'Jack of all Trades' Review: Reliving the Gilded Age of Baseball Cards

Actor-turned-filmmaker Stu Stone co-directs this personal film about the downfall of baseball card collecting.

jack of all trades
Breakthrough Entertainment

Jack of all Trades is a film about baseball card collecting, and baseball card collecting is about maintaining order. Collectors keep their cards in good condition — in plastic cases to preserve sharp corners and crease-free surfaces. They open packs to build complete sets and stroll down orderly aisles at conventions, using their near-perfect mental Rolodexes to find the cards they need. Good collectors then neatly file those sets in white cardboard boxes, which are then stacked one on top of the other to form clean, banal columns.

The documentary tries to be a story about many things: a history of the baseball card boom of the late 1980s; a look at the ways card companies artificially created that boom; a story of a son finding his father, once one of Canada’s leading card dealers, more than 20 years after he left his family. It follows its writer/co-director, Stu Stone, as he explores the hobby as it is now, decades after the boom. Stone and his team, which includes his sister Karie, try to find out why all the baseball cards they saved in their mom’s spare bedroom are now worthless. Mostly, Jack of all Trades is about upended order.

What they discover is nothing new: as baseball cards from the early part of the 20th century became highly sought after in the 1980s and 90s, trading card companies, unbeknownst to consumers, produced millions and millions of cards — in other words, supply more than exceeded demand. So, yes, those Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards you’re holding on to, they’re worth almost nothing.

On websites like IMDb, Jack of all Trades has been described as an investigation of the trading card bubble, but it really isn’t. When Stone and his team get in front of industry executives, they don’t ask tough questions, reveal anything new about the industry’s corrupt past, or hold anyone accountable. And while that lack of any true investigation does at times make the film feel disjointed, it is partly saved by the personal story that becomes its center: the end of Stu and Karie’s family.

During the card boom, their father Jack opened a chain of card shops called Sluggers in Canada. Growing up, Stu and Karie would hang out at their dad’s store, which was centrally located next to an ice cream store and a Toys “R” Us. Can you imagine a more idyllic childhood? But, like the trading card industry itself, that bubble swiftly popped. Jack left the family with no explanation and was never seen again. The film is partly about Stu confronting his past for the first time, a journey that culminates in a moment that is the rare combination of uneventful, raw, and very real.

Jack of all Trades is a film about nostalgia. It’s about an era that, even only a few decades removed, does not feel real, one in which Jose Canseco cards were literally bought and sold like stocks. The tricky part of dealing in nostalgia is that it is difficult to open up that feeling to someone who did not feel it then too. On this point, I think Jack of all Trades falls short. It is a movie for those who collected, who understand the thrill of ripping open a pack of cards and finding exactly what they’re searching for. It makes sense that the film’s poster is in the style of a 1990 Topps pack — it is a film for those willing to search for the treasure within.

What has stuck with me most since watching the film is the characters who both keep the industry alive today and act as living time machines to the past. They make the film. We meet “Foul Ball Paul,” who has a collection of more than 1.5 million cards. The editors of Beckett magazine, who meticulously track the value of baseball cards for their readership. The dealer who sold three sets of Canadian hockey cards for $30,000 and bought Sluggers from Jack. Even Jose Canseco feels like the kind of muscular personality who could not exist today.

The end of Jack of all Trades features a shot of Karie and her sons opening packs of cards, showing the power of cards to bring families together too. And so, the hobby goes on.