk about baseball cards. The hobby that they (and kids just like them) spent so much of themselves on — not to mention time and money — wasn’t much of a hobby anymore. This pastime was now part of the past.
Like many collector kids, the Abbotts spent every dollar and cent of their allowance or birthday money on their hobby. However, they were a bit more savvy to the economics of the industry knowing full well that even the most impressive Jose Canseco collection wouldn’t be putting their kids through college.
“Even though we love baseball cards, I knew at a very young age that these cards weren’t going to be worth anything because we had so many of them,” Beau says. “And that’s where it all started. I realized I was free to do whatever I wanted to them because they were my cards. It wasn’t going to be worth anything.”
Boxes upon boxes of cards are collecting dust in attics and storage spaces across this country. Virtually any collection from the junk era of trading cards is monetarily worthless. But without any intent on profit, the Abbots were finally able to figure out the impossible: how to actually make some money from their childhood collection.
“If we ended up cracking the code that was a complete and total accident,” Bryan says. “Even for the first two years of Baseball Card Vandals, selling the cards never even entered our mind. We didn’t think there was any way anybody would want an old, shitty card that we drew jokes on.”
Nowadays, BCV’s one-of-a-kind cards go for $35-50 a pop. Thousands have been sold and none have been reprinted or remade. They often sell out the moment they’re posted on social media. They’ve become so popular, in fact, that the Abbott Brothers even scored their first book deal.
“We’re regurgitating all this pop culture that we’ve had our entire lives and serving it back up in a really strange way,” Beau says. “I think people love it and feel it feels great to be able to connect with them on all this stuff.”
The Art of Vandalism
Be it a ninja turtle or a center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, no card or player is safe from BCV’s Sharpie and sharper whit. You’ll find your fair share of jokes related to farts, pubes (and other body hair), unnatural frowns, celebrities, coleslaw, and dicks. As for the latter, the BCV’s can’t help it. By their estimation the percentage of baseball players that were named Dick in the 1960s is outrageous. The name was just that popular. But a good dick joke is still a good dick joke.
Every card is almost like an at-bat for BCV. They never know if they’re going to hit one out of the park or they’re gonna pop out. “We’ve struck out a lot. There are plenty of ground ball outs too,” Beau says. For the thousands of cards that they’ve released, there’s that many more that just didn’t make the cut and that will never see the light of day.
But even after seven years of posting two-cards a day and a pretty decent batting average, these brothers still haven’t tired of cracking each other up.
“I’ll tell you what is fun at this point. We’ve made so many cards and we see the same words all the time. For example, pirates. We’ve turned the word pirate into so many different things. But if Bryan shows me a card that he made and he’s created another word out of ‘pirate’ that we’ve never done before, it’s a holy shit moment. The other day we turned ‘Pirate’ into ‘donate.’ That’s just like another fun little game within the game.”
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